In Saturday's edition of El Nacional, Rafael Osío Cabrices interviewed the Mexican novelist Juan Villoro. They discussed Villoro's most recent book, El testigo (Anagrama, 2004), which was awarded the Premio Herralde de Novela in Spain. I found the following excerpt from the interview pertinent:
—Are periods of intense transformation the ideal moments for fiction, or does the latter come together only when the storm has passed?
—I like very much what Orson Welles's character in Carol Reed's The Third Man says: that Switzerland's peace and stability have only served to produce the cuckoo clock. The act of writing novels is much more fertile during situations of conflict and social disorder such as those that abound in Latin America. Controversial environments like ours offer invigorating worlds for the novel.
Translation is also editing. The translator chooses what specific pieces to bring over into English, what fragments to emphasize, what poems to display. I think of the English versions I do of prose fragments (as above), essays and poems as scarred, damaged material. I intend to convey a sense of the content, rather than the form or the more subtle qualities of tone, vision, etc. Those are often (especially in poetry) lost before translation even begins. But there is a personal relation I look for with whatever texts I choose to translate.
The poems I translated for Ginsberg's class at Naropa in 1993 (at his suggestion) were from various poets centered around the Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia, a group that included Eugenio Montejo, Reynaldo Pérez Só, Adhely Rivero, Cintia Desantis and others. I had discovered their work while browsing the stacks at USF, in an edition of a magazine published in the 1980s, which I think was called Separata: 6 Poetas Carabobeños. I need to look this up. I don't recall which poets I translated. I don't know if I even have those versions I did anymore (again, my concern with the archive, its tenuous and threatened existence). I gave a copy of them to Ginsberg at the end of the month but, of course, I never heard anything about them again.
There were individual lines, particularly ones by Adhely Rivero, that I identified with very strongly. One of his that goes: "Un olor verde y extenso." I didn't translate poems again until the late 1990s, in Providence and Boston. I often thought of translation (foolishly) as a secondary art. What moved me back to it (aside from my material existence, one continuous translation) was discovering Juan Sánchez Peláez, his fourteen poems in Aire sobre el aire (Tierra de Gracia Editores, 1989). After reading Aire sobre el aire, I knew I would have to attempt English versions of those poems. If anything, just for the opportunity to read him as closely as possible. Whatever versions I've done of his poems will eventually end up in a Selected Poems of Juan Sánchez Peláez I'm currently editing. But I'll take my time with that project. His work is too close to me for it to be done for any other reason than the poems themselves. I haven't even stopped to seriously consider where I might publish them.
There's a sense of urgency to this project which unnerves me. For one, Venezuela is falling apart as I write and I feel a certain responsibility to make these English versions counter that disintegration. Sánchez Peláez himself alluded to Venezuela's disastrous situation in the few recent poems he published before and after his death. The poems in the final section of his Obra poética (Editorial Lumen, 2004) speak just as eloquently about adversity as the signature he added to various open letters in support of the Venezuelan opposition, just before his death. And long after this current dictatorship in Venezuela has disappeared, Juan Sánchez Peláez's poems will continue to breathe. So, I've got to measure my versions very carefully, much more than I would with my own poems.
"en escasez o abundancia
somos el largo camino
y la vida breve,"