In the edition of Cuban poet Regino Pedroso’s El Ciruelo de Yuan Pei Fu (1955) that I borrowed from my professor, there is an illustration of a mask. It appears in the prologue, below Regino Pedroso’s signature, an inch-tall contour with slanted eyes, a knowing grin, and a Fu Manchu mustache like two sickles on its face. It’s a yellow peril caricature so egregious that I have to wonder if it’s parody, but I’m not sure. Sometimes, in my least confident moments, I just feel like the mask is mocking me.
The prologue of El Ciruelo is an unstable base. Pedroso (1896-1983) establishes in it the core farce of the book: that this poetry collection is actually a packet of Confucian-esque dialogues he inherited from a Mandarin ancestor, and that he is simply its translator. Pedroso was of Chinese and African descent, but beyond his father, a former coolie who died when Pedroso was young, he had little connection to the country of his “inheritance.” The whole fake origin story, for me, weaves a thread of dislocation through the text. At times it seems ironic and playful; at others, like an orientalist snooze-fest. It is a tonal vacillation that, in combination with my piecemeal Spanish and background knowledge, has laid bare my subjectivity. At every turn I am painfully aware of other possibilities of interpretation, of that enigmatic, smirking mask hovering just out of reach.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak discusses the concept of intimacy in translation in her essay “The Politics of Translation,” and perhaps because of my tendency to personify my source text, I have grown fond of the term. But Spivak’s idea of intimacy is a far stretch from the head scratching that El Ciruelo often elicits in me. She is writing against a trend of neocolonialism in translation, a meat-grinder of domesticating multiculturalism, and suggests, in its place, an ethics of care: deep knowledge of the source terrain and language paired with submission. “Translation is the most intimate act of reading,” she writes. “Unless the translator has earned the right to become the intimate reader, she cannot surrender to the text, cannot respond to the special call of the text.” It is a forceful mandate, useful for her anti-hegemonic goal, but one that I feel implicates my own far-from-masterful work.
Still, selfishly, I want to carve out a place for myself. The notion of a “special call” reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s own sense of a sort of translator-source soulmate in “The Translator’s Task.” Such ideas of fate imply that there is one correct reading, one correct way to know and thus be intimate with a text, an ideal of complete transmission in communication that I think is fair to call an illusion. I wonder then if there are types of intimacy other than the linguistic and cultural one laid out by Spivak; and if, in these variations, the myriad ways of knowing, there could be a kaleidoscope of possibility.
The term intimacy rings true to me because it evokes the sense of closeness I’ve developed through translation — a careful dance following my source’s lead. For that is how this work feels: El Ciruelo, in there, doing its thing; myself, observing from the sidelines, eventually hopping in and trying to vibe. I grow less certain, I learn new tricks, my work and Pedroso’s simultaneously reify and re-reify in response to the other as we grow toward an impossible whole. But the connection that drives it, for me, is not my Spanish nor my knowledge of the Cuban literary landscape; it is a single overlap in my and Pedroso’s identities, a categorization that is on the one hand merely nominal and on the other transnationally significant. For, to be a member of the Chinese diaspora, to be mixed-race — no matter how disparate our contexts, I can’t help but feel this is a shared position. I doubt that our experiences of Chinese culture are similar (my family comes from the north; his, from the south), but our perceived expectations from our non-Chinese country? Our experiences of disconnect from that very identity that makes us a perpetual outsider? The idea of a fake inheritance felt immediately familiar to me. My relationship with China, or at least the specific rendering others have given to it, has always seemed to me more imposed than real.
In high school, I wrote a story about a bamboo chest. The protagonist, myself dressed-up by ten years, finds it in his dying father’s storage unit. He can’t figure out how to open it, but he starts having grand visions about what is inside. He grows obsessed, eventually believing that the chest holds the missing meaning to his life, that his dissonance with the world will evaporate if he can just open it. To be clear, it is a bad story, meandering and solipsistic, but what interests me now is the fact that I instinctually chose such a wavering expression of identity. Chineseness appears in the story in recognizable symbols, like Chinatown, Foo Dogs, and Paifangs, and because none of those things have much bearing on my actual life, it was inevitable that they would feel hollow. But they were, at the time, simply what I thought I should write. I guess the idea of an evasive, imagined inheritance was my way of parsing that out, though instead of wielding it in the manner of Pedroso, like a knowing wink, I could only come up with a whining, beleaguered protagonist.
It should be no surprise then that El Ciruelo came to me at a time when I craved new routes to understanding my heritage. College, specifically the predominantly white one I attended, forced me to confront my hapa identity in new ways, yet as much as Asian American studies were illuminating, they could also emphasize my difference. I felt insufficient because of my inability to speak the “mother tongue,” my failure to participate in the dialectic between the U.S. and the “motherland.” These are important experiences, but they are not mine, and I have sometimes felt that if I can’t claim them, then I am in a sort of no man’s land. El Ciruelo’s strangeness, then, its unrelenting doublespeak, was refreshing to me. It felt like an exhilarating assertion over the tried-out blocks of identity (in one of my favorite poems, the caricatured sage Yuan Pei Fu eulogizes a talking stray dog named Mulan). Pedroso, as I read him, was not bound by the expectations of his Chineseness; instead, he gleefully toyed with them.
But this is, after all, just one reading of the text. Other reactions I have seen to El Ciruelo range from taking the text at its face, as an aesthetic return to Pedroso’s Chinese roots, to reading it as veiled political commentary. Both have reason, but I don’t think the existence of any one reading necessarily negates the others. The richness of a work comes from the pool of interpretation it yields, and with a text as playful as my source, that pool is deep.
The El Ciruelo that I see emerges from my prior bias (who, though, can do anything without bias?). It is also, however, a product of the circumstances in which I encountered it. To say it was some Benjaminian fate feels wrong, for I first learned of Pedroso — in office hours, from a professor — almost a year before I actually tried to read his work, and that was only when my translation class forced me to seek out a Spanish-language poet to translate. His earlier more socialist poetry didn’t excite me much; it was only when I came to El Ciruelo, when I read the tongue-in-cheek prologue and saw the mask, that I got the sense I had met something special. So, in other words, I more or less stumbled into this work.
In my translation class, after reading Spivak and Benjamin, we were assigned some excerpts from Johannes Goränsson’s Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation. A line from the introduction has stuck with me: “The poet’s authority assures the reader that the poem is not accidental, not noise” — the point being, as I understand it, that because translation displaces origin, it exposes the fallibility of this assurance in the first place. I like this idea since a) It explains well the discomfiting effect of Pedroso’s translation ruse, a large reason why I constantly worry I am getting it “wrong,” and b) it suggests that, because accident is inevitable, we should embrace it. In the edition of El Ciruelo that I ordered in quarantine, from a small publishing house in Spain, the publisher left out the illustrations. There is no mask. Would I have interpreted the text the same way without that grinning image before me? It is such a conditional reading, and yet it is mine. My experience of El Ciruelo, at every step of translation, has been a confluence of contingency and baggage, but at a certain point, I start to wonder if the Right-ness of my reading is less important than the exciting possibility that it helped me see.
Jorge Luis Borges’ approach to translation studies seems relevant here: Instead of condemning Richard Francis Burton and J.C. Mardrus’s liberties in translating 1001 Nights, he celebrates how the results reflect both translators’ unique positions: “Chance has played at symmetries, contrasts, digressions,” he writes. A Spivakian ethics is still important, but it assumes that translations claim to be the only and complete transmission of their source. Borges seems to dismiss that notion from the start, invoking instead an ideal of translative plentitude that, while rare in practice, is incredibly enticing to someone like me. The El Ciruelo I channel in translation is a product of my subjectivities, and that is fine — it is perhaps even interesting in itself. Because of this, I want to add to Goränsson’s discussion of “accident.” I am thinking instead of chemical reactions: two reagents with the ability to react, holding that potential energy inside; separate until, by chance, they meet. Not soulmates, but something close. Something with a much broader range of possibility. For in the end, all that happened was that I encountered some poems, heard a song; tried, through the filter of myself, to make them sing it louder. And that, to me, is a type of intimacy.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Translator’s Task,” translated by Steven Rendall. The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 3rd ed., Routledge, 2012, pp. 75-83.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights,” translated by Esther Allen. The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 3rd ed., Routledge, 2012, pp. 92-106.
Göransson, Johannes. Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation. Noemi Press, 2018.
Pedroso, Regino. El Ciruelo de Yuan Pei Fu. 1955. Edited by Mayra Hernández Menéndez, Havana, Instituto Cubano del Libro, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2001.
—. El Ciruelo de Yuan Pei Fu. 1955. Edited by Manuel Diáz Martínez, Carmona, Spain, Excmo. Ayuntamiento de Carmona, Colección Palimpsesto, 2011.
Spivak, Gayatri C. “The Politics of Translation.” The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 3rd ed., Routledge, 2012, pp. 312-30.
Regino Pedroso (1896-1983) was a Cuban poet from the town Unión de Reyes. He published his first poems in 1919, after a decade of working in factories. He is considered a founder of the poesía social movement in Cuba. His 1939 collection Más allá canta el mar won the National Poetry Prize.
Justin Sun is a recent graduate of Kenyon College with degrees in English and Spanish. He is from San Jose, California and currently teaches in Chicago.