How did you start translating Raúl Zurita’s Song of the Solitary Children? What drew you to it?
I have translated Zurita’s poetry for many years. I’m drawn to all his work, as I think he’s one of our most important living poets. This project in particular is a vital record of documentary history.
What are some of the main challenges you’ve encountered in translating this work?
The difficulties have been less procedural than in a non-documentary translation project. The challenge here is to present these poems in such a way that they honor and respect the speakers and the family members they’ve lost.
As verbatim testimonies, they are not meant to sound poetic, yet Zurita presents them as poems. The language is not an artifice while the form is. Why does Zurita present them as poems? What can they do as poems that they cannot do in non-poetic forms? Who they can reach as poems? And how? The poetic form becomes a way of honoring, of memorializing, of documenting, of saying that the survivors and those they have lost are an essential part of the culture.
These poems are entering the U.S publishing world at a moment when discussions about appropriation are reconfiguring how artists document experiences that are not their own. Zurita, of course, is a survivor of the dictatorship, and can speak to these histories with the authority of witness. And he is using his voice and his position in the international literary community to draw attention to others who have suffered and who have not been given such platforms. If our current discussions around appropriation center around the question of what happens when artists narrate from the subject positions of others, then I’d like to suggest that Zurita’s poems pose a different question: what happens when artists do not try to document (with love and proximity and honor) the sufferings of others. Will these testimonies go unheard? Will the disappeared continue to disappear? Will poetry itself be harmed by its distance from the political realities that have shaped the contexts in which it is produced?
Translating documentary poetry poses a set of problems that falls outside the realm of the aesthetic. Translating documentary poetry about the violence of U.S.-supported Latin American dictatorships opens up a discussion about transnational continuums of violence. I’d like to hope that it can open up a space where U.S readers might see how their own lives are inextricably intertwined with what happened in Chile in the 1970s, the testing ground for the neoliberal policies designed by the Chicago School of Economics and then put into place throughout the world. In other words, Chile provides the model for U.S. disinvestment in public education, healthcare and infrastructure, the anti-government lingua franca of neoliberal capitalism, which is upheld by state violence and overpolicing of poor communities. I’d like to think that translation can put us in a position where these conversations about our interconnections are more commonplace.
These poems fall within a larger body of work, Zurita’s life work: dozens of books and thousands of pages of poems devoted to his very own form of artistic documentation of dictatorship; of trauma; of survival and connection and love. An individual brilliance which always sees itself in direct relation to the communal.
What are you reading right now?
Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God. The poems of Ernesto Cardenal. And Mark Nowak’s Social Poetics.
This week’s Poesía en acción features include:
Daniel Borzutzky is the author of Lake Michigan, finalist for the 2019 Griffin International Poetry Prize; The Performance of Becoming Human, which received the 2016 National Book Award. His other books include In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy (2015); Memories of my Overdevelopment (2015); and The Book of Interfering Bodies (2011). His translation of Galo Ghigliotto’s Valdivia received the 2017 ALTA National Translation Award. He has translated Raul Zurita’s The Country of Planks and Song for his Disappeared Love; and Jaime Luis Huenún’s Port Trakl. He teaches in the English and Latin American and Latino Studies Departments at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Poesía en acción is an Action Books blog feature for Latin American and Spanish poetry in translation and the translator micro-interview series. It was created by Katherine M. Hedeen and is currently curated and edited by Olivia Lott with web editing by Paul Cunningham.