Caribbean / Interview / Puerto Rico / Translator

In Conversation with Puerto Rican Poet and Translator Raquel Salas Rivera

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Lee en español aquí.

Raquel Salas Rivera is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, and former Poet Laureate of Philadelphia who has five full-length poetry books to his name.

You might know him from one of the many anthologies which have featured his work or from his own standalone writing including lo terciario/ the tertiary (Noemi Press, 2019), while they sleep (under the bed is another country) (Birds, 2019), and x/ex/exis (University of Arizona Press, 2020). Can I interest you in this excellent translator’s note he wrote about self-translation too?

In 2019, alongside Carina del Valle Schorske, Ricardo Maldonado, and Erica Mena, Salas Rivera also edited the Puerto Rico en mi corazón poetry anthology, just one of many collaborative projects of which he’s been a part.

And, most recently, it was announced that Salas Rivera and his collaborators received three years of funding from the Mellon Foundation for El proyecto de la literature puertorriqueña/ The Puerto Rican Literature Project.

Here, we discuss the experience of translating family members, the concept of ‘el jangueo’, and being something of a social chameleon from a young age.


Lauren Cocking: Lots of people in your family are writers. Were you always going to be a poet?

Raquel Salas Rivera: No, not at all. I’m not gunna lie, my mom read me poetry, but she also introduced me to cinema. I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be a film critic. Then I realised that that doesn’t exist, and that there are actually just journalists who write about film.

I had loads of interests as a kid, thanks to my parents. Both of them, although they didn’t have much money, were intellectuals. When I was very young, they introduced me to the poetry of José Martí and the cinema of Hitchcock, so I had a wealth of cultural capital and felt free to choose what I wanted to pursue.

Philosophy really interested me; I was going to study history; I was interested in crocodiles and was gunna specialise in amphibians. They were childhood fancies, but when I was 12, I read Langston Hughes and that was the moment I knew I wanted to be a poet. I thought: I want everybody else to feel what I feel when I read these poems and that’s when I started writing poetry. I knew straight away. There was like a sensation, tricky to describe, that I was a poet. That I wanted to be a poet. That was the key moment for me.

LC: What’s your favourite film?

RSR: I don’t know if I have a favourite film. Recently I’ve been rewatching Moonlight, which I think is great, a perfect film. I can’t find any fault with it. I feel like Andrea Arnold’s films are something else, out of this world.

Clueless, for example, is an awesome, perfect film. No one can convince me otherwise.

LC: To talk a little more about translation, many people think it’s all about communication but you wrote in a poem that “to translate is not to communicate […] it is to explain things enough so that they think they understand.” Are there any other assumptions about translation that you think are incorrect?

RSR: I don’t know if incorrect. I’m less concerned with thinking about it as good or bad, but rather that many of the questions posed in this field are questions that go around in circles. For example, the idea of faithfulness, right? I don’t mind that it’s a common question because common questions are often the ones that continue to throw up answers. But, as a translator, I go in with the mindset that all change implies loss and that change can be part of the translation, that change can be an inevitable aspect of time. Thinking about change as a constant and loss as part of it feels like a philosophical concern. So, it’s always been a bit odd to me that, in the field of translation, it’s thought of as something worthy of constant commentary.

I’m more interested in the type of loss. What is lost? That’s more interesting than the loss itself. And instead of thinking about it as resistance to loss, I think of it more as: Why do certain populations and groups resist certain types of loss? What’s the context? In my case, it’s colonialism.

It’s not that loss is irrelevant, but rather that I’m more interested in why certain things, and not others, are protected. Why is there a concern with loss in a colonized country where there’s so much migration and a constant reckoning with assimilation?

[So] yeah, I believe in leaving certain things intact, more so because you reach a point where a certain type of translation feels like an act of violence. I think that has less to do with loss and more to do with imposition.

LC: What type of translation feels like an act of violence to you?

RSR: For example, the word ‘jangueo’ isn’t the same as ‘hang out’, even though it originally developed out of the English term ‘hang out’. ‘Hang out’ in English usually refers to an intimate space. In Puerto Rico, ‘janguear’ doesn’t mean that. ‘El jangueo’ means to go out to those collective, public, social spaces. There are words that are so enmeshed in a context that wrenching them from that context, trying to mold them to another, changes them so much that they cease to exist.

LC: Thinking a bit more along those lines, do you think that there are texts that shouldn’t be translated?

RSR: Yeah, I think there are texts that shouldn’t be translated. Well, they can be translated. Like, there are novels that if you think you can translate them…I wanna see it. I believe in the imaginative act. If someone really feels like they can translate La novelabingo by Manuel Ramos Otero to English [fine, but] my standards are pretty high because it’s a text so, so, so packed with our dialect and all the things that that context is steeped in, so I’d love to see who could do it. Sure, maybe it would be more a totally cool reinvention, right?

But you can’t only think about context, you also have to consider the literary traditions that exist in different registers. If it was written for a certain class in a certain context, what could be an equivalent in this context? Do we want to go against that, challenge it, rewrite it?

Maybe what we consider translation has to be reframed. I’m open to someone convincing me that a text like La novelabingo can be translated. But I’d certainly be deeply sceptical [because], to me, it feels like an impossibility.

LC: Are you maybe someone who’d say, well, I’m going to learn X language so I can read X book that doesn’t exist in my language then?

RSR: If you have the time to do that, great. I wish I could have 50,000 lives, be a vampire, and learn all the languages so I could realise how bad the translations I quoted were, but, you know, ideas come to us how they come to us. Sometimes a bad translation is the translation we need.

LC: Thinking a little about your own poetry, why did you decide to self-translate your poems? It makes me think, for example, about indigenous poets here in what’s known as Mexico that often translate between their mother tongue and Spanish, maybe to reach more readers. Was that your reasoning too?

RSR: It’s interesting that you say that. I was recently giving a presentation about self-translation and a poet from the Philippines told me that they have a long tradition of self-translation there. Really cool!

I didn’t start to self-translate until I moved back to the U.S., to Philadelphia, when I was 26, and it wasn’t straight away. It took like three years. I was invited to a poetry reading and they’d never read my work because I’d written in Spanish. I don’t know what they were thinking, but it seems like they invited me because of my opinions. Well, there I worked with a friend to self-translate a poem, [but] it wasn’t until later that I started to say, well, why can’t I do that? And at first, I felt very insecure about it. I’d translated other people, so I knew it was a bit strange and I expected more rejection and resistance when I sent my poems because, in general, magazines in the US are pretty English-only and I’ve been at loggerheads with gringo editors that only want to include the English and not the Spanish. They say that there isn’t room for both versions, something which seems very violent to me because they’re assuming their readers are English speakers.

LC: You said you felt insecure about self-translating. What do you mean by that?

RSR: Honestly, I think I felt pretty confident about my ability to translate. I wasn’t insecure about that. There are always doubts but insecurity, not so much.

I think the insecurity came from the reasoning. Like, why am I doing this? Am I doing this to reach gringos? Is that the reason? So, I came to the conclusion that no, [but], in order to defend a decision, you have to be convinced by that decision. And at first it felt much more experimental, I was less convinced about the need to self-translate.

LC: Do you still feel that way?

RSR: Sort of. Here in Puerto Rico, there aren’t many presses, but those that do exist—which are great, few and far between, and pretty much all of which have published me—have a limited distribution. Which is fine, but I like the idea of being read outside of Puerto Rico. I’ve always enjoyed that.

I have a manuscript, which I think is one of my best, and [because it’s about] our Puerto Rican dialect, I’m not going to translate it because I don’t think it’s possible. So, I’ve been in talks with an press about publishing it, because fuck it, a lo mejor eso es lo que quiero, for it to be cool and clandestine, like that book of Raquel’s that’s harder to find or whatever. (Laughs.)

And, on the other hand, it would be awesome if it were read outside of Puerto Rico. I’m still sort of battling with that idea that I have access to presses in the US but that self-translating all the time is so tiring. I don’t want it to be obligatory; I don’t want every book to have to be a self-translation.

LC: Self-translating is interesting to me because sometimes I feel like a different person when I speak Spanish compared to when I speak English. Do you have that feeling too?

RSR: It’s more that there are parts of my self that people can’t see when I’m speaking Spanish. I’m someone who was raised moving from place to place and having to be a bit of a social chameleon. So, for me, the notion that there’s a whole world below the surface of self isn’t strange.

Part of my identity when I speak English—which has passed through various filters of irony, sarcasm, and rage—is that I’m always sort of conscious of the fact that I’m speaking English. And, in Spanish I’m always conscious of the fact that I’m diasporic and that that’s mediating my experiences.

Sometimes, when my artistic friends talk about their experiences of growing up in Puerto Rico, I have no point of reference because I didn’t grow up here. But I connect Puerto Rico with my gender, sexuality, with being cuir in a ton of hostile environments, I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m so used to not being one thing, so it doesn’t bother me too much.

LC: What was it like translating your mum and grandad?

RSR: My mom loves the translations but she’s my number one fan. I’ve spent a lot of time [translating my grandad], so, every time I go back to his texts, I realise that there’s something frustrating me about the translation and that it’s not right—I realise what’s lacking. It’s a work-in-progress, but I feel like I learn more and more about him, a complex figure who died when I was six.

In some ways it’s investigative work, but the type of investigation that requires a lot of tact and care because it involves people I’m close to and their memories of that person.

Sometimes, in the poems, I feel that something else is going on, like an in-joke that he never even shared with the family. So, it’s been a really interesting experience for me, full of revelations, of questions about the ethics of protecting or revealing personal info and experiences.

LC: Do you have an example of one of those revelations?

RSR: Yeah, I never know how to talk about his alcoholism because it was so tied to being a veteran, the fact that he was a veteran before the existence of PTSD diagnoses, when mental hospitals pathologized Puerto Rican soldiers because they had so-called ‘Puerto Rican syndrome’.

So, it’s a bit tricky because in writing that, it’s enmeshed in notions and expectations about mental health in Puerto Rico and how we should deal with trauma, which is also linked to not wanting to give information to the empire. I don’t know if I’m explaining myself. I think about it and work through it with a lens of trauma and talking about trauma, but I don’t know how much or how I’m going to address it.

At the same time, I feel like, ethically, I have a certain obligation to discuss it because it’s also intimately tied to race, poverty, masculinity, with a ton of things that can’t be disconnected from that way of self-medicating. [I try] not to open old wounds for no reason just to work on my own projects. I think that’s a bit selfish and no quiero ser tan pendejo. I don’t want to be that person that’s mining other people’s experiences for the benefit of my art.

LC: Thinking about your other projects, what are you working on right now?

RSR: My book x/ex/exis, which can be pronounced in different ways, is being republished by Arizona University. There’s also antes que isla es volcán/ before island is volcano (Beacon Press, 2022) about the future of Puerto Rico and I have a poetry collection called la bella crisis about our dialect and the cuirness of our dialect.

LC: You also just got a Mellon Foundation grant to work on the Puerto Rican Literature Project, right? Can you tell me more about how that came about?

RSR: When I went to give a talk at Nebraska University in Lincoln, I met up with Claire Jiménez and we started to talk about how we were both working on digital archives of Puerto Rican literature.

Then I spoke to Ricardo Maldonado and invited him to come onboard. Also, I was already in talks with Enrique Olivares who’s spent ages specialising in the digitalisation of Puerto Rican poetry and we invited him to join the team.

We were then connected with the Mellon Foundation to talk about the project. From there, we started talking about a possible collaboration between us and the USLDH Recovery program in Houston. The Mellon Foundation suggested that we work together to create a proposal which they could present to their board.

But, really, everyone involved in El Proyecto de la literature puertorriqueña/ The Puerto Rican Literature Project has spent their whole life working on it, because Puerto Rican literature is built through personal archives.

LC: What will the archive be like?

RSR: Each poet will have a basic bio and some of them will have select poems. I’m in charge of the translation team—Urayoán Noel, Carina del Valle Schorske, Alejandro Álvarez Nieves and Sabrina Ramos Rubén—and we’ll be translating the selected poems between English and Spanish, so they exist bilingually.

The site will have a Neatline Map, which we’re perfecting at the moment, but the idea is that it’ll be both spatial and temporal. If you want to know where Manuel Ramos Otero was when La novelabingo was published, you can go to the map and check. And you can compare and see who was doing what during that same time frame. We’re also creating informational content about Puerto Rican literature and how the poets are connected.

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

LC: It seems like the project will open the doors for more people to learn about Puerto Rican literature. What’s the impact you hope to have?

RSR: We’ve discussed what we wanted the impact to be from the beginning. Not only do we want people to learn more about Puerto Rican literature, we want the site to be used educationally.

We want to include canonised poets as well as lesser-known poets who’ve contributed to Puerto Rican literature. We also want to widen the definition of what constitutes the literary.

Above all, we want to provide infrastructure for Puerto Rican poets so that people can read what they’re writing and buy their books. One of the difficulties poets face in Puerto Rico—because it’s a colony—is that, often, books don’t make it out of Puerto Rico. Also, we want to reflect publicly on the relationship between Puerto Rico and other US colonies, other literatures that have been created in countries that have suffered as a result of US colonialism. There’s a clear decolonial framework to everything we’re doing.

LC: Can you tell me more about what that will mean for the project?

RSR: It means providing translations, but also working with a translation team that has decolonial approaches to the relationship between language and colonialism in Puerto Rico and the diaspora; that has spent a long time working with the Puerto Rican dialect in Spanish and are also aware of other diasporic dialects. It also means working closely with poetic communities to discuss the most respectful ways to fairly include their work in the archive and centre the more marginalised voices of trans, Black, and disabled writers. We’re trying to repair historical imbalances.

LC: Absolutely. What are you reading right now?

RSR: I’m reading a chapbook series from Verso. I really liked Mutual Aid by Dean Spade. It’s so good. And I started learning Portuguese during the pandemic and I was reading Haroldo de Campos for the first time in Portuguese.

LC: Do you want to shout out any other Latin American writers or translators?

RSR: Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Yásnaya Aguilar, Yolanda Segura, Dante Tercero, Adelaide Ivánova. Definitely Nicole Delgado, Carina del Valle Schorske, Xavier Valcárcel, Rubén Ramos Colón, Mara Pastor, Kelly Díaz, Gaddiel Francisco Ruiz Rivera, José Raúl González, Urayoán Noel, Natalie Díaz, Yara Liceaga, and Ricardo Alberto Maldonado.

This interview was translated by me from the Spanish and has been edited for length and clarity. Header photo © Noah Friedman.

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