Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter, translated by Lisa Rose Bradford

Reviewed by Lucina Schell, Editor

All actsBetween Words: Juan Gelman's Public Letter of translation pose challenges, but as an art form concerned with articulating the inexpressible, the nascent meanings underlying language, poetry is particularly complicated. The process of carrying meaning from one language to another requires navigating a sometimes wide chasm between words, and it is in the spaces between words that meaning is lost—or found—in translation. As Lisa Rose Bradford explains in her “Orientation” to her translation of Juan Gelman’s Public Letter, her title of Between Words is taken partly from this common metaphor for translation; however, it also stems from the inventive language for which Gelman is known. “‘Between words’ are two-worlded, birthing words that bespeak a state of becoming while forever in transit,” Bradford writes. “These are the words that the poet himself has referred to as ‘amphibian,’ a term that belies their provocative powers but serves to configure the wonder of their unstable condition” (2). In Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter, Bradford gives us more than her translation of these poems, offering unprecedented insight into her process and choices as a translator in her “orientation,” and closing the book with a personal interview with the poet that further illuminates his aesthetic as well as his personality.

Gelman’s poetry came of age during the influential yet short-lived Argentine poetic Generation of 1960, known for its use of colloquial and conversational language, local slang and localization in Buenos Aires, and preoccupation with political concerns. Gelman’s early books, in particular Cólera buey (Oxen Rage) of 1965, helped to define the aesthetic of this generation and established the remarkable rhythms and linguistic invention for which he is celebrated. The 1976-1983 military dictatorship of Argentina, during which an estimated 30,000 people were “disappeared,” effectively derailed the progression of these poets, many of whom were among the victims. Gelman, fortunate to receive a position in Rome in 1975, remained in Europe in exile, a period responsible for a ten year “interruption” in his publishing career. The poems of “public letter” were first published in 1980 as an elegy to the poet’s son, who along with his pregnant daughter-in-law, were early victims among the disappeared.

Gelman’s characteristic wordplay reaches a fever pitch in his “public letter,” a deliberate breaking of language in the tradition of Paul Celan, as the poet attempts to speak to and physicalize the remembrance of his disappeared son. The challenges inherent in translating Gelman’s elegiac and spare poems demand an unusually active role for the translator; in order to translate neologisms, Bradford must create neologisms of her own. In the orientation, Bradford highlights four main areas that she had to account for in her translation: neologisms; what she refers to as Gelman’s ‘feminized tongue’ or mothering voice enacted through baby talk, diminutives, and deliberate flouting of Spanish grammatical gender conventions; archaisms; and the rhythm created through Gelman’s repetition, slant rhyme, and slashed line breaks (6).

The use of wordplay and neologisms, which can easily be created in Spanish through the unorthodox combining of conjugations with prefixes and suffixes, goes back at least to Spain’s Golden Age writers, Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Góngora, as Gelman acknowledges in the interview (101). Bradford’s poetic gifts are in evidence in her clever creation of compound nouns in the Old English tradition of Beowulf, “lonesomeroom” for Gelman’s “soledadera,” “flood-flowed” for the cooing superlative “derramadísimo” (9). I find Bradford’s creative resort to “kinder” as a prefix for building tender, motherly words in order to avoid overly sentimentalizing a serious poem a bit more disconcerting. Although omnipresent in the English-speaking world’s educational trajectory, the frequent use of this Germanic root foreignizes the translations for me, which may be Bradford’s intention. It certainly complements the use of Anglo-Saxon syntactic structures, and is not out of place for an Argentine poet of Jewish Ukrainian background who grew up listening to recitations of Pushkin (95).

The poems make frequent use of “hijo” or “hijito” (son, little son) as well as the verbalized noun “hijar” (to son), borrowed from Cesar Vallejo. As Bradford explains, Vallejo famously punned hijar with its homonym ijar (flank or side). While this pun and the richness of intertextuality with Vallejo are lost, the translation benefits wonderfully from a pun found in the English on son/sun (11-12):

early on the soul begins to ache / pale

by unsure light she explores your non-being /

the heart rises in mourning /

scours the sky like a sun seeking

all day / everyday / burning

(XX, 73)

Bradford’s election of “mourning” for “con pesares,” makes the translation read as if the poem were originally written in English, creating the evocative pun with sun rise that is not present in the Spanish. Literally meaning, “with sorrow” and derived from pesar (to weigh), Bradford could have translated the line with the ubiquitous English cliché, “I awake with a heavy heart.” However, it is the heart that is the subject, rising like the sun. Bradford opts to use the Spanish gendered pronoun “she” to refer to soul, emphasizing Gelman’s deliberate use of “la alma” in the Spanish where “el alma” would be correct, an example of childlike speech. Finding alliteration in “scours the sky like a sun seeking,” Bradford mimics the hard c- and then soft s- in Gelman’s lines “el corazón se alza con pesares/ recorre cielo como sol buscando,” the two sounds meeting in bus/cando. “All day / everyday” refers to the heart, but it also forms a beautiful and painful image of the sun rising and searching for the day it creates.

The pain and incomprehension of his loss seeps through Gelman’s language, particularly in his frequent use of prefixes de/des to add a sense of undoing to verbs. These and other neologisms are frequently used in pairs, creating a balance and rhythm to the lines, while effectively undoing the meaning, as in the opening of the first poem:

hablarte o deshablarte/dolor mío/                        to tell you or untell you / my sorrow /

manera de tenerte/destenerte                               a way of having you / unhaving you /

(I, 32-33)

In the Spanish, Gelman finds a pun with “de tenerte,” literally “of having you,” which can also be read as “detenerte” (to detain), a verb that reverberates with connotations given that his son was detained before being executed, and that also seems to speak to a desire to detain the son’s passage into the world of the dead.

Sometimes Bradford approximates these neologisms and repetitions in unexpected and creative ways as in “how to retender you / tenderness silenced in // what you bought with your kinderblood?,” which reads in the Spanish “¿como reamarte/amor callado en // lo que compraste con tu sangre niña?” (III, 38-39) More unusual and brilliantly conceived is Bradford’s transference of an allusion to Cesar Vallejo’s “Spain, take this chalice from me,”:

will you embrace your embers with thirst? / with those

responsible? / always dying? / will you speak

the language of others? / will you sing? / will you not

take this cup from me so all mankind may kind? /

(XI, 55)

The last line in Spanish, “¿dónde tu cáliz // no apartarás para que todos hombren?” forms a verb “hombrar” (to man, from hombre).

Another stunning example of Bradford’s keen poetic pitch:

memoria que amarísima de muere                        memory that yelping mortal love

amarillea al pie de tu otoñar/                                   yellows at the foot of your autumn /

memoria que morís con cada viva                          memory that is dying with each living

recordación/dulce que fue tu mano                       recollection / the sweetness of your hand

(XIV, 60-61)

In the Spanish, Gelman creates sonic pairs with “memoria”/ “muere” and “amarísima” / “amarillea.” Amarísima is a superlative derived from “amar” (to love), while “amarillea” is a neologism for “to yellow” from amarillo. Bradford’s use of “yelping mortal love” allows her to maintain her own sonic pairs in the English by introducing the “yel” in “yelping” and “yellows” in place of the repeated “amar” in the Spanish.

As the “open letter” draws to a close, Gelman includes more specific references to the torture his son undoubtedly faced during his captivity, as he continues his effort to “un/die” his son through active remembrance:

because of your deprivings suns rise up /

illumine faces / sufferingblocks /

so no one need face humiliation / it would be

tenderness that you were / alive / you are

(XXIV, 81)

Earlier in the poem, Gelman refers to being “deprived” of his son, so the fortuitous pun on son/sun in English lends poignancy to the line, as if Gelman has found a way to comfort himself by keeping the memory of his son alive. These “suns” which illuminate faces and darkened torture chambers “so no one need face humiliation,” are the higher aim, beyond working through his own grief, of Gelman’s “public letter.” The series of poems are profoundly courageous as they work against the renewed death and suffering that can be the only result of forgetting our painful past.

Bradford’s extraordinary work won the American Literary Translators’ Association’s National Translation Award in 2011.

For a review of Bradford’s latest translation of Juan Gelman, see The Creative Literary Studio.


Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter. Translation and commentary by Lisa Rose Bradford. San Francisco, CA: Coimbra Editions, 2010.


  1. […] from her translations, practically doing the work of analysis for her reviewers. Naturally, in my review, I used her introduction as my point of departure, but of course, noticed other strategies at work […]

  2. […] “There are losses,” Gelman wrote. “The important thing is how returning to them transforms them into something new.” Part of what makes Gelman’s transformation of his losses so effective surely has to do with his masterful manipulation of language, what Lisa Rose Bradford notes in Between Words that Gelman called “amphibian” words that grow and become permutations. […]

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