In Flight, In Flux

In Flight, In Flux: Language and In-between in Migratory Birds

by Alexandra Tilden

Oliver, Mariana. Migratory Birds, translated from the Spanish by Julia Sanches. Transit Books, June 2021, 136 pages, $15.95. 978-1-945492-52-5

When movement and the fluidity within language are the subjects of a story, translating the work can compound its significance.

Migratory Birds, published in the US in June 2021 by Transit Books, is a collection of essays written by Mariana Oliver and translated from the Spanish by Julia Sanches. Each small tale, or chapter, of Oliver’s stunning debut invites questions of language, passage, borders, and memory. From an essay about the women in Berlin who cleared a city brick by brick after World War II, to a personal, gentle account of the ways in which objects and people inhabit a home, these collective narratives are at all times suffused with shared themes of fluctuation and place.

The English translation of Aves Migratorias is artfully constructed; admitting to “struggl[ing] with brevity in [her] own writing”, Sanches (whose other projects include Permafrost, Eartheater, and The Sun on My Head), is, in Birds, guided by Oliver’s pared-down sentences. The two are a clearly suited coupling—Sanches’s skill, met with Oliver’s precision, makes for brisk, evocative English prose. The resulting joint effect is that no word is wasted, no scene or syllable too small to matter.

Since publication, Birds has been sensitively evaluated by outlets such as Kirkus and the Chicago Review of Books, and in a particularly thoughtful meditation by Sam Carter in Full Stop. These reviews acknowledge the gracefulness of the essays, the precision of the language; it is nearly impossible, I have to imagine, to read through Migratory Birds and be unmoved by the depth of theme Oliver embeds in each vignetted piece, by the artful argument, as Carter writes, that “movement across territories, languages, and temporalities offers a radical possibility to reframe our perspective.” Yet, in this review, I want to zoom in even further than previously done, to note just how remarkable it is that the meaning of Oliver’s work is compounded when constructed into English. I would like to focus on two instances which emphasize the significance of the book as a whole, on account of the value of the translation itself. I argue that the way language behaves in this translation intensifies the themes of movement, dislocation, and new “radical possibility” that Oliver instills in her work.

The first such instance that I’d like to discuss happens in Chapter V, “The Other Lost Boys and Girls.” The chapter centers on the children of Cuba in the early 1960’s. Spurred by relentless US fearmongering, thousands of Cuban children were sent to Florida in an attempt to prevent them being “taken” by the Cuban state: “Mothers of Cuba, don’t let the government take your children! […] When it happens, your children will become materialist monsters, and Fidel will be Cuba’s supreme mother” (53). Unable to foresee the events of the oncoming years that will close the borders between themselves and the US, these families believe the move is a temporary one. The island, at this time, is a “threshold of two worlds: the new one, which unfolded to reveal that the border was an illusion, and the washed-out world being left behind” (52). There is a moment in this chapter, in a sharp scene that describes the way in which the violent colonial history of Cuba is demarcated by the very names of its streets, where language starts to slip. Sanches translates:

Like an artery that rises out of the bay, Calle Amargura cuts through the center of Old Havana to Plaza del Cristo. Like many of the surrounding streets—Mercadores, merchants; Oficios, trades; Cuarteles, barracks—Amargura, sorrow, takes its name from the role it played centuries ago: enslaved Africans who survived the eighty-day crossing hauled metal chains down this street before being branded by the person who had purchased them (52).[1]

The chosen composition here is affecting. Critical to translation is the subject of italicization; this method of shaping a word is inherently political—as translator Khairani Barokka puts it, italics can leave a “thick patina of whiteness or other cultural dominance” upon other languages. Italicization is about power and authority; italicizing denotes a “foreignness” and an “otherness” in concept through shape. To italicize an English word, then, within an English translation, has a subtly jarring impact. In this passage, the meaning of the street names holds profound significance, and so they must be explained, but they should certainly not be changed. This makes it so that the English language, so used to being dominant, is defused; English is “foreignized” in its very own translation, opening up the possibility that the English reader experience, for a brief moment, looking in on another language from the outside. This re-placement of an English reader, then, thematically captures the broader story.[2]

What’s more, this effect, of course, does not neutralize the actual content of the sentence, which is brutal. This only furthers the unsettling impact, as it speaks to the limits of language; without the English insertions, cuarteles would still denote the place enslaved people were held, mercadores still represent those who trafficked in selling people, amargura still signify grief. Packed into this sentence, then, is both an act of reconfiguring of political power—as historically hegemonic English and its dominance is undermined—and an admittance of its limits, as no variation in language can undo the fact that the violent events commemorated by the street names still happened. In a book dedicated to language—its abilities and its malleability—this immense sense of slippage in Migratory Birds, in its capacity as a translation, is thrilling.

Something similarly remarkable happens in the translation only a few pages later. Again, this chapter is largely concerned with the displaced children of “Operation Peter Pan,” or the direct effort of US interventionists propagandizing in Cuba. “The air of Havana grew thick with farewells instead of reunions,” Sanches translates. The departing children are all younger than 17. “Delicate trees with torn-out roots, they flew together towards an exile” (54). Most go without any family members, speaking little or no English. There is something intensely striking, then, for their plight to be written about in Spanish, and then transformed into English:

Even though Neverland has always been an island, the lost children ended up in Florida, which is no more than a spit of land. Pinned to their clothes or to pieces of fabric were signs with their names and ages written in a language that didn’t belong to them. My name is Carmen Gómez. I am five years old. Please, be good to me (55).[3]

What does it mean that these sentences were once two different languages, yet here—only possible in the English translation—they are one? The sharpness of contrast is gone, is smoothed; in the act of translation, something critical is reconfigured. My name is Carmen Gómez must be written in English, in any version, as its being written in English was imperative to these children’s survival, to their families, as a result of the English hegemony within the US. But only—or most starkly—in Migratory Birds, published in the United States, does the weight of these sentences matching in language deepen and multiply.

This effect is only heightened when one considers the necessitating of assimilation as a consequence of the children’s journey: after all, “[s]ome kids were so small when they flew to Neverland that they forgot their way home and the language of their mothers. When they finally returned, they had to figure it all out again” (55). Knowing this, it is doubly alarming to see the lack of contrast in the English edition, understanding, from context, that the sentence in italics was not meant to “belong” to the children. This is a jolt to the Anglophone reader; there is a cerebral comprehension that something is not right, that something about these languages matching is, in fact, off. But this off-ness only amplifies the meaning of what is occurring, the displacement of these young children.

This instance draws the English reader’s attention, again, to the fact that they are reading a translation, that something has been radically altered for these words to become available to them, allowing for another brief moment a glimpse into what it might mean to move between places and languages.

There are other, slightly smaller, occurrences in Migratory Birds where language hops, skips, and jumps (like page 66, where a German word is first defined in Spanish and then, almost as an afterthought, in English). It bears saying, of course, that it is perhaps the colonial United States’ unrelenting fixation on English hegemony that emphasizes these points of significance. And I admit also that it might be possible to read through this magnificent work, Migratory Birds, and miss these moments of shifting reality. Yet, I believe in the attentive English reader’s capacity to notice and to be struck by these instances. The ground beneath the English reader’s feet shifts throughout Migratory Birds—and that’s not only alright, it is meaningful. Given the broad themes of movement, displacement, and transformative language in these conjoined stories, these instances in the translation by Sanches are a tribute to the very core of Oliver’s work.


[1] In the Spanish original:

Como arteria que emerge de la bahía, la calle Amargura surca el centro de La Habana vieja y avanza hasta la Plaza del Cristo. Al igual que las calles circunvecinas —Mercaderes, Oficios, Cuarteles—, Amargura adquirió su nombre por la función que cumplió siglos atrás: esclavos africanos que sobrevivían los ochenta días de travesía por el Atlántico arrastraban eslabones de metal sobre esta calle, antes de que les fundieran sobre la piel la marca de quien los compraría. (50)

[2] Of course, these insertions themselves presuppose an English reader who is not familiar with Spanish, which, it could be argued, in and of itself contributes to English dominance and an attempted “monolingual paradigm” (to use Yasemin Yildiz’s term) within the United States, the country with the second-highest population of Spanish speakers in the world. Leaving only the Spanish names could have been another possible choice by Transit to shift the power dynamic of language. However, inserting them in this format has a profound effect, specifically because of the history of italicization in translation.

[3] In the Spanish original:

Aunque el país de Nunca Jamás siempre es una isla, los niños perdidos llegaron en grupos a Florida, un apéndice apenas, como se ve en cualquier mapa. Prendidos con alfileres al vestido o a cualquier tela, algunos llevaban letreros con su nombre y su edad, escritos en una lengua que no les pertenecía. My name is Carmen Gómez. I am five years old. Please, be good to me. (53)

Alexandra Tilden is a writer and a student of translation, film, and comparative literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She studied English literature at Rhode Island College, worked as a bookseller in Providence, RI, and was an editorial intern at Graywolf Press. She lives with her partner, dog, and two perfect cats between Providence and NYC.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, November 30, 2021

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