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The New Normal: On Cuba and the Power of Translation

By Esther Allen

During the historic speech on December 17, 2014, when he announced the normalization of relations with Cuba, Barack Obama turned to address the Cuban people directly. He began with a citation from José Martí: "Liberty is the right of every man to be honest." Cultural anthropologist Ruth Behar, a daughter of Cuban exiles whose work focuses on Cuba, hailed this as one of the most significant features of the speech for all Cubans, on or off the island. As a translator of Martí, I have to agree. Raul Castro would appear to agree as well, judging by the fact that a giant portrait of José Martí was hanging on the wall directly behind him throughout the speech he made at the same time to announce the prisoner exchange and the new understanding between Cuba and the U.S.

Martí's life spanned the second half of the nineteenth century. He spent most of his adulthood in New York City, where he wrote voluminously about the United States in dispatches that were published across Latin America. Cuba was still a colony of Spain at the time and Martí was the primary architect of Cuban independence. But Cuba's  founding father was killed in 1895, in a skirmish with Spanish forces in the early weeks of the insurgency he started. Instead of Cuba's revolution of independence, Martí's struggle became the Spanish-American War, a battle between two empires. The United States occupied Cuba for most of the ensuing decade, and established a naval station on Guantánamo that, as we all know, is still there.

Martí's complete works add up to twenty-four volumes in the most recent critical edition prepared by the Institute of José Martí Studies in Havana. It is, by my count, at least the twelfth edition of the complete works to have been compiled; the first was published in Washington D.C., Havana, Rome, and Berlin between 1900 and 1933. Other Obras completas have been published in Madrid, Caracas, Paris and, of course, Havana. This editorial proliferation is only a small measure of Martí's importance to Cubans and others across the globe.

As soon as Obama cited it, I started trying to dig up the source of the line. Martí's work is so vast, so replete with complex juxtapositions and perspectives, that people have tended to break it down into decontextualized aphorisms like this one. Quite a few of these turn out not to have been said by Martí at all, but I figured Obama was way too smart for that, and I was right.

Obama and his speechwriters chose the line, and the translation that they used, very astutely. The first place I located it was a volume titled Thoughts, edited by Carlos Ripoll, a Martí expert of beloved memory who received me warmly at his home in Miami one wonderful afternoon in 2002. Ripoll, who taught at City University of New York and devoted his whole scholarly life to Martí, is a revered figure within the Cuban exile community. He published Thoughts in 1994, in an attempt to make Martí better known to U.S. readers, but he first used the line Obama cited in a famous 1988 letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books in which he deplored the Castro regime's "Marxification of Martí."

My search then led me to a pedagogical article published in Cuba a few years ago by a group of Cuban teachers to describe a new approach to elementary second language acquisition wherein students learn English by translating the work of José Martí into English. The line comes up there—in the more complete form Ripoll used: "Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy"—as an example of  a translation produced by students during the course. In the Cuban teachers' article, the sentence is part of a dense paragraph of writings by Marti about liberty. The sources are unmentioned and hard to determine because the paragraph is cobbled together out of many different passages. The bulk of it—though not the phrase Obama cited—is taken from Martí's impassioned and ecstatic crónica about the celebration of the Statue of Liberty's unveiling in New York City in October 1886. Martí was there.

Translation, especially the translation of the words of your nation's own founding father, can be a safe way of expressing ideas that might otherwise be deemed controversial. The version of the line done by beginning English students in Havana in 2003 is word-for-word identical to the line cited by Ripoll in 1988 and 1994, and by Obama in 2014.

I was even more awestruck by Obama's choice when I found the original Spanish and realized what context it first appears in. "Libertad es el derecho que todo hombre tiene a ser honrado y a pensar y hablar sin hipocresia" is the opening line of the second paragraph of "Tres Heroes," a story by Martí about the three founding heroes of Latin American independence (Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, and Miguel Hidalgo), published in La Edad de Oro, a monthly children's magazine Martí founded, edited, and wrote in 1889. The four issues of La Edad de Oro reprinted together as a book are a classic work of children's literature that has its place in Cuban homes across the globe. In simple, direct language,  Martí not only praises the heroes, but acknowledges that their work remains unfinished and urges all the children of América to follow their example: "These are the heroes: those who fight to free their peoples and those who suffer poverty and adversity in defense of a great truth."

Obama's speech urged us to look forward. By citing Martí, he acknowledged that looking forward also means looking back—way back. Some commentators (Nicholas Kristof, I'm looking at you) have written about Cuba as if the embargo had made the island some sort of North Korea, entirely cut off from the world, as if what Cuba needs now is exposure to (in Kristof's actual words) "invasions of tourists, traders and investors" so that it can learn more about what the U.S. is like.  That's absurd: Cuba is and has long been flooded with tourists from Canada, the U.K., Italy, Spain and every other country in the world; only the U.S. has maintained an embargo. And despite the embargo, Cubans on the island weren't living in isolation from the United States.  Most Cuban families have relatives here who send both remittances  and stories of what life is like here; Cubans follow U.S. baseball avidly, and every Cuban schoolchild studies the work of José Martí and his intricate portrayal of the United States.

Obama called for a new way of thinking, and that's something that needs to begin in the United States, too.  It will happen when we start looking at Cuba and other states in Latin America and across the world as valid fellow nations that do not exist in order to be improved by U.S. political, cultural, or economic invasion.  Instead of thinking about all we can teach the Cubans, we might ask what we have to learn from them. Reading José Martí, or Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, whose work is translated into English and many other languages by an extraordinary international team of volunteers, or WWB's great Close But No Cigar issue, or my colleague Ted Henken's recently co-edited anthology of writing by Cuban social scientists,  is a good place to begin. In the process, we might learn something about ourselves.

Published Dec 19, 2014   Copyright 2014 Esther Allen

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