El Coloquio

Though Years May Pass

Though Years May Pass

In San Francisco, we were delighted by the Mexican posters on display at Alley Cat Books in the Mission. They featured a contemporary iteration of Mexican muralist style dedicated to social justice issues. The book seller rolled one into a cardboard tube for safe travel. The artist is a friend of his, has a studio in Mexico City.

As translators generally do, I approve of the permeability of borders in today’s world, although artists have always found their way across borders more readily than the rest of us. The poster we bought is for Oaxaca: home of perennial rebellion and a long ago visit that shimmers in our memory. The poster contains one sentence:

Así pasen años, hay barricadas que no se apagan, las que arden con el corazón.

The statement stirred me. Standing in the bookstore, I was frustrated, because no adequate translation came to mind. The verb apagar means to put out, extinguish, (apaga la luz/turn out the light) silence, soften, placate, (tiempo apaga los rencores/time soothes bad feelings) and much more. Reflexive, as it is here, apagarse: to go out, fade, finish, die, dim, end, vanish. Here, barricades that cannot have an action done to them, or—more bittersweetly—cannot do it to themselves.

Small common words are sometimes difficult, their translation dependent on context. But then, translation always depends on context. We learn by menu that con means “with”: con queso. Not so here. After several awkward renderings, I arrived at these two, not happy with either:

Though years go by, there are torched barricades that don’t go out—those aflame in the heart.

Though years pass, there are barricades that can’t be taken down: those that burn in the heart.

I sent them to Agustín Cadena, a Mexican writer I translate:

Me gusta más la segunda opción: “barricades that can’t be taken down”.

Maybe all options are imprecise, but the original Spanish is imprecise too.

Anyway, I think “barricades that can’t be taken down” is closer to the political

implications of it: “taken down” means by someone, whether

Government, police, silence, time, etc.

I sent them to several of my excellent Spanish-to-English translator associates. Literary translators live for this sort of problem. Jill Gibian suggested, “for ‘Así pasen años’ you might want ‘may pass’ to highlight the use of the subjunctive.” Of course I do, Jill. Gracias!

Amanda Powell wrote: “Barricades traditionally get built (tossed together) in the streets, then set ablaze (right, Jacobin sisters?) I can’t be the only old Re-Vo-Lulu here.”

She reminded us of Seattle, 1968; the WTO, 1999. I flashed on my own forays into the streets.  Sacramento, 1967: massive march in protest of Governor Reagan, the Vietnam war, in support of the farmworkers’ grape boycott. The attempt to unionize social workers led to my one night in jail, a badge of honor I pull out to polish now and then.

Amanda added: “I’m also thinking about that graceful phrase ‘las que arden *con* el corazón’.” She suggested:

Though years may pass, some barricades are still burning /still burn—those the heart sets ablaze.

Amanda ended her email: ¡A las barricadas! ¡No pasarán!!

Agustín ended his: “Hasta la victoria!”

As mentioned earlier, for old radicals at least, the sentence is stirring.

What or who demolishes barricades? How often does passion dim and account for more defeats than whoever or whatever the enemy is? As Agustín said, time also kills those flames. I contemplate smothering, quenching, but am unsatisfied. The saying is hopeful, believes that some passions never die.

I stood in Alley Cat Books gazing at that poster in July. In September, I showed Phil the options. By then I had:

Although years may pass, some barricades cannot be doused—those that flame in the heart.

I didn’t like doused. Phil is my alpha reader. He doesn’t know Spanish. His English is what I need. He made excellent suggestions, as usual.

Now I have this, because of Phil and Amanda and Jill and because I’m a sucker for alliteration:

Though years may pass, some barricades yet burn—those ablaze in the heart.

This too may change. The mood of life is subjunctive. Such is the fluidity of translation, which like any worthy writing, is never done.

No nos moverán! We shall not be moved! Like a tree planted by the río…

Gran Om, the visual arts studio, is alive and crusading in Mexico City.


Patricia Dubrava has two books of poems and one of stories translated from Spanish. She teaches creative writing and literary translation at the University of Denver and is partial to poems, translation and short creative nonfiction, the last of which she practices on her blog “Holding the Light” at www.patriciadubrava.com  Her translations of Mexican short fiction have appeared in over 25 journals, most recently The Massachusetts Review, Summer 2020, and her reading of a short story by Agustín Cadena was featured on Jill! In 2021.