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From the Translator: On Translating Yoss and Anabel Enríquez Piñeiro


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Hillary Gulley’s translation of Yoss’s “Interstellar Biochocolate Mousse á la solitaire . . . For Two” and Anabel Enríquez Piñeiro’s “Nothing to Declare” appear in the May 2016 issue of Words without Borders“On Cuban Time: New Writing from the Island,” which she guest-edited with Esther Allen. Join WWB this Wednesday, March 25 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts for Back to the Future: Cuban Sci-fi Now, a celebration of the May issue featuring Hillary, Esther, issue contributors Erick J. Mota and Yoss, Deji Bryce Olukotun, and Yasmín S. Portales-Machado. 

New meaning comes down to new combinations of the familiar. Imagine a work of art made of pigeons, cameras, Cohibas. Water and sky.

The artist Duke Riley spent eight months training fifty messenger pigeons to fly across the Florida Strait. For the resulting performance piece, “Trading With the Enemy” (2013), Riley released twenty-three of the pigeons into the sky over Havana. Some wore cameras to record the event; the others, with Cohiba cigars harnessed to their bodies, were made into unwitting smugglers, evading the US government’s costly surveillance balloons as they soared over those waters made so impossible by man and nature, but mostly by man. All of the pigeons had been trained to return to their home in the Florida Keys. Only eleven made it back to their roosts.

The use of fresh actors against a familiar background in performance art is one way to reshape a seemingly immutable world. Ray Bradbury makes a similar, if inverted, observation about combinations of old and new in his 1953 article for The Nation, in which he defends his choice to write science fiction—“the fiction of ideas”—while at the same time lamenting the label. “Simply by showing your real characters living and dying against your fresh background,” he observes, “the reader can guess an entire and different world, can feel it come alive through an osmotic literary process which is often exceptionally subtle.”

Translation can and should be as subversive as performance art or science fiction. It is also a reshaping of reality, though its osmotic subtleties are linguistic, and the “entire and different world” of a translation’s linguistic reality is harder to guess. This might be because background in translation is also linguistic, and unlike performance art and science fiction, in which background is built into the work, translation as a genre attempts to stand apart from its background, with the naive wish to operate independently from it. But though not usually immediately present on the page, background in translation is always implied, and is twofold: first, there is the original text, which the translation, like a child to its parent, should both honor and flout; then there is the language shared by the new text, the conventions of which the translation should, at least in theory, aim to alter, or even obliterate (here, the much maligned term “target language” takes on a new meaning, with all the violence it implies). 

It is because translation is often presented in the absence of its backgrounds that the genre offers a wonderful space for the linguistic imagination to fill. Reading a translation—and I’m talking about reading translation, and not the story it tells—is a separate skill set, wherein the reader questions not only the meaning on the page, but the linguistic realities from which meaning was and will continue to be propelled.

Sometimes I feel as if my own observations about my choices as a translator will serve the translations as much as a list of plot points might illuminate the stories themselves, or as much as a guide to aviculture might say about pigeons smuggling cigars over the Florida Strait. Some things have to be experienced through guesswork to be of use: most readers will understand more by comparing the originals and translations side by side, or by translating the stories themselves. Still, I promised notes on translating Yoss and Anabel Enríquez Piñeiro.

First there’s the title of Yoss’s piece: “Interstellar Biochocolate Mousse à la Solitaire . . . For Two.” Yoss’s title was “Mousse de Biochocolate Espacial a la Solitaria . . . Para Dos Comensales.” I toyed with a few options, none of which I liked, though the most adequate was probably “Interstellar Biochocolate Mousse for the Lone Traveler . . . for Two.” When Esther, the co-editor of this issue, suggested the elegant solution “à la Solitaire,” I initially rejected it. I couldn’t imagine a world of the future so infiltrated by French, considering the word “mousse” was already in the title. But the solution grew on me as the deadline for submission drew nearer. Besides, who’s to say what any language will look like 200+ years from now?

With Anabel Enríquez Piñeiro’s “Nothing to Declare,” what bothered me most was the first sentence—“Father traded his life savings for this hole in the waste-recycling compartment”—and specifically my use of the word “hole” (hueco). I still don’t like it. But some of the other options were too colorful, and I didn’t think it was a word the reader should get hung up on. Nor could I use a word that directly implied how small the space was, since the sentence that follows directly comments on the lack of space. I didn’t want to make Piñeiro sound as if she was repeating herself when that wasn’t the case at all.

The tone of the Yoss story is intellectual, removed, and funnier for it: to preserve this, the translation had to be idiomatic, and so the challenge was to support the prose as it strained against the original while ensuring that it didn’t stray too far. Piñeiro’s piece, on the other hand, is more emotionally emphatic. I wanted her sad lyricism to come through, and so translating her was less about departure and more a matter of following her rhythm and trying to preserve as much of her syntax as possible.

Because sci-fi can be weird to read, it’s easy to assume that translating it is equally so. But really it’s no different from translating anything else, in that the translator must become a beginner with each new project. And in the beginning, questions about how and why should not take the place of other questions that might allow the translator to actually understand something about translation; questions whose very power, much like the genres of sci-fi and translation, lies in their ability to propel one reality into yet another. Questions like Did the cigars taste of salty air once they got to the Florida Keys? and Whatever happened to the pigeons that never made it home after they flew off into the sky over Havana?