Tuesday, November 29, 2011

ALTA 2011: towards a partial re-cap

I recently had the pleasure of attending my first ALTA conference (American Literary Translators Association), held in Kansas City, MO. What follows is a post-conference dialogue with Fred Arroyo about our respective experiences. It was conducted over e-mail in the days following the conference, and is an attempt at documentation, a notion that interests me more and more these days. [There is a photo at the beginning and---as an incentive to read to the end---a photo at the end!]


Francisco Aragón, Willis Barnstone, 
Fred Arroyo, Aliki Barnstone, Mark Statman

Francisco Aragón:
First of all, Fred, I want to thank you for putting together, and inviting me to participate in, "Duende, Poetry, Translation: The Stranger at the Desk," our panel at the recently concluded ALTA conference in Kansas City, MO. I had been wanting to attend an ALTA conference for some time now. When you told me, months ago, that it was being held in Kansas City, and that Xánath Caraza was on the Conference Organizing Committee, that served as an added incentive to attend: I have a soft spot for Kansas City because of the generous hospitality I have experienced there with the Latino Writers Collective and also because it is the home of Scapegoat Press, the publisher of Glow of Our Sweat. I know that you've also read in Kansas City for the Collective. And in addition to taking part in the panel, it was great to finally be able to read with you, as we did, on Saturday at the New Letters and BkMk Press office at University of Missouri-Kansas City. Right now, I'd like to get your initial impressions of your first ALTA experience. I know for myself one of the highlights was being able to meet and spend quality time with Mark Statman. I'll be honest: I was aware that Mark and Pablo (Medina) had translated Poet in New York, but I hadn't read their translation. But after hearing Mark share his experience of rendering that work into English, and hearing about his work in translation, in general, I'm looking forward to re-visiting my favorite Lorca work.

Fred Arroyo:
What I’m recalling the most is the shape and rhythm of the conference, how it was intimate and well-paced, with a variety of enlightening panels that offered new creative energies for my reading, writing, and translation. Because the conference was not overly frenetic, as larger conferences tend to be, I was able to engage many writers in fruitful conversation. I had had several conversations with Mark Statman; we talked previously about working together, and so it was a pleasure to serve on this panel with him, and to hear more of the context surrounding his work on Lorca, his new translations of José María Hinojosa, as well as his insights into poetry in general. I had always admired Willis Barnstone’s writing on Borges, and continue to paraphrase for my work and life a line in one of his books: the desire to inhabit a university of living languages. I will especially remember several conversations with Willis, and a wondrous state of being as he shared memories and stories of Borges. Aliki Barnstone’s translations of C. P. Cavafy (The Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy) have been close to my writing desk for the past two years, and it was an equal pleasure to meet and discuss language, family, and writing, and the ways our creativity in English is formed by powerful memories either remembered in or shaped by different languages.

On this same note, I found Jonathan Cohen’s “Recovery and Significance of William Carlos Williams as a Translator of Spanish-Language Verse: What the Establishment Missed in His Canon” fascinating and compelling. It was one of the best presentations of the conference, and right now I’m excited to read Jonathan’s new edition of By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish, 19196-1959 (New Directions, 2011).

We have been at various events together over the years, Francisco, and for sure the opportunity to read together was a highlight of the conference.

F. Aragón:
I spent part of today reading both the Foreword and the Introduction of By Word of Mouth:Both Cohen's Introduction, which maps WCW's trajectory as a translator from the Spanish, and Julio Marzán's Foreword, which highlights the role that Spanish played in WCW's childhood household, and talks about how WCW loved the work of Francisco de Quevedo and Luis Góngora, were eye-opening for me. Reading the latter reminded me about my time in Spain in 1990 when I fell in love with these latter two Golden Age masters. But getting back to Jonathan Cohen: When I was drafting my notes for our panel, I knew that part of my remarks were going to include mention of reading the work of Ernesto Cardenal when I was in high school—in English translation, including Jonathan Cohen's rendering of With Walker in Nicaragua (Wesleyan University Press, 1984). And so when I saw Mark, right before our panel, warmly greet a man who he identified to me as the Jonathan Cohen (translator of Cardenal), and then saw Cohen settle in his seat for our panel, it hit me: I was going to be talking about my trajectory as a translator in front of one of my "heros" in literary translation… And my subsequent conversations with Cohen at the book fair, and listening to his moving presentation on Williams on our last day, seemed like the icing on the cake, so to speak, of the conference.

I wasn't aware of Willis' work on Borges. My favorite work by him, as a translator, is his work on Saint John of the Cross. As for Aliki, I've been having on-going conversations with her over the years, mostly at receptions at AWP. But the scale of the ALTA conference, as you correctly point out, afforded us the intimacy not only of extended conversation, but also sharing a meal or two, as we did. And I can't tell you what it felt like having them both sitting in the front row at our reading on Saturday. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, as I prepared to read "Torso," my liberal rendering of Rilke: I can't believe I'm about to read some of my translations in front of Willis Barnstone!

I also really really enjoyed the panel with Cynthia Hogue, Martha Collins, Rebecca Seiferle  and David Keplinger. As someone who has just begun to explore literary translation as an additional literary practice, what did you make of this panel?

F. Arroyo:
The panel “Poetry Twice Writ: Translation as Creative Acts,” with Catherine Hammond (Moderator), Martha Collins, Cynthia Hogue, David Keplinger, and Rebecca Seiferle, was one of my favorite panels, as well. I took quite a few notes, and I think what the participants offered most insightfully is the material freight and possibilities of language, and how the translator works with layers of expression and meaning continually shifting from both this freight (say of filiation, intention, or desire in the original language) and possibility (of invention, creativity, poetics and form in the target language, English). I had this image of a new poem shining with intensity, with new sublingual and intonated phrasing, still shadowed and emerging from the original, as if cloaked in a special kind of light that makes the poem’s time and language—the poem itself—incarnate. These are elements to consider more carefully in the act of translation, surely, and yet it also spoke to me of those initial sparks or glimpses into the beginning composition of a poem or a fiction: where creativity arises from and becomes visible in written language.

Rebecca Seiferle had this wonderful moment when she spoke of how at 9 or 10 years old she realized that the language around her was weighted with intentions and desires that were outside her and, yet, at the same time, pressing against her being. In that moment she glimpsed—prophetic, it seems to me—her self needing its own language. Prophetic of the need for a poetic being, if you will, and how this very beginning of realization in the face of an “other” language is what the poet and translator must always face. I’m trying to remember this as clearly as possible, although I may be misremembering. She also talked about how we often turn to a dictionary as if it is an authority, as if it had an answer to the complex contradictions, problems, issues, or breakdowns of language, particularly when individuals want to equate a direct correlation (as if language were a straight one-way street) between thoughts, communication, and language. Language is clearly much more a busy intersection, a loud carnival or circus when it comes to thought, communication—and, for sure, creativity and poetry. So she described the act of turning to the dictionary not for answers but a kind of creative apprehension: each word and its “definition” leading us to new insights into origins and possibilities for language. When she is translating she looks up each word for its various possibilities, and this spoke to me of the new slowness, contemplation, and I must say spiritual space for poetry and translation.

All of a sudden this evocation of space, spirit, contemplation and poetics brings to mind Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and David Keplinger’s translation of the Danish poet Cartsten René Nielsen: House Inspections (BOA Editions, 2011). These prose poems are so far evocative and beautiful, and it seems their poetic territory are the rooms in a house, and at times the objects that inhabit those rooms with their own dark yet clear existence. I’ve just started to read House Inspections with great wonder and pleasure. I focus often on the power of objects as items of memory and meaning for translation and creativity, and so this book is speaking to me with strong sounds and images. David spoke of his work—collaboration—with the poets he translates; the detailed conversations they have about specific choices of translation, about poetry in more general terms, and how this conversation is shaping his own poetics. It was all the more interesting when he discussed working on translations from a language he is not fluent in.

Overall I took a lot away for writing poems, from this panel and others, and so I wonder if you, Francisco, found yourself reflecting on translation and your own poetry as well?

F. Aragón:
Reading this response, Fred, seems to suggest and confirm what you intimated at the conference: that perhaps more than literary translation, your ALTA experience seems to have jarred you into wanting to explore poetry—period. That is, exploring this genre for your own original work. If that’s the case, I’ll look forward to reading those poems! In fact, the pieces you read at our reading on Saturday sounded like prose poems to me; and the way you read them brought to mind poetry, as well.

My mindset before, during, and now after the conference is to get back to translation. My first significant literary publications were translations, particularly my work with Francisco X. Alarcón and Lorca’s “Sonetos del amor oscuro,” which I did with my late UC Berkeley mentor Jack Walsh. And during my years in Spain I started working on the creationist work of Gerardo Diego. Last year, I was able to re-visit some of this work with Diego and managed to place a decent selection, and essay at Jacket. I have a Gerardo Diego manuscript that I want to place and the conference has energized me to carve out the time to clean it up and start doing the necessary work to secure permission from the Diego estate.

At our ALTA panel I honed in on my work with Rubén Darío (I’ve recently placed three pieces in PALABRA) which is a concurrent interest of mine, as you well know.

Getting back to the panel we were discussing: one thing I especially appreciated about David Keplinger’s talk was how important it was for him to ground his work in translation in his relationship/friendship with the living authors themselves. It made me wonder what it might be like, for example, to identify a Nicaraguan poet of my generation and explore rendering his/her work into English in some hypothetical future. I also really felt drawn to Cynthia Hogue’s project that involved a French poet collaborating with a French philosopher, who contributed prose commentary. That made me wonder what it might be like to collaborate, as a poet, with a prose writer.

I don’t want to end my comments without mentioning a few other people, beginning with Stephen Tapscott. When I first saw the program for this conference. I was delighted to see that he was slated to moderate a panel on translating German literature, and also slated to read from his translations of Georg Trakl. I had the pleasure of meeting Stephen in November of 2008 when we were both at the Santa Fe Art Institute. I had been a long time admirer of his translations of Neruda’s love sonnets. During our time in Santa Fe, I also learned what a fine poet he is: he gave a reading at a local bookstore. It was great to catch up with him on a number of occasions during the conference, to hear him read from, Georg Trakl: Poems (Oberlin College Press, 2011). And it meant a lot that he took the time to come to our reading. In fact, I was also great to see poet/translator Don Bogen, along with poet Michael Waters at our reading, as well. Also, on my first night, before you arrived, I had occasion to dine with a group that included Denise Low-Weso, former Poet Laureate of the state of Kansas, fellow AWP board member and friend. I think it's the most time I've spent talking with Denise one and one and it was a treat (and I visited with her again a few days later, along with Cynthia Hogue in the lobby of the hotel).  In short, my first experience with ALTA could not have been better. Perhaps our e-dialogue here might serve as an incentive for other Latino/a poets and writers to consider literary translation, and the ALTA conference in particular, something worth exploring. What do you think?

F. Arroyo:
I’m currently finishing a class discussion focused on John Phillip Santos’ Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, a wonderful, powerful book I’ve taught several times over the years, both in the United States and in Spain, and really a book I love to teach whenever the opportunity arises. The book reflects concerns you bring up about Latino/a writers considering literary translation. In his memoir Santos focuses on preoccupation, preocupado, and one of the possible readings of this preocupado is to reflect on how there may be too much of a concern for origins, and states of being and ideas that are singular, original, pure. Latinos, in other words, can never return to some pure state no matter how much we create strong representations of who we are, or gain certain levels of progress educationally, economically, and politically. In some ways, then, “Latino” itself might be viewed as some kind of sign or marker of homogeneity, some kind of signification expressing a desire for a pure space. But this is just a part of our current preocupado with performing, questioning, creating and celebrating Latinoness, ethnicity, and this is nothing new: it has been going on since the beginning of time in the Americas. We have to be wary of preoccupation because it tends to create isolation, separation, and disengagement: it is a state of being housed in the mind, in consciousness, in reflection. To consider more carefully the power of a mestizo race, consciousness, art, and culture, as Santos does, is to recognize how Latinos, as mestizos, are part of an unfinished quest or project, are continually becoming more diasporic and hybrid, always, it seems, on a long migration following in the footsteps of the antepasados.

Santos suggests strong relations between shame and preocupado. One can make the case that we are experiencing a “boom” of Latino/a writing because we are preocupado with language. The negative and academic view is that what we are worried about is “identity,” but for many of us identity means nothing without language, and we are driven to write because we’ve become all to conscious of language—its power to exclude, oppress, lie, and overlook the rich mestizo history that is America. In addition, we love languages—Spanish and English, English and Spanish, and we move between the two in memory, conversation, and writing, and they are the terrain from which we draw a rich vein of linguistic play, invention, and creativity. Part of this preocupado, and a shame, however, has to do with the loss of the Spanish language in our families, in our communities, and in our literature. We may be bilingual, yet most often or not most of our living is in English. We are often writing, to follow some of the critical insight of Gustavo Pérez Firmat, love letters to a language (Spanish) in another language (English), which makes the possibility of union and love between the lover and the beloved impossible, and so some might read the writing as negligible.  

I’m not making an argument here, of course, but I’m interested in the complex forces John Phillip Santos illuminates. Secrets and silences are a part of these elements of shame and preoccupation. In the end we have to consider how there is a large silence and secret surrounding the loss of Spanish. And for many the silence and secret is that we do have to read writers of Spanish in translation. So to return to your question there is an incentive for Latino/a writers to engage translation—at the very least to become more consciously aware of how translation has creative possibilities given our movements from English and Spanish, Spanish and English, and a “mingling” of both, to quote William Carlos Williams via Jonathan Cohen!

You write, Francisco, that you “felt drawn to Cynthia Hogue’s project that involved a French poet collaborating with a French philosopher, who contributed prose commentary. That made me wonder what it might be like to collaborate, as a poet, with a prose writer.” This strikes me as most essential for the incentive to consider translation. What I mean is that we have a long tradition of collaboration between poetry and prose, and immediately
. …y no se lo tragó la tierra / … And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, The House on Mango Street, Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, and Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation come to mind. I’m reminded as well of Luis Rafael Sanchez’s La Guaracha del Macho Camacho, Neruda’s Passions and Impressions, the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, Maurice Kilwein Guevara and Ray Gonzalez. Guevara writes,

I see the galleon on which my ancestors escaped from the southern ports of
Spain; I see the torsos of Muísca hoeing in a field and slipping off the screen; I
see a village of people covered in mud, sliding in the barro, some dancing and
bloody and hooded; I see El Tiempo on fire and storefront windows breaking.
In all that blurring and shaking, I see a tapestry of red and yellow roses
through the milky windows of a greenhouse.

(“The Sound of Glass is Unimstakable,” Poema)

I could create a parade of writers who have composed a new frontier in between the boundaries of prose and poetry. It is as if we can “orient [our]selves over the landscape by the scent of a shared history” (“The Sound of Glass is Unmistakable”). So we have in the relations of poetry and prose important possibilities, and I think “translation” can help many writers investigate these possibilities, and perhaps the richness of Latino/a literature—our languages, our linguistic diversity—will be read and heard even more distinctly with this stronger consciousness of translation. 

breaking bread at La Bodega:
Stephen Holland-Wempe, Xanath Caraza, Mark Statman
Francisco Aragón, Fred Arroyo


Andrea (Andee) Beltran said...

Eloquent. Thank you for this recap. My wheels are spinning.

Felipe de Ortego y Gasca said...

Bien dicho. Translation is an art of its own. I've translated Lorca, Neruda, Hughes, and scores of French poets during my Paris years. I wonder if I really captured the essence of the originals. A Spanish writer and I struggled to translate into Spanish my short story "Chicago Blues." Thanks for all your good work.

Francisco Aragón said...

Thank you, Andrea, Felipe, for your comments. I'm always delighted to see that people actually read these posts!

Unknown said...

Andrea and Felipe——thank you for reading and for your comments. In part what made the conference such a good experience was in the ways it inspired new possibilities for creativity, and new energy for reading and writing. So it's great to hear others with that energy for language and writing. Saludos!