Doors

I recently mentioned to an American acquaintance the fact that Gabriela Mistral’s “Puertas” (Doors) is my favorite poem. “Puertas” is a poem that gives me more existential support than Catholicism ever did during the decades when I was into it. Simple as that. We often conceive walls negatively, suggesting that doors might redeem the vices of a wall. Mistral’s poem decries precisely that: the separation, blocking, isolation is a product of doors, not walls, as the latter are just blunt passivity, while the former convey intent.

5000 Chilean Pesos banknote Gabriela Mistral - Exchange yours for cash
Gabriela Mistral featured on the Chilean currency

Back to topic: I also mentioned to that acquaintance that I wished I was able to translate Puertas it to English, alas I wouldn’t make it justice as I’m neither a poet nor a translator, much less a poetry translator. That’s when he shared with me an excerpt of the poem he found online, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin no less. However such excerpt lacked the last two stanzas.


I decided to buy the book that contained the poem: a bilingual anthology translated by Le Guin. Obviously the book a a whole is of great interest for me, but I was particularly curious about how Le Guin had translated the last 2 stanzas of Puertas. The task seemed impossible to me. For example: Mistral evokes the following imagery: “el cardumen vivo de mis muertos que me llevan”, which is breathtakingly beautiful in Spanish, but would be literally translated as “the living school* of my dead persons that take me”. (*school here as in a school of fishes). Le Guin translated this bit as “the lively wake of my dead, who take me with them”, which is powerful, close enough to the original meaning Mistral conveyed, and understandable in English. Le Guin also took the liberty to, rightfully, bring certain updates in language that Mistral would have certainly approved if she had lived enough to see how society evolved in gender issues by, for example, replacing the word “hombres” (men) with “people”.

Ursula K. Le Guin - Wikipedia
Ursula K. Le Guin

Since it’s my favorite poem and the full version is not available anywhere online, I first considered just typing Le Guin’s translation here. But then, there’s the thing: there are things in Le Guin’s translation that bothered me. Most stanzas were brilliantly translated, others just so-so and the third stanza is really bad. She also oversimplified many verses and even changing the number of verses in each stanza, preferring clarity over lyricism. Mistral’s original poem starts like a whisper and ends like yelling. It feels like a song, but I don’t get that vibe from Le Guin. So, I decided to do something that may be dishonest, but why not, this is the poem that saved my life more than once, so I feel weirdly close, hence entitled, to it: since Le Guin did the heavy lifting that I wouldn’t be able to do, I will just go through her version and make the changes I see fit. Some might think I just butchered the poem/translation and they are probably right. I’m not a poet, and neither the original Spanish nor the translated English are my native language. Anyway, there’s the product of my experiment:

Doors
Poem by Gabriela Mistral, Translated by Ursula Le Guin, butchered by Illimani Ferreira

Among the gestures of the world
I’ve noticed those of doors
I’ve seen them in broad daylight
closed or half-open,
shrugging with their backs
the same color of vixens.
Why did we make them
to make us their prisoners?

They are the mean rind
of the great house-fruit.
They won’t let the street share
the kind fire that warms them.
Their wood deadens
the songs we sing inside.
They don’t offer their plenty
like the open pomegranate:
dust speaking sybils,
never young, born old!

They are like hollow seashells,
without tides, without sand.
They look like storm clouds
drifting over a frowning face.
Their similarity oozes down
Death’s long, rolling toga.
When I open and go through them.
I shiver like a reed.

No! they say to the morning
tenderly bathing them.
And No! to the sea wind
stroking their foreheads
and the fresh pine fragrance
blowing from the mountains.
Like Cassandra they know what’s coming
yet don’t prevent it.
for my hard fate, too,
came in by my door.

To knock on a door disturbs me
every time I do it.
The dry threshold glitters
like a bared sword,
the panels quicken
into fleeing antelope.
I come in as if I were lifting
the cloth from a covered face,
now knowing what narrow kernel
my house holds for me,
wondering if what awaits me
is my salvation or my ruin.

I want to go away, to leave
this dull ground on Earth,
this horizon like a stag
dragged down by sadness,
and the doors of mankind
sealed up like reservoirs.
I want never to hold again
their keys, dead-cold as eels,
never to hear their rattle
stalking me every way I go.

I shall pass through them
for the last time, silently.
I’m going to get away,
rejoicing like a slave set free,
following the lively wake
of my dead, who take me with them.
There they won’t be denied
into blocks and blocks of doors,
there walls won’t shame them
like bandages on wounded men.

They’ll come to me, unhidden,
gilded in eternal light.
We’ll sing in our station
between earth and heaven.
The passion of our song
will break down the doors,
and people will come out of them
rubbing their eyes like children,
as they hear the doors crumbling,
falling down and dead.

Published by IFSciFi

Science Fiction Writer

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