Katabatic Unearthings: A Conversation with Olivia Lott on Her Translation of Lucía Estrada‘s Katabasis
by Sarah Booker
In Lucía Estrada and Olivia Lott’s Katabasis (Eulalia Books, 2020), shapes emerge and disappear, jellyfish surreally glide across the page, and mythology is revisited, all immersed in the salty sea air of Colombia. Echoes of Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Blanca Varela, Vicente Huidobro, and many others reverberate throughout this collection as the reader is guided along this katabatic descent.
While never explicitly talking about Colombia or the legacy of the Armed Conflict, this collection—shockingly the first collection to be published in the United States by a female poet from Colombia—provides an entry point to the experience of reckoning with the trauma and violence of that event. It is a striking collection, both for the poems and what they reveal and for the discourse around translation that contextualizes the US edition. Olivia concludes her brilliant preface to her translation by offering a new poetics born from this translation: “Literary translation is the katabatic unearthing, the foregrounding of what has been kept in the dark, descent and dissent.” In the following conversation, Olivia and I discuss this remarkable work, touching on the project’s origins, intertextual dialogues, translation practices, and geometry.
Sarah Booker (SB): Your translation of Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis is stunning. How did you come to this project? What drew you to Lucía Estrada’s work?
Olivia Lott (OL): Thank you so much, Sarah! In many ways, this book has been in the making since I first started translating. As an undergraduate at Kenyon College, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take a course on Literary Translation in Spanish with Katherine M. Hedeen, a phenomenal translator of contemporary Latin American poetry. This was back in Fall 2012. She assigned final projects and paired me with a Colombian poet, whom I continued translating as part of my senior honors thesis. The poet was Raúl Gómez Jattin (Cartagena, 1945-1997), a groundbreaking queer writer who, for a variety of reasons, has been relegated to the margins of the national tradition. Working on this project led me to discover how underrepresented Colombian poetry is in English-language translation. And this despite Colombia being the third-most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world (only behind Mexico and the United States). Translating Gómez Jattin and learning about this underrepresentation led me to apply for a Fulbright Grant to Colombia, where I taught English to college students on weekdays and spent weekends traveling to meet young poets around the country. Lucía Estrada was one of those poets. We met for drinks in Medellín and I started translating her poems on the flight back to Bogotá. I stayed in contact with her after I moved back to the U.S. to start graduate school, translating a few poems here and there for magazines (Empty Mirror and Mantis were the first to publish us). Shortly after Katabasis came out, I read an excerpt on the fantastic online magazine Vallejo & Co. and immediately knew I had to translate the whole book.
Of course, this creative impulse cannot be separated from a political one. At the time Eulalia Books and I finished the manuscript, Katabasis was just the second book-length translation of a Colombian poet to be published in the U.S. in at least the past twenty years. More shocking, still, is that it is the first of a woman poet from Colombia. This underrepresentation, combined with the way Colombia tends to be depicted in mainstream media in the U.S., particularly when it comes to the half-century-long Armed Conflict (think Netflix’s Narcos, or the depoliticized, exoticized mass-marketing of magical realism), creates an urgent necessity for more complex representations, ones not neatly packaged up for easy consumption. I’ve said this before, but it’s important to repeat: one implication of a simplified version of events is not really having to grapple with the reality of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. I read Katabasis as profoundly responsive to what it’s like to live in a warzone (even if dormant), in the over-not-overness of decades-long conflict. And I read it as a text that can contribute to the widening of cultural production from Colombia in the U.S. This is an urgent book in more ways than one. I couldn’t not translate it.
SB: I very much appreciated the way this collection (and your contextualization of it) actively adds a different narrative to the mainstream ones that dominate understandings of Colombia here in the U.S. This is so important for Colombian literature specifically and more generally for the ways we read and understand different nations. In your preface, I love the way you assume your authorship in partnership with Lucía Estrada, underscoring the collaborative nature of translation. I found this particularly striking in your preface when you use the pronoun “we”: “Like Estrada’s Spanish, my English moves between these two rhythms. We don’t allow the reader to become too comfortable. We want them to know that something is at stake here.” What was your relationship with Estrada like throughout the translation process? Do you like to communicate with an author while you are working on early drafts?
OL: I really appreciate you bringing this up. It was a very conscious decision. For one, the use of “we” is a nod to the way that Lucía has talked about this project from the beginning. She has never referred to Katabasis as her book, but our book. She has never called them her poems, but our poems. She has not only seen my authorship, but empowered it. I can’t express how much this has meant to me. Lucía’s solidarity and understanding of translation as its own process of creation structured the way we collaborated on the book. We were always in contact. She answered those countless questions that pop up in the translation process. Though I made a point of not asking for explanations of poems, preferring to maintain a sense of defamiliarization that allowed me to translate beyond the linguistic, staying true to what I felt this book, our book (to continue to follow Lucía’s lead), was asking of me. Translation always offers a new reading, but I’m grateful that Lucía explicitly acknowledged this. (She loves that Sylvia Plath turned up in new places in the English.) She—purposefully, I think—never told me exactly what this book is about for her. And not until she read my translator’s preface did she know what this book is about for me. The way we collaborated allowed both of our voices to take up space.
The use of “we” has another explanation, too. When I write about or review poetry in translation, I make a very conscious effort to identify poet and translator as co-authors. I know you do this as well, Sarah. Most importantly, this means centering translation within the conversation, but it also, I think, means reflecting this commitment in the details. I refer to “Eielson and Shook’s poems” or what “Rodríguez Núñez and Hedeen write” or “as Walter Benjamin theorized and Harry Zohn rendered into English.” These decisions visibilize the importance of writing about translation in translation-centric ways, making it clear that a translated-by parenthesis, or the lone single-adjective clause about the translation, are simply not enough. Translators choose every word; their voices are present in every line. If I believe in the impact of these details to shift perception when I write about others’ work, I had to hold myself to the same standard when writing about mine and Lucía’s work.
SB: Yes! It is so important to call attention to all those involved in the creation of a text. Speaking of which, in your preface you write at length about the intertextual approach you took to this translation; you note the Homeric foundation (Dante also comes to mind) of this collection and discuss how you let lines from poets like Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson guide some of your choices. In your interview with Paul Cunningham, you talk about how each translation requires its own approach, which makes a lot of sense to me. Thinking in practical terms, could you talk about your approach to translating intertextually? How do you move back and forth between texts?
OL: Katabasis fundamentally resists clear-cut anchoring. There’s nothing that explicitly grounds it in Colombia. There’s no tangible content-based thread. Andrea Cote calls it “a poetics of uprooting.” Like the origin of the word (katabasis means “descent” in Greek and classically refers to quests into the underworld by epic heroes), the book exists in a state of movement, of flux, of descension that is not always descending. Because of this, so much of what Estrada’s poetry does goes beyond linguistic meaning. One of those spaces is the intertextual, which the reader immediately understands is a crucial axis of the book. Paul Celan, Marosa Di Giorgio, Sylvia Plath, Lasse Söderberg, and Blanca Varela are all explicitly mentioned—and, less explicitly, Antonin Artaud, André Breton, and Vicente Huidobro. But I also hear María Mercedes Carranza and Olga Orozco, and, yes, sometimes Emily Dickinson. When translating the poems, I aimed to prioritize these dialogues, to absorb them into the English. When revising the translation, I read as much as I could in order to create new points of entry into Estrada’s work. Of course, this primarily meant reading the work of translators—like Pierre Joris, Ignacio Infante and Michael Leong, Jeannine Marie Pitas, Helen Weaver, Eliot Weinberger in the cases mentioned above (Varela hadn’t yet been translated, but I’m happy to see Rough Song is now out in Carlos Lara’s translation)—and, for those who hadn’t been translated into English, imagining what their poetry might sound like in it. This purposeful reading laid the foundation for translating intertextual meaning in Katabasis. I found that prioritizing the book’s cross-language dialogues anchored me in Estrada’s uprooted text and also allowed me to think of my role less as objective replication (no such thing exists) and more as a conscious and consciously-informed iterative extension of Katabasis. (And here I’ll shout out Karen Emmerich’s Literary Translation and the Making of Originals, which reframes translation as growth and iterative extension, giving us new vocabulary to talk about our work.)
I’ll give a brief example of what I mean. Plath’s poetry is a major anchor for this book; a verse from “A Life” is Estrada’s opening epigraph and the first poem “Medusas” is written alongside Plath’s “Medusa” (following Emmerich, it could be considered a “correspondence” poem; the whole book is, in some way, a correspondence poem with Plath). There are a number of other, more subtle parallels (Paul Cunningham pointed out a few in our interview). Estrada read Plath in Spanish-language translation (Xoán Abeleira, Ramón Buenaventura, Guillermo López Gallego, and Eugenia Vázquez Nacarino are just some of her translators). This means that the way the U.S. poet and her translators’ Spanish entered Estrada’s Spanish was not going to look the same as if she had read Plath in English and written poems in English. My task was to find Plath’s English within Estrada’s Spanish. In “Medusas,” this is more straightforward. Reading Plath’s poem in English and in translation, I could pinpoint moments in Estrada’s poem where Plath’s poem hummed in the background, or maybe alongside it. The speaker of Plath’s “Medusa” utters “I am sick to death of hot salt,” so I chose to translate the “y la ardiente sal, un motivo para ir por el mundo” of Estrada’s “Medusas” as “and the red-hot salt, a reason to move through the world” rather than the more literal “burning salt.” Beyond this opening poem, the dialogue is less explicit, but still, I think, hums. Plath often incorporates clipped nouns that create strange images and, to some degree, soften the lyricism. While these nouns are not as syntactically feasible in Spanish (and so they would not show up as a clear moment of correspondence in the Spanish), I was able to create them in the English. “Sílaba de aire,” “vueltas de llave,” and “dolor de sal” became “air syllable,” “key turns,” and “salt ache” in my rendering.
I wish it went without saying that just like all writing, translations are made in dialogue with other writers. Hedeen has written about this, and her mentorship is a major reason why I recognized the creative importance of this approach. Katabasis called on me to engage the intertextual more explicitly; but these dialogues are always there and, crucially, they are not always controllable (Dickinson slipped in; I can’t tell you exactly why). My choice to write about it in my translator’s preface was a conscious one. I hope that this kind of discussion—just like this one you and I are having—can help widen the conversation around what exactly it is that we as translators do.
SB: Well, you write about it beautifully, and in a way that really is illuminating to a lot of the work that translators do. As I was reading the poems, I was struck by the repetition of lines and shapes throughout the collection, which include: the trajectory of descent that structures the collection; the labyrinth imagery and mythology; the notion of the poetic line as in “There’s a line, in all the ones you’ve set aside, where I begin to fade away”; circles as verbs and shapes—“however much you wrestled away circles back to us like day one” and “I circle myself”; and outlines in titles and imagery, such as “You can spot its perfect outline on this marginless page.” Did you find that there is a sense of geometry that runs throughout the collection?
OL: That’s a really cool idea. Thank you for reading our work so closely! I do think that there’s a sense of geometry here, especially in relation to movement and momentum. And I think in each case it’s multidimensional and multidirectional. There’s no singular one-way movement, no shape remains firm. Your question has me thinking, too, that the amplified presence of contours and lines similarly imbues the katabatic journey with instability and flux. Just as Paul Cunningham noted boiling, water-like movement in Katabasis, a rising that is also a falling and vice versa, here there’s form and formlessness, lines and linelessness. That the book is comprised of prose poems only heightens this interplay. In response to these kinds of ideas, I chose to start the translator’s note with a series of definitions of katabasis. No one definition neatly characterizes Estrada’s engagement of it. The book, to me, exists in a type of liminality. The intangible in-between. For me, your question evokes “Last Stair,” the final poem of the collection. The speaker tells us: “I write to give a shape to my death, but also to birds crossing the sky in slow migrations.” Here, “shape” suggests an attempt to make something tangible, to contain something that is wholly uncontainable: death, migration of birds, the end of a katabatic descent.
I think Jayme Russell, via Artaud, puts a lot of this perfectly in her review recently published on the Action Books blog:
By invoking movement in title, there is an inevitable stasis. Or a brackish stagnation. In “Fragments of a Journal in Hell” Antonin Artaud says, “I am struck by the idea of an unexpected and fixed space where normally all is movement, communications, interferences, trajectory.” Katabasis is this. (“Notes on Five New Books”)
SB: That makes a lot of sense to me, and is such an interesting way of thinking about the collection! Thinking about your work more generally, one thing I particularly love about the way you talk about translation is your encouragement of risk-taking. What sorts of risks do you think you took in this project? What is at stake when we embark on the “katabatic unearthing” that you find in the practice of literary translation?
OL: In part, my talking about risk-taking has to do with the way I come to poetic translation. I don’t have an MFA. I’ve never really taken a creative writing class. I’ve never really taken a class in the English department. I come to translation from coursework in Spanish and Hispanic literatures, and now as a scholar of contemporary Latin American poetry and poetics and translation studies. I’m sometimes too tied to the original Spanish, to the decision of one word instead of another, one comma instead of a period, the precision of a title—all-important details when you’re writing literary criticism. My personal challenge as a translator has been to grant myself creative license, to step or inch away from the original when it seems called for, to prioritize above all the writing of poetry as what ultimately best serves the original and its author. The writing of a poem that is a new poem but also the same poem. On the broadest level, this is what I mean by risk-taking.
This book required me to translate ambiguity, unfixity, defamiliarization beyond the word-to-word. I often avoid the most direct translations (you’ll see this most visibly with some of the titles), asking the bilingual reader to do a double-take, to evoke a wider atmosphere of things not translating straightforwardly. Of course, nothing translates straightforwardly; decades of translation theory have taught us that there is no objective translation. For me, a similar drive motivates the original Spanish—in it, we see clearly that to write is to translate, to dialogue, to interpret, to bring into language what is outside of it. This is the space from which Katábasis and Katabasis emerge. I wanted to be true to it.
In the classical tradition, katabasis implies anabasis, a return trip, an ascent to follow the descent. Heroes would return to earth enlightened, having gained something from the katabatic journey. Translation as katabatic unearthing has to do with the reverberations of katabasis as descent, but also dissent. What’s been kept in the dark? What do we gain in the light?
SB: This is such a fascinating poetics of translation that has emerged from this translation project; I love the notion of translation as katabatic unearthing. To conclude, how does this translation dialogue with your research, specifically your dissertation work? How does the translation contribute to your literary criticism and vice versa?
OL: As you know, I am writing a dissertation on “long-sixties” neo-avant-garde poetics in Latin America. I’m most interested in the way the avant-garde was renegotiated and repurposed in the 1960s for the making of anti-imperialist social revolution, at a time when large-scale social transformation was perceived as inevitable. Translation—as theoretical and conceptual anchor, linking history, relationality, and criticism—offers a means for reading these inter- and intra-avant-garde dialogues. On the broadest level, this project is about the relationship between poetics and politics, how poetry—and, more specifically, avant-garde poetry—probes social inequity, oppression, and legacies of (neo)colonialism to raise consciousness in dialogic ways and drive social change. I’m drawn to the neo-avant-gardes as a researcher because this project is boldly and determinedly at the forefront. The poetry of today that most interests me is, in my view, written in the legacy of the neo-avant-gardes. I want to translate poetry that tries to change the world. Poetry that disrupts imperialist worldviews, that visibilizes the violence of neoliberal capitalism and U.S. empire, that short-circuits grammars of power, that transforms consciousnesses. In this sense, my research not only informs my work as a translator, or even how I read poetry, but, truly, the way I understand the world and how we work to make it livable. I have no doubt that translation is an essential part of this mission.
Olivia Lott is the translator of Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis (2020, Eulalia Books), which is a finalist for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She is an Olin Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in Hispanic Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is writing a dissertation on translation, revolution, and 1960s neo-avant-garde poetics in Latin America.
Sarah Booker is a literary translator and doctoral candidate in Hispanic Literature at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she studies contemporary Latin American narrative and translation studies. She has translated texts by Cristina Rivera Garza and Mónica Ojeda, among others.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 2, 2021