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.