The Machinations of Translation
“Something that would definitively wipe out memory, maybe.”
Juan Carlos Flores (1962-2016),
as translated by Kristin Dykstra
I had been planning a post about recent Latin American poetry in translation, when I heard the awful news Wednesday morning about the passing of Cuban poet Juan Carlos Flores. I had wanted to write in detail about Flores because of how impressed I was by Kristin Dykstra’s new bilingual edition of Flores’s The Counterpunch (and Other Horizontal Poems)/El contragolpe (y otros poemas horizontales) (Alabama, 2016), but also because of Flores’s understanding of his own poetry as a mode of formal and cultural translation.
As Dykstra notes in her excellent introduction, Flores had an expansive conception of his poems as translations, encompassing their “first translation” from handwritten versions into poems typed for him and then scored for the page on a computer, as well as their “second life as a script for performance.” Crucially, Dykstra emphasizes how Flores’s poetics is also an attempt to translate the physical, psychic, and social space of Alamar, the massive housing project on the outskirts of Havana, where Flores lived and wrote for most of his life. Dykstra beautifully reads aspects of Flores’s work, such as his penchant for anaphora and repetition of lines and phrases, his exploration of the architecture of the prose poem, and his quest for a “horizontal” poetics attuned to a grounded and stripped-down urban vernacular, as organically related to the spatial coordinates of Alamar. (She also notes Alamar’s prominent place in the history of Cuban hip-hop, and suggests how and why hip-hop was important to Flores’s work.)
Both Flores’s poetry and Dykstra’s edition of his work (one of several book-length translations of Cuban poets that Dykstra is publishing with the University of Alabama Press, including titles by Reina María Rodríguez and Ángel Escobar) are noteworthy for their careful and sustained attention to the cultural politics of translation, something that is still surprisingly rare in the realm of Latin American poetry translations published in the United States. In judging last year’s PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, I noticed that most of the books had some sort of translator’s introduction, but that even the most thorough of these often did not address the political dimensions of the translation (for instance, tensions between the translator and their poet’s respective understandings of translation, or even simply the political context in which the translation evolved). In the absence of such an engagement with the political, translation risks a hermeticism and generic formalism, especially in cases where the translated poet’s work is all but begging for some political context (Cuban poetry stands out here for obvious reasons).
Of course, this is all the more perplexing given that it might be argued that Latin American poets, and the poets of Brazilian concretismo in particular, were the first to systematize a cultural politics of translation. Experimentally inclined U.S. poets and scholars have certainly devoted much attention to Haroldo de Campos and his concept of “transcreation” (transcriação), but these readings typically either apply Haroldo’s term to non-Brazilian (mostly Anglo-American) debates, genealogies, and contexts, maybe subordinating it as an arrière-garde to the proper, Anglo-European avant-garde, or more generously highlight his work within a “poetics of the Americas” framework limited by its privileging of (certain kinds of) linguistic difficulty, to which cultural politics is seemingly reduced. As Lucas de Lima’s important work suggests, there’s a strong colonial imprint to these machinations, both because they redirect Haroldo’s work and because in doing so they occlude its own problematic machinations. For instance, in my reading Haroldo’s transcreation is inseparable from concretismo’s programmatic vanguardist internationalism which, as Gonzalo Aguilar reminds us, was itself inseparable from the export logic of a profoundly ideological political project and specifically from what Felipe Hernández and Peter Kellett, writing about Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília, describe as an “exclusionary and narrow” current within Brazilian modernism/modernization that left little room for, say, the indigenous or the poor.
In this context, Flores’s term “Machi-nation” (Maqui-nación), which is the title of the poem from which this post’s epigraph is taken, seems endlessly generative. The poem “Machi-nation” rejects a concretista-style poem-as-future-national-museum-display and imagines instead a “(f)uture part, in archeological museum or warehouse filled with junk.” In a sense, the poem reflects the dystopia of post-Special-Period Cuba, as opposed to the class-blind utopia of late-modernist Brasília (the opening poem in Flores’s book is about dumpster diving and reads like an ars poetica). At the same time, there’s a powerfully decolonial charge to Flores’s quirky wrecking of the poem-machine (here and in the stunning poem “Tapdance”), the way his poetic prose confronts the “Massive bloated automobile […] extracting their blood” and maybe wiping out their memory. Whereas the skittering poetic prose of Williams’s The Great American Novel (1923) reads like an avant-la-lettre parody of the Beat road novel (the novel goes nowhere in particular), Flores’s lines here read like a counterlogic (or counterpunch) to the poem/nation as machine that fuels so many modes of overdetermined political art and so many vanguardist fever dreams.
This is not the touristy, exportable Havana with the colorful old American cars, but a decaying Alamar as pre-planned and monumental in its own way as Niemeyer’s internationally projected Brasília. As Dykstra observes, several hip-hop acts from Alamar left the country and found international success, which prompted questions about authenticity and the proper representation of place. The title poem, which ends the book, stages some of these questions, evoking a boxer in action and counterpunching, but the poem begins “Ostriches tuck their eyes under their wings so as not to see the approaching danger” and ends with the repeated phrase “hip hop” and the counterpuncher down for the count. If hip-hop and other urban vernacular forms are modes of resistance (counterpunches) because they are horizontal (grounded, street-level, non-hierarchical), that doesn’t mean the counterpuncher can’t get counterpunched back and end up horizontal on the mat. As a meditation on the possibilities and pitfalls of a vernacular poetics outside of the exportable city and its (homosocial?) machi-nations, The Counterpunch (and Other Horizontal Poems) is hard to beat, and its radical imagination is its own beautiful (ruin?)nation.
Histories and genealogies of the avant-garde rely upon and reinscribe a privileged transnationalism that reinforces the hegemonic legacy of the lettered city, and the equation between translation and transnationalism has been so naturalized that in the U.S. it’s practically impossible to imagine the academic study of translation without it. Still, as Dykstra observes, Flores’s poetry is all about blurring high and low cultures and, as is the case with other contemporary Cuban poets, thinking about the lived and embodied city and its limits in new and surprising ways. Inevitably, given Cuban politics and geographies, such projects may only have a fitful relationship to global currents. (See the poem, “The Washbasin,” where the speaker is encouraged to write a poem about subcomandante Marcos and his “real spiritual revolution” but ends up abjectly walking along Havana’s seafront, or compare to Dykstra’s analysis of how a term like “diaspora” becomes crucial in all kinds of personal and unexpected ways in Reina María Rodríguez’s Other Letters to Milena—Rodríguez appears as “R.M.R” in one of the poems in Flores’s book.)
Following Flores, we can think of a cultural politics of translation as counter-machination. From the CIA’s translation squads during the Cold War to the concretistas’s programmatic transcreations of Pound and Joyce and the earliest digital poetries, a hemispheric modernism or a poetics of the Americas can’t be disentangled from a range of ideological translatorly machinations (and translation machines!), so rather than perpetuate the fantasy of a neutral or unblemished translation, we might want to highlight poetics that expose those machinations, and that counter the fictions of the nation and/as machine that underwrite them. The Hispanophone Caribbean, given its historical and ongoing figuration in colonial logics and designs and its relative lack of visibility (and real estate) within continental hemispheric imaginaries, remains a strategic site from which to map the ideological contours of “their”/“our” America/América. Translators have a key role to play here, and while Dykstra’s translations of Cuban poetry are crucial, where are the translations of Puerto Rican and especially Dominican poets? Their counterpunches need to be felt too. Or are caribeñ@ poets too close to home (New York, Boston, Miami, etc.) to satisfy institutional translation’s transnational aspirations? (Columbusing was invented on our islands, after all.)
I’m implicating myself as well when I say that we might think of the institutional space of translation as where—to quote Flores in his fierce poem “Foundries”—“professionally contorted beings practice their rites inside, turn out fetuses there, nationalist demons.” Flores, with a careful assist from Dykstra, invites us instead to engage with the bodies of the “screwed” (soy el jodido), those who survive “between towers of police concrete,” those who remind us that there is more to socially engaged poetries than the unfettered transnational circulation of the avant-gardes and global capital, that there is translation without transnation, outside the well-groomed cosmopolitanism of “world voices,” and in the eccentric counter-machinations of our everyday survival, our counterpunches. Juan Carlos Flores, poeta,¡gracias por el contragolpe!
Several key moments in recent Latin American poetry in translation fit more or less loosely within this poetics/politics of counter-machination. Below I share some tweet-length impressionistic riffs on some of these recent book-length translations (listed in alphabetical order by author last name), along with a sample quote. I may continue doing this with future books on Twitter under the hashtag #transmaq and readers are welcome to do so as well.
Angélica Freitas. Rilke Shake. Translated by Hilary Kaplan. Phoneme Media, 2015.
Imagines Elizabeth Bishop in bed with her Brazilian lover Lota and ironically marks the distances/silences that transnational poet-bros miss:
she dreamt of the rich carioca
and of the vastness of america;
Juan Gelman. Cólera Buey/Oxen Rage. Translated by Lisa Rose Bradford. co.im.press, 2015.
Self-immolation as self-translation as self-preservation in and/as other. Terror’s vernaculars, external as internal. Virtuoso collaboration. Epic failure freedom:
impassive i stood at the doors of death witnessed terrorism wept by the corpse of a baby bird never understood professors dates oracles for a time stone by stone i dismantled those airs of lyricism raising my head i laughed especially and generally pondering the storm how gravity would brew
Ferreira Gullar. Dirty Poem. Translated by Leland Guyer. New Directions, 2015.
Dirty city beauty, energy sexual and psychic, political exile, poverty, after concretism, there’s misery’s concretion, accretion of poem-bodies:
The man is in the city
as a thing is in another city
and the city is in the man
who is in another city
Luis (“Lucho”) Hernández. The School of Solitude: Collected Poems. Translated by Anthony Geist. Swan Isle Press, 2015.
Lima outlaw beauty notebooks. found-text melancholy, self-schooled punk solitude, gray Pacific, lover’s scrawl, epigraffiti, deserted song:
Poetry is a continuous
Art: that is why I plagiarize:
Hold me in the solitude
Of the rugged, grey
Coastlines and sunless
Seas, even more,
I believe in plagiarism
Circe Maia. The Invisible Bridge/El Puente Invisible. Translated by Jesse Lee Kercheval. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.
Metaphysical lyric interiority and imagistic elegance doubling as allegories for the silenced, the invisible, and the dead:
For us, time
so that everything
is pressed and oppressed.
Silvina Ocampo. Silvina Ocampo. Selected and translated by Jason Weiss. New York Review of Books, 2015.
A seemingly apolitical poet, of philosophical love, of lapidary gravitas, evokes an impossible Buenos Aires, a modern nostalgia for nostalgia:
And I, Silvina Ocampo, in your abstract
presence have seen your possible absence,
I have seen your doors alone endure
with the insistence of dead hands.
Virgilio Piñera. The Weight of the Island/La isla en peso: Selected Poems of Virgilio Piñera. Translated by Pablo Medina. Diálogos Books, 2014.
Difficult vernacular, queering the island, fugitive eros, untranslatable affect, syntax of skin, of poverty, addressing you, undressing I:
If I die because I don’t die on the highway.
If I don’t die because I die on the highway.
leave me no f, leave me no l, leave me no o
leave me no w, leave me no e, leave me no r, leave me no s,
leave me no flow, leave me no ers,
if I die on the h.
Natalia Toledo. The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems/El olivo negro y otros poemas zapotecos. Translated by Clare Sullivan. Phoneme Media, 2015.
Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec resisting English and each other in visionary poems of place, the place of writing/self:
I write in Zapotec to ignore the syntax of pain,
ask the sky and its fire
to give me back my happiness.
Raúl Zurita. The Country of Planks/El País de Tablas. Translated by Daniel Borzutzky. Action Books, 2015.
Blues taxonomy of Chile as prisoner of history and history of prisons, acts of resistance, names without country, numbers, iceberg prose:
And then as if the whole horizon was bearing down on it the scaffolding of Chile appeared outlined for the last time while its nailed-down archipelagos its walled- up desert the thick planks of the cordillera began to give way as if the sea swells jamming into them were the remorse and the guilt was the long stretch of dead planks that fell like a bullet-riddled body before the breakers
- Raul Zurita
- R. Zamora Linmark
- Kristin Dykstra
- Lisa Marie Basile
- Juan Gelman
- Haroldo de Campos
- Alan Gilbert
- Natalia Toledo
- Virgilio Piñera
- Silvina Ocampo
- Circe Maia
- Luis (“Lucho”) Hernández
- Ferreira Gullar
- Angélica Freitas
- Juan Carlos Flores
- Rachel Corbett
- Zilka Joseph
- Clark Moore
- R.A. Villanueva
- Arabic Literature
- M Lynx Qualey
- Sara Deniz Akant
- Rescue Press
Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Urayoán Noel is the author of the poetry collections Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (2015), a Library Journal Top Fall Indie Poetry selection; Hi-Density Politics (2010), a National Book Critics Circle Small Press Highlights selection; Kool Logic/La Lógica Kool (2005), an El Nuevo Día Book of the...