Literature : Interview

Daniel Borzutzky, Part I

by Kristin Dykstra

In part one of a two part interview, Daniel Borzutzky talks to Kristin Dykstra about translation, how poetry inserts itself into history, and his most recent collection The Book of Interfering Bodies.

In April 2009 I was privileged to attend an event at the Instituto Cervantes in Chicago featuring poet and translator Daniel Borzutzky alongside the renowned Chilean writer Raúl Zurita. The two had been working together on the translation of Zurita’s Canto a su amor desaparecido, which would be published in 2010 by Action Books as Song for His Disappeared Love. Well-summarized by Reginald Gibbons, the book offers “a surreal translation into both possible and also impossible imagery of unspeakable and nearly unsayable experiences of imprisonment, torture and murder . . . yet also of enduring and holding onto one’s humanity, during the brazen dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.”

Zurita made that trip to Chicago during a busy semester as a visiting writer in the northeastern US because he wanted to spend some time talking about writing with Borzutzky in person. Their Chicago reading, organized on short notice by the Guild Complex, included presentations in English and Spanish that allowed the audience to witness a rich performance from both speakers.

Zurita insisted that he not be the sole attraction, structuring the reading so that Borzutzky would foreground his own creative writing as well as the translations. One topic of their conversations before the event was Borzutzky’s new poetry, so at Zurita’s request he read selections of his own recent work, focusing on poems from his most recent collection The Book of Interfering Bodies, published by Nightboat Books.

Born to Chilean parents in Pittsburgh in 1974, Borzutzky has lived for many years in Chicago. In addition to the 2011 release The Book of Interfering Bodies, he is the author of The Ecstasy of Capitulation (BlazeVox, 2007) and Arbitrary Tales (Triple Press, 2005). Our conversation dealt with the overlapping practices of translation and writing, and the ways that the two practices influence and reflect one another. Preparing these questions, I imagined his recent poetry as hovering in spaces proximate to his translations.

Kristin Dykstra Your interview with Ray Bianchi names writers you admire, as do many epigraphs in The Book of Interfering Bodies. The work of literary translation demands particularly close readings, so I’m interested in the ways in which Juan Emar, Jaime Huenún, and now Raúl Zurita have or haven’t influenced you. As a starting point for that conversation: how did you first take up literary translation, and what initially attracted you to your first full-book project?

Daniel Borzutzky I started translating at the same time that I was really starting to write seriously. It began innocently, with the simple thought: it would be cool to translate, and then it became a challenge I set for myself which in some ways had to do with improving my language skills. Also, I think I understood that translation was an entryway into a writing world or writing discussion that I would not be able to enter solely by doing my own writing. My own writing and my translating “came of age” at the same time, I was learning how to do both simultaneously, and the translation work was helpful to have when the writing wasn’t going well.

Specifically, my first translation project was the short-story collection Diez by Juan Emar. In 2001, I befriended a Chilean graduate art student in Chicago, Alicia Scherson (a tremendous filmmaker in Chile), and she told me about Juan Emar (Juan Emar is a pen name, chosen for its homophonic connection to the French phrase J’en ai marre, or “I’m fed up”). Then she lent me the book Diez by Juan Emar which I never returned because I started translating it with Alicia’s help. I liked Emar and I was trying to write short stories that had a sense of movement and relation to information similar to Emar’s. But the truth is, I started translating Emar without even reading Diez through first. I remember at some point I called the publishing house in Chile to inform them that I was translating the work. The book was out of print, and whomever I talked to really didn’t seem to care one way or another, and was amused by my call. That summer I spent almost two months at an artist’s residency in the desert in southern California, where I stayed in a cabin with no electricity. I translated the book on pen and paper with a Spanish-English dictionary, and then I sat on the work for several years as I didn’t know what to do with it. I had no idea what to do with the stories once I had translated them. It was truly a surprise to me that journals wanted to publish these translations when I finally got up the nerve to share them.

Jaime Huenún’s Port Trakl was also an accidental discovery. I went to Chile in 2005. I went to the bookstore at the publishing house Lom Ediciones and discovered the book. I liked it so much I started translating it immediately.

These works were my first translation projects, and they came into the world at similar times.

KD Your rendition of Emar’s “The Hacienda La Cantera” offers a good example of movement in his sentences, the cadence of the narrative being an element that makes the story’s humor work. There does seem to be a clear connection to aspects of your own creative writing—for example, you’ve been able to make a similar use of cadence to achieve humorous effect in your poems and prose. Here are two examples from your translation of Emar’s tale. The first excerpt portrays a ritual carried out for mysterious purposes. Both examples will make good use of repetition as the scene extends, yet disrupt that feeling of prolongation with abrupt turns.

Three of us were present when the sun began to fall: (the wise and scholarly) Desiderio Longotoma, (the distinguished violinist) Julián Ocoa, and me.

The three of us wore black frock coats buttoned to our necks, black top hats, and gloves. We stood side by side, our elbows touching.

And we took off, steadily forward, but slowly separating at angles of 30 degrees.

There was something 125 meters in front of each of us:

In front of Longotoma: a tower of bricks;

In front of Ocoa: a step ladder;

In front of me: a pear tree.

We marched military style to our destinations: Longotoma to the tower, Ocoa to the ladder, and I to the pear tree.

Stop! One whole minute. And we started to climb at the same time.1

This excerpt sets the characters into motion within its strange geometrical scenario, stops them, restarts. The next excerpt, taken from the same story, also uses repetition, prolongation, and an abrupt shift to create sensations of motion and stoppage:

I will always remember the exact time on my watch at that moment: 10 o’clock sharp.

Never in my life has this knowledge served any purpose, and, at that precise moment, all that occurred to me on seeing the time was that throughout my country all the clocks read 10, and in the neighboring country all the clocks read 11. In contrast, nowhere did the clocks read 9, except, perhaps, in the deserted waters of the ocean, if a wayward ship happened to be passing through.

Which was not very likely. (80)

But Huenún is a very different writer than Emar. His poems can be quite compact:

I cross this forest of tortured firs.

Falling stars sweeten

distant birch.

Silently, a woman appears in the mist

and illuminates my path.

Her lantern has no light.2

Do you remember what qualities drew you to his poems, out of all the books you could have chosen from the Lom Editions store that day?

DB I’d say that Port Trakl was a book that I knew I could translate, and after having worked on Emar—a messy and difficult, yet brilliant, prose writer—for a long time I was very relieved to find that there was a book of poetry that I really liked and that I wanted to translate that was neat, contained, and not incredibly complicated on a linguistic level. There was a lot that I initially liked about it: to start, that it was called Port Trakl. I liked the the transnational nature of an imaginary port named after Georg Trakl that fit in a South American environment. I liked very much the idea of translating a book that itself was a response to another writer. I liked that I was compelled to read Trakl as I translated the book. I also liked the references to Melville and to American writing which seemed to me very non-Chilean. And as I reflect on this now, it seems to me that one of the interesting things about translation is the way that you are in dialogue, not just with the given writer you are translating, but also with the writer’s literary lineage as well. This has been especially helpful to me as I’ve translated Raúl Zurita’s work, but it was helpful as well with Huenún. In other words, knowing that Huenún is responding to Trakl provides the translator with some clues about how to enter the work. Knowing that Zurita is in dialogue with Dante, and that we both share a love for Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, helps me to intuit approaches, or at least to imagine the writer’s intentions and inspirations. More and more I have come to really love this idea of translating both an individual writer and in the process encountering and incorporating all of the writers with whom that writer is in dialogue. It’s very much like the way I make my own writing: I talk to my own land, my world, and my experience through a constant dialogue with those writers who I love and who have meant the most to me.

KD And Raúl Zurita’s work? Songs for His Disappeared Love was published recently. How did you come to translate this book, and which of its qualities have most struck you during that process?

DB A few years ago, a journal asked me to translate a few of Zurita’s newer poems. I’d read and admired his work for many years, so I was both excited and nervous about the possibility of translating his writing. I wrote to him as I was translating the poems because I didn’t understand how he was using a particular word. He wrote me back the next day, and after considering my question, he changed the original poem in Spanish. This to me was stunning and completely representative of Raúl’s generosity and humility. After I finished those few poems, I asked him if he had a book-length work that he wanted to see translated. He sent me Song for His Disappeared Love.

This book—both a love song for a disappeared love and a love song and requiem to Chile’s disappeared—was published in 1985, during the latter years of the dictatorship. This was way before it was officially announced that the Chilean government was throwing bodies out of airplanes and, to quote Zurita, into the rocks, the sea, and the mountains. This very public declaration on Zurita’s part, this very public announcement of the atrocities that everyone knew about and that no one mentioned, strikes me as a moment where poetry is effectively inserting itself into history, where poetry is not only interrogating the secrets of the present but also mourning them and making sure they are part of the public record. But I don’t know if that really captures what I like most about the book. It feels epic to me and ambitious and multi-national and interacting with the land and the landscape in a way that is completely unique to Zurita.

In a question-and-answer session after one of our recent readings, an audience member asked Raúl to discuss his insistence on using nature as an entryway into political realities, and he answered the question by stating that “by receiving the bodies that had been thrown into them, the mountains were more compassionate than the government had been.” And so my reading of Zurita is one in which the bodies of the disappeared become part of the landscape and become inseparable from our understanding of the “natural” history of the nation.

Finally, what I think is most striking about Zurita’s book is the way in which it finds a language to address atrocity, and how this language, rather than being didactic or even philosophical, works through sentiment, emotion, personal grief, love, desire, and horror. What is most unique about Zurita, to me, is his ability to represent both the communal and the personal at the same time, and to constantly connect the two in a rhythm and language that is at once both powerful and violent, and lyrical and sonically brilliant.

1 From “The Hacienda La Cantera,” by Juan Emar. Tr. Daniel Borzutzky. The Review of Contemporary Fiction XXVII (Summer 2007): 77 – 86. 78.

2 “I cross this forest of tortured firs.” From Port Trakl / Puerto Trakl, by Jaime Huenún. Tr. Daniel Borzutzky. Notre Dame, IN: Action Books, 2007. 19.

Part two is available here.

Kristin Dykstra’s translations and commentary are featured in bilingual editions of books by Reina María Rodríguez and Omar Pérez, among them Did You Hear about the Fighting Cat?, Something of the Sacred, Time’s Arrest, and Violet Island and Other Poems. She is a 2012 NEA Literary Translation Fellow. Dykstra is Associate Professor of English at Illinois State University and co-edits Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas with Gabriel Bernal Granados (Mexico City) and Roberto Tejada (Dallas).