'playback on the rise'
The Señal chapbook series
US cultural diplomacy with Latin America seems a low priority under the current administration, and this makes me more grateful than ever for the Señal poetry chapbook series. These poems and their English translations engage questions about the intersections of Latin American and US history, culture, and language — implying that what is received in literature and culture bears examination. Good translation promotes seeing anew — “making the translated text a place where a cultural other is manifested.” Translation, then, is the perfect vehicle to carry Señal’s goals forward, examining what gets categorized as “contemporary” and “Latin American,” because it brings a “cultural other” to those who might not be able to access a text in its original iteration. All four chapbooks to date feature en face translations, so not only are these texts available to a wider readership, but readers can also study the various translation strategies employed, knowing that the original work is also presented on its own terms.
Three lively organizations supporting the publication and distribution of literary translation have teamed up to create the Señal series — Ugly Duckling Presse, BOMB Magazine, and Libros Antena Books — and since 2015 they’ve published “two chapbooks a year, linked thematically, conceptually, or trans-historically, in order to trouble received ideas around what the terms ‘contemporary’ and ‘Latin America’ might represent.” Whose received ideas, I wonder? An extensive audience seems implied here: those of Latin American origin reading these texts in either Spanish or English, and Anglophone readers, primarily in the United States. It suggests a dual readership, a dual looking — and for some readers, it may imply a dual challenge. At first glance, the fact that two of the four extant chapbooks directly use the work of Sor Juana, Mexico’s renowned Baroque poet nun and first published feminist, might not seem “contemporary.” Likewise, the frequent references in Florencia Castellano’s work to cowboys, Sinatra, and Hollywood might not seem “South American.” Through this series, it’s clear that the term “Latin America” implies much more than a physical place, and also that what is contemporary can be everything from a reenvisioning of a Baroque poet through translation to sound and syntax that push away from norms of literary structure, as in Pablo Katchadjian’s work. The fact that translation is always collaborative is ever present, promoting conversation between “cultural others,” who might, as I think these chapbooks show us, actually have many lines of connection.
The link between the two 2015 chapbooks is readily apparent. Both take up the legacy of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz — one via direct translation of Sor Juana’s work, the other writing about her in “an academic paper in verse followed by three mash-ups in homage.” As with all the Señal chapbooks, the translations are done by translators who are also poets, and who bring their creativity, as well as their Spanish language expertise, to the task. Both also end with fabulous translators’ notes contextualizing the work (in Pluecker’s case, placing Fabre’s work in the context of the PAN-led drug war during Calderón’s 2006–2012 administration) and letting the reader in on the particular challenges of carrying it over into English.
The way Fabre, through Pluecker’s translation, mocks existing scholarship around Sor Juana is absolutely irresistible: “the essential task of Sor Juana scholars / is to differ with what other Sor Juana scholars say” (3). Fabre’s biting wit pokes fun at Sor Juana scholars until he lands on the punch line “all Sor Juana scholars concur that Sor Juana was a monster” (5). The scholars’ useless and trumped-up attempts to determine what kind of monster Sor Juana was reach their pinnacle with “What kind of monster was Sor Juana? / Enigma. / An enigma who poses enigmas” (13). It’s an obvious and comic calling-out of academia, with its false erudition, its buzz of study and conferences — which, to the speaker of these poems, are clearly a waste of time. This first long poem, claiming to be “An Academic Paper in Verse,” indicates that whatever expectations you may have brought to this chapbook based on previous knowledge of Sor Juana or her writing, you should be prepared to throw them aside. Prose, verse, criticism, myth, monstrosity — it’s all here, and it’s all hybrid. But why participate, at least nominally, in the very form he critiques? The answer, I think, is ghosts — appropriating this academic form acknowledges the ghosts of all those who have read, studied, taught, and translated Sor Juana in the past, just as (Pluecker tells us) turning her into a violent enigma calls up ghosts of killers and the killed in contemporary Mexico (27).
In the “Mashup” poems, Sor Juana becomes alternately a phoenix, a sphinx, a phantom, and Medusa. Intricately structured with zinging rhymes and sound play in the original, and sometimes appropriating and textually sampling lines or features of Sor Juana’s own texts, these poems were clearly a challenge to convey in English. In his translator’s note, Pluecker muses on what contemporary poetry is supposed to sound like. He argues that it’s not about flawlessness or ethereality, but rather “for the poems to rumble a bit, to stumble around and, yes, to delight doggedly in doggerel” (28). The result is fantastic. Here’s an excerpt about Sor Juana where the assonance and end rhyme feel fresh:
of that gloomy lady:
bipedally slithery; ghastly; lonely; trashy; nasty. (23)
de esa lóbrega fémina:
áspide bípeda; hórrida; íngrima; lépera; pésima. (22)
In the second Señal chapbook, translator Stalina Emmanuelle Villarreal works closely with the sound of contemporary poetry as well, bringing twenty of Sor Juana’s famous four-line poems into English. As in the original poems, the syntax in Villarreal’s translated Enigmas is complex, a puzzle, often requiring multiple reads to untangle. With this chapbook, we have to ask the questions confronting every retranslation of a canonical work: why is this translation necessary? What does it add to the existing literature and scholarship around the work? Villarreal concludes Enigmas with a gorgeous “Translator’s Not-(Subtractive Letter)” that develops the answers to these questions. And yet even with no knowledge of Spanish, an English reader can approach these poems and know that something new and exciting is happening in the language chosen to carry over Sor Juana’s Enigmas. Here’s one example:
What will be the whiz
of such noble caliber
that is with eyes blinder
and without sight wits? (18)
¿Cuál podrá ser el portento
de tan noble calidad,
que es con ojos ceguedad
y sin vista entendimiento? (18)
“Whiz?” I’d almost forgotten the word existed — and it’s so delightfully rhymed with “wits.” In Spanish, rhyming is generally easier than in English, thanks largely to gendered words and parts of speech whose terminal letters follow set patterns (-mente is the equivalent of the English adverb ending -ly, for example). In the above enigma, the endings of the lines follow an ABBA pattern (ending in Spanish in -ento / -dad / -dad / -ento). Villarreal’s ear is closely attuned, and she has opted to keep the rhyme scheme, whereas other translations of the Enigmas drop or alter it (including one enigma that appears as part of a longer poem in Fabre’s chapbook).
The genius of Villarreal’s translations is that not only do they give new life to Sor Juana’s poems (which ask universal questions that bear repeating via different translations), but they also give new life to English. As translator Michael Hofmann says in his book of essays, Where Have You Been?: “For me the service comes in writing as well and as interestingly as possible. It comes from using the full range of Englishes, the different registers, the half-forgotten words … I serve my originals, as I see it, but I am also there to serve English.” In these translations, the reader is retaught all that English can do: it can sustain complex syntax in poetry, too often relegated to the realm of academic writing, and it can surprise through near rhyme and delight through onomatopoeic, exclamatory words (often, by the sound of them, more Anglo-Saxon than Latinate in origin) whose sounds keep them close to the body, to the physical: “whiz,”“wow,” “gutsy,” “meek,” “spunk,” “rued,” “trekking,” to name a few out of context. The effect of this form, in which academic structures and nonacademic words mesh, is, I think, to show us the “more monstrous mischief” (to quote Villarreal) of presuming that a certain language belongs to certain realms alone (3). As Chicana writer Villarreal says in her translator’s note, the multiple “facets of [her] being” and her language use come into play in her translation (22). It’s not enough to say that one language is for the academy and another for feeling, just as it’s not enough to say — as did one of my Spanish literature professors in university — that English is the language for business and transaction while Spanish is the language for romance and literature, or that a person has only one cultural identity. These categories don’t serve us, the Señal series proposes.
The two 2016 chapbooks, Pablo Katchadjian’s el cam del alch, translated by Victoria Cóccaro and Rebekah Smith as the rou of alch, and Florencia Castellano’s Propiedades vigiladas, translated by Alexis Almeida as Monitored Properties, are quite disparate from the 2015 chapbooks in aesthetic. The first two chapbooks in the series have ties to Mexico primarily, while the authors of the third and fourth chapbooks, though this may be coincidental, are both from Buenos Aires.
Enigmatic is a fitting descriptor for the rou of alch. Written in short sections separated by dashed lines, the chapbook is one long poem in repeated fragments. The reader is warned in a prefatory note that “there could be an equation that leads nowhere due to errors of laziness and distraction.” the rou of alch, we quickly learn, is the “route of alcohol / that leads to no place / or to a snowy landscape” (3). Distinctly nonnarrative, however, this is not a poem with a linear progression or one-to-one symbols. Throughout the piece, a coming apart occurs, to the point that individual words fall apart: bucket becomes buc, glass becomes gla. Interestingly, the translation seems to lead to even closer rhyme and more regular rhythm than are present in the original. For example: “no one understands what they want to do / if they want or not to continue on the rou” for “nadie entiende lo que quieren hacer / si quieren o no seguir por el cam” (22–23). Looking beyond immediate reality, this poem seems to suggest, is dangerous and perhaps not accessible to everyone: “what is the disaster of all of this? / the contemplation? / of the infinite?” (19). The poem recycles many of the same truncated pieces of language, as though a fevered mathematician were rearranging variables in an attempt to order them into an equation that would generate infinity — or at least some meaningful truth about the route of life.
Though certain moments shine in imagistic specificity, what’s at stake here is language — language tossed in a tumbler, tossed against other words in various combinations until it splinters eventually:
infinite variations in the contemplating
inf vars in the cont in order to arrive at the infinite (33)
infinitas variaciones en el contemplar
inf varc en el cont para llegar al infinito (32)
Much of Katchadjian’s work contemplates the masters of Latin American literature — in 2009 he “remixed” the language of fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges’s classic “El Aleph” to create El aleph engordado [The Fattened Aleph], and since 2011 has been caught up in a plagiarism lawsuit brought by Borges’s widow, who controls his estate. In this chapbook, the reader of the rou of alch is confronted with the Latin American literary tradition — this poem is linked hereditarily to such writers of the Latin American avant-garde as César Vallejo, whose book Trilce broke conventions of poetic language during its time, to reveal a soul tormented by his limitations in the larger human struggle. Something of this human helplessness in a fragmented world is also present in the rou of alch, presented via its form: the disorientation of human struggle is present in the way these lines cycle through the same repeated fragments of language, the way their phrases stutter-start and stop, without capitalization or punctuation — without, that is, ever seeming to reach a conclusion.
In the fourth chapbook in the Señal series, Monitored Properties, received tropes and systems demand reconsideration. Among them, there is the trope of the cowboy, the idea of the Wild West or the wildness of Latin America. In Florencia Castellano’s poems, “the issue is the origin of the cowboy.” Though the Spanish poems use the word “cowboy” in English (the overlap between the two languages is enacted in Castellano’s chapbook by the frequent appearance of English words in the Spanish text), readers of these poems in either language will note that the figure the poet references speaks to both a US American context and a Latin American one — the history of the gaucho in South American history, cultural myth, and literature. In these poems, the cowboy is a figure who reminds readers of the persistent patriarchal and “machismo” systems, political and religious, that have dominated Latin American countries. The Anglophone reader, in the English translations, is asked to consider how these systems have similarly dominated their culture(s) of origin. These poems come from a bold female voice crying “no more patriarchs” (23).
A mysterious “Fact” is the event that seems to prompt many of these poems, and yet many of them are also in the space of the fictive, the performative, referencing television and TV and radio shows: Frank Sinatra and Mogambo make appearances. I get the sense that these poems want me to realize I’m living in something like The Truman Show. The poems are trying to help me touch the metal wall at the edge of what I’m conscious of: don’t take what you’re handed as factual truth without considering it, they say. Wake up to the fact that members of a capitalist society are subject to the desire to accumulate — the “properties” of the title. In the first poem, for instance, the speaker observes a father figure drive his prized car through a neighborhood in which appearances, a regulated sense of “keeping up with the Joneses,” are the name of the game. The trouble is that these “Joneses” seem to be a US American Hollywood ideal, a constructed image of what’s desirable, which the characters in the poems (most of all those straining to perform their Hollywood-inspired masculinity) are at pains to live up to. Just as Truman is raised by a corporation inside a TV show, the Argentine characters in these poems are “monitored,” as the title says, by a foreign media that keeps everything running: “the conclusions will be unveiled / to the whole society / through blockbuster movies” (25).
A threat of violence hangs over these poems: violence on the screen and violence in the community, eerily conflated. And most eerie of all is the “monitoring” of the title: “garage with surveillance camera / on the paternal car” (3). There are references to “the official channel” and “the state network” (25). For US American readers, in the face of an authoritarian new president and conservative government, and with the growth of drone use in both the military and private sectors, this threat of surveillance and its capacity to infringe on human privacy or liberty feel all too real.
The poems in Monitored Properties are, out of all four chapbooks, the most physically located in a Latin American setting. The translations are sometimes helpfully “stealth glossed” to aid the reader in visualizing this context: the descriptor “bridges” gets added to “the Federal Capital and Zarate Brazo Largo” (37), for example. In the two 2016 chapbooks, I missed the robust translators’ notes present in the first two chapbooks, as the context they provided allowed me to deepen my reading of the poems.
All the Señal chapbooks challenge what’s received, and whether or how writers in the tradition of Latin American literature are defined by it. These are poems intimate with their proverbial ghosts: they are variously haunted by them, liberating themselves from them, and learning to live with them.