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The Translator Relay: Kristin Dykstra

By Words Without Borders


WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every few months. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For June's installment, Urayoán Noel passed the baton to Kristin Dykstra, who translates from Spanish to English.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

My first exposure to Spanish came through our public schools in Wayne County, Ohio, where one of my influential teachers was the late Nydia Roque (born in Cárdenas, Cuba, in 1931). It’s probably not coincidental that most of the books I’ve now translated are Cuban. Beyond school, many people in Latin America—especially numerous writers—have been generous with their time and conversation over the years. I can’t summarize that dispersed process adequately. It’s ongoing.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

Given the events playing out in May and June of 2020 following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and others, I’d like to tie this question to a book chapter I wrote about a poem by Soleida Ríos (Cuba, born 1950).

Years ago, another translator forwarded the poem to me and asked if I would translate it. She explained that other translators had already turned it down, and she added that one proclaimed it to be utterly “untranslatable.”

The poem is an elegy for the late Ángel Escobar. Is it “untranslatable”? Well, it does have a lot of complex layers, so translation requires research time. As it happened, I had just translated one of Escobar’s major books, Abuso de confianza (Breach of Trust), so I was intrigued to see how Ríos was referencing his poems within her own. Ríos also reads widely and is experimental in her aesthetic leanings. I was lucky to be able to speak with her about how she drew on her friendship with Escobar to write the elegy, as well as how both Cuban national culture and African diasporic cultures of the Caribbean factor into the poem’s critique of race and language.

There are many interesting questions about translatability that arise around this poem. For example, as an ethical position, one could say that the elegy should be translated by someone with kinds of cultural literacy that are not my own. Someone working within specific African diasporic traditions, for example, might handle certain sections differently. I think this possibility echoes with fascinating questions about decolonization—such as how a decolonizing process could relate to translation (including through strategic refusals to translate), as well as what role research across cultures might play in literary translation. Perhaps that which remains “untranslatable,” or is translated using subversive strategies like Indira Kamancheti's deliberately "insufficient" translation, is necessary.

At the same time, we know that literature by women and by people of African diasporic descent has been consistently underrepresented in translation. Seen through this prism, backing away into a rhetoric of “untranslatability” produces the problematic result of global business as usual. Do we want to continue the usual marginalization of specific peoples, ignoring their knowledge of human life? Does this thing called “untranslatability” not morph into an excuse for inaction?

So, it took me a whole book chapter to write through these questions, among others, and I didn’t exhaust them. Instead, this chapter serves as one more reminder of why John Keene’s 2016 essay, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” is an immensely important and generative read. I have admired his piece for years and think that anyone involved in discussing “untranslatability” should spend some time with it.

My chapter about this poem by Soleida Ríos, whom I would like to recommend in her own right, appears (in English) in a book focused on Cuban poetry: La futuridad del naufragio: Orígenes, estelas y derivas, edited by Juan Pablo Lupi and César Salgado. In 2018, the Chicago press Kenning Editions brought out Ríos’s first full book in English translation, The Dirty Text, translated by Barbara Jamison and Olivia Lott. Ríos is still living and writing in Havana.


Do you have any translating rituals? 

I frequently retype the original work on my own computer before translating it. Typing the original started as a necessity. For some translators, sourcing the original text simply isn’t an issue in the twenty-first century, but I’ve worked with writers who have erratic access to technology. Also, most works are projects that I choose and propose to publishers, rather than arriving at them by way of commission, so no one else is going to set up the Spanish.

Typing out the original work becomes a commitment of time and body. It’s emphatically mechanical. It’s also a slow, physical method of reading the original. I think a bit while I type, but then I try not to think too much. Letting the body run on semi-autopilot is another way to follow the rhythms and trajectory of a text.

I like that typing up an original resists rapid production modes. Typing is not the latest technological convenience these days—it’s an inconvenient method of advance. This is good. Resistance to thoughtless forms of efficiency and convenience is one of poetry’s superpowers. It’s good to process how the rhythms of someone else’s poetic resistance advance.


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

My first reaction is to let earlier metaphors for translation drop away, because I’m considering this response in June 2020, as the pandemic is settling into our region. We must assume that many supports and structures for literary translation across the US are in jeopardy, but predictions are cloudy at this stage. I only know that my translation world—with its processes and roles—must be changing as I type.

For contemporary poetry, and translated poetry all the more, our little magazines and independent presses are crucial. It seems likely that some of these enterprises, so precarious in labor and finance, will disappear within the year. Which ones?

Here’s a metaphor arising from translation’s current publishing context: translation as precario, borrowing Juliet Lynd’s description of works by Cecilia Vicuña (Cecilia herself being a sort of translator in my eyes). Precarios are “sculptures, poems, and performances whose transitory nature is designed to reflect the fragility of life and its historical circumstances.”

It’s too early to leap ahead with hopeful statements about how publishing will rise anew. Instead, meditating on a precario, as on literary translation, can be a different sort of utopian act—even when we have no choice but to foreground the fragility of the object and its historical circumstances.


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

I’m talking with Reina María Rodríguez, whose book The Winter Garden Photograph came out with Ugly Duckling Presse in 2019. For years now I’ve been drafting other, uncollected translations, some for magazines and others to allow Reina to read her newest poems at bilingual events. She first became famous for her publications from the 1990s, but she has kept on writing strong collections ever since, so there’s a lot more to see. This spring we began to talk systematically about pulling my newer translations into a book and mapping out pieces that should surround them. Reina María Rodríguez is a writer who has already achieved a global reputation in Spanish—she shouldn’t fade from our English-language radar even amid the mass confusion of COVID-19.

When possible, I like to contrast different translations in progress, as a way to illuminate the contours of each one. I hope to translate the essays of Raúl Zurita concurrently with Rodríguez’s poetry. I was asked to translate a preliminary set of Raúl’s essays for a feature in Lana Turner 10, and it was a powerful, rewarding experience. The essays come beautifully into alignment with other materials already accessible in English, like Raúl’s poetry, his visual art, and his appearance in the film The Pearl Button.


And Urayoán’s question for you: How has your work as a translator of Latin American (and especially Cuban) poetry changed over the years? I'm thinking of the shifting geopolitical valences of Cuban and Latin American literature but also of the evolving theoretical and institutional terms of the field of literary translation in and beyond the US and of your own journey within and beyond those institutions. I'm wondering about the added challenge that the kinds of texts you translate (e.g. formally innovative, feminist, diasporic, vernacular) often seem to have complicated relationships to existing national or hemispheric paradigms.

I’ll get there, but by way of a reversal: this spring I’ve been thinking about persistence, in counterpoint to what feels like a perpetual background murmur about change. Sticking with an author for more than two decades, placing her work in one venue after another, that’s how I’ve worked with Reina. Then following out other lines of that process, working with other contemporary Cuban poets—that also required persistence. It would have been easier in numerous practical ways to change over to a non-embargoed country long ago.

This word “change”—it’s loaded. Change is a key term in my introduction to The World as Presence / El mundo como ser, by Marcelo Morales, and it has reappeared in a whole new way in the manuscript that Marcelo and I are completing now. That’s a bilingual edition of his newest work, “The Star-Spangled Brand,” written from 2015 to 2019.

It’s hard not to riff about change as a word perpetually looming over the horizon of US-Cuban relations. Meanwhile, the ongoing economic embargo is a symbol of all that has not actually changed, not for all that noise, not during my entire lifetime. So again, though changes have occurred and I disagree with the simplistic, convenient media image of the island as an unchanging site frozen in time, I can’t disregard the persistent grip of histories, their legacies. Or the way shards of their constructs are still lying around the hemisphere.

Responding to another register of your question, that backdrop makes it all the more energizing to hear from other contemporary translators. The rise in attention to translation and translation theory encourages all manner of questions, and the expansive range of approaches is motivational. As one example, I’ve enjoyed hearing Mónica de la Torre read several times in the past year, including in a digital reading on Zoom this month. Each event synthesized another way in which she has played with translation as constraint, as subject matter, as lived experience. I started to name more translators here, but the list rapidly became too long. I appreciate the contrasts that leap into view through the community of writer/translators out there.

Lastly, since you highlighted national and hemispheric paradigms in the question, I’ll come around to a hemispheric sort of untranslatability. It manifests when words/phrases may be correct but don’t align with the narratives upon which readers rely for comprehending the world. That is, the work does not conform to expectations for writing from a particular place.

As narrative theorists have suggested, a work that does not conform to expectations may not immediately seem “relevant” within the reader’s worldview. Yet theorists have also observed that the refusal of expectations can sometimes have a positive effect, thanks to the delight we take in surprise. We need it; tired recipes bore us. There’s the word again: change.

So in my optimistic moments, I’d like to think that geopolitical valences can tie into this need we have, as humans, to be surprised, challenged, and changed. If so, maybe a short direct address from the translator regarding expectations/rhetoric will occasionally help in moving from one reaction (blindness, disconnection, default presumption of irrelevance) into the next (surprise, pleasure, a new kind of recognition). Can translators prompt readers to perceive their own geopolitical expectations? Can audiences realize how it’s relevant for a writer to work, at least in part, against geopolitical expectations instead of conforming to them?

Kristin Dykstra is principal translator of Reina María Rodríguez's The Winter Garden Photograph, winner of the 2020 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation and longlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards. The book was published by Ugly Duckling Presse, which also brought out the anthology Materia Prima, a 2020 Best Translated Book Award Finalist, introducing Amanda Berenguer of Uruguay (co-edited by Dykstra with Kent Johnson, and featuring a team of co-translators). Dykstra has translated numerous other editions of Latin American literature. Her A-to-Z translation commentary series, Intermedium, appears at Jacket2 magazine. Excerpts from her new poetry manuscript are forthcoming in Lana Turner.

Related Reading:

The Translator Relay: Urayoán Noel

The Translator Relay: Regina Galasso

The New Normal: On Cuba and the Power of Translation by Esther Allen

Published Jun 17, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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