A Corner of the World: Interview with Author Mylene Fernández Pintado [Part II]

Yesterday we ran Part I of an interview between author Mylene Fernández Pintado and translator Dick Cluster. Part I left off with Mylene going over a little background information on their work together on A Corner of the World to be. This here is Part II of that interview.

Mylene Fernández Pintado has been writing and publishing in Cuba, winning prizes and readers, since 1994. Her latest novel, La esquina del mundo, has just been published by City Lights as A Corner of the World, translated by Dick Cluster. Cluster’s other new Cuban translation is Pedro de Jesús’s Vital Signs, released this month by Diálogos Press in New Orleans. During Mylene’s recent visit to San Francisco, author and translator put together the following mutual interview about her work, their translation process, and more. Mylene’s responses, which were in Spanish, are translated by Dick.

MF: But of course the main thing we are discussing here is the translation. Could you describe some of the choices you had to make—and we had to make—in this book?

DC: First let me make some observations about the general issue of “translating Cuba” for U.S. readers. Sometimes the translator will need to subtly “un-teach” U.S. readers what they think they know about Cuba, un-teach notions that can get in the way of their understanding of what the writer means to say. Sometimes the translator will need to help clue in the U.S. reader to subtleties (or not-so-subtleties) that the Cuban reader understands but the one here will not. In A Corner of the World, with its many small touches of Havana life and context, it was mostly the latter. Some of these have to do with economics and social structure and customs, some with the Cuban language itself.

One of my favorite examples in terms of Cuban language also presents the eternal challenge facing translators when we have to deal with puns. Here’s what the translation says: “When I was a kid, and I read The Arabian Nights for the first time, that’s where I discovered the word peddler. Ever since, I’ve associated it with bicycles, because I imagined it must be a guy pedaling along while hawking his wares. Later I found out what the word actually meant. So simple, but now, I don’t know. I don’t want to give up on the guy who bikes through Baghdad with a basketful of plantains and boniatos teetering on top of his turban.” In the original, the pun is not “peddle” and “pedal,” but “viandante” and “vianda.” A viandante is someone who goes by on a road, a passerby. Viandas in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world are any kind of foodstuffs, but in Cuba they are specifically tropical root vegetables (such as yuca, boniato, malanga) and plantains. So it’s a play on words, but at the same time it shows how Cubans cubanize things, and I wanted to maintain both aspects. I hope it works.
A related problem of language and culture has to do with the Malecón, Havana’s curving seaside drive which you’ve already talked about, which really becomes one of the characters in your novel. But the word denotes not just the drive or boulevard—it’s also the seawall that protects the shore, and the wide sidewalk in between the wall and the drive, and more metaphorically it’s the place where the sea and land meet, which in Cuba is always tied up—again this issue—with the sense of being an island. All of this comes into play in a paragraph toward the end of the book, where the female protagonist and narrator, Marian, goes out to the Malecón, thinking about the male protagonist, Daniel. The translation reads:

London is gruff and has no seacoast. I looked at Havana, bordered by miles of ocean, but for the first time I felt the water was besieging us. What we have is a wall where sea meets land, not a beach that one can walk from end to end, setting foot simultaneously in city and sea. What we can do is to look out over the waves, which exist as a promise of the rest of the world. But the promise is unreliable. Like Daniel’s return.

That’s probably the place where, after besieging you with questions about the passage, I added the most words—words that were implied but not explicit in the original. If I hadn’t, the middle two sentences would have said only: “. . . felt the water was besieging us. The Malecón is not a beach, we can’t walk it. Only look at it from here. It exists as a promise. . .” That would have made some sense, but not much, and I think the poignancy and contradictions would have been lost.

In terms of the “un-teaching” I mentioned before, there’s a passage about how Cubans requesting visas to go abroad are met by suspicion in the embassies of the most-requested countries, embassies whose staff are:

. . . fed up with Cubans, people who were not from the First World yet not from the Third, who were neither citizens nor immigrants. People who traveled out of their own country so as to tell everyone where they went about the great charms of their home. Who lectured anyone who would listen and some who would not, drawing on their endless storehouses of nostalgia, taking full advantage of their new surroundings but always with disdainful expressions of melancholic superiority.”

The meaning there is a hundred percent clear, the words are straightforward, and getting from the Spanish to the English was not hard. But I worried that to American readers it would make no sense, or would provoke some vague feeling of disbelief, since as far as we are concerned the most-requested country is ours, Cubans here are deemed political refugees by mere virtue of being Cuban, and they are always described as having “fled,” and never quoted about any charms of their homeland or its superiorities to the U.S. So I proposed the addition of, “The embassies of the most-requested countries, in many parts of Europe, for instance. . .” which is indeed the embassies the passage was about, as Cuban readers know without this being stated. You agreed about “in many parts of Europe” and said no to “for instance” as being unnecessarily didactic, so that’s what we did.

MF: Often when it comes to explaining something that’s unknown to the foreign reader, there’s the problem of how to clarify this while maintaining the literary level, explaining without getting at all didactic and damaging any of the lyricism in the prose. In this case, and in others, you found a way of not leaving the North Americans “in China” (as we say in Cuba), nor making them feel they are reading footnotes or endnotes—the things that readers in any case avoid because they don’t want to lose the thread of the story. That’s another of the merits of this translation, the way the necessary clarifications for the reader are always done in a literary manner, as if I’d written them in the original too.

Similarly I think the translations of what in Spanish we call guiños, winks, are also very well done. These are allusions to other works whether literary or artworks but without citing them explicitly. So I like the way in which you handled these “winks” originally directed at Spanish-speaking readers, sometimes replacing them with others closer to the Anglo reader, so you keep the book’s spirit intact without confronting the Anglo reader with things that are unnecessarily unfamiliar.

DC: I remember there was one where you had an allusion to a Lorca poem that I couldn’t figure out any way to handle, but a page later, when Marian says “no hay nada más,” I asked you, what about dropping in a substitute by having her say “Only that and nothing more,” which is the kind of thing she would do. And you wrote back, “Poe is great, I’m so happy you’ve managed to give him a place in the novel, it’s perfect for winding up the internal monologue there.”

There are also some moments of Cuban history. There’s a flashback about the parents of Marian’s ex-mother-in-law’s mother, who thought they would be exempt from the social revolution of the early ’60s, because they “knew people in the new government and had even bought some bonds to finance a plan for university autonomy.” The part about the bonds was likely to say nothing to U.S. readers. So, in the translation, they “knew some people in the new government, and had even once bought some underground bonds, during the previous one, to finance a plan for university autonomy.”

When Marian gives an exam to her university students, she thinks about “las mil brujerías que habían hecho” (the thousands of pieces of witchcraft they’d undertaken), “en que mi nombre estaba en todos los congeladores o en tazas llena de miel” (with my name in every freezer or glass full of honey), and that “muchos tendrían ropa interior roja” (many must be wearing red underwear). Again without saying so much as to hit a false note for Marian’s voice, it seemed possible to help out by naming the belief systems involved, of which U.S. readers might have heard, and to specify at least the purpose of the red: “. . . the thousand charms of spiritism and Santería that must be at work, with my name inside every freezer or every cupful of honey they employed. I tried to guess how many were wearing red underwear in honor of Changó.”

MF: Religion is always a problem to deal with in translations or simply in languages that are tied to doctrines different from our own. In the book all the tone is ironic, Marian’s professor-narrator voice is skeptical, but she’s talking about beliefs or superstitions that are common in Cuba. So the honey and the freezer have to do with charms that are supposed to sweeten someone’s disposition or paralyze their evil intentions, and for the red underwear you need to know something about our religious syncretism and how Cubans have a much more informal and less ceremonious relationship with the African figures who are linked to Catholic ones. Cubans talk to them, get mad at them, it’s like when the Greek gods in the Iliad have their preferred mortals whom they defend and talk to. So in doing the translation you had to make use of your years of Havana daily life and knowledge of popular beliefs, and your feeling for how we can be believers in many things, many mixtures, which for Cubans does not imply any contradiction.

DC: I’ll end with the way the way two different characters address Marian, which presented the problem of finding American English equivalents for the terms and what they imply. Her department chair calls her “Marian querida,” while her ex-mother-in-law calls her “Marian bonita.” This presented dilemmas I batted around both with my literary translators’ workshop group and with you. “Marian querida” might be either “honey” or “sweetie.” After some discussion we agreed that “Marian, honey,” would sound more like the Cuban “Marian, mi amor,” which (in both countries and languages) a waitress might use to address a customer, or in similar situations where the people don’t know each other and where the language is less rarified than in a university. “Marian, sweetie” was more the ticket for this. “Marian, bonita,” on the hand, was—in Cuba—something completely affected and out of place. It was peninsular Spanish, and the mother-in-law was putting on airs based on once having lived there as a diplomat’s wife. We settled on “Marian, my lovely,” for that.

MF: This was an interesting point—because “bonita” in the daily Spanish of Cubans means “pretty,” but in Spain, and especially in Madrid, it’s an adjective placed after a proper name as a signifier of trust, though it can also be used when calling a spade a spade as in “Sorry, bonita, that’s not the way it is.” But in Cuba this usage simply does not exist, and I only know it because I lived in Madrid for two years. Whereas “Marian querida” is used in a maternal way by her department head. I thought it was fantastic when you told me about the debate in your translators’ group around choosing the best word for that. I thought how fantastic it must be to work in that kind of collective way, which reminded me of the days when I worked in ICAIC and we wrote articles about film and had these heated discussion that were very productive both intellectually and socially.

Anyway, all the examples you’ve given reinforce what I always say, which is that translating a book is rewriting it in new words while keeping even the subtlest of its “soul breaths” intact.

And right now, while I’m giving these responses, sitting on your back deck in Oakland which I imagine is for you like my sea-view balcony, I think about the whole chain of coincidences that have brought us here. Maybe we do have a corner of the world on that Calle 17 we both feel is the “most charming and saddest street”—which, if you follow it to its end, takes you to the Malecón, which I call the anteroom of the rest of the world. So, thanks to you for your faith like Quijote’s in this book of ours, and to City Lights for its confidence in us, and to everyone who has inspired it, and to the Havana I always carry with me.

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