Paul Cunningham: In your preface to Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis, you described the collection as having the shape of a “descent.” You describe the act of translation itself as a “katabatic unearthing.” I think there is a lot of unknowing in the beginning stages of any translation. For instance, I can’t imagine what the experience of translating “Lettered Days” was like. In “Lettered Days,” unknowing is actually what brings the speaker closer to knowing one’s mortality and thus knowing the urgency of one’s words. Estrada reinforces this idea by juxtaposing “minutes” with “words” in the same breath. Did a feeling of unknowing linger even after translating this book? Do you think approaching a poem with the desire to unknow leaves more room to experiment as a translator?
Olivia Lott: What a fantastic question. I do think unknowing structures my approach to Katabasis, in more ways than one. A core interpretation I have of the book is that it responds in some way to Colombia’s decades-long Armed Conflict, what it’s like to have that trauma absorbed into your surroundings and your being, your mindspace. Consciously or not. This is something I fundamentally cannot know. It is also far from explicitly expressed in the book; in fact, not one textual clue concretely grounds Katabasis in Colombia. Rather, Estrada’s poetry expresses a depth of emotional meaning through what I consider processes of “katatabic unearthing”: surrealist automatism, psychoanalysis, confessional poetry’s attention to the inner life, heightened intertextuality, ekphrasis, defamiliarization. Her poetry refuses any singular interpretation; its way of existing is always multiple, in flux. To approach a poem with the desire to unknow, I think, is to refuse to apply a singular meaning to it and to let the process of translation open up new possibilities. Your question has me thinking, too, that unknowing could serve as a type of antidote to rhetoric of mastery that seems to accompany creative writing (I know Johannes Göransson and Katherine Hedeen have written about this on the blog). What limits do we put on a poem when we think we know exactly what it’s doing?
I’ve tried to allow the translation to explore the poem’s many ways of existing. This entails embarking on a parallel creative journey—writing a new poem that is also the same poem, at once parallel, reciprocal, and autonomous, as Haroldo de Campos said of transcreation. This has meant, for one, prioritizing intertextual meaning, which I discuss at length in my translator’s preface. It has also meant largely avoiding the most direct translation. I wanted to highlight multiplicity of meaning as tangibly as possible, at times asking the bilingual reader to do a double take, while staying true to the poem’s other modes of signification. This is the case of “Lettered Days.” The literal translation of the Spanish title, “Alfabeto del tiempo” is “Alphabet of Time.” To me, this English clashed with the body of the poem; the poem is darker than the sort of wonderfully-sounding “Alphabet of Time” would indicate. As you point out, too, it juxtaposes language with time, as if suggesting that both are inadequate vehicles for making sense of things, and ends on unknowing, unbreathing, unsaying, unmoving. The poem evoked, for me, the phrase, “Your days are numbered.” I took the central juxtaposition of “Alphabet of Time” and inserted it into that phrase, resulting in “Lettered Days.” This is one of the riskier translations of the collection. Both Estrada and my wonderful editor, Michelle Gil-Montero, encouraged my creativity, and so I left it. At the very least, it signals that no single translation of Katabasis, or any poem for that matter, is possible.
Of course, all of this is political, too. Complexity over simplicity. No easy translation. No easy consumption. This is especially important, I think, for works from Colombia. Mainstream representations of Colombia and its cultural production in the United States tend to simplify and exotify, especially when it comes to the Armed Conflict. At least one implication of a simplified version of events is not having to seriously grapple with the implications of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. The context from which this book emerges is very dense, its coordinates textured. It’s my ethical responsibility to not neatly package that up for straightforward “knowing.”
PC: One of the many reasons Estrada’s poems are so refreshing is because her stars don’t do what one expects them to (“They’ve laid out traps for you instead of ears”). They do not inspire. They do not provide navigational assistance. This creates an intriguing dilemma for readers when so much of this book feels like being lost at sea. (I think this book would teach incredibly well alongside Caroline Bergvall’s Drift, by the way.) In fact, much of Katabasis feels like an endless sea of night. For these reasons, I appreciate that your preface/translator’s note begins with various possible definitions for katabasis. Personally, as far as my own reading experience is concerned, I felt most drawn to definitions like “a passage through” something or a “tailspin.” If katabasis can be a “rising,” then I believe such a “rising” also feels like a “falling” (i.e. the way boiling water rises, but also falls). Do you think katabasis—or a katabatic poetics—is about transferal? Negotiating forces? Were these definitions of katabasis helpful to you as you translated?
OL: An endless sea of night—I love that. Boiling water that rises, but also falls—I love that, too. These poems are, literally and metaphorically, ungrounded, unanchored. A poetics of uprooting, as poet-translator Andrea Cote says of Estrada. Thinking of them as existing in alternative spaces without, as you say, navigational assistance—the sea, night, shadows, underground, a honeycomb, the subconscious, that feeling when you’re half-asleep—suggests that they move in ways we might not expect, and that the collection as a whole is in constant negotiation.
I chose to begin the preface with the range of definitions of “katabasis” to open the collection and the translation with the idea of instability of meaning. I do think letting go of any unitary idea of what “katabasis” means in Katabasis helped me to proceed without a clear-cut map, to defamiliarize and experiment. Total uprootedness. You could do this, to different degrees, with each word in the book. Take the title of the first poem, “Medusas.” Jellyfish. More than one jellyfish. A bloom of jellyfish. The feeling of being surrounded by jellyfish. The lights and darks in the water and the otherworldly translucence of jellyfish. The mythological figure Medusa. Snakes in place of hair. To turn to stone. The loaded idea of a “monstruous” woman. Perseus with the head of Medusa. Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Plath’s “Medusa.” “Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs.” “I shall take no bite of your body / bottle in which I live.” “Off, off eely tentacle!”
Transferal, yes. Negotiating these forces, yes.
PC: Early in Katabasis, I did experience a sense of falling (i.e. “watered down”; “the red surge that threw”; “the dream slips”). A feeling of no turning back. However, as I progressed temporality also felt increasingly skewed by the vast darkness. Downward movement became more difficult to track. In “Bees” (which felt reminiscent of Plath), the day “drags” and time slows. In “Mare Nostrum,” movement begins to feel more like a horizontal crossing over or circling. “Visitation” is also a highly dynamic poem when it comes to perspective (“Her hunger roams rooftops. Tiptoes, clings to tree / shadows”). I think this was the first time in the book when I experienced simultaneous sensations of rising/falling. Did these frequent shifts in perspective and temporality pose many challenges when translating? Do you think Estrada intended a feeling of exile at times?
OL: This is a really thoughtful reading, Paul. Time and space in Katabasis are never stable, nor is its directionality clear or momentum steady. You could say there’s some sort of exilic sensation here, definitely. The speaker has no anchors, which is both freeing and terrifying.
The pace of the poems changes significantly across the collection. The section titles, “Surfaces,” “Subsoil,” and “Final Descent,” set up an expectation for a direct downward katabatic journey, evocative of those taken by epic heroes in the classical tradition who descend through layers into the underworld. But the book, once again, challenges that expectation. I think the boiling water metaphor is fitting here, too. The poems move between stillness and turbulence, quiet and disquiet, reaching boiling points and cooling points.
The last section of poems plays a lot with speed. Some poems (like “Stair V”—my favorite of the book) evoke a rapid stream of consciousness, a hurried poetic speaker. While others (like “Last Stair”) I always want to read slowly, to draw out the disquiet in the stillness. These shifts often occur in the same poem, too (like “Stair III”). Cadence and rhythm occur differently in each language, and it was important to me to match Estrada’s tempo in the translation. At times I sped up the English by eliminating transitional words and twisting parts of speech, to evoke the chaotic drive of automatism and the often-overwhelming sensation of stream of consciousness. In other moments, I slowed down the English, breaking up longer utterances (which are more natural in Spanish) and allowing for moments of pause and reflection. Momentum shifts in Katabasis certainly imply perspective shifts, too.
PC: From a fascination with the sea to the lyrical sting of bees, Sylvia Plath’s influence in Katabasis feels undeniable. Channeling Plath’s English and influence on Estrada, you chose to translate words like “nadie” as “nobody” (as written by Plath i.e. “I am nobody; I have nothing but explosions”) as opposed to “no one.” You also note how Plath serves as an “anchor” for pairing Estrada’s Spanish with a “pointed and poignant” English. Do you happen to know how Estrada came to Plath? Are Spanish-language translations of Plath popular in Colombia? / Is Plath a celebrated poet in Colombia?
Plath’s presence in Katabasis feels undeniable to me, too. I think you can say the whole book is written alongside her. I talked briefly with Lucía Estrada about your questions. She told me that Plath has always been one of her most essential readings and dialogues. She has been reading her work since she was a teenager. She can recite “Edge” (“Filo” in Spanish) by heart. She is currently rereading The Bell Jar. She also told me that Plath is quite popular in Colombia, especially among poets born after 1970. Among this generation, there is a great deal of interest in poetry that approaches the nearness of death and that does so through a distinct treatment of language. For Estrada, the experience of language as the experience of death in Plath’s work is what especially appeals to her.
As for me, since I come to poetry through studying Spanish and Latin American literature, working on this book was the first time I seriously read Plath. This is one of the things I love most about translation, the horizontal curiosity it inspires and necessitates. Reading Plath to translate Estrada marked an important turning point for the translation. Estrada had read Plath in Spanish. This meant that the way Plath and her translators entered Estrada’s Spanish was not going to look the same as if she had read her in English and wrote poems in English. My task was to find Plath in Estrada’s Spanish, and bring her into English again. For example, Plath often incorporates clipped nouns that create strange images and, in some way, soften the lyricism. While these nouns are not as syntactically feasible in Spanish, I was able to create them in the English. “Sílaba de aire,” “vueltas de llave,” and “dolor de sal,” became “air syllable,” “key turns,” and “salt ache” in my rendering.
I’ll add, too, that I think each project requires different approaches from their translators. Katabasis called on me to translate beyond the inter-linguistic and I found the intertextual a space of great creative openness.
PC: Given the stark underrepresentation of Colombian poets in the U.S., do you know of any forthcoming collections we should have on our radar? Do you have plans to continue translating Estrada?
OL: Yes, a few projects to put on folks’ radars. Ugly Duckling Presse just brought out María Paz Guerrero’s God Is a Bitch Too, translated by Camilo Roldán, as part of their always-limit-pushing Señal Chapbook Series. For Spanish-language readers, Pájaros de sombra: Diecisiete poetas colombianas (1989-1964), an anthology of women poets from Colombia edited by Andrea Cote, just won the International Latino Book Award for Best Poetry Anthology. I’ll mention, too, that Katherine M. Hedeen and I have co-translated Almost Obscene by queer renegade Raúl Gómez Jattin (1945-1997), and are working on placing it with a publisher.
I’ve heard rumblings, as well, of some in-the-works projects I’m very excited about. While Katabasis is a book of firsts in many ways, there is so much exciting poetry from Colombia—particularly written by women, Black, and queer poets. It’s truly shocking how underrepresented Colombian poetry is, at this moment, in English, but I’m confident that it won’t be the case for long.
It’s been so wonderful to collaborate with Lucía Estrada, who has become a dear friend. I look forward to continuing to do so!