Pablo Neruda, born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, was a Chilean poet and diplomat. Although he wrote and published poems and other forms throughout his life, he also served as a diplomat in several countries. Later in life, he was detained in Chile as a Communist.
While the terms “Communism” and “Socialism” have negative connotations for many people in the United States, Marxism, the basis for Communism, was meant to benefit everyone equally rather than providing for an elite few. Also, in Neruda’s day, during World War 2, many people felt that the choice was between Hitler and Stalin. Stalin was venerated as the man who had beaten Hitler. Later in life, as people saw the brutality of Stalin’s regime, Neruda later came to regret his support of the dictator although he remained a staunch supporter of Communism throughout his life.
Since 2018, Chilean feminists protested the renaming of the Santiago airport for Neruda and other honors because of a passage in his memoirs depicting a nonconsensual sexual encounter in 1925.
While some of Neruda’s later poetry articulates his political beliefs, this month’s spotlight is on Neruda’s most well known collection, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, which was published in 1923.
Understanding Poetry in Translation
Pablo Neruda wrote in Spanish, and poems shared in this series are from the W.S. Merwin translation published by Penguin Classics. Remember that translation can considerably change the original work. This point is especially valid in poetry, where the sounds and feelings of the the words mean nearly as much as the denotation, or “dictionary definition”, of the words.
The Penguin Classics edition of this collection features the English and Spanish versions of each poem on facing pages, which means that English readers can easily jump back and forth, and take in the sounds of the original Spanish words along with the meaning taken from the translation.
Spanish is relatively easy for English speakers to read. If you have any background in Spanish, or even Italian or French, you should try it. It’s a way to experience the beauty of the literature of another language even if your skills in that language are basic.
I enjoyed reading words and phrases in the Spanish to hear their sounds, even though much of the vocabulary is unfamiliar to me.
The layout of the poems makes this easy to do.
Luckily, Spanish and English have a lot of cognates, or words that sound the same and have the same meaning, which makes attempting to read Spanish fun even if you don’t officially know any Spanish. The similarity of the two languages also means that translation of feelings through words is fairly straightforward.
The Lois Level‘s Favorite Poems by Pablo Neruda (click to read poem):