♦ Translating the poetry of Miguel Hernández

This year marks the centennial of the birth of the Spanish poet Miguel Hernández Gilabert. Much less known beyond Spain than his contemporaries Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado, he is nonetheless one of the most important Spanish poets of the Twentieth Century. It is curious that Hernández’s poetry remained virtually unknown to the English-speaking public until quite recently considering the number of very talented people who have translated his verses, beginning with the writer William Carlos Williams, who translated some of Hernández’s poems as a pro-Republican volunteer in the 1930s.

Various collections of Hernández’s work began to appear in English during the 1990s, including I have lots of Heart, Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández published by  Blooodaxe Books in 1997 with translations by Don Share that won  the 1999 Premio Valle Inclan for Spanish Translation from the Society of Authors, and The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández edited by Ted Genoways and published by the University of Chicago Press in 2001 that includes translations by Genoways, Timothy Baland, Willis Barnstone, Robert Bly, John Haines, Geoffrey Holiday, Edwin Honig, Philip Levine, Gary J. Schmechel, Don Share, and James Wright. The poems of Hernández’s book Cancionero y romancero de ausencias are available in various English translations, including those by Michael Smith, recipient of the European Academy of Poetry Medal for distinguished work in the translation of poetry from Spanish, under the title of The Prison Poems published by Parlor Press. These recent publications and events taking place throughout the world during 2010 to mark the centennial of Hernández’s birth will hopefully make his work more familiar to poetry lovers everywhere.

From a very early age Miguel Hernández dreamed of becoming a poet, but as the able-bodied son of a poor family in Orihuela, Alicante in the 1920s, he was obliged to leave school at the age of fourteen to tend the family’s herd of goats and sheep. Hernández has been highly mythologized as the “goatherd poet”, but this description romantically devalues the years of formal education he received relative to the average education provided to children in Spain during this period. It was common for Spanish children to leave school and enter the labor force at the age of fourteen or younger until well into the 1970s. It is truly impressive, however, that at a very early age and without parental encouragement, he was able to chart his course of development as a writer, choosing his literary models well, and dedicating an almost super-human energy to his private studies and writing. Blessed with sense of humor and an optimistic nature, he good-humoredly expressed his gratitude to his father for the task of goatherd assigned to him, as it was a classical occupation.1

Impatient to develop his talent and make his way in the world, in the early 1930s Hernández made several attempts to establish himself in Madrid. José María de Cossío invited Miguel to help edit an encyclopedia of bullfighting for the publisher Espasa Calpe and his friend Enrique Azcoaga gave him work in an educational outreach program, but like so many Spanish writers of his generation, Hernández was repeatedly forced to return to his hometown for financial reasons. In the mid-1930s, Pablo Neruda became his mentor and introduced him to the inner circle of the city’s intellectual elite. Although always short of funds and smitten with the daughter of a Civil Guard back in Orihuela, Miguel’s projects in Madrid increased with his reputation as a poet. He prepared a collection of poems to be published under the title El Rayo que no cesa (1936; translated as Unceasing Lightning, 1986) carried out projects with the Revista de Occidente and Caballo Verde para la poesía, worked on a theatrical piece, and helped proofread Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra (Home on the Land, 1935).

Between 1935 and 1936 Hernández’s work began to express a social consciousness that deepened with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In a collection of new poems titled El Viento del Pueblo (Wind of the People, 1937), he expressed his outrage at the assassination of Lorca and mounted a spirited defense of the besieged Republic. Although Neruda would later write, ‘His face was the face of Spain’, Miguel Hernández sought more than anything else to be its voice.  In the poem “Recoged esta voz” (translated both as “Gather This Voice” and “Take Up This Cry”) he wrote:

Here I have a voice impassioned,
here I have a life
embattled and angered,
here I have a rumor,
but here I have a life.2

Hernández enlisted in the Republican army and held the rank of cultural affairs officer until the end of the war. He was popular among the troops and often read his verses and distributed printed poems to the men on the front lines. Even his most intimate poems of the period, such as ‘Canción del esposo soldado’ (Song of the husband soldier), which refers to his wife’s first pregnancy, express the thoughts of thousands of common soldiers on the front who had left their wives and families to fight for the Spanish Republic:

here with my gun I invoke and fix your name,
and defend your poor womb that awaits me,
and defend your child.3

The unborn child of the poem, Manuel Ramón, would live less than a year. When a second son was born in January of 1939, there was no longer a front to defend and the poet, so completely identified with the Republican cause, scrambled to find a safe haven. He made a desperate attempt to enter Portugal, hoping to reach the Chilean Embassy in Lisbon, but was apprehended at the border and turned back. What followed was a succession of jail terms served in appalling conditions, releases, new arrests, new charges, and even a death sentence for treason later commuted to a thirty-year prison sentence. Various sources claim that the last sentence came as a result of his refusal to sign a traitor’s confession that would have amounted to recanting everything he had written, both as a poet and a patriot. His continued attempts to publish after the fall of the Republic can, in retrospect, be considered personally foolhardy or naive, but Miguel Hernández was determined to exercise what he considered his right to free speech and refused to silence his own voice.

In prison he wrote poetry on any paper he could find, including toilet paper, sketched out poems in French, studied English, and sent cheerful and optimistic letters to his wife, although his health steadily deteriorated. In his remarkable poem ‘Nana de las cebollas’ (translated both as “Lullabies of the onion” and “Onion Lullaby”) he replied in verse to his wife’s confession that she nursed their baby on a diet of bread and onions, writing to his infant son:

Lark of my house,
keep laughing.
The laughter in your eyes
is the light of the world.
Laugh so much
that my soul, hearing you,
will beat in space.

Your laughter frees me,
gives me wings.
It sweeps away my loneliness,
knocks down my cell.
Mouth that flies,
heart that turns
to lightning on your lips.4

He presciently considered the poems he wrote on the precious scraps of paper available to him and smuggled out of prison the only legacy he would leave behind. Early on the morning of March 28, 1942, five months after his 31st birthday, Miguel Hernández died of tuberculosis in the hospital of the Reformatory for Adults in Alicante. His last verse scrawled on the hospital wall recalled the Spanish landscape that had so often inspired his poetry:

Adiós hermanos, camaradas, amigos: despedidme del sol y de los trigos –
(Goodbye brothers, comrades, friends: say my farewell to the sun and the wheat) 5

Throughout his brief but brilliant career, Hernández wrote a prodigious number of poems that successfully fused surrealism and nature: both the nature of Spain’s varied geography and the nature of its people. His writing reflected his deep and sincere attachment to the land while masterfully incorporating influences as diverse as the seventeenth-century poet Góngora and surrealists such as Paul Válery. As Ted Genoways so aptly noted in his 2002 interview with Ray González for the Bloomsbury Review, “The result is a poet who shows many writers the possibility of where poetry can go.” 6

His love poems – some of the finest ever written in the Spanish language – are infused with the colors and scents of the Iberian countryside:

It would be less painful
were your face not jasmine to my sight, jasmine,
thistle to my touch, thistle your skin,
your voice crabapple to my ear, crabapple. 7

Even within the confines of a prison cell, the poet conjured up the beauty of nature to make a portrait of his infant son:

Eight months old you laugh
with five orange blossoms.
with five little
with five teeth
like five young
jasmine blossoms. 8

In his interview with Ray Gonzalez, Ted Genoways spoke of the difficulty of selecting translations from Hernández’s various translators for The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández, due in part to the diverse approaches each had taken in translating  Hernández’s poetry into English. He noted that Robert Bly’s translations showed his interest in the “muscular diction” employed by Hernández, whereas Willis Barnstone’s primary focus was on preserving the formal structure of Hernández’s poems, especially his sonnets. He then went on to make an interesting observation that is applicable to all Spanish to English translation: that as the internal rhymes in Spanish verse do not exist in the target language, “the inherent musicality of the language disappears when you move it into English.” He concluded that, “It is up to the translators of Spanish to try to replicate the musicality.” 9

The inherent musicality of Miguel Hernández’s poetry was surely a factor in its surreptitious transmission during the long decades of Franco’s rule when the poet’s published work was rigorously suppressed.  People sang his emblematic “Vientos del pueblo me llevan”, that poetically cites the attributes of all the communities of Spain, in secret. The poem begins:

Vientos del pueblo me llevan,
Vientos del pueblo me arrastran,
Me esparcen el corazón,
Y me avientan la garganta.

The winds of the people carry me,
the winds of the people blow me on,
scattering this heart of mine
and readying my throat  10

While doing research for this post, I came across a touching blog post written by a woman in Castilla-Leon, who as a small child had been taught to sing “Vientos del pueblo me llevan” by a hospital worker named Rosi, who made her promise never to sing it within earshot of the nuns. Years later, listening to contraband LPs smuggled into Spain from France, she heard the song again and sang along to the surprise of her brother, who asked her how she knew the song. This woman ended her post by saying that years later her brother bought her the first edition of the complete works of Miguel Hernández that appeared in Spain after the death of Franco, a book that continues to be one of her most treasured belongings. She didn’t give details, but the book she still treasures “as though it were gold” might be the collection edited by Leopoldo de Luis and Jorge Urrutia and published by Zero Zyx in 1976 – the same edition that my husband purchased in his youth and also still treasures.

Readers of Miguel Hernández’s poetry in translation may enjoy listening to his verses sung in Spanish, if only to get a sense of the “internal rhyme” inherent in the Spanish that cannot be transmitted through even the best English translation. Fans of Joan Baez may already be familiar with her version of ‘Llegó con tres heridas’ included in the 1976 album Gracias a la Vida / Here’s to Life. In Spain, Hernández’s poetry has been amply interpreted by a wide variety of artists in all genres; from flamenco versions by Enrique Morente to this year’s release Hijo de la luz y de la sombra by Joan Manuel Serrat.

For more information concerning the life and work of Miguel Hernández, I recommend reading:

Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet: Francisco de Quevedo, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel Hernandez by Willis Barnstone, (South Illinois University Press, 1997)

The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández: A Bilingual Edition by Miguel Hernández, edited by Ted Genoways, (The University of Chicago Press, 2001)

Bringing Poetry to Life – On the Work of Miguel Hernández, An Interview with Translator Ted Genoways by Ray González , The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 22, 2

The Spanish-language website: www.miguelhernandezvirtual.com


1   Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet: Francisco de Quevedo, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel Hernandez by Willis Barnstone, (South Illinois University Press, 1997)
2   Translation by Ted Genoways
3   Translation by A.S. Kline
4   Translation by Don Share
5   Translation by Willis Barnstone
6   Bringing Poetry to Life – On the Work of Miguel Hernández, An Interview   with Translator Ted Genoways by Ray González , The    Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 22, 2
7   Translation by Ted Genoways
8   Translation by Don Share
9   Ibid.
10 Translation by A.S. Kline