Jacob Rogers translates María do Cebreiro


The difference between slowness and speed
is a matter of degree. You could spend
your whole life at the threshold to your house,
watching the sun go up and down each day,
or you could spend your whole life
in a rush. The two lives aren’t so unlike.
The sun comes up for us all. We all need bread
and we all need roses. We never eat
roses and we braid bread to remember
wheat’s flower, which, in a way, remains
alive within. Roses prick and some people
still bless bread. The difference between
slowness and speed is a matter of degree.
The rush of roses and the tranquility of the sun.
The speed of bread and the slowness of wheat. 


His eyes were wet but he crossed
his arms as if to shield his
heart. She wanted to ask him:
have you ever thought how music
is like water? Once the first note
is played, it’s impossible to tell it apart
from the second. No one has ever found
the dividing line between a sandbank and
a grain of sand. And when it rains in
the ocean, all of its mouths become one.
In such a state of calm, not even
the truth can shock you. Bonds can’t
be made by force. A man
and a woman can go to bed together
and wake up apart. Heartbreak is never
love’s last act. We label as continuous
movement anything that’s unaware of
the lines dividing it. She wanted to tell
him all that but didn’t say anything.
That was when he opened his arms
and closed his eyes. All the arms
and all the eyes in the world were his.


translator’s note:

Both of these poems come from María do Cebreiro’s 2017 collection, A lentitude (Slowness). An accomplished poet with ten books to her name, this is one of her best (or at least, one of my favorites), dealing with themes of nature and the body familiar to poetry, and literature in general, but taking them and making them entirely her own. And while some of the poems are more anecdotal, using little bits of story and narrative to make meaning, the two here represent some of the more abstract, idea-bound pieces in the collection.

Still, for all that abstractness, Cebreiro uses very concrete, clear imagery, and even these “abstract” poems don’t read as confounded, esoteric philosophical treatises so much as conceptual vignettes. Many of them are also quite difficult to translate, at times quite frankly because simplicity can be hard to render well in another language. At other moments it’s because she uses repetition in a way that doesn’t always come off convincingly in English, but lends a forceful, reverential, hymn-like feeling to the poems, shrouding them in a veil of mysticism. That’s no accident. Almost every single one of the poems invokes nature, and almost every single one invokes the body.

Cebreiro does not always interrelate the two, but when she does, such as in “Dissolution,” the poems read like atheistic, pagan prayers, like the worship of something ethereal and sacred, yet simultaneously corporeal and mundane. If “Dissolution” reads like a prayer, “Slowness” feels more like the conversational wisdom of a down-to-earth priest. It’s a wonderful interweaving of the simultaneously religious, quotidian, and natural imagery of wheat, bread, and braiding it “to remember,” in a poem that acts as a reminder that time is relative, that however fast or slow a human life moves, it’s still just that: human.

Ultimately, I’ve tried to translate these poems in a way that maintains that spark, liveliness, and plain-spokenness of the language, while also keeping that rhythmic repetition alive where I can. This often required a bit of creativity in terms of finding syntaxes and word choices that lent themselves to repetition in English.  Though in the case of these two poems I didn’t have to veer too far from the original, there are times, though, where I found it less productive to force a repetition for the sake of “fidelity,” or for the sake of keeping the moving parts where they were in the original. So, in some cases, I attempted to shift those parts around a bit and re-create that force and power through rhyme and alliteration, losing, maybe, something of the original, but perhaps getting it back in a way more inherent to English, to my own poetic voice.


Jacob Rogers (Haifa, 1994) is a translator of Galician prose and poetry. He was selected as one of the winners of the Words Without Borders Poems in Translation Contest, and his translations have appeared in Asymptote, Best European Fiction 2019, PRISM International, Cagibi, Lunch Ticket, Your Impossible Voice, Nashville Review, The Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, and the Portico of Galician Literature, with work forthcoming in Columbia Journal, Asymptote, and Copper Nickel. His translation of Carlos Casares’ novel, HIS EXCELLENCY, came out from Small Stations Press in 2017. Photo by Danielle Rogers.

María do Cebreiro (Santiago de Compostela, 1976) is a Galician poet, translator, and critic. She has published over ten books of poetry, co-authored two, and has won several awards, most recently the Galician Critics’ Prize for her collection, O deserto (The Desert, 2016). Her collections, The Desert (tr. Keith Payne) and I Am Not From Here (tr. Helena Miguélez-Carballeira) have been published in English by Shearsman books, and her work has appeared in Asymptote and various anthologies. She holds a Ph.D in Literary Theory from the University of Santiago de Compostela and currently teaches in the Philology department at the same university. Photo by Laura Dalama.