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Translation of Jaime Gil de Biedma's
"El juego de hacer versos"

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Yolanda Morata

El juego de hacer versos
- que no es un juego
- es algo
parecido en principio
al placer solitario.

Con la primera muda,
en los años nostálgicos
de nuestra adolescencia,
a escribir empezamos.

Y son nuestros poemas
del todo imaginarios
- demasiado inexpertos
ni siquiera plagiamos-

porque la Poesía
es un ángel abstracto
y, como todos ellos,
dispuesto a halagarnos.

El arte es otra cosa
distinta. El resultado
de mucha vocación
y un poco de trabajo.

Aprender a pensar
en reglones contados
- y no en los sentimientos
con los que nos exaltábamos-,

tratar con el idioma
como si fuera mágico
es un buen ejercicio
que llega a emborracharnos.

Luego está el instrumento
en su punto afinado:
la mejor poesía
es el Verbo hecho tango.

Y los poemas son
un modo que adoptamos
para que nos entiendan
y que nos entendamos.

Lo que importa explicar
es la vida, y los rasgos
de sus filantropía,
las noches de sus sábados.

La manera que tiene
sobre todo en verano
de ser un paraíso.
Aunque, de cuando en cuando,

si algunas de esas noches
que las carga el diablo
uno piensa en la historia
de estos últimos años,

si piensa en esta vida
que nos hace pedazos
de madera podrida,
perdida en un naufragio,

la conciencia le pesa
- por estar intentando persuadirse en secreto
de que aún es honrado.

El juego de hacer versos,
que no es un juego, es algo
que acaba pareciéndose
al vicio solitario




The line-writing game
- which is not a game
- is something
similar at first
to solitary pleasure.

With the first change,
In the nostalgic years
Of our adolescence,
We begin to write.

And our poems are
Entirely imaginary
-So inexpert
We don’t even plagiarize others-

Because Poetry
Is an abstract angel
And, like all of them,
Ready to flatter us.

Art is a different
Thing. The result
Of much calling
And some work.

Learning to think
In metrical lines
- and not in the feelings
that exalted us-,

Dealing with language
As if it were something magic
Is a good exercise,
That leads us to intoxication.

Then there is the instrument
In its tuned pitch:
The best poetry
Is when the Word becomes a tango.

And poems are
A mode that we adopt
To be understood
And to understand ourselves

What is essential to explain
Is life, the features
Of its philanthropy,
Its Saturday nights.

The way in which,
Especially in summer,
It is a paradise.
Even if, from time to time,

Some of those nights when
unexpected trouble arises from hell
One thinks of the history
Of these past years,

If one thinks of this life
That breaks us apart
Into rotten chunks
gone astray in a shipwreck,

conscience gets heavy
- because of trying to persuade himself secretly
about his honesty.

The line-writing game
- which is not a game- is something
that ends up being similar
to solitary vice.

Commentary to the Translation

"The line-writing game" (my translation from "El juego de hacer versos") is one the most cited poems by the Catalan poet Jaime Gil de Biedma. Its rich structure presents the reader with a thoughtful meta-discourse on the act of writing. However, Gil de Biedma refuses to wrap up this exercise in elaborate words. His elucidation relies in the insertion of colloquialisms and familiar language to articulate his vision of poetry and to dialogue with the reader. This loquacious literary style reflects on the theme of disintegration from two distinct angles: the dissolution that time produces and the fragmentation of the poet’s persona as a recurrent strategy in his poems.

Dionisio Cañas (1995) points out that, for Gil de Biedma, the profession of writing is relegated to the status of "game". From the very title of the poem, the Catalan poet describes this world of the solitary poet that starts as "solitary pleasure" but ends up as "solitary vice". The first stanza of the poem marks its entire structure, not only by dividing it into fifteen stanzas made of quartets, but also closing its final stanza with a nostalgic replica of the opening lines. It is, in fact, a game that requires time: the fragmentary moments of the poet’s life are the very technique of composition.

Renowned critics such as Alvar, Mainer and Navarro have considered this manipulation of time and age as the basis for the inclusion of Gil de Biedma in the so-called "generation of experience" (Alvar). During our adolescence, the poet writes, "our poems are / entirely imaginary / -so inexpert / we don’t even plagiarize others-" This idea of game is, in fact, an analogy to the way in which our lives develop, "with the first change" to "its Saturday nights". According to this, the reasons for choosing "The line-writing game" as the translation of "El juego de hacer versos", rather than "The poem-writing game" as James Nolan proposes (1993), has to do with my reading of the poem as a (dis)integration of the individual through the lines or versos of his poetry.

The Spanish word "verso" presents the translator with different possibilities. By extension of the word, the expression "hacer versos" (literally, making lines) means writing poetry. However, a "verso" (from the Latin versus) is, in its strict sense, a line that, depending on its number of stressed and unstressed feet, achieves a specific type of cadence. The poet makes a direct reference to the relevance of this calculated technique when writing lines:

Aprender a pensar
En reglones contados
- y no en los sentimientos
con los que nos exaltábamos-,
  Learning to think
In metrical lines
-and not in the feelings
that exalted us-,

It is also worth noting that both Spanish words "renglon" and "verso" translate into English as "line". Once the correspondence of this relation has been established, we may ask ourselves about the counterpart of all this calculation. Those feelings carrying the poet away, intoxicating him, relate, on the other hand, to an everyday life that the poet wishes to recreate through his poetic persona. Gil de Biedma explains the transition that occurs in the act of creation, as it happens in the conception of "Art", which he describes as "the result / of much calling / and some work". So, is blank verse a void in between this control exerted by art and the intoxication that writing lines naturally produces? The answer surely lies on the following lines:

Y los poemas son
un modo que adoptamos
para que nos entiendan
y que nos entendamos.

And poems are
A mode that we adopt
To be understood
And to understand ourselve

Gil de Biedma’s compositions are in most part blank verse, a fact that reinforces the choice of "line-writing" as a translation of the original title. His poems frequently read as letters in which their lines tell a story, very often incorporating ordinary details such as the date, weather forecast and the writer’s state of mind at that precise moment. Illustrations of this personal style are particularly present in the beginnings of the poems in Moralidades. "En el Nombre de Hoy" ("In the Name of Today", all the poems are my own translation) starts:

In the name of today, April
Twenty-six, nineteen
Fifty-nine, a Sunday
Of sun and clouds, at three
-According to the weather forecast-

"Noche Triste de Octubre, 1959" ("Sad Night of October, 1959") also follows this pattern: "Definitely / it seems to be confirmed that this winter / coming soon, will be hard"; and "Un Día de Difuntos" ("November 2", in Spain a national holiday in memory of the dead) opens the stanza by reciting: "Now that nine months have passed / and that winter is behind / in these last July afternoons". This intelligent articulation of ordinary moments, reflecting at the same time on the violence of time, has made Gil de Biedma to be recognized as one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century.

In his introduction to El diablo mundo. El Estudiante de Salamanca, Gil de Biedma admired Espronceda for being the first Spanish modern poet who managed to conjugate irony and erudition through colloquialism. This allowed the poet a splitting of personality that Gil de Biedma equally succeeded in portraying in his Moralidades, and most originally in "The line-writing game".

Works Cited

Alvar et al. Breve Historia de la Literatura Española. Madrid: Alianza, 1997.

Gil de Biedma, Jaime. Las personas del verbo. Barcelona: Lumen, 1998.

Cañas, D. (ed.) Volver. Madrid: Cátedra, 1995.

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