[Venezuelan writer Adalber Salas Hernández recently translated and published a poetry collection by Louise Glück for the small, independent poetry press, Pre-Textos, based in Valencia, Spain. The following is his response (in my translation) to the decision made by the Wylie Agency (which represents Glück) to not renew its rights agreement with Pre-Textos, after Glück was named this year’s Nobel Prize winner in Literature. The controversial move has been documented widely in the Spanish-speaking media (see https://elpais.com/cultura/2020-11-14/el-nobel-rompe-la-lealtad-de-una-poeta-con-su-editorial-espanola.html) and has prompted numerous writers, translators, and publishers from around the world to sign an open letter opposing it (see https://buenosairespoetry.com/2020/11/16/carta-abierta-apoyo-de-escritores-traductores-editores-periodistas-a-editorial-pre-textos/). K.H.]
It’s worth remembering why we’re here. Why we do what we do. What small set of circumstances has inspired us to live for books.
When I ask myself why I do what I do, why I read the way I read, why I translate with such voracity, why I write like there’s no tomorrow, the first thing that comes to mind is a memory from my childhood. The encyclopedias in the house where I grew up, the rows of books with their black spines, monks specialized in gathering dust. I felt genuine fascination leafing through their pages, discovering the most interesting facts from a constellation of details, like tiny jewels worthless to anyone else. It’s hard to explain what those vibrant afternoons meant to me, filled with anacondas and submarines and solar systems and journeys through the desert. Let’s just say that it’s when I realized something that has stayed with me up until the present, even though I can barely put it into words now: books are machines for creating wonder.
Along with this wonder for books soon came another, one that reflected and recreated the former: a wonder for language. I discovered, with the fearlessness typical of a small life, that there were other languages where you could never say exactly the same thing. I understood, even though I can barely put it into words now, that a word is a horizon that can fit in the palm of your hand, in your pocket; that following a trail of associations, an unending game of connotations, a recently learned word could lead to unending journeys. And that’s how it’s been. The plurality of language is also an unending celebration. I didn’t have to wait for Physics to tell me about parallel universes, I’d already learned that the world is constantly expanding in each of its languages.
Around that same time, I figured out the power of translation, and more concretely, its power of destruction. Back then, when I was 12 or 13, I tried to read Hamlet. I didn’t know what it was about, but the name circulated with a certain air of respectability, that scent of sanctity that tends to envelope the classics. I say I tried because I couldn’t get past the first pages: it was impossible to read. Still, I owe my love of translation to it. That awful translator, whoever they were, gave me an invaluable gift. The ghost of Hamlet, its battered language, is always with me.
Translation gives books extraordinary lives, multiplying the shadows they cast. In other words, it amplifies their ability to create wonder. Whoever translates practices the craft of multiplicity.
When the editors at Pre-Textos proposed I translate Louise Glück’s A Village Life, I immediately accepted. Glück was one of those poets who’d most impacted me. I remember reading Averno and The Wild Iris and spending many days pondering the books, going over my favorite passages, not wanting to begin reading anything else. A Village Life afforded me a similar fascination. Translating it was, in a way, giving back what had been given to me: using my voice to give a new sonorous body to another voice, one I’d admired, one that had accompanied me for years. A gesture of gratitude, if you’d like. Translating can also be a way of saying thank you.
And yet, Una vida de pueblo (its title in Spanish) hasn’t even been out a year and I see my work endangered. And it’s not just my work, but that of the other translators before me. I’m just the latest in a long line whose books are still breathing. They are: Eduardo Chirinos, Mirta Rosenberg, Beverly Pérez Rego, Andrés Catalán, Abraham Gragera, Ruth Miguel Franco, Mariano Peyrou. Even Luis Harss published some translations in the mythical journal Escandalar (thanks to Johan Gotera and Aleisa Ribalta Guzmán for sharing that info with me). These are all artists whom I deeply admire. Together they make up a fruitful array of registers.
Endangered: a victim of greed. The agency that deals with Glück’s rights has opted not to renew its contracts with Pre-Textos. But it’s been done dishonestly: stalling, not responding to emails, and in the meantime secretly asking for other bids. What was going on got around and a number of publishers who were contacted refused to participate. The agency finally chose another press for the rights, without giving Pre-Textos the opportunity to counteroffer or even simply respond. The great diversity of accents in which Louise Glück’s poetry has lived in Spanish is at the point of being deforested and flattened out by just one voice.
There’s more to this treacherous move. The agency requires that Pre-Textos destroy every last copy of its unsold books.
And how will these books be destroyed?
By burning them. The agency has demanded that the books be burnt.
Let’s say it one more time, out loud: they have ordered that Louise Glück’s books be burnt.
Doesn’t it leave a bitter taste in your mouth? What do you think of when we talk about burning books? Fascist demonstrations, bonfires, purges? The agency wants this depraved, grotesque gesture to come off as a simple transaction. The logical outcome of a sterile exchange. But we shouldn’t forget: no transaction is neutral. You can’t separate the market from ethics.
They want to get rid of these books, they want to purge the name of Louise Glück from the Pre-Textos catalog—a press that has published her for almost 15 years—to make way for a new translation. Like burning down a forest, blindly ridding it of any life it still might harbor. What’s more, the agency is actually requiring proof: someone to certify that the destruction has taken place. An independent witness, with no association with the publisher, who can confirm the purge has happened. That’s when they’ll be happy, having served the author they represent the only way they know how. A box of ashes sent by mail: that’s how I imagine the proof they want so much.
And ashes are exactly the opposite of wonder.
translated by Katherine M. Hedeen