Monday, February 15, 2010

Interview with John Burns (translator of Amado Carballo and Manuel Antonio)

You spent your year out in Santiago de Compostela and returned a year later to study Galician. What were your impressions of the city?
Santiago de Compostela is the most beautiful, culturally vibrant city I’ve ever lived in. I would love to know how many umbrellas I lost there, accidentally leaving them in the paragüeros on the way out of bars or cafés after the rain had let up. As an American, the layering of time that one experiences in Santiago, such as being able to walk out through the remains of a medieval gate and catch a cab, is particularly striking.

How fluid is the dialogue between Latin American writers and mainstream English literature in the States?
The dialogue between Latin American and mainstream US literature moves along at a stutter. In the US book market and the broader US imaginary, there is still a tendency to reduce Latin America to an exotic collage of poverty and revolution. Recently Chilean-born novelist Roberto Bolaño has begun to emerge in English translation and I think he is one of the first writers to come to prominence in the US beyond the limited realm of writers in the vein of magic realism. One very interesting contemporary writer in the US is Junot Díaz, whose work is starting to make inroads in Spanish translation in Latin America.

What are the specific challenges of translating Beat poetry into Spanish?
One of the difficulties of translating Beat poetry is determining the limits of the group. Beyond the main group of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso, we’ve made a conscious effort to include some poets whose work has not been translated extensively into Spanish, such as Bob Kaufman, Joanne Kyger or John Wieners. Preserving the dissidence of their work, which I think is still very apparent to readers of English who pick it up some fifty-odd years later, was also one of our main goals. We wanted to make the work as open, accessible and yet as challenging as it is in English without taming it in any way.

And translating Manuel Antonio’s avant-garde poetry into English?
For some of Manuel Antonio’s lexical peculiarities, it was at times necessary to do some very complicated linguistic sleuthing. Once the sleuthing was done, finding the right tone for a young poet writing in Galician in the early twentieth century as he tries to hold hands with literary currents that played out in dominant languages such as Spanish and French was quite a challenge. I think in many ways in the back of my mind I was filtering him through English translations of Huidobro and Reverdy, and through the the imagist phase of Pound and the work of objectivists like George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff.

How do you tie together the threads of Galician, Latin American and medieval literature, or are they all quite separate?
I think in many ways they are quite separate, but they do have curious ways of overlapping in the classroom as part of the broader project of training undergraduate majors of Spanish in the US. In introductory culture classes you may well stumble upon Rosalía de Castro, Gabriel García Márquez and Alfonso X in the same historical narrative in the course of a semester or two. To touch briefly again on Roberto Bolaño, in his posthumous novel 2666, one of the main characters, a Chilean named Amalfitano, becomes obsessed with a treatise on geometry written by Rafael Dieste (who was, curiously, Manuel Antonio’s translator into Spanish) which, in the novel, was purchased in Follas Novas in Santiago de Compostela. If you venture into Follas Novas today and ask for Bolaño’s books, you can almost be certain to be told about this fact by the booksellers: a bookstore named after one of the most important texts in Galician from the nineteenth century plays an important role in one of the most important Latin American novels of the twenty-first.

Thank you for talking to us!

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