Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature, is probably one of the most well-known poets in the world. This is one of his most popular poems.
I like you when you’re silent, for you seem as if you’re gone,
and you hear me from afar, and my voice doesn’t touch you.
It seems as if your eyes had flown away from you—
it seems as if a kiss were sealing shut your mouth.
Since each and every thing is brimming with my soul,
you rise from everything, with my soul replete.
Dreamtime butterfly, you resemble my soul
And you resemble every word that hints at gloom.
I like you when you’re silent and you seem as if you’re distant.
And you whimper soft and low, like a drowsy butterfly.
And you hear me from afar, and my voice doesn’t reach you:
let me hush myself at last with this silence you have brought me.
Let me speak to you as well with your syllables of silence,
As clear as the lamplight, as simple as a ring.
For you are like the night, still and constellated,
Your silence that of stars, so distant and so simple.
I like you when you’re silent, for you seem as if you’re gone,
Painful and distant, as if you were dead.
Then just one word, one smile of yours will do.
And I’m happy, so happy that it is not true.
—Translated by David Bowles
March 9, 2014
Revised July 12, 2017
Me gustas cuando callas porque estas como ausente,
y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca.
Parece que los ojos se te hubieran volado
y parece que un beso te cerrara la boca.
Como todas las cosas estan llenas de mi alma
emerges de las cosas, llena del alma mia.
Mariposa de sueno, te pareces a mi alma,
y te pareces a la palabra melancolia.
Me gustas cuando callas y estas como distante.
Y estas como quejandote, mariposa en arrullo.
Y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te alcanza:
dejame que me calle con el silencio tuyo.
Dejame que te hable tambien con tu silencio
claro como una lampara, simple como un anillo.
Eres como la noche, callada y constelada.
Tu silencio es de estrella, tan lejano y sencillo.
Me gustas cuando callas porque estas como ausente.
Distante y dolorosa como si hubieras muerto.
Una palabra entonces, una sonrisa bastan.
Y estoy alegre, alegre de que no sea cierto.
I like your translation. It has just the right amount of poetic license to capture the frivolous and sing-song tone with which Neruda approaches grave subject matter.
The only interpretation that I believe would make this translation more effective occurs in that poignant final verse, “Y estoy alegre de que no sea cierto.”
I think “cierto”, referring to her word and smile, should be interpreted as “genuine”.
“Then just one word, one smile of yours will do.
And I’m happy, so happy that it’s not genuine.”
Sends a shiver up the spine doesn’t it?
Interesting choice. My only hesitation is that “cierto” can’t be referring to “sonrisa,” which is feminine and would require “cierta.” On my reading, “cierto” is referring to the general situation of her imagined absence/death. I’m not sure the original Spanish admits your interpretation for other reasons … the speaker imagines she’s gone, and then she either speaks or smiles, reassuring him she’s very much present and alive. Her rupturing the silence and stillness draws him from his morbid reverie and he is happy that his imagined scenario is false. To my mind, you are imbuing the piece with something more sinister than what it requires.
Cierto can mean certain/true/correct depending on which way it is used. By the way the translation does not do the poem justice , it’s meaning is deeper and more beautiful in Spanish
Sí, pues, he allí el detalle, ¿verdad? Ninguna traducción puede trasmitir de manera perfecta los matices del texto original, y cada intento es simplemente el acercamiento personal del traductor a lo que percibe como el núcleo o meollo del poema. Sin duda existen y se escribirán otras traducciones más nítidas. Sólo he querido explorar unos versos que siempre me han encantado.
I feel that “true” is a better translation, as a Chilean myself, I can tell you that the word “cierto”, in this context, is used to mean “true”.
Besides I concur with David Bowles interpretation of that last paragraph.
great translation. Other translations that I read kill the poetic effect very quickly. This one, from Stanford, for example, is horrible: “I like you when you are quiet because it is as though you are absent”… it doesn´t sound poetic in English translated like that. Yours captures la esencia poética del poema.
¡Gracias! Qué gusto que te parezca bien. Me sentí motivado por lo mismo que mencionas, las muchas versiones ineptas en inglés. La mía necesita pulirse un poco, pero espero haberme acercado algo a esa esencia poética del poema original, como señalas.
I like your poem for it simulates Spanish poetic musicality, something which is quite hard to do when translating poetry. The only observation that I’d make is the replacement of “la palabra melancolía “, you might probably have had good reasons for using an equivalent term, but I feel that the word has great significance not only for the poem, but for the poet and his work. Great job, though.
Thanks! Yeah, Will, it’s just tough to make that line work. “You resemble the word ‘melancholy'” is so flat and prosaic. There’s probably another rendering that gets close to what he does in Spanish, though.
Have you others translated?
Poems not as commercial – that are commonly published?
Yes, I’ve translated a lot of poetry. You can click on the “translations” tab above or look only at translations from Spanish here: http://davidbowles.us/category/poetry/translations/spanish/
No translation does this great poem justice. It was a great effort but it loses its power, beauty and lyrical quality in English. Some great works are better off left alone.
I personally find this poem horrible, not for lack of poetic merit (after all, If Neruda was good at something, it was at poetry) but because of the horrible act it is about and the disgusting mindset it reveals.
In his memoir “Confieso Que He Vivido” he confessed that this poem was written after a sexual encounter with a paria servant in Sri Lanka. They didn’t share any language and he was of a higher social standing, so she would not protest or say a word while he lead her to bed and proceeded to rape her, she did no sound, she made no complaint, she just laid there as dead, but even Neruda admitted he felt she despised him.
I’m sorry if I ruined a loved piece of art, but this poem, and the fact that it is so praised, makes my blood boil
Vicente, thanks for providing that context! It changes everything.
Me fascina el poema precisamente porque es espeluznante (si sabes la historia de Neruda el mujeriego) y porque es hermoso a la misma vez. Pero no creo que sea un acierto “I like it when you…” Lamento que para mi le quite el poder y la autenticidad a esa línea tan importante. Me gustas cuando callas y ¿cuándo no? No me gustas tú. Uf.
Buenísimo punto. Creo que voy a revisar mi traducción con esa autenticidad en mente. ¡Gracias!