“Soria” Wrecked: Meter and Rhyme

Map of Castile and Leon. wineandvinesearch.com.

Map of Castile and Leon. wineandvinesearch.com.

“Soria” by Antonio Machado, Spanish Poet, 1875-1939
From “Campos de Castilla,” Antonio Machado, Biblioteca Anaya, 1964. (English translations by James Mansfield Nichols)

Translating into meter is a lost cause, but adding a rhyme scheme escalates it to a punishing lost cause. You’re faced forcefully with using more words in order to say what Machado says, but also with not saying more than he says in the process — not padding with cheesy, “poetic” diction or lexical barnacles — but you gotta fill up that mold you’ve foolishly committed to. You feel like you’re taking greater and greater distance from the original poem, turning a masterful concoction into something puny, a shadow of itself. It’s a diabolical but noble challenge, like the Golden Rule. It drives home how spare and ingenious Machado’s verses are, the amazing music he makes with such simplicity and restraint, the drama in quietness and stillness he lays bare, how it’s all woven together seamlessly with the naturalness of his rhyme and count.

The futility of translating poems is more extreme than even the futility of writing them (“poetry makes nothing happen”). It won’t help ameliorate climate change or keep infrastructure from crumbling — but by Thor’s hammer it ameliorates my distress, and that ain’t nothin’!

By way of preemptive excuse, I say I ought to know more about the intricacies and protocols of scansion in both languages. It would behoove me to read myself into a greater state of informedness on the topic, but I’m too busy blogging to do that.

Spanish Original

[Eight-syllable lines rhyming A-A-B-B-C-C / D-D-E-F-E-F-G-H-G-H / I-J-I-J. Line 13, “que pululan,” with only four syllables is “quebrado” or broken, I think — there is a term of art in Spanish prosody called “pie quebrado” (broken foot) which I’ll have to refresh myself on. It’s undoubtedly intentional on Machado’s part, but it’s a mystery to me what purpose it might serve. It deserves mention that in Spanish the name “Soria” is pronounced with two syllables, the ‘-ia’ being a diphthong. A diphthong is “broken” into two syllables with a written accent mark, as in “fría.”]

¡Soria fría, Soria pura,
cabeza de Extremadura,
con su castillo guerrero
arruinado, sobre el Duero;
con sus murallas roídas
y sus casas denegridas!

¡Muerta ciudad de señores,
soldados o cazadores;
de portales con escudos
de cien linajes hidalgos,
de galgos flacos y agudos,
y de famélicos galgos,
que pululan
por las sórdidas callejas,
y a la medianoche ululan,
cuando graznan las cornejas!

¡Soria fría! La campana
de la Audiencia da la una.
Soria, ciudad castellana
¡tan bella! bajo la luna.

“Soria” by Antonio Machado

English Version 1 by JMN

[The literal meaning as best I can interpret it, with no attempt to impose any metric pattern on the translation. English seems to prefer the Portuguese “Douro” for the river. To me “Duero” is more familiar, but whatever. I’m not crazy about “warlike” for “guerrero.” The latter can be “warrior,” too. For a time I wanted to just say “fierce.” The poem paints a decrepit structure made for defense. For me the trickiest area involved the “gentry” (not a word I particularly like here) and the “landed lineages” with their “shields” (or “escutcheons” — I like that word, but it’s too exotic here) etched or chiseled or engraved over their doorways (“portals” is cognate in English but freighted with too much IT baggage). “Señores” could be lords or nobles, but that’s too lofty a rank for this poem. These “señores” were “hidalgos” or “hijos de algo,” sons of something, meaning inherited property owners, petty nobility. In England they were the “landed gentry,” the barons. I took liberty in splitting that term in two to create a “gentry” with “landed lineages.” I haven’t thought of a better way for now. As for the “greyhounds,” a Wiki-dip establishes that the “galgo” is the Spanish greyhound, an ancient breed, related to the English greyhound but different. I didn’t know that. I would prefer just “hound,” which is less evocative of languid, anglophone aristocracy, but for some reason I stuck with “greyhound.”

Soria cold, Soria pure,
head of Extremadura,
with its warlike castle
in ruins, upon the Douro;
with its walls gnawed away [“roer” to gnaw]
and its blackened houses!

Dead city of gentry,
soldiers or hunters;
of doorways with the shields
of a hundred landed lineages,
of greyhounds lean and sharp,
and of famished greyhounds,
that swarm
through the squalid side streets,
and at midnight howl,
when the crows caw!

Cold Soria! The bell
of the Courthouse strikes one.
Soria, Castilian city,
so lovely under the moon!

“Soria” by Antonio Machado

English Version 2 by JMN

[An attempt to put the translation into an English meter, iambic pentameter, and to honor the rhyme scheme of the Spanish original. “Aquí fue Troya,” as the Spanish say: “Here was Troy,” evoking the scene of a great defeat much like Napoleon’s at Waterloo. First of all, forgive “Extremadure.” There was no other way. And “Soria” is intended to be spoken with three syllables: SO-ree-ah. The other compromises advertise themselves.]

Soria the cold, Soria the pure,
the noble head of old Extremadure,
whose warrior castle lies now in repose,
a ruin next to where the Douro flows;
whose walls meander gnawed away by time
and whose houses sit blackened by old grime!

Dead city where petty barons held sway,
soldiers in war, and hunters in their day;
and of emblazoned shields that doorways flaunt
for many an illustrious family,
and greyhounds with sharp profiles, bodies gaunt,
yes, packs of greyhounds ranging hungrily,
that swarm in throngs
along the squalid, narrow streets and lanes,
and at the stroke of midnight howl their songs,
when cawing crows also voice their refrains!

Cold Soria! The somber courthouse bell
sounds with a single toll the hour of one.
This Soria, old city of Castile,
so lovely underneath the shining moon!

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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