Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Carina del Valle Schorske, Essayist and Puerto Rican Poetry Translator

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Carina del Valle Schorske intimidates me a bit, but in the best kind of way. Not only is she currently finishing up a PhD programme in comparative literature at Columbia, she’s also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and working on her first essay collection — The Other Island — for Riverhead Books. You might also recognise her name from that NYTimes Bad Bunny profile.

As an accomplished translator of Puerto Rican poets, much of her work centres around the midcentury writer Marigloria Palma, although she’s also involved in an ongoing mutual translation practice with Nicole Cecilia Delgado. The latest fruit of that labour is the long essay A mano / By Hand (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021).

In 2019, she co-edited a bilingual anthology of contemporary Puerto Rican poets — Puerto Rico en mi corazón (Anomalous Press, 2019) — alongside Raquel Salas Rivera, Erica Mena and Ricardo Maldonado, .

Here, we discuss why translation might benefit from de-institutionalisation, the concept of language as a power game (or not), and her interest in the work of Marigloria Palma. (She also gave me some personalised Bad Bunny recommendations, which I didn’t include, but can report were excellent.)


Lauren Cocking: You’ve spoken about who we choose to translate being important. What is it that drove you to translate Marigloria Palma?

Carina del Valle Schorske: When I began to translate Marigloria Palma I had made a historical and geopolitical decision already about who I wanted to translate: I was specifically interested in translating a woman poet who was publishing in the 60s and 70s in Puerto Rico. My friends — Mara Pastor, especially — introduced me to a lot of literature from the period and I went with the poet that I thought I could translate best, that I felt I could speak with or through. I was thrilled by her ironic erotics (the space program’s “prostituted moon”), her absurdist metaphorical imagination (policemen are “spears of blue asparagus”), her defiant emotion: “To the sound of trumpets in my soul I defend my feeling from the grey bite of disenchantment!”

Related: 25 Contemporary Puerto Rican Poets to Read Right Now

LC: Why were you interested in focusing your search on those decades in particular?

CDVS: That curiosity was kind of personally motivated. My mom was involved in the Nuyorican Movement in the 70s in New York. The Nuyoricans are definitely the best-known Puerto Rican writers stateside, and they did really innovative things with performance, with political poetry, with building communal institutions. But my mom’s experience in that male-dominated environment was really difficult — the misogyny was on 10 — and her critiques made me wonder what was going on back on the island at the same time, particularly with women poets, as a kind of alternate narrative.

I was interested, also, in how Puerto Ricans on the island were responding to similar neoliberal conditions — the Vietnam war, urban divestment, criminalization — that were affecting both New York and Puerto Rico in that period.

So I ended up hooked on Palma. I think it’s important to recognise the political motivations behind my choice but I don’t want to overburden the choice with responsibilities beyond what any individual writer can hope to represent. I don’t like having to make arguments about instant canonicity or proximity to already well-known figures in order to justify Palma’s worthiness. Getting into that kind of competitive ranking of value is really dangerous and ultimately self-aggrandizing given the scarcity mentality in literary translation, especially the US, where so little literature is translated.

And the lack of translated literature from Puerto Rico in the US seems like a particularly egregious, telling oversight given the colonial relationship between the US and Puerto Rico, part of a broader and more deliberate campaign of erasure.

LC: What do you think you’ve gained from hyperfocusing on one poet? Would it be fair to say that you have ‘hyperfocused’?

CDVS: I think ‘focused’, maybe? I mean…maybe there is something hyper about it. (Laughs.) First of all, I have to be hyperfocused because of the logistical limits on my time and energy. I don’t earn my living from translation, so I don’t feel the freedom to pursue five different translation projects at a time.

Given how much I’ve already invested in Palma — I have enough (unedited) material for a book — I feel a certain loyalty and commitment to her work, to bringing it to fruition, especially as I don’t know anyone else translating her so intensively. Early on, a publisher I respect asked to see my manuscript. I was so excited. But in the end they told me they wished she’d exercised “more restraint in her use of metaphor”. I had to laugh! What a predictable aesthetic standard for Anglo America to set for her colonies.

It’s also been a uniquely absorbing process because Palma wrote so much. She published over 14 books in her lifetime: poetry, yes, but also theatre, folklore, a novel. And that’s just what’s published. She has a whole archive in Puerto Rico’s National Library. She’s one of those writers for whom the distance between how prolific and celebrated she was in her lifetime, and how little known she is now, is the most extreme. And to me that’s a very absorbing gap because it means there’s a lot to process of what remains.

LC: Yeah, for sure. Palma also became something of a key to community for you too, right?

CDVS: Yeah. Because I started translating Palma that first summer that I spent in Puerto Rico as an adult without family, she has been an important point of encounter between me and the poets I’ve met here. I met Raquel Salas Rivera through Palma. I’m in conversation with Antonio Rodríguez, who’s done amazing genealogical research, and Natalia Lasalle-Murillo, who’s working on a performance/film about Palma’s years in Los Angeles. When you form that kind of association, it has a gravitational pull that can be quite communal if you allow it to be.

It’s not like I feel total aesthetic alignment or feelings of worship towards Palma. There’s a lot that I admire and inhabit and feel compelled to disseminate, obviously, but I don’t like all her linebreaks and don’t share all her points of view. I mean, she didn’t think women should wear pants. She will never be totally congruent with me. But that’s part of the ethical lesson of translation, learning to speak through and centre someone who is not you.

LC: Do you think there’s a problem within translation of this kind of hero worship of the figure that’s being translated?

CDVS: Yeah. I think that celebrity culture is pervasive throughout our society and it affects literature, and it affects translated literature, too. But I do think it’s easier to mystify and lionise artists who come from contexts ‘distant’ from our own, often because they come to us one by one, and because the literature itself feels exotic. Years ago I wrote a long essay about the politics of the way Clarice Lispector and Alejandra Pizarnik have been received in US translation.

I think translators can work against that lionising tendency by being in conversation with others as much as possible, and remaining attentive to the fact that the writers we translate also existed in community. But communities are harder to mobilise as symbols for this or that cause. They’re complex and discordant.

LC: This makes me think about the Bad Bunny profile in which you said: “if language is a power game, then Bad Bunny is winning.” Do you consider language to be a power game?

CDVS: Absolutely. It’s important to be mindful of the power relations we enact, whether as speakers or writers or translators. We can’t recuse ourselves. We’re in it whether or not we want to be. But I don’t think that’s all language is. It’s important not to let the ‘power game’ dominate our sense of what’s possible because language is also, you know, a field of play, a form of intimacy, a kind of music, a world of experience, a people’s history. I mean, it’s many, many things.

LC: Absolutely. So, your mum’s Puerto Rican, but you grew up speaking English, right?

CDVS: I grew up mostly speaking English with my parents and with my mom, but there was always Spanish around — endearments and little songs and expressions and conversations with my grandmother. But I started taking Spanish in high school with all the gringos or whatever, and it was very embarrassing and weird.

LC: How so?

CDVS: Because I felt like I needed to be really good at it. It was humiliating to know there were gringos getting better grades than I was, even though I could speak it better. There was so much anti-Latinx feeling that came out in those classes too. Ideas about Spanish as a second-class service language, racist ways of attempting the accent. And I was never taught Spanish by a native Spanish speaker. I’m like: “this person sounds like shit when they talk…they may know the grammar, but they sound so bad.” And it just made me feel sad for the language that it didn’t have any music left in it.

LC: I notice that this idea of music and lyrics and rhythm come up again and again in your writing. Why is it that you always bring music into the conversation, so to speak?

CDVS: Well, I think that when there’s another language in your world, especially your intimate world, that you don’t understand, it comes to you as sound that’s musically structured. Studies show that babies do babble in different languages and the thing that they mimic is the cadence; the first mark that language makes on us is a rhythmic mark, a musical mark. So, to me, that’s where language’s fundamental emotional force resides, the part that links it to the body.

But why do I like music that we actually describe as music? I guess I’m really interested in refrain. (Laughs.) I’m really interested in the ideas and feelings we can’t move past, or that keep coming up for us. And music kind of acknowledges those repetitive structures and tries to explore them.

In Latin America, literature and music are not as segregated as they’ve become in the white Anglophone context. Latin American musicians regularly set poems to music and there’s so much creativity even in the lyrics of dance music – I’m thinking of Juan Luis Guerra’s merengues, or Mon Rivera’s unparalleled punning and scatting.

I identify with that tradition, with literature as one expression of a more pervasive force of sound and reference, but the only instrument I can play with any facility is language. So that’s my way.

LC: Definitely. As well as translating, you’re also writing a book called The Other Island. Can you tell me a bit about it?

CDVS: The title, The Other Island, is actually a translation! It comes from the title of a short story by the Puerto Rican writer Manuel Ramos Otero, called ‘La otra isla de Puerto Rico’, which, for him, was Manhattan in the 1980s, where he arrived as a gay migrant in search of a freer life. That short story was published in 1987, the year I was born.

I love thinking of Manhattan and Puerto Rico as two islands which trade places as ‘the other’ depending on your position. And beyond those two specific geographic locations, I’m thinking about the idea that there’s always another island just beyond your sightline, an incompletely imagined place that structures your thinking. A potent metaphor for subjectivity itself!

Anyway, the book is an essay collection about cultural transmission in diaspora, but it’s also a narrative of my own experience engaging with life in the Puerto Rican archipelago in the last five years, which has been a period of historic crisis: debt austerity, Hurricane Maria, a popular uprising that deposed Governor Ricardo Roselló, earthquakes, and an epidemic of femicides that activists finally pressured the government to declare a national emergency.

LC: To change tack a little, I wanted to ask about diversity in translation. Who’s doing the translation, you know? To me, there’s very little diversity within the translation field. What do you think?

CDVS: You said it. I’ve spoken about this a lot. I mean, a lot of my favourite translators working right now are not white, so I don’t want to pretend like there’s nobody working. Aaron Robertson has been doing some really amazing translations of contemporary Italian fiction, mostly by Black women. John Keene [author of Counternarratives] is another favourite translator whose translation work informs his brilliant fiction writing. Brent Hayes Edwards just published a really seminal work of anthropology by the French surrealist Michel Leiris called Phantom Africa. Then there’s my mentor Kaiama L. Glover, who translates Haitian literature. The great Lispector translator Katrina Dodson is half Vietnamese and half white, and she has a really good dialogue in Aster(ix) about how that cultural and language background informs her approach to translating Brazilian literature.

I think it’s important not to demand that translators of colour (who may or may not have immigrant parents) only attend to the work that corresponds to their identity. Even though that’s what I’m currently doing, I insist upon it as a choice among choices. Also, I think there’s often a tacit or repressed idea at large in the translation community, that translating from a language that’s not your native language or not a family language is scholarly and demonstrates mastery and expertise, whereas translating from a language you have family experience with is lazy, sentimental and not scholarly or not literary.

I do think whatever your position is in relation to a language can have upsides and downsides, and I certainly believe you can translate from a language that’s not your native language. In some ways I do it, you know? But we have to think about this issue on multiple levels because there are racialized and classed hierarchies with Latin American literature and among Latinx translators. Just as white Latin American writers are privileged to be translated — which I think is most evident in the overrepresentation of Argentine literature in English — a lot of the Latinx translators I see at work today here are whiter too. I’m speaking for myself as well.

LC: Yeah, absolutely.

CDVS: And I think that also has to do with all the other ways that whiteness maps on to access to elite education, where you might take a comparative literature course, where literary translation is introduced as a practice, and you might feel empowered to attempt it. In translation [these problems are] extra dramatic because of how closely [translation has] been tied to the elite universities and also how translation intersects with international, geopolitical hierarchies.

There’s also the economics of it, right? I mean, there’s so little money in literary translation. I would like to see translation prioritised within the arts more. And then within translation, I’d like to see translators with heritage ties to a language and translators of colour prioritised more, structurally, through specific fellowships, grants, and collectives. Aaron Robertson recently published an important call to action on this topic.

LC: Yep, definitely. You’ve said that you’re not as ‘in’ the translation community as you might like to be. Is that by fate or by design?

CDVS: I have been offput by the whiteness of the translation world and this academic pay-to-play model has kept me from some of the more institutional meeting points for translation. More than once, I’ve declined to participate in all (or almost all) white panels on Latin American or Caribbean Literature. I was once told that including more than one Puerto Rican translator on a panel would be ‘redundant’.

In some ways, I’ve enjoyed the guerrilla translator mode and being able to enter the scene a little more on my own terms. I really treasure the peer-to-peer practice I’ve developed with Puerto Rican poets and the conversations I have [about translation] with my Latinx friends, not just writers, who grew up speaking more Spanish than I did.

I don’t want to act like I haven’t received any institutional support — I have! I had a great experience at the Banff Centre for Literary Translation Conference. Some of my best friends, some of my favourite writers and collaborators, are people who do translation. I tend to love translators…I guess translation requires a very charismatic combination of humility and hubris! But I do think that de-institutionalising translation a little bit could be beneficial, because I think that institutionalisation has reinforced a lot of the elitism we’ve been discussing.

LC: Are you reading anything in translation at the moment?

CDVS: I, like everyone else, am reading Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor and the texture of the prose…wow, it’s living up to the hype. I also keep returning to  Aterrizar no es regreso, a crónica about Hurricane Maria by the poet Xavier Valcárcel. He weaves in a queer love story that moves back and forth between New York and Puerto Rico. It’s so lucid and lyrical and mournful but it hasn’t been translated yet; pick me, pick me!

Like I said, Manuel Ramos Otero is a metapoetic genius. His books are out of print and hard to come by, but Frances Negrón masterminded a collective translation project and an English language anthology of his work will be released with Columbia University Press next year, apparently!

I’m also really obsessed with Listening in Detail by Alexandra Vazquez, which takes a really idiosyncratic, intertextual approach to Cuban music. She’s a scholar but writes like a dream. And right now, I’m interested in indigenous writing systems, especially those that haven’t been ‘decoded’ in the ‘postcolonial’ present. There’s a difficult new book called Signs of the Americas by Edgar García, a Central American scholar who’s also a poet. I keep thinking about a question he raises in the introduction: “How is a semiotics without semantics effective?” How can language signify beyond sense?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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