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The Library of Congress > Poetry & Literature > Interview Series > “Between Now and Already So”: Translating Uruguay's Idea Vilariño
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Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of the poetry collections Cinema Muto, Dog Angel, and the bilingual poetry collection Extranjera/ Stranger.  Her translations include Invisible Bridge/ El puente invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia. She is also the editor of América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets which is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press. She is the Zona Gale Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin. Photo of Jesse Lee Kercheval by Dan Fuller.

Jesse Kercheval


This interview was conducted over email by Catalina Gómez.

How did you come to Idea Vilariño and to the work of the other Uruguayan women poets that you have translated?

In 2011, I spent a sabbatical year in Montevideo, Uruguay and the first book of Uruguayan poetry I bought was Idea Vilariño’s Poesía completa. I found her voice so strong, so direct. It was really the first poetry I fell in love with in Spanish, rather than in translation. Then I discovered Circe Maia’s poems when I was staying with Uruguayan friends at the beach. On the epiphany morning, I woke to find that the Three Kings had left Circe Maia’s Circe Maia: Obra poética in my shoe. Those wise men (or my friends) knew the perfect gift for a poet. I sat in a hammock and read all 400 pages, completely in love with a poetry so deceptively simple, so ultimately profound. After I started meeting Uruguayan poets and going to poetry readings, I was constantly buying books, being given books by poets, as well as being given suggestions of poets to read by other poets. Every time I come back from Uruguay, I have a suitcase full of books! It is a small country and there is an especially strong connection between the generations of women poets. Tatiana Oroño, another poet I have translated, was born in 1947 but was recommended to me—strongly—as someone I had to read by a wonderful young poet, Virginia Lucas, who was born in 1977.

My big shock was coming back to the U.S. and finding how little of this work was available in English. Only 1% of world literature is translated into English and recent surveys show percentage is even worse for women writers. Only a few of Vilariño’s poems or Maia’s were available, mostly in anthologies.

It is said that things are ‘lost’ but also ‘found’ in translation. What do you think has been 'lost' and 'found' in the translations of Vilariño’s poems?

So much is always lost! One very simple example in what you lose in translation is the subtle double meaning of the word ya in what might be Vilariño’s best known poem,“Ya no” which opens:

Ya no será
ya no
no viviremos juntos
no criaré a tu hijo
no coseré tu ropa
no te tendré de noche
no te besaré al irme
nunca sabrás quién fui
por qué me amaron otros.

Ya is already—but it is also now. An example of ya translated as already is in César Vallejo’s famous poem “Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca”/ “White Stone on a Black Stone” with its opening lines of “Me moriré en París con aguacero,/ un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo” /“I will die in Paris in the rain, on a day I already remember”.

(Just as an aside, Uruguays love to use ya—I think because yeísmo, which is the Uruguayan pronunciation of double LLs and Ys as having a sh or zh sound ya makes sound emphatic, not a soft ya but zha! Ya esta (pronounced zha ta!) is the used for here you go, there it is, try this, that’s done, enough! and more.)

In English, alas, you have to choose between now and already so I translated the opening of Vilariño’s poem as:

Not Now

Now it will not be
not now
we will not live together
I will not raise your son
I will not sew your clothes
I will not have you at night
I will not kiss you before I leave
you will never know who I was
why others loved me.

Using now captures the feeling of the poem as a fresh realization, a raw emotion happening now, but it loses the idea that this is also something she already knew, had that had clear for some time, was inevitable. But to use “already not” in the poem for “ya no” quickly becomes awkward, unnatural, “Already it will not be/ already not” So, in the end, it had to be now—but I still mourn the loss of that double meaning.

A larger loss in translating Vilariño’s poems was her system of stresses, something that was very important to her. I studied her notes in this and thought long and hard, but could not find a way to carry her scheme into English and still have the poems sound natural, flow the way they do in Spanish. Perhaps another translator could. I always think of translating as like being a concert pianist. One person might stress Beethoven’s musicality, but another musician can always come along and stress the rhythm.

What is it that you admire the most about her poems?

I love the poems in Poemas de amor because they address sexuality and what it means to be a woman and Vilariño feels free to write in a strong, often angry voice. The first edition of Poemas de amor, published in 1957, predates both Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965) and Anne Sexton To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) but has much in common with their work. Vilariño wrote other books, but she continued to revise and expand Poemas de amor, her own Leaves of Grass, through editions that grew in length through the decades until a final edition in 2006, three years before her death and after the novelist Juan Carlo Onetti’s (the amor, the lover, all the poems address) death in exile in Spain, far from Vilariño. In the end, I think for Vilariño Poemas de amor came to be more than a book about single and singular love. It stands as a testament to both the necessity and the impossibility of love in this world, especially for a passionate, independent woman determined to speak with her own voice. 

How different is it to translate poets who are still alive such as Tatiana Oroño and Circe Maia vs. one who has passed away such as Vilariño?

Vilariño is the only poet I have translated so far who I never got the chance to meet. She died in 2009, a year before I first visited Uruguay. I have talked to many people who knew her and read her essays and letters. Since she was not there to ask any questions I had during the translation, I could only turn to other poets, especially Uruguayan poets, for insights that might help. My experience, oddly enough, was similar with Circe Maia even though I have come to know Circe well I contacted her after reading her work, took the five hour bus ride from Montevideo to see her in her home in Tacuarembó. Since then my whole family has been to her house and I always go to see her when I am in Uruguay. She is the loveliest, most luminous person I know. But she never wants to talk about her poetry! When I visit and bring her magazines from the U.S. with her poems in them, she always wants to read the other poets in the issue. She likes to sit with me and read my poetry. One wonderful afternoon we sat and worked on some translations she was doing from English to Spanish. We talk about our children, gardens, dogs, but not her poems or my translations of them. She says The Invisible Bridge is my project and my book and that the lovely thing is that it brought us together—which is very touching, but does leave me on my own. But I do get to ask Tatiana Oroño questions. She is the most experimental of the three poets and makes up new words and creates portmanteau words so I often have questions. But she is also a poet who answers poetically so, in the end, I am often left with practical decisions as a translator that I have to make on my own.

In the introduction that you wrote for the Poet Lore translation portfolio featuring Vilariño’s work you wrote:

“This country of a mere 3.3 million people (Uruguay) has produced a disproportionate number of strong women poets in a literary world dominated by men.”

Can you talk about this phenomenon?

There is a long and wonderful tradition of women poets in Uruguay, starting with Juana de Ibarbourou (1892-1979), the poet who is on the Uruguayan $1000 peso note. I see connections with the eroticism of her poetry and Idea Vilariño’s work. Better known in the U.S. is Delmira Agustini (1886-1914) who is really one of the great Latin American poets of the 20th century, male or female. I also love the poetry of Susana Soca (1902-1959) who died young in a plane crash but has now been rediscovered by a new generation of poets. Then the linage just continues. In the important Uruguayan literary movement Generation of ’45—famous for male writers such as Mario Benedetti and Juan Carlos Onetti—you find Idea Vilariño, Ida Vitale (1923-) and Amanda Berenguer (1921-2010), all astounding.  Moving forward by decades, there are the surreal prose poems of Marosa di Giorgio (1932-2004) and the lesser known but wonderful Selva Casal (1930). I could go on and on: Nancy Bacelo, Silvia Guerra, up to the poets in the anthology I edited América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets (University of New Mexico Press, 2016) which has a dozen young women poets. Uruguayans tend to credit the early appearance of women poets to universal education and to Uruguay being a fairly middle class country. All I know is that when I see anthologies of Latin American poetry, even ones published in the last few years, that have only a handful of women poets and a forward explaining this is because there are so few Latin American women poets, I want to scream at the editors, Come to Uruguay! If I could fill an anthology with amazing poems by women from this country of 3.3 million people then those editors are not looking in the right places.