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Proximate Shadowing: Translation as Radical Transparency and Excess

Ask Jen Hofer what she’s working on and the answer will be something like: I’m translating four books, writing a few of my own, teaching, interpreting for Spanish-speakers in the Los Angeles County court system and advocating through Antena Los Ángeles (antenalosangeles.org), the collaborative she co-founded with Ana Paula Noguez Mercado, for spaces (unlike the court system) where no language dominates over any other, working on various community-based language justice interventions, interviewing Chilean rap star Ana Tijoux at the Los Angeles Public Library, doing projects through Antena, the project she co-founded with John Pluecker, including collaborative writings and translations and bilingual programming and installations and electrifying a converted Mexican cargo trike turned multilingual small-press bookmobile, among other collaborations and individual projects. In other words, a thousand great things at once.

Jen, like our previous posters—Don Mee Choi, Lucas de Lima, and Cecilia Vicuňa, is engaged in writing across multiple languages, borders, and nations. I don’t know of another writer who moves so fluidly between literary worlds in the US and literary worlds in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

Translation, for Jen, is political action.

In the context of a national discourse that seeks to make immigrants and their languages invisible, that allows for immigrants to disappear in prisons and deserts, that allows for immigrants to be humiliated and marched in chain gangs, as they have been in Maricopa County, Arizona, the necessity of Jen’s insistence on language justice is magnified. Jen’s work in her communities to move forward a political and practical platform to equalize languages, to make public life in the US a life that does not privilege one language over another, is a reminder of how relevant art and writing and translation can actually be.

Jen’s work reminds me that people have died and are killed for the right to speak their own language.

In “Suspension of Belief: Some thoughts on translation as subversive speech,”—Jen writes that “English needs to learn to hear differently. And thus to speak differently, to think differently, to act differently. English as it functions in the normative political and social spheres is a language out of which we must translate all the time, refusing vigilantly, energetically, to be seduced or coddled or dulled or defeated by the willfully deceptive misnomers of an Orwellian system that frames not just our actions but our frames (language, thought, relation) themselves.”

In her relentless drive to make us “become aware of what there is to see in what we do not want to see,” Jen writes and translates and subverts language in the hopes that translation can pacify and humanize and counter the rhetoric and violence of a racist, xenophobic culture.

Finally, it’s worth emphasizing that, if literary history, in its treatment of foreign languages, has been defined by, in Lawrence Venuti’s terms, making the translator invisible, Jen’s approach, both in this essay and in her work more broadly (both individually and in collaboration with John Pluecker and others working through Antena), highlights the active presence of the translator. Rather than masking a text’s untranslateability, Jen highlights it in order to change the reader’s awareness of the collaborative language manipulation and intervention that makes translation possible. Such interventions can be uncomfortable, awkward and, some might argue, overly intrusive. In Jen’s case, however, these are clear aesthetic, linguistic, and political choices she is making in order to resist the role of the translator as authoritative, in order to resist the hierarchies of language in order to overexpose, and not conceal, subjectivities, biases, and the political and social conditions that inform the decisions she makes.

—Daniel Borzutzky


Image from Wiki Commons

Translation: to transit toward proximity. To offer the most minute most intense most focused kind of attention to the work of another writer/thinker. Radical listening. The other writers in this series—Cecilia, Daniel, Don Mee, John, and Lucas—are some of the first people I think of when I need inspiration or instigation to remember which conversations I most exuberantly want to consider my home, and why I need to write and translate as a way to participate in those conversations. I think of them, and of Virginia Lucas and the other writers I translate, as people whose work I want to live up to. That phrase—“live up to”—with its inherent lack of horizontality, its sense of always being in process of doing the work to make the life I want to live, perhaps this is what it is to work lovingly from what Don Mee calls a “lowly” position. Or perhaps I might revise the deeply-grooved channels of my mind that tend toward learned responses based in scarcity and imbalance, to say that these are some of the people whose work I want to live alongside, within, around, in proximity to, inside. Reading is a way of getting inside (intimately, and more so reading-as-translation, as Gayatri Spivak compellingly argues, and reading is a way of getting outside—not an escape, but an extension, an expansion, a migration toward something not-me as I remain always-(in)-me. John Keene writes of the ways we are tethered by and to the work we do, and to one another through that work: “I see my translation projects as a lifeline linking me to other writers and cultures across the globe—a lifeline to bring them into English, and to bring and keep us—I and all who read my translations, however flawed—into conversation, communication, and contact.” Wildly ferning chosen-family trees or multi-directional map-tracings of connections through idea and imagination, I imagine the pathways of those tethers linking us not only to others across the globe, but to companion-travelers who are perhaps our neighbors, doing kindred work in congruent and energizing ways.

I started translating Virginia Lucas’s poems years ago, at Dolores Dorantes’s suggestion, when I was looking for writers outside my sphere of knowledge whose work might fit well in the journal Aufgabe.  Dolores knows I enjoy difficulty, and maybe even impossibility, and she knows that my poetic proclivities are toward the unpredictable, the wild, the queer, the anti-normative and pro-weird, the engaged-with-and-in-the-world. Virginia begins the poem titled “Primera escena (luz única: enfoco)” with these lines:

Acercarme a tu lujuria: escapar a.cercar ese pecado tan escrito como pecado ese temblarme la gana de sentirte sobre vos, sobrevo(s) armé signo cerca.armé a las ganas de  ta ta ta tá

My translation, “First Scene (single light: I focus)” begins:

Closing in on your lust: escaping en.closing that so-written sin as sin that quivering-in-me desire to feel you atop you, (a)topyou singing sign clo.sing.in1 around my desires to  ta ta ta tá

Who tops who in translation? I am topped by your vocabularic acrobatics, your irreducibly VirginiaLucasian pirouettes of speech and exponentially gymnastic forms, your you-ness that doesn’t necessarily want to meet my me-ness (and my adoration of being not-met in irreducible yet also porous difference). I top you because I have the last word. I’m the writer of your text in “my” language. My English is “better” than yours. I might gatekeep your texts (or I might not be able not to) even when I don’t believe in gates or keeping.

Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles; Photo: Jen Hofer

Cecilia Vicuña writes:

Language is migrant. Words move from language to language, from culture to culture, from mouth to mouth. Our bodies are migrants, cells and bacteria are migrants too. Even galaxies migrate.

What is then this talk against migrants? It can only be talk against ourselves, against life itself.


What is the rite performed by millions of migrants displaced and seeking safe haven around the world? Is it a way to let us see our own indifference, our complicity with the ongoing wars?”

In cross-language practices—inherently and complicatedly encounters with difference—who shadows who? Who or what migrates? Which language comes first, in the absence of an essentialized view of the original? Or is the origin even language? Which language follows, in the absence of a belief in direct or immutable translation? Or is the result a process or a producing, rather than a product? And what or who is produced, what or who is translated, when the multi-directional alchemical effects of translation practice might (subjunctively, as Cecilia suggests) unsettle even a basic idea of what we thought language or ourselves-in-language might be or do? Cecilia Vicuña writes: “‘Subjunctive’ means next to, but under the power of the unknown. It is a future potential subjected to unforeseen conditions. It may or it may not happen, and that aspect matches exactly the quantum definition of emergent properties.” And translation is nothing if not a constellation of emergent properties, a cloud-form of emerging practices and colliding consciousnesses migrating toward a propertiless state and a stateless porosity.

Image: Wiki Commons

In or into translation. Proximate. How to accompany and not eclipse? What is foregrounded? What is backgrounded? What is below-grounded? The body of the text presents itself as the primary, the visible, the central. The note presents itself as auxiliary, aside, addition, deviation. Bringing shadows into the dark light of the poem. Bringing glare into the glowing dark of the translation process. The radiating dark effortful space of the invisible work of translation that is not reflected or mirrored in the translation itself. A sheen on the poem. A glint. A ray of something we can’t quite define. The note doesn’t seek to expand understanding, but rather to clearly or densely or transparently articulate what does not readily make itself transparent2. The note is overmuch, over-abundant, over-exposed, the inexactly mirroring transparency in the dark that shimmers as the not-seen: what is made visible does not help us to see but encourages a kind of sightless empathy we need and cannot access and cannot not seek.

Colonia Buena Vista, Tijuana; Photo: Jen Hofer


Virginia Lucas

La situación peligra Ban ban delirio del río –dijo. Alguien sostiene un reto contra otro alguien. Alguien tiene quince años y carga treinta en la fiesta de mis niños, los de la esquina, pero si eres niño los mocos no son agravio ni mamá golpeando suave que la siento cerca, cerquita frío el cuerpo de niño en baldosa: la situación peligra ban ban que no quiere fiesta en este orden del horario ni le pesa el interés ni mucho menos la escuela.
Que no que no, que la fiesta es del cuerpo, y el cuerpo es del hoy. El cuerpo y el instante: si siente eleva, mientras el poeta burgués dice: la cópula es la lírica del pueblo dijo

si otro:
                                              - - - -up swing - - - -

instante busca, busca busca intenso contacto, penetración, más busco, más y no soy del pueblo, al pueblo lo hago diciéndolo Como sino me perteneciera la comida igual, y sin embargo el estómago busca, busco colmar a Midas Co. Midas, rey del tacto. También te quiero.
La situación peligra ban ban. Alguien teclea un tel. con botoncitos, sabe lo útil que necesita y dice lo otro que no le interesa, ni a mi. Le interesa el coito y desordena la clase pensando en otra cosa. Yo pienso en irme también. Y arrogo el derecho de decir, siempre arrogo el derecho de decirle vos sos así, vos sentís esto y sos pobre y el pobre claro, pobre.cito.
Oligarcas del dicho. El pobre tamb. dice, el plancha dice el rastrillo tamb. el cante dice, cuarentasemanas  dice el latero dice: dame pasta.
Paraestatame otra política gobierno, quiero vaca tamb. Si tengo la leche encima y quince años dame vaca pero dame ban ban que de ternero sido quiero vaca –no sida-
y no mamarte más la leche que yo la tengo y la llevo encima, pero siempre la llevo encima.
La situación peligra ban ban reventó el instante, dicen en el Río de la Plata. ¡¡¡¡¡No, no, no, nono noooooooo!! eso de viejo reventado por el doble oo caño doble escopeta apuntándome en el descuido y repitiendo impropiedades. A veces faltan huevos, dos. Pero siempre faltan.
                                              - - - - andante molto - - - -
No. Alguien tiene quince años, qué viene después si lleva treinta? Qué hijos porta, qué derrota si angosta el tiempo, cada vez más la sit.y peligra. Cada vez menos tiempo, más hoy, ya el botoncito, la asignación familiar, no hay después, después es un adverbio se quedó al lado, no es verbo no es palabra no inventó nada y muero, pero siempre muero, y vos también, que de hipócrita no tenés nada, y sí que no tenés nada, mi hermano, mi padre.
- Madre nunca estuvo.


trans. Jen Hofer

The situation dangers Bang bang3 river delirium –they said. Someone levels a challenge against another someone. Someone is 15 and looks thirty at the party for my kids, the ones from the corner, but if you’re a kid snot doesn’t do any harm nor does mamá beating me up gently and I feel her close by, very close by cold the body of the kid on the tiles: the situation dangers bang bang4 who doesn’t want a party on this schedule he’s not weighed down by interest and even less so by school.
But no but no, but the party is the body’s, and the body is today’s. The body and the instant: if it feels it rises, while the bourgeois poet says: copulation is the lyric of the people he said

if another:
                                              - - - - up swing - - - -
instant seeks, seeks seeks intense contact, penetration, I seek more, more and I’m not from the people, the people is what I make by saying it As if food were to belong to me as destiny just the same, and nonetheless the stomach seeks, seeks, to satisfy Midas Co. Midas, king of touch. Also I love you.
The situation dangers bang bang5. Someone keys in a tel. with little buttons, knows what’s needed useful and says the other thing that doesn’t interest them, nor me either. Is interested in coitus and messes up the class thinking about something else. I think about leaving too. And I assume the right to speak, I always assume the right to speak to them: you’re this way, you feel this and you’re poor and the poor, of course, poor.thing, pobre.cito6.
Oligarchs of the spoken. The pobre ’lso speaks, the thug speaks the mugger ’lso the slum speaks, barrio cuarentasemanas speaks the crackhead speaks: give me rocks.
Semi-official-it-to-me another governmental policy, I want cow ’lso. My balls are hard and I’m on top of the world7 and fifteen years give me cow but give me bang bang if of calf it’s been I want the aid of cow–not aids–
and not to suck your milk any more I’ve got it already they’re hard and I’m on top but they’re always hard I’m always on top
The situation puts ban ban in danger the instant burst, they say in Río de la Plata. ¡¡¡¡¡No, no, no, nono noooooooo!! that thing about the old guy burst by the double oo double barrel shotgun pointing at me without thinking and repeating improprieties. Sometimes you don’t have enough balls, two. But you never have enough.
                                              - - - - andante molto - - - -
No. Someone’s fifteen years old, what will happen later if they’re thirty? What kids might they have, what defeats if time narrows, more and more the sit.y danger. Less and less time, more today, now the little button, familial assignation, there is no later, later is an adverb left behind, it’s not a verb it’s not a word it didn’t invent anything and I die, but I always die, and you too, there’s nothing in you of the hypocrite, and indeed there’s nothing in you, my brother, my father.
—Mother was never there.


The poem makes its own kind of sense, its own kind of senselessness. The poem doesn’t need the notes. The poem needs nothing. The notes need the poem. The translation needs both the poem and the notes. Or insofar as the translation is its own poem, it needs nothing. The notes come directly from and into the translation process itself—they are not afterthought or afterword, but interruption, excess, interjection, extraneous needful commentaries that leave the imprint of where I was or imagined or wished myself to be as I was in the moment of not-understanding8 that builds, question by question, impossibility by impossibility, the particularly political kind of not-understanding-but-coexisting-in-proximity translation can spark.

Lucas de Lima writes: “The guilt of proximity to whiteness is not enough. White guilt is no recipe for aspiring race traitors. What I need is something most of my elders don’t have. I’m talking about a blueprint for solidarity and transformation.” Is the opacity of language (a kind of darkness or density)—as if it can’t be seen through, can’t be recognized as contoured, as multiple, as malleable depending on purpose, perspective, politics—part of what creates white supremacy and other supremacies in structures of speech and writing (and linked to those, in structures of publishing, policing, and policy-making)? And simultaneously/conversely, is the incapacity to recognize and sustain the opacity of language—its irreducibility, its non-translatability, its tendriling and not-digestible proliferations—also part of what creates the violence of supremacies? That is, the inability to be in proximity and to accompany while being in difference (but not indifferent) in the way translation invites us to be? Are there ways that translation practice when made transparent, its shadowiness openly embraced and respected (not explicated) and elucidated (not illuminated), might be one such blueprint, of the many we need?

P.S. I want to crowd-source a moment in the poem “Assignation”—a moment signaled in footnote 7 in the English-language version of the poem. If you have ideas about what I might do in English with the phrase “tengo la leche encima” please write me at [email protected] and I will gratefully consider your suggestions.

1 In the first line of this poem, Virginia alchemizes the verb “acercar” (to come close or get near) into “a.cercar” (to fence or corral or enclose). There’s a whole other thing going on with the “a” there (a kind of charge—¡a cercar!—i/you/we/they/person-of-indeterminate-pronoun shall fence in!) but that is perhaps a different topic for a different note in a different version of this book. In the second line of the poem, armé (I assembled or built or made) transforms into cerca.armé (nearby I assembled and simultaneously fence me in, corral me). Earlier in the book, the name Mallarmé shimmies into the phrase Mall.arm’e, a version (poorly assembled) of mal.armé, or I built/assembled it poorly, in a bad way. The moments or nodes of language of which the poem is assembled mass up without coming together neatly. The poem is a mass, a morass, a metastasis arrowing toward our meta stasis, a stubbornly immoveable and malignant status quo in which every word, every idea needs radically to be taken apart and perhaps not reassembled at all. Perhaps made into an arm that can somehow transform weapon into body part, tool of destruction into organ of living molecular charge. These mis-assembled metastatic verb alchemies manifest two or more things at once. In the world of my VirginiaLucasian English, where two or more things at once are being assembled and corralled in collided verbal phrases, we must sing signs rather than building them so as to manifest the enclosing to which they are subject. When I mentioned to Virginia that I’d be writing a note arguing (or “arguing”) that singing and assembling are the same thing in the Lucasian poem-world, she laughed and said that “cantar” and “armar” have the same tonality in music, and that my version turns into a sort of annotation around a recital, around how to read, how to employ the best partitura—where reading is both score and (harmonically, via “partir”) departure or division. I like the way singing and assembling lap up against one another, as Virgina’s reaction transports me to the aureate moment later in the poem where the “la” of the solfege scale becomes the mouth-opener of “lamida,” the feminine past participle of the verb “lamer,” to lick. (trans. note)

2 A Note On Notes, originally published in slightly different form alongside a number of Virginia’s poems with my translations into English, on The Offending Adam: Virginia Lucas’s work contains footnotes—some for purposes of explanation, and some for purposes of expansion, counterpoint, provocation, pique. In translating Virginia’s poems, I translate her forms and uses of language, including, of course, her notes. And in translating what is not translatable in her work—that is, what is most important to translate, the snags or tangles or collisions that don’t readily succumb to expression in English, and hence become opportunities for us as readers to become translated, or for English to be de-Englished—I take recourse in the form of the note, for purposes of explanation, expansion, counterpoint, provocation, pique. That is, I’m following the lead of Virginia’s poetics, even as I lead them astray. I’ve been thinking a lot (without much resolution) about which moments of “snag” I footnote, and which I leave without annotation. What is, I wonder, the imagined audience for the original book? What is the imagined audience for the translated book? Do I footnote every reference I had to look up, thus suggesting that the limits of my knowledge are the parameters for explication, problematically positioning myself, then, as the imagined audience for both the original and the translation? Do I footnote terms I imagine a non-Uruguayan Spanish-reading public might not know, in an attempt to replicate an (imagined) Uruguayan reader’s experience of the book for (imagined) non-Uruguayan USAmerican readers? Do I choose which references to explain in a note, which translation choices to explode in a note, based on my own intuitions as I navigate these texts, in a nod (or more than a nod) to all the ways that translation practice relies on intuition, channeling, and feeling my way through unfamiliar territories? My approach constitutes interventionist translation, perhaps—a form of ultratranslation (about which more here)—and is thus a little clunky and a little uncomfortable and a little lacking and a little excessive. It goes a little too far, while not getting near enough. It’s not quite right, as translation never gets things quite “right”—it’s not about rightness or fixity or one-to-one correlation, not about digesting the source or hitting the target, but about the always-in-process-of-failing attempt to recognize the substance and context of something from somewhere else, and bring that recognition here, while remaining wondrously aware of the processes of transfer, and of what resists transfer. (trans. note)

3 Translation stops me in my tracks. I might be going along (or in the case of how life feels lately, hurtling along) como si nada and then a word or phrase or image suddenly falters me, stumbling in my path, its body looming, an obstacle or blockage or snag or vortex that stops time and distends space como si nadara en un agua espesa y borrosa. A bang. Something inserts itself where it does not belong. That’s the poem, the snag. The snag is a call to attention, a reminder not to take language—or anything—for granted. (trans. note)

4 If the original is not essence, but mutable cluster of meanings—boundaried, to be sure, by particularities of word choice, tone, phrasing, music, context, and politics in the “homespace” of the writer who wrote the departure text—then the translation can only be a kind of glancing reflective surface, hardly a direct and blemishless mirror. In the dark, what does the mirror see? Don Mee Choi writes: “Have you ever encountered a mirror like your own in darkness? It ‘is empty…at the very bottom.’ This is why I say I am a lowly translator. Darkness to darkness, wound to wound, mirror to mirror, translation weaves… And translation mirrors enable us to ‘experience all the obliterations at once.’” Bang bang.

5 What happens (to our language, to our thinking, to our sense of the contours and textures of the betweens we traverse when we move from one language-place to another) when we shift our language, as Erín Moure suggests we do (in her astounding book My Beloved Wager), from “source language” and “target language” to “departing language” and “arriving language”? What happens when we shift yet again—spinning prismatically in that shifty shadowy way translation has of never standing still, never facing the same direction, never quite declaring the declarative, always nudging toward the suggestion that we might not be getting “the real story” or that the “real” story might not be so “real” after all—to think of the departing text and the arriving text? What if the movement is not from language to language, but from text to text, from person to person?

6 “Pobrecito” is the diminutive of “pobre”—“poor thing” or “poor little thing.” The denaturalizing addition of the period between “pobre” and “cito,” however, inscribes Virginia’s diminutive into the litany of diminishing commentaries (ever diminishing returns) about poor people. In Spanish, particularly in presentations or lectures, the conventional way to introduce quoted material is to say “cito” (“I quote”) immediately preceding the material being quoted. With the addition of this period, the subsequent sections of the poem can be understood both as Virginia’s “original” poem, which of course they are, and as quoted material, which of course they are. All speech and writing are, to some extent, citation: the phrasings and pigeonholes and prejudices that filter or frame or freeze perception are inherited, learned, imposed. The poem is an unlearning, even or especially as it parrots the poverty of what the oligarchs of the spoken might assume the right to say. (trans. note)

7 I asked Virginia about the phrase “tengo la leche encima” (literally, “I have the milk on top of me” or “I’m all full of milk”). Her response: “Eh, it’s a super masculinized phrase. I have all the power inside me, or I feel powerful. It’s an intense expression, very intense: tener toda la lecha encima… it’s like saying that you’re about to come (sexually), that is to say, eh, you’re powerful, ah, you’re strong. That’s it, that you are or could be a strong person… with (vital) strength or (life) force, young, with your whole life ahead of you…” So there are a number of different elements that need to appear in whatever expression I use here: some part of the male anatomy or of masculine (or masculinist) sexual functioning needs to be foregrounded; it should be a little dirty and should connote dominance or puffed-up potential; ideally it would in some way relate (even just harmonically) to milky liquid (semen or milk) so that all the cow and milk references will reverberate with whatever expression I use. Possible in a single expression in English? So far I’m not locating that possibility, hence my use of two expressions jammed together. There are multiple other references in this book to “being on top” and specifically to the man being on top, so “being on top of the world” feels fortuitous in some ways, though it needs some enhancement or fluffing to achieve the level of raunchy sexual innuendo that swells Virginia’s “leche encima.” (trans. note)

8 For years I’ve been thinking and writing through ideas around the ways translation can generate empathetic not-understanding as an alternative to simplistic and often essentializing or assimilationist ideas around the way texts in translation can provide a “window” into other cultures, as opposed to being tools for unlearning the dominance of English and of USAmerican frameworks for conceiving and categorizing complex interrelated phenomena like race, ethnicity, nationality, linguistic culture, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and all kinds of other constellations that make people people. As Antena (antenaantena.org) wrote in our Manifesto for Ultratranslation: “Untranslatability is at the root of our practice. Moments of untranslatability lead directly to untranslation, undertranslation, overtranslation, an excess, extranslation, a lack, a limit, an excrescence, an impropriety, distranslation, retranslation, multitranslation, a mistake, a conflict, dystranslation. An understanding of the potential in not understanding. An ultratranslation.” I think it’s important to make a distinction, however, between a purposeful and political concept of “not-understanding” and flat-out misunderstanding, as John Keene powerfully articulates it: “The more voices we open our ears to, read and hear—acknowledging that the bridges we construct through translation will not be foolproof—the less likely we are to misunderstand, and thus erase or elide particularities and specificities, and the more likely we are to see connections and commonalities at the same time.”

Originally Published: April 30th, 2016

A poet, translator, book-maker, activist interpreter, educator, and urban cyclist, Jen Hofer was born in San Francisco and currently lives and works in the Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Hofer’s translation of Mexican poet Myriam Moscona’s Negro Marfil/Ivory Black (2011) received the 2012 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy...