Prevalent translation practices have had a difficult time dealing with Vallejo's brand of modernism. At the same time, his poetry prods translators into taking into account these other aspects of the poetic art. Vallejo’s avant-garde poetry is heavily dependent on logopoeia, or to poetic effects that are purely verbal, rather than on phanopoeia, the evocation of visual images. These effects include punning and other forms of verbal or orthographical play, shifts in register, neologisms, scientific terms, the use of words for their etymology, the wrenching of words from their normal contexts of usage, linguistic patterning (for example, the accumulation of reflexive verbs in certain poems), the exploitation of enjambment for dramatic value, and the proliferation of rhetorical figures, including but not limited to antanaclasis, antithesis, metonymy, catachresis, and anaphora. Rhetoric itself might be a synonym for logopoeia, but I prefer the term logopoeia because it is more oriented toward a particularly modernist deployment of linguistic resources.
My partial list of logopoetic devices, most if not all of them already noted by previous scholars of Vallejo’s poetry, provides some idea of the difficulty of translating him. While Lorca and Neruda present multiple problems to the translator, Vallejo’s logopoeia tends to be even more resistant to the poetics of translation that was prevalent in the period in question. Melopoeia, needless to say, also suffers in translation, since many translators default to prosaic free verse or undistinguishedly loose blank verse, rather than following Pound in his careful attention to prosody. (Some merely put in line breaks that mirror those of the original, with virtually no attention to the line of verse itself as a prosodic unit.) Nevertheless, for the purposes of this paper I will assume that logopoeia is the area where Vallejo’s poetry loses the most in translation. Vallejo actively avoids or disrupts mellifluousness, and puts prosodic devices to the service of rhetoric.
I am not suggesting that Vallejo’s style is the sum of his rhetorical devices, but I am suggesting that a translator ought to reproduce features of his style that make it distinctively his. Appiah, in “Thick Translation,” formulates a fairy obvious maxim: that the translation of literature ought reproduce the most features of a literary work that which makes it valuable. He call for “a translation that aims to be of use in literary teaching; and here it seems to me that such ‘academic’ translation, translation that seeks with its annotations and its accompanying glosses to locate the text in a rich cultural and linguistic context, is eminently worth doing.” I would add that what makes a work valuable has to do with its fine-grained distinctiveness, what make it different from other works by other authors. Secondly, a translation should convey what is valuable about the work not only through its explanatory apparatus but through the quality of the translation itself.
Trilce is strongly logopoetic, of course, but my main examples will be drawn from the sonnet “Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca,” from Poemas humanos, a particularly dense compendium of logopoetic devices:
Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París —y no me corro—
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.
Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.
César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro
también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos...