Alma Guillermoprieto by Esther Allen

BOMB 87 Spring 2004
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Alma Guillermoprieto, Dinzel Studio, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo: Pablo Corral Vega. Courtesy of Pablo Corral Vega.

More than a decade ago now, I came across a book titled Samba, by a woman with a long last name, really a first and last name run together, that I recognized: Guillermo Prieto. I was doing research at the time on 19th-century accounts of travel between the Americas, and Prieto was one of those travelers. A leading Mexican poet and political figure, Prieto spent some time in exile in the United States during the brief imperial reign of Maximilian and Carlota (1864–67). Later he wrote an account of his journey, published in 1878 under the resonant pseudonym “Fidel.” One phrase from that book has stayed in my memory. “Travel,” Prieto wrote, “is, in the final analysis, the abandonment of personality.”

There were other reasons as well that Samba was infinitely interesting to me. For a year I’d been making my way through the hall of mirrors that is inter-American history. On one side, I’d found many books by well-informed Latin Americans, describing a United States that knew nothing of Latin America, and still knows nothing about those books. On the other side were books by U.S. travelers to Latin America, which were often quickly translated into Spanish or Portuguese and avidly read in the places they described. Travel writers, like foreign correspondents, almost invariably write for an audience back home that is tacitly assumed to share their perspective, but U.S. travel writing about Latin America often had its greatest impact on the residents of the places it described, so eager were Latin Americans to see themselves through the eyes of the Metropolis.

Samba broke those categories wide open. It’s a description of a Latin American reality—Rio de Janeiro, its carnival, its samba schools—by a writer whose perspective is that of a Latin American (she is Mexican) but who clearly intends the book for an audience in the United States and who has achieved an impressive command of English. Fascinated, I wrote her to ask for an interview and find out if she was related to my 19th-century traveler.

She wrote back right away, and yes, she is a descendant of Guillermo Prieto. She gently put me off my idea of an interview, but we found when we met that we had lots to say to each other, and our conversation continues. I was intrigued to learn that although, like me, she spent part of her childhood in the desolate sprawl of suburban Southern California, Spanish is her native language.

In Guillermoprieto’s career as a journalist covering Latin America for Newsweek and the Washington Post, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, she faced a lot of dangerous situations, but going back to write in her first language after having built a long career in English was, I think, one of the most courageous things she has ever done. When I read the original Spanish of Dancing with Cuba, her most recent book, a memoir about teaching dance at the Escuela de Danza Moderna in Havana in 1970—which just came out from Pantheon in my translation—I began to understand more clearly why she did it.

When BOMB revived my long-forgotten idea for an interview, Guillermoprieto suggested that we interview each other. Our conversation was conducted via email in January.

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Escuela de Danza Moderna, Havana. Architect: Ricardo Porro. Photo by Paolo Gasparini. Courtesy of John A. Loomis.

Esther Allen In Dancing with Cuba you tell the story of your reinvention of yourself, your transformation from dancer to writer, which is far from complete when the book ends. At the same time, the book itself represents another reinvention: it is your first to be written in Spanish. Were there reasons internal to this story that dictated the language in which Dancing with Cuba had to be written? I couldn’t help suspecting, as I translated it, that there were.

Alma Guillermoprieto There were a number of reasons for going back to Spanish. One was a simple sense of obligation to write in the language of my native country (I had done so only briefly, and very long ago, writing dance reviews for a local weekly). Another, very deep reason had to do with the conviction that I could only recover intense, meaningful, useful memory of a long-ago event by using the language I lived it in. Lastly, I was terrified of: a) exoticizing Cuba (“‘Chico, look at how that mulata shakes her mojito, caramba!’ he said”) or b) a not unrelated danger, which was to fall into a discussion of the Cuban Revolution in terms of the Cold War. One does, after all, take on many of the givens of a society when one takes on its language. I don’t think I am at all pro-Fidel in this book, but I wanted the point of view to be that of a young Latin American of the era, not a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Going back to Spanish helped immeasurably.

Now here’s my question for you: Translation is a notoriously thankless profession: there is absolutely no money in it; it involves a severe submersion of the self into another; the hours are long and you get about as much recognition for your efforts as the telephone repairman. What are the satisfactions?

EA Well, you’ve just said it: to write in a certain language is to adopt many of the givens of the people who speak it. Translating is a way of going beyond that, reaching a different context—which is especially important in the face of the global dominance of English. As for the “severe submersion of the self”—you make it sound like a mortification of the flesh! But in fact, what makes translation so enjoyable—which is why I do it, and why most translators do it, I suppose—is that it combines the pleasure of reading with that of writing. I’ve always translated books I admire and care about, like yours; translation takes you much farther into a book than simply reading it ever could. It’s the difference between listening to a piece of music and performing it—dancing it, I’m tempted to say.

At first I assumed translating your book would be easy. The hardest part of translating is inventing a voice, and you have a voice in English, a voice I know very well: I thought I could just do a pastiche. But your voice is so different in Dancing with Cuba! It isn’t just written in another language, it comes from a very different place than, say, Samba, where you’re in the text only as an observer, a reporter. Here you, your life, is the text. A mutual friend of ours told me that when he was reading the piece on Che in Looking for History, your 2001 collection of essays and journalism, he suddenly felt as if you were writing from a different part of yourself. I’m very curious about what made this memoir start taking shape—was the Che article indeed part of the process?

AG I can’t remember exactly when I started thinking about the book, but it was many years ago; perhaps after running into my dearest friend from my dancing days, Elaine Shipman, after years of not being in contact. As a result of that meeting, I tried to reconstruct just how and why I had stopped dancing years earlier. The turning point for that decision was a six-month sojourn teaching dance in Cuba back in 1970.

I became very curious about my life in Havana, and an opportunity to go back presented itself in 1998 when I covered the pope’s visit for the New York Review of Books. I also became very interested in Che as a figure of martyrdom, and the whole idea of self-mortification as a revolutionary duty—this is a Catholic culture, after all! I realized that I had traveled to Havana during what now seems like the childhood of the Cuban Revolution, if you think that Fidel has now been in power for 44 extremely long years. I started looking at the revolution as history, and not as part of the daily news. Once I realized that a painful turning point in my life had also coincided with a watershed year for the revolution, I understood that I had a book to write. Then you volunteered to do the translation if I followed my hunch to write it in Spanish, and the whole thing became clear. I wrote the text in a total of 11 months, but it took the better part of four years to stitch those months together—two weeks here, three months there.

The best translators slip into the glove of a text and then turn it inside out into another language, and the whole thing comes out looking like a brand-new glove again. I’m completely in awe of this skill, since I happen to be both bilingual and a writer, but nevertheless a lousy translator. So I have two questions, assuming that most readers will not necessarily be familiar with either your work or mine: Can you talk about the principal difficulties you have found in translating, in this case or in any other—the anthology you put together of the Uruguayan quasi-realist Felisberto Hernández, for example?

And, since I worked on the final, print-ready version of my text even as you were translating it, can you tell me a little about what it was like to be trying to turn the glove around with me poking holes in it all the time and snipping at the seams?

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Escuela de Danza Moderna, Havana. Architect: Ricardo Porro. Photo by Paolo Gasparini. Courtesy of John A. Loomis

EA Hey, remember when we were trying to come up with an English version of a chant by Cuban protesters: “Nixon, jutía, te quedan pocos días!”? I know a jutía is a kind of large Cuban jungle rodent; in his war diaries José Martí describes his men hunting a jutía and cooking it in a sauce of bitter orange juice. So I said, “Nixon, you swine—” and was at a loss. Then you chimed in, “you’re running out of time!” So you’re not so bad.

The difference between translating you and translating Felisberto Hernández or José Martí is that you’re alive, you’re a friend, and we could work together. That was reassuring since I knew you’d immediately spot and fix any embarrassing errors. But on the other hand, it was very intimate and perilous: there I was, speaking in your voice! And what if your reaction was “How could she possibly imagine I would ever write any such thing!” There’s a kind of appropriation involved in any translation, and when the writer isn’t around, that appropriation can become fairly complete. Whereas with you I tried very hard not to appropriate, but to leave a lot of space for you to poke holes and snip seams, because I wanted the English text to be yours, even if you did write the book in another language.

Working on your book was particularly intense for me because I had just been to Havana for the first time, and fell for it head over heels—all my daydreams are about going back. Your own feelings about the place are obviously a lot more complicated, as your essays on Cuba in Looking for History had already made clear. What is your relationship to Cuba right now? Would you go back if you could?

AG You know writers are ruthless. My passionate interest in a given subject, or country, generally extends to about one week after the galleys come out, and then I’m on to something else. My one abiding passion has been for Colombia, for reasons that are completely unclear to me—which is probably just as well. As for Cuba, what can I say? It’s tropical, and I’m not. The fact that I am temperamentally so unsuited to understand that country made my time there infinitely more difficult, but I think it made for a better book; any number of people have gone all swoony about Cuba, and I couldn’t. But I tried so hard! So I think I learned a lot, in the course of all that effort, and I observed a lot, and it may be that the text has some edge as a result. That’s what I hoped for, at any rate.

As for the translation: sometimes I did think, “How could she possibly think I’d ever say that?” and I went over the offending phrase with a black marker until it looked like tintasangre (blood ink), but that was maybe three or four times—mostly having to do with descriptions of movement, which are probably the most private language I have. What happened the rest of the time was actually dangerous for me as a writer, as I only realized later: you were so successful at creating a text that paralleled the way I write that I got very confused. When I sat down again to write in English, my words and syntax were every which way—not simply as a result of having written a book in Spanish (that just made me rusty), but because I’d been taken over. It was scary. We could do this again, but I’m not sure we should.

But the whole thing about the different vocabulary and sensibility you had for movement intrigued me, and served to remind me that you’re a writer too, and that, as a writer, you have a defined and limited subject matter—all writers do. The world of 19th-century Latin American letters and thought is your main topic, just as contemporary Latin America is mine (or Latin Americans navigating an enormously stressful transition into a not very successful version of modernity, to put it more precisely).

As a translator, however, you are much more catholic; not only have you translated a 19th-century romantic revolutionary like José Martí, who is within your field as a writer, and a contemporary Spanish novelist like Javier Marías, who is not, you’ve even strayed into French on occasion, to translate contemporary novelists and the widow of Saint-Exupéry. How do you pick and choose?

EA I don’t pick and choose—I obsess and stubbornly beat my head against the wall. Javier Marías was a 10-year project. It amazed and enraged me that a great and best-selling Spanish writer—whose novel A Heart So White, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, won the Dublin IMPAC award in 1996 as the best book published in English that year—couldn’t find a publisher in the United States. For me it became an issue of protesting against the almost completely self-referential literary culture of the United States, and the amazing degree of ignorance and indifference with respect to work not written in English. Eventually I managed to get Marías a six-book deal with New Directions, which I think is working out quite well for him.

Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry is a funny one: she was Salvadoran, so Spanish was her native language, but she wrote her memoir about marriage to Antoine in French, the language they shared—a somewhat Spanish-accented French. In that case I did pick and choose; the publisher asked me to translate the book. Of course I was thinking “Bestsellerdom at last!”: what could possibly be more of a sure thing than the real-life back story to The Little Prince?Unfortunately the vagaries of publishing can make even the juiciest opportunities wither on the vine.

But let’s backtrack a moment. Are you really so temperamentally unsuited to Cuba? One of the most striking things about Dancing with Cuba, and something I don’t recall noticing in your journalism, is the passionately detailed evocation of architecture: the otherworldly art schools at Cubanacán alongside the wedding-cakey former Country Club, the Habana Libre, the Hotel Nacional, the Plaza de la Catedral. You describe each of those structures as if it were, in some way, your own state of being, your own emotional condition at the time—and that seems to me to bespeak a deeper connection to the city of Havana than you’re letting on.

AG Well, one of the things I discovered in the course of looking back and writing about what I saw in my memory is that I was a closely observant person long before I became a reporter. I did an enormous amount of fact-checking for the book, and what I could verify turned out to have been pretty accurately remembered. (Perhaps this wasn’t so surprising, given that I was writing about a crucial year in my life, and that the memories had not been gone over very much since.) I was interested throughout in giving the reader some sense of the landscape the story took place in, because it was important, obviously, and also because I wanted to be fair about a city I grew to hate (I was so very unhappy there!). The easiest thing was to write about the way it looks—Havana is one of the most breathtaking cities in the world, after all—and if there is a lot of description of buildings it’s because they were easy to check, as compared to, say, Galo’s apartment.

Another magical translator, Alistair Reid, whose versions of Neruda and Borges are like the Holy Law of translated poetry as far as I’m concerned, told me once that every writer who speaks a foreign tongue should translate at least one book he/she loves into his/her (how are we ever going to get out of this pronoun dilemma in English?) native language. After some thought, I decided that some day I might have a go at translating Machado de Assis into Spanish, because, amazing as it seems, one of the great masters of Latin American literature is not very well known beyond his native Portuguese. Who would be your next choice, if you could get the contract?

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Escuela de Danza Moderna, Havana. Architect: Ricardo Porro. Photo by Paolo Gasparini. Courtesy of John A. Loomis.

EA I’d love to translate Alejo Carpentier’s Siglo de las luces—Cuba again!—which only exists in English in a quite unsatisfactory translation from its French translation, retitled Explosion in a Cathedral. But there’s a thorny thicket of rights issues there that I feel quite fainthearted about wading into. Carpentier is one of the great celebrators of Havana’s unique beauty, and you’ll certainly hear no argument from me on that score, but I can’t help wondering if there’s more than that to the theme of architecture in your book and the accuracy with which you remembered all the details. You did, after all, seek out Ricardo Porro, one of the architects of the schools at Cubanacán, now living in Paris, and spent a lot of time talking to him about the entire history of the design of those schools. That went far above and beyond the call of mere fact-checking duty.

You mentioned earlier that by writing in Spanish you were trying to avoid the standard and rather useless Cold War ideologies through which the United States persists in viewing Cuba. I wonder if the foregrounding of architecture might also be part of that—your tacit way of giving aesthetics priority over ideology, or even questioning the relevance of ideology at all. I hate putting it in such abstract terms, though, because you always avoid abstraction and present complex political and economic dilemmas in ways that are entirely embodied and concrete.

AG This is where ideal readers do the work of writing their own book as they read the one you wrote. But I don’t think that in this arid century writers can wax all poetic and intentionally make architecture or trees or waves stand in for hope or lust or beauty without the reader falling about in helpless laughter.

I couldn’t, at any rate. I may not have a practical mind, but it’s very fixated on concrete things. I like detail, and it was hard to have a lot of physical detail about a 30-year-old memory. And here I should absolutely mention that without John Loomis’s wonderful and invaluable book about the Art Schools at Cubanacán, which is where I taught dance and is the setting for the book, I simply wouldn’t have been able to make the place come alive. It was uncanny: I’d just started writing my own book when someone sent me Loomis’s Revolution of Forms: Cuba’s Forgotten Art Schools (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999). I felt like my brain had been snooped into. But when I started reading, I realized something I hadn’t actually known before: that the weirdly beautiful schools of my memory, conceived by Porro, were simply one of the 20th century’s great architectural achievements in Latin America, and that I should write about them as such. Of course I was instantly very curious to meet maestro Porro—I am a reporter, after all.

I think you have been systematically squirming out of my questions for you, so I’ll just ask a couple of dumb-ass questions that demand pure factual answers before we wrap this up. Do you own a lot of dictionaries, and do you use them often? What is your most valuable translating tool among them? How do you check for accuracy once you’re done? How much do you get paid, and how much time does a text take you? (And let me note, for the record, that in order to write the book in Spanish I agreed to pay for your translation out of my own advance.)

EA I have lots of reference books and they are horribly abused—battered and bandaged. Looking up words in them is an excellent way of passing the time while another part of my mind is trying to make a sentence ring true in English. Their degree of value depends on the project: the most useful tool for translating Borges was the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, which was like a Bible to him, and which enabled me to follow him along a few of his more insanely erudite digressions.

The only book I’ve ever translated that I know is undoubtedly 100 percent accurate is yours; it’s the only case where the author herself was in a position to ensure that every sentence reflected her intended meaning. Language is ambiguous; all I can do is try to create an experience in English that is as much like the experience of reading the original text as possible—and mere accuracy doesn’t accomplish that. (“Nixon, large Cuban jungle rodent, few days remain to you!”)

Not to squirm out of the rest of your question, but let’s say there was a lot I identified with strongly in Dancing with Cuba. You compellingly portray how tough it was to be a dancer in a society that generally viewed such bourgeois pastimes with scorn (comemierdas—shit-eaters—is the word the director of the Art Schools at Cubanacán used for artists). Translators in this country understand what it is to live in a society that doesn’t have much use for them. Lots of artists are horrendously underpaid and under-acknowledged, of course—it goes with the territory. But for an actor or writer or filmmaker or even a dancer, there’s always at least the possibility that at some point things will get better. Whereas literary translation is much more rarely recognized or compensated—you can only pray you’ll manage to find one of the very few universities that still view it as a valid intellectual pursuit.

May I ask one last dumb-ass question of my own? I know that Samba and, more fully, Dancing with Cuba are both in themselves answers to it, but I want to ask it anyway. What, specifically and concretely, do you think all those years of dance training give to your writing?

AG Hmmm, let me think about that and try to come up with something that isn’t completely false. You know, that’s the thing about interviews—someone asks you something and you answer earnestly and then the next morning in the shower it hits you: “What could I possibly have been thinking about? That was just total bullshit!” You’re just so focused on answering. Frankly, I don’t know what the relationship is between my early training and what I do now. I’m pretty good at noticing gestures, I guess. I have absolutely no memory for faces, but I will remember for a long time how someone looked from behind when they were hunched over a desk. In terms of the writing process, I’m not sure at all. I tend to self-obsess, the way dancers do. I’m a very hard worker, and very focused. When I’m reporting or writing I really couldn’t care less about anything other than whatever goes into making that particular bit of work better. And that’s dancer-like too, I suppose.

EA There’s that lovely moment in Dancing with Cuba when you recognize one of your students by the shape of her heels, visible below the dressing-room door. She’s amazed you knew it was her, and you say, “Don’t you know that your heels, your knees and your arms are just as expressive as your face?” That’s what I try to learn from your work: not to be tyrannized by the face and what it wants to tell—to look for the expression and meaning that are elsewhere.

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Alma Guillermoprieto with her students, Dinzel Studio, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Pablo Corral Vega. Courtesy of Pablo Corral Vega.

—Esther Allen is the translator and editor of numerous books from Spanish and French, including Dark Back of Time by Javier Marias (New Directions, 2001) and The Selected Writings of José Martí (Penguin Classics, 2002), which was listed as one of the most notable books of the year by the Los Angeles Times Book Review and is now in its third printing. The chair of the PEN Translation Committee, Allen is also the translator of Alma Guillermoprieto’s memoir, Dancing with Cuba, which was published in February by Pantheon.

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Originally published in

BOMB 87, Spring 2004

Featuring interviews with John Waters, Shirley Jaffe, James Welling, Nuruddin Farah, Alma Guillermoprieto, Olu Oguibe, Hanif Kureishi, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, and Howe Gelb.

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