1. How did you start translating Elena Salamanca’s work? What drew you to it?
Just over a year ago (in 2021), Elena mentioned to me that she’d recently published some new stuff online – poems about flowers and war and her grandmother and colonial expansion and eruptions and Roque Dalton and women undercelebrated for their contributions to botanical illustration and etc and etc. These poems, rooted in the ancient and contemporary flora of Cuscatlán, the Nahua-Pipil territory in Central America where El Salvador now exists, were in fact sections of a longer, book-length poem called [INCOGNITA FLORA CUSCATLANICA] that she’d written over the course of one wild summer day earlier in the year and that was awarded the XXVI Premio Juegos Florales de Sensuntepeque in the fall. Given my background in biology, Elena said she thought I might be interested in this new project’s mix of science, history, politics, and personal memory. Suffice to say, she was right! When she sent me the manuscript a little while later, even though I’d promised myself just days before that I wouldn’t start any new projects before finishing some of the ones I already had in motion, I opened the document and broke my promise immediately. I got her email on Friday night and by Monday had a first coat of paint down on the translation of the book. Though Elena has taken ample time to revise the poems since the day she first wrote them, and I have spent hours and hours revisiting/reworking my hastily drafted translations, I’d like to think that some of the urgent, pedal-to-the-medal energy central to each of our initial engagements with the poems remains alive, coursing through the book.
I remember experiencing a similar jolt when I first encountered Elena’s poetry a few years ago. It was the fall of 2019 and I was bouncing my way through a sprawling anthology called 4M3R1C4 2.0, assembled by the Chilean poet Héctor Hernández Montecinos. When I reached Elena’s section, I was floored by her poems, and one in particular that began with a roman numeral and appeared to be part of a longer poetic sequence or collection. Through the generous help of Héctor (and then later Alexandra Lytton Regalado) I was eventually able to get in touch with Elena to ask about the origin of the roman-numeraled poem. It turned out that it came from a project called Landsmoder that she had written as a “pre-text” (in her words) for a political performance she staged in 2011 as a protest against the bicentennial celebrations of the mythologized “primer grito de la independencia” in El Salvador. Though I could gush for days about Elena’s performance – the mounting of the monument, the cloaking of the statued women at the base in body bags, the funeral wreaths of cypress, the fake military band in attendance, the poems read aloud into the afternoon of the plaza – I’ll simply say this: when Elena sent me Landsmoder, it felt electric. Two years later, I felt this same charge when she sent me [INCOGNITA FLORA CUSCATLANICA]. My hope is that people encountering her poetry for the first time on the Action Books blog as a part of the Poesia en accion series will also feel some of that current moving through them. For those who want to spend more time with Elena’s work, we just released a bilingual version of Landsmoder which was the recipient of Not a Cult’s 2020 Stories Award for Poetry and includes photos from her original performance. We also recently released a chapbook-length excerpt from [INCOGNITA FLORA CUSCATLANICA] called Tal vez monstruos // Monsters Maybe as the inaugural title in the CLASH! chapbook series at Mouthfeel Press. More fragments from [INCOGNITA FLORA CUSCATLANICA] are living online at A Perfect Vacuum (here) and mercury firs (soon!).
2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve encountered translating this work?
It is impossible to read [INCOGNITA FLORA CUSCATLANICA] without noticing the proliferation of plant names. They’re everywhere. They’re magic! Unsurprisingly, they’ve also presented some of the biggest translation snaggles! On the surface, it may seem rather straightforward: if Elena writes the name of a plant, all I need to do is write the name for the same plant in English. Right?! Well…just as there is no one “Spanish” or “English” or “[insert language here],” there is no one name for any given plant! In the book, Elena often refers to plants using various names: their scientific names, their common/traditional names, or some combination thereof. Though scientific names can help to identify the exact plant in question (which is part of why binomial nomenclature is used), classifications are sometimes shifted or disputed, and there are many plants that appear in the book without a scientific name. Common names of plants are often regionally specific, and the same plant may be called by several different names depending on where the speaker is based. Additionally, the same common name may be used for several different plants in different places. To further muddy the waters, the formative landscape that shaped my own particular plant lexicon is the urbanized Sonoran Desert of Phoenix. Elena’s tongue, on the other hand, was shaped by a radically different ecology, and, as she mentions in her author’s note, the botanical bond she shared with her grandmother. Of course, it is this specificity that heightens the magic of the plant names in the book. And in turn, this specificity is what makes it so difficult to reproduce/honor/transfer that magic. And yet, that’s also been part of the fun! My hope is that if/when readers feel a disjunction between the plant name I chose in the translation and the name they know a particular plant by, these moments will open out into further engagement with the poem and will highlight the multiplicity (and specificity) of our relationship(s) to the life around us!
In thinking about my translation process for Elena’s work more generally, it feels important to note that in addition to being a poet, Elena is a historian. As such, her work confronts, and often subverts, the ways that those in power (mis)use history to reinscribe their own positions of authority. In other words, she takes no bullshit. Her poems are interested in laying bare the myths used to justify state violence, reclaiming erased histories, and drawing connections across vast spans of temporal distance. As a translator from the US who has never spent time in El Salvador, I’ve had to double (and triple, etc, etc) check to make sure I’m keeping up with Elena’s references. At a logistical level, this has meant flagging innumerable spots in my drafts to confirm specific allusions, events, and terms. More generally, it has also meant asking lots of questions (of my friends/collaborators in addition to Elena) and doing lots of reading/research before and after our conversations. While none of my translation projects have been solitary endeavors, my work with Elena has been particularly non-solitary – always demanding (and delighting in!) conversation and collaboration.
As a final note, I’ll mention that part of the difficulty of translating Elena’s poems in [INCOGNITA FLORA CUSCATLANICA] has been not only deciding how to translate particular snippets but deciding whether to translate them at all! This is a common weirdness that emerges when translating heavily referential, intertextual, and/or multilingual works. One moment where I had to consider not only how but whether to translate was when Elena paraphrases an Auden line toward the end. Here, my initial instinct was to find the exact line she was pointing toward and then use Auden’s words verbatim, thus returning to an “original” rather than creating a new translated line. In the end, though, I realized my instinct to quote directly would be dishonest to the cross-pollinatory nature of paraphrase. Therefore, I decided to create a version of the line in English that used Elena’s memory of Auden, rather than Auden himself, as its compass. An additional moment of how vs whether trickiness was when Elena uses the phrase “Simplemente flor” after the girls and women (each a victim of femicide in El Salvador) who appear as common names for the Gomphrena perennis. Here, I chose to keep “flor” in Spanish, allowing for a direct sonic echo of the final name Elena includes, Flor García, and a truncated echo of the poem’s title, [INCOGNITA FLORA CUSCATLANICA]. Given how her poem works to blur sharp lines, such as the boundary dividing plants from animals and past from present, it felt fitting to allow “flor” to hold as many merged resonances as possible, thus becoming “symbol / and not flower.”
3. What are you reading right now?
My relationship to reading tends to skip around a lot – sometimes I find it hard to read at all, or I find myself reading only out of habit/pressure/obligation (doomscrolling the news, osmotically absorbing ads, compulsively checking emails, etc). At other times, though, reading feels like the deepest of homes. Recently (by this I mean the past few months), reading has been a welcoming (and at times overwhelming) flood. I’m beyond grateful to the translators, small presses, generous friends/family, non-paywalled websites, public libraries (yay interlibrary loan!), and independent bookstores (yay Palabras!) who have made this present cascade of reading a possibility.
In the past little stretch, I’ve been drifting in the currents of Jhani Randhawa’s Time Regime (Gaudy Boy, 2022), sitting with some stuff my paternal grandparents wrote for me when I was a baby, delighting in a series-in-progress of articles my friend Niel Gan recently wrote and shared about machine translation (parts one and two here), re-reveling in the “Ethos” page on Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s website, taking small steps through Daniel Borzutzky’s Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018 (Coffee House Press, 2021), and resting my heart in some lovely picture books like this one about nests! I’ve also had my understanding of the “book” as a form disrupted (and thereby expanded!) by three recent poetry collections: speculation, n. (Autumn House Press, 2021) by Shayla Lawz, america, MINE (co•im•press, 2020) by Sasha Banks, and Apuntes del fin del mundo/Notes on the End of the World (La impresora, 2021) by Héctor Hernández Montecinos and translated by Raquel Salas Rivera, Alan Grostephan, Nicole Cecilia Delgado, and Caroline Whitcomb.
In the Arizona small press world, I’ve been enjoying dipping into the two newest releases from Abalone Mountain Press: a zine called The Future Lives In Our Bodies: Indigeneity and Disability Justice and a poetry collection by Boderra Joe called Desert Teeth. I’ve also loved getting to spend time with des_________: papeles, palabras, & poems from the desert (Tolsun Books, 2022), an awesome multilingual, intertextual swirl by Oscar Mancinas. In combo with his collection, I’ve been revisiting Ofelia Zepeda’s chapbook Jewed ‘I-Hoi/Earth Movements (Kore Press, 2005), whose final poem gave shape to one of my favorite pieces in Oscar’s book.
In anticipation of the release of Sawako Nakayasu’s Pink Waves (Omnidawn, 2023), I’ve been starting to read some of the texts her book is in conversation with, including Waveform (Kenning Editions, 2011) by Amber DiPietra and Denise Leto, the piece “Black Dada” in Becoming Imperceptible (Siglio, 2016) by Adam Pendleton, and “Ketjak” and “Sunrise Debris” which both appear in Ron Silliman’s The Age of Huts (compleat) (University of California Press, 2007). I’ve also been (re)visiting sections from some of Sawako’s previous books and translations, including Mouth: Eats Color (Rogue Factorial, 2011), The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa (Penguin Random House, 2020), Say Translation Is Art (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020), Yi Sang: Selected Works (Wave Books, 2020), and Texture Notes (Letter Machine Editions, 2010).
Continuing down the translated-lit whirlpool, I’ve been reading Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me (Action Books, 2020) by Choi Seungja [tr. Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong], Night (World Poetry Books, 2022) by Ennio Moltedo [tr. Marguerite Feitlowitz], Chaos, Crossing (World Poetry Books, 2022) by Olivia Elias [tr. Kareem James Abu-Zeid], Damascus, Atlantis (Terra Nova Press, 2021) by Marie Silkeberg [tr. Kelsi Vanada], Moldy Strawberries (Archipelago Books, 2022) by Caio Fernando Abreu [tr. Bruna Dantas Lobato], The Forgery (Charco Press, 2022) by Ave Barrera [tr. Robin Myers and Ellen Jones], Copy (Wave Books, 2022) by Dolores Dorantes [tr. Robin Myers], Hackers (Black Ocean, 2017) by Aase Berg [tr. Johannes Göransson], and Cursed Bunny (Algonquin Books, 2022) by Bora Chung [tr. Anton Hur]. Also, it’s been an absolute joy to read two newly released bilingual collections by Nicole Cecilia Delgado: Objetos Encontrados / Found Objects (DoubleCross Press, 2021) translated by Carina del Valle Schorske, Katie Marya, Urayoán Noel, and Raquel Salas Rivera, and adjacent islands/islas adyacentes (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2022), which was lovingly translated by Urayoán Noel and features two of Nicole’s artist books, amoná (2013) and subtropical dry (2016). Lastly, I’ve been enthralled by some fragments (here and here) from my friend Noa Micaela Fields’ project E, which “transposes” Louis Zukofsky’s A “up a fifth” by exploring the generative potential of mishearing. This is one of the most inspiring “translation” projects to enter my life recently!
Ok, this has already become very long, so I will just add that I’ve been feeling really moved by some stuff I’ve been reading by JD Pluecker (their “Two Letters to Forrest Bess” and their recently re-printed book The Unsettlements: Dad, which is part of their longer-term The Unsettlements project series) and David Buuck (his collection of prose works Site Cite City (Futurepoem, 2015) and his “But Also This—Correspondences for Etel” pieces which are online here and here). Both of their work has been making me think deeply about pace and place and written intimacy.
Ryan Greene is a translator, book farmer, and poet from Phoenix, Arizona. He’s a co-conspirator at F*%K IF I KNOW//BOOKS and a housemate at no.good.home. His translations include work by Elena Salamanca, Claudina Domingo, Ana Belén López, Giancarlo Huapaya, and Yaxkin Melchy, among others. His recent bilingual collections with Elena Salamanca include Landsmoder, which won the 2020 Stories Award for Poetry put on by Not a Cult, and Tal vez monstruos // Monsters Maybe, which was the inaugural title in the CLASH! chapbook series published by Mouthfeel Press. Since 2018, he has co-facilitated the Cardboard House Press Cartonera Collective bookmaking workshops at Palabras Bilingual Bookstore. Like Collier, the ground he stands on is not his ground.
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