A Note on Translation

Raquel Salas-Rivera

Translating my own poetry has been a way of healing my relationship with a bilingual self who struggled intensely to learn standardized dialects of both languages. After living out my elementary school years in the US, I was unprepared for high school in Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico. Having acquired an undergraduate degree in Puerto Rico, I was unprepared for graduate school in Philadelphia. For a long time, I was bilingual in contexts where monolingualism was encouraged. My bilingualism was treated by my teachers, professors and peers as something that had to be contained, a dangerous and infectious substance. Each language could spill into the other, leaving unwanted traces and incomprehensible words.

By translating these poems, I am acknowledging that US imperialism’s economic impact has led many Puerto Ricans to migrate to the US, where speaking English and surviving are synonymous. I am recognizing that their children have inherited that violent linguistic erasure, and within English, as well as Spanish, they still find ways to make the colonizer’s language their own. I hope that my work will inspire poets who work primarily in English to decolonize their reading practices and learn more about the work being written, performed, and published in Puerto Rico. It is just as necessary that linguistic purism be read for what it is: violence against those who perform their difference.

“‘no flota por los aires’/‘it does not float in the air,’” belongs to LO TERCIARIO/THE TERTIARY. The poem’s title comes from the Pedro Scaron’s El Capital, the 1976 translation of Karl Marx’s classic. Published by Siglo Veintiuno Editores, this translation was commonly used by the Puerto Rican left as part of a political formation program. LO TERCIARIO/THE TERTIARY places this text in relation to the Puerto Rican debt crisis. In a world structured by debt, the future is already determined and quantified, with no room for irrelevance. Unwanted words linger and well up in pools. Language asserts itself as excess and even the economic language that strives to self-regulate, deviates towards the outskirts. In Section 4, useful work becomes useless for qualifying tití Teresa’s life, or that which is owed but cannot be named.

Generally, my poetry concerns itself with loss. Although I try to make the translations sound sourceless, I leave many words in Spanish intact when I feel the translation will silence rather than open up new meanings. There is a less quantifiable reason why I keep some words in Spanish. Even though adoquines are cobblestones, my adoquines, the ones I stumbled over on my way to and from the water, could never bear the word cobblestone. Sometimes the word in Spanish is so enmeshed with the poem’s life, that changing it would be painful. I call these untranslated words knots. I’d like to directly address two of my translation decisions in “‘no flota por los aires’/ ‘it does not float in the air.’” The first is my decision to translate t.d.t as i.o.you. In Spanish, the term iou does not exist, therefore I coined te debo tanto or t.d.t. In translating t.d.t. back into English, I wanted to retain some of the playfulness of the coinage in the Spanish version, so I chose to replace iou with i.o.you. By partially writing out the acronym, I translate the creative gesture along with the creation.

The second decision I’d like to address is my translation of the word faucebunda as jawful. -undx is a suffix that expresses intensity or duration. For example, something that is tremebundx is something that causes horror. I coined faucebunda by adding the suffix -undx to fauces (fauces or jaws). If something tremebundx causes fear, something faucebunda causes jaws, or the unhinging/opening/revealing of the jaws-as-jaws. Awe and jaw become bound in the bodily gesture of shock.

This translation’s unruly knots resist assimilation and loss and, in some ways, visibilize it as illegibility. They are ghostly traces of the original poem and the traumatic linguistic labor of making oneself legible at the expense of losing connection to the world in which the poems once reverberated. Specifically, that world is Puerto Rico. While translation has helped me heal my relationship with a bilingual self, this has be possible because it has simultaneously given me the room to acknowledge that home is still measured in yearned adoquines.

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