‘A Masterly Demonstration of Public Health’ – César Vallejo

My memory of just how much took place in the Hotel Negresco in Niza is very clear. But, strange as it seems, to give an account of what happened there, is absolutely impossible for me. Countless times I’ve wanted – by force and pistol in hand – to tell this memory or just sketch it out, without being able to. No literary form has been of any use to me. No verbal accident. Not a single part of speech. Not one punctuation mark. Without doubt things exist that haven’t been said nor will ever  be said, or totally mute things exist, inexpressive and inexpressible. Things exist whose expression resides in all other things, throughout the universe, and they are indicated at other points by others, which have remained mute in themselves. Not even a name has been assigned to them and they are up for the ballot, as if they don’t exist locally.

I’ve traced, summoning up feeling, some drawings, by force and pistol in hand. I’ve hit stone in protecting myself from masts. I’ve touched a cord, putting the hypothesis before me of being able to translate the matter of Negresco, if not in words, then at least in plastic form, or by a musical means of inducement. My impotence has been no less anguishing. One moment, in the sound of my steps I seemed to perceive something that evoked that distant night in the Hotel Negresco. When I attempted to subject the flow of my steps to any preconceived plan of expression, its noise lost all suggestive allusion to the fugitive theme in memory.

I left Spanish behind. French, the language best known to me after Spanish, also failed to serve my purpose. However, when I heard a group of people all speaking at once, a similar thing happened  as when I heard the sound of my steps: I believe I felt in this language, spoken simultaneously  through various mouths, a certain expressive possibility of my case. I’ll say, right now, that the words “devenir”, “nuance”, “cauchemar” y “coucher” drew me, though only when they made up phrases and none of them on their own. How to reveal this by means of these four immense words in movement, extracting from them their contagious elocution, without removing them from the phrases surrounding them like arms? Besides, the other voices in which they were woven into must have had some semantic sympathy with my ideas and feelings toward the Negresco, given that this company lent value to the four words already indicated.

One day, a pretty and intelligent English girl was introduced to me on the street. The friend who introduced me to her, who I later told that the girl was pretty, said to me:

-Vous voulez coucher avec elle?
-Voulez-vous coucher avec Whinefree?

It was then that the French word “coucher” and the English “Whinefree” suddenly seemed to emit together, in being spoken by my friend, a chance lexicon of vague material, perhaps able to gift me my story of Niza. This explains why, some time after, I took refuge in English. I lit on, by chance, “Meanwhile” from Wells. On getting to, reunited and in order, the final paragraph of “Meanwhile”, I was overcome by a violent and sudden urge to write about what happened in the Negresco. With what words? Spanish, English, French?…The English words “red”, “staircase”, “kiss”, stood out in the final paragraph of Wells’ book and gave the impression that they meant, not the ideas of their author, but certain places, colours, incoherent acts, related to my memory of Niza. A shiver passed through my fingertips.

Might it be that the words necessary to express myself in this case, were dispersed through every language on earth, and not in any one of them?

Different circumstances, time and travel continued to affirm my belief in this. In the Turkish language I didn’t find a single word however hard I searched. What am I saying!? The voices that continued offering themselves to me in every language, didn’t arrive on demand and according to my will. They called on me spontaneously, by themselves, pestered me obsessively, in the same way the French and English voices, already mentioned, had in the past.

Here you have the vocabulary I managed to form from the words of various languages. The immigrant order in which they’re arranged in the words of each language, marks the chronology of their advent to my spirit. When the last Rumanian word “noap” was revealed, presenting itself simultaneously with its article, I had the impression of having said at last what I’d wanted to say for so long: what had happened in the Hotel Negresco.

The vocabulary is this:

From Lithuanian: futa – eimufaifesti – meilla – fautta – fuin – joisja – jaettä – jen – ubo – fannelle

From Russian: mekiy – chetb –  kotoplim – yaki – eto – caloboletba – aabhoetnmb – ohnsa – abymb – pasbhtih – ciola – ktectokaogp – oho – accohianih – pyeckih – teopethle – ckol – ryohtearmh

From German: den – fru -borte – sig – abringer – shildres – fusande – mansaelges – foraar – violinistinden – moerke – fierh – dadenspiele

From Polish: âr – sandbergdager – det – blivit – vederbörande – tva – stora – sig – ochandra

From English: red – staircase – kiss – and – familiar – life – officer – mother – broadcasting – shoulder – formerly – two – any – photograph – at – rise.

From French: devenir – nuance – cauchemar-coucher

From Italian: Coltello – angolo – io – piros – copo

From Rumanian: unchiu – noaptea

This capricious polyglot jargon gives the impression of roughly expressing my emotion toward the Maritime Alps. It only remains for me to put on record two circumstances, of two warring groups, two twists of bias. Firstly, none of the multiple voices which make it up can, on their own, translate my memory of Niza. Secondly, the expressive capacity of this language resides, above all, in the fact that it’s formed of three quarters Arian and the rest Semitic roots.

César Vallejo, 1928/29.
Translation from the Spanish by Michael Lee Rattigan 25/3/11

Michael Lee Rattigan is a poet and translator based in Surrey, England. His translations of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Complete Poems of Alberto Caeiro’ were published with Rufus Books in 2007, and are due out as a re-print on Open Season Press this year.


About thefiendjournal

I was born in Blackpool, England and am currently based in Lancashire. Poems have been published in magazines in the U.K, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A and South Korea. A pamphlet; "MMV", was published in 2008. Hundreds of poems have been written in draft form, and multiple books are being planned and edited for future release. As well as editing 'The Fiend' I translate, paint and dabble in photography (images of which have occasionally been used here).
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4 Responses to ‘A Masterly Demonstration of Public Health’ – César Vallejo

  1. lisathatcher says:

    beautiful commentary on one’s interactive experience of language. Here language is the vehicle for expression as it ought to be, not the box into which expression is crammed. I can’t imagine what it is to sit on the welling volcano of the thing that needs to be said, until one finds the absolute correct variations of language that give the experience its existence outside of the nether space that exists as experience becomes reality – in that it has been formed through language. thank you for bringing this to my attention and thank you Michael for translating so beautifully.

    • Michael Lee Rattigan says:

      Lisa, many thanks. Your appreciation makes me feel that Vallejo’s “welling volcano” of expressive anguish and the delineation of linguistic possibility have come across in the translation.

  2. Joseph Mulligan says:

    It’s great to see more & more translations of Vallejo popping. Felicidades to you, Mr. Rattigan, for offering another version of this interesting & problematic text. For example, near the end of the text, how are we to interpret “En segunda confianza…”!? Looking forward to seeing more of Vallejo at your hand.

  3. michael lee rattigan says:

    Thanks,Joseph. Estoy de acuerdo with the need to stay faithful to the complexity and sheer imaginative knottyness of Vallejo’s style. The chance to impress this through translation is something offered in your own renderings of his work. Like the sound of ‘double trust’for that phrase.

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