Interview / Translator

In Conversation with JD Pluecker, Language Worker

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JD Pluecker is a language worker from Texas, who has translated work by Sylvia Aguilar-Zéleny, Sara Uribe, and Luis Felipe Fabre, amongst others. Their work often leans towards the cross-cultural, the non-normative, and the queer.

As well as translating the words of others into English, Pluecker is also a poet and essayist in their own right, having published several full-length works and chapbooks, including Ford Over (Noemi Press, 2016) and Swamps Fly (2021), both of which form part of their decade-long project The Unsettlements.

Here, we discuss their connection to Texas, the notion that “translation is crossing”, and collaboration as promiscuity.


Lauren Cocking: You define yourself as a language worker more broadly, rather than a translator. Why is that?

JD Pluecker: Well, I try not to define myself as any one thing, because all of these identity-based terms (translator, language worker, poet, artist, Texan, queer, non-binary, gay) are all so slippery, and can end up excluding some, while including others. I find it best to ground myself in activities and practices. To do the work and engage in play.

Since I do the work of translation and interpreting and because I did the work of organising for language justice so long, sometimes I do talk about what I do as “language work.” This idea of language work is built off of a concept of cultural work, and it has come to me through working with a particular network of people in the US South organising for language justice over the last twenty years or so. (See here for a more complete sketch of the history and present-day of language justice work.) The term speaks to me about the fact that the work of culture is also a work of organising and that language is integral to the work of reimagining the world. Language is this world, and this world is made of language. They are inseparable.

LC: What is the appeal of collaborative work for you, however you define that?

JDP: The core of my work is grounded in dialogue, conversation, friendship, and collaboration. My relationships with other people, landscapes, or communities give me a reason to work. If I’m not actively in relation to others, I’m largely unmotivated. In a more lived way, I get out of bed in the morning because of my relationships, and anything I do is because of these different streams that flow around me and even through me. This feels to me like collaboration: a joining together, a joint flow. For me, translation is always a collaboration, and that relationship between me and another person (often a friend) finding life on the page in the form of translation continues to be an enduring and enlivening dynamic.

LC: I find that fascinating in terms of translation specifically because it’s such a strange combination of isolation with a text and collaboration with the author and others. I wonder, is that why you choose to co-translate?

JDP: I have done a number of co-translations with my good friend and compañere Jen/Eleana Hofer. I’ve learned so much from Jen/Eleana over the years, and we continue to work together and to collaborate, though we did make a mutual decision to transition out of the shape of the Antena Aire collaborative in 2020. Co-translation is a rich and complex process with so many different formulations.

Swamps Fly and Ford Over JD Pluecker

LC: What informs your decision about what or who you choose to translate?

JDP: Who one chooses to translate (and how one chooses to translate) is an intensely personal and political decision. Jen/Eleana and I have written a lot about this as Antena Aire, particularly in our Manifesto for Ultratranslation from 2014.

For me, who I choose to translate has by and large come out of my time spent living and working in northern Mexico, in friendship and in relation with mainly queer authors.

I’ve been traveling back and forth to Mexico since I was in my late teens. Living in Texas, Mexico is so very physically close, and I lived in Tampico for a year in 2004, then in Monterrey for a year in 2008, and then in Tijuana for two years in 2009 to 2011. The challenges of violence, femicide, war, and insecurity are things I know from lived experience in these places, though I am very aware of my own positionality as a middle-class white queer person.

My desire to translate originated out of an awareness that the most powerful observations and trenchant analyses of Northern Mexico and the border on the Mexican side are coming from writers who live there, not from me as visitor and outsider.

I tend to build friendships with people who vibe with me politically, aesthetically, and emotionally. I choose to translate voices and individuals who are saying things from and about spaces that I have deep attachments too. Their writings can work to unsettle mainstream ideas of those places that stereotype and deny people in these lands their full humanity and dignity.

LC: As mentioned, you’ve mostly lived in Northern Mexico and the US. How do you think that’s benefited you, if at all?

JDP: That geographical proximity has always been important to me because I’m obsessed—in my own writing and artistic work—with Texas, with exploring and questioning and unsettling lineage and relation to land, decolonisation, and undoing white supremacy. Of course, Texas was a part of the Spanish Empire and then the Mexican North for hundreds of years; Mexico is a historical and contemporary presence in Texas. One doesn’t have to travel to find its presence.

When I first started going back and forth in my twenties on buses to places in northern Mexico, it was very much out of this sense that the landscapes of the US Southwest and northern Mexico were joined and inseparable, even though nationalisms and borders sever connection on a daily basis. One of the effects this border has been to separate neighbours, to shatter connection. This has been particularly felt over the last 30 months of the pandemic and over the last decade or so as violence has meant significant reductions in cross-border movement and contact.

The physicality and the proximity of living next to someone but not having contact with those individuals is something that felt very politically important to me. This sense of connection, but division.

Writing with Caca Luis Felipe Fabre

LC: With that in mind, can you expound on the idea that “translation is crossing”?

JDP: The border is often used as a metaphor to think about translation, this idea that translation crosses borders or is, in fact, the bridge. One of the things that I’m interested in thinking about is: who and what is allowed to cross and who and what is not?

There is a constant neoliberal flow of Hollywood and Netflix, self-help and entrepreneurial texts, weapons and money, extractive corporations and tourists, a flood of US cultural materials (and not to mention weapons) heading South. The flow of cultural work from the South to the North is very different.

Often, literary work that comes north is hyperdefined and compartmentalised as exotic and other in a US context. As Luis Felipe Fabre ironically and cogently says it in his new book Writing with Caca (translated by yours truly and out from Green Lantern Press), all efforts are reduced to “what is known as Mexican Literature: / an inferno that is impossible to escape from / no matter the universalising efforts one has made in life.”

This boxing in of the foreign is so pernicious, as you consider untranslatability, as you consider which cultural materials get to cross and which don’t. In terms of literary translation, it gets us to a question of how texts cross and which ones—how privilege and race and geography also influence what gets thought of as valuable or important.

Thinking about these questions is a lot more discomforting than the more common “bridge” metaphor with translators serving as well-intentioned, helpful helpers, and yet on-going imperialism makes this inquiry necessary. There are so many decisions that are made—not only by translators—but also by editors or organisations about who is worthy and what worthiness is.

LC: How can translators work to interrogate and improve that system?

JDP: I think that Kitchen Table Translation offers some critical ways to re-think things. As Madhu Kaza says, the issue is not “inclusion” or “diversity”. These terms actually preclude possibilities, because they often work off of the idea that the system can be subtly altered by the inclusion of others, which means that the literary machine that privileges whiteness and maleness and cisness and middle-class-ness and able-bodied-ness pushes forward with mainstream offerings while occasionally including an other obligated to be awash in otherness.

I love the Kitchen Table Translation book, because it brings together diasporic translators (mainly, but not exclusively of color) to question inherited ideas of translation, fluency, and mastery. The issue is not inclusion as much as a radical rebuilding of worlds. To my mind, approaching that work from the outside, from the broken and not from the inside and the apparently unfragmented is more viable (and pleasurable).

LC: I wonder what you think the role of the translator ought to be in an ideal world?

JDP: I’m less interested in my own definition of what the ideal translator needs to do, because I don’t think the world needs my own moral pronouncements on correctness or the ideal. (Laughs.)

That said, I do think that translators might ask ourselves: what are the ethical commitments of the communities that you’re a part of and how have you learnt those ethical commitments? I think if you have a lack of reflexiveness about that process, you end up working within the Western, industrial, capitalist literary complex that has its white supremacist and cisheteronormative patriarchal standards. And those become your ethical commitments; that’s the world that you’re moving in; those are the communities with which you’re in relationship.

It’s definitely not upon me—as a middle class, white, US American—to pronounce what the ideal translation mode would be, but it is for me to figure out what my own ethical commitments are. I’m interested in the relationship between a translator and an author as a relationship of accountability, that’s also grounded in a specific space and geography and time.

So, my relationship with literary translation in particular is about intimacy, relationship, proximity, and accountability.

Kitchen Table Translation

LC: Do you think you would ever be able to or would ever wish to work with an author with whom you did not have a relationship?

JDP: I have done so, and I do all the time. I’ve used the metaphor before in other spaces about promiscuity—inspired by the Dakota feminist Kim Tallbear’s blog Critical Polyamory. When I first got into literary translation, I was upholding an ideal of fidelity, loyalty, and monogamy between a writer and a translator.

But over the last years, I’ve been steadily dismantling that conception to think more about a polyamorous relationship between translators and authors, and the ways that love and connection and friendship can exist in a multiplicity. Those are interesting things to think about in terms of a literary industry where there’s a lot of tension, assumptions, and disagreement about what a relationship between a translator and an author is supposed to be.

Returning to the question of system change, there’s an unpublished essay called “Translating in the Smog of White Supremacy” that Jen/Eleana Hofer and I wrote back in 2015 as part of our work as Antena Aire. One of the things that we tried to piece through in that essay is the translator’s role in fostering and/or subverting white supremacy, and how the very specific positionality of the translator becomes a pivot point to think about how to intervene and when to intervene; when to refuse, when to say no.

One of the things that we say is that we’re not pure or righteous and don’t have the answers, but we have the questions. And I think what’s happened in the literary translation community for many years is that those questions have been marginalised, unacknowledged, buried.

Right now, though, we’re seeing—whether it was the Amanda Gorman translation controversy or Kitchen Table Translation or the work that other translators of color have been doing—a shift in that dialogue. I think it’s affecting the entire field in productive ways, but I also think those conversations have been going on in communities of queer translators or translators of African descent or Indigenous translators for a very long time. It’s very important to remember that these conversations and questions are not new—the questions far predate their arrival to the middle-class, US American white mainstream of literary translation.

LC: How can literary translation as a field make room for these more diverse voices beyond just these initiatives and tiny spaces that have recently begun to open up?

JDP: I guess I’m going to push back again on the terms of the question. (Laughs.) A dialogue around “inclusion” or “reform” presupposes that the strictures of settler colonialism and anti-Blackness—within institutions of literary translation (whether academic or non-profit)—must define how we are going to work in the future.

If we look at Kim Tallbear or the work of Yásnaya Águilar Gil, we see that it’s not about inclusion or reform into a settler colonial system—it’s about dismantling that system or creating alternative formations.

Like Kathleen Hanna wrote back in 1991 in a Bikini Kill zine: “We are trying to fit through the doors of a clubhouse that is smelly and gross inside. We only want in because we’ve been taught to want in. We change ourselves to fit in—hoping they will change their rules…and all the while the clubhouses we could be building are going unbuilt and us girls are knocking one by one, on a door that will never ever open”.

She is talking about Riot Grrl and punk rock, but I think the sentiment is applicable in a lot of spaces. What are all the ways one changes themselves to fit in? These apparently minor changes accrue to a point where I’m not even realising the extent to which I’m embodying colonial structures myself. Even with my desire to move outside of them, I’m so firmly inside of them, so firmly supporting them in all kinds of ways, that I do think the whole thing needs to be fundamentally rethought, reimagined. So many people are building new clubhouses.

Does it all need to be abolished and burned down? I don’t think that’s my decision exactly, but I’ll support a community process to figure out what needs to be thrown away and what needs to be maintained.

Paraguayan Sea

LC: I appreciate you pushing back on the terms of the question. I think that was a great answer. Thank you.

JDP: One of the things that white supremacy does—and colonialist thinking does—is restrict the kind of question that we are able to ask. I think that’s why I’m always going back to Black feminisms or queer and trans scholars of color, writers of color, artists of color, and Indigenous feminists, because what they’re challenging everyone to do is to ask different questions.

LC: To change tack a little, how do you feel about being Texan? How does it influence your work, if at all?

JDP: Texas has always been a point of return for me, even if little queer me still feels like I do not belong here (and the on-going awfulness of Texas Republican leadership usually makes me dis-identify more than I identify with this bad, bad state). Like Dionne Brand wrote, “Belonging does not interest me”. I was born here, and my family has been settling and colonising here for seven generations; some of them were Germans who arrived to these lands with land grants from Mexico in the 19th century. I did not grow up here, but I moved back 20 years ago on a “roots trip” that has never quite ended, though I do question the idea of roots much more nowadays and prefer genealogical metaphors of rhizomes or air plants instead of the Western notion of the family tree.

Recent work has me thinking of the swamp as ancestor (Swamps Fly, a recent chapbook). My obsession with these lands is multilayered, sometimes romantic, always intimate; regionalism is looked down on in cosmopolitan circles, but I remain committed to my unhealthy obsession with this cross-border region: from Chihuahua to Louisiana, Tamaulipas to New Mexico. I don’t think one can really think about Texas without thinking about everything and everyone that must be violently excluded from the idea of Texas in order for it to continue to exist in this way that it has, unchanged, white, ornery.

In a translation that I recently finished of Sylvia Aguilar-Zéleny’s Basura/Trash, I’ve been thinking and re-thinking methods for translating border writing. The novel is due out from Deep Vellum Press in 2022, and it revolves around the lives of three women in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, returning continually to the Juárez trash dump. When it comes to this translation, I have used my own partial understanding of Texas Englishes and Spanglishes that resonate deeply. I’m obsessed with how these languages collide with Northern Mexican Spanishes. As I translate, I’m very conscious about translating from Juárez Spanishes into El Paso Englishes and Spanglishes. It’s not a deracinated or decontextualised translation; it’s an attempt to reflect a specific place and time.

Did you read El Mar Paraguayo/Paraguayan Sea by Wilson Bueno? It was originally written in a mix of Spanish, Guaraní, and Portuguese. Erin Mouré, the Canadian writer and translator, translated it to a mixture of Canadian French, English, and Kanien’kehá (Mohawk). I really honour that gesture—translating from a specific place into a specific place. It works against a cosmopolitan mindset that asserts that there are places that are less specific and more universal, and those tend to be the colonial metropoles, the only places conceded the privilege of being universal.

LC: I know you work a lot with experimental and hybrid fiction. What would you say to people like me who are deterred when they hear the word “experimental”?

JDP: I was in a pandemic Zoom workshop in 2020 taught by a writer friend named Janice Lee, and she told us something along these lines: As you’re going through this process, I want you to pay attention to your own resistances. Pay attention to those points where you feel irritated, frustrated, confused, upset, angry, sad, or triggered; where you don’t feel like you’re enough, where you feel like you’re doing it wrong.

I think that’s what encounters with non-normativity do—they make one question oneself in relation to non-normativity, a term I prefer to “experimentalism.” Non-normative texts do not follow the rules that we’ve been told to follow.

Whenever I have this moralising response of “That’s not how you’re supposed to do things!” or when I feel confused and unmoored, it becomes a moment to stop and pay attention because it’s probably much more about me and my own attachments and much less about the text. I (un)learn so much from being able to process or sit with my own discomfort.

That’s why I like the term “non-normative”, because cisheteronormative, patriarchal, white supremacist, capitalist values define what gets to be normative or even “normal.” Often when we’re dealing with something non-normative, it is challenging those values. I make a conscious decision to resist the urge to turn away immediately. Many of us have been taught from an early age that if we don’t understand something, it is a sign of your own personal failing. And I don’t want anyone to have to live in that world anymore. I want to be in a world where we come in and out of understanding, where error becomes unmoored, and failure is an embraceable experience.

LC: What are you reading at the moment?

JDP: I know you ask this question at the end of all your interviews! I recently read Cristina Rivera Garza’s Autobiografía del algodón; and El invencible verano de Liliana; she has been a crucial teacher of writing for me over the years. I also loved two beautiful queer books by the poet Kimberly Alidio, : once teeth bones coral : and why letter ellipses. I’m reading the stories of Caribbean Fragoza in Eat the Mouth That Feeds You.

LC: And what are you working on at the moment?

JDP: I recently finished the translation of Basura by Sylvia Aguilar-Zéleny for Deep Vellum Press. I continue working on a decade-long project called The Unsettlements, which is a reckoning with history, place, and white supremacy in my own family lines in Texas.

I’m also continuing to work on an Antena Aire book, which will hopefully be out in the world one day. And Jen/Eleana and I are also finishing up a translation of another book El Museo Travesti del Peru by the Peruvian travesti author, Giuseppe Campuzano. It’s a book that’s also a museum, a gathering of archival materials from the long history of Peru, from Indigenous arts and representations to colonial times to more recent history in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

I am also happy to be teaching one class per semester for the Virtual MFA program at the University of Texas El Paso.

LC: Are there any interesting translators within Latin American literature that you’d like to mention?

JDP: I’d point to the translators of the Señal series at Ugly Duckling Presse, where I am an editor. Last year, I had the joy of working Jennifer Shyue who is doing amazing translation work, particularly related to Asian diasporic writers of Latin America, like the brilliant Peruvian writer Julia Wong Kcomt. Her new chapbook Vice-royal-ties came out in December 2021. I can also mention wholeheartedly that Rebekah Smith’s translation of the Argentinian writer Susana Thénon’s book Ova Completa is really gorgeous.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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