Ulalume Gonzàlez de Leòn in Translation

March 19, 2020

“Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”

Italo Calvino

The translation of poetry from one language to another is a daunting, some would say impossible, task. Some words in one language may not exist in another. How is meaning protected in such cases? Rhythm is crucial in many works of poetry — a changed rhythm can destroy intention. Given these challenges, among others, who in their right mind would set themselves to the hard work of translation? Fortunately for us, three individuals — Terry Ehret, John Johnson and Nancy J. Morales — have done just that and, as a result, introduce to us Plagios/Plagiarisms — Volume One (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2020), poems by Ulalume Gonzàlez de Leòn. Graced with an introduction by the great Octavio Paz (written in 1978), the collection wisely presents de Leòn’s poetry bilingually. Personally, I won’t buy a book of translated Spanish poems unless I can read, out loud, the original work first. In this way I can fully appreciate the sounds as they were meant to be heard. How more intimate with a poem can we be than when it is rolling around in our mouths?

Ulalume Gonzàlez de Leòn was born in 1928 in Uruguay; the daughter of two poets, Roberto Ibañez and Sarah de Ibañez. She studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Mexico. While living in Mexico in 1948, she became a naturalized Mexican citizen. She published essays, stories, poems, and worked with Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz as an editor of two literary journals, Plural and Vuelta. She also translated the work of H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Lewis Carroll and e.e. cummings.

In the 1970s in Latin America, Gonzàlez de Leòn was part of a generation of women writers challenging the traditional identities of women, marriage, and relationships. Her poetry earned earned her many awards, including the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize, the Flower of Laura Poetry Prize, and the Alfonso X. Prize. She died in 2009 of respiratory failure and complications of Alzheimer’s.

Why is the book titled Plagios/Plagiarisms? de Leòn says “Everything is creation: I choose to say even what has already been said, which is different now, transformed by that accumulation of convergent data at whose point of intersection I find myself. And everything is plagiarism. Everything has already been said.”

The collection, the first of three bilingual volumes, presents several short collections of her poems produced from 1968 to 1971, exploring the ephemeral nature of identity and its dependence on the ever-shifting ground of language and memory.

Here now, are a few poems from Plagios/Plagiarisms, presented first in Spanish and then in English. I invite your comments.


Carta de Una Suicida

Toda lo perdido

nuestro para siempre

a prueba de vida,

a prueba de muerte.


Hoy soñe que ayer

era diferente

y me despertè

para no perderte.


Hoy soñe que era

lo mismo mañana:

por tenerte siempre

me morì en la cama.



Suicide Note

All that’s lost

is ours forever,




Today I dreamed that yesterday

was different

and I woke up

so I wouldn’t lose you.


Today I dreamed it was

the same tomorrow:

to keep you always,

I died in bed.


Tiempo Largo


sin lunes a la vista


largo tiempo

Y el terror de tener que gastarlo

sin prisa que comerlo

sin hambre: terror de estar en blanco

en Babia prisionera

de un vuelo de mosca o de un cardillo

porque no tengo tiemp para inventar el mundo.


Slow Time

Like a Sunday

with no Monday in sight


slow time.


And the terror of having to spend it

without hurry to eat it

without hunger: the terror of drawing a blank

while daydreaming prisoner of the flight

of a fly or thistledown

because I don’t have time to invent the world.


Acto Amoroso

En las caricias lentas

a altas velocidades me inventas y te invento

Y en seguida perdemos nuestros cuerpos

con todo y fantasma


Love Scene

In slow caresses

at lightning speed you create me and I create you

And all at once we lose our bodies

ghost and all




Nancy J. Morales, a first-generation American of Puerto Rican parents, earned her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers College, a master’s in teaching English as a Second Language from Adelphi University, and a doctorate in education from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. She has taught at Dominican University College of Marin, Sonoma State University, and other schools. Currently she is a board member for the Northern California Chapter of the Fulbright Alumni Association and teaches Spanish to private clients.

John Johnson’s poetry has appeared in many print and online journals, including Boxcar; Poetry Review; Clade Sog; Triggerfish Critical Review; and Web Connections. He is a long-time student of the Spanish language and has studied letter-press printing with Iota Press of Sebastopol, producing chapbooks and bilingual broadsides.

Terry Ehret, one of the founders of Sixteen Rivers Press, has published four collections of poetry, most recently Night Sky Journey from Kelly’s Cove Press. Her literary awards include the National Poetry Series, the California Book Award, the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, a nomination for the Northern California Book Reviewer’s Award, and five Pushcart Prize nominations. From 2004 — 2006, she served as the poet laureate of Sonoma County where she lives and teaches writing.

Published by Katherine Hastings

Katherine Hastings is the author of three collections from Spuyten Duyvil Press (NYC): Shakespeare & Stein Walk Into a Bar (2016); Nighthawks (2014); and Cloud Fire (2012), as well as several chapbooks. Poet laureate emerita of Sonoma County, CA, Hastings edited Know Me Here — An Anthology of Poetry by Women; Digging Our Poetic Roots — Poems from Sonoma County; and What Redwoods Know — Poems from California State Parks, published as a benefit for the California State Parks Foundation when 70 parks were faced with permanent closure. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Book of Forms — A Handbook of Poetics (University Press of New England, Lewis Putnam Turco, editor); Verde Que Te Quiero Verde — Poems After Federico Garcia Lorca (Open Country Press, Natalie Peeterse, Editor); Changing Harm to Harmony — Bullies & Bystanders Project (Marin Poetry Center, Joseph Zaccardi, editor); Beatitude — Golden Anniversary (Latif Harris and Neeli Cherkovski, editors), among others. She hosted WordTemple on NPR affiliate KRCB FM from 2017 — 2017 and founded the WordTemple Poetry Series in Sonoma County (2006 — 2017) where she also taught craft-focused poetry workshops. Following the October 2017 wildfires, Hastings moved with her partner to Western New York in 2018. "Shakespeare & Stein Walk in to Bar is animated by the two most rewarding and replenishing of poetic forces: dexterous formal diversity and a fierce, unflinching searching..." — Malachi Black "Rooted in what Hastings calls the "momentary forever," these marvelous poems, so rich with detail and so full of duende, explore the paradoxes of transience. Yes, the poet reminds us: 'The alarm is set and ticking' for each least thing in the living world..." — Susan Kelly-DeWitt On Cloud Fire: "Lovely...it's your veiled history." — Lawrence Ferlinghetti "For Katherine Hastings, 'The mirror is a lake of longing'. Her poems are told us by 'a woman with a moon in her chest;' their surprising images embrace close observation, deeply dramatized love and losses, and have the power of crossing boundaries of spirit to reveal truths otherwise unseen." — Daniel Hoffman, US Poet Laureate, 1973 — 1974

2 thoughts on “Ulalume Gonzàlez de Leòn in Translation

  1. These 3 translators have done an amazing job. Meticulous and thoughtful. We are in debt to them for bringing this poet to us!


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