“Sorry!”

Latin American Market – Seven Sisters, London

I meant to hand out this poem – ‘La extranjera’ by Gabriela Mistral and my translation ‘The foreigner’ – in Chile, but it never seemed like the right time. I found the poem in The Biblioteca Regional Gabriela Mistral in La Serena, and later visited Montegrande, the tiny village where she grew up and is now buried.

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Mistral is hugely famous in Chile. She was the first Latin American author to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, and her face is even on the 5,000 Chilean peso bank note. So maybe it made more sense to hand the poem and my translation out in the UK, where less people have heard of her, and what better place to do so than my local Latin American market in Tottenham?

The market is just opposite Seven Sisters tube. It is very easy to miss because it is hidden behind shops and doesn’t draw attention to itself, but it’s a great place for a café con leche and I will definitely be spending more time there to keep on practising my Spanish!

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I had forgotten how different handing out poems in England is compared to South America: here, a lot more people say no. And in London, especially, people don’t have time to stop and chat. My favourite response was the man who held up his hands and said “sorry!” as if he really had no choice but to refuse a poem. But it was a good idea to stand near this market, where I could catch people on their way out and offer them the poem in Spanish, which I think they appreciated. I was happy to see two men, who had just met up outside the tube, looking at the poem and translations together and talking about them as they walked down the high street.

 

La extranjera

    a Francis de Miomandre

Habla con dejo de sus mares bárbaros,
con no sé qué algas y no sé qué arenas;
reza oración a dios sin bulto y peso,
envejecida como si muriera.
En huerto nuestro que nos hizo extraño,
ha puesto cactus y zarpadas hierbas.
Alienta del resuello del desierto
y ha amado con pasión de que blanquea,
que nunca cuenta y que si nos contase
sería como el mapa de otra estrella.
Vivirá entre nosotros ochenta años,
pero siempre será como si llega,
hablando lengua que jadea y gime
y que le entienden sólo bestezuelas.
Y va a morirse en medio de nosotros,
en una noche en la que más padezca,
con sólo su destino por almohada,
de una muerte callada y extranjera.

 

*

 

The foreigner

    for Francis de Miomandre

She speaks with an accent of her rough seas
with some sort of seaweed and some sort of sand;
she prays to a god without size or weight,
so old she’s almost dead.
That garden of ours has become strange to us,
she filled it with cactuses and clawing grass.
She breathes with desert wind
and has loved with whitened passion
but she never tells and if she did tell
it would be like the map of another star.
She could live among us for eighty years
but it would always feel like she just arrived,
speaking a tongue that pants and groans
and is only heard by animals.
And she will die among us too
one night at the height of her misery,
with only her destination for a pillow,
a death silent and foreign.

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