Reading in Spanish (Neruda’s Poetry and La casa en Mango Street by Cisneros)

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Pablo Neruda’s early poetry (specifically, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) does not have much to do with Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Neruda was a Chilean who wrote love poetry (in Spanish) in the early 1900s at the age of 20. Hispanic-American Sandra Cisneros wrote in the 1980s a short volume (in English) of connected short stories about a Hispanic girl in Chicago. But I read both these works in Spanish (the Cisneros in translation) this month, and so the tenuous relationship between them is the language I read them in.

I studied Spanish for a few years while in college and I spent ten weeks in Bolivia one summer, so at one point I knew the language fairly well. I bought La casa en Mango Street back in the days when I dreamed in Spanish; reading it was delightfully easy because I knew the vocabulary. But, needless to say, when you don’t use a language skill for five years, you start to forget things. I recently met a woman at church who speaks Spanish and little English, and I found myself laughing and delighting in our broken conversation as I struggled to find Spanish phrases and she struggled to find English ones. It inspired me to rethink my relationship with this foreign language I once knew.

I was delighted to see that Neruda’s slim volume of poems had the Spanish alongside the translation. And while I no longer was able to read La casa en Mango Street with ease in Spanish, I was able to pick up a volume of the English and compare the two. I read Mango Street in Spanish, then in English, and then bits of it again in Spanish.

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

There is no doubt in my mind that the second volume of poetry that Pablo Neruda wrote is an example of his Nobel Prize in Literature greatness. Oh my, but his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair are absolutely incredible to me, especially after I learned that he was twenty-years-old when he wrote them.

The beautiful introduction says, “These are not abstract poems aimed at idealizing beauty or love, but the messy, scented perceptions of lived loves – and lusts.” (Cristina Gracía, introduction, page vii)

That description – messy, scented perceptions – is why I enjoyed this volume. Although it the emotions and perceptions were “messy,” as whole it was perfectly controlled and beautiful.

What struck me is that this volume of poetry is telling a story. The love poems have elements of sadness (the woman is always sad) and the last poem of love is essentially a “good-bye”:

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.

Immediately following that is the “Song of Despair.”

I think my favorite poem was poem 1, “Cuerpo de mujer/ Body of a Woman.” It just has awesome imagery.

I’ve mentioned before that I am not trained in poetry. I don’t know how to read it or interpret it. All of these thoughts are my own impressions on this reading of the poems, not true analysis.

I picked this volume of Neruda’s poetry up because I saw his name on a Hispanic Heritage Month list somewhere and it piqued my interest. I am so glad I picked it up. It also counts for my Nobel Prize in Literature personal challenge. I will certainly be revisiting Neruda some day.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

While Cisneros did not originally write Mango Street in Spanish, she writes about a young Hispanic American girl growing up in an Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago. Esperanza is an awkward girl, and she is determined to someday leave her past behind and live the life she dreams of. It is a coming-of-age story and it reveals some harsh realities of the world she lives in, including the horrendous abuse her friends live with and the homesickness some have for the country they left behind.

I felt I could not relate to most of it, but I did appreciate seeing Esperanza’s growth. Her personal stories were those that I remember. In the end, she realizes that even as she moves beyond her childhood neighborhood, she must come back and remember those she’s left behind.

“They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.” (page 110)

I read La casa en Mango Street for Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15). (Obviously, I read it after the month ended, but oh well!)

Reading in Translation

Reading poetry in the original Spanish and in the English translation was eye-opening, as was reading prose in a Spanish translation and then visiting it in English.

How does a translator capture the feeling of poetry? The translator for Neruda’s poetry (W.S. Merwin) did a great job, and I felt Neruda was beautiful in both Spanish and English. While I am of course not a Spanish expert, in some cases, though, the English translation did seem to change the nuances of the beautiful Spanish.

Consider poem 12. In Spanish, it is called “Para mí corazón” (For my heart), which is taken from the first line, which is “Para mí corazón basta tu pecho.” In English, it is called “Your Breast Is Enough” after the first line, which is “Your breast is enough for my heart.” While those two lines say the same things, putting “breast” before “heart” in the title and reversing the order of the sentence seems to lose something. The order and emphasis is changed and I don’t think it’s quite as gorgeous.

On the other hand, there are some beautiful translations that capture the language, albeit in a different way. In poem 13 (“I Have Gone Marking”), the last stanza begins with three verbs: “Cantar, arder, huir” The beauty of those words are the differences: the –ar, the –er, the –ir verbs are all represented and each word sounds so different. I just loved it. The words in translation (“Sing, burn, flee”) likewise seem to capture the same feelings for me. It’s a word-by-word translation and it works just as beautifully in English as in Spanish.

Reading Cisernos’s prose in Spanish translation and then in the original English is harder for me to comment on. Because I wasn’t reading English as I went along (as I had with the Neruda), I was much more lost as I read the Spanish. Entire sections didn’t make sense because I was interpreting some words wrong. I’m not a dictionary user – I liked to learn from context and I don’t have patience to look up words constantly. But that was a mistake in my approach to this book. I would have gotten more out of my reading experience had I stopped and looked up some words.

After I read the book in English, I went back and compared the two versions. There were some disappointing translations that I believe changed the meanings.

For example, in one chapter, the girls are jumping rope to little rhymes. The rhymes were not translated: instead, completely different rhymes were inserted. The English rhymes had to do with Chicago: it gave the entire story a sense of place. Obviously, to literally translate the rhymes into Spanish wouldn’t make it the “familiar” rhyme it is in context in the Spanish book; there is logic to it. I was just surprised to see such a difference. It changed the overall feel of the book to not have the Chicago references.

There were also a few conversations in mixed English and Spanish that just don’t make sense much sense all in Spanish.

I guess my bottom line is, it seems best to read a work in its original language! Something is probably lost in translation, even if it is a great translation.

My Experience

Although I’m glad I read both these works, I didn’t much enjoy my experience reading (or attempting to read) Cisneros in Spanish, simply because it was full of so much once-again new-to-me vocabulary. It also didn’t sound as beautiful and far-reaching. But is it truly fair to compare Neruda’s Nobel-worthy poetry to Cisneros’s prose-in-translation when I’m not looking in a dictionary?  No, I don’t think so. Neruda’s poetry was inspiring; it was sweeping; it was awesome. Cisneros’ prose was challenging, and it was prose, not poetry.

In the end, reading Neruda and Cisneros reminded me of how far I’ve fallen in being able to read Spanish. After reading Neruda, I have to agree with Cristina  García, who wrote in the introduction to Neruda’s poetry:

With their gorgeous sweep and intimacy, their sensuality and rhapsody, and their “secret revelations of nature,” Neruda’s poems also made me want to reclaim Spanish … after a long, long silence. (introduction, xvii)

Thank you, Neruda. You’ve encouraged me, too, to revitalize my Spanish.

Does anyone have any suggestions for reclaiming a struggling second-language ability?

Can you suggest a not-too-hard book in Spanish that I may have a good experience with?

I rarely get a chance to practice my Spanish in daily life (I remain at home with a two-year-old who doesn’t even speak English yet!), and I don’t have a television connection (nor would I like sitting and watching it). Maybe reading a children’s book would be easier. I also suspect I should find my old Spanish dictionary!

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. If you have the patience, Pimsleur’s language tapes are fantastic. I keep starting to learn French, getting good enough to watch films & TV shows with the French language track on, and then getting really busy with life and losing it all again. :/

  2. I completely empathize with the lost foreign language woes – I was essentially bilingual in French & English when I finished high school, but after almost 10 years of not really needing my French, while I can still have a conversation in most cases and even understand it (for instance, when we went to see Inglorious Basterds, I didn’t need to look at the subtitles for the majority of the film), reading and writing it are much harder for me, and I’m sure I only have the language skills of, at best, a 13 year old! A few years ago I found some essays I had written for my senior year French class and almost wanted to cry because I couldn’t really understand a good deal of them any more! Sad! I think that this kind of thing is frustrating BUT I’m sure that if you were able to reimmerse yourself into the language OR required it on a more regular basis, then it would probably come back to you A LOT faster than before. I like to think that my French isn’t gone, it’s just hibernating! I think the key to trying to reintroduce Spanish language literature back into your life is to do as you suggested and to pick something that isn’t as challenging – for instance, I know that Flaubert and even Hugo and Dumas are likely well beyond my grasp right now, so I would likely want to focus on authors whose writing isn’t as linguistically complex (such as Camus). Maybe you could find some YA stuff written in Spanish? When I lived in France on an exchange, while the class did English lessons, I sat and read this children’s book that most 7/8 year olds could easily read, and yet initially I really struggled with it. Start off with easier stuff so you build your confidence and get back in the groove and then work your way up. Also, maybe you could rent a tv show or movie and try watching with subtitles on?

    Finally, I don’t read a lot of poetry, but Neruda is the one poet I LOVE. Last year for Christmas, Tony and I didn’t do big gifts for each other, but I did get him a volume of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Neruda is just amazing!

  3. You know already that I wasn’t a big fan of Cisneros, but I do understand where you’re coming from translation-wise. After 8 years of French and 6 weeks in France, I could read some easier books in French, but it’s been 9 years since I’ve had any real practice so I’m falling so far behind (hence my desire to read the Harry Potter books in french. I have them practically memorized in English, which should make deciphering the french much easier). Do you think reading books with side by side translations would help? Obviously not this specific book, but my oldest son is part of a book club at school right now and they’re reading a ghost story book called Ghost Fever which has English on one side and Spanish on the other. It’s a dual language book club. I don’t know how many books out there have side by side translations, but you might look into it. You can also looked into Spanish translations of books you know well, the way I’m doing with Harry Potter and French.

    Good luck. Keeping a foreign language without some serious practice opportunities is really hard, and I regret my loss of language skills, too. 🙁

  4. I’ve read both these books but can only read English because my Spanish is from Jr. High and high school and that was a long time ago! I’ve got the Rosetta Stone learn spanish software and had begun with that before I started library school and really liked it. But with school I don’t have time to keep going.

    Neruda is marvelous. I liked House on Mango Street but if I had to choose between reading Cisneros or Neruda, Neruda would win every time.

  5. I hope you find a way to keep your Spanish. I took it for five years and lived in Oaxaca for three weeks, and poof, ten years later it is all but gone. Very sad. I can still somewhat read Spanish, but I need the translation close at hand.

    Pablo Neruda’s Fully Empowered, at least my edition, has the Spanish version on one side and the English on the other, so that might be an option. I would also recommend getting Spanish audiobooks as hearing it is a necessity; it’s one of the reasons I can still read in Spanish but I can’t speak or listen to it.

  6. Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair is one of my favourite volumes of poetry. Although I have never studied Spanish, I am trying to learn French and I hope one day to be able to read French literature in the original language. Thank you for this very thoughtful review – I really enjoyed reading it.

  7. I completely relate to this entry! I just read a Le Clézio novel in the original French and, like you, was blown away by the details of and nuances lost even when I tried to translate passages in my blog entry about it. (Of course, most translators are better than I am, but still.) At the best moments, I felt I was accessing the native rhythm and internal logic of the prose in a way I couldn’t re-create in English. It gave me such respect for truly skilled translators; their job is amazingly hard!

    When I’m reading in French or Spanish, I do use my dictionary but I try to limit the words I look up – I don’t look things up unless I’m missing the sense of an entire passage. Usually it only takes 1-2 lookups in cases like that before the meaning becomes clear. It seems like young adult novels or kids’ books would be a good next step for you; good luck!

  8. I LOVE reading poetry where it has the English transation & original language side-by-side. Even if I don’t understand a bit of the original, I can see how it looks, and if I know the pronunciation basics, I can read out loud to feel how it sounds. 🙂

    But, and I really hope this doesn’t naggy, because I don’t want it to be, Neruda’s Chilean, not Argentinian. 😉 Two of my best friends have been Latin American study majors! hehe (And he’s one of my fave poets.)

  9. Kathy, it’s hard to get fluency when so many people speak English!!

    Jenny, it’s hard to keep up without people in-real-life to talk to us, huh.

    Steph,. I think you’re right – a children’s book is the way to go. And I’m so glad you’ve gotten to read Neruda too!

    Amanda, I remember you didn’t like Cisneros much but I felt I was so distracted with trying to read it in a different language that I couldn’t really have an opinion about it either way. Just a neutral book for me. Glad I tackled it though!

    I think Harry Potter in a foreign language is a delicious idea!!

    Stefanie, I do think it’s not fair of me to put Cisneros up against Neruda in this post, but ah well! It was fun to try the Spanish. I do look forward to more Neruda.

    Trisha, I’ll have to look up that Neruda as well. I think a Spanish audiobook would also be fun! Thanks for the idea.

    Amatuer Reader, Yeay! I stumbled upon analysis! I’m glad it came across that way: I still feel I’m rambling here sometimes.

    Rebecca, I think French would be quite handy for a bibliophile. I often run across French conversations in classics British lit! I’m glad you love Neruda too!

    Emily, I remember seeing your post. I was so impressed! I suspect that Le Clezio is more challenging than Cisneros!! It does make me appreciate translators more!

    I do think I’ll try YA or kid’s books next!

    Eva, *BLUSH*. I’m so embarrassed — going to fix it now. I did read the entire intro to the poetry volume but I apparently left my brain with the book when I returned it to the library and finished this post! Thanks for being naggy — I like to get those things RIGHT.

    I think reading the original next to the English was lots of fun for poetry! I only know Spanish, though — my husband laughs at me if I try to read French!!

  10. I recommend “El Otro Árbol de Guernica” by Luis de Castresenas. It is written from the perspective of a 12 year old, so the language is a little bit easier. It’s a longer book, though. It’s an absolutely fascinating account of a young exiles journey during the Spanish Civil War. 🙂

  11. I came here meaning to take another look at your Really Old Classics Challenge, Rebecca, but you have completely distracted me with this post! Like Emily and many of the others, I too can relate to your struggles because I’ve been meaning to fit in more foreign language reading/”reclaiming” in recent weeks. Things get easier as you practice, of course, but my advice would be to mix in short stories, novellas, and newspaper articles as you start out. Foreign language blogs are also great for bite-sized practice opportunities (and book recommendations!), but the double-edged sword there is that typos and lots of slang may steer you wrong if you’re really struggling. In any event, good luck with your efforts and thanks for an interesting post! I’ll be back to check out the Classics Challenge soon.

  12. Lu, thanks for the recommendation! I can’t find it anywhere around here but it does sound very interesting!

    Richard, I have a volume of short stories in Spanish so I’ll have to find that and give a try. I appreciate all your suggestions — and intend to give them a try! Thanks for the visit!

  13. hola rebecca yo soy de peru
    I found your blog several years ago is a great blog congratulations! I read thecnical books in english because I need them for my job (Im a programmer) also I like read novels and short histories in my native language(spanish) actually I’m reading trampa-22(catch-22 )
    I’m thinking read my next novels in english for improve my english skills
    What novels Should I read?
    i wait your advice and sorry for my bad english

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