Joseph Mulligan: “One Sentence of Tungsten: Translating Vallejo’s Prose”

The opening sentence of César Vallejo’s social realist novel El tungsteno reads: “Dueña, por fin, la empresa norteamericana “Mining Society”, de las minas de tungsteno de Quivilca, en el departamento del Cuzco, la gerencia de Nueva York dispuso dar comienzo inmediatamente a la extracción del mineral.” The precariousness of rendering these lines in English may not be immediately apparent to a reader of the Spanish or a translation thereof. I would argue, however, that the translation problem here is at least twofold, in the syntax and semantics, and is revealing of the author’s agenda in this, his only complete novel. In the following, I want to complicate one line of Tungsten in an attempt to shed light on Vallejo’s idiosyncrasy.

The reader first comes up again a gnarly convolution and is required to parse out the clauses, the clusters, work out the syntactical relations, identify the agency of the elements and aspect of the action. A more or less literal rendering could be: “Owner, finally, the North American enterprise “Mining Society”, of the tungsten mines of Quivilca, in the department of Cuzco, the New York management ordered the immediate commencement of the extraction of the mineral.” So as a translator, one wants to undo this syntactical knot, but this desire is then met by the question: can the end result be a loose thread? Isn’t the clarification of syntactical relations on an interpretative register just as essential as the replication of the entanglement on a creative register? As we look closely at the phrasing of the Spanish, the word order takes on a specific importance. It is by no accident that the word “dueña” (owner) inaugurates this book that unabashedly wields a socialist critique of capitalism during the high tide of 20th century revolution. This story is the tragedy of the highland miner, the innocent “indio” who gets exploited by the capitalist system, and this tragedy transforms one petty merchant, Leónides Benites, a bourgeois mestizo who prefers to think of himself as more Spanish than indigenous – the contrary is true – whose personal ambition, social pursuits and avarice lead to his moral downfall, a terrible reckoning, and search for redemption. To begin the sentence, begin the chapter, to begin the book, without the immediate image of the owner, the proprietor, the overlord, the master, is to pull a punch precisely where Vallejo goes for an uppercut.

The second problem is raised by the company name – it is “la empresa norteamericana ‘Mining Society’” – where we find an egregious mistranslation already in the original. There is little evidence to sustain that the author knew much English, whereas he spoke and wrote in French, made use of Russian sporadically through his later writings, and was comfortable enough in Quechua to pepper it through Hacia el reino de los sciris and proliferate that usage in La piedra cansada. The name “Mining Society” is a transliteration of “sociedad minera”, where “sociedad” means company (e.g. a “sociedad anónima”, often abbreviated as S.A., is a public corporation). The supposition of the transliteration is confirmed if we look at Vallejo’s farce Colacho hermanos – a play created out of Tungsten – where he has renamed “Mining Society” as the “Quivilca Corporation” in an early draft and then the “Cotarca Corporation” in a later. This leads one to believe that his attention had been drawn to the mistranslation after the novel had already been published, and that he saw fit to make the change. Therefore, one must decide whether the name should be “corrected” in Tungsten or should be altered. Yet there is another problem here too, since “norteamericana” is probably not intended to refer to Mexico or Canada, but to the U.S.A. Vallejo could have used the explicit “estadounidense”, but preferred the generalization.

Robert Mezey’s 1988 translation offers the following: “Having finally gained control of the tungsten mines in Quivilca, in the state of Cuzco, the New York management of a North American corporation called Mining Society ordered extraction of the mineral to begin immediately.” When I read these lines I am pleased to have in my hands what is, to my knowledge, the one existing complete English translation of César Vallejo’s only full length novel, but I am also disconcerted by the ease with which it reads. I’m afraid there is no knot, but only loose thread. Even though Vallejo’s language in prose does not usually present the same complexity as does his poetry, it is still remarkably idiosyncratic. Mezey’s rendering also makes me wonder why he preferred “state” over the very literal “department”, which is what the administrative divisions of Peru are typically called. And I share my confusion not to belabor apothegms on what gets lost in translation, but to show that, when we do translate Vallejo, what we find is not as simple as we might expect, that we are not through reading his work, and that – unless U.S. readers decide to read the Spanish – only when his idiosyncrasy (in poetry, in fiction, in drama, in journalism) is available to us in English will we be able to evaluate his literary project with a fair and discerning eye. And so, going on the supposition that there has not yet been some mass acquisition of the Spanish language among English speakers, and with a first draft of chapter one of Tungsten still on my desk, the first line, to my ear, to my eye, for now, goes like this:

“Owner, at last, of the Quivilca tungsten mines in the department of Cuzco, the American company, Mining Incorporated, had its New York management give the go-ahead for immediate extraction of the mineral.”


Slang Poetricks: Far Out Lunfardo Terms

Lunfardo is an Argentinian slang that was born in the Buenos Aires ghettos in the late 19th century, but soon spread across the entire Rio de la Plata region. The product of Argentina’s highly stratified society, Lunfardo was an expressive vehicle for the lower classes that served a variety of purposes: 1.) Some speakers used it as a cryptolect to obscure meanings from both the police and outsiders. This usage comes out most distinctly in the slang’s vesres or back-slang (take this example: esquina, or corner, becomes naesqui). Also, a significant portion of the lexicon is devoted to criminal activities such as murder and prostitution (while this doesn’t mean that the speakers engaged in such activities, it does reveal how crime was a part their daily landscape); 2.) Immigrants & indigenous peoples imported bits & pieces of their languages into the Spanish that they were forced to adopt. This comes out in the slang’s lexicon which borrows heavily from Italian, Quechua, and some African languages. As a result of this importation, Lunfardo gives one a sense of the multilingual mishmash happening in those ghetto neighborhoods.

However, Lunfardo did not remain the word-terrain of marginalized speakers. Bits & pieces now circulate through all the speech communities of Argentina due to the tremendous popularity of the musical/dance form born within the very same neighborhoods: the tango. Later on, rock music would continue to borrow from the slang (the Argentinian equivalent to North American rock musicians continual use of African American Vernacular English?).

Linguists estimate that Lunfardo has 5,000 terms (most are Spanish words with reappropriated meanings). In the following, I offer a wee lil’ etymological sampler of some particularly creative terms…

A Funkymological Trip Through Lunfardo

1.) colibrillo/a (also colibriyo/a) adj. Crazy.

The word’s recipe:

–> Take one loco (crazy), vesre it up into colo.

–> Then add one brillo (luster, shine) at the end.

–> Fuse colo with brillo by wittily adding an i in between so the end result sounds like colibrí (hummingbird).

2.) socotroco. n. Onomatopoeia for punch.

3.) quilombo. n. A mess or disaster. Also, has been verbed as quilombear/quilombificar.

Hisstorickety infusion: The word quilombo originates from the Kimbundu kilombo, or town. In Latin America, especially Brazil, the word described large hinterland settlements of runaway slaves, indigenous peoples, Jews, Arabs, and others marginalized from the colonial regime. The most iconic of these settlements was Palmares, a community of 20,000 inhabitants that existed from 1604 to 1694. Led by formidable warrior kings such as Ganga Zumba and later Zumbi, Palmares repelled repeated invasions from both the Dutch and the Portuguese until it finally fell after decades of warfare. The continued existence of these maroon communities exasperated colonial authorities, whose authority over their enslaved populations was always precarious. So it’s quite possible that this fear made quilombos synonymous with disasters or nightmares. 

Comparative Philology Incitement: It might be useful to compare quilombo next to other Spanish colloquialisms for destruction such as the Mexican desmadre (literally, de-mothered) and the Cuban/Dominican desmandinga (literally, de-mandigaed, as in the Mandinga, an African people brought over as slaves to the Caribbean).  

4.) funyi. n. A hat. 

A endearingly goofy metaphor, funyi comes from the Italian fungo, or mushroom.

5.) cerebrar. v. To think.

Literally, to brain. “Let me brain for a second…”

6.) madrugado. adj. Early, in advance. 

This one’s sheer lyricism: Turn la madrugada, or the dawn, into an adjective & BAM! you’re a poet in everyday life.   

7.) telefunken. n. Telephone.

I’ve got no idea about the etymology on this one, but it leaves us with one pressing question: Why are the Spanish still using teléfono? Why haven’t American English speakers picked up on this one yet? It’s like George Clinton met Alexander Graham Bell…

8.) matadero. n. A hotel room for sex.

Literally, it means a slaughterhouse. The word conjures disturbing images, but I felt that I had to include at least one of the many mysogynistic terms in this slang.

9.) rascabuche. n. A poor person. Also, an adj. for an item of bad quality.

This one’s a compound between rascar, to scrub, and buche, the stomach of a pigeon. The word’s absurdity testifies to the resilient humor developed by communities facing extreme hardship.

10.) mishiadura. n. Poverty.

Comes from the Genoa Italian dialect’s miscio (poor). Used to velvety affect in Enrique Santos Discépolo’s lyrics to Angel Villoldo’s classic tango “El Choclo,” never has poverty sounded so deceptively seductive.

11.) culo del mundo. Banished to a godforsaken place.

Literally, it means ass of the world. ‘Cuz sometimes daily life just feels that way…

12.) All the Ways You Can Die in Lunfardo–> The topic of death provides much poetricking in this slang. Here are some particularly humorous, violent, and creative ways in which death is described: 

achure. Cattle guts

amasijar. To be kneaded     

becamorto. Literally, Catholic priest. This word comes from the Italian slang beccamorto, or gravedigger, an irreverent term for priests, alluding to how they give last rites to a dying person. 

cantar para el carnero. To sing like a ram.

charquear. To jerk beef.

crepar. From the Italian crepare (to burst/crack/die). 

cucaracha. The cockroach. 

enfriar. To refrigerate. 

entregar el rosquete. To give up the fritter.

fiambre. Cold meat, old news. 

hacer la boleta. To get the admission ticket. 

la huesada. The bony one.

la quinta de ñato. The cemetery. A ñato is literally a cut and crushed nose. The term might have originated to describe gardens that surrounded prisons.

morfarse. To kill someone. From the Italian slang morfillar (to eat).

mortadela. Yup, just like the sausage.

queder frito. To stay fried.

tocar el violín. To play the violin.

tocar la refalosa. To take the white sheet. Refalosa was originally a dance in 19th Century Buenos Aires; it later described the act of sliding a white sheet over a dead person. Its root probably lies in refaloso (slippery).

Resources for more information:

Borges, Jorge Luis and Jose Elmundo Clemente. El lenguaje de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Emece Editores, 1963.  

Conde, Oscar. Diccionario etimológico del Lunfardo. Buenos Aires: Libros Perfil, 1998.

Diccionario de Lunfardo.

Gobello, Jose and Irene Amuchastegui. Vocabulario ideológico del Lunfardo. Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1998.



Hayley Mollmann/Poesytron 575

Meaning Lurking in the Corner of My Eye


The first haiku my computer ever wrote was:

fragmentizing cobb

exclamatory hurst smash


I had written a very simple program that would put random words together with a 5-7-5 syllable count: computer-generated haiku.  I did this because I had a very simple thought: “Wouldn’t it be neat if…”  But I quickly realized that my little program had a lot of potential in to explore questions of meaning, association, authorship, readership, and more.

The program was christened Poesytron 575 (“poesy” means “the art or composition of poetry”), and I started to show its poems to others.  I thought of those first, entirely random haiku as completely nonsensical.  But when I showed them to Jared Demick (poet and curator of the Jivin’ Ladybug), he said, “Weirdly enough, some of these create strange emotional resonances with me.”  Another example of what I showed him is:

roper Samoan

bandog periclinal throat

jackstay sleaziest


I’d stumbled across a discovery that many experimental poets have made before: most of the meaning found in poetry comes from the reader, not the author.  This is readily apparent in forms like haiku, where the structural limitations make it necessary for the poet to invoke the use of juxtaposition—combining unrelated words or phrases, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps.  In his book Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry, Charles Hartman says, “Juxtaposition makes the reader an accomplice in the poem, forging the links of meaning.  In the process we supply a lot of energy, and that involves us in the poem.”

This became even more apparent to me when I incorporated a database of human-written haiku into Poesytron 575.  Suddenly I had haiku such as this one:

end the first meeting

and out the easter, say salt

saying allegiance


When I read poems written by humans, I am not aware so much that I’m an accomplice in the poem, or that I’m reading habitual relationships between words rather than the words themselves.  But when I read Poesytron’s poems, I’m conscious of the active role I have to take—even though I suspect that I’m not doing any more than when I read “real” poetry, or maybe even any text.

Because the program was referencing human-written work, the haiku were beginning to seem more like something a human would write.  I was starting to wonder if I could fool anyone about their authorship.  Roughly half of the poems seemed to make a little sense to me, so I took a selection of those and presented them to a group of writers as surreal haiku that I’d written myself.  In fact, I had only added some punctuation and formatting to Poesytron’s poems.

The responses ranged from “I just don’t get it” to “Holy hell—these are wonderful.”  For example, this haiku:


The anew. The

prettiest biggest. The

saying a of lie.


received the comment, “I think I just find surrealism inaccessible,” from one writer, while another said, “This is like a tiny, compact, impenetrable puzzle that keeps me fascinated with the prospect that, just out of the corner of my eye, there’s a meaning lurking.”

I find that I, myself, waver between these exact sentiments.  Some of the haiku Poesytron creates seem to be utterly inaccessible nonsense—but others seem to be packed with meaning that I can’t quite see clearly.  Sometimes, the same haiku will seem to be one or the other depending on which day I look at it.

The great risk of this type of poetry, I think, is that it might be quite ugly, or meaningless.  The great experimental poet Jackson Mac Low said that, when using methods that incorporate chance or randomness, the poet “is neither the dictator nor (when he participates in the ensemble) the primary soloist.  He is willing to risk moments in performances that he will not perceive as beautiful…. That is a risk I am deliberately taking.”

This idea of deliberate chance, or stochasticity, is one that, I think, really stretches the boundaries of modern poetry.  It transforms what the poet is able to say within a poem, and transforms the intention of communication within a poem.

Charcoal evening, cats

shed single. Takes alone with

withered, the room filled.


Wounded parents from

a crematory smoke. The

to— is the— it— bar.


married signs, name signs

his dragonfly— the sun mist

voices in moths, his


rootless clouds rootless

paddies clouds, a family

canes and moon by lose


berries breath, red shreds

bag sails, white witch’s, of over of

scraps the blade flesh to


Meaningful or meaningless?  It all depends on the reader.

 There’s at least one person out there who sees the Poesytron project as completely pointless.  Charles Trumbull, a lauded haiku poet and editor, asserts that, while a reader might make some sense out of computer-generated haiku, they do not have enough meaning or the right kind of meaning for him.  He might be right in that Poesytron may never produce haiku to rival master poets (and if it does, the poetry will be entirely derivative), but I question what the right kind of meaning is. 

Poetry doesn’t have to be limited by the poet’s imagination. We can push at the limits of language, letting a computer program create new word combinations that explode with meaning in the reader’s mind.

You can see more poems written by Poesytron at

Alejandra Pizarnik- Tree of Diana

Tree of Diana

Translated by Joseph Mulligan & Patricia Rossi

March 10, 2011

New Paltz, New York – Buenos Aires, Argentina

jwmulligan at gmail dot com

patriciasrossi at gmail dot com




Tree of Diana by Alejandra Pizarnik. (Chem.): verbal crystallization by amalgamation of passionate insomnia & meridian lucidity in a solution of reality subjected to the highest of temperatures. The compound does not contain any deceitful particle at all. (Bot.): the tree of Diana is transparent & gives off no shade. It has its own light, twinkling & brief. It is born in the arid regions of America. The hostility of the climate, the inclemency of the discourses & shouting matches, the general opacity of the thinking species, its neighbors, due to a phenomenon of well-known compensation, stimulates the luminous properties of this plant. It has no roots; the stalk is a cone of slightly obsessive light; the leaves are small, covered by four or five lines of phosphorescent writing, elegant & aggressive buds, toothed edges; the flowers are diaphanous, the females separated from the males, the first axillary, almost somnambulant & solitary. The latter ones in beards, thistles and, more rarely, thorns. (Myth. & Ethno.): the ancients believed that the arc of the goddess was a branch dangling from the tree of Diana. The scar of the trunk was considered as the (feminine) sex of the cosmos. It may refer to a mythical Fig Tree (the sap from the branches is milky, lunar). The myth may allude to sacrifice by dismemberment: an adolescent (male or female?) was chopped apart each new moon, in order to stimulate the reproduction of the images in the mouth of the prophetesses (archetype of the union of the lower & upper worlds). The tree of Diana is one of the masculine attributes of the feminine deity. Some see in this the supplementary confirmation of the hermaphroditic origin of gray matter and, perhaps, all matter; others deduce that it is a case of expropriation of the masculine solar substance: the rite would only be a ceremony of magical mutilation of the primordial ray. In the current state of our understanding, it is impossible to decide on any of these hypotheses. Let us point out, however, that the participants afterward ate incandescent embers—a custom that persists in the present day. (Blaz.): a talking coat of arms. (Phys.): for a long time the physical reality of the tree of Diana was denied. In effect, due to its extraordinary transparency, few can see it. Solitude, concentration & a general refinement of one’s sensibility are indispensable requisites for the vision. Some people, with a reputation for being intelligent, complain that, despite their preparation, they see nothing. In order to dispel their error, it suffices to recall that the tree of Diana is not a body that one may see: it is an (animate) object that allows us to see beyond, a natural instrument of vision. In any case, a small test of experimental criticism will, effectively & definitively, lay to rest the prejudices of the contemporary illustration: placed facing the sun, the tree of Diana reflects its rays & joins them in a central filament called a poem, which produces a luminous heat capable of burning, smelting & even volatilizing the non-believers. This test is recommended to the literary critics of our language.


Octavio Paz

Paris, April of 1962





I’ve taken the plunge from me to dawn.

I’ve left my body along with the light

& I’ve sung the sadness of what’s born.





These are the versions she puts on the table:

a hole, a wall that shakes…





only the thirst

the silence

no encounter


beware of me my love

beware of the silent one in the desert

of the traveler with a decanted canteen

& of her shadow’s shadow





                                                SO THEN:

Who would stop diving down in search of the tribute

to the little forgotten one. Pay the cold will. The wind will pay.

Pay the rain will. The thunder will pay.





for a minute of fleeting life

one of a kind wide-eyed

for a minute to see

little flowers in the brain

dance like words in a mute’s mouth





                        (a drawing by Wols)


she undresses in the paradise

of her memory

she’s unaware of her visions’

fierce fate

she’s scared of not knowing how to name

what does not exist





Leaps with her shirt in flames

from star to star,

shadow after shadow.

Dies a distant death

does she who loves the wind.





Illuminated memory, gallery where

roams the shadow of what I await. It’s not

true that it will come. It’s not true that

it won’t come.





These bones glowing in the night

these words like precious stones

in the living throat of a petrified bird,

this very beloved green,

this heated lilac,

this heart only mysterious.





a gust of wind

full of twisted faces

I cut out in the shape of objects to love





right now

            at this innocent hour

I & who I was sit down

in the doorway of my gaze






no more sweet metamorphoses of a silky girl

sleepwalking on the cornice of fog now


her awakening as a breathing hand

as a flower that opens into the wind





to explain with words from this world

that a boat from me has shoved off with me on board





The poem I don’t say

the one I don’t deserve.

Fear of being two

way of the mirror:

in me someone asleep

eats me & drinks me





I miss distancing myself

from the time when I was born.

I miss not carrying out

the newcomer role more





you’ve built your home

you’ve fledged your birds

you’ve beaten the wind

with your bones


you’ve finished alone

what no one began





Days when a distant word possesses me. I spend those days sleepwalking & transparent. The beautiful automaton chants to herself, enchants herself, tells herself about cafes & faces: stiff thread nest where I dance & cry to myself at my numerous funerals. She is her burnt to dust mirror, her cold fume wait, her mystical element, her fornication with names growing on their own in the dismal light.





like a poem aware

of the silence of things

you speak so as not to see me





when I see the eyes

that I’ve got tattooed in mine





says that she doesn’t know the fear of the death of love

says that she fears the death of love

says that love is death is fear

says that death is fear is love

says that she doesn’t know


To Laure Bataillon





so much I’ve been born

& doubly suffered

in the memory of here & of there





at night


a mirror for the dead little girl


an ashen mirror





a look out from the gutter

can be a world-view


rebellion consists in staring at a rose

until the eyes turn to dust





These threads imprison the shadows

& demand an answer for the silence

these threads unite the gaze & the sorrow





                        (Goya exhibition)


a hole in the night

suddenly invaded by an angel





(a drawing by Klee)


when the night palace

lights up its beauty

                        we’ll pluck the mirrors

until our faces sing like idols





from the dawn a gust in the flowers

abandons me drunk on nothing & on lilac light

drunk on immobility & on sureness





you step away from the names

that thread the silence of things together





Here we live with one hand in the throat. That nothing is possible they already know, those inventors of rain who wove words together in the torment of absence. That’s why in their prayers there was a sound of hands in love with the fog.


To André Pieyre de Mandiargues





in the fabulous winter

the ode of the wings in the rain

in the memory of the water fingers of fog





It’s to close the eyes & swear not to open them. Meanwhile they feed outside on clocks & flowers born out of guile. But with closed eyes & an ache truly far too great we pluck the mirrors until the forgotten words magically ring.





Plague zone where eats the sleeper

her heart made of midnight





at some point

                        at some point someday

I’ll go without staying

                        I’ll go like someone who leaves





the little traveler

died explaining her death


wise nostalgic animals

visited her heated body





Life, this life of mine, let yourself fall, let yourself suffer, life of mine, let yourself get tangled up in the fire, in gullible silence, in the night house’s green stones, let yourself fall & suffer, oh life of mine.





in the cage of time

the sleeper stares at lonely her eyes


brings her does the wind

the leaves’ slender response


To Alain Gloss





beyond any prohibited zone

there is a mirror for our sad transparency





This repentant chant, beacon behind my poems:

this chant denies me, gags me.



Thoughts on Pizarnik, Spanish language poetry, and translation can be found at Mulligan’s The Smelting Process: