Sunday, January 27, 2013

Liliana Valenzuela's "Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino"

by Amelia M.L. Montes (

"Bendito Camino" translates to the English as "Blessed Journey." Today's La Bloga takes such a journey with the acclaimed writer and translator, Liliana Valenzuela, to recognize her recently published chapbook and discuss its inception and creation.  So far, there has been an excellent response to the book. 

Inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, writes of Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino:  “Word by word, line by line, Codex of Journeys entrances with its crisp rhythms echoing in the heart and transfixes with its luminous images, vibrating on the page.  Spare and full of light, each poem is like a tiny x-ray of the soul, capturing so much of what is not seen by the naked eye underneath.”

Liliana Valenzuela’s latest book of bilingual poetry is part of a larger manuscript or as she describes it:  a “codex.”  The term “codex” is defined as an ancient book or a compilation of vellum, sheets of paper.  The Latin “caudex” signals a “block of wood” or “the trunk of a tree, transformed into folded pages.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the codex,” Valenzuela says.  “They can contain pictographs, like the ancient Aztec codices which record the history of these peoples. This work is about going back to that idea.  Each section is a codex of different topics.”

Liliana Valenzuela, an award-winning international translator, poet, essayist, and journalist, is meticulous in creating her literary works of art.  The process she describes in translation work as well as in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction reminds me of those who crochet by hand without the use of a machine. The quality of the work far exceeds something more quickly put together. In this particular chapbook, the eleven poems are carefully stitched together with themes of identity, remembrance, and loss. 

Acclaimed writer, Sandra Cisneros writes:  “Poetry is her  instrument, and the songs Valenzuela plucks are from her voyage beyond borders, a vantage point called Nepantla, eternally a visitor from the land in-between, even at home.  Lyrical, lush, traviesa, here is a woman’s voice uncensored.”  Indeed, these poems are fragrant and filled with rhythm and Cisneros is well acquainted with Valenzuela's work.  Valenzuela has translated all of Cisneros' books (except for House on Mango Street which was translated by Elena Poniatowska).  

Liliana Valenzuela reading her poetry
Montes:  Tell me about the cover of your book which is a beautiful painting by the artist, Liliana Wilson entitled “Transformación.” 

Valenzuela:  Yes, Liliana had done a cover for the literary journal, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, which I helped put together.  I was the guest editor for one issue and I also had a say in the cover.  I had always admired her work and one day I happened to meet her during the East Austin Studio Tour. When we met, I told her about this project and she immediately wanted to contribute, which was very generous of her. 

Montes:  How did you go about choosing the title?

Valenzuela:  This is actually part of a larger manuscript called Codex of Desire.  There are five codices within the Codex of Desire.  This chapbook, The Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino is one of them. And in Bendito Camino, there are poems that observe the world, examine what it’s like being out in the world, exploring the process of meeting others who are like or unlike yourself, learning about your differences and similarities. Here, I look at journeys that are geographic, (West Africa, Ivory Coast, Cuba, Mexico), and not necessarily geographic but journeys within oneself, as in the poem, “She Should Have Been a Nun.”  The poem “September 19, 1985” remembers the earthquake in Mexico City. I also investigate the contact of cultures in civilization, in and out of colonization.  I also look at the siren (“la sirena”), the connection with nature and the marine world.  These poems reflect journeys in all different directions. 

Liliana Valenzuela with fellow author (and mystery writer) Lucha Corpi

Montes:  Why did you begin this chapbook with “Son Cubano,” a Cuban song?

Valenzuela:  In the planning stage, you have the poems and you put them in different orders to see how they fit.  This is a performance poem that works well as a spoken word piece.  It has its own rhythms and music. It seemed like a good way to start.  It’s also more a language poem. 

Montes:  Yes.  I like how we begin with music.  Tell us more about the three poems that focus on Ghana. 

Valenzuela:  These are testimonio-type poems about an actual experience.  They are three identity Ghana poems.  It was an interesting experience traveling by myself to West Africa when I was 27.  Identity has always been a mixed bag for me because even though I am Mexican, I’m also light skinned and so traveling to such a different place so far away, some people there wanted to see me as Western European "white," and I’m not.  They put me in this category with the British or French colonizers of Africa.  When you stand out so much, it’s hard to hide or blend in and yet there were moments when it didn’t matter, like being at the night market.  Without sunshine, our skin was the same, and it was a feeling of freedom and liberation by not having to be defined by how you look.  And it has sections of the song “Sombras Nada Mas." That song came to mind as I was writing it, thinking of the version sung by Lucha Villa (click here to hear "Sombras").  The lyrics are:  
Sombras nada mas entre tu vida y mi vida,
sombras nada mas entre mi amor y tu amor.  

Valenzuela:  The poems in this collection either began in English or in Spanish.  For example, I originally wrote “Son Cubano” in English and then translated it into Spanish.  That’s how I work.  I write in whatever language feels right at the time.  To translate into English, though, is the hardest for me.  In my daily work, I always go from English to Spanish.  For my own poetry, when I’m still so close to it, I go to the Latin or Spanish words or roots first.  If I wrote the poem in Spanish, its harder to translate it myself into English, into the Anglo-Saxon roots and sounds.  Then is when I need more help.

Montes:  What is your process:  How are some ways you begin a poem?

When I was working on the larger codex, I realized that if I didn’t ask someone to help with the translation from Spanish to English, I might not get this done.  My friend, Angela McEwan, did a wonderful job in translating them to English for this chapbook. 

Montes:  Translation is an entirely unique act within the literary world.  What is your philosophy of translation?

Valenzuela:  To understand that the reader in the target language has the same experience as the one in the source language.  The source language is the one you begin with, and the target language is the one you go to.  Whatever literary devices, style, experience, sentiment that the readers had in the original version, the readers in the translated version must have the same experience. 

Montes:  And how would you describe the process of translation? 

Valenzuela:  For literary translation, revision is very important whether it is a short story, novel, whatever size it is, you need to do at least four revisions.  The first one is a rough translation with a list of queries for the author, friends, and for your own research.  Then there’s another pass to incorporate some of those queries and begin polishing the material. In the third pass, you are looking for grammar, punctuation, style issues.  Another pass focuses on listening for the style and the sound, and here it is best to read it out loud and to see if it captures the voice of the original.  Then you get proofs, and there are usually two: the first and second round of proofs.  Commercial translators who must turn in things quicker, will not spend as much time with one particular document.  They will not revise it so many times even though they also edit machine translations.  

It’s important to really get the style of the author, the repetitions, to let it internalize and let it soak in.  I don’t think a machine can really do that.  It would be really rough, like a "Tarzan and Jane" version: you may get some of the meaning (not all), and it will lack style and voice.  Literary translation:  it’s all about the style. 

Montes:  Who are the translators you admire or with whom you’ve worked? 

Valenzuela:  Marian Schwartz translates from Russian into English.  She has many wonderful novels and other works she has translated.  She happens to be my friend and lives here in Austin.  She’s been a wonderful mentor.  Also, Edith Grossman translates from the Spanish to English.  She translated Don Quixote, and writers from the Latin American boom.  She’s really good.

Montes:  How do you translate “moments” in your poetry and I’m thinking of your poem, "Cinnamon Skin/Piel Canela"?

Valenzuela:  “Piel Canela” came out while watching a film and Sonia Braga was one of the characters.  I can’t remember the title, but the sensual Brazilian beach scene, mixed with my own experiences and feelings brought out a poem about sensuality and desire.  The rhythms mixed in with my own experiences.  We are always translating the moment, the sensations, images from film, or from real life included with a rhythm and sound interpretation. 

Montes:  Is there anything you’d like to add to this interview? 

Valenzuela:  I’m very grateful to Maria Miranda Maloney at Mouthfeel Press (in El Paso) for publishing this chapbook.  It’s been a long time coming to see it in a fully bilingual edition.  It’s great to have small publishers who understand our work even though it’s bilingual poetry.  It’s important to have our voices in the way we want to present them, and with publishers like her who really understand what we’re doing, it can be done.  Hopefully this book will reach wider and wider audiences in either one of those languages and in our own culture where we mix the languages.  It was a lot of extra work in also including translations, but now that it’s done, it was definitely worth it.  Maria went the extra mile on this chapbook to do a glossy cover and create a chapbook that is bound, not stapled.  The final product then, is between a paperback and a chapbook. 

Montes:  Muchisimas gracias Liliana!  And to you, dear Bloga readers, after you read this interview, I encourage you to purchase your copy of  Codex of Journeys:  Bendito Camino on the Mouthfeel Press website (click here) or on Amazon (click here and ignore Amazon’s warning that they are out of stock).  I heard it from a reliable source that Amazon does have more books available.  Wishing you all un buen Domingo!

Liliana Valenzuela Bio:  Born and raised in Mexico City, Liliana Valenzuela is an adopted Tejana.  An award-winning literary translator, poet, essayist, and journalist, her poetry chapbook Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino was published by Mouthfeel Press in October 2012.  She is also the acclaimed Spanish language translator of works by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Denise Chávez, Dagoberto Gilb, Richard Rodríguez, Cristina García, Gloria Anzaldúa, and other writers.  A long-time member of the Macondo Writers Workshop, and an inaugural fellow of CantuMundo, she works for the ¡ahora si! Spanish newspaper in Austin.  You can find her work at and

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well done, Liliana! I loo forward to reading your most recent poems in Spanish and English. You are a fine poet,
story writer, translator etc.
And above all -- you are a fine
human being. John Saunders