1. How did you start translating Susana Cerdá’s poetry? What drew you to it?
Actually, Cerdá’s “Patrimonies” was the first poem I translated from the Spanish (with Ernesto Livon Grosman) and my first published translation (in American Poetry Review, 1991). So you could say Cerdá’s work was the medium through which my project of translating Argentine poetry came into being. I was drawn initially to the propulsive quality of her longer poems from XUL magazine, achieved through frequent stops and incomplete sentences (from “Patrimonies”: “We have. We are being, have been thrown toward another. / Place.”). This quality opened others for me, such as her play with structures assumed to be immutable (grammar, punctuation, mathematics, patriarchy, political oppression), and her superimposition of sexual and other meanings to explore the movement of power. Written during the Argentine military dictatorship (1976-1983), or Dirty War, when an estimated 30,000 “disappeared,” her poems create a space in which the power dynamics of political and gender oppression, sex, the family, and language meet and enter into dialogue. The poems not only depict but enact these dynamics, making us as readers complicit. Her work also speaks strongly to our current political moment in the United States. How are we complicit with the abuses of the moment we are part of? How are we its victims, and how can we be its survivors? Cerdá would say, interrupt the narrative and its seemingly inevitable progression by interrupting the generally accepted terms for telling the story: expose them, play with them, undercut them, speak the pain they cause.
2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve encountered in translating this work?
Cerdá’s poems are serious, tackling both deep psychological and political injury and sexual pleasure in frank, unflinching terms. In the service of this seriousness, they are also playful, capable of rapid shifts in tone—knowing one moment, innocent the next—and of wordplay and punning that stack up different meanings on top of each other or short-circuit expected meanings. Thus she unsettles predictable patterns of dominance and submission, at once voicing the experience of being a victim or survivor; exerting power over the reader or addressee; and presenting an invitation to readers to experiment with different roles and meanings. Beyond the challenges of capturing this playful, dense, and multivalent use of language in English exists another, more profound challenge for a translator.
When we experience trauma, we experience a breaking through our normal experience and defenses of something that by definition overwhelms our ability to cope with it. Cerdá meets the transgression of trauma with her own poetic transgressions. There is an ethical challenge for a translator in respecting both these transgressions and the traumas they respond to. The way to meet this challenge is to allow her play with power and her expression of injury to exist in the same space. The former does not “triumph” over the latter in another too-easy narrative, but neither does the injury occupy the entirety of her poetic/psychic space. As translator, then, capturing her shifts in tone is also capturing the fragmentary experience of a trauma survivor, as well as that survivor’s work to interrupt habitual response. Capturing her play with the dynamics of sexual power is one with respecting the pain and anger that the effects of the abuse of power have produced. In translating Cerdá, I hope to create a “holding environment” that allows all of this to be present simultaneously.
Cerdá’s language, and by extension her sense of self, is like “A fabric, any old rag, a texture. / That’s used for, that fashions itself, that absorbs, receives” (from “A fabric”). It is both malleable and self-fashioning. Through it she creates wiggle room, a possible refuge from, or at least perspective on, oppression. As translator, I continue the holding open of language and self that is her alternative to endless victimization and war.
3. What are you reading right now?
I recently finished rereading The Magic Mountain in Wood’s excellent translation, drawn to its engagement with a way of life determined by illness, where the forced inactivity illness requires creates space for a development of consciousness. I’ve also been reading and translating Léon Damas, Césaire’s contemporary in the Négritude movement, who writes of being irreducible despite attempts to appropriate or assimilate him: “my childhood comes back / in a hiccup shaking my instinct / like the cop shakes the punk” (from “Hiccup”).
This week’s Poesía en acción features include:
Molly Weigel‘s translation of Jorge Santiago Perednik’s Shock of the Lenders and Other Poems received the 2013 PEN Poetry in Translation Prize and her translation of Oliverio Girondo’s In the Moremarrow was shortlisted for the 2014 BTBA (both published by Action Books). She has published poems in Burning House Press, EOAGH!, and The Volta (They Will Sew the Blue Sail); translations in Burning House Press, West Branch, and Mantis; and critical essays in The Volta and Jacket 2, among others.
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.