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.”


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: