Translating the Erotic Left

Translating the Erotic Left: On Ana María Rodas

by Dan Eltringham

This “dictatorship” of love is the main object of Poems of the Erotic Left, which reclaims the body as a territory of struggle with its frank treatment of sexuality and power.

This brief essay, somewhere between the genres of the translator’s note and the statement of poetics, was commissioned to accompany my translations of early work by the Guatemalan poet and journalist Ana María Rodas for a new anthology, Poetry’s Geographies: A Transatlantic Anthology of Translations, edited by the poets, editors and scholars Katherine M. Hedeen and Zoë Skoulding. It will be published in October 2022 in the United States by Eulalia Books and in the United Kingdom by Shearsman Books. In their introduction, the editors stress that the aim of the anthology is to focus on the work of translation, and translators, who include Forrest Gander, Don Mee Choi, Johannes Göransson, Erín Moure, Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Sasha Dugdale, Ghazal Mosadeq, Dan Eltringham, Stephen Watts and Meena Kandasamy. The poets translated are from Mexico, Korea, Galicia, Palestine, Russia, Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, India and France. Rather than pretending to provide a synoptic overview of poetry in/and translation today, these selections take the form, Hedeen and Skoulding write, of “crossed paths rather than a map,” which trace (inter)personal and intellectual continuities and disjunctions across unevenly intersecting fields of poetic practice, translation, and research, blurring distinctions between these modes of creation and investigation. What follows is then an account of one such juncture between my practice as a translator and as a scholar. But this seemingly discrete connection is not unrelated to my work as a poet, nor indeed to my longstanding interest in the Guatemalan armed conflict, my personal love for Guatemala and Guatemalan poetry, all of which goes back more than a decade in my own biography and beyond, into my late uncle’s life as a travel writer and environmental activist in Central America. But that’s another story.

I came to translating the Guatemalan poet Ana María Rodas as part of a research process, rather than as a “translator” – a side avenue in poetic practice to my current work on the translation of Latin American militant poetries. As I began translating the magnificently entitled Poemas de la izquierda erótica (Testimonio del Absurdo Diario, 1973), a volume that scandalized Guatemalan polite society when it was first published in 1973, I suppose I was just trying to find something out: about the social world adjacent to the guerrilla in Guatemala, and about the 1970s and the challenge posed to Guevara’s “New Man” by feminist critique. Derrida says that translators are the only ones who know how to read, or that translating is the only true reading and writing. I don’t know about that, but translating Rodas sprang, for me, from that sort of an impulse: translation as a mode of close reading and enquiry.

The “erotic left” takes aim at the machista culture of Latin American revolutionary movements as Rodas experienced them, which lines up with Ileana Rodríguez’ critique, in Women, Guerrillas, and Love (1996), of the post-Cuban, “heroic” guerrillas, in which women were figured in highly schematic terms. In Women & Guerrilla Movements (2002) Karen Kampwirth notes that while the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the foco-theory guerrillas it inspired in the early 1960s were largely male affairs, by the end of the decade and into the 1970s, female participation in what were increasingly mass mobilizations of society expanded hugely. Shifting socio-economic factors made armed struggle more of an option or outcome for Latin American women after around 1965, who in some cases left traditional gender roles behind when they joined the guerrilla. These histories have been slow in becoming known. Margaret Randall’s tireless advocacy for an insurgent feminism challenged the Cuban then Nicaraguan revolutionary processes from within in terms of gender equality; while her recent translations of the Bolivian poet and guerrilla Rita Valdivia, who was killed in Cochabamba in 1969 at the age of 23, recuperate the wildly strange work of a female militant writing in the hermetic avant-garde tradition.

Alert to such aporia in the canons of commitment and transnational solidarity that coalesced in the 60s and 70s, my attention was drawn by Rodas’ sardonic title, Poems of the Erotic Left, suggestive of the kind of fraught-yet-friendly satire that was scarce in militant verse of the period. Rodas is a member of what is known as the “irreverent generation” in Guatemalan letters, referring to those who lived as children during the brief period of revolutionary democracy that was ended by the CIA-sponsored coup of 1954. Unlike many of her committed and artistic friends, Rodas stayed in Guatemala for the whole period of the armed conflict (1960–1996), at its worst during the dark days of the 1980s when death squads committed genocidal reprisals against Maya communities accused of assisting the guerrillas. Rodas – who sympathized with the struggle but never took up arms herself – remained in Guatemala City working as a journalist, associating with painters more than writers. As a “guerrillera of love,” the sexual politics of the Catholic family and their replication within revolutionary relationships were openly challenged by Rodas’ ambiguous self-positioning, both supportive and critical of the armed struggle, “somewhere / around there as on the erotic left.”

The first poem by Rodas I found was posted on a blog, with the verse lineation taken out, so it read as a paragraph: in my translation, “You do well, great maestro. I am the guerrillera in your regime, the ob-ject that rises up with weapons of love […].” At first, I thought it was a prose exposition of the poems excerpted from Poems of the Erotic Left that were pasted below: a statement of poetics and politics, perhaps. When I managed to find a copy of the book, republished by Madrid press papelesmínimos in 2019, I put the lineation back together, reconstructing Rodas’ deft movement between indented phrase, sense and enjambment, all couched in the second-person direct address that can’t help but identify you – the reader, perhaps the translator – with the double standards of an emancipatory politics premised on patriarchal power plays, with the “regime” of “well-ordered” affect, and bodies in their place.

This “dictatorship” of love is the main object of Poems of the Erotic Left, which reclaims the body as a territory of struggle with its frank treatment of sexuality and power. Rodas uses a clearly demarcated voice, a verbal construct I sought to replicate in English, as a male translator with a responsibility to the feminist politics of the poems. While I am generally sceptical of the entropic fidelity paradigm that continues to be a popular way of thinking about loss and gain in poetry translation, I also see respect and recreative invention as relative and positional, and in this case I very definitely did not wish to overlay my own rhythms and tonalities any more than is inevitable in the process of re-sounding out line and syntax.

But anyway, despite their excoriating direct address, shockingly intimate content (for the time) and tonal consistency, these poems sabotage the fake naturalization of self and person implicit in the creative writing injunction to “find your voice” by overloading and fragmenting information about the poet’s physical body-with-organs. Personal history beginning with birth is expressed by enumeration that is a record of accretion and subtraction: “3 daughters and 2 dogs come along with me / what’s left of 2 marriages […] I’ve got a liver, stomach, 2 ovaries, a womb, heart and brain, plus accessories.” As Johannes Göransson observes in Transgressive Circulation (2018), finding one’s voice is a kind of necrotic Neoplatonic summoning that privileges spirit over body, but which cannot account for the material remainder of that body’s residual presence in the voice, as molecular disturbance and morphemic slippage, reminding the reader of the corporeality and decay concealed by the fiction of textual stability and authority. Derrida again: translation is like one language licking or caressing another, like a tongue or/of flame, a desiring proximity and distance (difference) in which they appear to touch without complete consummation. Translation’s proliferative versioning further undoes the binary equivalence of origin to copy, a patrilinear, genetic way of thinking about authorship, influence, inheritance and debt that ringfences multiple rewritings of texts within the enclosure of copyright.

As it happens, around the time I began – idly, as a distraction from “writing” – to translate Rodas, my research threw up Zoë Anglesey’s translation of the same poem I had encountered as prose and later translated, not knowing that hers existed. Anglesey, who died in 2003, was a poet, editor and jazz writer, perhaps best known for her 1982 collection Something More Than Force: Poems for Guatemala, 1971–1982 (Adastra Press), which gives a harrowing account of the death squads and disappearances that scarred Guatemala’s counterinsurgent countryside. Her version of this poem was issued as a broadside prospectus for an anthology she edited for Granite Press in 1987, Ixok Amar-Go: Central American Women’s Poetry for Peace/Poesía de mujeres centroamericanas por la paz. Designed by Bea Gates, the broadside sets Rodas’ poem alongside Anglesey’s translation, against a tiled background of four Guatemalan women wearing traditional huipils. These Maya women were, the broadside implies, Granddaughters of Corn, the title of the book in which the image was later included, published by the radical left publisher Curbstone Press in 1988.

Anglesey’s version of the poem is different to mine in lots of ways. Her title is Poems from the Erotic Left, and elsewhere it is listed as Poems from the Erotic Front (I don’t know whether this is an earlier draft of the title). Either way, the prepositions are doing similar, if not identical work, but “front” is an intriguing departure: one can imagine a guerrilla-esque acronym for the People’s Erotic Liberation Front, or FPLE (Frente Popular de Liberación Erótica). This is not my joke, or indeed even a joke at all. After the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979, a group of feminists set up the Partido de la Izquierda Erótica, a political party that wins election after election in the Nicaraguan poet of revolutionary desire Gioconda Belli’s novel El país de las mujeres (The Country of Women, La Otra Orilla, 2010). Of course, I am necessarily and rightly excluded from some of the experiential ground of these poems, and in making direct comparison between our choices I don’t wish to suggest anything other than the richness of translation’s structural imprecision, or the impossibility of “rightness” as selection opens out to variegation inflected by a multitude of factors: identity, experience, historical moment, place, how diction is shaped by the shifting sands of politics.

In the poem itself, Anglesey translates “maestro” as “teacher”; I prefer to keep the loan-word for its connotations of high-handedness. I think her “under” [your regime] is probably better than my “in” in the second line, but I’d rather preserve the difference now I’ve seen both. She takes “jornada” as “journey,” – the day’s progress, sojourn – whereas I wanted to suggest the refusal or sabotage of labour, and of care-work in particular, so I went for “shift.” In the second stanza, I pulled the adverb of the opening imperative, “Rastrea bien,” right down into the third line, inserting it into the injunction to “aplasta sin escrúpulos,” which becomes “quash well and without scruple,” I suspect because I liked the sound and rhythm of this alliterative and phrasal parallelism. Anglesey’s “bud of subversive tenderness” is for me a “shoot,” which again I suppose my subconscious selected because of its double meaning in the context of armed struggle. But I don’t know, because I hadn’t thought about it, or really any of these selections very much, until sitting down to write this comparison. This not-knowing, for me, is the best argument in favour of Göransson’s impure, promiscuous poetics of translation as multiplicitous joy-in-difference, which is messy and imperfect, like our bodies and selves.

In that spirit, I’ll end with an image from my translation of Poems of the Erotic Left that embodies some of the contradictions of what I’m thinking of as “militant fun,” which carla bergman and Nick Montgomery explore in Joyful Militancy (AK Press, 2017) in allusion to the Italian anarchist Alfredo Bonanno’s 1977 polemic Armed Joy. The book explores the potentialities of “subversive tenderness” within radical movements that have become codified by internal tyrannies and anxieties. For Rodas, un trago de ron, interwoven pleasure and decay, sex and excess, make up the nihilistic, utopian drive of “machine-gun / desire”:

The rum sinks noisily into the throat
–10,000 dead cells–
and machine-gun
in the fingers.

Dan Eltringham, 2022. I am grateful to Ana María Rodas for her encouragement of this translation project, to her Spanish publisher papelesmínimos, and to Eulalia Books and Shearsman Books, as well as to Katherine M. Hedeen and Zoë Skoulding, for their permission to reproduce this essay ahead of the publication of Poetry’s Geographies.

Dan Eltringham is a scholar, poet and translator based between Bristol and Sheffield, UK, currently working on a comparative research project, Translating Resistance. His monograph, Poetry & Commons: Postwar and Romantic Lyric in Times of Enclosure, is out with Liverpool University Press (2022). Recent poetry and (co)translations have appeared in a range of magazines and in two anthologies of poetry in translation: Poetry’s Geographies (Eulalia/Shearsman, 2022) and Temporary Archives (Arc, 2022). He co-edits Girasol Press, a small publisher that explores handmade poetics and experimental translation. Go here for more on Dan’s work.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, September 20, 2022

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