Beyond Translation

Thinking of Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard & the act of writing, rewriting & translating

“All men who repeat one line of Shakespeare are William Shakespeare.” - Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

I fell into translation by accident after completing my Ph.D. in Hispanic Studies. I was living in Mexico City and attempting to freelance, which is a precarious existence at best, even when you know what you are doing. I didn’t know what I was doing - only that I wanted to write. In my first year of freelancing, not used to cycles in which magazines pay you three to six months after publication - I went broke. I ended up spending a few months living on my brother’s couch in New York City. A friend recommended me for a translation job. I didn’t consider myself a translator, but I needed the money. I remember the months I spent on my brother’s couch translating and my growing feeling that translation was a literary act.

When I returned to Mexico, Julián Cardona, a friend of mine who is a photojournalist in Juárez, told me he was working on a non-fiction book documenting the lexicon of Juárez. He asked me if I would translate the book, which at the time had no publisher. He said he could pay me in photos, and I already had in mind a photo of his of a tiny Oaxacan grandmother in front of a replica of the White House that her son, who was working in the U.S., had built for her in Oaxaca.

Julián and I met each week via Skype to discuss his texts. We parsed out how the language of violence that had become part of daily life in the city could be translated.

entamalado: a corpse wrapped in a blanket

entambado: a corpse wrapped in a barrel

Estado paralelo: a parallel government that controls and profits from criminal activities in Mexico

familia: corporate gangs such as Los Aztecas that extend power even further by creating alliances with smaller gangs and enlisting them to act as franchises for the corporate headquarters

I loved those discussions, the relationship between author and translator, and how we could spend hours talking about the poetics of certain phrases, or even how best to translate hijo de tu pinche madre or ¿para quién trabajas, puerco?.

In my Ph.D. program, my area of expertise was contemporary Latin American literature. I read a significant amount of Jorge Luis Borges, and when I’m translating, I often think of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote.” Pierre Menard is a fictional writer who spends so much time reading Don Quijote that he recreates part of it word for word. Is he the author, or did he appropriate the text? Did he place the work in a new context, or is he simply watering down its intellectual power by copying it?

I think of Menard when translating because many people consider translation a technical act - copying - rather than a literary one. For me, translation is an inherently literary act, one that involves the constant search for the word with the right feeling and emotional vibration.

While reading the translation of Yuri Herrera’s novel Signs Preceding the End of the World, I wondered why translator Lisa Dillman decided to translate the medieval term jarchar as “verse.” A jarcha is the verse that ends a long poem, and the Arabic root means “exit.” Herrera used the word when his protagonist exited a scene. When reading the translation, I found myself obsessing over whether Herrera had been involved in the translation and had approved of the term “verse.” When I saw Herrera in Mexico City last month, we talked about the translation, and, yes, he and the translator had together decided that “verse” was the most poetic translation. I would like to think that authors have a long-term relationship with their translators. They argue about words and the weight and force of emotion, and together they birth the translation.

Julián Cardona died in 2020. I will remember him as he was in the hours we spent together, an author and a translator, searching for the language that felt emotionally and poetically true to the original Spanish.


Announcements & Upcoming Events

May 29: I’ll be in conversation with Chinese neorealist painter Liu Xiaodong about our 1,530-mile road trip along the US-Mexico border. Hosted by Dallas Contemporary museum, 11 am CDT. You can register here.

Pre-order Abecedario de Juárez: An Illustrated Lexicon

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