Translation is a form of following

Words have no home, and it is there our home is located

pague ahora, llore después

Pasaje Rodríguez, across from the Grafógrafo Bookstore (Tijuana)

What happens in the space between languages, between minds, between distinct modes or moments of perception, different ways of understanding and articulating those perceptions? What is made possible in the many shifting spaces we inhabit as we move through an exchange or transfer of brain waves, sound waves, ideas carried by breath, without alighting too long in any one particular position?

trans     positions. 


San Ysidro

Zoom in:
                un gigante
extranjero en tu pupila
                     y un gigante
nativo que te incrusta
uñas negras
en la otra
            y un instante
tu rostro
es una crispación
de lenguas muertas

Zoom out:
                   luz verde
que te enrola en el cardumen de los otros
mientras cruzas
la Línea


San Ysidro

Zoom in:
       a gigantic
foreigner in your right
        and a gigantic
native who embeds
black fingernails in you
in your other
          an instant
your face
is a convulsion
of dead tongues

Zoom out:
         green light
that enlists you in the shoal of others
as you cross
la Línea

The longer I spend wandering the galaxies of translation, the more I experience what is perhaps the inverse of the process I suggested in my last post as a way to locate kindred spirits in other languages, with an intent to read or an intent to translate—to read widely and follow the pleasurably circuitous routes toward writers whose work most piques your interest. Alternately, you might encounter a writer through mutual friends or shared interests; in the case of Román Luján and myself, the mutual friend was Cristina Rivera Garza (with whom you can read a great interview here), and the shared interests began at the Laboratorio Fronterizo de Escritores in Tijuana and quickly extended far beyond the literary. As in Román’s and my case, you might be friends and informal readers of each other’s work and co-orbiters in literary space for years before beginning to work collaboratively and co-conspiratorially on translations of other writers’ work before finally bringing that process home, as it were, into the friendship.

Román’s new book is titled Drâstel, published recently by Bonobos Editores. When I asked him about the title, he responded somewhat flippantly: there’s a poem in the book with that title. I’d read the poem, of course, but figured perhaps after the closer-than-close reading translation entails, I’d feel more specifically illuminated.


Words will come to interfere
Michael Palmer

Si digo esto no pienses en aquello,
no importa cuán remota o vieja amiga

mi voz aún te parezca. Si digo esto
usa mis pechos bifocales, mis ardorosas

lágrimas, mi sombra engarzadora
de nadie y tierra y humo y divorciado

polvo. Si triste lazarillo no rescribas
los raudos torbellinos de Noruega.

No voy a arrebatarte el miligramo
de la espalda, ahora que has andado

por muros y cristales bocabajo, ahora
que has pulido la oscura transparencia.

Si digo esto no quiero, aunque pudiera,
complacerte en aquello que exigía

tu aliento, musa fosca, el herrumbroso
engranaje del amor. Nunca la sangre.



Words will come to interfere
Michael Palmer

If I say this don’t think of that,
no matter how remote or like an old friend

my voice still seems to you. If I say this
use my bifocal breasts, my ardent

tears, my hook-and-lure no-man’s
shadow and earth and smoke and divorced

dust. If sad lazarillo you don’t rewrite
the tempestuous whirlwinds of Norway.

I’m not going to snatch that milligram
from your back, now that you’ve gone

along walls and windows face down, now
that you’ve polished the dark transparency.

If I say this I don’t, though I might, want
to please you precisely as was demanded

by your breath, surly muse, the rusty
mechanisms of love. Never blood.

In the process of corresponding about the translation, I commented: “I have to confess that even after reading this poem intimately enough to translate it, I still don’t understand the title. Mightn’t you be willing to talk with me a bit about it?”

Román responded:

Frankly, I don’t know how I landed on that title. I might say it appeared to me in my dreams, or in the midst of some bilingual delirium.

I was translating Palmer—I think it was the poem “I Do Not”—and as I am so very fond of that poem, I told myself  “voy tras del poema, voy tras de él, tras de Palmer, tras de su poesía, pero como no la entiendo, en realidad voy detrás, voy dras te él, voy drastel”.

In other (less sonically apt) words: “I’m following along behind the poem, I’m following him, following Palmer, following his poetry, but since I don’t understand it, I’m actually following behind, followind him, I’m followim.” So, perhaps, if I were to venture a transposed title for Román’s book (rather than simply using the term drâstel), I might use “Followim,” to combine “following” and “him,” or “Followind,” to combine “following” and “behind,” though it would be easy to critique both of those terms as too soft-sounding in comparison to drâstel, not drastic enough.

I keep wanting to be able to make of the term drâstel something like César Vallejo’s trilce—triste (sad) and dulce (sweet) inseparably combined, and yet at the same time a singular, unique term, meaning nothing other than itself (both vast and specific). Being a pronoun—él, him—or being a direct object—el, the—is perhaps a drastic state. Translation, particularly in the case of Spanish and English, is also a trans     positioning of language gendered in a particular way toward language gendered in a very different way, though gendered nonetheless. What might a genderqueer translation look like? I’ll leave that question in the air for now; like most worthwhile questions, it’s one whose responses, I suspect, will take a lifetime to percolate.

Román continued:

Later, in the poem “Traspié” (“Blunder”) I included these two lines:

detrás de ella de él dras tel me herí
detrás de mí de ti tras del mi hurí

There’s the key. I think.

I’m not ready to translate these lines quite yet—the title alone is daunting, as a traspié is a stumble, blunder, or slip-up (either physical or verbal), yet also contains a bit of the idea of being “behind” someone or something (tras) as well as the idea of following in someone’s footsteps (pie is foot)—but regardless they provide a sense of Román’s extension of the multi-directional following at the heart of relating (as translation is also—inextricably—a form of relating) and the repositioning of pronouns and bodies.

trans     positions.

More and more, as he lives and works in the spaces between Spanish and English, in the different refractions of being Mexicano and being Latino and being Spanish-speaking in an English-speaking world increasingly Spanish-inflected, Román’s writing embodies a bilingual consciousness. Spanish and English are not separate worlds for him; rather, they cohabitate in the space of the poem in much the same way that they cohabitate in many places outside the poem: sometimes segregated, but more often overlapping in cacophonous jostling, ever ready to renegotiate what the act of listening—or speaking—might entail.

Here's Román, speaking a poem I've translated below.


Hay alguien más. Sonríe. Hay otros tú sin ti. Uno que se escondió en las comisuras. Otro que está llorando tinta adentro. Uno más que te observa en microscopio. Pueden ser varios meses. Te busca en puerta ajena y sin modales. Disecciona retratos en la alfombra. Te escucha respirar. Ojo que te recorre. Corroído. Saliva de otra sed. Hace de cada esquina un andén doloroso. Ahora el pulgar derecho. Uno dos tres por mí. Nosotros te llamamos. Aparece en las costras de la pronunciación. Hay uno que deshebra. Mejora tus versiones. Lame tus garabatos por corregirte el pulso. Documentos. Compagina los rasgos en tus fotos. Las fechas en tus labios. Desentierra lunares que olvidaste. Parecidos. Tu nombre en rojo oscuro. Convierte los secretos en ascuas de papel. Sonríe. Tus llagas no concuerdan. Espera a que aclaremos esa mancha en tu voz. Dos palabras. Guijarros. Pueden ser varios meses. Pasa a la fila cero. Sé la mano que imita y no repite. Ahora el pulgar izquierdo. Descubre sin mentir las siete diferencias. Pueden ser varios meses. Uno dos tres por mí y por todos mis abrojos. Hay uno que celebra tus deslices. Escancia tu basura. Otro que te respira bajo el agua del sueño. Pasa sobre estas líneas con devoción de oráculo. Sonríe. La firma en rojo oscuro. Dos palabras que riman. Se agusanan. Detrás de la caricia por favor. Una aureola de larvas sobre una fecha antigua. Capaz de duplicarte. De esperar a que llegues. No habrá paso que des sin encontrarlo. Nosotros te llamamos. No sabrás si eres tú.



There’s someone else. Smile. There are others of you without you. One who hid in the junctures. Another who’s crying inside ink. Yet another who’s observing you under a microscope. It could be quite a few months. Looks for you in at another’s door and with no manners. Dissects portraits in the carpet. Listens to you breathe. Eye scanning you. Corroded. Saliva from another thirst. Makes each corner into a painful platform. Now your right thumb. One two three for me. We’ll call you. Emerges through the scabs of pronunciation. There’s one that shreds. Improves your versions. Licks your doodles to correct your pulse. Documents. Collates the features in your photos. The dates on your lips. Unearths moles you’d forgotten. Similar. Your name in dark red. Turns secrets into paper embers. Smile. Your sores don’t match. Wait while we clarify that stain on your voice. Two words. Pebbles. It could be quite a few months. Move to line zero. Be the hand that imitates without repeating. Now the left thumb. Find the seven differences without lying. It could be quite a few months. One two three for me and for all my burrs. There’s someone who celebrates your slip-ups. Scrutinizes your trash. Another who breathes you beneath the water of dream. Go over these lines with an oracle’s devotion. Smile. Signature in dark red. Two words that rhyme. Teeming with worms. Behind the caress, please. A halo of larvae over an ancient date. Able to duplicate you. To wait for you to arrive. You won’t take a single step without finding someone. We’ll call you. You won’t know if you’re you.

In the process and space of translation—and, I’d venture, in the process and space of all forms of trans-being or being-between-and-among (and here I could write an entire essay describing what I think I mean by these terms)—we don’t know if we’re us, and at the same time we are made acutely (and hopefully astutely) aware of precisely what it entails to be us at this moment in this place, in this body. It is possible to be one thing and another at the same time; I’m not sure it’s possible, in fact, not to do that.

The poem “Procrastination/Procrastinación” begins:

No sé cómo se dice pero suena. Esa palabra es llama. Rada también.
I don’t know how to say it but it sounds. That word is flare. Blaze and boil too.

I asked Román which meaning of the word “llama” (flame, to call or name, and the animal) he might want me to privilege, since there is no word in English that encompasses those three very distinct meaning-fields, and I also asked him to explain what he meant by the word “rada” in this context. He wrote:

I think it’s going to be impossible to reference the word “llamarada” (llama/rada)—a sudden blaze or flare-up. “Llama,” as you rightly note, has all those connotations (fire, to call or name, the animal), but the one that most interests me here is “flame.” As for “rada,” I was thinking of “bay” or “inlet” or “cove,” that is, a maritime space, to create an allegorical duality/relationship between fire and water. Or something like that.

When I sent him the next version of his poem, I wrote:

Let’s see... I opted (for the moment) to use “flare” because it has more meanings than “flame”—though we lose a lot, regardless. The only way I could get to a relationship between fire and water is “boil”—but I also wanted to add “blaze” for its alliteration. I don’t know why, precisely—it just sounds right to me (“I don’t know how to say it but it sounds”) and to establish a link with the flare.

trans     positions. A different language: a different position, positing something different. "There’s no way to say it without moving our here."

The word “procrastination” doesn’t exist in Spanish (though I’m quite sure the concept does!!). We tried every alternative we could think of, none of which worked, and finally ended up with what we call a “traducción bastarda” from English into non-existent Spanish to signal Román’s English-language title: "Procrastinación," which is only legible to someone who knows something of English, as is the case with the title of the poem in Spanish (“Procrastination”)—a serendipitous congruence. False cognates (“embarrassed/embarazada,” to mention a famous and particularly embarrassing one) are colloquially known as “false friends.” Does that mean that a false word—a neologistic translation—is a true friend?


No sé cómo se dice pero suena. Esa palabra es llama. Rada también. Es rueda sin el tren. Si vuelvo se disuelve. Disoluta. La oreja se impacienta. Somete quien la dice. Ríspida en el crujir sus años muertos. Sus caricias. Como decir sedicia o ser deicida. Quise decir desidia. Decídase de sí. Deshágase. Como decir. Oreja la palabra. Boca el verso. Ojo tal vez la estrofa. Nariz de mis naufragios. La palabra que duele traducir. Reaparece en la punta. Flor dentada. Pendular. Sedienta de mi sien pero no cae. Al menos eso dice. Resuena como tren defenestrado. Arrójala al desierto. No es celoso. Sélo de maldecir cuando te ignores. Sed la palabra oreja, su impaciencia. Díselo si lo sabes. Y a todo esto cómo se dice no. Te digo que es aquello. Olvídalo. No hay forma de decirlo sin mover el aquí. No quiero que regrese.



I don’t know how to say it but it sounds. That word is flare. Blaze and boil too. It’s a wheel with no train. If I come back it dissolves to black. Dissolute. The ear grows impatient. Whoever says it submits. Prickly in grinding its dead years. Its caresses. Like saying seditiousness or deciding deicide. I intended to say desultory. Decide for yourself, yourself. Undo yourself. So to speak. The word is ear. The line mouth. Eye, perhaps, the stanza. Nose of my nosedives. The word that hurts to translate. Reappears on the point. Serrated flower. Pendular. Hungry for my head but doesn’t fall. Or declares that, at least. Resounds like a defenestrated train. Fling it into the desert. It’s not jealous. Be that, swearing when you refuse to recognize yourself. Hunger the word ear, its impatience. Say it to it if you know it. And to all this how to say no. I tell you it’s that one. Forget it. There’s no way to say it without moving our here. I don’t want it to come back.