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The Garúa and the Sky: On Translating Doris Moromisato’s “Here in Chorrillos”

By Margaret Wright


Margaret Wright's translation of Doris Moromisato's "Here in Chorrillos" appears in the September 2020 issue of Words Without Borders.


This is an untested theory, but I bet if you read Doris Moromisato's poem "Aquí en Chorrillos" to an audience of listeners who spoke no Spanish, they could guess that it deals in watery landscapes and acute longing. The poem, from Moromisato's 2004 collection Diario de la mujer es ponja,1 doesn't adhere to a strict form or meter, but moves nevertheless by way of a deft and delicate use of sound—a subtle rocking rhythm, a soft but persistent consonance. The first time I read it aloud, I knew I wanted to translate it. I loved how fully embodied its narrative content felt.

The first two lines of the poem read, "Aquí repito que no te amo / mientras la garúa deshilacha el cielo." The word garúa was new to me, but my dictionaries suggested something between a heavy fog and a full-fledged downpour—a drizzle, maybe. I wrote: "Here I say again that I don't love you / while faint rain frays the sky." I sent my first draft of the English translation to Jennifer Shyue, the guest editor of the Words Without Borders issue in which Moromisato's poem would appear. Jen wrote back from Lima, where she was living at the time. "From what I understand," she told me, "garúa is a constant in Lima winters, even though the dampness only occasionally falls as drizzle." She asked if I had played with any options "that don’t so explicitly mean 'water content that has reached dew point'?"

I was relieved that Jen, with her more extensive knowledge of both colloquial Spanish and Peruvian weather systems, had caught the imprecision in my translation. But I was also disappointed. "Faint rain frays" excited me because it did some of the same sonic work that "la garúa deshilacha el cielo" does in Spanish. Moromisato's poem draws the reader in through not only its gently wrought imagery but also its slippery sound and quiet, rhythmic thrum—like that of waves or rain on impact.     

When I first encountered the poem, I was immediately captivated by the fact that it opens with the speaker telling a lie—even better, a lie so transparent that it doubles as confession: "Here, I say again that I don't love you." The emotional intricacy of the moment is made richer by Moromisato's use of sound—the mildly lilting rhythm seems to offer the reader a counterintuitive sense of ease, or even to evoke recitation or prayer (a precursor to later parts of the poem, in which the speaker, still trying to make sense of the loss the poem articulates, invokes Buddhist texts and teachings). I didn't want to give up "faint rain frays" if it meant leaving that lilt behind.

I went back to the drawing board, fiddled with alternatives, and briefly wondered if I should just abandon ship, leaving the word untranslated. If garúa signified a weather phenomenon occurring in primarily Spanish-speaking parts of the globe, shouldn't it be transferred intact to the poem's English iteration? But this too proved rhythmically unsatisfying. Finally, I settled on this: "Here, I say again that I don't love you / while city mist loosens the sky." I hoped that the repeated soft “c” and “s” sounds, combined with the assonance of "city mist," would bring to the English poem a bit of what "garúa deshilacha el cielo" brings to the original, while also conveying some of the specificity of place that Jen had nudged me toward.

While garúa was the word I circled for the longest time, it wasn't the only moment in which I struggled to bring the melody of the original poem into English. In the third stanza, Moromisato writes, "mis ojos se llenan de barcas / y los pétalos que la corriente esparce / me demuestran cuán pequeña es / la inmensidad." In my first draft, I wrote: "my eyes fill with rowboats / and the petals the tide scatters / show me how small / vastness is." The translation was accurate in a literal sense, but I'd lost the echoes between barcas (boats), corriente (current) and esparce (scatter), and the assonance of me demuestran cuán pequeña (show me how small). Placed beside the original, the English felt disjointed and unlovely. In Spanish, the reader is swept through the interwoven sounds of the first three lines, right up to la inmensidad (vastness), which then lands with a sort of astonishing weight. I revised the lines by ear: "my eyes fill with rowboats / and the sprawl of petals taken by the tide / shows me how small / vastness is."

While I'm a relatively new translator, this was of course not the first time I'd negotiated sound or culturally/geographically specific terminology, as these negotiations are inherent to the process of translating poetry. So much of the pleasure of bringing a poem into a new language comes from disassembling meaning into its various elements—sound, local usage, etymology, etc. But Moromisato's poems render place so vividly and build such rich sonic worlds that she sets the translator up for a keenly felt loss if they fail to bring these elements to the fore in English.

A few days ago, Doris and I spoke on Zoom for the first time—after months of written correspondence—to practice for the Words Without Borders reading on September 24. We took turns reading the English and Spanish versions of "Here in Chorrillos," followed by her poem "Allegory," a short, erotic lyric from the same collection. After I finished "Here in Chorrillos," Doris stopped me. "It sounds so sad," she told me in Spanish. I think I said something to the effect of "Uh-oh," but she reassured me: it sounded like waves, she said, hitting the shore. Pleased and emboldened, I read the second poem, which begins with an extended metaphor involving a "shuddering mare crossing the prairie" to the same rhythm, slightly accentuating the meter. When I finished, Doris gently clarified: The melancholy sway worked for "Here in Chorrillos," but this poem was about passion, about bodies. Her hands moved emphatically across my computer monitor. When you read that one, she told me, make it sound like the mare. Make it gallop.


1. Diario de la mujer es ponja hasn't been translated in full yet, but the title offers multiple English translations. Loosely glossed, it means "Diary of the {Es Ponja} Woman," but further translation risks a loss of Moromisato's layered meanings. "Esponja" is the Spanish word for sponge, but Doris has separated the word into "es" ("is") and "ponja," a word used in Peru to refer to people of Japanese descent. 


Related Reading:

White City Blues in Arequipa: Peru's Writers Face the Legacies of Racism and Colonialism

The Translator Relay: Don Mee Choi

Sun and Slang: On Translating Geovani Martins's "The Sun on My Head"


Published Oct 5, 2020   Copyright 2020 Margaret Wright

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