The Opacity of Language, the Empathy of Translation: Mayra Santos-Febres’s Boat People
by Aitor Bouso Gavín
Santos-Febres, Mayra. Boat People, translated from the Spanish by Vanessa Pérez-Rosario. Cardboard House Press, June 2021, 84 pages. 978-1-945720-19-2
This bilingual collection of poems is a timely and urgently needed piece of literature that responds to these questions by underpinning Puerto Rico’s subaltern and colonial relationship with the United States. These poems, originally written in Spanish and first published in 2005, come to our homes at a time when we need literature to humanize us in the face of the contemporary humanitarian crisis and social calamities we are witnessing day after day.
Mayra Santos-Febres (1966-) is an Afro-Boricua poet and novelist who has become a defining counter-tradition literary figure in shaping generations of Puerto Rican writers. Boat People (2021) is a collection of poems that testifies to her fierce activism in verse and her social and political commitment to render visible the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Atlantic experience. Her devastatingly truthful and revelatory poetic voice has garnered her the international recognition she deserves. As a prolific and renowned writer, Santos-Febres has been translated into French, English, German, Croatian, Korean, Icelandic, and Italian. Nevertheless, English-language readers did not have access to one of her most dazzling collections of poems until translator and scholar Vanessa Pérez-Rosario decided to embark upon this project. In the translator’s note to Boat People, Pérez-Rosario wonders why major authors of Puerto Rico’s literary history are still unheard of among mainstream US American readers and students of literature (76). Therefore, her translation poses an important question that underlines the significance of this book of poems given the scarcity of Puerto Rican literature translated into English.
This bilingual collection of poems is a timely and urgently needed piece of literature that responds to these questions by underpinning Puerto Rico’s subaltern and colonial relationship with the United States. These poems, originally written in Spanish and first published in 2005, come to our homes at a time when we need literature to humanize us in the face of the contemporary humanitarian crisis and social calamities we are witnessing day after day. As Pérez-Rosario brilliantly puts it, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the migrant crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border and the Atlantic, and the ecological and debt crisis in Puerto Rico, these poems have “the power to move readers in ways that statistics cannot” (75). Almost twenty years after Boat People was first published, Pérez-Rosario’s translation directs our attention to the importance of combating anti-blackness and addressing ongoing migratory issues, which have been particularly detrimental to racialized bodies. These poems will get the attention of those who have grown inured to the humanitarian crises people are facing across the world. Santos-Febres’s poems harken back to the history of the Middle Passage and Atlantic chattel slavery, and, most importantly, they give voice to the undocumented and disappeared black bodies swallowed by the Atlantic Ocean.
Boat People contributes to the life of American literature in extremely meaningful ways. The title of this collection of poetry was originally written in English, as a means of underlying the implication of the U.S. in these migratory crises, but also because it is the destination for many of the characters to whom Santos-Febres gives life with her poems. Considering this multilingual text, the translator is faced with a very controversial dilemma: should every single word be translated? Pérez-Rosario chose not to translate those words that either resist translation or have particular nuances and connotations that would get lost in translation. Santos-Febres’s work stands out for illustrating the pan-Caribbean experience through porous and heterogenous poems in which the Caribbean region-specific vocabulary shines through. Such is the case, for example, with Puerto Rican terms of endearment that evoke care and affection such as morenita/o or mulata. The translation retains the multilingual quality of the author efficiently and organically by also refusing to eschew Dominican colloquialisms (e.g., tigere, varón, etc.) and Haitian Creole words. Thus, not translating these words and terms into English is a very fortunate and rare decision that should be applauded.
As a well-versed decolonial writer and scholar, Mayra Santos-Febres draws on the legacy of Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation (1990) by crafting poems with an opaque language, which, as Pérez-Santos contends, “confronts readers with a sense of loss, highlighting the inaccessibility of African diasporic memory, invulnerable and irrefutable, yet out of reach” (77). Some aspects of Santos-Febres’s verses remain obscure, and, as such, her poems are a celebration of Afrodiasporic difference. Her poems’ opaque language prioritizes image and sound; hence, her poems are multisensorial, and readers become bewildered witnesses who can hear, sense and even taste the salty water of the ocean and the pain underlying it. Pérez-Rosario’s impeccable translation does not lose sight of these specificities and conveys the same feelings of opacity and impenetrability while still keeping readers tuned to the melancholic and lamenting music of the original poems.
Santos-Febres has a strong and unique voice that reverberates in us and leaves us breathless after every single line. One of the most challenging and arduous responsibilities of a translator is to maintain the literary qualities of the translated text; Vanessa Pérez-Rosario’s translation undoubtedly meets those standards. The fragility that characterizes Santos-Febres’s poetic voice is poignantly rendered by Pérez-Rosario’s short, sharp lines, which highlight the fragile and ephemeral quality of the characters whom the author brings to life through her poems. The author’s elegiac tone and fragmentary, elusive style can be described as a cimarrón poetics, as Pérez-Rosario points out (77), a poetics that resists Eurocentric modes of legibility and gives rise to imaginary trans-ontological and Afro-diasporic spaces.
Pérez-Rosario’s translation is extremely successful because she interprets Santos-Febres’s poetics of cimarronaje [marronage] and the text’s visceral and intricate language for the readers of her translation and dares them to experience the loss, pain and turmoil that the African diasporic past is imbued with. In addition, the translator is adept at finding the right words to deal with the most challenging aspects of Santos-Febres’s poems, such as the extensive references to biological elements, human anatomy and abject corporeality. It is very hard to make meaning of fragmented bodies and detached components (e.g., flesh, mouths, alveoli, cells, eyelids, etc.); notwithstanding, the translator always chooses the most appropriate lexicon to transmit the same feeling of thrilling disconcert as the Spanish version. Thanks to Vanessa Pérez-Rosario, English-language readers have gained access to an exceptional collection of poems crafted by one of the most important contemporary writers in Puerto Rico.
Aitor Bouso Gavín is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Associate in the Spanish and Portuguese Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His work has been featured in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies (Fall, 2020). Aside from that, he is a translator and works as student assistant for the Translation Center at UMass Amherst.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, September 28, 2021