Andrea Chapela is the daughter of a physicist and a mathematician, so she naturally studied chemistry. Luckily for me, she’s also a creative writer. The exciting thing about the poems in Fundamentals of Applied Chemistry is that they are a scientist’s exploration of life and relationships through poetry—and at the same time, a poet’s exploration of life and relationships through chemistry! Not only that, but they’re funny, cutting, insightful—and a lot of fun to translate. Ars poetica as lab report? Breakup poem as description of Bond Theory? I’m in. I think I learned more scientific terminology via translating these poems than I ever did in my high school chemistry class! To her credit, Andrea is also a patient teacher and was very helpful in talking me through the structural ideas guiding many of these poems. Though I don’t think intimate knowledge of the laws and structures she references is necessary to reading these poems, her explanations and diagrams were helpful in making sure I translated in such a way as to convey the overall metaphors. Andrea is an accomplished fiction writer, and these poems indicate she has a bright career as a poet as well.
– Kelsi Vanada
The three poems included here are from Arturo Loera’s book La retórica del llanto (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2014). Apart from one poem in the anthology Poets for Ayotzinapa (Mexico City Lit, 2015), this is the first time his work has appeared in translation.
Loera’s voice is always candid. It treads that risky line where “poetic language” becomes difficult to distinguish from common ways of feeling, thinking, and, in this case, mourning. This is hard as hell to pull off. Often, though, it is a mark of good poetry. The imagery draws almost exclusively from the near-at-hand–place-names, regional attire, childhood memories–but is nevertheless rife with ambiguity. The language is plainspoken even as it works full-gear to perform multiple tasks at once. The simplest moments are the most equivocal. Whenever possible, I have tried to create equivalent effects in English.
On the whole I was strict with the meanings of individual words but not above taking liberties for the sake of sound. Example: replacing the Spanish word for “alcohol” with “liquor” in English just because it sounds better coming after “shatter.” There is a strong rhythm, conversational quality, and incantatory pulse to these poems which I hope feels familiar to American readers.
– Garrett Stanford Phelps
Italo-Mexican writer Fabio Morábito’s patient, nomadic gaze observes the world through the cracks and fissures of everyday life in order to disclose its discontinuities, uncovering along the way the secret lives of people and things. As a geographic and linguistic immigrant–from Italy to Mexico and from Italian to Spanish–Morábito sets his writing in a perpetually liminal space, seeking anonymous points of convergence made possible at the edges and borders of the surface of things. In order to do so, he purposefully displaces himself, tempting the void, as he states in a poem from De lunes todo el año (“A Year of Mondays”), “In order to feel alive/ we must be standing on a kind of desolation.” (All translations are mine.)
Morábito is the rare author who practices fiction and poetry with equal dexterity, and “The Sailboat” is the first story in his fourth collection of short fiction, Madres y perros (“Mothers and Dogs”), published in 2016 by Editorial Sexto Piso. The fifteen stories spring from quotidian situations and places in Mexico and abroad, but his writing soon reveals unsettling enigmas: two brothers worry more about a dog locked in an apartment who hasn’t been fed than they do about their dying mother; a man’s evening jog on a racetrack turns into a savage battle between runners when the lights go out; a daughter learns to draft business letters as an homage to her mother. The stories leave us with what critic Peio Riaño calls a “deaf question that is never truly answered,” that nevertheless offers new ways of viewing and caring for our world.
I was an ardent reader of Morábito’s poetry before I discovered his fiction and essays. Often-overlooked everyday things and people who are commonly forgotten–for example, a swing set, a group of construction workers, the old pipes running up a bathroom wall, a cow grazing in a field–are given space in his verse to be resignified and to resignify, in turn, the poetic subject and the reader herself. In Morábito’s fiction, this amplified process obliges us to question constructions of order and meaning, and to contemplate the false coherence of systems of knowledge and representation, memory, and narration.
– Sarah Pollack
These two texts, which are taken from Johan Mijail’s short book Pordioseros del Caribe, are the result of a research project that fuses literature and performance art to shed light on Caribbean cultural and social life.
One theme these two texts address is that of displacement. Displacement has, in fact, been a recurrent preoccupation among most artists and writers in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Pordioseros, the author explores this theme by touching upon issues of human migration, gender, sexuality, sexual dissidence, colonial violence, and urban decay, among others.
– Amaury Rodriguez
Spanish writer Juan José Millás notices what happens when everyone else is looking the other way. His short fiction intrudes upon the intimate, uncomfortable, often shameful but pivotal moments of his protagonists without introduction, warning, or apology, all with a distinct “Millasian” style: he peers upon an isolated human experience, takes a snapshot of it, winks at the reader, and leaves, usually in the span of two pages. Reading his work is much like spying on a voyeur who is simultaneously spying on someone else. It is discomfort, once-removed.
This brief selection from Stories Out in the Open (Cuentos a la intemperie) unfolds on the streets of Madrid at the close of the twentieth century. When our instinct is to avert our gaze, Millás forces us to look closer yet: at a father’s rage on a family road trip, at the adult man who claims to be the son of a pajama-clad stranger, at the Devil perusing religious literature at the European equivalent of Barnes and Noble. This perpetual uncovering, the initial discomfort that results from bearing witness to such private moments, eventually gives way to amusement.
Millás is a household name and public figure of the Iberian Peninsula. He belongs to a generation of writers born at the height of Franco’s dictatorship, but who began writing during the so-called “transition” to democracy. Despite their insistence upon everyday human experience, Millás’ stories are inextricable from their larger historical and political context: they emerge as the products of one who grew up in a dictatorial pressure cooker and who now wants to write about anything but that. Through a deliberate avoidance of key words such as “Spanish civil war” or “Franquismo,” combined with an experimental form and growing emphasis on the effects of the economic crisis, his stories are unmistakably situated in turn-of-the-century Spain. Millás is a rare jewel for the reader; despite his national fame, his work remains largely absent from the Anglophone literary circuit.
– Gabriella Martin
One of the most interesting works among this selection–all of which are taken from Santiago Vizcaíno’s most recently published collection of poems Hábitat del camaleón–is the long-form prose poem song of oneself. As both translator and reader, I thought it might be interesting to delve more deeply into the influences and processes which went into creating this particular piece. What follows is a brief interview with the author.
Q: What is the purpose of using Whitman’s famous poem as influence and point of departure in song of oneself? How was such an idea born, in particular the use of third person and the constant repetition of your own name to direct the phrases (a type of punishment/ bullying/black humor) towards a deformed version of yourself, the author?
A: The reference to Whitman is without doubt sarcastic. While Song Of Myself is the highest expression of poetry in conjunction with life, that is to say, the exaltation of the self and of nature, song of oneself —in which Whitman’s poetic “I” becomes the poetic “one”—turns rather to the more sincere and absurd pathos of the poet. It is no longer the romantic “I” imbued with an almost religious spirit. It is the poet character looking in from the outside, fed up with repeating his name. It is a poet who opens up, but who also reinvents. There is an intention to demystify. That is precisely why a poor translation of one of Whitman’s verses is used, as an epigraph.* It is to say that the poet is no more than a bad translation of himself: an impostor.
Q: What place does the Latin American experience and/or Ecuadorian poetics have within this work, and how is it evidenced?
A: Perhaps the clearest influence would be Trilce by César Vallejo (Peruvian poet, writer, playwright and journalist, 1892-1983). This fundamental book in Latin American poetry has had a great deal of influence on the writing of this poem, divided into four parts. Vallejo’s sorrow is, of course, Santiago’s sorrow. But there is also irony, which I take from Nicanor Parra–although it might be better called sarcasm. I’m a bit fed up with poets who exalt their condition. song of oneself is a mockery, but it is also testament to the fact that the poet is no medium for divinity.
* Estoy enamorado de mí mismo, hay tantas cosas en mí tan deliciosas: “I am in love with myself, there are so many things within me which are so delicious.’ I have left this epigraph untranslated—while it seems to be from a widely circulated version of Song of Myself (Canto a mí mismo, in Spanish), it not so much a translation as a free-form, modernized interpretation of the original work. I was unable to find anything near to its equivalent in either the original or in more traditional translations into Spanish, such as the one done by León Felipe in 1941. I think the context provided here allows for some insight into why such a choice was made, and justifies leaving it “as is” in the poem.
– Kimrey Anna Batts
Much like the work of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Atahualpa Yupanqui’s song lyrics are beloved as poetry, in addition to their role in music, and many have been published as such in a variety of editions. The works translated here are taken from two volumes: Guitarra, published in 1954, and Antología, published in 1973. The poems/lyrics themselves cover a wider span of time, with “Road of the Indian” written in 1928, when Yupanqui was 20 years old, and “The Heart and the Verse” written in 1970.
Yupanqui uses the word viday numerous times in his work. This word is a combination of Quechua and Spanish and literally means “my life,” but it is uttered as an interjection, a verbal sigh. When possible I have translated it, but there were instances when I felt it was better left untranslated.
– Maia Evrona
Elsa Cross is a Mexican writer and philosopher, widely recognized as one of the most important voices of her generation. She has produced a considerable body of work that consists of over 20 collections of poetry, books of essays, and translations. Octavio Paz wrote that Cross “is one of the most personal voices in recent Latin American poetry. Her work, already extensive, brings together some of the most perfect poems among those written by recent generations of Mexican authors. I say ‘voice’ and not poetic writing; although it is written, above all it is spoken. Two opposed aspects are united in Elsa Cross: complexity of thought, and diaphanous diction.”
Bomarzo (from which these poems are taken) is a book-length sequence examining a relationship through the lens of the Italian garden of grotesques built in the mid-16th century by the Italian architect Pirro Ligorio that gives the book its title. Both the imagery and the language used in these poems are ornate and dreamlike, reflecting the phantasmagorical nature of the sculptures of orcs and other creatures which inhabit what is called the “Villa of Monsters,” designed to shock and express grief rather than to delight or amuse. And this poetic trip through Bomarzo is metaphoric, not literal, resulting in a nostalgia as much for things that never were as for those that never could be.
For the translation, I’ve tried to preserve Cross’ heavy utilization of Greco-Latinate terminology, to reflect both the location and a certain linguistic extravagance that echoes the Park’s eerie beauty.
Relatively little of Cross’ work is available in English, although Shearsman Press in the UK has been striving valiantly to redress this. They published a volume of Cross’ Selected Poems in 2009, and have just brought out two more of Cross’ shorter Greece-inspired collections in a single volume entitled Beyond the Sea, translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano. A bilingual edition of Bomarzo is forthcoming from Mexican publisher Vaso Roto in 2017.
– Lawrence Schimel
Eduardo Lalo’s poetry collection Necropolis recollects the memory of trees that were cut down to become pages, words that struggled to recognize themselves on the page, language imputed with the weight of colonialism. Lalo’s reader was not surprised when news broke about the government’s failure to secure an economic future for the Puerto Rico, having already discovered the vast cemetery of Necropolis–the site where an unwritten literary tradition perished invisibly.
Toward the beginning of a poem titled “Unend,” Lalo writes, “I’ve travelled the biggest mall in the Caribbean from one end to the other without buying anything. Unconsumption: liberty.” In March of 2015, Rican merchants coordinated a day of #noconsumo (#noconsumption), closing down their businesses for the day in protest of the government’s attempt to impose a value-added tax. (Can writing be prophetic even if it is already dead?) The day after, a nonprofit called Puerto Rico Reads released a video addressing the governor of Puerto Rico, attempting to explain the precarious nature of intellectual production within an island stuck in the liminal space between autonomy and statehood. The owner of a bookstore called Libros AC speaks to the camera and says, “Without books, we are condemned to be a society of beggars, incapable of competing with the rest of the world in any industry, depending always on those who do have fair access to books.” In the title poem of his collection, Lalo pronounces, “I live in a necropolis / surviving after catastrophe and roving / its illiterate city.”
Are we there yet, then? Are Puerto Ricans living among Lalo’s Necropolis? What is the temporal nature of his anti-utopia? Is it a metaphorical present, or the literal description of a death that happened long ago? Reading these poems now feels like digging, like discovering a prophecy. And so I find myself questioning what I’m doing, what translation can be, if reading means unearthing a cemetery of language.
In the past couple of months, my translation of Necropolis has revealed itself as an endeavor to communicate the significance of these poems by filtering them through the anxious rhythm of the current economic crisis. I’d also like to believe that my work has morphed into an attempt to make sense of what literary stagnation could look like, to understand how the death of books would manifest itself both literally and metaphorically. To learn how to mourn once I recognize myself in the necropolis.
– Maru Pabón
Laughter, anguish, pain, and beauty are all sensations Rodrigo Lira’s poetry arouses. Though his life was cut short by suicide in 1981, he continues to influence contemporary Chilean poetry today, establishing an essential point of reference between experimental neo-avant garde movements of the 1970s and 80s and younger generations of post-dictatorship poets. Combining erudite literary knowledge, intense language, and dark burlesque humor, Lira’s work is often read in comparison to contemporaries Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn, both of whom greatly admired his poetry.
From a historical and political perspective, Lira offers a glimpse into the suffocating environment of Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing dictatorship (1973-90). Shifting between explicit and more concealed political criticism, Lira’s poetry profoundly reflects the psychology of living under dictatorship, as expressed in “4 Three Hundred and Sixty-Fives and One 366 Elevens,” one of his longer poems whose obscure title refers to the number of years past since the military coup of September 11, 1973. In this poem, Santiago is on the verge of dystopia and, despite attempts to resist repression, the lyric personae only finds consolation in death, albeit through humor.
Interest in the poetry and figure of Rodrigo Lira has yet to spread much beyond the borders of Chile, due mainly to the difficulty of translating his work into other languages. While exploiting Chilean slang and complex wordplay, Lira also develops a particular way of integrating pop and popular culture into his writing. The effort to transfer such poetry into another language, with its own distant cultural references, must forsake certain interpretations and possible impacts among Chilean readers. These translations attempt to break down those barriers and bring Lira’s poetry closer to an English-speaking audience.
– Thomas Rothe
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).