First, Cecilia, thank you so much for choosing and translating the Spanish story as part of the Global Flash Series at SmokeLong. What kind of story are you looking for?
To say that I’m looking for a story that will surprise me seems like the easy answer. I like surprises as much as anyone, but I don’t go looking for them. What I enjoy are abstractions, details, a touch of the ephemeral. I appreciate anything you can analyze from multiple angles, a piece that explores multiple identities, or has a kind of multiple dimensionality to it. That shiny varnish of so-called reality over some prose can bore me in the end, and I find stories that don’t shy away from using a touch of magic to be more in touch with the essence of things, more akin to my way of being in the world. I believe in the secret life of things, in the tear inside the stone. The truth is rarely obvious. Or rather, the truth is what’s right in front of our noses but we miss anyway without a willingness to suspend our opinions, prejudices, and beliefs. In short, the stories that pose questions and provide no answers are the ones that stay with me the longest.
What are the challenges of translating Spanish to English?
While I’m bilingual in every sense of the word, I fear the word bilingual is itself a bit misleading, because it’s never going to be a perfect balance. I’ve confused more than one monolingual speaker explaining that Spanish is my mother tongue, but that English is my dominant one (since I learned to speak the one first, but was educated mainly in the other). I don’t see it as a question of being more adept at—or even necessarily more comfortable in—one over the other. More as having different strengths when it comes to—or a different relationship with—each. Now that I’m adding French to the mix, I can offer the following metaphor: The English helps me with expression, spelling, and vocabulary, whereas the Spanish helps me with comprehension, grammar, and pronunciation. Even more simply put: The English helps me understand the French more when it’s written, while the Spanish helps me understand it more when it’s spoken.
An even more abstract way of explaining it would be to say that I think in one, but have a host of memories which wouldn’t exist, wouldn’t even make sense, without the other. The mind is weird.
All this being said, I’m embarrassed to admit I’m far more well-read in English, since I still find myself stumbling over certain turns of phrase if I’m not minding my step while reading Spanish. I keep a dictionary handy, like I did when I was little and tackling texts above my level. Granted, a good translator will always work into their dominant language—but I can’t help feeling insecure, like an imposter, or like there might be someone out there worthier than me of working with the text at hand. Overcoming that insecurity is easily the biggest challenge, but I do so by believing that it’s my very enthusiasm and excitement for the work I’m translating that makes me capable.
I know it’s a loaded question, but what do you think the reader unacquainted with fiction in Spanish should know about it? What authors should we be reading (if only in translation)?
Honestly, I wish someone would answer this question for me! Since, as I stated above, I wade through Spanish more slowly, I am admittedly more acquainted with its poetry than its prose. But it’d be tricky to find a writer who wrote strictly fiction in the Spanish tradition—a tradition that teems with literary giants flexing muscles of poetry, prose, and playwriting all at once. This is likely related to another tradition in Spanish literature—that of the personal life being entirely inseparable from the political. It seems Spanish writers, of all genres, often have a platform, and so position themselves to reach as many eyes and ears as possible. Crossing genres, crossing languages, and other such experimentations are common. If you find you dislike a particular writer’s poetry, or prose, I wouldn’t give up the ghost just yet. See what else they’ve scribbled.
As a side note (and I may be shooting myself in the foot by saying this, but) Spanish is one of those languages that has a musicality to it that is ultimately untranslatable. I’ve noticed this to be true of all the Romance languages. You can sometimes write the simplest phrase in Spanish and it still sounds startlingly poetic. That doesn’t always translate into English—a language which has a different kind of beauty, and a different kind of music to it—so I’d keep that in mind.
As far as authors go, my grandfather introduced me to such giants as Jorge Luis Borges (Argentine), as well as the lesser known Rubén Darío (Nicaraguan), and Juan Ramón Jiménez (Spanish). I then went on to discover the poets who would become early influences on my work, including Federico García Lorca (Spanish), Pablo Neruda (Chilean)—whose “The Book of Questions” I urge all of my students to read, and Octavio Paz (Mexican)—who I will return to again and again. Because that list is poetry heavy, I’ll also mention that on my bookshelf to be read are “Autopsy on Surrealism” by César Vallejo (Peruvian), “The Book of Disquiet” by Fernando Pessoa (Portuguese), “Cosmic Canticle” by Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaraguan), “Death and Other Surprises” by Mario Benedetti (Uruguayan), “Guernica & Other Plays” by Fernando Arrabal (Spain), and “The Open Veins of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano (Uruguayan).
I find it unforgivable that I haven’t listed any women—a fact that points to a flaw in my own conditioning, and a flaw I sadly have in common with many readers. It’s an imbalance I have been working to remedy in recent years, sometimes reading only women writers for an entire year. Now that I’m looking over my list, it’s likely I’ll dedicate a year to women writing in Spanish. Beginning with one who hailed from my own native island of Puerto Rico: Julia de Burgos.
Tell me about the New Wanderers, the “nomadic poetry collective” you founded.
While most of my peers went on to found or become the editors of impressive literary journals, I found myself feeling like the mark I wanted to leave on the literary world would be a bit different. I discovered at an early age that writing simply isn’t sustainable for me without specific things: Wilderness, for one. And wandering. The minstrel is the archetypal bringer of ballads, but in an increasingly interconnected world, I worry we writers are staying home more and more. This is tragic to me, though I grasp the limitations: I belong to a generation already crushed under their own debt, and I even know folks who went into more debt just to be able to experience another country at least once before entering a career that would increase income while limiting mobility.
But a writer with boundaries to their world is a writer with a trap set before them. And when I finally went abroad for the first time myself, I had the idea for an organization that would encourage my fellow writers to take the leap. A kind of support system for those who lack the means, or are at a loss when it comes to securing those means. Help doesn’t always come in the form of money. It can be as simple as a couch to sleep on, a ride to the airport, or a friend in a foreign land. It would take another two years, and various iterations of the original idea, before I envisioned the New Wanderers Collective. I’m still in the stage of envisioning it, to be honest. Months after I got the ball rolling on our first fundraiser, I took my own advice right to heart and relocated from America to Europe. The change has been all encompassing, and has hijacked my energy because I’m having to learn a third language before I can fully integrate myself here.
As a result, New Wanderers is in a slightly dormant state. But I’m putting all the effort into making contacts in Europe that I put into making them throughout America, and I look forward to expanding further and to finally connecting the dots. When we emerge, I want it to be globally.
What are you working on? Could you share something you’ve published recently?
I recently became the Spanish poetry editor for Luna Luna Magazine. A position that didn’t exist there previously, so I’m still in the soliciting stages. But I’m thrilled to be making contact with more international voices, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore and expand my own multilingual writing community. (An emphasis on monolingualism—even among academics and other so called intellectuals—is honestly one of the main reasons I decided to leave the states.)
As far as translations go, one of the endeavors closest to my heart has been to translate the complete haiku (about three books worth) of José Juan Tablada, a pioneer of oriental studies who encountered the form while living in Japan and first introduced it to the Spanish language.
Being in Paris has reignited my passion for playwriting, but I find myself increasingly drawn to the book-length poem. I wrote a chapbook in the alternating voices of a chorus of four animals (bat, cow, fox, and doe) that I consider one long poem. I feel fortunate that it’s been a finalist for a few awards already, but there’s no official pub date to speak of just yet. Actually, I’m trying to decide if I want to expand it to a full book (by adding four more voices: ant, egg, god, and hen).
Another—I suppose you could call it a long poem—is an ongoing project I call “Post-Inauguration Poem” which is being written one line for every day he-who-must-not-be-named remains in office. It’s part protest, part meditation, and can be found tweeted @PostInaugPoem
As far as other tidbits online, I’m quite proud of a prose piece about the moon over at Southern Humanities Review, and a poem written on the morning of my grandfather’s funeral up at Gulf Coast. But if you live in or visit Miami, I hear you’ll be able to read one of my haiku at bus stops around the city soon. I’ve always wanted to be one of those poets read on public transportation.