Yemassee in Translation: “Ochre Unicorn” by Joel Hans

Translated by Julia Velasco


The last ochre unicorn doesn’t know she is the last, but when she sees the endless stack of her kind’s spiraling horns severed and bloody, she has a strong suspicion.

She gallops to the wood and finds it burned down, charcoal glowing like heartbeats. She digs with her horn until she has four deep holes she can stand in. Hold her steady like a tree and its roots. She needs the support, for she is remembering her filly, her little girl suckling. Her firsts.

First standing, weak-kneed and cartilage-straining and bleating.

First feeding some moments after that and feeling like she had been bloated all along, weighed down by the not-mothering.

First threat, first fleeing, first test of the filly footsteps, her new dexterity.

First horn’s breaking through the skin and causing blood to flow.

First assurance that everything would be all right.

A litany of firsts. A legacy she can feel in her hips, in her widespaced nipples. Middens of muscle and that dried-up production.

She did not see her suckling’s alicorn among the detritus of her civilization but did not need to. Earthcolor to earth and blood to alabaster. Pale two-legged bodies bearing fire and blades. Bleatings against moonrise and she could do nothing more than hide.

Her filly, her suckling, her child born and grown and gone.

She does not know she is the last, but she is.

The cruelty of a unicorn’s twisted sabre is that it is not meant to be turned inward, and yet she finds a way.

Four hooves buried, she will stand like a monument until time takes her cartilage and forgets the arrangement of her bones.


La última unicornio ocre no sabe que es la última, pero al ver la pila interminable de cuernos en espiral de los suyos, cercenados y sangrientos, comienza a sospecharlo.

Galopa hasta el bosque y lo encuentra abrasado, cubierto de restos de carbón que brillan como los latidos de un corazón. Escarba con su cuerno hasta lograr cuatro agujeros profundos sobre los que colocar los cascos, que la sostienen como a un árbol sus raíces. La unicornio necesita el apoyo, pues está recordando a su potrilla, a su bebé de pecho; todas sus primeras veces.

La primera vez que se puso de pie, forzando los cartílagos de sus débiles rodillitas y balando.

La primera vez que la alimentó, poco después, aliviando la hinchazón de maternidad contenida hasta entonces.

La primera amenaza, la primera huida, la primera vez que la potrilla puso a prueba sus pasos, su destreza nueva.

La primera vez que el cuerno desgarró la piel y derramó sangre.

Las primeras palabras de consuelo y esperanza.

Una letanía de primeras veces. Un legado que la unicornio siente en sus caderas, en sus pezones separados. En los estratos de sus músculos y su leche seca.

No ha visto el cuerno de su bebé entre los escombros de su civilización, pero no hace falta. A la tierra el color de la tierra y sangre al alabastro. Cuerpos pálidos sobre dos patas portando fuego y cuchillas. Balidos a la salida de la luna, y ella no pudo más que esconderse.

Su potrilla, su bebé que nació, creció y se fue.

No sabe que es la última, pero lo es.

La crueldad del sable retorcido de un unicornio es que no está hecho para blandirlo hacia dentro, pero ella encuentra la manera.

Con los cuatro cascos enterrados, se alzará como un monumento hasta que el tiempo se lleve su cartílago y olvide el entramado de sus huesos.

Translator’s Note

The first problem I encounter with this translation is right in the title. It is the word “unicorn,” the most important word in the story. The issue is that the masculine form “unicornio” is the standard in Spanish, but the gender of the female protagonist plays a central role in this story. Should I try to use the feminine form? Is “unicornia” even a thing? For starters, my word processor doesn’t like “unicornia.” Not decisive, but not encouraging, either. I turn to Google to see what I find—some translators might deny that they do this in order to find out what the world thinks of a particular phrasing. They lie. Google tells me that “unicornia” is the magical place unicorns are from. Looking for a more authoritative source, I turn to the Real Academia Española de la Lengua. It registers the masculine but says nothing about a feminine form. Searching some more, it seems that “la unicornio” (feminine pronoun, masculine standard form) is a thing. As one could expect, the most reliable source that I find for this use is

That decision made, something magical happens—this is a magical piece, after all. I translate the story’s title literally, and the result is musical and beautiful. “La unicornio ocre” has a singsong tone to it, with the /k/ sound and diphthongs in the right places. I can’t claim any credit for that; I was just lucky. For the rest of the translation, however, I have to step in. There are decisions to make so the text can work in Spanish as well. Punctuation, for example, is a challenge. One option is to replicate that of the original as much as possible. In Spanish, however, sentences are usually longer—we like our commas—so I decide to adapt it. After all, the original sounds natural in English, so the translation should also sound natural. I face similar problems throughout, when the literal translation of a word just doesn’t sound right. As a translator, you have to follow your nose as much as your brain.

Before I start the final revision, I let the story sit. This is important to do with any text, but even more so with a translation, since you have to get rid of the ghost of the original and see the new text for what it is. When you revise a translation, you will find the spots in which your mind was too worried about the original text, in detriment to the new one. Now the whole text has to stand for itself. Once you are satisfied with what you have, when you see you have created a full text in its own right, you’re done.

Joel Hans is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Caketrain, West Branch, Redivider, New South, Booth, and others.

Julia Velasco has a licenciatura in Translation and Interpreting from the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville, and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of South Carolina. She has translated the work of Spanish-speaking poets such as Armando Romero, Eduardo Espina, Mario Bojorquez and Edwin Madrid. Her translations of Madrid's poetry can be found in Circumference. Julia's fiction has appeared in The Delmarva Review.