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(A version of this article appeared in Lateral Moves No.
Here are a few thoughts about the process and product of translation
of poetry, based on a Spanish original (Mi
Amiga La Foca) and English translation (Eating
Disorder). A literal translation is included
for those who don’t read Spanish.
The original poem was inspired by something
said by a friend of mine when I turned up for
coffee one day: she announced that she’d made
me a cake as I was looking thin recently. My
weight and basic body shape have hardly changed
in years and I’m certainly not underweight.
But anyway, from that point a poem was born.
There’s nothing complex about the original:
it just wrote itself almost without thought.
The only problem was in the fourth verse where
I wanted to put ‘No escucha mi sugestión…’
which would have rhymed with ‘digestión’.
Although my dictionary tells me that this is
acceptable, my Spanish sounding board told me
that ‘sugestión’ should be ‘sugerencia’,
which threw out the whole verse and took me
half a day to fix.
Then I decided to translate the poem into English.
I wanted to keep the erratic rhythm structure
but knew some changes to content would be needed
if the form were to remain similar to the original.
The first problem is the idea of ‘una foca’.
Literally ‘a seal’ it is used colloquially to
refer to a plump person of either sex. Collins
Spanish-English dictionary suggests it be translated
as ‘ugly lump’ but I’m too used to it being
used affectionately (I said I’m not underweight!)
I also liked the animal imagery, which continues
with the whale, so ‘cow’ was obviously an option.
But note that although in Spanish you can ‘be
a foca’, ‘to be a fat cow’ is not the same as
‘to be as fat as a cow’. The latter sounds substantially
less pejorative to me.
In the second verse I was quite pleased with
the almost rhyme which occurred to me quickly
and felt it was better to keep this as a couplet
rather than completely re-writing. It was also
pretty obvious that saying she ‘had a real sweet-tooth’
(‘una auténtica golosa’) was going to
leave me up the creek without a rhyme. A similar
thought process accompanied the translation
of verse three.
It’s possible that I would have stuck closer
to the original number of lines if I had been
willing to write in the dum-ti-dum doggerel
which I usually find so easy in English. One
of the objects of the exercise, however, was
to break out of this rhythm and yet write a
poem that rhymed. It had proved so easy in Spanish
that I felt I should be capable of doing the
same in my mother tongue.
The English verse four allowed me to use the
word ‘suggestion’ as I had originally intended.
The list of foods in verse five was re-written
with a more English angle. (And, yes, I do know
the joke about the rabbit who died of mixing
It took an effort of will power not to end with
a longer line with more traditional rhythm,
but ‘She’ll pop.’ was all that was needed, and
fortunately has the added advantage of appropriate
Now, can someone tell me, is this a translation
or a new poem? I wrote the original, so I felt
no qualms about my alterations both to content
and form; before I began the English version
I had decided what my prime objectives were:
the same basic couplet structure for rhymes,
the same basic verse structure, and as much
as possible of the idea to be maintained. But
would I have had the nerve to do this to someone
else’s work? And would they have been satisfied
with it if I had?
As an English teacher I am constantly telling
my students that I can’t directly translate
what they say in Spanish: I need to convert
it to English ideas and then express them in
the equivalent language. That is what I was
trying to do here.
I suspect that the fact that I was translating
into my mother tongue was a considerable advantage
as it meant I had a far wider range of vocabulary
and phrasing. (I’d describe myself as functionally
bi-lingual, but learned Spanish in my thirties,
so will never speak it as well as I do English.)
This probably accounts for the English title
which is such a familiar expression but one
I would never use in Spanish.
I also wonder whether the triviality of the
poem made it easier to translate. There was
nothing to be gained from reading between the
lines, no great social comment, no ulterior
motives or deliberate ambiguity. There was therefore
no big problem with translation of puns or oblique
references: it could all be dealt with on one,
As I say, I am quite satisfied with the translation
I have produced. But what would happen if someone
now attempted to put the English version into
Spanish? Which criteria would they choose to
concentrate on? Each translation will be seen
to be producing a new poem. And the more obscure
or profound the original, the more likely it
is to lose (or gain) in the translation.
Naturally most of us will have to rely on translators
to make our work accessible to others and others’
work accessible to us. But we should bear in
mind that with any translation we read we are
only viewing a misty image of the original,
through the lens of the translator’s mind.
Mi amiga la foca (Original)
Mi amiga es una foca
Siempre con la boca
Pronto será una ballena.
Come cualquier cosa,
Tanto salada como sosa,
Y es una auténtica golosa.
No le satisface
Toda la comida que su madre hace
(Quien cocina todo el día
Para alimentar su voraz cría)
Siempre quiere comida
Incluso cuando está dormida;
No me deja sugerir
Que se detenga para digerir.
Sólo le interesa
La próxima hamburguesa,
Pan, galletas, queso…
Y todo eso.
Y tan gorda se está poniendo
Que me parece que se hincha
Como un globo: ¡A ver si no se pincha
My Friend the Lump (Literal Translation)
My friend is a fat lump
Always with her mouth
Soon she’ll be a whale.
She eats anything,
Both salty and insipid,
And has a real sweet tooth
She isn’t satisfied
With all the food her mother makes
(Who cooks all day
To feed her hungry child.)
She always wants food
Even when she’s half-asleep;
She doesn’t let me suggest
That she stop to digest.
She’s only interested in
The next hamburger,
Bread, biscuits, cheese…
And all that.
She keeps on eating,
And she’s getting so fat
It seems to me that she’s swelling up
Like a balloon: I wonder if she’ll burst!
Eating disorder (Translation)
My friend’s as fat as a cow
But she goes on eating anyhow;
There’s nothing frail
About her: she’s a whale.
She’ll eat anything and everything, sweet or
Doesn’t matter, though pasta’s her favourite.
Her mother has no time to do what she oughta
Always cooking for her daughter.
Her appetite would take some beating:
She just goes on eating
Ignoring all suggestions
About her digestion:
She binges on cheese,
And Devon cream teas,
Mixing her toasties
With beef, yorkshires, roasties…
And all of that stuff:
It’s never enough.
Now, she’s round as a ball:
As broad as she’s tall;
If she doesn’t stop
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