3.1 Rafael Pombo’s El Nino Y La Mariposa

Sandra Gaviria-Buck


One hundred years after his death, Rafael Pombo remains one of Colombia's greatest poets, not only of the Romantic period, but of all Colombian literary history. According to Orjuela, he has been named "Colombia's national poet" due to versatility and thematic breadth (401); from human love to religion, philosophy, politics, patriotism; from education to humoristic, popular, and folkloric themes. The notoriety of his work as a poet and translator has transcended the Colombian territory, for he is recognized as one of the major figures of Romanticism in Spanish language. He is certainly the most prolific poet of the XIX century: his posthumously compiled work is composed of four separate publications – two of them made up of two volumes each – which contain more than 1300 original poems, and over 250 translations and adaptations into Spanish from English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Latin, German and Greek, apart from his numerous essays and works in prose that have not been fully compiled yet. His work as a translator, along with that of other poet-translators of the time, not only helped develop and consolidate a national identity, but introduced the aesthetics of romanticism and modernism in Latin America. Considering the influential nature of his work as a translator and as a Romantic poet, it is surprising that just a few of his original poems have been translated into other languages: La hora de las tinieblas, A Bolivar, Las Dos Américas, La mujer, Cadena, De noche, Las dos rejas de arado, En el Niágara. Thirty of his fables were translated into Russian by Maria Zamajovskai (1941) and a few have been translated as well into French, English, and Italian.


Pombo's most well-known works are his collections of children's poems and fables Cuentos Pintados (1867) and Cuentos Morales para Niños Formales (1869), published throughout the Spanish-speaking world. These fables in verse are actually the result of a translation commission to adapt fables and children stories from English nursery rhymes such as The Mother Goose's Melodies. El Niño y la Mariposa was written between 1855 and 1872, but it was only published in 1910. For this particular fable he actually got inspiration from one of Robert Dodsley's 1761 fables, which is presented below simply to underscore the aesthetic value of Pombo's rendition.

A boy greatly smitten with the colours of a butterfly, pursued it from flower to flower with indefatigable pains …. But the fickle fly, continually changing one blossom for another … eluded his attempts. At length, observing it half-buried in the cup of a tulip, he rushed forward, and, snatching it with violence crushed it to pieces. The dying insect, seeing the poor boy somewhat chagrined, addressed him with the calmness of a stoic, in the following manner: “Behold now the end of my unprofitable solicitude! And learn that pleasure is but a painted butterfly which, although it may serve to amuse thee in the pursuit, if embraced with too much ardour, will perish in the grasp.” (Dodsley in Orjuela 257)

Pombo's version in verse stays true to the main characteristics of romanticism; pure emotion is in the heart of this poem: the boy's fascination with the butterfly and the butterfly's sweet complaint regarding the boy's wishes. Life, as an experience to reach infinity, becomes a near-mystical experience in which butterflies die of ecstasy. 


Pombo approached translation as re-creation and co-creation by focusing on achieving an identity of the spirit of source and target poems, rather than on words and form.  This translation of El Niño y la Mariposa aims to preserve both the spirit of Pombo's poem, as well as the principles of his translation practice.  Through Pombo's rendition of Dodley’s fable and mine of Pombo, we are able to confirm Octavio Paz' words: "Cada texto es único y, simultáneamente, es la traducción de otro texto […] Cada traducción es, hasta cierto punto, una invención y así constituye un texto único" (9). “Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text […] Up to a point, each translation is a creation and thus constitutes a unique text” (Paz in Schulte, Rainer and Biguenet 154).


Rica en tinte y en donaire
¿qué haces tú de rosa en rosa?
¿de qué vives en el aire?

Yo, de flores
Y de olores,
Y de espumas de la fuente,
Y del sol resplandeciente
Que me viste de colores.

¿Me regalas
tus dos alas?
¡son tan lindas! ¡te las pido!
deja que orne mi vestido
con la pompa de tus galas.

Tú, niñito
tan bonito,
tú que tienes tanto traje,
¿Por qué quieres un ropaje
que me ha dado Dios bendito?

¿De qué alitas
si no vuelas cual yo vuelo?
¿qué me resta bajo el cielo
si mi todo me lo quitas?

Días sin cuento
De contento
El Señor a ti te envía;
Mas mi vida es un solo día,
No me lo hagas de tormento

¿Te divierte
dar la muerte
a una pobre mariposa?
¡ay¡ quizás sobre una rosa
Me hallarás muy pronto inerte.

Oyó el niño
Con cariño
Esta queja de amargura,
Y una gota de miel pura
Le ofreció con dulce guiño

Ella, ansiosa,
Vuela y posa
En su palma sonrosada,
Y allí mismo, ya saciada,
Y de gozo temblorosa,
Expiró la mariposa.


Butterfly, flying by
rich in colour, full of grace
What do you live on up high?
Why do you that rose embrace?

I live off flowers and smells
and off the fountain's foam,
and from the brilliant sun flare
that clothes me in a coloured robe.

Will you gift me your two wings?
They're so lovely… Would you please?
Colour to my clothes they'll bring
if the splendor of your dress I seize.

Little boy, oh, little boy
you who own so many clothes,
why would you wish to employ
the one God gave me and I own?

Why would you need wings
if you don't fly as I do?
What's left for me in the winds
if I give my all to you?

Countless joyful days
the Lord sends your way,
but I have just one tomorrow;
please don't turn it into sorrow.

Do you regale in bringing death?
Would you take a butterfly's last breath?
Perhaps on a rose nearby
soon my stiff body you'll find.

The boy heeded fondly
the butterfly's bitter protest,
and a drop of pure honey
with a sweet wink he offered her.

Flying anxiously she lands
on the boy's rosy palm
and right there, satisfied,
trembling in delight,
the butterfly breathed its last.


Works Cited


Orjuela, Héctor H. La Obra Poética De Rafael Pombo. Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 1975. Print.

Paz, Octavio. Traducción: Literatura y Literalidad. Barcelona: Tusquets Editor, 1971. Print.

Paz, Octavio. Translation: Literature and Letters. Trans. Irene del Corral. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Eds. Schulte, Rainer and Biguenet.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 152-162. Print.




Sandra Gaviria-Buck is in the second year of her MA in Translation Studies at the University of Alberta.  Her research project consists on the translation from English into Spanish of the book of essays "Calm Things" by Edmontonian writer Shawna Lemay.  Some of her interests are translation of poetic language, as well as Latin American literature and culture.



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