Daniel Borzutzky by Kristin Dykstra

“At times the translator must simply risk putting his foot in his mouth. The alternative is silence.”

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


Daniel Borzutky

In April 2009, I attended an event at the Instituto Cervantes in Chicago that featured 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 during a busy semester because he wanted to spend 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.

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 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 How did you first take up literary translation, and what initially attracted you to your first full-book project?

Daniel Borzutzky 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 understood that translation was an entryway into a writing world or discussion that I would not be able to enter solely with my own writing. My writing and translating “came of age” at the same time. I was learning 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 Diez, which I never returned because I started translating it with her help. I liked Emar and was trying to write short stories with a sense of movement and relation to information that was similar. But the truth is I started translating Emar without even reading Diez through first. 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 just amused. 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, then I sat on it for several years, as I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea. It was truly a surprise that journals wanted to publish these translations when I finally got up the nerve to share.

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:

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.

This 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.

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.

Do you remember what qualities drew you to his poems?

DB Port Trakl was a book I knew I could translate. After having worked on Emar—a messy and difficult, yet brilliant prose writer—I was very relieved to find a book of poetry that was neat, contained, and not incredibly complicated on a linguistic level. I liked the the transnational nature of an imaginary port named after Georg Trakl that fits in a South American environment. I liked the idea of translating a book that itself was a response to another writer and was compelled to read Trakl as I went. I also liked the references to Melville and to American writing, which seemed very non-Chilean. One of the interesting things about translation is the way you are in dialogue, not just with the given writer you are translating, but also with the writer’s literary lineage. Knowing that Huenún is responding to Trakl provided me with 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 intuit approaches, or at least imagine the writer’s intentions and inspirations. 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 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. I wrote to him as I translated when I didn’t understand how he was using a particular word. 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 if he had a book-length work 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 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 no one mentioned, strikes me as a moment where poetry is effectively inserting itself into history. It’s not only interrogating the secrets of the present, but also mourning them and making sure they are part of the public record. It feels epic and ambitious and multi-national, interacting with the land and landscape in a way completely unique to Zurita.

In a question-and-answer session, an audience member asked Raúl to discuss his insistence on using nature as an entryway into political realities, and he answered by stating: “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 inseparable from our understanding of the “natural” history of the nation.

Finally, what’s 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, to me, is his ability to represent both the communal and personal at the same time, and to constantly connect the two in a rhythm at once both powerful and violent, both lyrical and sonically brilliant.

KD How exactly has your ongoing work with translation affected your more recent poetry, such as The Book of Interfering Bodies? Do you sense any strong connections between projects?

DB The only time I was conscious of the connection was with Zurita and The Book of Interfering Bodies. I wrote a lot of that book while or shortly after translating him. Another writer can show you an approach you didn’t know you could take before. They can give permission, through their practice, to try out a tactic or approach to subject matter.

I don’t know that I can pin down exactly what I learned from Zurita, though on one level, the ambition and scope of his projects is instructive, as well as his unflinching dedication to the present moment. But I came to him at a time when my own writing was taking a turn toward seriousness, not in terms of subject matter so much as tone. Which is not to say that in my previous book, The Ecstasy of Capitulation, I did not write about serious ideas, because there I was definitely thinking about war, political rhetoric, torture, greed, the economy, bureaucracy, and state violence, etc—all these themes certainly re-appear in The Book of Interfering Bodies.If my earlier approach was more satirical and humorous, in this latest work I am representing these issues in much darker ways.

Perhaps on one level Zurita is a writer who showed me how to approach these subjects with a sense of such darkness, and maybe even emotion and lyricism. On another level though because he was writing about torture and disappearances, as a Chilean (or a descendant of Chileans, Chilean-American, or whatever I am) I felt immediately affected. I knew people who had been arrested. I’d grown up hearing stories of people my family knew who were thrown out of airplanes. And here in Zurita was speaking to this thing, this history, this horror, that seemed so utterly impossible to represent. He opened up an approach for me, an approach to how one writes about the horrors of the immediate present, about violence and global interconnectedness, even about love and emotion, about oneself amid this mess, and for this I’m very grateful.

The Book of Interfering Bodies is partially about the United States in 2008 and 2009, and I’d like to think that perhaps Zurita led me to a particularly Chilean way of discussing the atrocities of our own time—the economic atrocities that became apparent through the so-called “economic collapse,” people losing their homes and jobs while corporations and bureaucracies expanded their powers. Also our military atrocities, including the failed wars of the past decade and the practice of torture that’s been routinely exposed. And then our xenophobic atrocities, as evidenced through the attacks on immigrants and the large-scale deportations of the past few years.

KD Can you reflect on proximity and distance, both cultural and geographical, as a way to talk more about your family connection to Chile and how your status as someone “in-between” two cultures and countries, has influenced your translations?

You’ve brought new Chilean literature into English partly because of your trips to the Southern Cone, which came about primarily on family visits. I’m thinking again of how you happened upon Jaime Huenún’s book just by physically getting yourself in the Lom Ediciones store and paying attention. How would you say proximity or intimacy have affected what you’ve contributed so far? And what kinds of distance, silence, or absence would you identify as substantial—maybe even productive—in your experience?

DB A South American poet recently pointed out to me that the Spanish translation of Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” begins with the line: “Se debe poseer un espíritu de invierno.” “One must have a mind of winter” becomes “One should possess a spirit of winter.” Setting aside the “should” and the “possess,” the use of espíritu or spirit instead of mente or mindseems to be a misunderstanding not of meaning but of context—as clearly Stevens was more interested in the mind than in the spirit. This speaks to the dangerous territory translators enter when they take on a writer’s work from a distance, when they attempt to represent the idiosyncratic from a distance.

On the one hand, the translator is guilty of trying to improve upon the text—and so many translators do this—by using a more unexpected word—”spirit”when the more literal translation would be more appropriate. Where I empathize with the translator is in his misunderstanding of the context, if this is indeed what happened. Unless the translator was conversant with the history of American poetry, then he wouldn’t know how much Stevens valued the mind and the imagination, and thus with the retrospect of literary history we can see how it almost doesn’t make sense to attempt a translation of an iconic figure like Wallace Stevens without a familiarity of context. But on the other hand, practical considerations make it impossible for translators to always have such knowledge, and so at times the translator must simply risk putting his foot in his mouth. The alternative is silence. I’m tempted to say that perhaps these misunderstandings are somehow essential to translation, no? And that maybe rather than saying that the translator has misunderstood Wallace Stevens, it might be more accurate to say that he has simply understood him in a very different way.

To connect this back to my own practice, as someone with roots in Chile who lives and has always lived in the US, I am certainly more aware of the context of this work. But I still feel quite a bit of distance and outside-ness, a feeling analogous, perhaps, to how I feel when I actually go to Chile. As a result, the fear of misunderstanding the context may be even more acute, as it would reveal that I can only be, to quote a Chilean friend of mine, a “falso-Chileno.” I hope I don’t sound too sentimental when I say that the act of translating Chilean writers has been, for me, partially fueled by a nostalgic desire to insert myself into a community and country that, in some ways, I wish I could be a part of completely. I’ve specifically wanted to translate Chilean writers because I’ve wanted to somehow be able to participate in a life I didn’t get to live there. I’m also fully aware of how it is precisely this distance, both emotional and physical, which leads me to want to translate its writers. In other words, the distance leads to desire.

I’m now almost as interested in the literary context of a book I’m translating as its sociological context. When I start to think that I am translating Zurita’s “translation” or transfiguration of Dante into Spanish, then it becomes very exciting. When I start to think the ghosts in Zurita’s destroyed landscapes are speaking a similar language as the ghosts in Juan Rulfo’s destroyed landscapes, then I feel the act of translation is a continuous dialogue as much as it is the writer’s response to his own particular time and place.

KD You included poems in The Book of Interfering Bodies that refer to events from the past few years. As workers at state institutions in Illinois, we’re both required to take the annual ethics test, which you refer to in “State Poetry.” You mention specific details, such as a rule that the test-taker must spend a certain minimum amount of time on each section before being permitted to move forward. I’ve noticed that your “Neighborhood Poem” gets a strong response in some parts of Chicago. How do particular places have a presence in the book?

DB The Book of Interfering Bodies begins with a quote from the 9/11 Commission Report, which states: “It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.” The context here is the oft-stated idea that the attacks of 9/11 were not caused by failures of intelligence, but by failures of imagination (i.e., we couldn’t imagine that airplanes would fly into buildings, which is of course total crap because we could imagine it, since we had the intelligence suggesting this might happen, but alas…) And so suddenly there was this moment in the culture where the imagination was being talked about by bureaucrats and politicians, being taken seriously as something more than just a space for children to explore. When I read the statement in the 9/11 Commission Report about bureaucratizing the imagination, I decided I should read it more closely to see just how the authors suggest this should be done. Of course there aren’t really any concrete directives. So I thought I’d explore the notion myself. This, at least, was the starting point, the genesis of some of its pieces, of which “State Poetry” is one of the most illustrative examples. But I also have to say that I simply love bureaucratic language and the poetic spaces it opens up.

In “Neighborhood Poem,” the gentrification of Chicago, and the way it leads to a loss of history and wiping out of local culture, is what I was thinking about. On a smaller level, I was thinking about how easy it is to forget the name of a small business or bakery once it’s gone under and been replaced by a Chase Bank or some other corporate entity. For years, I lived in a very modest apartment in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Next door was a single family public housing unit, and on the other side, a fancy condo-building. There was a lot of gang activity on my block, and one weekend night I came home and found police tape in front of my house. It stretched from the edge of the public-housing unit past my building and terminated in front of the condominium. I imagined that police tape was the closest physical contact the people in two very different types of residencies would ever have.

A few of the pieces were written when I was living in Istanbul, where I was feeling especially foreign, odd, out of place, though at home in this foreign-ness. I’d also say that Chile, with its bodies falling from the sky, is in the book, as is the totalitarian city in Julio Cortazar’s short story “Graffiti.” Juan Rulfo’s village of Comala is in there, as are the miniature inhabitants of Clarice Lispector’s “The Smallest Woman in the World.” The French countryside with the dead bodies of soldiers, as seen through the eyes of Marguerite Duras, is there too. Also the US in the midst of the Great Recession. And the strange demons in Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, along with many other fictions that drive my desire to read, write, and live.

KD You’re working on a new collection now. What can you say about it?

DB It’s a collection of prose block poems that will be called In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy. Juan Rulfo supposedly was going to call Pedro PáramoLos Murmullos (The Murmurs). It’s about ghosts, flooded cities, crazed doctors, American refugees, the mountains of Indiana, brains and body parts in jars, Missouri, Wisconsin, New Orleans, cages, frames, leaks, swamps, and disappearing landscapes. I don’t think I should say anything else. I’m afraid it will bring bad luck.

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 and associate professor of English at Illinois State University. She co-edits Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas with Gabriel Bernal Granados (Mexico City) and Roberto Tejada (Dallas).

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