Katherine Hedeen has published translations and articles foregrounding a series of Latin American poets. Much of her work deals with Cuban writing. Recently, though, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded her a fellowship to translate writing by Jorgenrique Adoum, informing her that this was the first NEA grant ever dedicated to Ecuadorian poetry.

It’s a good moment, then, to ask Hedeen about the different threads weaving through her interests in poetry, translation, and collaboration. This part first, and before getting to questions related to Cuba and the US and change, Cuban poetry and change, diaspora and change…— Kristin Dykstra

Kristin Dykstra: You’ve described translation to me as itself as a kind of political statement, and perhaps you could briefly comment on that starting point. But I’d like to move from there into reflections on cotranslation, since you have done a series of cotranslated books and other projects.  Your work with Víctor Rodríguez Núñez allows you to develop a vocabulary about translation that gets away from individualism and into collective experiences.

Katherine Hedeen: For me, translation is a political act. It’s obviously always so, but being highly conscious that I am making a political intervention as a translator is the real difference. This makes itself known in two ways: whom I choose to translate and how I choose to go about it. The vast majority of poets I work with are unknown to English-speaking readers (and I also consider opting for poetry over prose a political choice). They fall outside the idea of what a poet in Spanish “should” sound like.

For American readers there are basically two, Pablo Neruda and the Federico García Lorca, who are widely available in print. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. They write the way an American audience thinks poets from these regions should write. In my experience, it’s this idea of Spanish being more in tune with sensuality, feeling, the body, earthiness almost; it’s not complex, cerebral, intellectual, experimental. It almost mimics the sexist dichotomies between masculine/feminine. The South is sensual; let’s leave the thinking to the North. And I don’t think American readers of poetry question why certain writers are translated; why, for example, there always seem to be so many editions of Neruda’s work with commercial presses (and they keep bringing out more!) and yet the work of the other great Latin American poet of the twentieth century, Peruvian César Vallejo, is published with university presses, and is much lesser known among general readers.

As a specialist in Hispanic poetry, I want to contest that small canon (and not because I have anything against Neruda or García Lorca; these are amazing poets!), which is built on culturally imperialist notions of what the South is. How I go about all this is also an explicitly political act in my mind. And the first thing I would have to clarify is that it’s not “I”; it’s “we.” On many of these projects I cotranslate with the Cuban poet, Víctor Rodríguez Núñez (and we translate from English into Spanish as well). Though I do the bulk of the work from Spanish into English, his help is indispensable. He provides a crucial, insider perspective that undoubtedly makes the translation better.

The truth of the matter is that no intellectual endeavor happens in a vacuum: it is in constant dialogue with other voices, with other traditions, with readers, with editors. And translation is no exception. A translated text is, by definition, a collective work. The vast majority of translators I know have at least one trusted native speaker they consult. Víctor and I want to make that relationship explicit, especially as a way to combat the myth of individualism that is so rampant in the academy, and chiefly in the humanities, where coauthorship is often disparaged. Ultimately, our work is stronger for it.

All this goes in the other direction as well. For Spanish American readers, there is also a preconceived notion of what poetry in English is. And we want to counter that, to offer a different vision with our translations of it into Spanish. We’ve worked with well-known poets like Mark Strand and John Kinsella, but we’ve also done two anthologies; one of contemporary Indigenous poets from the U.S. which has editions in Mexico and Cuba, and another of contemporary Welsh poets who write in either English or Welsh, which will soon be out in Mexico. And just as in our Spanish to English translation, we’re collaborators, we recognize the value and worth of coauthorship.  

Dykstra: You have dedicated substantial time not only to getting to know the work of Juan Gelman, but to a set of his contemporaries who are lesser-known in English translation to date — writers who began to put out quite a bit of writing from the mid-twentieth-century forwards.

Hedeen: The poets Víctor and I tend to translate are practically unknown in the English-speaking world, and yet, in Latin America they are well-recognized and renowned; many are considered classics of twentieth-century poetry. Most, but not all, begin to publish in the late 1950s, and they are each unique though they share one overriding commonality. In the Spanish American tradition (and I’m sure in others as well, but my field is Hispanic poetry), there exists this idea that revolutionary ideals and formal experimentation are a contradiction (you know this well from translating contemporary Cuban poetry). A poet must choose between the two ends of an apparent spectrum; they both cannot coexist in the poem.

This is, of course, a false contradiction and each of the poets we choose to translate challenges that notion; their work is socially committed and at the same time aesthetically experimental. The list includes Juan Bañuelos (Mexico), Juan Calzadilla (Venezuela), Juan Gelman (Argentina), Fayad Jamís (Cuba), José Emilio Pacheco (Mexico), and Ida Vitale (Uruguay).

The latest poet I’m translating in this regard is the Ecuadorian Jorgenrique Adoum (1926–2009). I received a 2015 NEA Translation Fund grant for the project; it’s a first for an Ecuadorian writer to ever receive funding from the NEA. His poetry is some of the most difficult I’ve encountered: word play, neologisms, several different social and cultural registers at once, inclusion of narrativity and chronicle but at the same intense lyricism. He is one of the great poets of the region, whose work has gone unknown by most foreign readers. This is the case of Ecuador in general, which has traditionally been marginalized even in Latin American intellectual circles. With the political changes that have come about in the past ten years, there has been a rise in national pride and a broader awareness of cultural history. The Havana International Book Fair was dedicated to Ecuador last year, and on a recent trip we discovered books by poets that were difficult to come by even in Ecuador. Two additional poets in particular have resonated with me: Jorge Carrera Andrade and César Dávila Andrade. This, of course, is a major component of my vision as a translator; trying to include poets from underrepresented areas with Spanish America.

Dykstra: I’ve noticed that you take time to foreground certain terms for English-language readers, particularly neocolonialism and decolonization. At the same time it seems that all of the poets you present have chosen to address those topics while largely evading the vocabulary of major political parties. Can you talk about your experience with the complications of presenting these contexts to readers who are largely unfamiliar with the issues?

Hedeen: I think one of the most important things I had to learn as a student of contemporary Spanish American poetry was how to navigate a reality in which terms like neocolonialism and imperialism and decolonization are a major part of intellectual discourse. These words were not in my vocabulary (and I graduated from college with a degree in Spanish and in sociology). I don’t think they really are in this country unless you’re in certain academic circles. It makes complete sense that they are not common for most American writers and readers; knowledge and awareness of the terms and the realities they represent complicate the role of the public intellectual in this country.

If we are aware, then how should we respond? It’s certainly less thorny to take on the easy, subtle comfort of a benign cultural (and economic and political) superiority. Ultimately though, my alliance is with the poet and the work. And neither of these can be explained without considering the concepts I mention above. But again, the work itself (and my consideration of it) is never simplistic or propagandistic. I don’t think anything should be easy.

In that sense, I want to challenge the reader with the poet, with the translations, and with the introduction. I don’t want to smooth things over. I want the reader to be jolted when she reads, to see things from a different perspective, from a different intellectual tradition even. Of course, this has its difficulties; it’s the age-old dilemma when it comes to translation. I do fear alienating the reader. All this being said, I’d rather have a smaller, committed readership that wants to be challenged, that’s committed to a dialogic engagement with the work. That also explains why I opt to limit myself to translating poetry, and, for the most part, a certain kind of poetry.

Dykstra: You’ve done quite a lot of literary publication involving Cuba, which I left for last. In the past, when people asked me what might be unique about working with material from the island, I’ve said that working in Cuba means developing a comfort level with never really knowing what’s going on — and in a recent conversation you said exactly the same thing. So I’m curious. Can you say a little about the limbo states you’ve negotiated, as well as the other side of the equation we’ve encountered: the expectation that one will keep on trying to know what’s going on? You referred to a “push and pull” in our most recent conversation.

Hedeen: Though I have been called an “honorary Cuban” on more than one occasion, wanting everything to be defined and not ever getting a concrete definition is one of the things I will never get used to completely about the Cuban reality in all its complexity (literary, political, personal). As you say, I’ve grown comfortable with it though and know what to expect. And after a long time of getting to that point (I’ve been traveling there yearly since 1997) I’m now convinced it makes me a better writer, a better translator.

The constant negotiations of meaning, the reading between the lines, the not completely knowing, they all mimic my process as a creative writer between two languages, and in turn, have helped me to grow. It doesn’t mean that the “push and pull” between knowing and not knowing isn’t totally frustrating, but tellingly it has become one of the central metaphors for who I am. If I didn’t have Cuba, I don’t think I’d be the same translator I am today. 

Dykstra: You just returned from Havana in the middle of this process of political “change” that was trumpeted by both the U.S. and Cuban governments in public at the end of 2014. After your recent stay in Havana, can you briefly remark on your July 2015 sense of the different experiences of time people have around these much publicized changes, as well as divergent expectations, delays, or rhetorics being used to frame change?

Hedeen: In certain ways, that “not knowing” and the frustration it causes feels much more urgent today because of what’s happening between the U.S. and Cuba. Here the sensation is one of acceleration. After years and years of waiting, of thinking the situation would never change, all of sudden these past six or seven months are charging ahead. I arrived in Cuba this summer to find someone had stepped on the brakes.

Things are, at least officially, taking place at a snail’s pace. Again, it’s this push and pull, this negotiation of meaning — and its interpretation  this state of limbo where you ultimately just don’t know. I do think change is inevitable though, no matter how it’s presented here or there.

Change is the one thing that is certain. And things aren’t necessarily going to do so the way the U.S. or Cuban governments want. For the Cuban people, the embargo is imposed from both the outside and inside. I have a lot of faith in them to bring about change themselves, coming from their own history, their awareness of their own needs. If that is taken as the point of the departure, then they will have a much better chance at changing the conditions of their lives for the better, and creating a kind of democracy that suits them, that respects all their human rights.

Dykstra: This seems like a chance for us to talk about the challenges of change, but also the optimism you’ve decided to foreground. Most relevant for literary translation would be the optimism that change will allow for an increasingly complex conversation about poetry. Translators have long had to operate within a rigidly politicized frame that seems to distort everything. 

Hedeen: It’s my perception that this thaw, this opening up, between our two countries, will give both Cuban poets and their American translators a rare opportunity to present a clearer, less politicized view of contemporary Cuban poetic production. And there is a lot of interest; readers are curious.

There is so much rhetoric from both sides that needs to be dismantled. What I’ve encountered are these unrealistic expectations about how a Cuban writer should write and what they should write about. I’ve never experienced this as much as with the Cubans I translate.

There are of course the official expectations of the Cuban government, but there are also those of the exile community. If we speak of translation and publication, there are those of an American readership, who are so uninformed (or misinformed) about the reality of the situation that they can be easily manipulated. A Cuban author who chooses to be independent, to question the power that these different entities wield, is in a predicament.

That has been my experience in translating Víctor and finding a publisher for his work. Thanks to conversations with other translators, and in particular with you, Kris, I realized I needed to present the strength in the vision his work offers of Cuba and the migrant experience that is not what a readership would expect. It might be a while off, but my great hope is that along with these diplomatic and economic changes, there will be a different set of expectations with regard to what Cuban poets write, and that what will matter most is the quality of the poetry itself, which, as you know, Cuba is full of. To me, good poetry is always revolutionary.