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Translating César Vallejo’s poem ‘España, aparta de mí este cáliz’

Written by Cynthia Stephens |
Poet – César Vallejo
Poet – César Vallejo

Cynthia Stephens translates this poem ‘España, aparta de mí este cáliz’. This is a literary translation, which attempts to create a new poem while remaining faithful to the original. Some of the difficulties which arise in such a translation are discussed at the end.

Original Poem:

España, aparta de mí este cáliz 

Niños del mundo,
si cae España – digo, es un decir –
si cae
del cielo abajo su antebrazo que asen,
en cabestro, dos láminas terrestres;
niños, ¡qué edad la de las sienes cóncavas!
¡qué temprano en el sol lo que os decía!
¡qué pronto en vuestro pecho el ruido anciano!
¡qué viejo vuestro 2 en el cuaderno!

¡Niños del mundo, está
la madre España con su vientre a cuestas;
está nuestra maestra con sus férulas,
está madre y maestra,
cruz y madera, porque os dio la altura,
vértigo y división y suma, niños;
está con ella, padres procesales!

Si cae – digo, es un decir – se cae
España, de la tierra para abajo,
niños, ¡cómo vais a cesar de crecer!
¡cómo va a castigar el año al mes!
¡cómo van a quedarse en diez los dientes,
en palote el diptongo, la medalla en llanto!
¡Como va el corderillo a continuar
atado por la pata al gran tintero!
¡Cómo vais a bajar las gradas del alfabeto
hasta la letra en que nació la pena!

hijos de los guerreros, entre tanto,
bajad la voz, que España está ahora mismo repartiendo
la energía entre el reino animal,
las florecillas, las cometas y los hombres.
¡Bajad la voz, que está
con su rigor, que es grande, sin saber
qué hacer, y está en su mano
la calavera hablando y habla y habla,
la calavera, aquélla de la trenza,
la calavera, aquélla de la vida!

¡Bajad la voz, os digo;
bajad la voz, el canto de las sílabas, el llanto
de la materia y el rumor menor de las pirámides, y aún
el de las sienes que andan con dos piedras!
¡Bajad el aliento, y si
el antebrazo baja,
si las férules suenan, si es la noche,
si el cielo cabe en dos limbos terrestres,
si hay ruido en el sonido de las puertas,
si tardo,
si no veis a nadie, si os asustan
los lápices sin punta, si la madre
España cae – digo, es un decir –
salid, niños del mundo; id a buscarla! ...

Poet - César Vallejo  


“Mother Spain, spare me the cup”

Children of the World,
if Spain falls,
if she falls from the sky,
her arm in a sling,
if she falls downwards,
grabbed from each side
by tectonic plates
grappling in close combat -
clashing like two fighting forces.
If she falls...

“Oh my Father, if it be possible,
let this cup pass from me.”

How she has aged, with concave temples!
How old her hollow temporal bones!
How early her words in the morning sun!
How soon in your breast the ancient noise!
How old your number two, in a school note-book!

Children of the World.
Mother Spain is here,
weighed down by her womb.
Our first teacher
with her rules and rulers,
cane and splints.
Both wood and the Cross,
our mother and teacher.
She made you dizzy, with heights,
gave you division, addition, 
but also dignity, children.
By her side, disputing parents, 
arguing fathers!

If she falls,
if Spain falls, from the earth downwards,
will you give up growing,
will the year punish the month,
will you only get ten teeth,
will your diphthong letters be downstrokes only,
your medallions weep tears of the Virgin!

Will the little lamb of God still walk
if tied by its foot to the great ink pot!
How will you climb down the alphabet steps
to the letter where sorrow and shame was born!

So children,
sons and daughters of warriors,
lower your voices. Hush!
Because Spain is now sharing energy 
amongst the kingdom of the animals,
the flowers, the comets, and mankind itself.

Lower your voices, 
she is great, she has rigour,
without knowing what to do.
And in her hand she holds
a talking skull, which talks and keeps on talking.
The one with its hair tied back in a plait.
The living skull, the one with life,
not “rigor mortis”.

Lower your voices, I tell you.
Lower your voices,
the song of the syllables,
the sound of matter weeping,
the soft murmuring from pyramids,
or ruined temples, just a couple of stones!

Lower your breath.
If her forearm comes down fast,
and her rulers sound out,
if it’s night-time,
and the sky fits between two terrestrial limbos,
if there’s a noise in the sound of the gates,
if I am late,
and you don’t see anyone,
if the pencils without tips scare you,
if Mother Spain falls – 
it’s just an expression –
get on out there,
go and look for her,
Children of the World.

Translation by Cynthia Lucy Stephens  
Copyright © 2022


España, aparta de mí este cáliz 

This moving poem by the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo was inspired by the Spanish Civil War, while the outcome was still uncertain. It is addressed to the children of the world, who are being given advice as to what to do if Spain should fall – a situation which is seen as just a possibility. The original Spanish poem was published in 1939 as part of a collection of the same name.

Spain is portrayed as both a mother and a teacher, but she also represents the earth.  As in so many of Vallejo’s poems, many strands of meaning are interwoven, and it can be difficult for the translator to capture them all. I have tried to remain true to the original Spanish poem, but have also allowed myself a certain degree of creativity in the translation so as to try to form an autonomous poem in English. 

I have translated the title as “Mother Spain, spare me the cup”, to highlight the maternal aspect of Spain in this poem, and to refer implicitly to the Biblical passage about Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, which I quote explicitly from the King James Version after the first translated stanza (Matthew, 26:39). 

Spain is represented as possibly falling from the sky to the earth. She is wounded with her arm in a sling, and the powerful forces of two opposing tectonic plates seize her. I referred to “tectonic plates” rather than for instance “terrestrial plates”, as their movement is often spoken about as symbolic of dramatic changes in human affairs.  Vallejo may not have known about the theory of “Plate Tectonics” (although he may have been aware of the 1915 theory of “Continental Drift”) so possibly I should not have used this concept, but I think for a modern audience this communicates well.  Armies are not made explicit in the original Spanish poem, but the poem as a whole is about war, so I imagine the tectonic plates “clashing like two fighting forces”. The number two recurs several times within the poem, as there are always two sides in this conflict, and in Spanish society, even within the school where the parents argue.

Spain is represented as an old woman, with “hollow temporal bones”.  However, the word “sien” refers to the temple or anatomical temporal bones, but later in the poem the same word “sienes” is used within the context of pyramids and stones, so I think there may be some sort of pun here, where the temple links the face of the woman with the face of the earth.

The children in this poem are at school learning to form their letters, and the teacher is strict with her rules and her rulers, which she can wield with her strict love, which includes creating splints for the wounded from her canes, even although her own arm may still be in a sling. The word “férulas” could be translated in many possible ways: birch, cane, rod, splint (Med.), rule, dominion, so I chose a selection from these. Vallejo often draws on more than one meaning of a word, which gives some of the ambiguity and multiple meanings to his poems. Some translators favour the word “ferules”, but I did not know that word so I decided not to use it. 

Mother Spain is both mother and teacher, and she is also rather Christ-like, using her wood for holy purposes, and adding dignity to the gifts she bestows on the suffering children. I translated “cruz y madera” as “wood and the Cross” (with a capital C), as I wanted to highlight the symbolic suffering of Mother Spain, as the chalice of suffering referenced in the title refers to Christ’s willingness to bear his suffering on the Cross. 

The teacher also has to deal with disputing parents in this divided society. The expression “padres procesales” has many possible meanings, and translators have interpreted these two words in many different ways, using words such as legal, litigant, and accuse.  I decided to focus on the situation within the classroom, where as well as teaching handwriting and arithmetic, the teacher might have to deal with disputing parents and arguing fathers, who moreover might be on different sides in the brutal civil war which split Spain in two and orphaned so many children.

Spain shares her energy amongst the animal kingdom and other living creatures. She is described as having “rigor”, and in her hand she holds a talking skull.  I decided to translate “rigor” as “rigour”, rather than for instance “toughness”, as I thought there might be some word-play contrasting her energy and rigour with “rigor-mortis”, the stiffening of the body after death, which I then added at the end of the stanza. This might be seen as a creative embellishment on my part, as there is no mention of “rigor-mortis” in the Spanish original, but I think it is justified because of the unusual nature of the content of this stanza, which includes a talking skull with its hair tied back in a plait. 

In the final stanza we are back with Spain the teacher banging her rulers on the desk. Everything is still uncertain, but the sky may still hang in limbo, between two terrestrial limbs. Ambiguity is present in the words, as so often with Vallejo, as the word “limbo” has religious, botanical and astronomical meanings, and the word “limb” also has multiple meanings, including the branch of a cross. But one thing is clear at the end of this poem: if the orphaned children are afraid of noises in the night and no-one comes, if Spain falls, the children of the world should go out and look for her. 

This classic poem about the Spanish Civil War holds a wider relevance for all times of terrible conflict. It is hard to translate such a serious and complex poem, and I am well aware that other versions may express meanings that have escaped me. The delicate task of trying to preserve the original author’s concepts while creating a new poem is also a responsibility which I do not take lightly.

Cynthia Stephens is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (MCIL), the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland (AHGBI), and the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA). She studied English and Spanish at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, graduating in 1978, and that is where she discovered the poetry of the great Peruvian poet César Vallejo.