The ignored island(s)

Puerto Rico has a special place in world literature: none. Or almost none. No one knows how to talk about it. It’s part of the U.S., but predominately Spanish-speaking. It’s part of Latin America, but significantly separate because of the U.S. government and economic control. Puerto Rico has been called “the oldest colony in the world.” And what happens in centuries-old colonies is a kind of hybridity and resistance that makes culture hard to categorize, and therefore harder to talk about. Puerto Rico epitomizes this: neither independent nor incorporated; neither Spanish- nor English-speaking; neither black nor white nor native but all of the above.

And of course, try mentioning to someone that you translate Puerto Rican literature. The response might be “oh, I didn’t know they had literature.” And if all this is true for Puerto Rico, it’s even more so for the Dominican Republic. Look, for example, at the selection made for the FSG book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry ed. Ilan Stavens. Cuba has seven authors included, to Puerto Rico’s three and the Dominican Republic’s startling one. Startling, because one could expect the Dominican not to be included at all, is it was not in the earlier Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry ed. Stephen Tapscott. And, the impetus for this post, is that in the fabulous November Caribbean-writing issue of Words Without Borders out of 9 words from Spanish, half are Cuban. It’s not an editorial conspiracy, I’m sure. And it’s not because there’s “no literature” coming from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.

Part of the challenge of translating under-represented literatures in an over-represented language is the aesthetic stereotypes immediately tied up in the work. People think of Spanish as passionate, intense, romantic (it is a romance language, after all). All this borders on what we English-speakers shy away from as sentimental, emotional – writing that relies on pathos rather than logos or irony. But Caribbean writing often vaults that border directly into the intensely emotional, and this makes it harder to find an audience willing to take that leap with no hint of condescention.

This is not to say, of course, that all Caribbean writing, or all Hispanic-Caribbean writing, or even all Puerto Rican or Dominican writing shares a common aesthetic. But perhaps we can say that there is a higher tolerance for emotion in Spanish, and in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. And even in poetry like that of José Marmól, which is celebrated as groundbreaking in its cool philosophical remove, there are traces of what one might call sentimentality.

Strangeness, or at least challenging aesthetics, is not the least of the problems facing translators of Puerto Rican and Dominican literature. Familiarity might be more of a problem. Most estadounidense (United Statesians) have a clear image of the Dominican and Puerto Rico: palm trees on white-sand beaches, hardly rippling clear-teal bathwater-warm seas, and rum. Vacationland. And it’s hard to imagine how compelling literature can come out of a resort.

It is not our willful ignorance of the complexities of Caribbean culture that is wholly to blame for this flattened vacation-scape. This carefully constructed elision of poverty, race and class conflict, gender issues, and history is a boon to the islands’ tourism industries. And, unsurprisingly, since there is currently no U.S. tourism market in Cuba, we’re more aware of the complex political landscape there.

I’m not sure I can answer the implied questions here, but I think it’s worth pointing out the imbalance. Part of what I think about as a translator is how I can work against the dominant, so often deadening, aesthetic norms that inform the kinds of literature we translate and read. I think a good way to do this is to think about what doesn’t get translated, and why. And then to try to translate it.


  1. Dave Steward

    Erica, Don’t you think that Derek Walcott does a bang up job on colonialism, its heritage, and tourism in the region in his superlative English? And yet he strangely doesn’t have much to say about Hispanic aspects. Maybe the Caribbean is too multi-everything (French, Dutch and West African too) to be considered as a whole. But anyway, from his Saint Lucia and Trinidad, Walcott is the master of it. Salud, Dave S.

  2. Hmm…no I don’t think the Caribbean is too multi-everything to be considered as a whole. Like other heterogeneous but concentrated geographic regions there are certainly larger issues that affect the shape of culture there (the easiest to identify is specifically environmental concerns). And, I hate to admit it, but I find Derek Walcott’s treatment of his own Caribbean heritage dismissive and ultimately self-serving. And he more or less ignores the rest of the Caribbean anyway…as a translator my interest in that kind of anglophone exclusion is next to nothing.

    • Dave Steward

      Just spent the last hour looking through the Walcott books I have, and you’re right, through all the glitter and flash of his language he has a lot to say about Caribbean weather and its moods, the history of slavery, the history of Saint Lucia in particular, but does not course across the whole of it – there is a long passage about Cuba. He moved on for sure, London and Boston and the rest of the world, but, “dismissive” of his home islands? No. And neither has he used his “Star-Apple Kingdom,” as he calls the Caribbean, self-servingly. “Omeros,” a wonderful book, is the opposite. He uses home and the people he knew there quizzically as does “Our Town” and “Under Milkwood.” And I would imagine he doesn’t translate into Spanish very well. Sorry to take you off the the theme of Puerto Rico and the DR, but I still think Walcott is the Caribbean’s most arresting writer.

      • Well, since I’m interested in translating primarily FROM other languages (in this case Spanish) INTO English, Walcott is utterly irrelevant. Perhaps some of my resistance to him comes from in-person experiences of him in Boston, where I was for a long time. He’s very dismissive of the Hispanic Caribbean. In fact, of the non-anglophone Caribbean. I’ve never been overly fond of his poetry, either…it does seem self-serving in the confessional mode. But of course to each their own. I think José Martí or Julia de Burgos could easily take the title of the Caribbean’s most arresting writer. Of course, giving out such a title is unforgivably narrowing of what you point out is a multiplicity of culture and language, which could certainly never be minimized into a single author (as we so often tend to do…one “major” author becomes representative and then no one else gets read unless they sound exactly like what we’ve decided that country sounds like. like Pahmuk for Turkey…but of course that’s another whole post!).

  3. Dave Steward

    I made the comment about translating him into Spanish as evidence of how solitary Walcott is. His stance of relentless self-regard being dead opposite of that of patriot activists like José Martí and Julia de Burgos. For me Walcott is only words on the page, now José Martí is someone I would relish to have known. It’s hopeful that any Caribbean writer gets read at all in the self-absorbed realm of “American writing.” But maybe, as Julia de Burgos’s short life illustrates, we’re headed for symbiosis, Puerto Rico in New York, Cuba in South Florida.

  4. Aurora

    Hola Erica! Sólo un breve mensaje para darte las gracias por la buenísima traducción que hiciste de mi poema “Nido de pájaros”, para Words Without Borders!

    Un abrazo grande, y espero conocerte personalmente alguna vez,


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