The Tuesday Poem: José Martí

José Martí is one of Cuba’s greatest poets and, next to Che Guevara, their greatest revolutionary hero. He was born in Havana in 1853, was imprisoned by the Spanish as a political dissident at the age of 16 and transported to Spain. When he was released he published pamphlets on the injustices suffered by political prisoners, travelled to Mexico and began to campaign again for Cuban independence. He spent a great deal of time in Venezuela and New York, working with other dissidents, returning to Cuba with them to fight against the Spanish in the first War of Independence. He fought on horseback in a tuxedo, making him an easy target for the Spanish troops. He was killed in battle in 1895 aged 42. His most famous collection is the Versos Sencillos, published in 1891.

Versos Sencillos XLI

Cuando me vino el honor
De la tierra generosa,
No pensé en Blanca ni en Rosa
Ni en lo grande del favor

Pensé en el pobre artillero
Que está en la tumba, callado:
Pensé en mi padre, el soldado:
Pensé en mi padre, el obrero.

Cuando llegó la pomposa
Carta, en su noble cubierta,
Pensé en la tumba desierta,
No pensé en Blanca ni en Rosa.

When they brought me wine of honour
From the generous earth,
I didn’t think of Bianca or Rosa
Nor of the great honour.

I thought of the poor gunner
Who is silent, buried in the tomb:
I thought of my father the workman:
I thought of my father the soldier.

When the important, pompous
Letter arrives at your house
Think of the empty tomb,
Don’t think of Bianca or Rosa.

This is a loose translation - not literal. Marti is playing with Bianca and Rosa, the white and the red, which have political associations - the white for the flag of peace, the red for the blood of war. There’s also a play on red and white wine, though ‘vino’ means ‘I came’, it also means ‘wine’. Blanca and Rosa are also girls’ names, so there’s another association. Difficult to convey all this in English. The last stanza is literally ‘When the pompous card arrived at the noble roof, I thought of the deserted tomb, I didn’t think of Bianca or Rosa.’ But the intention seems to be to make the reader think, when the honour arrives for them, about the emptiness of earthly rewards, when the reality of the gaping tomb is waiting for them. So I’ve translated it as an admonishment. The other problem for a translator is the form - Marti used mainly four line stanzas with an ABBA rhyme scheme. This is almost impossible to replicate without losing the sense, so I’ve settled for rhyming (or half-rhyming) only the first and fourth lines.


  1. thanks for the post and the long comment...
    I particularly liked the literal translation of the card arriving...

  2. Wow, the poet was every bit as fascinating as his poem. Thanks for this and I especially love the way you kept "Bianca" and "Rosa" and all the associations with those, and of course the admonishment in English is great, it's got a little heft.

  3. Hi Kathleen - how wonderful to be fluent enough in another poet's language to be able to translate his work!
    The admonishment works well, I agree - the way it raps the reader on the knuckles, too!
    Thank you.

  4. Kathleen,

    An intriguing poem--it's always hard to know what to 'take' from a poem, but to me it also spoke of the futility of war, given the trappings of 'glory' with which we surround. But I may have been too much influenced by your bio of his life!

    On another note, I saw that you will be at the Christchurch Writers' Festival in September, as will I, so maybe we could catch up 'in person'--perhaps with a few other of the Tuesday poets?

  5. I'm impressed by the poem, the translation and the notes; I was wondering why you had reversed the "soldier" and "workman" lines, but that makes perfect sense with the rhyme scheme you have chosen.

    Thanks for posting this: not only for the qualities of the poem and the translation themselves, but because it has emboldened me to post one of my own translations of Esenin in a future Tuesday Poem slot, though I fear my ability as a translator is a poor shadow of yours!

  6. Thanks everyone for the feedback. I think translation is a good exercise for a poet, because it makes you think on a different trajectory. Look forward to seeing your translation Tim. Incidentally there aer some interesting discussions on translation on George Szirtes blog - he's a poet and translator from Hungarian to English and also tutors at the Univesity of East Anglia creative writing dept. if you google his name you'll find him. He was a speaker at the recent translators' international conference.
    Yes Helen, I'd love to get together when I come to Christchurch. I'm in Auckland from the 5th to the 12th August, Christchurch from the 12th to the 17th, Wellington from the 18th to the 24th and then Christchurch again until the 13th September. It would be great to meet other Tuesday Group members in person!

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  8. Oh there is something about poetry in Spanish ... thank you for both the original and your wonderful translation and your explanation. What riches. Would love to meet up in NZ. I wasn't planning to go to the Chch Festival but may think about it now. If not, and if you have a minute, call me in Wellington! My contact info is at the bottom of my emails. [Love to see your translation too Tim.]


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