Waldeen’s Neruda: Translating the Dance

She understood the essential relationship between poetry and music and their common root in dance. This was her secret.

Yesterday’s Translation Tuesday featured Pablo Neruda’s “Coming of the Rivers” sequence in an astonishing and previously unpublished translation by Waldeen. How did Waldeen capture the voice and tone of Neruda’s poetry so accurately, and why have such elegant translations remained in obscurity for almost seventy years? Poet and translator Jonathan Cohen, a close friend of Waldeen, explains the history—and the secrets—behind her Neruda translations.

Waldeen von Falkenstein (1913–1993)—known as a dancer and writer by her first name alone—has yet to receive the full recognition she deserves for her work as a translator of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. The poetic achievement of her translations and their influence on American poetry merit more attention. Waldeen’s elegant renderings of poems that would form Neruda’s epic masterpiece, Canto General (1950), translations that she published in the late 1940s and early 1950s, introduced Neruda and his image-driven poetics to many readers. Among them were poets like the Beats looking for alternatives to the prevailing formalist mode of verse, who found in him, through her, a model poet.

Waldeen achieved fame in Mexico as the founder of modern dance there. In 1956, Diego Rivera, one of the principal gods of Mexican art, lavished praise on Waldeen for her contribution to Mexican culture (“In each of her dance movements, she offered our country a jewel”). His tribute to her appeared in a major newspaper of Mexico, where he went beyond his accolades of her dance work to also celebrate her as a poet-translator: “I can bear witness to this not only by the intensity of emotion I felt in the verses of this beautiful and admirable woman, but through the testimony, as well, of our Walt Whitman of Indo-America, Pablo Neruda, who wrote to her, deeply moved, after she translated poetry of his into English: ‘Waldeen, thank you, for your poems of my poems, which are better than mine.’ ”

Born in Texas and raised in California, Waldeen early in her life hitched her wagon to a star that led her to Mexico, by way of New York, and a highly successful dance career. The current in Mexican dance represented by her, which she initiated in Mexico City between 1939 and 1946, became an integral part of the mainstream of Mexico’s great artistic renaissance. It was during this time that Neruda and Waldeen became friends, while he was in Mexico City as Chile’s consul general. Neruda admired not only her ballet, but her poetry as well. Before he left Mexico he proposed that they do a bilingual book together in which he would present his translations of her poems, and she her translations of his. But the young dancer passed up the opportunity (she was “young and foolish,” she said in retrospect). Subsequently, during a sojourn in New York in the late 1940s, she started translating poetry to be included in Neruda’s Canto. Her friend Luis Enrique Délano, a Chilean writer and diplomat who had served in Mexico with Neruda as vice consul, asked her to translate “Let the Rail Splitter Awake,” originally composed in May 1948.

Here, Waldeen’s creative energy was boundless: after long days of teaching dance and doing choreography, she went home close to midnight to work on her Neruda. Her translation would make its debut appearance that year in the October issue of Masses & Mainstream, with a special fanfare by the editors of this new monthly magazine. She was also making translations of Neruda’s other new poems that were to become part of the Canto.

Waldeen’s experience as a dancer in New York, however, was less than ideal. She was still very much at odds with the dance establishment; she was melodic, unlike the cold angular dance of the fashionable Martha Graham. All the while, her dancers in Mexico were writing to her, asking her to return. And so, in August 1948, she went back to Mexico, re-forming her school and choreographing for a new group, Ballet Nacional, with which she would travel into remote regions of the country, dancing in rural schools, village plazas, stadiums, and fields.

Ultimately, Waldeen’s work as a poet never took off in the same way her dance creations did. Waldeen’s poems appeared only in magazines; she never published a book of them. Although her own poetry does not embody the political vision of Neruda’s, the two clearly share a lyric intensity. “The Quartz Heart,” for example, is a poem written around the time when she was first showing her verses to Neruda:

The belabored heart

numb but scintillant,

amethyst-pronged quartz

weighted and inert, contains

the afterglow, the bitter

chiselled glint,

the lucid retrospect.


This mineralized heart

perplexedly hewn

by sorrow’s violent fluency,

has crystalline spikes

of variant height and potency:

some to blind like snow,

some to barb with frenzy.


What construction of flesh and bone

be shaped and webbed to hold

this silent prismatic load?

Leaf and mold convert their substance

while such enduring stone

thinks to have found a resting-place:

undisturbed, unstirring, alone.

Waldeen’s language here echoes Emily Dickinson, and like Dickinson, Waldeen voiced an independent spirit. She, too, had no desire to be strictly confined to rhyme or reason.

It was not until the final decade of her life that Waldeen returned to writing her own poetry. She gathered this work in a manuscript titled “Death Is But Another Dancer (Poems for Aging Women),” which she had intended to be her first book of poetry. Moving toward a vision of acceptance of her own death that she knew was near, the title poem opens with her reality:

Shadow shapes

unknown, deformed,

slither rhythmically upwards,

a film diagonal flashing

intermittently across

my white wall

“Existence is painful . . .”

Like her earlier poems, these show the fine wordcraft of her lyric verse and the free-style dance of her poetic language that she attained through use of colloquial speech cadences and variable line length. The poems in this manuscript remain unpublished.

However, Waldeen’s skill as a poet is why Neruda, on seeing her translations of his work, encouraged her to keep translating him. He knew English well enough to translate Whitman and Shakespeare into Spanish, and he told her he loved her translations, flattering her with his statement that they surpassed the originals. In 1950, the year the Canto General was published, he gave her his formal permission to translate the entire collection. An astute observer, he recognized the challenge of translating his poetry into English, later saying that other translators of it had succeeded in conveying its meaning but not its atmosphere.

Waldeen’s unique achievement as a translator is her success at conveying both meaning and atmosphere in her Neruda translations. She understood the essential relationship between poetry and music and their common root in dance. This was her secret. A comparison of her translation of the opening lines of “Los ríos acuden” (literally, “The Rivers Come”) with those rendered by other translators makes it clear:

Amada de los ríos, combatida

por agua azul y gotas transparentes,

como un árbol de venas es tu espectro

de diosa oscura que muerde manzanas:

al despertar desnuda entonces,

eras tatuada por los ríos,

y en la altura mojada tu cabeza

llenaba el mundo con nuevos rocíos.


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.



Beloved of the rivers, beset

by azure water and transparent drops,

like a tree of veins your spectre

of dark goddess biting apples:

and then awaking naked

to be tattooed by the rivers,

and in the wet heights your head

filled the world with new dew.

[Anthony Kerrigan]

Lover of the rivers, assailed

by blue water and transparent drops,

like a veined tree your specter

of a dark goddess that eats apples:

when you awakened, naked,

you were tattooed by the rivers,

and in the wet heights your head

filled the world with fresh dew.

[Jack Schmitt]

Adored by the rivers, assailed

by blue water and transparent drops,

your spectrum of a dark goddess is

like a tree of veins which bites apples:

so then, at your awakening, naked

you were tattooed by the rivers,

and in the wet heights your forehead

filled the world with fresh dew.

[Mark Eisner]

Unlike Waldeen’s translation, the other translations, though close to the literal meaning of Neruda, are less than faithful to his work’s poetic quality, becoming prosaic (“fresh dew” versus “new-found dew”) or even outright strange in some spots (“your spectre of dark goddess”; “like a tree of veins which bites apples”). They are not as much in keeping with the purely song-like quality of Neruda’s verse, with its almost biblical tone and atmosphere of genesis.

Waldeen’s ability to translate the dance of Neruda’s poetic language, together with her fidelity to the literal meaning of his words, gives her translations their distinctive voice, as illustrated by her rendering of the famous first lines of “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” compared with the Spanish:

Del aire al aire, como una red vacía,

iba yo entre las calles y la atmósfera, llegando y despidiendo,

en el advenimiento del otoño la moneda extendida

de las hojas, y entre la primavera y las espigas,

lo que el más grande amor, como dentro de un guante

que cae, nos entrega como una larga luna.

From air to air like an empty net

I went between streets and the atmosphere,

through autumn’s advent with its arrival

and departure of new-coined leaves,

between spring and the tasselled wheat

as if inside a falling glove,

where the greatest of loves gives us

what is like a long moonrise.

Waldeen produced an effective poetic paraphrase in which she re-creates with great accuracy the literal meaning and the natural colloquial speech of the original Spanish, as well as the lyricism and flowing cadence that shape the poetry.

Waldeen’s most prominent translations of Neruda, including his much-translated masterpiece “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” appeared in a chapbook titled Let the Rail Splitter Awake and Other Poemspublished in 1950 by Masses & Mainstream. The widely distributed chapbook, which went through two subsequent printings in the early 1950s, featured an essay by the poet and poems from Canto General, most of them translated by Waldeen. Its republication in 1989 by International Publishers attests to the lasting power of both the poetry and translation. The original edition of this chapbook introduced many to the “expansiveness,” as Allen Ginsberg put it, of Neruda’s voice.

Finally, although Waldeen translated about a third of Canto General, only a few of these translations were published during her lifetime. The formalist aesthetics of New Criticism and the anti-communist politics of the Cold War conspired during the 1950s to block her Neruda from gaining a wide readership in the United States (like Neruda, she was a member of the Communist Party, and was blocked from even visiting the United States). Only recently have her previously unpublished translations appeared in print, through the efforts of the present author to whom she gave all of them. They show how she, unlike Neruda’s other translators, renders him in a way that’s very true to his Spanish—true to its lush imagery and music, its natural spoken quality, and to the dance of the language.


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 jonathancohenweb.com.

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.”


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