Underneath all of this there’s a song

Three poems by Luis Chaves, translated and introduced by Julia Guez and Samantha Zighelboim

Every Sunday for the last twenty-four months, our task as translators has been to keep up with the hyper-caffeinated imagination of Costa Rican poet Luis Chaves, rendering each image in his remarkable new collection of poetry in a way that orients the reader and provides a moment’s stasis and clarity before “the waves come and the waves erase it.”

In Equestrian Monuments, dialogue from The Exorcist co-exists with lines from the Latin Kyrie, Rex. The stately figure of a former president, Leon Cortés, is counterbalanced by a cast of mock-heroic or non-normative foils: a transvestite, a cripple, a singleton, homunculus, thief and gardener.  Sweeping statements about entire generations, continents and genres find a basis in the most intimate details of home-life.  The intersections are uncanny, sometimes hilarious, often sad and unsettling.

In the original, Chaves contains complex thoughts and feelings with the simplest diction.

La maleza crece
cuando dejamos de mirar.
Los años se acumulan
mientras nos ocupamos de la maleza.
Aprender esto nos tomó
más tiempo del que hubiéramos querido.

Economy of syntax and style is something we’ve worked hard to maintain, while keeping with the ease, colloquialism and play of the Spanish. At the same time, we’ve liberally modulated some of the music in the translation to mirror what is happening in the shape-shifting original.  That’s often a question of controlling the cadence of a line by way of enjambment or punctuation.

The weeds grow
when we’re not watching them.
Years accumulate
while we worry about the weeds.
Learning this took
longer than we would have liked. 


Luis Chavez

Monumentos Ecuestres was a gift, given to Guez the first time she and Chaves met for Imperial and espresso at the Hotel Costa Rica, sitting on the patio across from the Teatro Nacional, before making their way to the Librería Duluoz nearby.  She was in the country on a year-long grant from The Fulbright Commission. This allowed her to spend half of her time in Vargas Arraya—where she and her fiancée rented a small white-walled room in a guest house across from a grocery called Perimercado (which, for years after the name had officially changed, everyone still called Super Cindy).  So close to the Universidad de Costa Rica in San Pedro, she wasn’t far from some of the presses—Lanzallamas, Espiral and Germinal—whose work she was there, in part, to research.

After taking in as many readings, salons and festivals in and around the capital as she could, Guez spent the rest of her time living in the small town of Delicias where, half-way up a massive hill, she rented the second story of a house overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya.  It was there, on the balcony, that she made the first of three attempts to translate Equestrian Monuments on her own.

She would tinker with individual words and phrases for days.  Once satisfied with the literal rendering of a line, weeks and months were then spent bending the overall tone of the translation closer to the original’s.

The project of successfully re-creating the experience of reading Luis Chaves really began to come together when, over drinks at Mercadito in New York City’s East Village, Guez invited Zighelboim into the process of co-translating the collection.

Guez-Roeder-2013 (Color) - Smiling

Julia Guez

Our paths crossed for the first time at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. A handful of conversations about poetry we exchanged in 2010 set Guez up to introduce Zighelboim’s work at the annual Thesis Reading that spring.  It also gave us a window into one another’s sensibility, what we were reading, writing and translating at the time, and the extent to which we could trust and admire one another’s eye and ear.  Most importantly, that small-scale collaboration hinted at the kind of ambition, humor, integrity, persistence and care that would allow us to do some extraordinary work together on a much larger-scale.

Ever since that drink at Mercadito, we have been meeting at one of our two apartments or a café close by almost every week.  Beginning with the literal translation, we engaged in a five-part process with each piece.

In the first phase, our aim was simply to be generative.  We wanted to come up with as many counterfactuals as we could.  All of the options we could create for a given word or phrase were lined up, one after another, separated only by a back-slash.  This was our divergent phase, and it was the most playful one.

In our second phase, we wanted to narrow the options down.  The trimming would literally halve the size of our drafts.  This was our convergent phase, and, of them all, it was the most straightforward.

Then, the goal was to narrow the field of our focus even further (and, at this point, we weren’t tinkering with any of the options we had come up with before). If something didn’t work—even if it was completely accurate, and even if we couldn’t put our finger on why it didn’t attain what Kierkegaard (by way of Walter Lowrie’s translation) called a “primitive lyrical validity” in English—it was highlighted and removed from the list we had bracketed-out before.


Samantha Zighelboim

In the fourth phase of our work, the aim was to create enough distance between ourselves and the text, enough time and space to be able to come back and see everything with new eyes. Sometimes a few minutes—to prepare another gourd of mate or smoke a cigarette outside—would be sufficient.  Then we could come back to a passage we had been struggling through, or toggle over to another piece in the collection.  Other days, we would take several hours off—to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner, eat, drink then begin again.  Several weeks and months would pass between drafts of the trickiest poems in the collection.

In the final phase of our work together, our aim was to dilate moments in the text that simply didn’t sound right to us.  Unsatisfied with the options we had generated so far, we gave ourselves greater permission vis a vis inserting or eliding something in the English to protect the flow of a line (without altering its meaning and, likely, only adding to its plausibility).

“The waves come and the waves erase it” is one example.  We repeated the word, “waves,” to maintain the lilt of the phrase, (“y las olas vienen y la borran”), and to convey the sense of ritual and repetition that is at the heart of this particular section of the poem. At this phase of the process, raindrops were finally “veining” the window.  The crickets “came on,” after “the fog cleared.”  And “the sky’s own white stone path” was chosen in lieu of cloud-like rolling stones (which, every way we attempted to render up to this point, was clichéd, distracting and allusive in the English in a way the Spanish didn’t mean to be).  By the end of this phase, we had worked through the most important decision-points in the text.  Everything we had pressure-tested, memorizing, reciting and tinkering with for months, still pleased us; it still worked, even though it didn’t always feel perfect.

In the introduction to Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis explains that she didn’t read any other translations until after she finished a first draft of her own.  “In the second draft, I had ten others on hand, eventually an eleventh, the most recent.  I made extensive comparisons in difficult passages, curious to learn what ingenious solutions might have been found to the various cruxes.”

Our admiration for one another as writers and as people, the trust we have for one another as co-translators and friends, our commitment to question every choice we have made, to consider and reconsider it almost compulsively, has allowed us to do what Davis was doing (in virtual conversation with other translators) in real-time.  And it has helped us land on solutions to the various “cruxes” we’ve encountered in the course of co-translating Equestrian Monuments that neither one of us could have come up with on our own.

In our own translations then “provincia” has become “suburb”, and “Acetaminofén” is “Tylenol.”  “La Virgen Criolla,” however, is still “La Virgen Criolla.”  There are slippery, strange or foreign references in the original, and we attempt to make them feel the same way in our translation.  That is part of a mystery we don’t, in any way, intend to clarify or solve for in this text: a necessary strangeness.

—Julia Elizabeth Guez & Samantha Zighelboim


by Luis Chaves



Si vieras.

Dos semanas de temporal

borraron la huella ocre

de las macetas.


Revuelta en la lavadora,

ropa blanca y de color.


Una casa reducida a cajas de cartón

la tarde que gira sobre el eje de la lluvia.

El mentolado falso

de un Derby suave + una Halls.


Ese color de la plasticina

cuando se mezclan todas las barras.




El mundo da tantas vueltas

que parece no moverse.

Pensé decirlo

pero preferí, de copiloto,

verte manejar en círculos

por el estacionamiento.




Las hormigas vinieron

en las cajas de la mudanza.

El apartamento nuevo

empieza a parecer una casa. 

De otro, pero una casa.




En el departamento nuevo,

el albañil pica la pared buscando

dónde está la fuga de agua.


No es desorden lo que se ve,

es un orden disparejo.



Bolsas plásticas,

cartones con cursiva en pilot

Cocina / libros / baño

Si otro, en este momento, entrara,

no sabría si alguien llega o se va.




Envuelto en la nicotina

de la inmovilidad,

se ablanda el cerebro

y se endurece el corazón.


Sin camisa me veo más viejo,

pensé decirlo pero preferí

recordar la vez que fui tu copiloto

y manejabas en círculos

por el estacionamiento.




Francisca, silenciosa,

se mueve por cada ambiente.

Para allá con la escoba,

para acá con el balde.

Dentro de esa boca,

siempre cerrada,

brilla un diente de oro.




Un pausa que amenaza

con convertirse en otra cosa.


La ropa sin tender,

el gusto del falso mentol,

el espacio libre

donde finalmente parqueaste.




Rodeando latas de cerveza,

los amigos discutían

cuánto dura la juventud.

Pensaste en voz alta

“qué me importa, si nunca fui joven”.


Luego se agitó el borrador de la niebla.

Luego irrumpieron los grillos.




Aquí tendría que ir una frase decisiva

pero se destiñe la camiseta

de la tarde que hablábamos

mientras crecía el pasto

y sin darte cuenta

usabas mis muletillas

cada seis palabras.


Lo que no se va a secar,

lo que brilla sin elección,

un período equivocado para la mudanza,

el cerebro: masa de plasticina,

el corazón: dos puertas de carro

que sólo saben cerrarse.




Debajo de esto hay una canción,

aunque no se escucha ni se ve.


Las promesas de la casa nueva

quedaron en la casa vieja.


Del temporal va quedando ese color

de todas las barras de plasticina

que se mezclan se mezclan,

el martilleo que silencia

la tenacidad de una fuga, 

esas gotas de lluvia

como las venas de la ventana.

Y el canto de los grillos

crece como otra niebla.


Debajo de esto hay algo mejor.



by Luis Chaves



Picture this:


How two weeks of rain

have washed away all the flower pots’

ochre rings.


The whites and darks mix

in the same washing machine.


A house reduced to cardboard boxes.

The afternoon spinning on the rain’s axis.

The false menthol

of a Derby Light + a Halls.


The color plasticine bars make

when they’ve been kneaded together.




The world is turning so fast

it appears to be standing still.

I thought about saying so

but, as your copilot, preferred

to watch you circle

the parking lot.




Ants came in

the moving boxes.

The new apartment

begins to feel more like a home.

One belonging to someone else, but still—a home.




In the new apartment,

the handyman hollows out a wall

searching for the leak.

This isn’t disorder per se,

but order of another kind.


Plastic bags, Sharpie

on boxes, in cursive:


If someone else were to walk in at this moment,

they wouldn’t know if we were moving in or out.




Inert, enveloped

in nicotine,

the brain goes soft;                        

the heart hardens.


I look older without a shirt on.

I thought about saying so, but preferred

to remember the time I was

your copilot as you kept

circling the lot.




Without a sound, Francisca

moves through each space—

here with the bucket,

there with the broom—

inside that mouth,

always closed,

the glint of a gold tooth.




A pause that threatens to become

something else entirely.


Clothes we haven’t unpacked,

the taste of false menthol,

that spot where

you finally parked the car.




Over a few rounds

some friends argue about

how long we can keep calling ourselves young.

What does it matter,

you think aloud,

if I was never young to begin with.


Then the fog clears. Then

the crickets came on.




Here’s where a decisive phrase should go

but the t-shirt I was wearing

that afternoon we’ve been talking about

fades while the grass grows,

and without realizing it,

you begin to use some of my own verbal tics

every six words.


What in this weather will never dry;

what shines whether we like it or not;

the wrong time of year to move—

the brain: a lump of plasticine,

the heart: two car doors

that only know how to close.




Underneath all of this there’s a song,

even if it can’t be seen or heard.


The promise of a new house

stayed behind in the old one.


What remains of the rainy season is a blend

of all the plasticine bars—

what will be kneaded together is kneaded

together, hammering that quiets

the tenacity of a leak,


veining the window.

And the crickets’ song

swelling like another fog.


Underneath all of this there is something better.

translated from Spanish by Julia Guez & Samantha Zighelboim

Playa Santa Teresa, 2006

by Luis Chaves

Unos días con sus noches en Malpaís y Santa Teresa. Vi los pelícanos, los cocos asesinos, vi pizotes, ballenas, iguanas, garzas y unos peces azules minúsculos y fosforescentes nadando en las pozas que se forman en las rocas cuando baja la marea. También las gaviotas que nos seguían en la terraza del ferry para que las alimentáramos con snacks ultraquímicos. Vi amigos, vi a los hijos de los amigos. Vi a los amigos y a los hijos de los amigos encender una fogata en la noche y así cumplir con ese ritual que nos acompaña desde no sabemos cuándo. Vi el mar cada noche antes de dormirme y lo vi también cada mañana al despertarme. Vi una cometa multicolor inmóvil contra el cielo limpio, vi que la cuerda invisible que la sostenía llegaba hasta mis manos. Vi caricacos de todos los tamaños rodeándome mientras meaba en la arena. Vi, en el fondo de la mochila, el lomo de la novela de Dos Passos que ni siquiera llegué a abrir. Vi los objetos que el mar deposita en la orilla: una piedra con forma de cassette, una rama con forma de linterna, una lata de birra con forma de lata de birra. Una tarde cerré los ojos y vi muchos viajes ya borrosos del pasado e imaginé paseos futuros en esta misma costa. Es así, la vida se puede reducir a una lista breve.

Santa Teresa, 2006

by Luis Chaves

A few days and nights in Malpaís and Santa Teresa. I saw the pelicans, the threat of falling coconuts, I saw coatis, whales, iguanas, herons and some fish—blue, miniscule and phosphorescent—swimming in pools that form among the rocks at low-tide. Also the seagulls who followed us onto the deck of the ferry so that we’d feed them highly-processed snacks. I saw friends, I saw friends’ children. I saw friends and friends’ children light a bonfire in the night and fulfill this ritual that’s been with us for who knows how long. I saw the ocean each night before I’d fall asleep and I saw it each morning when I’d wake up. I saw a multi-colored comet still against the clean sky, I saw the invisible string that seemed to sustain it reach almost to my own hands. I saw hermit crabs of all sizes surrounding me while I pissed on the sand. I saw, in the bottom of the backpack, the spine of a Dos Passos novel I hadn’t even gotten around to opening. I saw objects the sea deposits on the shore: a stone in the shape of a cassette tape, a branch in the shape of a lantern, a beer can in the shape of a beer can. One afternoon I closed my eyes and saw the blur of so many past trips, imagining future visits to this very coast. This is how it is. Life can be reduced to a short list.

translated from Spanish by Julia Guez & Samantha Zighelboim

Falsa Ficción

by Luis Chaves

Pero hay un intento de reconstrucción

con pocos elementos,

una sombra que sale de escena,

el olor a laca y el rótulo

–pero es otro– de gaseosa Goliat

atrapado con el rabo del ojo

desde el bus que se adentra

en la masa maleable

de julio del 2004.

El de aquel invierno sudaca

sin calefacción.


Se cuenta hasta diez

con los dedos,

empezando por el meñique

o el pulgar.

No es lo mismo aunque parece,

ni es lo mismo, a las 3 a.m.,

afuera de la cantina, parqueado,

nuestro carro con el árbol de navidad

atado al techo.


Aquí pasó agua debajo del puente,

huimos de un lugar

que apestaba a World Music,

que hedía a New Age.

Aquí no hay cuatro estaciones:

por encima de la línea del Ecuador /

por encima de la línea de flotación.

Nueve meses de lluvia

nos han enseñado a nadar

a consumirnos de cabeza,

en el confort del verso libre.


Un ejemplo,

por toda la casa me siguen

mi hija, la gata y la perra.

Son mi sombra buena.


Huele a gas también,

y trabajan a full los aleros.

El metrónomo del goteo

divide el día en fracciones.


El año va dando señales:

esto casi mejora,

la perra se enrosca

con la calma de la evolución.


Es fácil saberlo,

para terminar lo que falta

no nos necesitan.

False Fiction

by Luis Chaves

Here’s an attempt at reconstructing

everything with only a few elements:

a shadow leaving the stage,

the smell of lacquer and the ad

—not the same one—for Goliat soda

caught out of the corner of my eye

from that bus entering into

the malleable masa

of July, 2004.

The one from that South American winter

when we didn’t have heat.


You count to ten

on your fingers,

beginning with the pinky

or the thumb.

It’s not the same although it would seem to be,

nor is it the same, at 3am,

outside the bar, parked, our car

the one with the Christmas tree tied on

to the roof.


Here’s where it was all water under the bridge,

when we abandoned a place

infested with World Music,

reeking of New Age.

There aren’t four seasons here:

above the equator

above the waterline.

Nine months of rain

have taught us to swim,

to lose ourselves,

in the comfort of free verse.

For example, all over the house

I am followed

by my daughter, the cat and the dog.

They are my good shadows.


It smells of gas again,

and the eaves are working overtime.

The metronome of that slow drip

divides the day into fractions.


The year goes on giving signs:

this almost gets better.

The dog curls up

with evolutionary calm.


It’s easy enough to see,

they don’t need us

to figure out the rest.

translated from Spanish by Julia Guez & Samantha Zighelboim






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