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Translation as Poetry: Langston Hughs & Gabriela MIstral

As February morphs quickly into March, and Women’s History Month follows in the wake of Black History Month, it seems appropriate to note a little-known connection between American poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), who resided in Roslyn Harbor between 1953 and her death in 1957. Mistral received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945.

Langston Hughes was fluent in both Spanish and French. He spent his early childhood and several years as a young adult living in Mexico, and also spent time traveling in Cuba and Spain. Due to his fluency in Spanish, he was hired in 1937 by the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper to cover the Spanish Civil War and the Black American soldiers volunteering in the International Brigades.

In 1956, the year before Mistral’s death, Indiana University Press asked Hughes to consider translating a selection of Mistral’s poems. The resulting work, “Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated with an introduction by Langston Hughes,” was published shortly after her death in January 1957. In the book’s introduction, Hughes describes his hesitancy to translate Mistral’s poems

because “her poetry is so intensely feminine.” Ultimately, he agreed, writing that “it intrigued me to try - for the simple reason that I liked the poems.” He selected for translation poems that focused on children, motherhood, and love, and chose only poems for which he could translate not only “the literal content, emotion, and style” but also the “word music” of the original poem.

Arnold Rampersad, in his 1988 biography The Life of Langston Hughes, notes that, despite the fact that the entire first printing of the book sold out, Hughes’ work was dismissed by critics in reviews published in the New York Times and Saturday Review of Literature. In spite of Hughes’ previous success as the translator of the works of both French and Spanish authors, including poets Federico Garcia Lorca and Nicolas Guillen, these critics questioned his qualifications as a translator. Many of Hughes’ peers attributed the negative reviews to his identity as a Black person, a response Rampersad credits to the

prevalent belief that “For a black American to dare to translate a work by a white writer, or to review a book by a white writer not on a racial theme, was clearly considered in many quarters an indignity and possibly an affront.” In his public rebuttal, however, Hughes chose to focus on the fact that this was the very first translation of Mistral’s work into English, writing:

“I can only say that – since no one else at all, over a period of more than thirty years, tried to make a volume of Mistral poems in our language – as humbly, sincerely, and honestly as I knew how, I tried. … So fine a poet as she was deserves many translations.” In 1961, Mistral’s friend and literary executor, Doris Dana, published a bilingual anthology, Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral.

Hughes grouped Mistral’s poems into thematic sections such as Cradle Songs, Poems for Mothers, and Country With No Name. The following poem, Con Tal Que Duermas (translated by Langston Hughes as “If You’ll Just Go To Sleep”) is included in the section of the anthology entitled, Earth and Women.

If You’ll Just Go To Sleep

The blood red rose

I gathered yesterday,

And the fire and cinnamon

Of the carnation,

Bread baked with

Anise seed and honey,

And a fish in a bowl

That makes a glow:

All this is yours,

Baby born of woman,

If you’ll just

Go to sleep.

A rose, I say!

I say a carnation!

Fruit, I say!

And I say honey!

A fish that glitters!

And more, I say –

If you will only

Sleep till day.

Learn more about Gabriela Mistral's connection with Roslyn in a post from the Bryant Room Blog's archives: Gabriela Mistral, The Poet-Diplomat of Chile.


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