Chancellor Alberto Ríos, judge of the inaugural Ambroggio Prize given for a book of poems originally written in Spanish with an English translation, asked prizewinner Raquel Salas Rivera about the art of translation. Rivera translated their own collection, x/ex/exis (poemas para la nación) (poems for the nation), from Spanish into English for the prize.
Alberto Ríos: How do you—how do any of us—ever reach the page coherently? After passing through the curtains of various languages, are we still the ones speaking? And when we translate our work, is the second version of what we are saying true to itself, or has the game of telephone started, with each iteration further and further away from the original?
Raquel Salas Rivera: To “reach the page coherently” presupposes one should want coherence. I don’t want to partake of authorial fetishism, or at least if I partake of it, it should be about pleasure, not shame. I am not just I. I don’t say this in an “I contain multitudes” sort of way. I say this in an I-am-of-multitudes sort of way. I am a placeholder for many voices, peoples, ideas, experiences I am enmeshed with and in, porously. I recently saw Douglas Kearney perform, and he said something that struck me. He tells his students that if they were to actually put on paper what was in their minds at any given moment, it would look something like “asjhdf;j;e!!*#EAKJSLDKJF.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing. There is no way of collapsing the gap between the thing-as-such and our perception and even less between our perception of the thing-as-such and representation. Nietzsche also said something like this in “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”—I am quoting from a translation by Walter Kaufmann—when he said:
What, indeed, does man know of himself! Can he even once perceive himself completely, laid out as if in an illuminated glass case? Does not nature keep much the most from him, even about his body, to spellbind and confine him in a proud, deceptive consciousness, far from the coils of the intestines, the quick current of the blood stream, and the involved tremors of the fibers?
If we can’t even know what’s up with our own bodies, how can I pretend to create something that is the thing it is in dialogue with? Also, why would I want to make art that is the thing it is about? What would be the point of cloning an object? By virtue of its cloning it would already be different. I think the difference between thing-as-such and perception, between perception and poetry, between original and translation, is less a game of telephone and more a rhizome, un mangle, a mangrove. There is no first call. There is only more and more voices sort of already there and already new-in-difference.
I also think this is what Jack Spicer meant when he talked about receiving his poems from martians, even if martians were just the unconscious, because the unconscious is as far away from our conscious mind as Mars is from Earth. What I’m saying is “I” am never just the only one speaking. When I speak, I am speaking, with, to, and from others.
AR: As the translator of your own work, are you prompted to go back and “fix” something in the original? In this way, is translation a form of revision for you? If so, does the work of translation help the original? Had someone else translated the work, what impact would that have had on the manuscript and its personal intent?
RSR: I wouldn’t call it fixing, but I definitely make changes to both “original” and “translation” that inform each other. Sometimes the translation will bring something out, and I’ll realize the wording in the original lacks the specificity I thought it had. Sometimes the translation will suggest a better word, and I’ll turn around and change it. Because I often translate the poems soon after I write them, this makes the process of creation/edition/translation pretty open-ended. At times, yes, translation is a form of revision. I recently had poems translated into Portuguese by Chris Daniels and Adelaide Ivánova. We had extensive conversations about the use of the nonbinary x in Spanish and about my choices in terms of my own pronoun identification, because Portuguese also has gendered pronouns. If someone else had translated the manuscript, it would have had to have been a translator I trusted deeply, one who believes in co-translation. It would have had to have been someone who respects what I want from the poems. That’s the only way I’d be comfortable with someone else’s translation. I’m not sure how it would change the manuscript or its personal intent, but I would hope it would help me see things I hadn’t otherwise seen and even help me articulate some of my translation choices. Dialogue between translators is crucial.
AR: Spanish—and the Romance languages generally—carries at its core an innate respect for the possibility of an inherent life in things—“se me cayó la pluma,” “the pen fell from me,” for example, suggests agency on the part of the pen, something apart from purely human intention. Do you believe that Spanish offers a different perspective on the world at its core and not simply in its descriptions? Is this an issue when translating?
RSR: Well, in short, no. I don’t believe language determines thought or even limits it, and I don’t think language reflects thought in a direct way either, but I do like the idea of playing with the particularities of each language and respecting the power of that kind of play. For example, in the example you gave—“se me cayó la pluma”—yes, the pen is an agent, but the sentence is also a reflexive statement. The pen is also linked to the subject of the sentence; it belongs to the subject of the sentence. How does one translate that? “The pen fell from me,” is one way, but it involves a certain amount of compromise. Translating “se me cayó la pluma” as “the pen fell from me” is a specific case in which the interpretation includes the origin, the source, but the source can be the possessor, too. In translating this I could find ways to bring in some of the playfulness that is already in the Spanish. That pen, it off and fell from me. Something like that.
AR: What is translation actually? Is it saying something, then finding other words to say the same thing redundantly, or is it in fact a fuller expression of sentiment, saying one thing in all its iterations so that multiple languages are actually crucial to our understanding of a moment?
RSR: There is a commonly held belief that translation is akin to rebuilding the Tower of Babel. Maybe this is why I intuit in many translators a wariness, a fear that their hubris will bring them down. “Don’t translate too wildly!” they seem to say, as if God will smite them, or, “Don’t believe translation can actually work! We can’t reach heaven, so don’t try!” They aren’t wrong in a way. Translation is about looking at difference, engaging with the untranslatable first and foremost, trying to touch something in common.
What is it Walter Benjamin, via Harry Zohn, said in “The Task of the Translator”?
And what of the sense in its importance for the relationship between translation and original? A simile may help here. Just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point, with this touch rather than with the point setting the law according to which it is to continue on its straight path to infinity, a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux.
Of course, the question is, what is the “sense” and how do we go about translating it? And how do you know what “its own course” is? Rather than think there are universals for these things in the texts themselves, which all translators should try to reach together, I like being explicit about my own positionality. I am a decolonial translator. I am a trans translator. The things I keep and change are informed by that. My translations are new poems. My translations are translations. Every new poem is a translation.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2018 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2018 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.