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Anna Deeny in San Juan 2015.  Photo K Dykstra.
Anna Deeny in San Juan 2015. Photo K Dykstra.

Anna Deeny Morales is a marvelous translator of poetry.  To date I know her work principally in relation to writers from the Southern Cone, among them Mercedes Roffé (see the Shearsman page for the new Floating Lanterns collection here) and Raúl Zurita. Anna’s renditions are rigorous and striking on the page, and they’re generally informed by her strong scholarship.

Yet anyone who has seen Anna present work in person will see that her translation skills extend beyond the ability to be intelligent and emotionally convincing on paper. Performing alongside a creative writer with highly developed public speaking skills presents extra challenges for the translator who does not inhabit the same body or have the same experiences in presentation. The contrast in bodies prompts assessment of any translator’s difference, as a step toward developing an identity as a speaker. Below our conversation are additional links to videos of readings.

KD:  Anna, when first seeing you present translations alongside Raúl Zurita, I was struck by your poise on stage.  Raúl is such a charismatic speaker and performer that he seems to challenge translators to consider their own performance. Over the years I’ve heard a little bit about your many experiences with theater and especially music, but would you be willing to comment more extensively on this background?

ADM:  Poetry, music and theater were the bread and butter of our family life. My formal training is as a classical pianist, and I also worked in theater. My mother, Carmen Alicia Morales, who is from Puerto Rico, recites her poetry, never reads. My sister and I spent summers in Puerto Rico with our grandparents, and my grandfather, a guitarist, would teach us typical Boricua songs. We would then sing as part of my mom’s recitales. So I grew up learning the basics of a classical tradition — Bach, Mozart, along with Saint-Saëns and Prokofiev — to prepare for piano competitions, at the same time that I learned danzas, plenas, boleros, and watched my mother (who had an MA in theater) rehearse for her recitales. My mother was also a public school teacher. But additional income gained from these recitales helped fund our educations.

To read with Zurita, I score the text. That is, I write indications onto the line, just as in a musical score, to remind myself how to read a given poem, whether to go up a pitch at the end of a line (poets usually drop the pitch), slow down (rallentare), speed up little by little (accelerando), voice a caesura (rest), accentuate a word (tenuto) etc.

These formal elements of sound reflect my translation of the poem. For example, in the case of Zurita, his poetry has a verbose flexibility that allows for including what are generally considered excessive or unnecessary words. “That” is the best example. There’s a humanness to the word “that” because many times it can be omitted grammatically. In other words, it can often be deemed unnecessary or redundant. But to include it when it might be omitted, represents a lack of efficiency in language. (I hesitate to say that it represents an idea of “excess,” a word associated with neobaroque writers in Latin America.) What’s more important than excess in this case is a lack of efficiency. Language isn’t meant to be efficient; emotions, feelings, our contradictions, our banal capacity for cruelty, or amazing capacity to love, is in no way efficient. The core value of capitalism, on the other hand, is efficiency, and this efficiency has become an imposed human value upon our emotions, bodies, culture, sense of knowledge, that in turn affects our use of language. The detail of including and emphasizing “that” as well as other similar words when they are grammatically unnecessary reflects my reading of Zurita as a poet who rejects capitalism. To put this idea more directly, Zurita does not limit his language resources to produce more output, which is the capitalist logic of the profit motive. His poetry continuously mourns the history of his country, which, for him is indelibly marked by the 1973 coup of Salvador Allende’s socialist government. So to bring a little more attention to “that” in a reading is to emphasize what is important to this poet.

But you also mention what it is to read beside Raúl Zurita, the great Chilean poet with his own history and traditions, a public figure with an extraordinary deep and particular voice, a handsome beard, and so distinguished. I will never be these things. So all I can say is this is what I heard when I listened to you. 

KD:  The public speaking side, then, seems to be founded in your recognition of difference, and I very much agree — for me, reading work by several male poets (all charismatic in their different ways) out of a female body has made that starting point unavoidable.
          I also like your unexpected defense of the word “that.” I usually think of it as a target for deletion in poetry, yet as you point out, grammatically unnecessary words can be necessary for good reasons.  What compelling challenge has most interested you lately in your translations? 

ADM:  I’d like to explore how words have been co-opted by marketing. For example, the other day I was translating “alba,” which means the dawn, daybreak or sunrise, but also white. What “alba” means is that particular white color of the morning. The problem with using “dawn” is that, because of the dishwashing product called Dawn, you have to be careful not to trigger that register in the translation of the word. Or, I worry if you can’t help but trigger the association. So I think a lot about how to establish other relationships within the text that pull the word away from its co-opted registers. This is a general issue of our contemporary state of language, particularly within the US, that comes into view through translation.

KD:  If you could recommend that readers interested in poetry, Latin American literatures, or literary translation start with any one of your editions, which would it be and why? 

ADM:  Purgatory by Raúl Zurita (UC Press, 2009) is a great place to begin. It’s a work that is trying desperately to find materials to speak to a particular experience, which is the coup d’état in Chile. So it brings together registers from different fields — the visual, psychological, scientific, mathematical, engineering — and also the poetic and religious — Dante, the Bible, Buddhism — like gathered fragments of a culture’s wreckage. But there are so many excellent translators of Latin American literature that also constitute dialogues in translation — Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Ursula Le Guin, Muriel Rukeyser, CD Wright, Forrest Gander, etcetera. These are only a few among many. And then there are Latin American writers who also think about translation within their narrative structures — Ricardo Piglia, María Moreno, Mercedes Roffé, who is also a poet and a wonderful translator from the English to the Spanish. The list goes on and on.   

Additional Video: Readings

With MaLu Urriola for “Transversal” seminar at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room

With Raúl Zurita and Forrest Gander at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room

at Harvard´s Woodberry Poetry Room