Don Cellini / On Translating Elias Nandino

Jonothan Brennan

[Photos: Aptalops]

I first “met” Elías Nandino several years ago, when a friend sent me a poem of his. I was impressed and googled Nandino only to find that he had died several years earlier. Still, I investigated him online to find that he also had been a successful physician and surgeon in Mexico City, and lived to be 93. He published dozens of books, won the national prize for poetry, and announced that he was gay when he was 80. When I first looked, I found only a few poems of Nandino’s scattered across the Internet. Seeking to address this lacuna, it took me more than five years to translate and publish Elías Nandino: Selected Poems in Spanish and English. By the end of that process, I had come to know Don Elías quite well.

Nandino was born and died in Cocula, Jalisco. Though he spent his professional years in Mexico City at the Hospital Juárez and the Penitenciaria del Districto Federal, he retired to Guadalajara and finally to his hometown of Cocula. On his death, he left his home and collection of books to the city to establish its first public library. Some of his papers and photographs are housed there, as well as a display of his many publications, in a kind of museum.

On my first visit to Cocula I met many people who had known Nandino personally: the man who served as Nandino’s secretary the last several years of his life; a nephew; neighbors; a painter who had assisted Nandino when the poet offered art classes to area youths; patients who sought him out even after his retirement. Amazingly, they each had many wonderful stories to share about the physician-poet. One person recalled that, just before his university graduation, Nandino asked him what he was going to wear to the ceremony. The young man responded, “What I’m wearing now.” Nandino went to his wardrobe and gave the young man a suit. Another announced that he was getting married and the poet gave him pots and pans, blankets, and even furniture for his new home. One man, a youth at the time, described coming to Nandino’s house after school one day only to find that no one was present. He ran upstairs to see the retired physician kneeling on the floor, soaking the foot of a brick-worker who had been injured on the job. Nandino, the prize-winning poet, the physician to celebrities, carefully dressed the foot, helped the man with his huaraches and said, “Please come back if that doesn’t heal soon.” Successful contemporary Mexican poets acknowledged their success to his personal support as well as to the literary workshops and journals which he sponsored for young poets. Medical students often sought him out in his retirement. He would give one a stethoscope, another some surgical instruments, another a blood pressure cuff, until finally he had given most everything away. So many stories.

On that visit and others, however, I found that a policy of don’t ask-don’t tell was in effect when it came to Nandino’s sexuality. I conducted a lengthy interview with one informant who ignored my question for nearly 40 minutes. When I asked a second time he responded, “How can you expect me to say something bad about someone who treated me like a son?” Although I tried to assure him that I didn’t see it as bad, no further information was forthcoming. His stance was revealing.

3 Cafe La Habana (c) Aptalops

I managed to obtain copies of all of Nandino’s works and read everything several times. I also read Enrique Aguilar’s Una vida no/velada, an unauthorized, “new journalism” account of Nandino’s life. Nandino was horrified by the work because it revealed intimate secrets – names of former lovers, people in positions of responsibility, details of a life he had always kept very private. By the early 1980s, however, his career was long over, he had received the national prize from the president of Mexico, and his health was beginning to fail. What did he have to lose? In response to Aguilar’s work, Nandino dictated his autobiography, revealing in his own words the story of his life. The work, Juntando mis pasos, was not published until after his death.

Prepared with this background and knowledge, I set out to translate a selection of Nandino’s work for an English-reading audience. The final work included an introduction to Nandino’s life as physician-poet with photos from the archives in Cocula, followed by more than 60 poems, a bibliography and a complete listing of Nandino’s publications.

Every translator faces vexing challenges: How to maintain the tone of the original in the second language? How far to stray in creating the second-language version? How to imitate a poem in the target language when the style of the original is out of date? How to cast a particular cultural issue so that it will make sense to foreign readers? A particular challenge in the case of Nandino was how to deal with explicitly homoerotic poems when the poet himself had written them long before he acknowledged his sexual orientation, in a coded language and with a great deal of ambiguity about highly-charged incidents in his life. Consider the opening stanza of his poem “On your sleeping eyes”

I am resting my closed eyes
on your sleeping eyes
so I can sleep in your dream
and flee with you
through the backwaters of air,
through timeless sleep.

No one could deny the eroticism in the poem. Or these lines from a series of poems called “Poem on Your Body”

Help me exist, to burn myself
in the innocence of your flesh,
in a single flame – blood inseparable –
the two of us a treasure of ash.

And while readers and critics acknowledged the erotic poems, no one suggested that they might be homoerotic. From the poem “Why can’t I be your Body?”:

Why can’t I be your body
on top of my naked body
to hug myself
and feel the fire traveling
up my thighs through you?

4 Cafe La Habana (c) Aptalops

Many used his poems to suggest that Nandino was narcissistic. He often spoke of duality, and of his longing to look in the mirror and see his beloved. Many poems are simply addressed to “tú”, which, like the English you, is gender free. In such cases, it was easy to be faithful to the original grammar. In other cases more careful decision making was required. Spanish uses “le” – which could mean either to him, to her or to you – as indirect object pronoun. So a phrase such as “le dije” could be I told him, I told her, I told you. In these super-charged love sonnets, the “le” was conveniently ambiguous, and his readers could interpret it as they wished. English offers no such option. Furthermore, the possessive pronoun “su” can mean his, her, or your. All of this made things easier for Nandino, but harder for his translator, who is forced to make explicit what the poet could or would not, or to become complicit in his obfuscation.

Perhaps the best of Nandino’s love poetry is a sequence of five sonnets titled “Nocturne: In Flame”. In the first poem he describes how he has known his beloved since before he was born, back when ‘the galaxies were scarcely a shiver’:

I looked for your name, your likeness,
the stray being of your existence,
your glance in the scattered clouds…

But when confronted with the following stanza in the second poem in the sequence, the translator has little room for movement:

Debe de hacer el girar eterno
algo, que al escuchar mi voz sombría
Le lleve mis palabras a su oído.

In the great, eternal turning, something
must happen, so when he hears my voice
he will lift my words to his ear.

In 1960 Nandino would not have published such an explicit poem. It would, though, be impossible to create an English version without him and his. But beyond that, the secrecy he maintained through his ambiguity and careful language was no longer necessary in 2010 when the translation was published. In fact, after Nandino came out of his literary closet, he published Erotismo al rojo blanco (1983). One short poem from that collection titled “Sexual Eternity” shows us how much his style had changed:

Let’s stay this way,
like two dogs, stuck together,
until death
do us part.
Let them bury us together
skewered liked this.
Who cares if we’re dead,
still together underground
mortally in love!

It’s clear that he had abandoned the formal structure of his sonnets and given way to shorter, free-verse poems and more direct language. What had been forbidden in 1930 was now on view for all to read. My “outing” the Nandino of the younger poems thus establishes a consistency with the verse of his last years.

1 Cafe La Habana (c) Aptalops

By the end of the project I felt as if I knew Don Elías better than some poets that I know personally. His poems had revealed his secrets of life and death, love and eroticism, presence and absence. But I confess that after all of this, I found Nandino-the-person much more attractive than Nandino-the-poet. Though death has a way of conferring haloes, I am sure that Nandino the poet-physician, winner of literary prizes, healer of the poor and imprisoned, was an exceptional human being. Blind and nearly deaf by the end of his life, he gave away everything he owned and left only his poems.

In Mexico City there is a bronze bust of Dr. Elías Nandino at the Hospital de Jesús, where he practiced in the 1920s. If you stop by, tell him I said hello.