The good news today is that two of my translations appeared on Friday, June 15 in the online journal suelta, in its first-anniversary anthology otra suelta: contemporary latin american literature in translation. (Look for it at http://www.sueltasuelta.es/. The Spanish feminine noun suelta means a release or a setting loose of something, in this context perhaps ideas in the form of words that are then set loose on a page or screen; otra suelta, then, is another release of the collection’s ten stories from their original language into the added freedom of one more. Another part of suelta’s creative mission is to pair each story with a piece of art also from the interconnected worlds of Latin America. The same visual art accompanies the literature as it moves into English.
But why should this release from any one language to another matter to a general reading public in, say, the United States of America? In reflecting on this question over the years, I often recall an essay that my friend and literary compadre Alejandro Bekes originally published in 2003 (as “Tres Miradas”) in his brother Sebastián’s mimeographed local journal Iletrados, and which I translated a couple of years later (as “Three Views”) for the late online magazine New Works Review. In particular an anecdote he told about Goethe.
It seems the great master of German letters was approached in 1808, at the time of Napoleonic dominance on European soil, by a group of intellectual compatriots who wanted to bolster Germans’ patriotic sentiment and national pride by publishing an anthology of the best German poetry, for the largest possible audience. They asked Goethe to suggest works and authors that he thought should be included. After consideration he replied that, whatever they used, they should include foreign works in translation from other languages. Bekes’s central point in relating this was that, in so doing, Goethe had not only reminded them of the positive influence of foreign literatures on their own, but demonstrated to them the importance of rising above and looking beyond the nationalist contingencies of any moment.
Certainly in a post-9/11 United States, and at a time of continued economic crisis and instinctive circling of nationalist and dangerously partisan wagons, we could stand a heavy dose of the enrichment and broadening of perspectives that literary translation and other ventures in inter-cultural and inter-national understanding promote. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to be involved in a project like suelta’s. I hope that you will check them out and spread the word.
Any literary translator of limited renown will tell you that the work would not be done at all if not for love of the task. Esteban Mayorga, the Ecuadorian writer and translator whose story “Tough” I have set loose in English, says as much through the voice of his harassed and comic narrator, a former slave and now Roman citizen who says in passing that “translation is a supremely entertaining task even though, one must admit, very badly paid.” That may well be my favorite individual line in the story, though what first grabbed my attention was the quirky and even daring originality of its concept: the evocation, through the single perspective of a Roman man who with his wife is completing their 97th translation of Homer’s Odyssey, of a whole imaginative and ancient world as well as the sorrow of one family’s existence within it.
My other translation is of Colombian writer (and also translator) Juan Sebastián Cárdenas’s “You Like this Garden of Yours? Keep Your Children from Destroying It!” In my initial hurried skimming of his text I was immediately and deeply intrigued by the essayistic quality of the story and the extreme earnestness of its fragmented and affecting style. The long title comes from a repeated refrain (quoted in Spanish) in British writer Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel Under the Volcano, which is in turn inspired by a sign in Mexico City’s Borda Gardens. As that title suggests, especially if you have already encountered Lowry’s mid-20th-century masterpiece, this story evokes the nature of reality and human yearning in the midst of violence, ecological degradation, and our bedeviled quest – not too infrequently by the medium of drugs – for forgetfulness or transcendence.
I had myself not encountered Lowry’s book before reading Cárdenas’s story, so I feel some debt to him for having turned me to its sad yet exhilarating narrative, itself a fragmented and structurally challenging text. But if like me you are into such things I would encourage you to locate a copy of it and dive in. The exertion was well worth it for me. As has been my work on these two stories, each of which is well deserving of a broader readership. And, in any case, will deliver its punch more quickly, if perhaps ideally by more than one reading.