In 1939, as the victory of a military coups led by the fascist general Francisco Franco drew near, my grandfather and his family fled their war-torn home, a small town outside of Seville. They landed in Havana, Cuba, their new safe haven. They could not have know that it, too, was on the brink of occupation by an authoritarian general. My great-grandfather was a pharmacist, and growing up in a privileged family in Havana, my grandfather was both protected by and deeply opposed to the rise of fascism in Cuba engineered by Fulgencio Batista. He ultimately emigrated to the states to pursue a career in medicine, several years before the revolution. He started over again here, meeting an American woman who he married, and raising their children in tiny Minnesota farm town. They spoke only English and discussed only a carefully constructed version of the past. My abuelo passed away in 2006. There are parts of his history and identity, which are also my history and identity, that remain a secret.
But I’ve always felt like my relationship to my Hispanic heritage tells a story that’s bigger than just me and my family — a story about power, idealism, diaspora, what it means to be a nation, and what it means to be “from” somewhere, when borders are porous and history is messy and complicated. Learning Spanish something like third-hand, and being painfully unable to understand my relatives (that I have met for the first time only recently) in both Cuba and Spain, I’m learning that language tells a similar story.
It was with these thoughts in mind that, during Hispanic Heritage Month last October, I had the chance to talk to Daniel Borzutzky — someone I feel is telling a piece of that story, one that furthers my own understanding and imagines a more complicated story of Hispanic languages and nations.
Daniel Borzutzky’s latest poetry collection is Lake Michigan (Pitt Poetry Series, 2018). He is the author of The Performance of Becoming Human (Brooklyn Arts Press), recipient of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry. His other books include Memories of my Overdevelopment (Kenning Editions, 2015); In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy (Nightboat, 2015), and The Book of Interfering Bodies (Nightboat, 2011). His translation of Galo Ghigliotto’s Valdivia (Co-im-press) won the American Literary Translator’s Association 2017 National Translation Award. He has translated poetry collections by Chilean poets Raúl Zurita and Jaime Luis Huenún. He teaches in the English Department and Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The sound of some frenetic running, disappearing down the hill, and suddenly, next to me, an eruption: the screeching sound of the breakers bursting definitively, instantly, a sharp shrill.
I am Daniel Borzutzky. Poet, of the world, translator of the world.
I did grow up in a bilingual household. My family comes from Chile, we grew up speaking English and Spanish. I didn’t have any formal training as a translator, but I came of age as a writer and a translator at the same time. Around when I started to write seriously in my early 20s, I started to test out translation. It really started with a friend of mine from Chile giving me a book, and that hadn’t been translated, and we started trying to translate it soon after. And that was the beginning, and led to all kinds of projects and opportunities I would not have been able to imagine then.
With Raul Zurita’s book, The Country of Planks, there are a lot of place references, and so there’s a section of poems that are named after prisons that operated in the dictatorship. So I had a lot of questions trying to figure out, and just trying to learn about some of those places when I couldn’t find information on my own about them.
There’s another point in a section called “Little Boy” where he is describing a bridge, and Raul was trained as an engineer, and I think it would have been tricky trying to understand what it looked like in any language, but to sort of take it from Spanish to English, it felt technically very difficult to grasp. At one point he actually drew the bridge for me so that I could actually kind of understand what he was trying to say.
The enormous concrete and glass dome rises above the
tower of the exhibition hall and the modernity of its
form contrasts with the swarm of little wooden shacks
surrounding the esplanade, stretching from the sea shore
to the edge of the city. Outlined in front of the building
is the Aioi Bridge, formed by two interconnected
perpendicular platforms, one of which ends in the
middle of the other making a T. The larger platform
crosses the river and the one in the middle connects
the bridge with the point of the peninsula formed a
bit above, before the point where the two channels of
the estuary join. There are only a few more concrete
constructions; the prefecture, the new school, the
automotive factory, they look like little white scabs on
a dark and coarse skin. I cross the bridge while holding
my mother’s hand and for a second her kimono shines
against the intense purple of the sky, but as we approach
the station the sky has cleared up. The train stops and
I feel the soft pressure of her hand on my back pushing
me towards my father who has just stepped off one of
the train cars. His silhouette closing in on me on the
platform fills me with reverence and fear. Yazuhiko
Girl, he says when he sees me, and I bow down lowering
my face. I look at the floor. The pavement of the
platform has disappeared and the beach appears in its
place. I turn around. The purple profile of the hills spills
over me in the budding light of the dawn and in a scene
that appears to emerge from thousands of years ago
I remember a port, Valparaíso, a life: a frustrated career
in engineering, four marriages, children now adults,
grandchildren, and the blurry fragments from a night
I’ve recovered in my memory (a student bender, a
hidden dive bar, and an incoherent fight at the exit, the
sound of some frenetic running, disappearing down
the hill and, suddenly, next to me, an eruption, the
screeching sound of the breakers bursting, definitively,
instantly, a sharp shrill). I shake off the sand and start
to walk away from that life. The beach sinks into the
pavement and the grainy floor of the train platform
reappears. His hand gently lifts my face and I look at him.
Little Yazuhiko Girl, my father repeats, Little Yazuhiko.
And so Zurita, for people who don’t know about him, on the day of the military coup in 1973 was a college student and was arrested. And his writing life in many ways after that has been a response to the experience of seeing his country destroyed by the dictatorship in many ways. For me, as someone with a background in Chile and thinks about the interconnections between the US and South America, I was really drawn to his work. It has such a rich sense of lyricism, of language, of artisticness, while really being rooted and wanting to respond to violence in his society as well as at a kind of global level.
I think I learned some early lessons that it’s very difficult, that it’s so much more difficult and less rewarding in some ways to work with dead people. It’s not that there’s not plenty of old work that shouldn’t be translated, and I’m not like categorically writing off doing that. But there is, on the one hand, a bureaucratic kind of difference working with writers’ estates than there is with living writers. But I think at a personal level, the relationships that I’ve struck up with all of the writers have been really meaningful, and at some point I’ve decided that I’d only really work with writers who were committed to participating in the process. And I don’t know, as a translator, at least I have a lot of questions for the writer and a lot of interaction with them. And it’s very easy to feel like you’re bothering the person, so it’s very important for me to not be made to feel that way and have the writer at least acknowledging the amount of work going on, but hopefully as well, taking part in it in a certain way too.
The last book I translated was by a younger writer, Galo Ghigliotto, called Valdivia. And in many ways, that book came out of a personal relationship I that had with the writer. We struck up a correspondence, he had published some of my work. And in Chile, I discovered his book. It’s a really great book, it’s kind of a book length poem, set in Valdivia, a big city in the south of Chile, that narrative combines kind of a coming of age narrative that is autobiographical combined with local mythologies.
There was a couple of things that changed through interactions with author about this book. The first is that I had no idea actually that it was a kind of autobiographical story until I’d been translating it for about 3 or 4 years. And that really changed my reading of it, because it’s not a straight autobiography in any way. But there is a young boy narrator, and a mother and Galo kind of talks about that experience being one that he had. And then there are just other things I simply wouldn’t have known about without interacting with him. There’s a ship that appears in a few different parts of the book, called El Canelos. Which Galo told me it was a ship that sank in the Tsunami that happened after the 1968 earthquake in Valdivia. Which was the biggest earthquake in the world. [Reading from Ghigliotto’s introduction to Valdivia] “It’s said that El Canelos appears some nights in the river with its crew of ghosts. And really I think this is a version of another famous Chilean legend, El Caleuche, the ghost boat of Chiloé. And of course there are many other legends disguised in this one.” So that kind of information was not readily apparent or available to somebody from the US who would be picking up that book and might not know about that stuff.
With the recognition that your voice is always going to be in there in one form or another. Translation is about someone else. Right? Is about trying to figure out how to capture and re-frame that voice in a different language. So, ultimately the concern is not so much to not have my voice in it, but it’s really not to think about it in a certain way. I think one of the nice things about translation as a writer is it allows you to escape your own voice and spend some time with someone else’s. So, I think that for me that’s the task. It’s not in any kind of way to pretend my own personality and stylistics won’t get into the work, but to do as much as possible to re-create the writer’s voice.