I am excited to announce that my submissions won the first annual UM Undergraduate Prize in Literary Translation!
Cristina Peri Rossi is one of the most celebrated female writers of post-boom Latin American literature. Before her exile, Peri Rossi frequently drew upon the everyday reality of the military state in her fiction, a style that employed a metaphorical discourse—transcending boundaries of sex, gender, and class—to capture a realistic vision of life in Uruguay during the 1960s and 70s. Essentially, this vision emphasized not only the tyrannical behavior of the State, but also that of her family, whose actions were symptomatic of a phallocentric and patriarchal society. The texts that comprise the collection Cosmoagonías, written after Peri Rossi’s exile to Spain in 1972 under the Juan María Bordaberry dictatorship, prioritize a highly-abstract reading of the human condition, a method in contrast to her earlier work which was more clearly political in intention. In the initial stages of drafting the translations throughout the past year, I purposefully distanced myself from the historical and current debates in feminist thought, often treating questions of gender and exile in translation, in order to allow her voice to travel through my own, to test and extend the limits of my abilities as much as her own m,,. In this way, I have learned to manipulate her shadows, to revel in the silence that resides around her language, and to interpret the tone that compels the reader to desire the abstract while also delving into a consciousness at once universal, yet so imprinted with the traces of Peri Rossi’s individual experience. However, after a certain point, it became increasingly clear that the voice I carried with me, a hybrid speech of her poetry reflected through my consciousness and cosmovisión, necessitated a clearer articulation, theoretically and practically.
In her decisive essay “The Politics of Translation,” Gayatri Spivak proposes that, “[N]o amount of tough talk can get around the fact that translation is the most intimate act of reading. Unless the translator has earned the right to become the intimate reader, she cannot surrender to the text, cannot respond to the special call of the text.”# Although many scholars have informed my work, especially as I considered the ethical and aesthetic consequences of translating even the subtlest of words, it is this image of the “intimate reader” that guides me most in my rewriting of the tales, a process in which I am conjuring a spirit akin to that of Borges’ Pierre Menard. I have committed myself to tracing and refiguring the echoes of Peri Rossi’s elusive voice—a voice often confused with my own—into a lyrical work that prioritizes style over polemic. Here, I envision the concept of faithfulness as it is grounded in the Nabokovian ideal of citation and literalism as a betrayal of what Peri Rossi stands for as a writer and as a translator herself, a belief in the poetic that can transcend all limitations of audience and authority and not a fidelity to the literal word, translation ad verbum.
Throughout the translation process, I have come to view the strict binary of foreignization/domestication as counterproductive to my own practice. Conversely, by embracing this space in between—choosing my battles wisely and knowing that resistance is always an inherent part of the text and practice—I hope to have captured Cristina Peri Rossi’s style in a fitting English, a language that is at once foreign, at once my own. Here, I gesture to the first story in this submission, “Rumors,” to elucidate how, above all, I have taken great pains to conserve her style over any specifically feminist or political interest, although such ideas have greatly informed my readings of the texts. An apt example of this translation process, located in the space of gendered language, was a central question in my reworking of “Rumors.” Here, the plurality located within the use of a feminine noun such as la amiga (female friend/girlfriend) is lost when translated into the English equivalent “lover.” Not only is the sense of a homosexual relationship lost, but the subtle use of amiga (friend, but often utilized to express the subject as a mistress) seems impossible to translate without constructing artificial context. Although I attempted to play with the positions and uses of the word, most of my efforts sounded awkward and weighty; such absence gestures to a particular decision in which I sacrificed the more progressive sense for a lyrical word choice in English.
Although I am aware of the power of Peri Rossi’s text in the Latin American literary canon (both as a feminist and exile), I cannot help but return to the source—perpetually located in language—and her sense of storytelling to guide me in my own translations. One of the largest factors in designating a culture to the original story is the language in which it is written, subsequently the facet most lost in the act of translation. Peri Rossi does not construct her short stories in the conventional manner; they lack a beginning and end and so as the reader forgets the story line, the cultural subtext slips away as well. This absence of definition both constrains and frees me: each word becomes almost too important, distinct and filled with a meaning almost perpetually undecipherable. At times, this occurs even to the point where the signifier lacks a signified, an utter confusion only intensified by translation. Here, I ask: Am I translating Peri Rossi, or is Peri Rossi a vessel through which I translate myself? My translation process has been an intimate one—perpetually hovering between friendship and love—and I have benefitted greatly from working with Peri Rossi in the drafting of these translations. In being aware of the theories which have so penetrated her work, whether psychoanalytic or feminist, yet at the same time distancing myself from their tendentious power, I hope to have reproduced the texts without an agenda, but instead with a desire to embody and, subsequently, to release the words that I have been bequeathed for these transient, yet illuminating instants. In this sense, perhaps the multiplicitous nature of fiction in translation suggests that no single translation can ever capture the totality of meaning on its own. Only by viewing the original text through a palimpsestic lens can we grasp the intricate suggestions of the source language in the target language. In this, the translator and author both mirror the subject in love; neither the translator nor the author remains unchanged in the process.
“The Indecisives’ Club” by Cristina Peri Rossi
The indecisive know that any decision is partially wrong, not by the sense of the thing, but rather by merely choosing. In any case, the act of leaving the house or remaining there is quite irrelevant; the man who chooses to open the door—crossing the threshold and integrating himself into the anonymous crowd that swarms the city—is no less mistaken than the other, the closer of doors who decides to settle himself into an armchair, never leaving the comforts of home. One decision or the other, apparently conflicting, agree in one regard: they intervene in reality, triggering a series of unforeseeable actions and determining others in an uncontrollable process where one responsibility alone is excessive, although its absence signals cowardice.
Like the woman who had to cross the river to meet her lover and perished in the undertaking.
The story of this woman illustrates better than any other to what extent every decision is wrong, that a yes or no spoken in an apparently inoffensive way brings immeasurable consequences to pass. Sometimes we can assess the consequences of those that remain nearby; those far-off are imperceptible yet no less important, like successive waves that form beyond our gaze.
The house stood on the border of the river. The river was green, dyed by unruly vegetation.
The water provokes dreams. They are dim, the dreams provoked by the water. They flow from some distant place, wrapped in the undergrowth, woven in lianas and muddy residues (memories of those in another lost time, unsummonable); they are sketches in the fog, the echoes of battered branches, like bones dislocated and broken. In the dark night of desire, the water confers an illusory form to those vague wishes, to those unsatisfied anxieties. Woman, river, and dream voyage together in the green seabed of water, in the flowing hair of mixed lianas, in the fragile vapor of waking.
The woman had a lover. The willows fell with delicate weightlessness, sweeping the coast and evaporating the undergrowth.
The lover resided on the other side of the river in an identical house, yet inhabited by him. At night, he turned on the light to await her. In the middle of the nocturnal river’s rumblings, gasping in the darkness, the house’s light—at the other side of the shore—survived as a levitating beacon, a meteor suspended, a ship that promised travel. With his light he called her, a promise of yearning realized, of desires slowly satisfied.
For many years, so many years ago, a wooden bridge linked both shores. In those bygone days, the bridge, while uniting the two strips of shore, hindered the growth of profound dreams. The path to the other shore unraveled their desires, withered them. The bridge had been swept away by the currents after some time, so long ago that the house did not exist—not the woman and her jealous husband, not the house on the other shore. Yet, although it was an inaccessible shore, an imperative craving remained, an urgent yearning, a woman desiring and a lover who awaits.
The absence of the bridge brought forth a vessel whose boatman, as sinister as Acheron, would lie in wait on the coast, willing to charge so highly for the travelers’ dreams.
At night, the water fell from the sky, staining itself green in the tree groves. The woman looked out from the window at the river that grew and at the house on the other shore, its light floating in the infinitude like an arc.
“I will come,” she had promised her urgent lover. Night, storm, ship, and boatman made her remember the promise.
Her husband did not consent. He had been leaning out from the doorway, jealous, while observing the distant beacon, hating the longing that set fire in the evening light, the desire that could drive a boat in darkness. And he closed his pocketbook: without a bridge and without money, the desire would be one without means—lacking driftwood and a house at which to arrive. A drowned yearning between the lianas of resentment. The boat ruminated nearby in the solitude of its driver without a victim, of a trip yet to begin. The waters shivered and the boatman, focusing, looked to the house where the man and wife fought, listening to the pulse of the waters like a heart in its death throes.
She flees her husband and puts a foot into the boat; the far-off light from her lover’s house urgently calls. She quivers in the night populated by rumors and humidity like the forewings of fire, responding from her ardent depths and with a desire that fills her mouth with water. She lies to the boatman, promising him a payment that she won’t be able to give. In the impulse, the rising impulse of desire, entrusted to the gods, she offers no other means of payment: perhaps the boatman is more pious than he seems and permits debts born from passion.
The voyage is uncomfortable and gloomy. In the night’s tempestuous solitude she listens to the indecipherable rumors, branches that crack, the rapping of stones against the shore. The boatman looks at her fixedly and she knows another sort of passion is hidden in his cold eyes, so implacable, like the yearning that now leads her from the guarded shore to the open air of the river. Blindly she understands that both passions do not take pity on one another, and that the terrible sentence will be carried out at the end of the journey, when the other shore ceases to be a feverish dream and is cut—sharp—by the boat’s edge. But she does not attempt to turn around, to deceive the boatman with some other set of promises: only piety can save her, what neither her husband nor her lover can feel; a sense of piety in which she doesn’t believe. (Renouncing her promise to the desire so that it can grow in the night like a perverse tumor. And the distant light would arouse her with its trembling, drumming.)
When the boatman’s implacable hands close around her neck (she sees reeds growing from the other side and is surprised that they aren’t taller, she sees the mud along the shore and is surprised that is has the same color, she listens to the water’s murmur moving among the grasses, trunks, stones and the murmur itself) she knows, in every way, that any other choice would have been wrong.
For the indecisive, there is always a river to cross, an urgent lover, a jealous husband and a murderous boatman. The catastrophe happens no matter the decision one makes, independent of the alternative choice. Only the absence of desire would be able to guarantee—until a certain point, and not always—irresponsibility.
The indecisive refuse to choose between even the most venial things. They won’t order from the menu (they prefer the permanent dishes); they allow others to select the salad and dessert, never confessing desire. When they wish to hear some type of music, they kindly ask their neighbors whether they prefer jazz or opera. If alone, they toss a coin into the air.
The indecisive are recognized by their extraordinary kindness. They leave it to others to choose the movie, the color of their clothes, and the voyage’s destination. You cannot question them about the city, the beach, or the country: they experience every choice as loss, knowing that everything leads eventually to death.