Out of all of his poems that have found their ways into the hearts of readers, “Walking Around” is arguably Pablo Neruda’s most famous. He first published it in his 1935 collection Residencia en la tierra II. By the early 80s the poem had already been published at least a dozen times. Jonathan Coen’s “Neruda in English: The Controversy Over Translation Poetics” published in the Missouri Review in 1983 contains a comprehensive history of the poem’s many voyages into our language. So why would I want to translate a poem that gifted translators like W. S. Merwin, Robert Bly, Donald D. Walsh, and others have all attempted? For me it all started with the title.
Try as I might, I could never find a translation of the poem that contained anything but the English version of the title. My sense is most readers believe that the title “Walking Around” is a translation. The truth is Neruda gave his poem an English title that translators have simply carried over. You might be wondering, “Doesn’t this save time?” Sure, but bringing the title over into English means that an English reader will not have the chance of experiencing the same sense of estrangement a Spanish reader would upon encountering an English title. This state of uncertainty is key to helping the reader identify with the speaker who is lost and adrift in the world.
I figured translating the title would take a few minutes and that would be the end of it. Instead, the title turned out to be the most challenging part of the poem to translate. I considered all of the following titles before settling on “Calle a calle”: