Gregory Pardlo says, “Translation is a practice of empathy, like choosing a twin, where affinity and kinship is a declarative act and not a passive discovery. What would the world be like (I ask naively) if our first impulses were to find that part of us that is most like each person we meet?”
I was introduced to Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s work by my friend and teacher, Luis Othoniel Rosa. He brought a bunch of poetry books by Puerto Rican writers to our Feminist Literature Across the Americas class. At that point, I’d only translated a few of Neruda’s love poems. I’d been weird about translation; I wanted to do it, I had taught high school Spanish, most of my research involved Latin American writers, I knew where to look—but I wanted a kind of serendipity to exist between me and the work. I wanted to stumble upon an old book in a used bookstore and know it was meant for me. I wanted to choose and feel chosen, to treat the text like a body I might love. I wanted to feel the distance between us. This impulse was unsophisticated and for that reason I clung to it and waited.
When I saw Nicole’s book Apenas un cántaro sitting on a desk in our gray classroom in the middle of winter in Nebraska, I felt a pull. It was small and square, beige with a blue spine; a line drawing of a clay vessel smiled on the cover; a few red abstract shapes.
Nicole's poetry feels like that calm right after lightning strikes. Your body electrifies and the world seems still, quieter. But the natural world is never still, and our bodies are just as animal as the noise in the trees. Desire. We’re not separate. Nicole’s poetry knows this. How can it not? She writes from Puerto Rico, which suffers, acutely, the effects of colonization and the climate crisis. Hers is a poetry written — and lived — amidst Hurricane María, the Wall Street debt crisis, the PROMESA bill, and now a chain of earthquakes, happening as I type these words, along its southern perimeter.
I didn’t have any translation theory guiding me when I started working on these poems besides a few essays the NEA published — that’s where I found the Pardlo quote mentioned above. The process felt intuitive, driven by sound, similar to how I write my own poems in English. I read the Spanish poem aloud repeatedly, identified the words I didn’t know, worked through each line, then read the English version until it felt right. It was only retrospectively that I recognized patterns in my choices. When accuracy failed to create meaning, it was a matter of changing syntax. Spanish and English can sometimes appear as fraternal twins — their sentence structures often similar; their histories in the Americas carry a similar colonizing weight; they bludgeoned through things, and those of us who are here now speak with our distinct sounds of loss.
I’m still at work on Nicole’s book, still at the beginning of learning how to be a translator. To return to Pardlo’s question, I did see a similarity between Nicole’s sounds and my own. But the more I work, the more I learn about the context of these poems, the more I see our differences. I’m starting to think translation is a metaphor for a kind of love that makes the most sense to me. To translate, you must acknowledge what you do not know, you must attempt to care for a body full of such different stories than your own. The textures are always different. This kind of care is quiet, and I needed that because our current moment has unwound and despaired me. As I tended to these poems, my body felt that care reciprocated.
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