Translating Cuban Literature in the Twenty-first Century [BTBA 2017]
George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, a contributing editor for World Literature Today and Asymptote, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.
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During a recent trip to Havana, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Cuban writer Yoss (né José Miguel Sánchez Gómez), whose Super Extra Grande is under consideration for the BTBA 2017, which fiction judge Rachel Cordasco profiled in her September blog post.
I met Yoss by chance as I meandered down the sidewalk that runs along the Coppelia ice-cream park (think Strawberry and Chocolate), opposite the Yara movie house, at L and 23, arguably Havana’s most iconic intersection. I was with Eliezer Jiménez, the owner of Cuba’s most colorful independent bookstores, frequented by every American, Latin American, and European academic worth their salt.
After returning from Havana, it occurred to me to check the number of books on the BTBA list written by Cubans. The magic number turned out to be four: Zoé Valdés’s The Weeping Woman (Arcade), translated by David Frye, who, it so happens, also translated Yoss’s Super Extra Grande (Restless Books), Agustín de Rojas’s The Year 200, translated by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell, also published by Restless Books, and, finally, 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara, the late grandson of Che Guevara-cum-anti-Castro-dissent, translated by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions. [Ed. Note: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa, translated by Nick Caistor, published by Atria, also counts.]
Of the four writers, only Yoss and de Rojas, who died in 2011, wrote their nominated books on the island. My interest, however, is not to engage in a polemic about, much less downplay the importance of, Cuban diasporic writers. My point, I hope, will become clearer as you read.
Valdés, who began her writing career in Cuba, now lives and writes in Paris. Sánchez Guevara’s claim to the laurel “Cuban writer,” however, is much more tenuous. Although born in Cuba, to Che Guevara’s oldest daughter, his father was Mexican Alberto Sánchez, a revolutionary who hijacked a Boeing 727 in Monterrey and forced it to land in Cuba. Raised in Milan, Barcelona, and Mexico City, Sánchez Guevara returned to his native Cuba in 1986 at the age of 12, only to abandon the island nine years later, following the death of his mother. If nothing else, these biographical details remind us that the label “Cuban writer” can be fraught with complexity.
With the exception of Leonardo Padura, and perhaps Wendy Guerra, Yoss is perhaps the writer most well-known outside the island. Like Padura and Guerra, that recognition comes not just from translation but also from having been published abroad. Indeed, one could argue that the fact that their works were published outside the island is responsible for their having been translated.
In fact, of the four novels, only El año 200 was published in Cuba, by Editorial Letras Cubanas, a publishing house located in Old Havana, on Calle Obispo. Founded in 1977, two years after the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, during the years of the so-called restoration, Letras Cubanas, which also published Valdés’s first novel, was charged with publishing works by national authors as a means of incentivizing and promoting Cuban literature. Unfortunately, as Leonardo Padura pointed out in a 2012 address to the Casa de las Américas, being published on the island can be more a curse than a blessing. Please indulge the lengthy quote:
What changed in the territory of creation, and specifically of Cuban literature, was a sum of material and spiritual circumstances that, combined, were able to redefine the situation of the writer living in Cuba and to alter in a rather radical way the content and intentions of his work. Among those elements was the aforementioned paralysis of the country’s publishing industry, which motivated writers to search the world for a literary prize that would save them from poverty and, at the same time, enable them to publish their work without, for the first time in three decades, their editorial intentions being a sin, punishable like all sins. [. . .]
Above all, there is the certainty that Cuban writing is an act or vocation of faith, an almost mystical exercise. In a country in which publication, distribution, commercialization, and promotion of literature functions according to generally extra-artistic and noncommercial circumstances, a search for cultural balance, and even random codes of impossible systemization, the writer’s situation and role become unstable and difficult to maintain. Writers who publish in Cuba receive for their work royalties paid in the increasingly devalued national currency, amounts often paid independent of the quality of the work or its reception by the public. These fees, of course, make the option of writing professionally almost impossible (which, it’s fair to say, is rather common in the rest of the world), often influencing the quality of the work. [. . .]
Nor can one forget that with considerable frequency the Cuban writer who lives and writes in Cuba must also confront a scarce advertising industry, many times due to the very absence of a book market within the country, but also due to the disastrous state of domestic literary criticism and the still-present political suspicion about what a critic can be subjected to if his work does not comply with the precepts of orthodoxy established during those distant times, or with the limits of “correctness” imposed in the 1970s. The sum of these elements has created, against the very validation of the literature that is being written in the country, the feeling that for two generations the island has scarcely produced—or simply has not produced—writers of importance, creating a false image of a vacuum.1
Ironically, it is precisely Padura’s international (read: commercial) success that provided him a platform from which to criticize the state of publishing in Cuba. What’s more, it is precisely the industry that he criticizes that drives Cuban writers to publish their novels off the island, or, in Yoss’s case, to submit their novels to competitions, such as the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) Prize in Science-Fiction, which he subsequently won. The prize not only carried a 6,000 Euro purse but also digital publication, which created, at the very least contributed to, the likelihood that the novel would be translated and, consequently, eligible for consideration for the BTBA.
If we are to believe Padura, and I do, of the four novelists, Yoss and de Rojas traveled the most obstacle-laden path to the BTBA, as much for their genre, science fiction, as for their publishing provenance. That Valdés and Sánchez Guevara published their works for Planeta and Alfaguara respectively made the path much more travelable.
All in all, the four novels seem to have little in common. I will not quote or comment on Super Extra Grande or 33 Revolutions, which have already been featured on this blog. See instead Rachel Cordasco’s and Jennifer Croft’s excellent introductions. This leaves me, instead, to comment briefly on Valdés’s The Weeping Woman and de Rojas’s The Year 200.
Winner of Planeta’s Azorín Prize, Valdés’s novel follows the relationship of Picasso and his lover-muse Dora Mara, the subject of many of the Spanish artist’s paintings, including, you guessed it, one titled “The Weeping Woman.”
At first blush, the novels of Elena Poniatowska come to mind, especially Querido Diego and Dos veces única, both of which rescue the memory of two women who were married to and served as muses for Diego Rivera, but with hints to Jackie Collins. Unlike Poniatowska’s novels, The Weeping Woman seems less inclined to rescue Dara Mara than to novelize her. The prose, at times, reads like the light literature of nineteenth-century French feuilletons of writers like Ponson du Terrail:
Yes, it was a young woman, not exactly pretty, but by her shape she was the type of woman the artist might find attractive. Blond, sublime green eyes, shock of straight and slightly flaxen hair, a soft complexion. She wasn’t vulgar, and she knew how to walk—that is, she walked with a sway in her hips, as if she were dancing, undulating with the rhythmic disdain of a mermaid.
As mentioned, The Weeping Woman was translated by David Frye, who also translated Yoss’s Super Extra Grande. As a translator, I cannot imagine shifting between two more radically different genres and registers. Frye does so, however, with aplomb.
Translated by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell, The Year 200 (Restless Books) was originally published in 1990 as El año 200. Known perhaps best for his translation of Andrés Neuman’s The Traveler of the Century, and for working with co-translator Lorenza García, Caistor is one of my favorite Spanish-English translators working today. The following excerpt may give you an idea why:
The Hermitage Walls had vanished behind panels and consoles.
Multicolored dots zigzagged across some of the screens; others were covered with constantly changing figures; still more were dark. Flashing lights, leaping from bulb to bulb, column to column, in an unpredictable pattern.
Although I am not particularly a fan of science fiction, the novel’s quick, unadorned prose succeeded in holding my attention, which says as much for de Rojas’s writing as Caistor and Powell’s translation. That the second science fiction novel in this quartet of Cuban novels, Yoss’s Super Extra Grande, accomplished the same feat suggests that I should rethink my opinion of the genre.
After meeting Yoss in Havana, I continued with Eliezer down Avenida L to his bookshop, where I bought $250 worth of books, the majority written by Cuban writers, published on the island in a book industry imposed by socialism. Each of these books, however, are worth far more than the pennies they originally sold for or the CUC I paid for them. They also share another unfortunate fate: Most, if not all, will never be translated. More unfortunate, perhaps, is the knowledge that de Rojas didn’t live to see his novel translated and nominated for this prize. It is, after all, writers like de Rojas to whom Padura was referring, indeed championing, when he said:
Let’s not forget, as we recall the current situation of the resident Cuban writer and take note of some of his troubles and achievements, the most essential of the elements that define his character and the character of this work. Unlike other countries, where the most prominent or engaged writers tend to have a social or artistic presence thanks to the support of media with the greatest circulation or prestige, the Cuban writer has only his work and an occasional interview as a way of expressing his relationship to the world, to his reality, to his obsessions.
1 My translation of Padura’s address, “Writing in Cuba in the Twenty-first Century,” originally appeared in World Literature Today in May, 2013.