Translation Tuesday: “Coming of the Rivers” by Pablo Neruda, exclusive translation by Waldeen

You were fashioned out of streams / and lakes shimmered on your forehead.

Poet-translator Jonathan Cohen has recovered these stunning translations of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, made in 1950 by the extraordinary Waldeen. Who? Learn about her and the secret of her translations in Cohen’s essay, “Waldeen’s Neruda,” appearing on our blog tomorrow. Here, published for the first time in this week’s Translation Tuesday, is her rendering of the complete “Coming of the Rivers” sequence. Comprising five poems, the sequence comes from the opening section of Neruda’s epic Canto General titled “La lámpara en la tierra” (“Lamp in the Earth”) in which he celebrates the creation of South America.


Coming of the Rivers

Beloved of rivers, assailed by

blue water and transparent drops,

apparition like a tree of veins,

a dark goddess biting into apples:

then, when you awoke naked,

you were tattooed by rivers,

and on the wet summits your head

filled the world with new-found dew.

Water trembled about your waist.

You were fashioned out of streams

and lakes shimmered on your forehead.

From your dense mists, Mother, you

gathered water as if it were vital tears,

and dragged sources to the sands

across the planetary night,

traversing sharp massive rocks,

crushing in your pathway

all the salt of geology,

felling compact walls of forest,

splitting the muscles of quartz.



Orinoco, let me be on your shores

of that hour without hour;

let me go naked, as then,

enter your baptismal mists.

Orinoco of scarlet water,

let me dip my hands so they may return

to your maternity, to your course,

river of races, motherland of roots,

your wide murmur, your savage lamina

come from where I come, from the poor

and imperious solitudes, from a secret

like a blood steam, from a silent

clay mother.




capital of water syllables,

patriarchal father, you are

the eternal secret

of fecundity,

rivers plunge into you like birds,

flame-colored pistils cover you,

great dead tree trunks people you with perfume,

the moon cannot hold vigil over you

nor measure you.

You are weighted with green sperm

like a nuptial tree, you are silvered

by the wild springtime,

you are reddened by timber,

blue in the moon of stones,

robed in ferrous vapor,

slow like the trail of a planet.



Tequendama, do you remember

your solitary passage along the heights

without witness, thread

of solitude, slender willfulness,

celestial line, platinum arrow,

do you remember step by step

opening walls of gold

until tumbling from the sky onto

the earthbound theater of vacant stone?


Bío Bío

But speak to me, Bío Bío,

those are your words gliding

through my mouth, you gave me

the language, the nocturnal song

mingled with rainfall and foliage.

You, before ever a child was seen,

told me the dawn of earth,

the powerful peace of your reign,

the axe buried with sheaf

of dead arrows, what leaves

of the cinnamon recounted to you

throughout a thousand years,

and then I saw you give yourself to the sea

divided into mouths and breasts,

wide and flowering, murmuring

a history the color of blood.


translated from the Spanish by Waldeen


Pablo Neruda, of Chile, is widely considered the most important Latin American poet of the twentieth century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. His epic Canto General (“General Song”; 1950) is a Whitmanesque celebration of South America, in which the continuous struggle against oppression is central.

Waldeen (von Falkenstein) was an American-born dancer, choreographer, teacher, poet, and translator. Her 1950 translation of Pablo Neruda’s Let the Rail Splitter Awake and Other Poems (Masses & Mainstream) was widely distributed. For more about her, see Jonathan Cohen’s essay “Waldeen and the Americas.”

Jonathan Cohen is an award-winning translator of Latin American poetry and scholar of inter-American literature. He is the author of several studies of English translations of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. He became friends with Waldeen in the late 1980s. For more about him, see


Read more translations on the Asymptote blog: