Genta Nishku

PEN World Voices Festival’s most popular event, the "Translation Slam" took place at the historic Nuyorican Poets Café on May 8th and was hosted by Michael F. Moore. The premise is quite unique: a literary piece is chosen from an invited authors’ work and is given to a group of translators a week in advance. The author does not find out which piece was chosen until the different translations are read on the night of the event. Authors being translation-slammed this year were Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop and third-generation Puerto Rican poet and performance artist, Mariposa María Teresa Fernández, a veteran of the Nuyorican. 

Boubacar Boris Diop’s short story “Comme une Ombre” was up first. It had already undergone a round of translation from the author himself, from the original Wolof into the French that the translators received. The story was told from the perspective of a man reflecting corporate greed which has destroyed his community. The two translators transforming the piece into English were Marjolijn de Jager, a translator of French and Dutch to English with an interest in francophone African literature and Allison M. Charette, who translates from French.

The differences in the translators’ interpretation were immediately apparent in the way they translated a key phrase, “le terrain vague” or the empty, abandoned lot that the protagonist saw as the final place to contain any life in the city. De Jager’s translation of the phrase as “wasteland” became “vacant lot” in Charette’s version. Discussing her approach to translating the piece and this phrase in particular, de Jager said she attempted to covey the sense of melancholy she felt in Diop’s story. Charette, whose translation was much grittier than de Jager’s elegant rendering, credited the anger she felt from the protagonist to her interpretation of the story in a more in-your-face way, and why she chose to use colloquialisms.

Diop loved both translations, seeing different kinds of perfection in each piece. He urged all translators to have less respect for a text, for what is important in literary translation is not fidelity, but loyalty. He then spoke of his own experience with translating his writing from Wolof into French, which presents a bigger challenge due to cultural differences. His example of how a few sentences in Wolof took him two pages to adequately explain in French surprised many in the audience. Diop stressed the importance of ensuring your translation correctly contextualizes the culture from which the text comes, though this should be done with the mind of a novelist, not a sociologist. The discussion would have been further enriched if the translation slam would have been conducted from Wolof into English. 

The second half of the program focused on translation from English to Spanish. The choice of María Teresa Fernández’s poem “Ay please por favor…God Bless America” was a nod to the dynamic history of the cafe itself which had become the central space of the Nuyorican arts movement that started in the seventies. The group of seasoned translators consisted of Nicaraguan writer and performance artist Eva Gasteazoro, Puerto Rican poet Urayoán Noel, and Argentine poet Ezequiel Zaidenwerg. Before performing her piece, Fernández dedicated the poem to her mother and to Oscar López Rivera, the longest held political prisoner in the United State on the charge of “seditious conspiracy.” She then read her poem, which was part performance piece, and written fourteen years ago on the heels of 9/11, as a poetic response to “all of the contradictions of the United States.” 

                        Argentine poet Ezequiel Zaidenwerg reads dressed as a priest

The energy in the room rose as Fernández performed, followed by each of the translator’s very different interpretations into Spanish. The translators’ decisions on how the poem’s title would sound in Spanish became a focal point of the conversation. Gasteazoro translated it as “Ay dios, for favor, benedice la América”, choosing to put the word “América” in the singular because she sees it as one complete continent. She also described that in the process of translating she sought to get down to the real meat of the poem and pay homage to the words’ beauty. 

Noel’s translation of the title was similar: “Ay porfa, por favor… Dios, benedice a América,” though he chose to incorporate the performance aspect in his reading. Performance, he said, has been important to Nuyorican poets because it can provide a cleansing and a counter-rhythm the prescribed rhythm of the oppressors. 

Zaidenwerg had the most unique translation of the poem’s title (and most unique outfit, he was dressed as a priest!): “Ay, che, Diosito, plis, benedici a Yanquilandia.” Through lending some very Argentine qualities to his translation, Zaidenwerg wanted to both reflect the poem’s revolutionary spirit, as well as create something new, which could stand on its own. This, he said, is the highest compliment a translator can pay an author. 

Fernández’s poem and its translations sparked a spirited conversation on a multitude of topics, including Puerto Rican identity and psychological trauma associated with it, the comparison of milocos or war mongering military seen from the context specific Central and South American countries versus experiencing it as someone in the United States, as well as a discussion on ways the term “Native American” could be translated. 

The night’s conversations reinforced the value of literary translation and its ability to make the world’s complexities that much clearer. 

Genta Nishku is a Development Associate at Make the Road New York, a community-based, social justice organization in New York City. She holds a BA in Classical Studies and English literature from Hunter College. She is currently working on translating the poetry of Albanian writer Migjeni. Twitter @gentanishku.