Love, Death, and Quevedo

Cover of Love, Death, and Quevedo

I don’t know anything about Francisco de Quevedo, first of all. It’s the kind of Spanish—old, literary, from Spain—that is the most foreign to me, the most difficult, seemingly the least like the Spanish—contemporary, spoken, from Mexico—I know. I first looked up his “Amor constante más allá de la muerte” (something like, “love that endures beyond death”) because the title of a book I’m translating comes from a line in this poem. So I looked it up, couldn’t really understand it, found some translations into English, and didn’t really like any of them. In the end I just made up my own translation of the title and forgot about the poem.

About a year later a friend who I’d shared some of this book translation project with messaged me to say that part of the poem its title was taken from (indeed, the very same verse) was going on his father’s gravestone. A strange way, I thought, to tell me his father had died, but then, I suppose, there is really no good or normal way to relay such a message. It was one of those moments of remarkable, unexpected coincidence. I hadn’t even known that his parents spoke Spanish. Are your parents Spanish, I asked. No, he said. But they met in Spain, in Sevilla, in the eighties. It sounded like quite a love story. 


The death was expected, he told me. And Dad knew what he was going to become: “polvo enamorado!”

Polvo enamorado: “dust in love” would be the most straightforward translation, presumably. But part of the heartbreaking power of the Spanish is that “in love” is rendered as an adjective—it’s a word English doesn’t quite have, I think. Infatuated dust, perhaps, or lovesick dust, or desirous dust. I google: “in love thesaurus.” I find passionate. Passionate dust? Impassioned dust? I consider whether passion is an acceptable replacement for love. The poem, really, is all about passion. But still. I scroll down: enamored. Idiot me, I think, having completely missed the obvious cognate for “enamorado.” It does exist in English, of course. Enamored dust?

Here’s the problem with “enamored,” though: It’s a mushy word. It falls apart in your mouth when you say it. It doesn’t have the quick, even rhythm of the Spanish “enamorado,” and it doesn’t have the lightness—the lifting trill of the soft “r”—in the middle. And then there’s the clunky repeated “d”—enamored dust—an inelegant end for such a delicate line, the final words of the poem.

“Amor constante,” when I go back and really take the time to read it alongside what seems to be a decent English translation, is about the speaker’s belief, or at least his wish, that he will go on loving even after he dies, after his veins turn to ash and his insides to dust (dust in love!). That somehow his feelings will remain even as his body collapses and disintegrates. It’s a kind of love poem, a Petrarchan sonnet—one of love poetry’s most classical forms—but strangely, there is no addressee here. There is no “you.” There is no beloved. The speaker refers rather to the broad experience of the feeling of love, an experience of a feeling that is so intense, so alive, so on fire that it must, the speaker believes, continue on after the death of the body. Quevedo is asking what seems to me a very modern, contemporary question (or perhaps it is, quite simply, an eternal question): Where are our feelings? We feel them in our bodies, yes, but we also feel them everywhere else—in our thoughts, in the air, in the people around us. So in a way it makes no sense that our feelings would die with our bodies. Our love must continue loving, Quevedo suggests, our desire must continue desiring, our grief must continue grieving.

I read through the Spanish a few times, trying to figure it out. It’s a crushing poem—a poem about the end of things. I think: I should just translate it. It doesn’t really matter if it’s not quite right—how many white guys in the history of world literature have translated things from languages they didn’t really know, professing themselves to be cultural experts, literary curators, arbiters of taste? Anyway, I try.


My translation, since I’m doing it now and not a year ago, is inhabited by others—most importantly by the figure of my friend’s dead father, someone I don’t even know. This friend is quite a bit younger than I am (ten years, perhaps? Twelve?), so it feels even more sad to me that he should have already lost a parent. And I’ve been feeling increasingly lucky that both my parents are alive, that they are healthy, that I can probably expect them to be around for some time longer. And I feel increasingly, also, the reality that everyone I know will die. As an observation, this is a truism, and yet: How can something so patently obvious be so terrible, so annihilating?

The book I’m translating is a collection of essays about the author’s experience taking care of her elderly grandmother in Mexico City. And so in many ways it is about the same concerns that Quevedo raises in his poem: What is the relationship between our body and everything we feel? What happens when our bodies shrivel and end? What does it mean to grow old and disappear? One of the essays is also about the death of the author’s father, from whom she’d been estranged for many years, and which is one of the sections I’ve been working on most recently. And so I feel my Quevedo translation is inhabited by two deaths, by two gone fathers, by both a son as well as a daughter.

In a Petrarchan sonnet, the last two stanzas are often read as a kind of resolution or answer to a problem or question posed in the first two. In “Amor constante,” this resolution is both suggested and denied—Quevedo writes that the soul “will leave the body, not the desire,” that the veins “will be ash, but still with feeling,” and that the “medulas”—marrow, literally, or the deepest insides, the core—“will be dust, but still in love.” The soul departs but also remains; the body is destroyed but still has feeling, is still sentient, is still “in love.”

For some reason I’m reminded of Robert Hass’s poem “Sunrise,” in which he writes: “Otherwise the ranked monochromes, / the death-teeth of that horizon, survive us / as we survive pleasure.” He continues:

“[…] What a small hope.

What a small fierce privacy of consolation.

What a dazzle of petals for the poor meat.”

What is this “dazzle of petals” if not Quevedo’s “polvo enamorado”—that tricky thing that survives us, or perhaps deludes us?


I had thought that rendering “Amor constante” into English myself might change my thinking about the title I’d chosen for the book I’m translating, but I’m not sure it has. The book’s title—“Su cuerpo dejarán”—is already a variation on the line from the poem—“su cuerpo dejará.” Quevedo’s verb is in the third person singular—“it [the soul] will leave its body behind,” while the author of the book has transposed the verb into the third person plural. In English, this change makes the title sound weirdly ominous and strangely ambiguous: “they’ll leave their/your body behind.” And so my translation makes a further transposition, into the second person singular: “You’ll Leave Your Body Behind.” It works, I think. And what’s more, sometimes it even feels like it’s true: maybe you will.


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