Juan Gelman, Dibaxu (selected poems)

  • Arianna Afsari

How to Cite:

Afsari, A., (2024) “Juan Gelman, Dibaxu (selected poems)”, Absinthe: World Literature in Translation 29. doi:



Published on
08 Jan 2024

Translator’s Introduction

What follows is a series of English translations of Juan Gelman’s (1930–2014) Dibaxu, a bilingual collection of twenty-nine love poems written originally in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish (“Sefardí” in Gelman’s terms), accompanied by translations into modern Spanish by the author himself. In other words, there are two translators present here: Gelman, the self-translator who moves from his adopted tongue, Ladino, back into his native Spanish, and me, the translator who carries his verses over from the Spanish translations into English.

Although not published until 1994, Gelman composed Dibaxu between 1983 and 1985, while exiled in Europe. A lifelong leftist political activist, the poet was banished from his native Argentina in 1975 due to his involvement with the Montoneros, a guerrilla, left-wing Peronist organization. The year 1976 ushered in a period of collective horror and pain for Gelman and his compatriots. Although Gelman managed to escape political persecution under General Jorge Rafael Videla’s military dictatorship during the Guerra sucia (Dirty War, 1974–1983), Gelman’s son, Marcelo Ariel, along with his pregnant wife, María Claudia Iruretagoyena, were disappeared and extrajudicially murdered by the military’s right-wing death squads.

The multilingualism present in Dibaxu as well as Gelman’s deliberate choice to write in Ladino and then self-translate invites a reflection on language and, specifically, on the complex relationship between language and exile. For Gelman, Ladino, the language of the Sephardim, is a tongue that exists exclusively in exile. The diasporic language of Ladino carries histories of displacement, beginning with the Edict of Expulsion of Granada in 1492, which ordered the banishment of the Jews and Conversos from the kingdoms of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs. In his brief preface to Dibaxu, Gelman writes, “It was as if the extreme solitude of exile had pushed me to search for roots in language, the deepest and most exiled ones of language.” This quest, spurred by the unbearable pain of his personal expulsion, follows a downward trajectory as captured by the title of the collection, Dibaxu, which is Ladino for “debajo” or “beneath.” Gelman not only descends, plunging into the depths of sixteenth-century Spanish to uncover its substratum, Judeo-Spanish, but his self-translation into modern Spanish insists on a movement across as well, ultimately suturing the substrata through the common theme of exile. Gelman beseeches us to listen carefully to this dialogue, which defies geographical, temporal, spatial, and linguistic boundaries, traveling between “the two sounds” of displaced voices of the far past and of Gelman’s more recent past. The slashes that complete each poem emphasize the dialogical aspect of Dibaxu, inviting the reader to trail the narrative voice full of longing as it weaves in and out of the bilingual verses. If we dive beneath the romantic surface of the poems, we discover allegories of exilic discourse below the ostensible sensual longing, where dreams of a distant native land and mother tongue, of loved ones disappeared, are encoded in the figure of the beloved. The true genius of Gelman resides in his ability to craft a poetics of estrangement in order to achieve a disalienation of the self. Through a number of stylistic techniques including the feminization of masculine nouns, intentional grammatical errors in verbal conjugations, and unconventional syntax, Gelman distorts language so that his poetry may begin to articulate the ineffable and estranging violence of his world. Exile is an extreme form of alienation. The dispossessed subject is brutally confronted with the startling absence of a motherland and deafening silence of a mother tongue. In the poems of Dibaxu, Gelman radically distances himself from his native Spanish, his typical playground for language experimentation and grammar tricks, embracing Ladino instead as the site for his idiosyncratic poetic expression. Before he self-translates back into Spanish, the poet begins with a linguistic self-banishment, opting for the exilic tongue par excellence in order to circumvent the discourse and material violence of Argentina’s military dictatorship and regain control over the conditions of his own forced expropriation. Oddly, it is through his decision to write in Ladino, estranging himself further, that Gelman rediscovers the tenderness of language that speaks most immediately to the pain of his immense loss. Certain intrinsic aspects of Ladino such as the innate diminutives, the feminization of masculine words (“la calor” in Ladino versus “el calor” in Spanish in Poem VII), and the normalization of irregular verb constructions all reflect hallmarks of Gelman’s poetic oeuvre. The naturalization of the poet’s most salient rhetorical tricks in Ladino highlights the extent of Gelman’s estrangement from Spanish and his discovery of an adopted mother tongue in Ladino. This exilic language, which invites the natural expression of Gelman’s previously “unnatural” rhetorical games in Spanish, becomes a repository for the most emblematic Gelmanian traits.

What is more, Gelman employs his self-translations as a method to further alienate himself from Spanish, in that his translations are virtually devoid of the idiosyncratic qualities typical of his poetry. The nondescript nature of the Spanish of his translations vacillates between the Argentine vos and standard forms of the secondperson singular. Furthermore, Gelman observes correct verbal forms in instances where he would normally toss out the grammatical rulebook, such as in Poem XVI, where he translates “muridu” as “muerto” instead of “morido,” the latter sounding both closer to the Ladino but also constituting an intentional error found frequently throughout Gelman’s previous work. His self-translations, therefore, do not represent a full return or assimilation into his native Spanish. By denying the Spanish the intimacy and new expressive horizons he discovers in Ladino, the poet displaces Spanish as the privileged terrain for his poetic voice, converting it into the mirror of the Other.

Only by descending into the substrata of these Spanishes, toward the most exiled roots of language, can Gelman recover the tenderness of his motherland and his mother tongue and reject the discourse commandeered by the military junta. Through this adopted language of exile, the poet finds a type of confirmation rather than a realization regarding the power of estrangement as a return to the self.

From Dibaxu

Escribí los poemas de dibaxu en sefardí, de 1983 a 1985. Soy de origen judío, pero no sefardí, y supongo que eso algo tuvo que ver con el asunto. Pienso, sin embargo, que estos poemas sobre todo son la culminación o más bien el desemboque de Citas y Comentarios, dos libros que compuse en pleno exilio, en 1978 y 1979, y cuyos textos dialogan con el castellano del siglo XVI. Como si buscar el sus-
trato de ese castellano, sustrato a su vez del nuestro, hubiera sido mi obsesión. Como si la soledad extrema del exilio me empujara a buscar raíces en la lengua, las más profundas y exiliadas de la lengua. Yo tampoco me lo explico.
El acceso a poemas como los de Clarisse Nikoïdski, novelista en francés y poeta en sefardí, desvelaron esa necesidad que en mí dormía, sorda, dispuesta a despertar. ¿Qué necesidad? ¿Por qué dormía?
¿Por qué sorda? En cambio, sé que la sintaxis sefardí me devolvió un candor perdido y sus diminutivos, una ternura de otros tiempos que está viva y, por eso, llena de consuelo. Quizás este libro apenas sea una reflexión sobre el lenguaje desde su lugar más calcinado, la poesía.
Acompaño los textos en castellano actual no por desconfianza en la inteligencia del lector. A quien ruego que los lea en voz alta en un castellano y en el otro para escuchar, tal vez, entre los dos sonidos, algo del tiempo que tiembla y que nos da pasado desde el Cid.
I wrote the poems of dibaxu in Sephardi, between 1983 and 1985. I am of Jewish origin, but not Sephardic, and I suppose that this had something to do with it. I think, however, that these poems are above all the culmination, or rather the confluence, of Citas and Comentarios, two books that I composed in full exile, between 1978 and 1979, and whose texts are in dialogue with the Spanish of the sixteenth century. It was as if search-
ing for the substratum of that Spanish, substratum at the same time of our own, had been my obsession. It was as if the extreme solitude of exile had pushed me to search for roots in language, the deepest and most exiled ones of language. I don’t even understand it myself.
Access to poems such as those by Clarisse Nikoïdski, novelist in French and poet in Sephardi, unveiled a necessity that lay dormant in me, deaf, ready to be awakened. What necessity? Why did it lay dormant? Why deaf? Nevertheless, I know that the syntax of Sephardi returned a lost candor to me and its diminutives, a tenderness of other times that lives on and, therefore, is full of solace. Perhaps this book is merely a reflection on language from its most scorched location, poetry.
I pair the texts with the contemporary Spanish translations not out of any lack of faith in the reader’s intelligence. I beseech whoever reads these poems read them aloud in one Spanish and then
in the other in order to hear, perhaps, between the two sounds, something of a time that trembles and gives us a past since The Cid.1
J.G. J.G.
quí lindus tus ojus/
il mirar di tus ojus más/
y más il airi di tu mirar londji/
nil airi stuvi buscandu:
qué lindos tus ojos/
y más la mirada de tus ojos/
y más el aire de tus ojos cuando lejos mirás/
en el aire estuve buscando:
how lovely your eyes/
and more so the gaze of your eyes/
and more so the air of your eyes when you gaze into the distance/
in the air I was searching for:
la lampa di tu sangri/
sangri di tu solombra/
tu solombra
sovri mi curasón/
la lámpara de tu sangre/
sangre de tu sombra/
tu sombra
sobre mi corazón/
the lamp of your blood/
blood of your shadow/
your shadow
over my heart/
la calor qui distruyi al pinser
si distruyi pinsendu/
la luz timbla
in tus bezus/y
el calor que destruye al pensar
se destruye pensando/
la luz tiembla
en tus besos/y
the heat that destroys thought
destroys itself thinking/
the light trembles
in your kisses/and
queda al caminu/queda
al tiempu/londji/avri
lus bezus/dexa
yerva nil curasón quimadu/
detiene al camino/detiene
al tiempo/lejos/abre
los besos/deja
hierba en el corazón quemado/
halts the path/halts
time/far away/opens
the kisses/leaves
grass in the burnt heart/
si dispartara la yuvia
di un páxaru
qui aspira al mar
nil mar/
se despertó la lluvia
de un pájaro
que espera al mar
en el mar/
the rain awoke
from a bird
that awaits the sea
in the sea/
nil ‘amaniana aviarta
n tus ojus abagan
lus animalis qui ti quimaran
adientru dil sueniu/
en la mañana abierta
lentamente por tus ojos pasan
los animales que te quemaron
adentro del sueño/
in the open morning
through your eyes slowly pass
the animals that burned you
within the dream/
nunca dizin nada/
mi dexan sinizas/y
cun il sol/
nunca dicen nada/
me dejan cenizas/y
con el sol/
they never say anything/
they leave me ashes/and
with the sun/
tu piede
pisa la nochi/suavi/
avri la yuvia/
avri il día/
tu pie
pisa la noche/leve/
abre la lluvia/
abre el día/
your foot
treads on the night/light/
it opens the rain/
it opens the day/
la muerte no savi nada di vos/
tu piede teni yerva dibaxu
y una solombra ondi scrivi
il mar del vazío/
la muerte nada sabe de vos/
u pie tiene hierba debajo
y una sombra donde escribe
el mar del vacío/
death knows nothing of you/
your foot has grass beneath it
and a shadow where it writes
the sea of emptiness/
dizis avlas cun árvulis/
tenin folyas qui cantan
y páxarus
qui djuntan sol/
dices palabras con árboles/
tienen hojas que cantan
y pájaros
que juntan sol/
you speak words with trees/
they have leaves that sing
and birds
that gather sun/
tu silenziu
lus gritus
il mundu/
tu silencio
los gritos
del mundo/
your silence
the cries
of the world/
tu boz sta escura
di bezus qui a mí no dieras/
di bezus qui a mí no das/
la nochi es polvu dest’ixiliu/
tu voz está oscura
de besos que no me diste/
de besos que no me das/
la noche es polvo de este exilio/
your voice is dark
from kisses you didn’t give me/
from kisses you don’t give me/
the night is dust of this exile/
tus bezus inculgan lunas
qui yelan mi caminu/y
dibaxu dil sol/
tus besos cuelgan lunas
que hielan mi camino/y
debajo del sol/
your kisses hang up moons
that freeze my path/and
I tremble
beneath the sun/
cuando mi aya muridu
sintiré entudavía
il batideru
di tu saia nil vienti/
cuando esté muerto
oiré todavía
el temblor
de tu saya en el viento/
when I’m dead
I’ll still hear
the trembling
of your skirt in the wind/
uno qui liyera istus versus
prieguntara: “¿cómu ansí?/
¿quí sintirás? ¿quí batideru?/
¿quí saia?/ ¿quí vienti?”/
alguien que leyó estos versos
preguntó: “¿cómo así?/
¿qué oirás? ¿qué temblor?/
¿qué saya?/ ¿qué viento?”/
someone who read these verses
asked: “how’s that?/
what will you hear? what trembling?/
what skirt? what wind?”/
li dixí qui cayara/
qui si sintara a la mesa cun mí/
qui viviera mi vinu/
qui scriviera istus versus:
le dije que callara/
que se sentara a mi mesa/
que bebiera mi vino/
que escribiera estos versos:
I told him to hush/
to sit at my table/
to drink my wine/
to write these verses:
“cuando mi aya muridu
sintiré entudavía
il batideru
di tu saia nil vienti”/
“cuando esté muerto
oiré todavía
el temblor
de tu saya en el viento”/
“when I’m dead
I’ll still hear
the trembling
of your skirt in the wind”/

“Poem XVI.” Composed in Ladino and taken from the first original manuscript of Dibaxu, dated August 5, 1983. This manuscript, containing Gelman’s hand-written revisions, is the first of three original drafts of Dibaxu housed in Princeton’s special collection.

Source: Juan Gelman Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

un vienti di separadus/
di bezus qui no mus diéramus/
acama il trigu di tu ventre/
sus asusenas cun sol/
un viento de separados/
de besos que no nos dimos/
doblega al trigo de tu vientre/
sus azucenas con sol/
a wind of the separated/
of kisses we didn’t exchange/
breaks the wheat of your stomach/
its lilies with sun/
o querré no aver nasidu/
trayi tu agua clara/
las ramas floreserán/
o querré no haber nacido/
trae tu agua clara/
las ramas florecerán/
or I’ll wish I was never born/
bring your clear water/
the branches will bloom/
mira istu:
soy un niniu rompidu/
timblu nila nochi
qui cayi di mí/
mira esto:
soy un niño roto/
tiemblo en la noche
que cae de mí/
look at this:
I am a broken boy/
I tremble in the night
that falls from me/
amarti es istu:
un avla qui va a dizer/
un arvulicu sin folyas
qui da solombra/
amarte es esto:
una palabra que está por decir/
un arbolito sin hojas
que da sombra/
loving you is this:
a word that’s yet to be said/
a small leafless tree
that gives shade/

“Poetry is a leafless tree that gives shade.” Juan Gelman Papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

ista yuvia di vos
dexa cayer pidazus di tiempu/
pidazus d’infinitu/
pidazus di nus mesmos/
tu lluvia
deja caer pedazos de tiempo/
pedazos de infinito/
pedazos de nosotros/
your rain
lets pieces of time fall/
pieces of infinity/
pieces of us/
¿es por isu qui stamus
sin caza ni memoria?/
¿djuntus nil pinser?/
¿comu cuerpos al sol?/
¿por eso estamos
sin casa ni memoria?/
¿juntos en el pensar?/
¿cómo cuerpos al sol?/
is that why we’re
without house or memory?/
together in thought?/
like bodies in the sun?/
il diseu es un animal
todu vistidu di fuegu/
teni patas atan largas
qui yegan al sulvidu/
el deseo es un animal
todo vestido de fuego/
tiene patas tan largas
que llegan al olvido/
desire is an animal
all dressed in fire/
it has legs so long
they reach oblivion/
agora pinsu
qui un paxaricu in tu boz
la caza dil otonio/
ahora pienso
que un pajarito en tu voz
la casa del otoño/
now I think
that a little bird in your voice
the house of autumn/
¿cómu ti yamas?/
soy un siegu sintadu
nil atriu di mi diseu/
méndigu tiempu/
¿cómo te llamas?/
soy un ciego sentado
en el atrio de mi deseo/
mendigo tiempo/
what’s your name?/
I am a blind man seated
at the atrium of my desire/
I beg time/
río di pena/
yoro d’aligría/
¿quí avla ti dezirá?/
¿quí nombri ti nombrará?/
río de pena/
lloro de alegría/
¿qué palabra te dirá?/
¿qué nombre te nombrará?/
I laugh from sorrow/
I cry of joy/
what word will speak you?/
what name will name you?/
no stan muridus lus páxarus
di nuestrus bezus/
stan muridus lus bezus/
lus páxarus volan nil verdi sulvidar/
no están muertos los pájaros
de nuestros besos/
están muertos los besos/
los pájaros vuelan en el verde olvidar/
the birds of our kisses
are not dead/
dead are the kisses/
the birds fly in the green forgetting/
pondrí mi spantu londji/
dibaxu dil pasadu/
qui arde
cayadu com’il sol/
pondré mi espanto lejos/
debajo del pasado/
que arde
callado como el sol/
I’ll put my fright far away/
beneath the past/
that burns
silent like the sun/

Newspaper clipping requesting information regarding the whereabouts of Sylvia Estela Pettigrew, a disappeared person. The words beneath Gelman’s poem read, “We who survive still need answers. Your daughter, Karina Casanova Pettigrew.” Source: Fondo Luis Mangieri, Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Cultura de Izquierdas, CeDInCI.


  1. Given the poetic context here, Gelman’s reference to The Cid (El Cid) most likely concerns El Cantar de mio Cid (The Song of My Cid or The Poem of My Cid), the oldest preserved Castillian epic poem. Based on a true story, it recounts the deeds and adventures of the Castillian hero Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar—commonly known as “El Cid”—and takes place during the period of the Reconquista, or the Reconquest of Spain. However, “el Cid” is left unitalicized, suggesting that Gelman could also be referring to the historical figure of The Cid himself.