Heriberto Yépez: Text, Lies and Role-playing (Part One)

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:31 AM
* Originally published in Chain 9 (2002)

— B. Croce

I can say pretty honestly that as a writer in Tijuana (Latin America’s final frontier) I have developed my literary credo with one eye reading in English and the other in Spanish. The image is grotesque, I know. But through border life, a wide range of possibilities for cross-cultural dialogue has opened to me. Trying to write in English is one aspect of my decision to take cultural translation as my mother tongue.

I started to learn English watching TV as a kid. Then, as I was becoming a teenager, the Mexican crisis of the eighties forced us to move to a part of the city that had no public services, not even electricity. So I became a huge fan of battery-operated radios, listening mostly to American pop music. At that time, rap was the hip thing to hear, and from high school through university we had endless hours of “English classes” every week. On the Border, English can be as important to your future as Spanish — in many cases, a lot more important. Thanks to my love affair with English, I quickly began to get part-time jobs on the main tourist drag in Tijuana. That’s where I learned, I think, the real secrets of English, mainly through listening to and talking with Blacks and Chicanos who came to Tijuana to party on weekends.

At some point, I don’t remember exactly when, I suddenly found myself writing poetry and short stories in English, not Spanish. I think this is a very common thing among border teenagers. On the border, many of us define ourselves through our relationship with English, which is a significant part of our essence. I know this would sound really awful to a Mexico City ear, but that’s how things actually are up here. We are the Malinche and we are glad of it.

I know that only through English can I get in touch with some essential part of myself. Many of us have developed entire realms of our consciousness through reading or hearing another language (like a whole generation of Latin Americans, who have formed themselves listening to American music). Without our relationship with that other-language a big part of us would die — but by keeping it alive we cause ourselves pain, that pain characteristic of love affairs.

I think that Latin Americans who are in close contact with the U.S., or who have at one point or another immigrated to the U.S., cultivate this affair not only as a way to accept American culture as our new identity but also, strangely, as a way to participate directly in a language that plays a large part in shaping our world — a world of meanings we share, for better or for worse, with Americans. I think Spanish, in many cases, will have to write itself in English in order to survive. For our own heritage to endure, it’s imperative that we take English not as a force that is destroying our values and worldviews but as a weapon to keep our cultures alive. Even though one might disagree with the ideas or styles of pioneer Nuyorican writers like Miguel Piñero or Miguel Algarín, or of Chicano writers, it is very clear that their work illustrates a key resource: we need to use English as a second Spanish.

“Converting” to another language is something we have done before in Latin America. After the Conquest and the Spanish invasion and genocide, Indian cultures learned quickly to build a hybrid culture in Spanish in order to renew and maintain their original cultures. If some of my fellow Latin American writers are now increasingly deciding to switch to English, they do so with centuries of tradition behind them. For many people it is very clear that bilingualism — practices such as Spanglish, for instance — is a way to enjoy a double happiness and a double struggle.

Writing in both languages, or even switching over to English, is clearly a choice many writers make in order to avoid the intermediation of dominant translation. So, to use Nathaniel Tarn’s term, an “antitranslation” attitude is one of the forces that propels Latin American writers to decide to create portions of their work directly in English. I think this enormous paradigm shift, in terms of some postmodern Latin American writers’ process of identity-reinvention, is evident even in such canonical writers as Carlos Fuentes and Jorge Luis Borges, both of whom wrote important autobiographical essays directly in English, as if they found English a better tool or strategy through which to see themselves and their work — in both cases these essays have been a cause of great controversy in Latin America, and for the most part have been considered dangerous moves by their authors.

Those of us who have developed our identities side by side with English know unequivocally that English can, in some way at least, function as a tool to sustain Latin American literature. We are aware, in addition, that the use of English is not just a personal decision, but also appears to be, at this point, a key resource we employ merely to survive — and to counter-conquer the new postmodern order.

In the Latin American canonical tradition, examples of writers constructing their work in other languages are rare. One can think only of exceptional cases, such as Huidobro’s French poems or contemporary outsiders like the Brazilian Glauco Mattoso, writing some of his homosexual antipoetry directly in Spanish. It is safe to say that a consideration of the mother tongue as the “natural” medium for constructing one’s own work is one of the tenets of modern literature in Latin America (and certainly in Western Literature in general). But in the last half-century, we increasingly see writers of all genres switching their mother tongue for another language — mainly English. This is a major change, a break with the formerly fixed modern belief in the mother tongue. It is equally clear that this shift in practice, this change in viewpoint, is more a form of cultural resistance than of yielding to domination. (What major Anglo writer would dare to write his or her next book in Spanish? But the contrary happens more and more each year: the paradigm shift away from the automatic parading of texts in a forced mother tongue/translation procession is going to be led, therefore, by Third-World Postmodernism).

I think this change, from mother tongue to the self-translation of bilingualism, which is not yet recognized at all in the Latin America mainstream, is going to have a tremendous impact in the coming decades. But before further exploring the new English-Spanish relationship, we need to take into account that this new bilingualism in Latin American contemporary writing is not exclusively an English deal. Another significant change occasioned by current postmodern adjustments and literary redefinitions on the American continent occurs in the form of a widespread boom in bilingual Indian literature. These new poets write simultaneously in their Indian language and in Spanish, and in some ways they are even programmatic about being bilingual. Thus there is elasticity and change even within the concept of literary bilingualism. For example, I think the next Neruda is writing right this moment, in Mayan and Spanish. I am talking about Humberto Ak’abal, the Guatemalan poet who writes from both Western and Indian language traditions. He translates himself from Spanish to Mayan and from Mayan to Spanish, constructing a truly dialogical discourse. This new kind of dual writer is undoubtedly going to radically modify literary paradigms in Latin America and abroad, through these kinds of self-translation methods — and yes, I did say that Ak’abal is as important as Neruda. Just wait a bit.

One of the great failures of Modernity, though few acknowledge it, was caused by an optimistic belief in innocent translation. Translation can’t achieve equivalence, reproduction, analogy or correspondence. Once we understand that there is no real possibility of getting two languages (two people, two cultures, two worlds) to say the same thing or have an identical effect, I think we also realize that the very failure of translation opens many new possibilities for dialogue. In this sense, we can call postmodern translation any method of linguistic interaction that no longer takes as its purpose the “faithful” rendering of another language or discourse, but rather explicitly considers as its task the radical re-invention of the original text. It is an active translation instead of a passive one.

Examples of this renouncement of traditional translation can be found in the Total Translation theory-performance used by Jerome Rothenberg to recreate Indian poetry (isn’t it interesting that one area of ethnopoetics adapted itself to end up in projects like the fake Sumero-Akkadian Tablets by Armand Schwerner?) and also in the non-verbal visual translations of Blake by the Brazilian concrete poet Augusto de Campos. Other experiments which expand the meaning of translation include: Jorge Luis Borges’ imaginary foreign quotations; Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s book Holy Smoke (1985), written first in English and then fifteen years later self-translated into Spanish; Steve McCaffrey’s homolinguistic translations of Gertrude Stein; or the semi-serious orientalia used by the Mexican-Peruvian novelist Mario Bellatin, who uses imaginary sources of scholarship not to make one language a vehicle for another but to make a language that functions as a delusional method of reinventing both ends of the equation. We can safely speculate that neo-translation is definitively the most interesting form of fiction currently being written. Methods such as transcreation, apocrypha, heteronomy, intertextuality, multimedia, rewriting, collage, transvestite-textual-subject, pastiche, false quotation, antitranslation, parody, appropriation and othering in general are now the elemental resources of neo-translation and the paradigms of contemporary experimental writing. The lesson is: we CAN’T translate the Other so we need to reinvent the both of us. We need to further develop this kind of re-imagined (or perhaps totally imaginary) translation. Such re-imaginings — such translations — are some of the most intriguing ways of cultivating the potential for cross-cultural dialogue.

This sort of translation-dialogue practice, of course, can be quite dangerous culturally: we run the risk that we might deny or replace the Other with the Image of Ourselves. In imagination, the Other is not really present, that’s true — but neither are we. In re-imagining, neither object nor subject exists anymore. That’s precisely why imagination is the ideal dialogical zone of encounter.

[to be continued]

Translated by Heriberto Yépez and slicked down by Jen Hofer

[Heriberto Yepez is a native of Tijuana, Baja California, who teaches art theory & practice at the Autonomous University of Baja California (UABC). His poetry, fiction, & translations, as well as his critical & theoretical writings, are not easily confined within generic boundaries, & his collaborations with other artists & academics reveal an intellectual & creative fluency in multiple artistic languages. Already a prolific & accomplished author of several books in Spanish (most recently El matasellos and A.B.U.R.T.O., both published by Random House-Mondadori-Sudamericana in Mexico), Yépez’s English work has appeared in American journals such as Chain, Tripwire, Shark, & XCP. His Babellebab: Non-Poetry on the End of Translation was published in the U.S. by Duration Press in 2003, & Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers. appeared from Factory School in 2007. A second installment of “Text, Lies and Role-Playing” will appear shortly on Poems & Poetics. In Spring 2011 he will be teaching a graduate writing workshop at the University of California, San Diego.]

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