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The Translator Relay: Urayoán Noel

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 May's installment, Regina Galasso passed the baton to Urayoán Noel, who translates between Spanish and English.

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

I translate from and into Spanish, and it's hard to separate my translation work from my experience growing up bilingual in Puerto Rico. What I translate is another matter. I come to translation as a poet and scholar, so my choices about whom to translate are informed by this other work, and are often tied to my desire to work something out in my poetry or scholarship. For instance, I had been reading Pablo de Rokha's poetry since college and struggling with how to reconcile all I valued in the Latin American vanguard tradition he represents (e.g., its formal and political daring) with all that I found problematic (e.g., its masculinism). There was a very raw and informal quality to my early de Rokha translations, which was in some ways more about my own education and figuring out what to do and not do in my own poetry. I would even say, looking back, that there was an element of "hate-translating" involved (akin to the hate-watching of a particularly problematic TV series), which was as much about exorcising all the really messy parts of de Rokha and still holding on to what I valued in his work. During my PhD studies at NYU, I took a translation seminar with Kathleen Ross, where I worked on some early de Rokha drafts and started thinking of myself more seriously as a translator (by that point, I had published some poetry translations, but it mostly felt like a bunch of one-offs). Some years later, when I was teaching at SUNY Albany, I showed some de Rokha drafts to Pierre Joris, and he pushed me to do a de Rokha book. It took many years and detours to get there, but I'm thankful to Pierre for the encouragement.

I mention all this because I have no personal connection to Chile (de Rokha's homeland), and as a Puerto Rican poet, I certainly had no special insight. My urge to translate him was tied to my own journey as a poet and scholar—I hadn't even been to Chile until my de Rokha book was almost done, although I did have access to invaluable resources through José Miguel Curet, a wonderful friend and poet who is also an expert on de Rokha. Similarly, my translation of Guatemalan/Garifuna poet Wingston González's No Budu Please happened thanks to the great editor and translator JD Pluecker, who understood why Wingston's work was so important and thought that I would be a good person to translate his beautifully eccentric translingual poetry. (There was a personal connection, since both Wingston and I have had books published by the incredible folks at Catafixia Editorial in Guatemala, but I have yet to visit Guatemala. I was planning to go this summer for one of the festivals there, but then COVID-19 happened.)

Finally, I am now translating the wondrous Puerto Rican poet and book artist Nicole Cecilia Delgado. It is a joy translating a fellow Boricua, and someone whom I consider a friend and whose work models for me an approach to poetry as a decolonial and ecological life practice. Again, though, the scholar and poet in me is never far away: I published an essay on Nicole's work in the recent volume Geopoetics in Practice, and her artist books have inspired me to return to book art (and now, in the age of COVID, mail art). 


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

One I like that comes to mind is from Materia Prima, the volume of selected poetry by the late great Uruguayan poet Amanda Berenguer. Editors Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson tasked me with translating Berenguer's incredible concrete poems from the 1970s. She has this one poem that's in the form of a graph with an x- and y-axis. One word on the y-axis is "ENREDADERANTE," an adjectival neologism that plays with "enredado" (tangled) and "enredadera" (vine). The first letters of the words on the y-axis also spell out text, and in order to retain that text I needed a word that started with an s. It also needed to have nearly the same number of letters, so as not to ruin the visual effect. I came up with "SNAREIFYING," which I felt captured the neologistic bravado of Berenguer's original while fitting the numerous formal constraints. I also liked that it hinted at "ensnare," which conveys the sense of being entangled in the original, and that it rhymed with "terrifying," since one distinguishing aspect of Berenguer's concrete poetry is how its radical language play feeds off of and performs various kinds of terror (e.g., life under a dictatorship, gender violence).


Do you have any translating rituals? 

It depends, but I like to work quickly at first. I have a lot of self-doubt, and as a poet, I tend to fall in love with a word or phrase or sound and lose all focus, so it's important to me to get a draft down, even if it's terrible or I know some of the words are placeholders. Then I'll often read the whole thing and try to get a holistic sense of what's working and not working before diving into the work of editing, revising, finessing. I also read the translation aloud to get a sense of what sounds clunky or off. However, I have to be careful with this: I'm also a performance poet, and I can fall in love with the flow of a text so much that I miss something that's incorrect or unclear or maybe trying too hard to be cute. As I've grown as a translator and become more confident, I find that I read aloud a little less and try to hear the inner music a bit more. I also sometimes play instrumental music when I translate (some jazz or ambient or minimal electronic stuff). I know it can be distracting, but sometimes I need music for some texture and groove to keep me going.


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?

I'm not a huge fan of such metaphors, as they become dead metaphors pretty quickly. I do have a pun, however: the lit(t)oral. A lot of my own poetry is about the limits of the page and the oral/embodied, and this is something I explore in depth in my scholarship as well (I published a critical study about Nuyorican poetry in 2014, and the Nuyorican poetic tradition is central to my own poetry and performance). More generally, as a poet who identifies with Latin America via the Caribbean and its diasporas, I am especially interested in the tension between the vernacular and the baroque, and in the status of vernacular poetics after what the legendary Jean Franco calls “the decline and fall of the lettered city.” Both Wingston González and Nicole Cecilia Delgado interest me partly because they are poets (both Caribbean, though from very different vantage points) who help us rethink and complicate what a vernacular poetics can be. When they channel reggaetón music or Beat poetry, respectively, they do so lovingly but also ironically, in ways that reveal the pitfalls of a celebratory or naively democratic poetics of vernacular recovery. As colonized people, our vernaculars are functions of empire (Spanish in the Caribbean is what Glissant called a "vehicular" language) but also conditions of possibility for something else (Glissant's relation, etc.). I use the term "lit(t)oral" as a counter to literal translation and as a reminder to myself that some poetics must remain on the shore, connected yet irreducible to the landmass of the Americas, literary and oral, vernacular and baroque.

I flesh out my poetics of lit(t)oral translation in a poetic essay included in the recent volume Avenues of Translation: The City in Iberian and Latin American Writing, edited by Regina Galasso and Evelyn Scaramella. This poetic essay was improvised and recorded into my smartphone while walking along some New York City littorals, then uploaded to YouTube and finally transcribed. In both its compositional method and its content, this piece insists on a messy embodiment as central to translation and its politics, whereas so much of translation studies has seemed to me so eerily disembodied. Both Wingston and Nicole are also embodied poets, and both are powerful readers/performers of their work. In translating their poetry, my approach has been to acknowledge the embodied nature of our collaboration while respecting the differences between our positionalities and acknowledging the power I wield as a translator. My notion of an embodied lit(t)oral does not seek to resolve the problem of the other in my thinking through translation, but rather to open up a different set of questions for myself, to remind myself that the possibilities of an embodied translation can never be separated from the problematics of embodiment.


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

I'm currently translating Nicole's artist books Amoná (2013) and subtropical dry (2016), which we hope to publish together in one bilingual edition. These books are exciting to me because they approach embodiment innovatively. They are based on camping trips to Puerto Rican islands that the author reconstructs from memory while exploring correspondences between the physical landscapes and the materiality of the books. (The books are largely handmade, and incorporate raw materials such as thread and colored paper while repurposing maps, photographs, and other visual archives.) I'm fascinated by how these books insist on the necessity of a collective, radically embodied poetics and question the possibility of the same. Place is untranslatable, and even the project of collectively re-membering that place is fraught, given our nonequivalent positions and experiences. That is the paradox Nicole Cecilia Delgado's work confronts, one that is only accentuated in translation. For that reason, Nicole and I had planned a camping trip to a Puerto Rican island, where we could have a conversation about translation/place/body/memory that could serve as an introduction to the publication (she is also a gifted translator). Sadly, that trip is now on hold due to COVID, but the current pandemic only magnifies the urgency of her ecofeminist poetry and book art, and our commitment to finishing this project.


And Regina’s question for you: It's March 21, 2020. What does the city offer the literary translator and how does the transforming city or the paralyzed city impact the literary translator?

On the one hand, the cultural logic of Zoom capitalism means a lot of the work of the translator can be done digitally. (I just did a Zoom reading with Wingston for NYU's KJC Poetry Series, curated by Lila Zemborain, and another for Word Up Community Bookshop with Nicole and her essential La Impresora Project.) At the same time, I want to push back against the "zoombification" of translation. I live in the South Bronx, right by the Bruckner Expressway, one of Robert Moses's last acts of urban-planner bullying. My largely Black and Brown neighborhood is one of the most affected by COVID-19: many are essential workers whose precarity is magnified by decades of environmental racism and disinvestment (I can hear the trucks on the Bruckner as I write this). My neighborhood is definitely not paralyzed; it can't afford to be. Living here is a reminder that the folks I translate are inseparable from my experience of the (diasporic, immigrant) city, as in the Puerto Rican and Garifuna communities right here in the South Bronx. These are communities that have had to lay their bodies on the line, in their homelands and in the diaspora. When I Zoom into a poetry reading, I can still hear the repair crews on the expressway and see the essential workers on the street from the corner of my eye. Given that, I cannot buy into fantasies of a digital democracy, even if I'm grateful for and pragmatic about what technology lets us do. (I've yet to meet Wingston in person and yet we've performed together twice!) I would rather reflect on how translation can operate beyond the binaries of virtuality and presence. The city is all of us here. There is no all of us here.

Urayoán Noel is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, performer, and critic living in the Bronx. He is the author of In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (University of Iowa Press, 2014) and the forthcoming Transversal (University of Arizona Press), among other books. His translations include No Budu Please by Wingston González (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018) and Architecture of Dispersed Life: Selected Poetry by Pablo de Rokha (Shearsman Books, 2018), which was a finalist for the National Translation Award. Noel teaches at NYU and at Stetson University's MFA of the Americas.

Related Reading:

The Translator Relay: Regina Galasso

The Translator Relay: Chantal Ringuet

The City and the Writer: In San Juan with Ricardo Alberto Maldonado

Published May 18, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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