1. How did you start working on Mayra Santos-Febres’ Boat People? What drew you to it?
Mayra Santos-Febres is one of Puerto Rico’s most important writers and I have long admired and read her work. I’m a professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York and I have a deep interest in exploring migration in literature, as you can note from my other publications. As I was writing my book on Julia de Burgos, I became interested in thinking more broadly about the idea of the Caribbean Sea and water as a border. As I continued to develop this new project, I went back to Boat People by Santos-Febres, a book that I was already familiar with. It is such a powerful book with amazing imagery and sonority. The sea appears in it as an animate figure and the speaking voice of the poems often emerges from the bowels of the sea. For me it’s an important book for thinking about the sea as border. As I continued to develop my book project, I decided to translate the entire collection and publish it because it’s such an important and timely book. It was first published almost twenty years ago, but it is more relevant today, I think, than when it was first written. Literature has the power to move readers in the way that statistics cannot. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the migrant crises around the world, the ecological and debt crises in Puerto Rico that have caused massive migrations, this collection of poetry is timely, urgent, crucial.
2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve encountered in translating this work?
Boat People is an incredibly demanding collection of poetry. It is a slim volume of twenty poems that is rich with imagery and sound, that resist translation, transparency and intelligibility. As you might imagine this poses a challenge for the reader and the translator alike. I think that the work of the great Martinican theorist Édouard Glissant is illuminating when thinking about the opacity of this text. In his work, Poetics of Relation (2006) Glissant writes, “we clamor for the right to opacity for everyone.” I think his theorizing of difference through the idea of opacity is instructive. There are things that we cannot know, there are things that cannot be made transparent. Mayra Santos-Febres practices a cimarrón poetics, a poetics of opacity. An example of this in her work is that we can feel, see, and hear an African diasporic past, even though we cannot fully know it. And so there are things in the text that remain obscure. Another example of opacity in the poetry are terms like tiguere and morena, part of a Caribbean vocabulary, of local knowledge that cannot be made transparent. The stories of migrants who have drowned in crossing, captured in fragments in these poems, remain out of reach. These are examples of the opacity in the Spanish text that I wanted to convey and retain in the English translation. That was an awesome challenge.
3. What are you reading right now?
As I continue to think about the idea of the border, I’m currently reading Greg Grandin’s sweeping history of the idea of the frontier in the American imagination, The End of The Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America (2020).
I’m also reading Mayra Santos-Febres’s Huracanada, a collection of poetry that she wrote after Huracan María decimated Puerto Rico in 2017. I’m looking for inspiration for my next translation project!
This week’s Poesía en acción feature also includes:
Vanessa Pérez-Rosario is a translator and professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York where she teaches U.S. Latinx and Caribbean literatures and cultures. She translated Boat People by Mayra Santos-Febres (Cardboard House Press 2021). She is the author of Becoming Julia de Burgos: The Making of a Puerto Rican Icon (University of Illinois Press 2014) which will be published in a Spanish edition in 2021. She is currently editing a bilingual anthology of Julia de Burgos’ collected writings. She is editor of Hispanic Caribbean Literature of Migration: Narratives of Displacement (Palgrave 2010), and managing editor @smallaxeproject
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.