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“Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero.
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.” – “Poema XX” by Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda’s “Poema XX” featured a difficult line for one of my students. “¿Qué significa: ‘Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero’?” I wouldn’t have found the line difficult to understand in either Spanish or English: “I don’t love her, it’s true, but maybe I do.” But perhaps my student hasn’t lived as I have and doesn’t know what it’s like to have poetry and lyrics reflect my emotions or even inspire them. Maybe she doesn’t know that in Spanish there are many examples of forgetting.

A clue to understanding the line that bothered my student is the following one: “Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.” “Love is brief; forgetting it lasts much longer.” My translation is not that great because there isn’t an exact translation for “el olvido.” WordReference notes that “olvido” is a noun, but the first translation for it is the verb “to forget.” How can a noun be a verb? I’ll liken “olvido” to “the act of forgetting.” This act on the part of the poetic voice is something that is performed again and again until perhaps reaching “oblivion,” one of the other translations for “olvido.” Reaching that stage is not easy for some of us when it comes to love.

Bola de Nieve promises to forget his former love yet concedes that he may do nothing but see this person in his memories. Despite the bold statements about forgetting, “Te olvidaré” underscores the doom that the protagonist is sure to encounter:

The price of his trying to forget is quite high since it would lead to his death.

Other singers look to God when seeking to forget:

Alejandro Fernández’s protagonist begs God to help him forget his love. He does so because she herself told him that she had found a new love. The singer enumerates the many reasons his love is wonderful and also how these same qualities are harming him. As in “Te olvidaré,” this love could kill the protagonist of the song. All he needs to be able to do is forget, but he seems powerless faced with these memories.

If you can’t forget, you are subject to whatever emotions may be linked to your act of remembering. The protagonist of “Cuando me acuerdo de ti” wonders why she cries when she remembers her former lover:

The singer can’t fathom why she would cry upon remembering her lover since she claims to no longer love him.

I couldn’t explain all the above to my student in less than a minute, so I ended up playing a little bit of Chet Baker’s “I Get Along without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)” in English.

So sue me. But she got the point. She heard that the protagonist in this song is ready to move on with his life, but then maybe he’s not. She understood that forgetting is a hard thing to do, especially when that love is grand. It didn’t surprise me to learn later during a class discussion that she wasn’t sure if she had ever been in love. You’d recognize it if it happened to you, and it might also take you a long time to forget it if it went away.

The act of forgetting in Spanish, “el olvido,” is very often a bittersweet journey, at least in music and literature. We Spanish speakers sometimes wonder and delight on the road to oblivion.

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