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On Translating Yolanda Reyes’s “Bobotá”

by Susannah Greenblatt

Image of On Translating Yolanda Reyes’s “Bobotá”


Susannah Greenblatt’s translation of “Bobotá,” an excerpt from Yolanda Reyes’s novel Qué raro que me llame Federicoappears in the September 2017 issue: A Different Solitude: New Writing from Colombia.

There is no dearth of metaphors that translators use to describe their work—translation is horticulture, it is mapmaking, it is, quite distastefully, likened to an unfaithful woman. (That one warrants some serious side-eye, but I digress.) After translating “Bobotá,” an excerpt from Yolanda Reyes’s novel Qué raro que me llame Federico, I have come to a realization: to me, translation is sitting in a cardboard box in my kitchen and refusing to come out.

The lifeblood of Reyes’s story springs forth from miscommunication—the unsaid, the unheard, the overheard, the hollered out. As with many mother-son pairs, the miscommunication between Federico and Belén—a young boy and the Spanish woman who’s adopted him from Colombia—is a seemingly endless font. So there arises a conundrum: how to translate a story where even characters who speak the same language cannot for the life of them communicate? (A fool’s errand, perhaps, but I’ll clarify that this is not what drove me to sit in the proverbial cardboard box.)

When Federico finds an empty washing-machine box on the side of the road, he sees something that his mother does not: a place for himself. So, naturally, he climbs inside. He names the box Bobotá, a bungled tribute to the birthplace he never knew, and refuses to leave. Belén tries everything to coax him out so they can go home and leave the old box behind, but Federico throws a furious tantrum. He kicks and thrashes with all his little body’s might, screaming “you aren’t my mommy, you aren’t!”

Belén is deeply wounded. Federico’s outburst has hit “the center of her pain” as a mother, as an adoptive family. Belén has made great efforts to integrate Federico into her home as seamlessly as possible. Where there are gaping unknowns in Federico’s past, Belén has provided flowery stories of their shared beginning as a new family. She fashions a kind of oral tradition around Federico’s adoption—the day she picks up Federico from the social worker becomes “The Day of the First Embrace”; their ritual of flipping through old photo albums becomes “mowephotos.” But when Federico is inside this box, Belén finds that her words “couldn’t penetrate the cardboard walls.” All she’s created to fill the voids and cement her family proves futile before the box. At a loss, she gives up, and agrees to lug the box home. So, Bobotá becomes a fixture of their household, the big cardboard box in the middle of their kitchen where her son sits and nibbles crackers.

So what sort of place does Federico see for himself in Bobotá? Why throw such a tantrum for someone else’s recycling? The beauty of Bobotá, as with most invented places, is that it’s no one thing. In many ways, this empty box is a place to hold all the gaps—gaps in Federico’s history, his understanding, his communication with Belén, and his sense of self. It is a fortified place, impervious to Belén’s well-meaning attempts to spackle over these holes. Bobotá carves out a place for Federico’s feelings of foreignness within his own home. It insists that Belén cannot speak to Federico’s whole experience—that the language they share is not Federico’s first language, nor his only language. Bobotá is a foreign outpost of a Colombia that he cannot remember, but must not forget. It is a monument to miscommunication—information lost, questions unanswered—erected in protest of talking past and over them. Bobotá is a home Federico has built for himself on the mythical border between Colombia and Spain.

Bobotá is thus an ideal office space for a translator. It is a place from which to rove the borderland of two faraway places, to explore the frontier between two languages, how they negotiate and permeate and seal off. Many great translators and thinkers have worked from inside a cardboard box, although they may not admit it openly. Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, proposed that a translator should not seek to domesticate a foreign language, but to “foreignize” her own. Rather than bring the reader a text that feels as if it were written in English (or whatever “target language”), the translator should prompt readers to venture out from familiar terrain, to approach this mythical border, wander its lengths, look across it to the other side, and seek contact with it. In practice, there are myriad ways to foreignize one’s own language—to choose an unusual word that may share etymological roots with the original, to use less common syntax that mirrors the original, or to do nothing, to leave a word untranslated or unitalicized. It involves the same sort of makeshift creativity as founding a foreign country with a bungled name in your kitchen (the very heart of domesticity, no less.)

Federico recognizes in this makeshift creativity a wondrous potential for expression and understanding. In this word “Bobotá,” Federico has managed to express his peculiar relationship to this place—that it is at once his true home and an unfamiliar land. He’s a young man by the time he finally makes it to Bogotá, and even though he’s long outgrown his baby talk, he declares proudly, “Yes: I had arrived in Bobotá.” By refusing to assimilate his language, or to leave his box, as it were, Federico maintains that he is uniquely qualified to communicate his situation. Even his physical construction of the Bobotá (the washing-machine box) communicates some uncanny understanding of his roots: later in the novel we discover that he’s likely born from a family of cartoneros—that is, they made their living collecting refuse cardboard.

So, I’ve taken a page from Federico’s book to approach translation in a way that makes space to explore foreignness, the miscommunicated, the uncommunicable even within the familiar. It seeks to translate difference qua difference rather than eliminate it. I’ve tried in my translation, as Schleiermacher instructed, to channel the wonderful strangeness I found in Yolanda Reyes’s writing the very first time I read it. And I hope that readers will take all this as a standing invitation to try their hand at the art of taking some crackers into a cardboard box and refusing to come out.


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