Trans . . . lation, “That Third Thing That Gives Value” to Contemporary Puerto Rican Poetry

Raquel Salas Rivera, Lo terciario / The Terciary (Oakland, CA: Timeless, Infinite Light, 2018); 176 pages; ISBN 978-1937421274 (paperback)

Loretta Collins Klobah, Ricantations (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2018); 140 pages; ISBN 978-1845234232 (paperback)

• October 2019

The politics of translation are at the heart of Caribbean studies. Translation, nontranslation, and mistranslation shape our reception of Caribbean literatures no matter where we are located as readers, generating series of continuities and ruptures that equally continue to characterize the region and its asymmetrical, fragmented routes of literary circulation. Transnational recognition often entails, for Caribbean writers, being published outside their home region, most often by international publishing houses that are owned by powerful media consortia. This consequently has an impact on Caribbean literature and the way it is framed and “re-framed” when “further” translated in order to be deemed palatable for global audiences. Yet these processes are nothing new; Caribbean literature has been shaped by similar market flows involving international publishing since its very inception. Thanks to the advent of the internet and the development of digital media ensuring higher visibility, however, Caribbean writers are increasingly turning to specialized, often smaller-in-size, independent publishing outlets as an alternative to mainstream publishing. These presses are generally committed to supporting the work of writers, poets, and artists that falls outside the purview of mainstream publishing, and their initiatives bring to mind a number of small magazines that have likewise greatly contributed to the circulation of a homegrown and diasporic literature in the Caribbean.

This is the case of Timeless, Infinite Light, a small press based in Oakland, California, whose team self-identifies as “a queer publishing and performance collective” and whose editorial line consists in “supporting critical poetic work by artists whose identities are often excluded from the literary mainstream.”1 Timeless, Infinite Light published Raquel Salas Rivera’s bilingual collection of poems Lo terciario / The Terciary in 2018. Salas Rivera, the 2018–19 Philadelphia poet laureate, wrote Lo terciario / The Terciary “for Puerto Rico” (7), as a response to the debt crisis and the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, known as the PROMESA law. In their poems, Salas Rivera explores the politics of Puerto Rico in relation to their own queer identity and the politics of language and translation. The opening note to the English version (also present in the Spanish section) indicates that the very title of the collection was inspired by Pedro Scaron’s El capital, “the 1976 translation of Karl Marx’s classic, published by Siglo Veintiuno editors.” Salas Rivera readily notes how Scaron’s translation was used as a political tool by the Puerto Rican Left as part of their propaganda in the 1970s and ’80s, immediately adding: “I have translated the translation into third-degree proximity” (80). This “third-degree proximity” not only reflects on the translation of queerness, it also applies queer strategies to the translation project itself. In fact, Lo terciario / The Terciary makes queerness visible in the very act of (self-)translation, as the following excerpt, taken from “notas sobre una circulación / notes on a derailed circulation,” illustrates:

poetry screen shot sxs.png

The insertion of the note—the only footnote in the entire collection—does not lift ambiguity for the nonhispanophone reader. Far from it. Rather, it adds another layer of “third-degree” ambiguity, whereby a traditional translation strategy, which would have consisted of providing the reader with a clarification of the Spanish term(s) or an explanation as to why the pun is untranslatable, is turned on its head here, as if meant to subvert heteronormative and monolingual translation practices (note the use of the Spanish tampoco to indicate that the second qué da doesn’t translate “either”). This is further confirmed in both Spanish and English versions by the presence of the homophone “cuir,” associated, in both occurrences, to “penetrability,” indicating that queering translation implies tearing down walls of impenetrability between traditional binaries such as original and derivative, author and translator, or source and target languages. Translation is therefore more than just a trope in Salas Rivera’s poetry: it functions as an embodied space where queerness can at once be expressed and turned into a valuable tool of resistance to challenge the easy consumption of Caribbean literature in the global book industry.

In Loretta Collins Klobah’s Ricantations, translation—and its paired sibling, nontranslation—are similarly woven into the collection that was written in English, with snippets of (Puerto Rican) Spanish surfacing here and there in most poems.2Ricantations is Collins Klobah’s second poetry collection to be published by Peepal Tree Press, a Leeds-based, well-established independent publisher specializing in Caribbean and black British writing. The volume is divided into four sections, “Come, Shadow,” “Revel Rebel,” “Memoir of Repairs to the Colony,” and “Art Brut,” that bring together real—even at times autobiographical—and imagined, mythical elements. The last section of the collection in particular dialogues with various works of art by Puerto Rican, Loiza-based artist Samuel Lind (whose oil painting Ángel plenero is reproduced on the book cover), Trinidadian artist Wendy Nanan, and Puerto Rican stained-glass mosaic designer Eddie Ferraioli, suggesting a form of intersemiotic (transmedial) translation. In “Osain,” for example, a poem dedicated to Lind’s eponymous sculpture located in the Jardín Botánico y Cultural William Miranda Marín of Caguas,3 Collins Klobah writes,

Rhizomes of mangrove trees, antennae
between sky and Earth, ground him, transmit el espíritu del bosque.
This work takes him over for years.
He models grey clay to summon Osain,
to fly forward into the mangrove future
of the ancestral past of his pueblo Loíza,
Loíza Aldea. Osain runs, not like a runaway
but like a sprinting messenger,
leaning far forward, pumping his veined arm, stretching towards some
                                                                         evasive finishing line.
. . .
Notched face, African face,
clear-cut, whole-hearted face,
tree knot on forehead,
like Osain’s one eye.
A bomba drum carves itself
into the roots at Osain’s feet,
so he runs to el ritmo sicá.
A vejigante mask blooms
at Osain’s heel. (110–11)

Most of the Spanish references found in the poems of Ricantations are translated or explained in the glossary entries provided at the end of the volume, suggesting that the poems were not specifically written for Caribbean, let alone Puerto Rican, readers, or at least that this particular edition takes into consideration a more delocalized audience. “El ritmo sicá,” for example, is explained as “one of the basic rhythms of the drumming, dancing and singing traditions of bomba,” while “el espíritu del bosque” is literally translated as “the spirit of the forest” (136). Interestingly, no references indicate that Osain is a deity or orisha in African Yoruba mythology, and the “vejigante mask” remains similarly opaque for a reader unfamiliar with carnival practices observed in some parts of Puerto Rico (as in Ponce and Loíza).

It is often contended that something almost inevitably gets lost in translation. But what if the choice of (non)translation manifests that very act of resistance to cultural assimilation that in turn invites global readers to reflect on their own consumption of (no longer such) exotic literatures? When it comes to dealing with untranslatables, Salas Rivera speaks of “knots” that she gladly and playfully inserts in her writing.4 In Collins Klobah’s poetry, this resistance comes in the form of chants and spells that echo Puerto Rico’s refusal to be monolinguistically, single-sidedly defined:

The island’s way of doing things frustrated him.
For instance, the maze of Spanish names
for the Puerto Rican tody, which, by the way,
generally kept itself from being seen.
When Leopold asked what we call the bird,

la gente sang out so many names: “Medio Peso,
“San Pedrito,” “San Pedro,” “Peseta,” “Papagayo,
“Barracolino,” “Verador,” and “Verdadón.”
You see, Puerto Rican birds resist attempts
to name them just one thing. They don’t reply
or come when called by any of their names.
                            (“Chairman of the Committee on Nomenclature,” 84)

In the complex circuitry of global exchanges, contemporary Puerto Rican poetry, whether published at home or abroad, emerges as a vibrant ensemble of courageous, resilient voices that continue to stand up to the forces of a “tempested terror” amid a sea of uncertainties  (Salas Rivera, “the worker is limited to producing the value of his labor power (the longest fall),” 85). Trans . . . lation, thus spelled to integrate “third-degree proximity” and all entities that refuse to be named “just one thing,” is then nothing short of gain when it comes to Puerto Rico’s recovery.

 

Laëtitia Saint-Loubert completed a PhD in Caribbean studies at the University of Warwick in 2018. She is a practising literary translator and currently works at the Université de la Réunion (Indian Ocean), where she teaches translation and literature for the English department. Her research investigates Caribbean literatures in translation and focuses on transversal, nonvertical modes of circulation for Caribbean and Indian Ocean literatures. She is currently working on the manuscript of her first monograph, forthcoming from Peter Lang Oxford, provisionally titled “The Caribbean in Translation: Thresholds of Dislocation.”


My title borrows from an interview for Latino USA in which Raquel Salas Rivera says the following: “[Marx] said, that in order for commodities to be exchanged, two powers need to come together to create a third commodity, which is qualitatively different from the first two but gives them value, and that third thing is usually labor.” See Claudia Irizarry Aponte, “A Conversation with Queer Boricua Writer Raquel Salas Rivera, Philadelphia’s Newest Poet Laureate,” Latino USA, 16 April 2018, latinousa.org/2018/04/16/raquelsalasrivera.

1. Timeless, Infinite Light, “About,” timelessinfinitelight.com/pages/about (accessed 30 January 2019).

2. The blurb on the book cover makes a point of highlighting the co-presence of Spanish and English in Collins Klobah’s poems: “New World English and Spanish rub shoulders in these poems, but the reader soon picks up the precise, word-loving, observant and often humorous rhythms of the poet’s voice.”

3. For images of the sculpture, see artepublicopr.blogspot.com/2016/07/escultura-osain-por-samuel-lind-en-el.html.

4. “Sometimes the word in Spanish is so enmeshed with the poem’s life, that changing it would be painful. I call these untranslated words knots.” See Raquel Salas-Rivera, “A Note on Translation,” Waxwing, no. 10 (Fall 2016), waxwingmag.org/items/issue10/49_Salas-Rivera-A-Note-on-Translation.php (italics in original). In Lo terciario / The Terciary, see Salas-Rivera’s use of the acronym “t.d.t.” (“te debo tanto”; 14) and the English translation “i.o.you” (14), which the author analyzes as follows: “In Spanish, the term iou does not exist, therefore I coined te debo tanto or t.d.t. In translating t.d.t. back into English, I wanted to retain some of the playfulness of the coinage in the Spanish version, so I chose to replace iou with i.o.you. By partially writing out the acronym, I translate the creative gesture along with the creation” (ibid.).

 

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