Underdevelopment Problems, translated by Lilia Foster

Monsieur Dupont labels you uncultured,
Because you don’t know which grandson
Was Victor Hugo’s favourite.

Herr Müller has started shouting,
Because you don’t know the (exact) day
That Bismarck died.

Your friend Mr Smith,
English or Yankee, I’m not sure which,
Is outraged when you write ‘shell.’
(It seems that you have left out an ‘l,’
And that you also pronounce it as ‘chel.’)

Well, so what?
When it’s your turn,
Get them to say Cacarajícara,
And tell them where Aconcagua is,
And who Sucre was,
And where in the world
Martí died.

A favour:
That they always speak to you in Spanish.

 

I chose to translate this poem because I found the way Guillén used humour to highlight the hypocrisy of wealthy Europeans and Americans who used Cuba as their playground, and looked down on the locals, interesting. I particularly enjoyed the references to important figures and battles in the fight for Cuban independence, like José Martí, who died fighting the Spanish and whose body was never recovered, and ‘Cacarajícara,’ the site of a significant Cuban victory in the fight for independence, again, from Spanish colonial rule. The way Guillén implores the hypothetical ordinary Cuban reader to stand up to the self-important Westerners with a reminder of the atrocities they have been responsible for is powerful and thought-provoking. I wanted to keep a sense of Guillén’s rallying of the reader, which I think is well reflected through my translation of ‘Bueno, ¿y qué?’ as ‘Well, so what?’ I also wanted to capture Guillén’s portrayal of the indignance and irrational condescension of the Westerners, and thought the translation of ‘se subleva’ as ‘outraged,’ did this. I tried to keep the structure and flow of the poem mostly the same because the way tension is built, particularly in the fourth stanza, with the repetition of lines beginning with ‘and,’ feels integral to Guillén’s rallying of the reader to remain strong.

 

Original poem by Nicolás Guillén