Translation as Home: A Conversation with Ilan Stavans
Translation and movement go together. For example, translators move a text from one language into another. Restless readers move beyond the familiar to other languages and cultures when they read a translation. However, this movement associated with translation shouldn’t shadow the idea that translation is also where one might like to stay. Translation can also be about roots. Roots that identify us and lead us through histories and lives, shape the present, and determine futures. Roots so strong that we want to call them home. Translators create new homes for texts that arrive, metaphorically. A new home isn’t meant to replace the original; it is an alternative, another place to go. For readers unable to access the original, the translation is the only home they know. Ilan Stavans says “[w]hen I translate, I’m at home.”
Stavans’ new book, Selected Translations: Poems 2000-2020 (University of Pittsburgh Press), collects more than a hundred poems he translated from the start of the millennium through last year. They come from multiple languages including Spanish, Georgian, German, Hebrew, Ladino, Portuguese, Russian, and Yiddish—Stavans was born in Mexico City and is the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Poland. The selection of poets ranges from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Julia de Burgos, and Pablo Neruda to Yehuda Halevi, Kadya Molodowsky, Isaac Berliner, and more. In this conversation, with the volume as the backdrop, Stavans reflects on the centrality of translation in his life, access to places via translation, influential poets and artists, and his controversial assertion that a translation at times might supersede the original. This virtual dialogue took place in January.
Regina Galasso: Congratulations on the publication of Selected Translations: Poems 2000-2020 with Pitt Poetry Series of the University of Pittsburgh Press! Before we open this beautiful book, I'd like to talk about the cover. There's a lot going on here. First, “Ilan Stavans.” “Ilan Stavans” is larger in size than “selected translations.” There's nothing on the front cover that says “translated by” or that points to you as the translator. But, of course, with the font size of your name, you dominate as the major player in this book without a doubt. I’m assuming that the decision to not explicitly point to you in the role of the translator was a deliberate one. I like it because it makes us wonder, what is your relationship to the “selected translations” of this book? What are the roles one must have to produce a book of selected translations?
Ilan Stavans: The cover design was in the publisher’s hands. I like the image by painter José Gurvich, who was a central figure in the Constructivism Art movement in Latin America. His work also illustrated the cover of my book The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (2019). The font size wasn’t my decision. While I see your point on the absence of references to me as a translator, in my eyes it is the other way around: the translator of this book is also the author and vice versa. These are all my translations into English from about a dozen different languages (Spanish, English, Yiddish, Hebrew and Spanglish the most prominent ones) done in diverse moments of my career, sometimes for specific purposes.
To me, Selected Translations is a carte d’identité. This is one of my selves, perhaps the most important: I’m a translator. I live through translation and I translate in order to live. I’m an immigrant as well as a descendent of immigrants. Translation and immigration come hand in hand. To me the word “translation” is a synonym of home, or maybe homelessness. When I translate, I’m at home—mind you, a temporary home, never a fixed one. I know some of my homes better than others. What I like about them is that I’m a renter, not an owner. In other words, I’m always in transit. Another way of understanding translation is being alert to foreignness. I don’t like the idea of translation as domestication. For me a text is like a stranger knocking at the door. I make the stranger be comfortable; I create a suitable atmosphere for the stranger to feel acclimated. But the stranger remains a stranger and mine the welcoming hand.
R.G.: That’s a great reminder that published books are a collaborative effort. Of course, not all collaborators contribute equally to the final product, but there are several players involved and behind what we are eventually able to hold in our hands. I like the ambiguity and centrality of your role as projected on the cover of Selected Translations. Although there is a growing awareness in the United States about the complexities of translation and the work/art of translators, we’re in an environment in which many cultured and educated people are still on their way to understanding all that goes into translation and the possibilities of translation. The cover of this book shows that Selected Translations does not just belong to a translator, but to someone, Ilan Stavans, who as the translator is also the author, the editor, and the life behind the selections. A life probably does need a home. I like that idea of “translation” as a synonym of home or homelessness. “Selected Homes” could be a nice title for a future book that deals with languages and lives.
Speaking of languages and lives, one of the parts I like most from On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (2001) is when you talk about your first days in New York City. José Gurvich also moved to New York City with his wife and son in 1970 after having lived in several places, and sadly he died there at the young age of 47. New York experiences are so pivotal to the trajectory of the careers of artists and writers from Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula, regardless of the amount of time they spend in the city. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that New York is and always has been a place where so many languages gather. The city asks you to think about your relationship to those languages and your relationship to your own language. Was the New York connection a consideration in choosing Gurvich’s artwork for the cover of two of your books? Is there something you see in his work, in the artwork choice for the cover of Selected Translations in particular, that sparks thoughts about language and translation?
I.S.: To me New York, to borrow a descriptor from Uruguayan literary critic Ángel Rama, is “the lettered city,” not only because it is the global capital of literary culture, but because the landscape is, literally, a lettered narrative—actually, a multilingual one. Immigrants, through their native languages (Dutch, Italian, Yiddish, Spanish, and so on) have built their collective memory in their native tongue. You, Regina, have done groundbreaking scholarly work on this front, looking at Spanish—and Catalan—in New York through a literary lens: Federico García Lorca, Felipe Alfau, Josep Pla, and others. When I was a student at Columbia, knowing that Federico García Lorca had been in the same building, and that his experience had produced Poet in New York (1940), was enormously stimulating. I felt just the same about José Martí and Piri Thomas, whom I met.
Since Yiddish was one of my mother tongues in Mexico, it was equally crucial for me, when I arrived to New York City in the mid-1980s, to know that Isaac Bashevis Singer lived on the corner of 86th Street and Broadway and that Henry Roth, Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, and Irving Howe accessed the city through Yiddish. In my eyes, these forking paths converge in Gurvich, who is one of the most accomplished Jewish artists from Latin America. Born in Lithuania (his full name: Zusmanas Gurvicius) in 1927, when he was four, his father immigrated to Montevideo, Uruguay, and a year later sent for his family. Gurvich was closely associated with the workshop of Joaquín Torres García. As an artist, he traveled Europe, lived in Israel, and settled in New York City in 1970, four years before his death. There is a museum dedicated to Gurvich in Montevideo in which his New York years are emphasized.
Although I was already an incipient Spanish-language writer when I came to New York, it is there where I found my voice—especially in the English language. It was an arduous yet rewarding process. I will be eternally grateful to New York for invading me with its cacophony of sounds. It is still the place I feel most comfortable. When I finally moved out of the city in 1993, the impression I had at first was that I would never be whole again. Truth is, once you’ve made New York your home, it never leaves you; it travels with you in your tongue. My English, the one I carved in that period of initiation, is rowdy, elastic, and polysemic, that is, New Yorkish.
R.G.: I had the same impression when I left New York and I still do. In New York, there’s something so big about sharing a network of paths of previous, present, and future lives that transform in profound ways because they are touched by the sounds of multiple languages. García Lorca’s path remains visible. I’m glad you included a poem from Poet in New York, “Ode to Walt Whitman,” in Selected Translations. In the preface of the volume, you mention that these translations were done at the request of a friend or an editor. What is the path that led you to this poem? What paths were revealed to you as you translated the poem?
I.S.: I talked about Whitman with Boris Dralyuk of the Los Angeles Review of Books, an astonishing translator from the Russian, whose renditions include Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Whitman to me is a gravitational force. I love the way he does indeed contain multitudes: Borges admired the elasticity of his language, whereas Neruda favored his generosity of spirit. Leaves of Grass is a poetic contract with America—the word America understood both as a nation and as a continent. García Lorca’s “Ode to Walt Whitman” inspired, and was in dialogue with, Neruda’s “Ode to Walt Whitman.” Through my translations, I wanted to give life to this dialogue again. I feel enormous empathy toward García Lorca’s foreignness in New York: he is a distant yet compromised observer of the city, appropriating it, turning its agony into an entrance door through which others—strangers, tourists, all kinds of dislocated souls—might access it. I love the rhythm of the ode; I love these two consecutive lines: “Nueva York de alambres y de muerte. / ¿Qué ángel llevas oculto en la mejilla?” They invoke in me the image of Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus, the angel of history (based on Paul Klee’s drawing).
R.G.: Your translation reads: “New York of wire and death. / What angel do you hide in your cheek.”
I.S.: It is how the image travels for me from Spanish to English.
R.G.: Do you love your version?
I.S.: Love isn’t an emotion my own work awakens in me.
R.G.: More on places and paths... Here we are in Amherst, Mass., working, researching, writing, teaching, translating, and living in Emily Dickinson’s town. The appendix of the volume includes your translations into Spanish of six Emily Dickinson poems. The book is dedicated to Jules Chametzky, an Brooklyn-born professor emeritus of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and founder of the Massachusetts Review. Amherst is here. How has Amherst shaped your literary tastes?
I.S.: I was familiar with Dickinson and Robert Frost only marginally when I arrived in Amherst. Becoming part of the town to me has meant making them not only my neighbors but my friends. For our life isn’t only spent with our contemporaries, but with our ancestors and successors. Our contemporaries are accidental; whom we choose from the past and who chooses us in the future are a matter of decision. Dickinson’s imagery, her fractured vision, her radical punctuation—she is the best American poet of the nineteenth century and maybe the best overall. And Frost is almost as stunning. “Mending Wall,” which I also include in Selected Translations, is, unavoidably in my view, about the U.S.-Mexico border, even though Frost doesn’t seem to have thought much about it. Of course, it is about countless other borders, too: the one that separates Israel and Gaza; the Berlin Wall, China’s Great Wall, etc.
Over the twenty-five years I’ve lived in Amherst, the town has shaped me in countless ways. New England was the cradle of transcendentalism. I feel very close to Hawthorne, Melville, and Emerson. I live in an old house with beautiful trees from all over the world; that landscape alone inspires me at all times. I have also been in communication with an assortment of terrific writers from around the world who have lived in the area, including Richard Wilbur, David Foster Wallace, Norton Juster, Agha Shahid Ali, and Martín Espada.
R.G.: Translation is a way to get to know and be our ancestors, cities, towns, and homes. Homes… and being at home when you translate. If translation is a synonym for home, then what about the original? Where is the original, Ilan? What is the original? In other places, we’ve both talked about translations without originals, and the original as the translation, in the context of specific writers. Felipe Alfau’s Chromos (1990) has so much to say about translations and originals, especially when writers produce literature in second or third languages, and outside their birthplace. I’ve heard you talk about this in the classroom with students and you’ve shared in other publications that translation might supersede the original. And when we look at the pages of Selected Translations, readers don’t see the originals with the translations. This once again might have been an editorial decision.
I.S.: It certainly was. Some of the versions appeared in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry (2011), where every original is paired with its translation. Others were featured in newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals; or were read in festivals, on radio and TV. This volume focuses on the translations alone.
I met Alfau in a retirement home in Queens. I translated his poetry and introduced his novels, especially Locos: A Comedy of Gestures (1936) to Spanish-language readers. His multilingualism is enthralling in that he never became fully comfortable in English—which he mostly used as a writing strategy—while his Spanish and Catalan became stilted. He is an example of translingual authors: linguistic travelers. Alfau was like a vampire: sucking blood at night from maidens, while sleeping in a sarcophagus.
I’m of the opinion that translation isn’t a kitchen zinc endeavor, a mere transaction in order to offer in one language what is available in another. Translation is art. It has its own aesthetic aspirations. It isn’t difficult to think of translations that improve on the original, maybe even supplanting it. Is the King James Version of the Bible better than the Hebrew and Aramaic original? I’m conscious that such a suggestion is blasphemous. After all, the original is sacred because God conceded to deliver the narrative in those languages; nothing in that narrative—not one iota—might be supplanted. Yet the forty-seven translators had at their disposal an ampler lexicon than the authors of the Bible; they also paid more attention to style, coherence, music, and so on. One might engage in similar explorations when talking about other classics, though far from all. There is also a hint in Borges “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” that the nineteenth-century French symbolist, I gather, is a superior writer than Cervantes’ “genio lego.”
R.G.: I am glad you brought up the classics. Are these poems in Selected Translations your classics? I would love to see volumes of selected translations from individual writers that reveal the writer’s development and literary tastes. Might we anticipate seeing another volume like that?
I.S.: In 2004, to celebrate his centennial, I did a volume of translations called The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. It showcases the work of various translators; in fact, some poems appear in multiple versions. For Penguin Classics, I have also edited—though not translated—the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Rubén Darío, and César Vallejo. Depending on how much time I have left, I certainly would return to a number of authors, granting more space than Selected Translations does. Others I would leave alone. Borges, for instance, never ceases to amaze me but mostly as an essayist and in his ficciones; I’m less engaged with his poetry. In any case, because it uses standard metrics—sonnets, especially—it is impossible to do justice to it in translation; something similar happens to Quevedo, who will forever be imprisoned in the original. In perusing Alexander Coleman’s Selected Poems (2000) by Borges, I found very little that was satisfying.
Roughly, the year 2000 is when I finally felt confident enough to translate poetry into English. It is also the start of my interest, in terms of commitment, in Spanglish and other hybrid languages. Selected Translations includes versions into Spanglish of Shakespeare’s soliloquy “To Be or Not to Be,” among other texts. The hundred-or-so poems in the volume are a record of my affinities. To me, a translator must engage in myopic reading; the translator is the closest reader a text ever gets, to the point that, from my perspective, translators end up knowing more about the author than the author himself. I’m not being facetious.
Yes, these are my classics, i.e., authors without whose oeuvre I cannot conceive of the world. There is a distinction between a sacred book and a literary classic: the former is supposedly written by a supernatural entity and, therefore, is perfect; the latter, instead, are books that survive their authors to become staples of their time. At the age of fifty-nine, I devote most of my time to rereading classic works. I find rereading far more rewarding than reading.
Regina Galasso is the author of Translating New York: The City’s Languages in Iberian Literatures (Liverpool UP, 2018), recipient of the 2017 NeMLA Book Award. She is the editor of the forthcoming This is a Classic: Translators on Making Writers Global (Bloomsbury, 2021). She is the co-editor of two edited volumes: Avenues of Translation: The City in Iberian and Latin American Writing (Bucknell UP, 2019), recipient of the 2020 SAMLA Book Award, with Evelyn Scaramella, and a special Nueva York issue of Translation Review 81 (2012) with Carmen Boullosa. She is the translator of Alicia Borinsky’s Lost Cities Go to Paradise (Swan Isle P, 2015) and Miguel Barnet’s A True Story: A Cuban in New York (Jorge Pinto Books, 2010). She is Associate Professor in the Spanish and Portuguese Studies Program and Director of the Translation Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books. His latest books are The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (2019), How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish (2020), And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again (2020), Popol Vuh: A Retelling (2020), and Selected Translations: Poems 2000-2020 (2021). He has translated Sor Juana, Neruda, and Borges into English, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop into Spanish, Isaac Bashevis Singer from Yiddish, Yehuda Halevi from Hebrew, and Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Lewis Carroll into Spanglish. His work, translated into twenty languages, has been adapted into film, radio, TV, and theater.
In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.