Anthony Seidman (AS): With pleasure. I was born in Los Angeles in 1973 to a 16-year-old biological mother of Polish Catholic background and a biological father, slightly older, who was of Irish background on his mother’s side but whose father was full-blooded Ute. (These are the bare facts, among a few others, I gleaned from the adoption papers that my father showed me when I was an adolescent.) I was adopted and raised in the San Fernando Valley by a New York-born Jewish Ashkenazi father and a mother whose family hailed from Morocco, all Sephardic Jews… a weird type of cultural stew, with British passports, as my grandfather was born in Gibraltar, and yet with roots in Cuenca, Spain. Hence, my maternal last-name, Conquy, a francophone reinvention of the original place. I was informed that I was adopted early on—a healthy choice on the part of my parents—and I believe that that helped nourish my sense of reaching out to different languages and, thereby, different cultures, as I grew up hearing French, Ladino, English, and Yiddish as a boy, and then went on to become a Bar Mitzvah and read or pronounce Hebrew. As my family was middle class, there were no aspirations to enroll me in prep schools. I am a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and during the 1980s and early ’90s, the campuses were lively dens of heteroglossia. I remember being in 4th grade and a friend gifting me a crisp bill of 5 Córdobas while we waited in the cafeteria line for square slices of Wednesday pizza; I now realize that he was a refugee from civil war in Nicaragua. In my classrooms, the majority of the students were of color, and if they were white, that may have meant Armenian and Iranian, or they were Jewish, and many of those Jewish students were Levantine, with families originally from Iraq, Syria, etc. That was my linguistic and cultural reality. How could one not end up being a translator in such a mix? And who knows how the dice tumble and settle….Many of my high school friends were second-generation Mexican, Central American, or South American. I was eating meals at friends’ homes where the parents would simply address me in Spanish. (And with these friends, I was sharing poems, and we were reading not only Pound, Whitman, Williams, Eliot, and Shelley, but also García Lorca, Nicolás Guillén, and Paz.) Some particularly fond memories involve a friend’s father and mother suggesting I be the chambelán for their daughter’s quinceañera. There I was, giving confession in broken Spanish, taking communion, and dancing the waltz, followed by a beautiful party in the patio of bungalows that once dotted the hills outside downtown, now all razed in the cause of gentrification. Upon graduating high school, I attended Syracuse University, from which I graduated with a BA in Spanish and English. I was lucky enough to take classes from and experience a friendship with Pedro Cuperman, an Argentine-Jewish professor of Poetics and Semiotics, and also to have as a roommate a Dominican by the name of Amaury Terrero, proudly from Las Matas de Farfán. And that taught me how vast the Latin American experience is…. the differences between Mexican culture, Argentine culture, the Afro-Caribbean realities. From there, I went on to do an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. It was a bilingual program, in the desert, on the border. I opted to live on the Mexican side of the border.
EOA: How did you become interested in translating poetry from Spanish into English?
AS: By necessity. When I found myself living in Ciudad Juárez during the latter half of the 1990s, I wished to read the best of contemporary Mexican poetry. I had an intuitive sense that Paz’s style and tone were very much of the past, and that there was a true struggle by poets, especially from the northern border regions, to capture a different image of their country in their verse.
EOA: How do you discover the poets whose works you wish to translate?
AS: I like visiting thrift shops. You hold up a coffee cup and say to yourself, this meant a lot to someone. As did that complete set of plates. That piano, well, someone may have gracefully played Satie on it, or plodded though the finger exercises that Bach composed for his daughter. Maybe some kid pounded out the opening bars to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” The stacks at universities and great public libraries are somewhat akin to that… you discover voices from the past in footnotes, asides, letters, allusions that no longer click with many contemporary readers. Yet these voices are gasping to be resuscitated. The role of the translator is like that of the archeologist who finds hidden statues, inscriptions. I have found—and translated—so many wonderful poets from anthologies considered outdated. The coteries change, the general taste, but often some gold gets swept away with the dross. I have some very specific poets and poems in mind… It was a pleasure to do a full volume by Salvador Novo (Mexico, 1904-1974) titled Confetti-Ash, co-translated with David Shook, for The Bitter Oleander Press in 2015. Although not exactly forgotten in his country, Novo is rarely included in contemporary anthologies of Latin American poetry, especially bilingual ones for English readers. It’s criminal, as far as I’m concerned. His poetry brims with a sense of play, irony, candid homoeroticism, and a tone more like that of the US poets of his time than the highly refined sonnets of a Jorge Cuesta, or the elegance in the earliest poems by José Gorostiza. I happened to discover him in a water-damaged volume published by Mexico’s Secretary of Education, a rather unattractive edition from the 1980s. I picked up the volume from a street-vendor in Juárez who was quite happy to get a 10 Peso coin and rid himself of the book.
EOA: How and when did you meet Alejandro Meter? How do his photographs and your translations work together?
AS: Great question… But to be clear, we don’t exactly collaborate—we work in the same spheres. Alejandro is a professor of Latin American literature at the University of San Diego, as well as an immensely talented photographer. For the past decade, he has dedicated his work to documenting the writers who write on both sides of the border and in close proximity to (now) Trump’s wall. It has been a delight and an honor to see that in various publications my translations of poets and narrators also showcase his photos. Alejandro has tapped into the energy of these border-region creators, and he is a regular on the scene at festivals and readings. His project is immense, and it highlights writers that are often overlooked by the “establishment” in Mexico City. Some Mexicans intellectuals still believe that the official or major culture comes from the capital, and they dismiss everything else as provincial. The far-flung cities on the border fare the worst. The Mexican writer and politician José Vasconcelos even claimed that culture in Mexico ceases where the inhabitants grill meat. (And indeed, carne asada is very much a northern thing in Mexico.) But thanks to the efforts of those like Alejandro Meter,and of such poets as Jorge Ortega—and, I hope, to some of my efforts—there is a new vision of the literature from the border.
EOA: How do you manage the difficulty of translating different dialects of Spanish? Have you worked with dialects for which there are no complete dictionaries?
AS: Although I have recently translated Dominican and Peruvian poetry, and I am well familiar with Mexican poetry from Sor Juana to Díaz Mirón to the Contemporáneos to the poets of the ’80s, like Alberto Blanco, and younger poets, I have felt that I can best render into English the poetry from the northern border of Mexico. The reasons for this are simple…. Roughly from 1995 to 1999, and with extensive stays during the early 2000s, I lived in Ciudad Juárez. Many of those from the United States don’t grasp how multicultural Mexico is, and how the south differs from the nation’s capital, which also differs from other parts in the center, and how the desert’s northern expanse is vastly different. Different as far as attitude, social interaction, language, and manners of addressing others… even dress, gastronomy, not to mention music, or what one drinks at parties. By living in Juárez, becoming a father while living there, working at the city’s main public university, paying bills, going to the bank, etc., I was immersed in the border region’s Spanish… and although there are some differences between the Spanish spoken in Tijuana, Mexicali, and Cd. Juárez, the differences are minor. Actually, the bickering that sometimes exists between citizens from Tijuana and Mexicali strikes this individual as a textbook case of Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences.” Prior to a literary festival in Cd. Juárez to which my wife—the noir fiction author, Nylsa Martínez—and I had been invited, she had never visited that border city. After a day or two, she surmised that it was like Mexicali… yet not as hellishly hot. I heard a nearly identical comment from the great Juárez writer Willivaldo Delgadillo when I asked him for his opinions of Mexicali. Tone is so important when it comes to translation... tone and register, and discerning from which social point-of-view the turn of phrase, the judgment, the gaze surfaces. I must admit to feeling lost, sometimes, in the deep south of Mexico when it comes to irony, understatement, or the endless “albures,” all of which are far more easy for me to decipher up north. Thus, when I read a poet like Roberto Castillo Udiarte, and his lines: “Damas y caballeros/ welcome tu Tijuana,/ el lugar más mítico del mundo,/ onde las lenguas se aman y se unen/ en el aló, el oquei, el babai y el verbo tu bi.” Well, I easily pour that into: “Ladies and Gentlemen,/ bienvenidos a Tijuana/ the most mythical place on the face of earth,/ where two tongues make-out and meld,/ and the local speak in Hel-oh, oh-kaye, and the verb tu bi.” It’s a Spanish, Caló, and general zest in which I was immersed on the border. That being said, when I translated J.M. Servin’s new-journalism-like account of his time living in the States, For Love of the Dollar: A Portrait of the Artist as an Undocumented Immigrant, for Unnamed Press, I also tapped into the energy he derived from his love of The Ramones, James Brown, the Beats, and Bukowski, and I remembered that landscape he conveys—New York right before it underwent “deep cleansing”—from my visits to my grandfather during the early ’80s. And Servín is very much a Chilango, a proud lifelong resident of Mexico City. We got along swimmingly when we met for our presentation of the book in Los Angeles. The first words he said to me were, in Spanish, “But why do you speak like you’re from the north of Mexico?” That made me laugh heartily.
EOA: Some claim poetry is too difficult to translate because idioms and symbols are so culturally specific. How do you handle these challenges?
AS: I wouldn’t have ever translated if I believed that. There is always some bridge, some connection. Poetry and narration are so embedded in the human DNA, it’s so natural. We tend to overlook that some of the canonical poems of the 20th century in English are translations… just think of Pound’s Cathay or his version of “The Seafarer.” Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier is just as much Castiglione’s creation as it became Thomas Hoby’s, whose translation is considered a classic of English literature. I get dizzy when thinking of the centuries of translations, new versions poured into different tongues, from the languages of India, from Arabic, which gave us the Thousand and One Nights. Hardly anyone seems to pause when quoting from the Old Testament or the New. Interesting to note that our most sacred texts are translations, and these versions have their unique twists and takes. “Vanity of vanities” is uttered with great feeling and meaning, when the original Hebrew is more like “vapor of vapor.” But those idiosyncratic or sometimes flat-out wrong choices don’t perturb me. We’re dealing with language, sound, basically air. Things are going to get lost, and then again recaptured, and perhaps—dare I say it?—transmogrified into something equally luminescent. Still, clearly, one hopes to be able to read Dante, Camões, the Popol Vuh in the original. Alfonso Reyes—that most cultured and wise essayist and poet—proposed a simple triad when it comes to the challenges of translation: “A. If it’s possible, read the texts in their original language. B. Read translations that respect the distance although they may sacrifice the beauty. C. Read translations that help us better grasp the original, even if they may contain certain errors.” I believe that option C will end up producing more poetry and literature in the translated version. Ever wonder why The Cantos open with a translation of a translation?
EOA: What do you love most about your work as a translator?
AS: García Márquez quipped that he wrote (and published!) so his friends would love him more. I think that was an honest and fine statement to make. I have benefited in a very human way—making contact, knowing other realities—from translation. I have made friends, and I have gained from their visions and realities. Recently, some of my most interesting conversations have been with Pergentino José, a Zapotec writer who employs his nation’s language from the Sierra, not the Isthmus, and I have been stunned, enraptured when he discusses the intricacies of his mother tongue, its syntax, idiomatic expressions, etc. (To be clear, I have not translated Pergentino, yet we met among our circle of poets and translators.) An example, if I remember correctly, the word for “innocent” in his variant of the Zapotec language means literally “to be flower and dew.” For a legal or moralistic concept, we get a tangible image… which is what metaphor should always be.
EOA: What is most difficult about your work as a translator?
AS: You’re working with very slippery material. But I nodded in approval when I read how the great 20th-century Hebrew poet David Avidan dismissed the Frostian mantra that poetry is what gets lost in translation. (Avidan translated many of his own poems into English.) Avidan insisted “poetry is whatever is gained while moving from one language to another, and what’s lost in translation should better have been disposed of in the original.” As I consider myself quite functional in Spanish and French, and read in those languages, socialize in them, ponder poetry in them, I find that comment by Avidan to be comforting, a true guide. So. The difficulty is there, but it’s also not a terminal roadblock. A new bifurcation opens. I have always been indifferent to the translation of “moreno / morena” as simply dark or dark-skinned. Looking though old books on my shelves the other day I (re)discovered Rexroth’s Twenty Spanish Poems of Longing and Exile, and relived the jolt I had experienced when I was sixteen—having just bought the book at the now defunct Dutton’s in North Hollywood—and read his version of “Niña morena y ágil” by Neruda. (I had already read Merwin’s version.) And it was simply that employment of the adjective of “tawny” that made my skull split open with delight. Not exactly “morena”… not this, nor that… but a “gain” for the poem in English.
EOA: Why is it important to provide the poems and images of authors who write in Spanish to Americans and to other audiences globally who read and speak primarily in English?
AS: My answer to this is very simple. We lose so much by not reading poetry and literature in other languages. We lose a lot, as well, by not regarding the poets’ faces, our shared humanity. How many times have I had wonderful evenings discussing Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Corso, Rich, with poets from Latin American countries who have experienced the dagger and poison of American imperialism? It’s about touching the real nerve, bone, and marrow of other cultures and countries… and bypassing the political slogans, the rapacious leaders and con artists.
EOA: Are there additional poets you’d like to work with in the future? What is it about their poetry that intrigues you?
AS: Oh, yes! Without a doubt. Two come to mind. After meeting David Huerta at a poetry festival in Tijuana where we both participated, I mentioned that we had in common a dear friend and a superb poet-translator: David Shook. I reminded him of our desire to translate his father Efrain’s legendary verse, specifically the volume Los Hombres del Alba (1944), which injected an urban landscape into Mexican poetry, a sense of class divisions, the mire of daily life, the tender skeletons of poets, the lack of birds, and the poet’s voice drenched in the saliva of oblivion, like a fish amid a shipwreck’s waters. Well, we received his blessings. We hope to carry over his father’s poetry into a worthy English version. And soon.
The other poet who comes to mind (among many now rushing up in my memory) is the Peruvian Jorge Pimentel (1944). Rather late in his career, he published a collection entitled Tromba de Agosto (1992), a violent and righteous whirlwind howl from the poor and marginalized in his country, in a vigorous and idiosyncratic Spanish that reminds one of Vallejo in Trilce.
Then there are the usual, canonical subjects whose poems in English version can always be furthered honed. Two examples: José Gorostiza is considered by Mexicans to be one of their greatest poets, especially for his long meditation, in Baroque register, Muerte sin fin. His earliest volume of verse was entitled Canciones para cantar en las barcas, and I have yet to find a translation of the lovely lyric “Quién me compra una naranja” that reflects the tone and meaning of the title: the speaker is not saying, “Who will buy me an orange?” but, “Who will buy an orange from me?” I would love to translate that poem’s lilting quatrains.
A final case: perhaps the most famous poem by Vallejo, ”Los heraldos negros.” The opening verses exclaim: “!Hay golpes en la vida… yo no sé!” English versions vary little from this: “There are some blows in life… I don’t know!” Yet for the Spanish speaker, it’s clear that the exclamation “Yo no sé!” should not be conveyed in such a literal manner.
EOA: What advice would you give to future translators?
AS: Read. Research. Collaborate. Do the saturation-job… read all you can of a certain poet whose work is deeply important to you. All you can about that poet as well… as in reviews, essays, letters to and from, even stiff, peer-reviewed academic studies. Know that you’re not alone. And some of the kindest and most helpful folks I know have been fellow poet-translators… among them Boris Dralyuk, who translates from Russian, Kent Johnson who translates from Spanish, Martín Camps for his translation of the Brazilian masterpiece Parque Industrial: Novela Proletaria by Patrícia Galvão, David Shook, who translates from Spanish, Nahuatl, and Zoque, Michael Casper, who works with Yiddish, Gaspar Orozco who translates from Chinese poetry, Roberto Castillo Udiarte who was the first to translate Bukowski, Lamantia, Robert Jones, and Bill Knott into Spanish, Blandine Longres, who translates into French from English… so many! I ache that I will remember others, but too late! And know that we always need new translations. Borges felt that he hadn’t suffered too much from not learning Ancient Greek—instead of resorting to only one Homer, he had Chapman’s and Pope’s. And now we have Lattimore’s, Fitzgerald’s, Wilson’s… It’s a beautiful process, awe-inspiring, as if we were watching tectonic plates shifting at a heightened velocity, with mountains rising in months rather than over eons.