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The PEN World Voices Festival as it Happened: “Translation and the Power(s) of Language”

By Núria Codina

The “Translation and the Power(s) of Language” panel at the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival occurred on April 21 at Dixon Place in New York City and featured Alicia Kopf, Judith Santopietro, Trifonia Melibea Obono, and Rubén Ríos-Avila in conversation with Mary Ann Newman.


“I have but one language—yet that language is not mine.”
—Jacques Derrida,
Monolingualism of the Other


At the “Translation and the Power(s) of Language” panel at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, translator Mary Ann Newman discussed the invisible hierarchies between languages with four writers from different Spanish-speaking countries who speak the same language but who do not necessarily share the same mother tongue: Catalan artist Alicia Kopf, Equatoguinean activist Trifonia Melibea Obono, Puerto Rican professor Rubén Ríos-Ávila, and Mexican poet Judith Santopietro.

All of the writers come from multilingual contexts in which Spanish coexists with one or more languages. In Catalonia, Equatorial Guinea, and Mexico, it occupies a privileged position; in Puerto Rico and North America, the relationship is more complicated. In Catalonia, where Alicia Kopf comes from, Catalan and Spanish are co-official languages, along with Aranese, a variety of Occitan spoken in the northwestern region of Val d’Aran. Kopf, who wrote her book Germà de gel (2016) in Catalan and self-translated it into Spanish, defines her relationship with both languages as natural. They complement each other, like Kopf’s pen name and her given name (Imma Ávalos), like her narrative voice and personal experience, and like the two hats she wears as a writer and a visual artist. Listening to her ponder the different rhythms and nuances of Catalan and Spanish gave the impression that both languages coexist in her life as harmoniously as images and words do in her work. Catalan is, strictly speaking, her mother tongue. It is her mother’s first language but not her father’s, whose family migrated from southern Spain to Catalonia—a linguistic constellation that is widely representative of Catalonia’s complex social and linguistic landscape. Spanish was present in Kopf’s life from early on, not only within her family but also in the media and in literature, where it plays a dominant role. Although it is generally more difficult for Catalan writers to access the Spanish market and gain international recognition, the relationship between the languages is more balanced than it was even a few decades ago when, under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Catalan was banned at schools and in public life. It was only in the 1980s that Catalan became instituted as an official language and the education system ensured what Kopf embodies so well: the mastery of multiple languages.

Franco’s dictatorship left not only a deep mark on Catalonia but also on Obono’s native Equatorial Guinea, which was a Spanish colony until 1968. This explains why Spanish is still the main language used in the government, the education system, and for communication between Equatorial Guinea’s different linguistic groups. As when it was a colony, Equatorial Guinea is a multilingual country with several regional languages, Fang the most spoken one. But unlike in contemporary Spain, the Guinean state failed to teach regional languages in schools, which makes Obono’s work with women and members of the LGBT community particularly difficult: socially excluded and often undereducated, they rarely have access to her book, La bastarda (2016), written in Spanish, and they lack a common language for a cross-cultural dialogue. But Spain’s colonial legacy is not only visible in linguistic terms. It has also reinforced negative attitudes toward homosexuality that were already part of the cultures native to Equatorial Guinea: homosexuality is regarded (and rejected) as a colonial import, as a white man’s problem, as something that never belonged to Guinean people (and especially not to Guinean women).

Image: Rubén Ríos-Avila, Alicia Kopf, Mary Ann Newman, Judith Santopietro, and Trifonia Melibea Obono. Photo by Núria Codina

Rubén Ríos-Ávila also explores linguistic, national, and sexual identity in his work. His collection of essays La raza cómica del sujeto en Puerto Rico (2002) was written in Spanish but includes a final text in English in which he comes out as a gay man. In doing so, Ríos-Ávila shows that both Puerto Rico’s linguistic and cultural landscape as well as his own identity are too complex to be reduced to one single language or to be divided neatly into two opposing discourses. His relationship with his mother tongue and his home country is affected by Puerto Rico’s colonial history. On the one hand, English was the imposed language and the sole language spoken by the colonizers, while Spanish was the language used by the national intelligentsia to create a culture-state that would replace the lack of a nation-state. Ríos-Ávila challenges these dichotomies as someone who is both an insider and an outsider: as an islander who currently resides on the mainland (New York) and as a writer working in Spanish and English who defies both the notion of a mother tongue and the myth of perfect bilingualism. He insists, with the conviction of somebody who knows what he is talking about, that our limitations, dislocations, and contradictions stifle creativity.   

Like Ríos-Ávila, Judith Santopietro lives in the United States, a country where Spanish is a major yet secondary language—a situation that is the reverse of her native Mexico, where the country’s inherent linguistic diversity is vanishing as Spanish increasingly dominates. Santopietro is a champion of linguistic and social justice in theory and in practice. In an age when languages are often taught and studied in purely economic terms, she decided that it was not enough to be exposed to the rituals, gastronomy, and other cultural aspects of Mexico’s indigenous languages and so committed herself to learning Nahuatl. However, the reasons behind her commitment are more altruistic than personal, more collective than private. It is not only her own migration experience that inspired her desire to write but also the silenced stories of crossings, violence, and integration for indigenous and immigrant women in the United States. Santopietro borrows their language and gives them a voice in the hope that one day they will be able to speak for themselves.

Translation plays a key role in the various dichotomies and paradoxes that are a part of the experience of bilingual writers. It reveals the similarities in their differences and shows points of connection between the authors’ stories, biographies, and creative work. Indeed, Kopf, Obono, Ríos-Ávila, and Santopietro share more than a common language. They also share the ability to overcome dichotomies between languages, between literature and art, between sex and gender, between the colonial and the postcolonial, between home and abroad, between theory and activism, between life and fiction, and between domination and subjugation.

Translation makes the foreign familiar without erasing its differences. It is an art that award-winning translator Mary Ann Newman has mastered, as was clear in her unconscious movements into Spanish or Catalan and, above all, in her ability to empathize with the writers’ feelings and to draw connections between their experiences and the immediate context in which the conversation was occurring: the multilingual and multiethnic city of New York. Growing up in the city, Newman became multilingual too—not naturally, but by indirect contact, and then, like Santopietro, she made the conscious effort to learn other languages. Like Kopf, she now speaks both Catalan and Spanish, and like Ríos-Ávila, she has established ties with languages and places beyond her mother tongue. She embodies a freedom that unites writers and translators and all multilingual speakers of the world: the freedom of choice.


Read more dispatches from the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival

Published May 2, 2018   Copyright 2018 Núria Codina

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