Monday, March 15, 2021

Translator’s Note for An Exercise in the Darkness


Translator’s Note for An Exercise in the Darkness

Xánath Caraza created this book as a literal exercise in the darkness. Always interested in exploring new styles and new techniques, Xánath decided to write much of this book by hand while she was visiting family in Mexico. She would get up so early in the morning to write that it was still dark out, and there was often no electricity. The three sections of the text celebrate three parts in the world where she has lived: the “Fertile Land” of Mexico, the “Great Plains,” reflecting her current home in Kansas City, and the “Random Punctuation” that birds created in the sky when she lived in Vermont. 

In each of these locations, the poetic voice celebrates nature and poetry. Eventually, the symphony of the forest with which we begin this collection concludes with the ink of the written verses, while poetry is commanded to “rend the pages. Sprout from the subsoil of this book that is born of the darkness.” Nature suffuses this poetry that grows into the light.

The nine students in my Spanish 426 Literary Translation class at Lycoming College (Hanna Cherres, Joshua Cruz-Avila, Zachary L. Donoway, Angelina M. Fernandez, Luis Felipe Garcia Tamez, Nicholas A. Musto, Julia L. Nagle, Aaron Willsea, and Joshua H. Zinngrebe) translated this book with me over the course of the Spring 2020 semester.  Five of the students had been in a previous class where we translated Xánath Caraza’s It Pierces the Skin; the other four were new to translating with me. Each of them brought his or her own personal perspective to this very personal collection; finding a unified voice for the final product was one of our greatest challenges.

Since the texts in An Exercise in the Darkness are short, students were able to work on every draft of each of these 66 prose poems.











Josh C.




Joshua Z.


After translating a series of poems for homework, students would meet in the “alphabet” groups to compare their translations and come up with a joint second draft. In the next class period, the “color” groups would compare those second drafts to create a third draft. And so on.

The book ended up being a beautiful, but challenging translation puzzle. Most intriguing of all were the small poemitas that follow each of the longer prose poems. Because of the differences inherent to English and Spanish word order, my students and I found that it was sometimes necessary to change the order of the lines in the poemita so it would make sense in English, and to do that, we also needed to change the order of the longer prose poem. For example, in “Without Birds,” the poemita reads: “Acompaña / los siglos / la profundidad.” The singular verb in Spanish makes it clear that “la profundidad” is the subject. In English, on the other hand, we expect the subject to be at the beginning of the sentence, so if we were to leave the subject at the end, the poemita would not seem to make sense. Moving the subject to the beginning (“Profundity / accompanies / the centuries”) required us to move what was originally the fourth sentence in the prose poem to the beginning. Luckily, these texts are fluid enough that they allow for this type of mobility.

Some of our greatest challenges in interpreting these texts related to the need to specify possessive pronouns in English, while Spanish allows for greater ambiguity in this sense. For example, in the poem “Se entretejen con la piel,” we had to decide whether our translation of the title would retain the generic “the skin” or whether it should specify “her skin,” “my skin,” or “our skin.” Although we most often chose the first person singular, in this case, we chose to broaden the scope, believing that desires intertwine with the skin of all of us.

Because these short texts are so poetic, it was imperative to try to capture the fluidity of Xánath’s texts, the echoes of words that reappear throughout the book, the alliterations and internal rhymes and personification. While I think we were generally successful, we weren’t able to come up with a play on words to recreate the two meanings of “copa” in “El Chinini,” where the “copa” [canopy] of the tree magically transforms into a “copa” [wineglass] on a table.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the challenges students confronted while finalizing this book in Spring 2020 when the global pandemic made face-to-face classes impossible. Fortunately, all nine of the students were able to continue meeting together synchronously through videoconferencing. They were still able to work in their separate groups through Zoom sessions, and they were able to share their screens and edit the poems together in that way. Their dedication to this project in the midst of everything that was going on was admirable, and I believe that, for many of them, being able to grapple with Xánath’s beautiful text provided some respite from a world that was filled with unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty.

I offer my deepest appreciation to each of them for their hard work, to Tudor Şerbănescu for his amazing visual translations of these texts, and of course, to the incomparable Xánath Caraza for allowing us to join her on this journey through the darkness and into the light.

                                                                                                            —Sandra Kingery

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