In this interview, poet and translator Erín Moure talks with Kristin Dykstra about her new translation of The Lady of Elche by Uruguayan poet Amanda Berenguer, available now from Veliz Books.
Erín Moure: My introduction to Amanda Berenguer, in Spanish and in English, was Materia Prima (2019), the wonderfully rich collection that you edited with the late Kent Johnson, and participated in translating. Wow, the stunning multiplicity of Berenguer’s forms and poetic methods! Now The Lady of Elche, a book of poems entirely in one extended form and set of cadences, is a new illumination. What keys would you suggest to a reader who starts their plunge into Amanda Berenguer with The Lady of Elche?
Kristin Dykstra: Uruguayans situate Berenguer as the most multifaceted poet of her time. And she showcases multiple faces in The Lady of Elche. The self here is especially dynamic. Berenguer first asserts “I’m Amanda—from Montevideo”; in a later poem, her speaker fears that she’s nobody. The whole flow of the collection counters her erasure, and female images proliferate all around her doubt.
The Lady of Elche refers to a famous Iberian statue, a limestone “body” from the fourth century BCE that Berenguer ingests and occupies. There’s a photo in the front of the book, so readers can look the “Dama de Elche” in the face.
Berenguer arranges additional mythological female roles in this book—the Sibyl, family elders as Fates—and, by the end, she constructs not a “self” but a composite female presence: a transgressive and inconvenient presence who channels insistent truths about violence that many people would rather avoid, especially in dictatorship-era societies, where portions of the nation fantasize about reordering the world with impunity and forced amnesia.
The entire run of poems in The Lady of Elche becomes a fine-tuned and sharply pointed projectile, a poetics battling negation. In Materia Prima, a reader will find continuations as well as distinct, surprising turns.
E.M.: I marvel at how, in translating The Lady of Elche, you consistently maintain the tone, what I might call “the light” of the whole book, as well as its moves through linguistic registers—the “colors” of the book, perhaps. All while inscribing an accuracy that’s pinpoint-fine: it seems to me that you work closely, without paraphrase or settling for “less,” and still succeed in creating the flow for English language readers, where another translator might end up with a choppier text. Can you talk about your process of attention to the micro (the accuracy) and the macro (the flow) when translating the book?
K.D.: It takes a poet and experienced translator to say what you do, so thanks for these observations. You’ve described an ideal that I would hold for the translation of poetry. For me, trying to get somewhere near that ideal, in an asymptotic way, requires respecting duration. I started the first of these poems around 2006 or 2008, and the whole suite of poems fell into place with repeated tinkering and recalibrating. Whatever feels musical about the final translation lies in the way micro and macro interact, not allowing either to overwhelm the other.
There is an incantatory quality about Berenguer’s cadences in these poems, aided by anaphora, so I imagined someone chanting or muttering to herself. I don’t think I ever put the words “trippy” or “psychedelic” into the poems, but I used them as signposts, reminders to channel playfulness. You can’t be bland with Berenguer. Co-editing Materia Prima reinforced my awareness of Berenguer as an intellectually playful writer, in a full and serious sense of investigating humanity with curiosity and conviction.
E.M.: It’s a challenge to translate a poet from an earlier generation (it seems people are more avid to read contemporaries in poetry) without absorbing their concerns into today’s via vocabulary and syntactical choices, yet allowing the work to resonate for a contemporary reader. I wonder about your own considerations in this regard, in working on The Lady of Elche.
K.D.: I wonder if poems written in a more colloquial vein are most in danger of that kind of absorption, as they can collide with the lingering preference in English-language publishing for conversational effects in translation.
As a translator, I’ve sought out poetry that you might call “post-colloquialism.” Poems with mixed and slippery registers incorporate their own resistance to easy absorption, and since those tones interest me, I try to bring them into the English. In Cuban poetry, for example, there was a window of time in the 1960s and 1970s when colloquialism became the vanguard, then dominant. This involved the poet selecting clear and accessible words—e.g. defaulting to commonly used terms—then delivering them in a tone suggestive of everyday conversation. Eventually this poetic colloquialism played itself out and morphed into more diversified aesthetics, as trends do, even influential ones.
In the US translation context, I hear a similar preference for conversational strategies. You get editorial requests for everyday usage, and for an informal tone evoking everyday conversation. The Lady of Elche pushes language in various directions: why smooth out ambiguities, resistance, strangeness, pause, exuberance, if they define tensions animating the original poems? That said, some conversational elements can be essential, so for me it’s not an either/or scenario, but the challenge of striking a balance.
E.M.: I really marvel on each page of The Lady of Elche at how you achieve that balance. A related question: I’ve always believed in translating poets into English, or into French, since I do that too, who can bring something new to the current poetics of that language. So what does Berenguer offer to poetics in the USA today?
K.D.: The Lady of Elche operates via contradiction, as Berenguer uses pleasure to cut through itself. Pleasure, delivered with urgency, does away with pleasure as fluff and diversion.
Berenguer lays out abundant sounds in overtly mythological and psychedelic scenes, only to interrupt them with more stark, oracular tones that challenge political complicity and silence. In the Southern Cone, political battles over speech and silence have been crucial since the 1980s. The Uruguayan military declassified significant documents as recently as 2017, and the unveiling of these new archives regarding state violence complements survivor testimonies, providing resources for more prosecutions. If Berenguer’s aesthetics are tied to the pressures of the dictatorship of her time, they are also part of social battles still waged in the present.
So why do we care here? People who have studied dictatorships express concern about trends in public speech in the US. It has also been disturbing to see, via surveys, many people in the United States leaning toward authoritarian worldviews that elevate centralized authority, obedience, and uniformity over freedom, independence, and diversity.
A poetry that energizes us—is fun, is mesmerizing—while interrupting circuits of political complacency and complicity feels timely. Can people fall back in love with freedom, independence, diversity? I enjoy Berenguer’s determination to intervene with stylish “orange nomenclature.”
E.M.: Her range extends beyond the Americas, too; Europe, and Spain in particular, are also very present in this roving text.
K.D.: Yes, the roving characterizes Berenguer: poetry as mental road trip, epitomizing those desires for freedom and independence. She talks to ancestors on the Iberian Peninsula, gathers energy from Manhattan architecture, recalls the movements of Odysseus. That’s her outbound motion, which she balances against an inbound motion bringing readers back to Montevideo. Because of that dynamic, to balance the photo of the pre-Roman Lady of Elche statue from Europe that is inside the book, I chose an image of Berenguer’s Montevideo for our cover.
As she swivels between places far and near, she quotes the enigmatic Lautréamont (pen name of Isadore Ducasse, 1846-1870). Born in Montevideo, he went on to write his most famous work in French. In the mid-1980s, to name Uruguayans who wrote in languages other than Spanish was a gesture of solidarity. Their diversity, their presence-here-and-also-there, made them both symbols and proxies for fellow citizens who fled contemporary state terror to live in exile.
E.M.: It’s great to see more Uruguayan poetry in translation, and by a woman, take its place in the wider world readership in English.
K.D.: I need to approach gender in various ways, and Berenguer’s brilliance opens an unexpected lane. Logically, I believe in this mission of getting Latin American women’s writing out in translation because there are so many excellent projects yet to be recovered. Redressing a history of under-representation is a long-term process, requiring many returns to the past. However, I have trouble repeating this statement all the time. There has been such a lot of saying about women and under-representation. So I want to perform this argument artistically instead. Amanda Berenguer makes it possible.