Achy Obejas: "Translation as Something to Play With": A Conversation with George Henson
George Henson: Let’s talk for a minute about the Neustadt Prize and why you’re here.
Achy Obejas: Well, I’m here because I was invited to be a part of this jury and to nominate somebody for this prize, which is a really big deal. It’s a lot of money, and it’s very, very prestigious, and I nominated Edwidge Denticant.
GH: I saw that, and I don’t know her work. I’m not going to pretend to that I do, but what I found interesting is one, she’s a woman and more women are being nominated and winning the Neustadt Prize and I think we can say that about any literary prize.
AO: It’s about time for that. [Laughs]
GH: It is about time. And that is one of the reasons that LALT, our last issue was dedicated almost exclusively to women, it was about 90% women. But not only women writers but women translators. But also because she is Haitian-American. And I am really interested in that notion of hyphenated identity, which you also share with her. But you also share obviously a geographical affinity with her, being a Caribbean writer. But she is French-Creole?
AO: She is French-Creole. She is black, which we don’t have that in common, and she operates the world very differently than I do. I love her work. It is a work of tremendous power, and it’s a very moral work. And you know, she’s a writer who has seen a lot of very terrible things. Haiti Is a country that has gone through a lot of horror, and at which I think talks about the Haitian situation in very universal terms, in which we can all sort of relate. Her stories are deceptively simple, but structurally she does some very interesting, fascinating things. And, she’s just wise. She is a writer of great wisdom, and I admire her work so very much. And she is just a very generous person. I think that, you know, I worked with her, when we asked her for a story for Immigrant Voices, twenty-first century stories which we published about three years ago with the Great Books Foundation, and which gladly gave us a story, but also participated in a lot of promoting the book. She’s been always very open and very helpful towards other writers, and I feel like people who are selfless and generous should also be the recipients of generosity, and it seemed like an opportunity to say thank you for your beautiful work. Thank you for the way you operate in the world. Thank you for your wisdom, your guidance. And I meant, I hope to God she gets it.
GH: What do you think her chances are?
AO: Gosh, I hope good.
GH: You know you have to be – this is a process in which you have to convince your fellow jurors. I’m not exactly sure how I know how this system works, but it’s something like electing a Pope, I think.
AO: I think so, yeah. The voting process was explained to us, and it was very clear there is going to have to be a lot of talking.
GH: Well good. I trust that you are going to be very convincing.
AO: I, you know, we’ll see. I have a little bit of a cold. So I have to like slap myself silly.
GH: Well, you’re going to be locked up. Maybe they’ll give you lots of tea. What sorts of parallels do you see between you and her as a writer, as a person of hyphenated-identity, as person who comes from the Caribbean, was there anything beyond that?
AO: I think we both have conflicted relationships with our ethnic communities here in the States. I think to a certain degree, we’re both in love with those communities, and at the same times shake our heads a lot at those communities. And I think we both feel tremendous sympathy for the people in those communities who come here hurt. There are just a lot of people from Haiti and from Cuba who carry a lot of pain from their home country, and then they operate in this country not necessarily wanting – you know they don’t come here because they want to make a better a life, they don’t come here with that “American dream” kind of situation – they come here because there is disaster in our home countries. They come here because they’re persecuted in their home country, for different reasons and in different ways. And I think Haiti’s has been much more violent than Cuba’s. But people come here with a lot of pain and then they have to operate here. And that pain is invisible to most of the people around them. And I think that’s a mark of both of our work.
GH: This is actually a very good segue into my next question. We think of a Cuban-American community as sharing a common story, but at the same time, each Cuban American has his own unique story or her own unique story. How is yours different than the kind of universal Cuban-American story?
AO: I mean that depends on what you think is the universal Cuban-American story.
GH: I’m sure it’s overly simplistic.
AO: Right. A few years ago, actually about 10 years ago, I went to a conference on Cuban-American studies with my dad, and it was really fascinating because one of the speakers got up and he was talking about Havana. And, he was talking how much Havana had changed. He had only been in the states for like six or seven years and he had just recently gone back, and he was lamenting the change in the city. Then he started describing his Havana, and my dad was sitting next to me and he was like, “I don’t recognize either of those Havanas. I have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.” Because time just changes everything in these ways. It’s hard to know what might be the universal Cuban American story. I think a lot of people think of Cuban-Americans as people who come from Cuba, probably in a little boat. They ran away from Fidel Castro’s government, and they come and here and become golden exiles. We tend to do well at least in the public imagination in terms of economics and education, leadership and that kind of thing. And all of that is true. I came in 1963, so a very early refugee. We came on a boat in the middle of the night, so we fit that picture very well. We did okay. We didn’t do great. My parents were both public school teachers, so there is a certain limitation to what you can do when that’s what you do. We lived in Indiana, which is not a very typical situation, we didn’t stay in Miami for very long. And so I grew up about an hour outside of Chicago in a small town in Indiana and I did things like go on hay rides and go to prom with Americans. Without Cubans around.
GH: Which is very different than for example the experience that Ricardo Blanco had, the poet. He grew up in or at least Miami.
AO: He grew up in Miami. I mean Gustavo Pérez Firmat has a very Miami experience. There are different stories. The Cubans who grew up in New York grew up in a very different situation because there is also a historic Cuban community in New York that predates the revolution that was also culturally present. Cubans who grew up in L.A. grew up very differently. They had a very insular community, they tend to be – to do - very economically well. It just depends on where you are and what’s going on. I mean in Michigan City, Indiana, we WERE the Cuban community. We were it. I mean there was one other family in town; they predated the revolution. They were economic refugees from prior to the revolution. They were in fact sympathetic to the revolution, so of course it meant our parents could not possibly really engage. We the kids did; we became friends, but the parents never really connected.
GH: That’s very interesting. So, my question was premised on something that is very simplistic. Just that there is this common experience, but is interesting that you said your father’s Havana was very different. I do think that for lots of Cuban-Americans the common link is their memory, but it is not a collective memory. These are individual memories of – for the most part, at least for a large part – of Havana. Have you been to Cuba?
AO: Oh yeah. I’ve been dozens of times. In 1999, I lived in Cuba.
GH: Oh really?
AO: Yeah, I went back as an adult.
GH: Because so many Cuban-American do not want to go back.
AO: Yeah, no, no, I’ve gone back many times. And in fact, it was an interesting situation to sort of – my parents were very opposed to my going back, and you know it took a long time. The first time I approached the subject was in 1980, and I didn’t actually make it back until 1995. So, you can imagine the conversation for those 14 years. When I finally did go back, and they were still not keen and happy about it, they – a very curious things happened which was – they always expressed a lot of fear about my going back – and the fear was always sort of characterized as political. But I realized fear was something else. Which was that like my having more experiences in Cuba, my having an actual Cuban experience not depending on them to explain Cuba to me, because I loved Cuba when I was six. So everything had to be really sort of filtered through them. When I ceased to have that dependence on them, when the kingdom of details of Cuba became mine instead of theirs, it was a very, very sad moment. I mean, I remember one time talking to my mom and she was referring to something, and she mentioned an intersection. And, I realized that the two streets that she had mentioned didn’t actually intersect. And I had like an impulse to say something, and then I just sort of walked it back, because I realized there was no point in saying – that it was not worth the trouble to do that.
GH: For some reason right now, I’m thinking of Milk of Amnesia - Leche de Amnesia, do you know that work?
AO: Oh yeah, yeah. Carmelita Tropicana’s work.
GH: Right. I don’t know – I guess there is some degree of cultural amnesia that goes on in your mother’s mind. These streets intersected and for some reason they can’t stay that way for her.
AO: I mean right, right. And also, I mean, why not? At that point she had been away from Cuba 30+ years, and she’s not from Havana. She’s from the interior. Both of my parents are from the interior. Different parts of the interior, but from the interior. My mom was from the central part – from Sagua la Grande and my dad was from Oriente from a little town called Gibara, a fishing village about 2,000 people. So, there is no reason she should be so incredibly intimately familiar – I mean the confusion is perfectly acceptable.
GH: And our mind lies every single day.
AO: Every single day, and so why not have this photographic remembrance of Havana. There is no reason to expect that.
GH: Right, but believing – fixing your memories is part of processing your past and dealing with your past, and I mean that’s a gift you that you gave her to let her -
AO: I think she realized too that something had happened in that moment. I remember it was like in the air. You could just feel it. It made me sad; it made me sad for her. Because so much of her identity is caught up in being this person who is displaced from this island and to then not have this kind of detailed grip on that is sort of like, what does that mean?
AO: Yeah. Who am I then? I don’t even know this very fundamental thing that’s a part of me. This was just a tiny little detail It was nothing, but it was also everything.
GH: But it could be like the thread that begins to unravel everything, and there is no reason to pull it. On the topic of identity, do you see yourself more as a writer or as a translator? For example, I don’t believe in perfect bilingualism. I believe that one person is one language dominant. But also that dominance may switch depending which register they’re speaking in, which situation they’re speaking in. Is that the same for you as a writer and as a translator? Or what do you see yourself as? Or do you see them as essentially two ends to the same thing?
AO: Well I’m English-dominant. And I’m English dominant because my education is in English. That’s what makes me English-dominant. I have a greater vocabulary in English for that reason. Because I have a formal approach to words and language, and critical language in English that does not come as naturally to me in Spanish. I sort of have to pause and consider some things in Spanish. Most people consider me fully bilingual. I consider myself fully bilingual in the sense that I really don’t have any trouble switching back and forth. But I do know that there is a higher confidence level in my English than in my Spanish, and that has to do with my education.
GH: But you’re a bi-textual translator. You translate both ways and that does not happen very often especially in literary translation. Because for example you’ve translated Junot Diaz into Spanish, but Rita Indiana into English.
AO: I just finished her second novel!
GH: Oh, you did? When is it coming out?
AO: I think it’s coming out sometime this spring. It’s really exciting. It’s a great book.
GH: So talk to me about relationship with translation. As I said, I’m very interested into the fact that you’re bi-textual.
AO: I’ve always some translation. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I was the oldest in my family, and my parents frequently depended on me to explain things to them, and so by virtue of my education, even though my parents are hyper-educated, their facility in English was limited, especially when we first came. Obviously, they got better over time, but kids are like sponges. I was like way ahead of the game when it came to knowing what was going on. If we had to place a call to Cuba, because back in the day you couldn’t call direct, you had to actually call an operator and all that crap. If we had to get a particular kind of prescription, if we had to talk to a repair person or a utility person or whatever. I was sort of the family interpreter. I may have been 10 or 11 or 12 but there I was oftentimes dealing with complicated matters because I had to explain to my parents and then explain to the other person what was going on. So, I was going back and forth all the time. At some point in time, I started playing around just personally with translation as just an exercise as something to play with. Especially poetry, I did a lot of just trying to see what this would sound like in one language or the other, and going back and forth.
GH: Your own work or others’?
AO: Other people’s work. I never really translated my own work. And then what happened – how I stumbled into translation was that I became friends with Johnny Temple at Akashic. They have wonderful series – a noir series – different books dedicated to different cities and places -
GH: Like Havana noir?
AO: Like Havana Noir. And they were about to publish Miami noir, and he was very excited about it. I was at that time living in Honolulu and he was in new York and when the book came out, he sent it to me. And one of the things I was really looking to with Miami noir was reading all these exciting new Cuban- American writers. When I flip open the book, there is one.
GH: Only one new one?
AO: Only one Cuban-American.
GH: Oh, wow.
AO: Which was, I mean, I don’t know, in Miami you get off the plane and trip over five Cuban-Americans just on the way to baggage claim. five Cuban American writers actually. So I horrified and I called him and bitched and moaned and in the process of that conversation, he said, well why don’t we do Havana noir? Come on, let’s just do that. And neither one of us – he took a little bit of coaxing me into it because I hadn’t thought about editing, it wasn’t a responsibility I wanted to take on, I had other projects, etc. At the time we cooked up this project, neither one of us realized that there would be this translation component. Part of it was that I know so many Cuban writers who are so anxious to publish in the united states and as a result they almost always have a translation somewhere in their drawer. You walk into their place and the first thing they do is hand you an English translation of their work. They’re ready you know? And so it didn’t occur to me that we would be engaged in any kind of translation and in fact, the book, the cover doesn’t even give me a translation credit. It just says edited by Achy Obejas. When you flip inside, each story will say if it’s translated or not. Not all stories are translated. 13 of the 18 are translated. Anyway what started happening was that these translations started rolling through and they sucked. They were terrible. They were just absolutely aghast.
GH: Do you think some of them were self-translated?
AO: Oh God, yes. Of course. So I began to do them. I also began to realize, well I want this book to have a particular voice. Obviously these writers have different voices and different tenures, but the book itself needs to sort of have a particular tone. So I just sort of started doing it. And the next thing that happened was crazy. We went to New York to launch the book. It was launched at the American Society, the Rockefeller Foundation, and David Unger, who I knew from having spent some time with in Havana – David was and is I guess the director of the Translators’ Section of the Guadalajara Book Fair and I remember on the way to the reading, Johnny and I were on the phone and Johnny said, you know we’ve never done a translation before, are there awards and things we’re supposed to send this to? I don’t know anything about this. And I said, I have no idea, but I’ll ask David, and I think he’ll be at this reading. I called David, and David was really kind of snippy which was very unusual, I don’t know what was going on, and I get to the reading and there he is, and he was like, you know, I’m here. I thought, “Oh God, he’s not going to be helpful, I wonder what I’ve done to offend him.” And yet, when I got home that night, David had written me this incredibly long letter about what to do with the book, but also basically telling me that I was now a translator, and that these were the things I needed to do to proceed my career as a translator. And I remember thinking, “Oh David, that’s so sweet, but I’ve got a million other things to do.” It was a joyful thing to do these translations. I really enjoyed it. It was a tremendously fun experience. And then about two weeks after that I get a call from a woman named Jackeline Montalvo, whose an editor at Vintage en Español, and she says, “Hi, David Unger says you’re the only person who can translate Junot Diaz.” I said, “Hmmm, David Unger, was he drunk?” Not that he drinks or anything, but I was so taken aback by this, and I remember I tell Jackeline, “Well Jackie, I’ve done one book and it was into English, not into Spanish.” And she said, “Well, David is convinced you’re the person who has to do this, so I’m supposed to hound you so you do it.” And as it turned out, she wasn’t inviting me to do it, but she was inviting me to submit a sample. I remember, I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll do that. I’ll submit a sample because it will be fun to do this and maybe get some feedback on it.” And I when I see Junot, I want to know that he turned me down. That’ll be something. Because, you know, I was friends with Junot. I met Junot at the very same program that I met David. We had known each other for a long time. Anyway, I did the sample, but because I wasn’t invested in the project, I decided to do something really funky. And as you know, I did this very Caribbean, very Spanglish-y type translation that sort of reflected back a lot of sensibility.
GH: Which is what he does in English.
AO: Which is what he does in English, right! And the translation of his first book – both of them - had been terrible. And I knew that. And I knew that he hated them. So I played around thinking I can do this because never in the history of Spanish publishing has a translation been in this kind of Caribbean argot and there not going to do it. I mean, it’s a Spanish publisher that going to put it out. No way! So I just did it, sent it, forgot about it, and then about two weeks later I get this call from Junot, going, “Giiiirrrrl!” [Laughs] And so off we went on this crazy process which took forever I mean it was a really complicated event because he had been so defensive about the first horrible translation, and this was also his novel, his masterpiece. I mean this thing was huge for him, and it had to be right. He also didn’t have a way of checking it. His own Spanish, especially then was not strong enough to really say, “this is what’s wrong here. This is why this isn’t working.” So he set up this crazy system where I would finish a chapter, send it to him, and then he would send it off to his sixteen best buddies – I’m not kidding, I’m not being hyperbolic – literally sixteen people on that email. And they would send him notes which he would not reconcile, and then he would send them to me. Some of the people were absolutely fluent in Spanish and knew exactly what they were doing. Some of them were not. Some of them did not have any more knowledge of Spanish than Junot. Some of them had less. Some of them were extremely resentful of the fact that he had chosen a non-Dominican for this translation. So I would get things – like I would get notes where one of them would say, “This is perfect! It mirrors the original.” And then that very same paragraph would have another note on another draft that would say, “This is full of Cubanisms. It’s obvious this is the wrong person.” [Laughs] So it was this constant sort of negotiation.
GH: But he left that up to you to sort all that out? Did he referee at any point?
AO: He did leave it up to me. No, there were a couple times when I asked him very specific questions, but he left it pretty much up to me. It was interesting post-publication, how the story changed. His very first interview before the book had actually started getting reviews, I could tell that he was terrified. And he actually took some distance from the translation. He said things like, “you lose things in translation. Obviously no translation is ever going to be half as good as the original.” It wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence. He said something to the effect of, “the translation is fine, otherwise we wouldn’t be publishing it.” He definitely was like, “I’m wary. I had a really lousy experience with this before, and I’m not going to stick my hand in the fire here.” This was a very different thing that we did. But once the reviews started rolling in, and the reviews were phenomenal. Not just for the book, which of course deserved wonderful, extraordinary reviews, but almost every single review in the Spanish language press made a point of talking about the translation. Everybody had something to say about the translation, and everybody raved about the Spanish translation and about how it captured his voice. In fact, there was one critic in Argentina who said that he didn’t actually believe that Achy Obejas existed, that he was convinced that this was a nom de plume that Junot had taken on because there was so much Junot.
GH: Oh wow what a compliment.
AO: Oh yeah, that he refused to buy that this had been done by anybody but him. And what started to happen was Junot started to believe that he had a much greater role in this, and by the end of it, it was sort of like, “Yes, we did this hand-in-hand.” I think at one point he thought he was leading me, and I finally just – Elizabeth Taylor from the Chicago Tribune approached me and said, “Can you write a little bit about the process of how this came about?” And I said, “this is sort of a good opportunity to kind of clear the air about how this happened.” So I wrote, you know, how we had actually done the process and the fact that he had in fact left so much up to me. I mean I have reams of correspondence from him, saying, “You decide” and funny stuff, like I would argue with him about an accent on something that was wrong. I would say, “If you want it to sound this way, then that accent can’t be there. It has to sound, blah blah blah.” Then he would say things to me like, “Oh I just throw accents out like confetti.” [Laughs] And I just thought, “That’s fantastic.” So, it was a wonderful collaboration in the sense that he really was open to doing it this way. It’s what wanted. This is what he wanted in his soul, and he hadn’t been able to get that for his first book. Having that license, having that freedom, having him available was great. For the second book that we did together, I kind of laid down the law, and I said, “Here’s how we’re going to do this one okay? I’m going to do it, if I have any questions, I’m going to call you. [Laughs] You’re going to leave me the f alone, and when I’m done, I’ll get it to you, and you can say whatever you want to say.” And he laughed.
GH: Well, you had earned his confidence.
AO: I totally had!
GH: And it wasn’t a lack of confidence in you, it was a lack of confidence in his whole experience in translation.
AO: Oh gosh no. His experience had been not a happy one. So I totally got what his problem was. And I also understood that Oscar Wao was an incredibly important book for him for his career. So, the Spanish translation had to be a very particular thing. I understood why he was all over it. It never dawned on me to say, “Hey get off my back,” because I got what his problem was. It was funny, because when I said that, he laughed. It literally was this really hearty laugh. And he was like, “Yeah, well, we’ve already established so many things here that we won’t need to have these conversations.” So it was great. I went off, did it, came back, I had two questions for him at the end. We went back and forth about one of them.
GH: And which book was that?
AO: This is How You Lose Her. Then we called it a day. The difference – it took Oscar Wao six months to be translated, I did This is How You Lose Her in six weeks.
GH: But when you work on a project, and I’ve learned this from prior associations, for example, you contributed to the queer issue of World Literature Today that I edited, when you are working on a project, you are hyper-focused on that, and I just imagine you working 12 hours a day, shut up in an office, or –
AO: Well I do shut up in an office, but I don’t know I work 12 hours a day. [Laughs] I am very hyper-focused, and I just really laser in. You have to live with it. It sort of has to invade your everyday. Which is a very important thing, which actually creates a tension between my career as a translator and my career as a writer. As a writer, I probably have not produced as much. I think I feel a little like Junot – Junot feels like he hasn’t produced enough. We’re both kind of slow writers in some ways, but as a translator, I am crazy prolific. I mean I’ve translated like 20 books at this point, and I only started 10 years ago. So that’s a little bit nutty isn’t it?
GH: And your most recent one is the novel written by Rita Indiana, isn’t that right?
AO: Well it’s the one I finished, yeah. Actually, I finished another one after that. A little biography about Frida Kahlo.
GH: Who was the author of that?
AO: Oh, who was the author of that?
GH: What it a Mexican writer?
AO: It’s a Mexican writer, it’s coming out the University of Texas, it’s a beautiful sort of reimagined biography of Frida, and it’s illustrated.
GH: But not like a graphic novel, but something in-between?
AO: Well it has some graphic novel sensibilities actually, which I think will make the story accessible to some people who might not otherwise go into it.
GH: So you’ve translated from Dominican Spanish, Mexican Spanish, and what else?
AO: A lot of Cuban stuff –
GH: Right obviously. I’m sorry, of course.
AO: I just did a romance novel for Amazon from Spain, that was really a hilarious –
GH: So for Amazon Crossing?
AO: Yeah, for Amazon Crossing. I love those guys.
GH: You know, I am one of their registered translators. I get their emails saying, “Do you want to bid on this project?” And I’ve noticed there’s almost all genre literature – there’s historical fiction, romance, and most of them are from Spain. I’ve bid on a couple and didn’t get invited. Were you invited or did you have to go through the same process?
AO: I’ve done both. I was invited to do the Wendy Guerra book, which is the first one I did for them, Everyone Leaves.
GH: So Wendy Guerra was through Amazon Crossing?
AO: Yeah, the first book of Wendy’s. I just did a second book for her. Wendy’s written like 16 books since then. I did a second book for Wendy that Melville House is publishing. But the first one was through Amazon, and Wendy said, “I want Achy to do it.” So there was no bidding involved in that. There was one I wanted to do, very, very badly, but I actually lost that to a really good friend of mine.
GH: So no animosity then?
AO: Oh gosh, no, no. She is terrific. It was… oh gosh, I don’t even remember the title of the book right now, but the translator who got it was Carolina De Robertis, and she’s a terrific translator and a wonderful writer, wonderful friend. So I had no problem. I was very happy for Carolina and very happy that she gets to develop this relationship with Amazon. I find Amazon super easy to work with. I know they’re the “evil empire,” but for translators, I think they’re doing a beautiful, wonderful job. Also, they’re a division that’s mostly women – almost all of the editors are women. There’s actual human contact with them. You actually talk on the phone. They remember your birthday.
GH: Well, now they’re going to ALTA every year.
AO: They’re very present. They’ve just been really lovely. I’ve enjoyed every single project I’ve down with them. This romance novel was fun because there was a lot of explicit sexuality. [Laughs]
GH: Those are never in the snippets you have to translate for the translation samples.
AO: Right, right. And I hadn’t read a romance novel in a million years, and so I was a little bit taken aback – not shocked, but sort of surprised to find this vocabulary. And the erotic vocabulary of Spain is very different from the erotic vocabulary of the Caribbean, so I learned a lot.
GH: I would ask you a question about that, but they’re giving me the signal that you need to be somewhere soon. You’re much in demand today. When I for example, because I’ve translated from Mexican Spanish, I’m translating a lot of Cuban Spanish now, but of course we come across colloquial language, and in this case sexual language, and you just can not absolutely know all of these things. So I for example, I have turned Facebook into – for example, if I need to know something about Mexico, I’ll say, “amigos mexicanos” -
AO: I do that too! “Amigos mexicanos”
GH: - or “amigos cubanos.” And usually Carlos Pintado will answer or Norge. Norge says hi by the way.
AO: Oh, tell him I say hi back.
GH: I will see him at the end of the month. I am going to Havana –
AO: Oh, give him a big hug.
GH: So, did you have to do that with Spain?
AO: A little bit. Less so, in part because they are the dominant Spanish, so they’re actually in the damn dictionary. They’re easy to find in context on the web. You just plug in the phrase and it will eventually come up. I find myself doing that a lot when I’m translating Mexican Spanish. I really suffer with that one. I end up going to – I have some cousins who live in Mexico – so I find that they respond all the time. They’re like very interested in what the hell I’m doing. And they’re always like, “Ah, prima, voy a ayudarte!” [Laughs] So that’s been fun.
GH: I translated a short story by Miguel Barnet, called “Immortal,” and Miguel’s work is always full of very colloquial – I mean because his work is as much anthropological or ethnographic as anything. So there’s this character who a guajiro, and he comes to Havana, and he becomes a bugarrón, but he uses an expression, something like, “No se me muere, no se me duermen los cochinillos en la barriga” or something like that. And I’m like, “Oh my God, I have no idea what’s going on here.”
AO: You know, sometimes you do that with some things that actually seem very simple on the page. Just yesterday as I was flying over here, I had a note from MJ Foster who runs Translating Cuba, and she was dealing with a new book that was coming out called El compañero que me atiende.
GH: Oh, I have that book! Norge is in that.
AO: Right, and she says to me, “I have these two translations, and I know they’re not working. So help me out here.” It’s a mind-boggling phrase. It’s very simple. One of the translations was literal. It was “The companion who attends to me.” The other one was a little bit more finessed, it was “the friend who takes care of me.” And they’re both so not-correct.
GH: So how would you translate it?
AO: I told her, maybe something like, “the watcher who watches me,” because “compañero” is used ironically in that phrase.
GH: Oh, exactly. It’s used in the communist sense.
AO: Yeah. And “que me atiende” is – right, “they’re not actually taking care of my needs. They’re spying on me.” So I gave her a bunch of- this is like a “tracker” or a “handler”. Somebody who watches you. So it was hilarious because she had to negotiate. Translating Cuba is very cooperative. It’s sort of their thing. She said, “every single story – I think every single person who’s got a translation is translating it differently.”
GH: So are they going to translate the entire book?
AO: Well she needed to translate the title in order to get – so she could negotiate. I wish I could remember now what they negotiated. But you know, the phrase in and of itself, every single word can be found in the dictionary. And if you get it literally, it’s not wrong, but it’s wrong.
GH: Well, I’m going to try to sneak that book into Havana at the end of the month, so wish me luck. And on that note, we need to end. Thank you very much.
AO: Absolutely, thank you for having me.
GH: And it’s so wonderful to finally meet you. We’ve been crossing paths –
AO: Many, Many years.
GH: So good luck, and I hope that your writer wins.
AO: Me too. Whoever it is will be great though.
George Henson is the translator of many of Latin America’s most important writers, including Cervantes laureates Sergio Pitol (The Art of Flight, The Journey, The Magician of Vienna, and Mephisto’s Waltz: Selected Short Stories) and Elena Poniatowska (The Heart of the Artichoke). His translations have appeared in World Literature Today, the Paris Review, Granta, and Two Lines. In addition to serving as an editor-at-large for Latin American Literature Today, he is an assistant professor of Spanish Translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
Achy Obejas (Havana, 1956) is a Cuban-American journalist, poet, translator, and fiction writer. She belongs to the generation of writers connected to biculturality and the Latino universe of the United States. Her poems and stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other US publications, as well as La Gaceta de Cuba. She has worked as a journalist for almost ten years, writing extensively for The Chicago Tribune, and she has also published her own works as a writer, including Days of Awe and Ruins. She has dedicated her time to various activities, from advertising to political activism, from playwriting to book editing; nonetheless, her greatest and most constant pride is in her literary writing. She has written about themes such as politics, sexuality, and her Cuban nationality.
Claudia Cavallín is a writer and university professor. Author of the books Ciudades de película: Ficciones urbanas del cine, la literatura y la música (Editorial Académica Española, 2012) and Espectros de la palabra. La metáfora en Borges: los juegos del lenguaje que hacen posible la configuración de un universo de imágenes recursivas (Editorial Académica Española, 2012). Between 2012 and 2015, she was director of the academic journal Estudios. Revista de Investigaciones Literarias y Culturales. She has written essays on Jorge Luis Borges, José Revueltas, and Luisa Valenzuela, among other writers. She holds a degree in Social Communication with a focus on Humanistic Development (1996) and a Magister Scientiae in the area of Latin American and Caribbean Literature (2000). She is a professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures of the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela. She is currently working toward her doctorate in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics of the University of Oklahoma.
LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.