Translating ‘Luminaria’ by Pedro Serrano

Three versions

Spanish Original

Como una luciérnaga en medio de un campo
hecho solo de ruidos,
con el brillo, latente, luz adentro,
cascabel, diminuto e inaudito.
Me apago hacia mí mismo para que tú te pierdas,
me apago.


Literal Translation by Don Cellini

Like a firefly in the middle of a field
made only of noises,
with the bright, latent light inside,
jingle bell, diminutive and inaudible.
I go out so that you may get lost,
I go out.


Final Translation by Don Cellini

Like a firefly in the middle of a field
filled with noise,
its shining, latent light within,
a tiny bell, small and soundless.
I fade away so that you may lose yourself.
I fold myself into my wings.


An earlier version of this translation appeared in the Ofi Press Magazine Number 32.


Inside the mind of the translator

Don Cellini narrates his thoughts as he goes through the process of translating ‘Luminaria’, to give us an insight into the different aspects of translation.

Pedro Serrano’s poem ‘Luminaria’ is a little gem of a poem and I want to recreate it in English with as much sparkle as the original. The title translates directly as “Luminary”. I want to keep this close association with the original, so it stays “Luminary” (which means something that gives out a natural light). If you imagine many flickering luminaries at night then there is an easy transition to the image in the following line.

The first line of the poem translates as “Like a firefly in the middle of a field”. This is a simile that is clear in English. It would be difficult to improve the line.

Hecho solo de ruidos reads “made only of noises”. It is Standard English, but there is a question of meaning. At first, I try “filled with noises” but then revert to the literal “made only of noises”. After reading it aloud several times, I decide that I prefer “filled with noises”.

Con el brillo, latente, luz adentro. Literally “with the bright, latent, light inside”. I notice the repetition of the t sound at the end of bright, latent, light. I think that there are too many repetitions for the line. There are few synonyms for “light”, so I consider “bright” and “latent”. My dictionary offers only one definition for latente and that is “latent”. My only option is to find a synonym for brillo: shine, sparkle, brightness, brilliance. I decide on “Its shining, latent light” which also maintains the alliteration of latente and luz in the original. The softer sounds of “within” appealed to me more than “inside”.

When I see the word cascabel I think of a popular Christmas song named ‘Cascabel’ or ‘Jingle Bells’. But that would take our poem about fireflies in a different direction. Fortunately, cascabel also means a small or tiny bell. Diminuto and inaudito are easy cognates (obvious relatives) of our English “diminutive” and “inaudible”. Part of the effectiveness of the Spanish is the repeated ending sounds –uto and –ito, but we have no such luck in English. Further, the words sound a bit clinical to my ears. If I want to use “tiny” to describe the bell, I can’t use it again for “diminutive”. “Small and silent” have a nice alliteration that makes up for the missing ending sounds in Spanish. But I still hear Christmas songs with “silent” and finally decided on “soundless” which maintains the alliteration and is a bit unexpected.

Me apago hacia mí mismo para que tú te pierdas, me apago poses several challenges for the translator. Me apago appears twice. Apagarse, the infinitive of me apago, generally means “to go out” as a candle might go out. It’s further complicated by the phrase hacía mi mismo, “toward myself”. And continues “so that you get lost” and repeats “I go out”. My best attempt at the line results in “I extinguish myself so that you may lose yourself. I fade away.” I use “extinguish” and “fade away”, verbs more appropriate to what fireflies might do. Perderse, the infinitive of te pierdas, “to get lost”, has many negative connotations but to get lost in a good book or in a work of art or music is a positive thing. To “lose yourself” in the summer night sky seems like a better option than “get lost”. However, the underlying meaning here suggests a physical turning inward on oneself and a movement toward disappearance. None of that is suggested in my version. To convey this meaning, I am forced to stray from the literal sentence and find a more poetic solution. After attempts over several days, I settle on “I fade away so that you may lose yourself. I fold myself into my wings.” I think this keeps us thinking about fireflies, but also suggests the introspection and disappearance that was suggested in the original.

Published May, 2015

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