Monday, March 02, 2020

Translator’s Note for 'Corta la piel'

Translator’s Note for Corta la piel.
by Sandra Kingery
Los traductores
Xánath Caraza’s Corta la piel (FlowerSong Press, 2020) is a very powerful piece of writing. These 62 interconnected short prose poems move the reader with images encompassing everything from the personal struggles of the protagonists to current events to the conquest of the Americas. The poignancy of contemplating a world that is, as Violeta murmurs in the first story, “so screwed up” (40) is leavened with shimmering glimpses of the beauty of the natural world and a paean to the power of writing, all expressed in texts that sparkle with the energy and brio and authenticity found in all of Xánath Caraza’s writing.

The two protagonists in these stories afford us dual levels of reality: at the primary level, we have texts in roman script which focus on Violeta the writer. That first Violeta creates the fiction within the fiction, the italicized stories written by Violeta about a fictional character who is also named Violeta. These nesting stories emphasize the creative process as our primary protagonist invents a secondary protagonist who shares many of her experiences and concerns about the world.  Both suffer loneliness and a failed relationship, both revel in the beauty of nature (the moon, water, fog, birdsong), both are drawn inexorably back to memories of their troubled past when they hear the whistles of trains, and both celebrate the power of the written word. The dual nature of the two Violetas is most readily apparent in “Loss,” the only story that includes both roman and italic script: “The racist groups were organizing, and the weight of their negative energy was felt more strongly every day. It was heartbreaking, a threat. There’s nothing worse than ignorance, Violeta wrote, but she was wrong, there was something even worse…” (72). Subsequent references to the first Violeta’s writing process are more subtle as they remain in italic script: “It’s very easy to project our fears onto others and then blame them, Violeta continued writing” (74).

This emphasis on writing continues throughout the book. For example, in “False alarm,” the first Violeta reflects upon everything she wrote in the immediately preceding stories: “she got distracted thinking about . . . what she had written regarding the students who had disappeared in Mexico, about the cancellation of TPS, the separation of families, and the recipes that she and Golda shared” (52). The process of writing is also at the forefront in “The Time of Swallows,” where a line in the italicized text appears in strike through, revealing Violeta’s editing process and the contingent nature of her words: “Obsidian rain on aerial currents in the twilight (the time of swallowsthe )” (112).

Twenty-one of the stories focus on the first Violeta, our writer, and these stories expand to encompass short portraits of Violeta’s violent father, her gay grandfather who was never able to come out of the closet, her mother, ex-boyfriends, and friends. Descriptions of her daily life alternate with stories about the emotional reactions she has to the places she visits or the news she confronts. Her travels to various locations in Spain that commemorate the conquest of the Americas afford some of the most emotionally gripping stories in the book. These visits “shattered her and brought her to tears. So much loss, so much pain, the extent of the destruction of her people” (114). When she visits the replicas of Columbus’s three caravels, she internalizes the horrors that took place in the hold she cannot bring herself to enter: “She felt the pain of the slaves, the pestilence, and the inhuman conditions of what was to follow. The pain of the human cargo that was, indefensibly, transported by those ships for so many years” (120).

The emphasis on past injustices in the first Violeta’s texts are echoed in the italicized stories she writes, but the italicized texts tend to emphasize current events—both personal and societal—more than distant history. They include current horrors (the family separation policy in the United States, the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico), but also some of shortest, most poetic stories, encompassing myth and metaphor and musicality (e.g., descriptions of peacocks, fado singers, mythical creatures, and a flamenco dancer who is “poetry in motion, love on fire” (130).)

In spite of the different emphases in the stories related to each of the two Violetas, they both end up focusing on the power and transcendence of writing, words, and poetry. References to poets and writers (Camus, Fernando Pessoa, Armando Palacio Valdés, Julio Cortázar, Cervantes, Unamuno, Sappho) abound. The hopefulness of creation is celebrated in “A world where ink reigns, where thoughts remain captured on paper for all eternity” (156), and Violeta “vowed to dedicate herself to it, to Poetry. Poetry: I am yours” (100).

The power of the written word is momentarily placed into question in the final story when “Loose pages of a manuscript flooded the icy, early morning wind after the trains collided” (162). The pathos of losing that manuscript of written words is mitigated by the last image in the book when “A sheet of paper, like a razor blade, has pierced the writer’s skin deeply. Blood drips on the white pages. The paper absorbs it as it spreads” (162). This final description brings us full circle back to the first line of the book, when “Violeta’s index finger began to bleed” (40). Thus, the ink on the page is replaced by the writer’s life blood which tells its own story in its own way, primitive, biological, profound.

It is always a joy to have the opportunity to translate stories that are so rich and powerful and beautiful. This translation project was especially moving for me, since I translated these stories with an outstanding group of students in a Translation class that I offered at Lycoming College in Spring 2019. I would like to acknowledge all 18 students again here: Caleb M. Beard, Abril M. Cardenas, Hanna Cherres, Joshua Josue Cruz-Avila, Angelina M. Fernandez, Luis Felipe Garcia Tamez, Elizabeth J. Hernandez, Galilea Landeros, Esmeralda Luna, Lyssett Ortuño, Rocio A. Quiñonez, Toussaint R., Karla I. Rios, Emily K. Sampsell, Michael Sanchez Palacios, Briana A. Tafoya-Saravia, Leví A. Tristán Aguirre, and Aaron M. Willsea.

Translating a book for publication with undergraduate students is an unusual (and some might say, foolhardy) type of undertaking, but since this project ended up being so successful, I would like to share a little bit about the process. The precursor to this particular project was a joint translation that I did with another student, Kaitlyn Hipple (Lycoming College, 2018), where we spent two summers translating Xánath Caraza’s Metztli. I received a faculty-student research grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to begin translating a few of the stories in the book with Kaitlyn during the summer of 2016. Kaitlyn did such an outstanding job that first summer that I applied for a Lycoming College Summer Student Research Grant, supported in part by the Arthur A. Haberberger Chairman’s Endowed Student-Faculty Research Program, to complete the translation with her the following summer. End result: as a recent graduate at the onset of her career as a Spanish teacher, Kaitlyn Hipple already had a published translation, and Metztli went on to win Second Place for Best Collection of Short Stories in the 2019 International Latino Book Awards.

Translating with Kaitlyn was such a positive experience that when I began planning the newest iteration of my Translation class, I took seriously the Mellon Foundation’s charge for faculty members in the arts and humanities to think out how to bring our research into the classroom so that more students have the opportunity to participate in and learn from our work. Just as I was contemplating ways in which I might do that with my Translation class, Xánath shared her manuscript of Corta la piel with me. I loved this book from the first time I read it, and I thought that these very short prose poems were perfect for a semester-long translation project. When I asked Xánath how she would feel about me translating the book with my students, she immediately embraced the idea.

And so this project was born. During the first week of the semester, I had all students translate two stories: “43” and “Our Sons and Daughters,” and we workshopped those stories together over the course of the first few weeks. I wanted students to see how I think about translation questions, and I chose those specific stories because I wanted to push students past the inevitable first stage of simply thinking about individual words or sentences. Students quickly understood that, in order to translate these stories effectively, they would need to grapple with each story’s context and appreciate its poetry and musicality.

After those first two stories, I divided students into the groups in which they would work for the rest of the semester. I was lucky enough to have 18 students in the class, which allowed me to form a perfect grid of groups of three and groups of six so that we could workshop the stories in what is sometimes called a jigsaw puzzle technique.


The jigsaw puzzle technique worked like this: every week for the next 10 weeks, each Trio translated a different story. Students prepared a translation for homework and then workshopped that story with their group. After each Trio came up with an edited group version of their story, the class then moved into the Sextets, where they worked on all six stories. The Sextets sent edits or suggestions back to each of the Trios, which would then workshop the story again with the suggestions from the three different Sextets. The Trios would submit their new draft to me, which I would mark up with questions, comments, and suggestions, and the whole process would begin again. At any one time, students could be working on the first draft of one set of stories, the second draft of another set, the third draft of yet another set, and so on. In this way, every story in the book was edited by everyone in the class multiple times, and we were able to find a common voice for the entire text.

Somewhat to my surprise, this process worked amazingly well. Students took the project very seriously and came up with excellent translations. We also met with Xánath by Skype, which allowed students to ask her questions about the stories. Even more importantly, it motivated students to strive to find the best possible translation for the stories because they admired Xánath so much after those meetings that they did not want to disappoint her. The first question that one of the students asked Xánath was: “What are you afraid of when you think about having us translate your book?” Xánath’s immediate response to that question (“Afraid of? I’m not afraid of anything. I’m so honored to have you work on this project”) gave them confidence, and her generous and frequent expression of admiration for translators and the art of translation spurred the students to take ownership of the translation they were authoring. In their written reactions to the conversations with Xánath, many of the students wrote about how proud they were to find out that the author respected their work. 

Like all translators, students needed to research a lot of references in the book, from locations in Spain, Italy, and Greece, to historical figures, to current events. After doing that work, they often wanted to footnote or gloss the text to explain the references that they now understood. I encouraged them to honor the mysteries and ambiguities of the original text and afford the English-language reader the right to figure out references in the same way the Spanish-language reader might. Some students also needed to be reassured that they did not need to “fix” “incorrect” sentences, such as “Last night, the waves and the white moon” (42) or “New York, that accursed city, full of metal bridges, where loneliness, she has discovered, is felt more deeply” (44). Once they were given permission to “break the rules,” they quickly came to understand that these small stories are quite simply bursting with rhythm and poetry, which we certainly did not want to suppress.

Many of the students needed to be encouraged to think about the sounds of words, not simply their meaning, but they soon began to enjoy playing with alliteration and consonance in ways that might replicate some of the sounds of the original. They learned to appreciate the fact that, even when we were not able to recreate the exact same pattern of sounds in the exact same places, we could sometimes create a similar effect in a different location or with different sounds. For example, at the end of “The Whims of Lights,” we replaced the sibilant sounds in the Spanish (“Tu voz, mezclada con el viento y el agua, sigue susurrando incomprensibles sueños. Sangra dolor desde la roca” (151)) with W sounds in the English, which also suggested the sounds of the nature that surround the protagonist: “Your voice, mixed with wind and water, continues whispering incomprehensible dreams. Sorrow bleeds from the rocks” (152).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the translation question that created the most disagreement in the class was the title of the book. Variations on “corta la piel” appear nine times in the book, and both “corta” and “piel” occur in other contexts as well. We needed a phrase that worked as a title as well as in each of those locations, some of which referred to a literal laceration of the skin, while others referenced emotional or figurative wounds. The phrase also occurs in the epigraph—a fragment of a poem from Sin preámbulos / Without Preamble which I had previously translated as “cuts the flesh.” Once we settled on “it pierces the skin” as our translation, I changed my translation in the epigraph to match.

In the class’s first conversation with Xánath, she explained that she chose the title for this collection as a way to emphasize the pain and injustice that exist in the world today. In their final response letters to Xánath, many students pointed out very aptly that the book not only reflects that pain, it also motivates the reader to act, to seek justice, to strive for a more equitable world. Students also marveled at how a book that highlights pain can also reflect the beauty, the poetry, the joy to be found in the world. Xánath Caraza is the rare type of writer who can thread that needle, emphasizing the problems and difficulties of the world while also regaling her reader with beauty and with hope.

I would like to express my gratitude to Lycoming College for supporting this project, particularly President Kent Trachte, Provost Philip Sprunger, and the department of Modern Language Studies. Thanks to Kaitlyn Hipple for leading the way. Also and especially, my thanks and appreciation to Xánath Caraza. 

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