“I am not one of those people who finds that every translation is mystically inferior to the original. I have often suspected, or been able to prove, the opposite.” These were the thoughts of Jorge Luis Borges in 1946 when he published his famous “Nota sobre Ulises en español” [Note on Ulysses in Spanish]. A translator of Woolf, Faulkner, and Whitman, among others, Borges was always suspicious of the concept of the definitive text, which he attributed—not without a certain irony—to “superstition or tiredness.” Borges not only translated some of the most important writers of Western literature, he also reflected on the exercise of translation with a unique perspicacity. Rather than a more-or-less fortunate passage from one language to another, Borges’s translations reached a literary stature. It is impossible not to agree with the declaration that translation is an art in itself, although difficult to classify, and that without this silent and ancient vocation we would know little or nothing of the world.
Nonetheless, the worth of translation is far from a widely accepted truth. Translation is often taken for a simple fact that requires no further thought. This is a mistake. In the United States, for example, the statistics alone are quite disheartening. In 2004, of the 185,000 books published in this country, only 874 were literary books for adults in translation (The New York Times, April 23). In 2016, the situation seemed to have grown slightly worse: the 633 books of poetry and fiction translated to English and published in this country made up a whopping 1% of the books published in 2016 in the United States (Literary Hub, August 3, 2018). It is impossible not to think of the Latin American bookshops where books written by Latin Americans struggle to clear a space for themselves among the dozens of books translated from other languages, and where they compete—not without effort—for a spot on the “new releases” table. In Latin America, we learn to read in translation and watch movies with subtitles. This never seems strange to us, we don’t think much about it. The cultural scarcity to which we are accustomed has led us to develop a skill for and an interest in the literature of other countries. Of course, we have always been interested in the world, in what we can glimpse through the windows of the house of our personal experience. This is why translation occupies a central space in Latin American Literature Today. Because we come from translation, because translation is our eyes looking out at the world, at other people, people different from us. Translation helps us not to lose ourselves, to relativize our own ideas, to dream, to imagine, and often to be somewhere other than here.
Latin American Literature Today is a journal of contemporary Latin American literature, but it is also a journal of translation. In other words, LALT does not believe in the 1%.
In this issue, renowned translator (and lifelong friend of the journal) George Henson has prepared a dossier dedicated to one of the most important writers of Mexican literature, Elena Poniatowska (winner of the 2013 Miguel de Cervantes Prize). Her importance in the panorama of Latin American literature is undeniable, and we are very proud to feature Elena on the cover of LALT No. 11. Nonetheless, contrary to what some readers may imagine, Poniatowska’s work is not so well known beyond the borders of the Spanish language. Like George says in his introduction to the dossier: “unlike many of her contemporaries, which include, among others, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, Elena’s vast and disparate oeuvre—over 40 books across a myriad of genres—has largely been ignored by American translators and publishers.” We cannot change the history of the reception of books in English, but we can at least extend an invitation to our readers to learn more about this extraordinary Mexican writer and journalist. This dossier represents that invitation.
Yet the fate of literary works is uncertain and, to some extent, gratuitous. Few would have anticipated that the work of Chilean poet Enrique Lihn would be as inexhaustible as the continuous republications of his books have demonstrated since his death in 1988. In this new issue of LALT, Roberto Brodsky, writer and editor-at-large of our journal, has prepared a dossier centered around this remarkable Chilean poet. This is not another dossier about Lihn as a poet, but rather something more modest and, at the same time, more original. The idea was to revisit a poet with different eyes, with a different idea, to find in a detail, in a period of time, something we had missed the first time around. Brodsky writes: “Without hoping to cover even a fraction of the enormous volume of writing and performative action that marked the final decade of Lihn’s life, this dossier shines a light on this period with materials that seek to account for the situation of the poetic subject to which he always referred, as well as to indicate the current horizon of his situational poetics in the tumultuous post-truth cultural environment.” Distinct personalities and talents flow together in Lihn, but his identity as a poet floats atop the current. Or his identity as someone who, as a poet, was much more than a poet: a poet in a permanent “irregular situation.”
We were talking about translation. It is a happy coincidence that the first issue of LALT including Denise Kripper as Translation Editor should fall in the month of August, celebrated worldwide as #WomenInTranslationMonth. We are happy to celebrate the women writers we have published in translation in our journal, such as Elena Poniatowska, along with Tununa Mercado, two of whose texts (translated by Rhonda Buchanan) we have the pleasure of publishing in this issue. But also, and especially, we want to celebrate all the women translators who have collaborated and continue to collaborate in our mission to share the richness of Latin American literature in Spanish and Portuguese with English-speaking readers through our digital pages. We congratulate Laura Cesarco Eglin, winner of the 2019 Best Translated Book Award for her translation of Of Death. Minimal Odes by Brazilian poet Hilda Hilst. In this issue, our readers will find a selection of her poems along with an interview of this excellent translator. In a section that premiers in this issue, dedicated especially to translation, we share an essay by Argentine author and translator Esther Cross (translated by Frances Riddle), and we bring you an exclusive preview of Silvina Ocampo’s The Promise, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell.
We never tire of highlighting the importance of literature in translation. Nonetheless, the reality of the world’s English-speaking countries is working against us. Most readers are likely unaware of the statistics I mentioned above. They are far from encouraging. The presence of Latin American literature in this country is still very small. Much of our literature exists in the universities of the United States. Not all of it, of course. But its readers are professors, students, specialists; the majority are Latin Americans themselves, and professionals. The commercial book market is a different story, but it is still very small, and it tends not to notice the presence of our authors unless they have been translated to English first. In this state of things, it bears repeating that Latin American Literature Today is—and has hoped to be since its beginnings—a home for translators.
Lastly, a celebratory note to accompany the release of this new issue of LALT. This week we reached 4,000 followers on our Facebook page, and on Twitter we are close to reaching that number as well. None of this would have been possible without the tenacity, dedication, and professionalism of our Media Manager, Claudia Cavallín, and our Managing Editor, Arthur Dixon. It has been and still is an honor for Latin American Literature Today to have them on our team!
We hope you will enjoy this new offering, where you will find yourself once again in the presence of a lively and vibrant literature: the Latin American literature of today.
Translated by Arthur Dixon