What Are You Working On?
My main project for the last year and a half has been a bilingual anthology of Latin American women poets who were publishing from 1880-1930, with my translations into English. Those dates are kind of arbitrary, but I wanted to catch influences from various literary movements in my net -- and also wanted a big sample so I could show connections between several generations of women writers.
At this point, I have about 150 pages of poems, by 23 different poets from 13 countries. With another six months to a year of working on this (not full-time) I could expand it to be much better and more comprehensive. The preliminary version, with a substantial introductory essay, will count as my masters thesis in Comparative Literature from San Francisco State.
It's an ambitious project and it's been quite a lot of work.
I translated poetry and song lyrics in high school and college, and then dropped it until around 2000. At some point in 2001, after I'd done several projects, I realized I wanted to reflect my commitment to feminism by looking for a woman poet to translate; someone whose work I loved, but who hadn't been translated before. So, basically, not Gabriela Mistral. I went poking around in Stanford's Green Library. From browsing, I got the sense that there were a ton of women poets out there. And I fell totally in love with these outrageous, quirky poems by Juana de Ibarbourou. She was such a goth!
Also from browsing literary histories, I kept being annoyed by condescending statements that, sorry, there just weren't any women writing, or maybe there was one, but she was probably dumb, or just someone's girlfriend, or a boring minor poet, or whatever. Often the negative statement would reveal bias, or would reveal that there was a buried wealth of possibility, something like "Out of all the hundreds and thousands of women poets scattering their verse around literary journals in the 1920s, it is a shame that only one of them is worthy of notice." Or "There were no women, unfortunately, who qualified as truly modernist, though perhaps Agustini most closely approximates modernism." And then don't include her work, even, or just one poem and the stupidest possible one. Even many feminist anthologies talk about women's writing as if it only just now (whenever their own "now" is) had erupted from nowhere. That puts my Enterprise on red alert every time. I just don't buy it!
Paul Feyerabend wrote in Against Method about the role of irrational conviction in scientific research. Call me irrationally convicted, but I believe that women don't suck, and that their "good" writing didn't start in 1960, or 1945, or 1920. My research has borne out my beliefs that there's tons of interesting work out there, not impossible to find though also not always easy. Other feminist or all-women anthologies are available; Nora Jacquez-Wieser has a great one, and Marjorie Agosin of course, but they both focus on work a bit later in the 20th century. Other anthologies like "The Defiant Muse" try to cover 1600 till now, and that's too huge for me to feel comfortable tackling unless I had a team of tame translators and 1000 pages to publish in.
So, at some point while I was in the middle of collecting poems by Juana de Ibarbourou, I realized I was collecting a huge pile of other people's poems too, thinking they might be fun to translate. I wanted to find out more about the poets. Oh, there was also a stage where I realized that the poems chosen for anthologies are often not the ones I like the best. They're not necessarily the best of that author's work. They're in there because they make a point, or maybe precisely because they might be least offensive, or most "feminine," or fit into that long-ago editor's idea of what women's poetry should be. And so I stopped trusting anything.
For example, I read about Maria Eugenia Vaz Ferreira's life in Nora Jacquez-Weiser's anthology, which I really love... but NJW described Vaz Ferreira as a sort of frail, retiring young maiden who died tragically young. Then through other sources, I found out Vaz Ferreira died at age 50 after a life of being a university professor, a notorious cigar-smoking crossdresser famous for her bohemian life and love of wild practical jokes. I don't know the details of her life, but I read enough hints to get a very different impression than the "virginal, consumptive maiden" life-myth I picked up at first. That kind of "life-myth" fascinates me and I always want to dig deeper. So, add bullshit-debunking to the list of tasks for the feminist recanonizer. That part is easy, compared to reframing the aesthetic judgements of the last 100 years on several continents.
Even when I like the taste of particular anthology editors, I notice they miss whole countries, like they might be super good on Uruguayan women poets, but completely miss out on the amazing stuff going on in Cuba. And after almost two years of looking, I'm still coming across poets I've never heard of, and not only were they amazingly famous at some point, or still are, somewhere, well they're not in any of the huge encyclopedias of authors, or anthologies, or literary histories. And they're also really cool writers and I like their work, what little of it I can find without flying to Chile and poking around in libraries there.
Anyway, what I love best is concentrating hard on doing the translations. It's very challenging to translate poetry from a bunch of different countries, even though it's all in Spanish, there's definitely dialect and regional word use, not to mention context & history to be aware of.
With all that, I'm probably going to miss stuff, or make mistakes. But I think the anthology will still be helpful to people in giving an idea of what they're missing, and also in giving other translators some cool writers to investigate.
I'm a slob, and I'm lazy, and I have no discipline. Hubris, laziness, and impatience are the classic computer programmer virtues. I've got them down. They're also great for zine-making and blogging. But they aren't so useful for a large complicated research project! So, it's a constant effort to keep track of all my references, citations, sources, page numbers, quotes, and all the authors and poems I'm collecting. I have developed a system of binders. I think what I need is to master the File Cabinet and Index Cards. Doesn't that sound barbaric? Until they invent the hand-held OCR scanner that actually works I'm stuck with pieces of paper.
One of the best things I learned from SF State was in a class with Prof. Ellen Peel, who pointed out: "No matter what you end up doing, you're all intellectuals, and you're going to handle an immense amount of paper in your lives. You're going to collect it, and you're going to generate it. You need to develop systems to manage that." That hit me hard. I've improved, but just the other day I realized I typed my translation of a long poem, but never typed the original Spanish, and I lost the xeroxes and will have to go back to the library to find it again.
The other thing I'm doing, I guess, that's new: "Bother to refute patriarchy." There's naming the problem, right? Then, sort of proving that patriarchy exists and finding annoying examples of it. Then kicking its ass point by point. Then building feminist alternate canons, i.e. doing something positive, and coming up with new vision, new theories, etc. as a critic. Look at the women's work -- what were they writing? What was out there? THEN pull together some theorizing, judgements, finding commonalities. Lillian Robinson in "Treason Our Text," a fabulous essay, suggests that the "safer" tactic is to pick one neglected writer and promote them. That's what I was doing with de Ibarbourou. But that isn't satisfying me, and I feel like one of my strengths is having a Big Picture, and the ability to absorb and sort through a lot of information fairly quickly. Also, I'm not afraid to make judgements. All that seems valuable for an anthology editor. So while I've leapt right to "Build something new," my usual approach, I'm also bothering to engage with some of the existing sexism and talk about it. So, I'm hoping that's valuable. Doing a tiny amount of the sort of work Dale Spender did in Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them.
I'm finishing the thesis part, a short version, in early May. I've sent out a few book proposals, all rejected. People do seem interested. The sticking point is going to be that the copyright issues will be messy. Any anthology of translations is already a publisher's nightmare.
Part of the reason no one's translating and publishing these particular women is -- who owns the copyright? Has it expired? Who knows? And to do that for 15+ countries, well, it's complicated. I've tried to figure out copyright law, and what's public domain, and it's really hard.
Some of the best advice I got, years ago from older translators, was: Pick someone who's already famous, and whose work is in the public domain, and translate them. Then you'll have no problem getting it published, and you won't break your heart. I was an ass and didn't listen.
A poem by Liz in Lodestar Quarterly
She reviews a controversial sf/fantasy book from a feminist perspective
Liz's translation of a prose-poem by Juana de Ibarbourou ("It's sort of pretentious and Frenchified in the original, and I translated it to reflect that on purpose. Just so you know.")
The MUD Arcane Nites, "where I spent two years building strange, dreamy, fantastic game areas, often based on literary classics; I worked on the code and was an in-game immortal: the Goddess Maya, Architect to the Demons."
Utterly great picture accompanying a 30 Sep 2005 SF Chronicle article about Bay Area volunteers who helped Hurricane Katrina victims
See more What Are You Working On? interviews.
published 14 Feb 06 on Too Beautiful. email copyright 2006 Mark Pritchard, Bernal Heights, San Francisco