blackbirdonline journalFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
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A Conversation with Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
captured March 22, 2019

Katherine Mooney Brooks: Hello, everyone. We are here at VCU in one of the production rooms at Blackbird with our senior editors, graduate and undergraduate staff, and Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas to discuss her100 Refutations, which was serially published last spring with The Brooklyn Rail. As you know, I’m Katherine Mooney Brooks, the Lead Associate Editor of Blackbird, and I’m so grateful that Lina is able to join us today to discuss this project. Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas teaches nonfiction here at VCU. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Creative Nonfiction and Literary Translation programs and is the author of Drown/Sever/Sing and Don’t Come Back. She was featured in a reading with Mark Doty published in the fall issue of Blackbird, v17n2. So welcome, Lina, and thank you so much for taking the time to talk about “100 Refutations.” Maybe you can talk a little bit about its history and give us some context.

Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas: Sure. Thank you for the introduction, Katherine Mooney Brooks. So what’s interesting is you have that thing up there, and maybe you’ve already seen it, and I’m going to tell you that same story but in my own words. So ignore what’s up there and just listen to me. 100 Refutations is possibly the worst thing I’ve ever done to myself. There was no glory; there was no money; there was nothing in it. There was just pure, unadulterated rage, and that’s—a surprising amount of work can come from it. So I was sitting in my grandmother’s apartment—my grandmother died a few months ago, so it was an empty apartment and it was just full of symbols, and nations and countries are fought for grandmothers. When you ask somebody like, “Why do you go to war? What is your country?” Realistically, very few people are going to go, “For the Grand Canyon! This is why we go to war!” And, like, fight and have flags, like, very few people—like, these are all symbols, but realistically, your country is your family and your flesh, and this is as far as it goes.

So I was in my grandmother’s apartment—I’m Colombian, born and raised. This is not my first language; this is not my country. And my mother always keeps the radio on in the background, and I’m sitting right before this really ancient Virgin that my grandmother got in Ecuador, one of the oldest places where you can find in Latin America, like, these relics. And she’s balancing on this upturned moon, on the edge of it, as if, like, it were an upturned scythe, and she’s digging her heel into the back of this snake’s skull, and the snake is just frozen in place in this perpetual scream, and I’m just sitting right underneath it when I hear these words come out of the radio from the kitchen, and they say, again, these words that will get debated on NPR, voices on the radio, for ever and ever, and all these articles, “Was it shithouse, or was it shithole?” But it doesn’t fucking matter. Because the way they’re translated is “shit country,” so that’s “países de mierda.” And I hear these words, and it just—I have trouble explaining how devastating it feels because symbols aren’t symbols, they’re real. Everything is real, all the time. And I know what it’s like growing up with no expectations. I know what it’s like to be abroad and for people to tell you that there are no expectations of you, that there are only negative expectations of you. I still have people approach me at parties and ask me for cocaine, still. Still, after these things, after readings, people will still approach me and think, “You know what? I’m going to ask her what she thinks about Narcos, because that was a dope show.” And they’ll say “dope show” with absolutely no irony. And I can’t explain how I don’t watch a show that I lived through. That I have no interest in it. That other people have different relationships to it. That there are people who had worse relationships to it, and maybe that’s fine, but that’s not me, and I can’t take it. So I hear “shit countries,” and I keep thinking about all these walls and all these metaphors, and how they’re already there, it doesn’t matter. And we’re all going to pay for them, forever and ever, there—it’s, that’s it. And they exist, and I’m sitting in my grandmother’s apartment right underneath this Virgin, and I don’t know what to do. And I do what I always do when I don’t know what to do, which is I yell. I yell a lot. It’s what I do. And my mother, who is always afraid for me, particularly because I do yell, and I’m loud, and I say these things, and I am not a citizen, and I have no protections, and I can’t go anywhere near rallies because I don’t get arrested; I get deported. She’s very scared for me, she’s reasonably scared for me. And all she’s telling me all the time, is just, “Calm down, calm down, don’t get near it, don’t go near it, don’t touch it,” and I’m still in a very, incredibly privileged class of immigrants. She’s still afraid, and it’s still reasonable, because it is so very, very unreasonable.

So I’m yelling, and she keeps trying to calm me down, and she calls me a "little short fuse" because I am that. And she keeps asking what I’m going to do, like, how can this possibly help? How can me being angry about something, me being really realistically very sad about something because my grandmother is my country, and she was my first literature, and when you say “shit countries” what you’re saying is that that is also who she was and who she is. And who I am by extension, and that matters less to me than the people who are my country, who are my family, who are my kin, who are in cages. So I have to, like, wonder what I can possibly do. And I have to wonder how you can argue at something that isn’t an argument. “People are shit” isn’t an argument. And yet it’s taken as an argument for all of these justifications, so I had to sort of start deconstructing the idea of what it means to be a “shithole country” or a “shithouse country,” and even the arguments that it’s a shithouse country and we just all misunderstood, because really it’s just about infrastructure, because these countries don’t have infrastructures, and the amount of highways that you have, that’s exactly what was meant by that statement. And I keep thinking, “Okay, if that is the definition, and yeah, some of us don’t have infrastructure,” which is, like, some towns in the US don’t have infrastructure. Because the US is many countries at once, and sometimes not as united as it seems, and sometimes more.

So I wondered if our humanity depended on the GDP, then what could I possibly bring to the table to argue with a non-argument? And I thought, and I thought, and then I thought “poetry,” because poetry doesn’t require infrastructure; it doesn’t require anything; it just flourishes; it’s a weed, and it just comes up out of nowhere, and it grows through walls, and it’s stubborn, and it’s stupid, and it’s great. And I thought, “Maybe, maybe, maybe . . .” Because I knew a woman once who said one of the most devastating things I’ve ever heard, and this is a good woman, a kind, generous, religious woman, who saw someone with a terrible disability, and with all sincerity in her heart and in her eyes, she said, “I think that would still be easier than being the parent of a gay child.” And it was horrifying. It was horrifying, and she’s a good person, and she’s a bad person, all at once. And now only, like, very recently, I heard her say, “It is the obligation of the State to give rights to people like that. To make marriage available to everybody.” This has been just a few years, and the only difference is exposure. That’s it. She’s met people who weren’t like her, and no longer does it seem like such an insurmountable thing. No longer does it seem like such an inhumane thing, and the only thing I have faith in left in this horrible, pitiful world is exposure. So maybe if you saw that we’re not that. Maybe if you saw that we have poetry and that we grow through the cracks in the walls. Maybe it wouldn’t be so easy to kill us. Maybe it wouldn’t be so easy to put us in cages, maybe. I don’t know. What else do you want to have faith in?

So that day I translated a poem, and I put it on my Facebook because that’s my biggest megaphone. I don’t have much else. And the next day I posted another poem, and the next day another poem, and the next another poem, and in this sort of, like, wallowing state of utter rage, consuming rage, I started reaching out to people thinking, like, “Okay, so is there—can I have a bigger megaphone? Will anyone give me a bigger podium?” And I wrote these, like, incredibly unprofessional emails to everybody that I could possibly reach out to, and everyone responded very positively, saying, “That’s really hard, we understand, there’s no way that we can give you our site for a hundred days,” until I contacted Jen Zoble, who is a wonderful person, a brilliant translator and writer, and she said, “When can we start?” And then she just gave me this site for a hundred days, and it wasn’t a hundred days, it was about six months of sleeping an average of two hours a night because I don’t know if you’ve tried translating a poem a day, finding the poem—because every time that I, like, hit a wall, like—oh, I’ll just translate poems from the 1700s, there are enough of those, right? And then I noticed that they were all from men from a particular social class, and they were all, like, colonially based, and they were all very religious, you know a particular thing, like—I need more women, and more women meant—I don’t know if you’ve read, I purchased forty-three anthologies for this project, and women weren’t invented until the mid-70s is what I gathered from these anthologies, so I had to then find women poets online, which is hard. It takes about two to three hours to find someone, and then about half of them will reply, and only a third of those replies will be positive. So I wanted to, like, fit that into a day. And then you have to do the translation. I roped one of my friends to be my editor, Amanda Dambrink, who also is a fantastic writer, but that’s it. That was the staff. It was me, and me, and then me, and then Amanda would edit them very quickly, and then Jen would do a final pass, and then they would just go up. So my apartment became consumed, every single wall—I know exactly every copyright law per country. Mexico’s a nightmare because they changed the rules midway through, so it’s a hundred years before 1962, and then it’s like sixty years after this, and then there’s a gap where, like, there’s an overlap. Haiti is twenty-five years, I don’t know why, but they—yep! That’s it. And then I decided that I needed more indigenous writers, and then that was another ordeal, so it just—I kept, like, sleeping less and less. And that’s the story of that. How long do we have left? Damn. There’s still more time. Do you have questions for me?

KMB: Yes, thank you for that history. You mentioned the first installment of 100 Refutations, which was the “Manifesto” and sort of acts as the introduction to the project. And it ends with the voice of the mother saying, “What could you even say to something like that?” And I want to ask you later about your thoughts on the difference between “essay” and “translation”—if there is a difference—but can you speak to why, instead of writing, perhaps, one cohesive essay, you opted for the multidimensional and multi-voiced project of compiling and translating many poems from many poets from many places?

LMFC-V: A lot of these choices, like I said, were non-choices, so I was forty-three anthologies in, so I honestly don’t even know how many poems I read. And I ended up translating close to a hundred-and-thirty-something, but only eighty-three of my translations made it in, which then meant that I had to, like, find other translators because I don’t translate from French. And I wrote the first essay, and I thought, “This will be enough, and I’ll never revisit this,” but then all these other things kept happening, and I kept having to reframe it, and then I had to group the poems in a way that they would feel cohesive, so there’s a music week, so all the poems are about music in one way or another. And I’m an essayist above anything else that I do. I write in three genres, sometimes four, but essays are the things that I come back to. Nonfiction is the thing that interests me the most. The best ones, for me, about truth, and it’s the one inescapable thing that we can’t define whatever we do. So, it just—after that first week it just felt like I had to speak to the situation that was there, and the hardest part was, like, I wanted to unplug so often, like, I just can’t do the news anymore, and I can’t keep this going, and I had to go on radio silence for, like, three weeks after I finished the project. I just couldn’t hear anything else because I felt intoxicated, poisoned by the whole thing, and I also slept for about three weeks. [laughs] So it was a non-choice choice. It all felt like I didn’t have choice, like, what was my choice? Especially at the very beginning, like, no one knew this was happening, like, after a while, like, it picked up, like, other people started posting, and it caught on, in one way or another, but I didn’t think anyone was going to read it. I thought it was going to reach maybe ten people, and I was happy with that. Because otherwise it was just, you know, putting it on Facebook for my mom to not read. So I was happy with that, but then, you know, if you’re doing a project where there’s no money, there’s no glory, there are no contracts, and especially no editors telling you what to do and what not to do, then I had all this freedom that I will never have again, but also I had these obligations that I will maybe not have again, either. I set out to make a project out of moral obligation for the people and the places that I love. So I didn’t have a choice to have an anthology with only men. That just seemed preposterous; that was not a choice. And I didn’t have a choice to not include multiculturalism and different ethnic backgrounds and post-colonial, you know, African writers and it just—there was no choice in my mind. It just meant the only choice was sleeping less, and that’s the choice that I kept making.

KMB: I want to go back to the inciting comment that started this whole project, which is the whole idea of “shit countries” or “shithole countries.” In “The Task of the Translator” Walter Benjamin asks, “Is a translation meant for readers who do not understand the original?” And I want to know how you would answer that question in terms of this project, where someone who is likely to call a country a “shithole” likely has no intention of learning its language?

LMFC-V: Well, it wasn’t for the author of the comment. [laughs] That was not my intended audience. But there’s an interesting thing that happens in demonology manuals to summon demons, as we all know, as you all must have demonology manuals at home, surely. [audience laughs] I worry that I started things off quite seriously, and then people feel very nervous to laugh at obvious things like demonology manuals. But if you know anything about demonology manuals, which you very much should, it’s that they’re full of warnings and one of the warnings that they have are, like, “be aware of exorcists,” like, “beware the exorcist.” The person who can take something out can also put it in. And it’s really, for me, a warning for charismatic leaders and rhetoricians. The person who can teach “good” can teach “bad.” The person who can “set straight” can “corrupt.” I’m not writing for the exorcists. I’m writing for those who are under the spell and under the power. I—this is a complicated, losing war, and the methods do impact the capacity to win. If it’s a moral war, you can’t engage in immorality, in a way. Which is a long way of saying, this is a losing war, which I completely understand, but sometimes we can only fight fire with marshmallows, and this is the best I’ve got. And anything short of it I think would compromise what I was attempting to do, so I just reached out to the best writers that I could and I gave them a platform, and it’s possible that it meant nothing for the speaker. It definitely meant nothing to the speaker, and it’s possible that it meant nothing to those who were impacted and felt “This is truth,” you know, “This is just saying it like it is.” But I think it meant a lot to the writers who had never been published in English before, and how is that not good enough?

KMB: What you’re saying about the people under the spell, or the people being impacted, is reminding me of something Solzhenitsyn writes in In the First Circle, which is that “The People,” as an expression, “did not mean those who speak your language. . . . Neither birth nor the labor of your hands nor the privileges of education admit you to membership of the People. Only your soul can do that. . . . You must strive to temper and to cut and polish your soul so as to become a human being, and hence a humble component of your people.” I think that your project seems to be the embodiment of that notion and what it means to be both an individual and a member of the collective, enacted in the form that you choose which is this collection of translated poems as well as the incorporation of your own personal essays.

In your piece, “The Empire of Flies,” you end with the colonists asking the indigenous people of the Andean plateau “what they were” after having referred to the mass of people as “flies”—the essay ends with their answer: “‘We,’ they said, ‘are people.’” It is this assertion of humanity, the pride to say as much, and the humility to hone that humanity, as Solzhenitsyn phrases it, that 100 Refutations seems to be working toward. And I’m interested in the incorporation of your own essays into the collected work, which seems to broaden the scope of “The People.” So how do you see those essays functioning alongside the translated poems?

LMFC-V: On a practical level I just meant them to be as introductions for the week, like, “Here’s the week,” and it gave The Brooklyn Rail team something to put a hashtag to. Like, that was really just the practical aspect of it. They said, “Oh, get a Twitter account,” and not to brag, I did, and I have more than fourteen followers. [audience laughs] But I didn’t—I hated social media, completely. I just—you give up so much when you write nonfiction, like, there’s so much of you that you just present wholly raw, naked, that I just have no interest in like having an online presence or, like, presenting, but that was one of the things, like, if I want to do this, then I have to, like, be present, so that was part of it, that was the big part of it. The second part of it is that because I am on the narrative side of things, I find—I love translators, I love translators, I’m not a dedicated translator, so this isn’t self-love. But translators—the only time we see a mention of a translator in a review is when, to say, “Oh, really missed the essence of this one word,” like that’s it. When have you ever read a book review and gone like, “Also, the translator must’ve done a great job,” like no, no, no, no, no—you have one job and then disappear. Like, translators ought to be neither seen nor heard, realistically. And there’s also no money in it, whatsoever, so, like, why do people translate? Do you know why people translate? Literary translation? Never thought about it? You’ve never thought about translators at all, have you? You bastards. [audience laughs] Listen, translators translate because they love something, and the only objective, the only real reason that you would do something like this is because you want other people to have the chance to love the thing you love, that’s it. So I’m not saying that every translator is a noble person, but the vast majority, like, this is the intention, is to bring attention to something that you love. And that was the big perk out of this project, was that I got to pick everything, and I loved everything that I included, and I loved every one that I included. So I can’t remember the question. What was the question? Something about humanity.

KMB: How you see the essays function as part of the whole.

LMFC-V: Oh yeah! So I wanted to draw that attention to the writers, and I felt like it was going so quick, and I also—I was also like writing the bios as well, which the bios were so time-consuming, and there were some authors that had never been translated before, and some authors that, like, their existence was questionable, so it was all a big mess. But I felt like the essays could do both. One, I was going out of my mind during this period, and I think you can see the slow decline of my mind, like, when you read the essays in order, going, like, oh you’re— [addressing an audience member] Stop nodding, AJ! Stop nodding! [audience laughs] But I was—stop sleeping for six months, tell me how that goes for you. So it allowed me to have an outlet on, like, I was just taking all of it in. If I wasn’t translating, then I was reading the news, and I was staying inside of it, like, I had to stay angry for six months to be able to do this. And the only relief that I got was the poems that I was reading, and a lot of them were quite angry, as well. So it allowed me to, like, speak and get some—not to say this, but, like, exorcise some of that, and the other one was to, like, present, “Okay, I love these people,” and that couched it in it. So it allowed me to, like, really state my translation purpose very clearly. And say a few things about, like, I think I mentioned Assam, I think I have Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in there, as well, who is a phenomenal writer who everyone should read and know. And I was able to just go, like, “I know that this is going to be one poem in a hundred, and it’s going to go by quick, but pay attention to this, this is a big thing that will—if you’re reading poetry, you’re a very self-selecting group, so here’s one that you need to be paying attention to. Ideally all of them, but she’s quintessential.” Yeah.

KMB: I think so often we look at the binaries between the genres, and I like that this is a compilation of at least two genres. But translation, according to Benjamin again, is a form, so—it’s not its own genre, though, because it’s dependent on the original, if you’re so—that’s not my opinion, that’s—

LMFC-V: No, no, you can hide behind Benjamin, that’s fine.

KMB: I’m going to. [laughs] But I want to know what you think of as the essential difference between the work of the essay and the work of translation? Because if we always go back to the etymology of an essay, which is the verb “essay,” “to try,” or “an attempt,” and so you said something about translators translate because they love something, and they want to give, you know, attention to it. So is that different from the task of the essayist?

LMFC-V: Yes. In that sense they are quite different, but—so I got a literary translation and MFA more or less at the same time. I did the bulk of the work for both of them in three years, and then I had a year to find a job, which I failed to do, and then I ended up moving to China—it’s fine, again, I’m totally fine. But I did them simultaneously, which means I was, like, thinking about them in the same way, and, to me, they are—for me translation, literary translation, is a genre for one particular reason, is because you have to be a writer to translate literature. You have to be a writer, and you have to have a different mindset just like if you are a poet you have a mindset, like, I can’t think in, like, the breaking of the lines; I can’t do that. I write in essays. I think in essay form and in narrative, more specifically.

So when I did my work, my thesis was also blended, and the thesis became Don’t Come Back, that book. And my book is full of diagrams of me translating aphorisms because they’re the hardest things that I could think to write, and that’s the way that my brain works, like, “What’s the hardest thing that I could possibly do? Don’t sleep for six months and do this project? Yes, let’s do that, surely won’t kill us!” Nearly did, I’m fine, again. But the translation of a thing, like, that’s—I think this is—it messes with, like, the idea, we feel very comfortable where the original is truth, and then you have a reiteration of it, like, that’s a facsimile, that’s a copy, and all translation is inferior, when in reality translation is interpretation, right? So when you—I read the original Gabriel García Márquez, I read Cortázar, and I read Borges in Spanish, but then I’ll also read them in English, oftentimes, and I’ll read even, like, Borges’s translations of Borges is Borges interpreting Borges, and he changes words. Words like “they gathered crumbs” in “The Gospel according to Mark.” They “steal crumbs,” he translated to “steal.” He just rewrote it, right? Like, which is fine because it’s Borges, but no one anthologizes Borges’s translation of Borges. Because he changed that word, right? Like, but what is truth? So I think translation gives you all this, like, beautiful capacity to, like, see a work in 360 degrees. Not to just rely on your own interpretation but to see the textual different interpretation instead of just getting footnotes, which isn’t the story itself.

So translation is very much a form of nonfiction, in my mind. Because the same happens with your experiences, when you sit down to write your experiences, really you’re not writing the experience itself, you’re writing some interpretation of it, and usually the interpretation that makes you look the best, which isn’t all interpretations. It isn’t even the best interpretation; it’s the interpretation that allows you to sleep well at night. That’s what most people do. I think the best nonfiction writers really commit to not sleeping in that sense, either. What is the interpretation that will, like, lead me to attempt to think more thoroughly, to abandon a confirmation bias for myself? And the best translation does that, as well, where you love a thing for what it does, and then you forget yourself, and you try to push it forward. So for me translation and nonfiction are versions of each other; they’re perfect metaphors and analogs to talk about one another, and in my own work it’s impossible for me to not deal with it because a lot of the things that I write happen in Spanish, every line that you’ve ever read, like, that’s it, like, “What can you do, Lina? Calm down.” My mother didn’t say that. She doesn’t speak to me in English; she never has. She only says one thing in English because it’s uncomfortable for her to say in Spanish and that’s “I love you.” That’s it. So why—how can you look at that and go, like, well this is true, but stealing crumbs isn’t, right? This is just, you know, approximations, we’re always communicating in approximations, and I think that that’s the reason that I come back to nonfiction, the reason I like to teach translation, is when we acknowledge that we are all wrong, then that’s the only place where I think good decisions can come from. I think that the man with his hand on the trigger has no doubt; the man with the bomb vest has no doubt. We often have no doubt, and uncertainty is one of the last lines of defense for inhumanity.

KMB: That’s a lot. I think I’m paraphrasing because I’m just going off memory, but in that piece, “The Task of the Translator,” he refers to translation as being “outside of the forest,” and as a sort of echoing of the original, but it’s not mimicry, it’s this sort of, like, needing the reverberation to be a different iteration that’ll be understood by a different populace, and so I think that that’s sort of speaking to what you’ve been speaking about. Which is interesting. I want to ask—just in terms of Blackbird—so often when we set content, we have sort of happy accidents, things that we maybe consciously or unconsciously accepted that speak to one another really well, pieces that seem really cohesive. I’m wondering if there were any sort of surprises when you were compiling those pieces, when you looked at it at the end, when they were all together.

LMFC-V: I mean, I did every—the reason that it took six months, ’cause I—so I started, I think it was February 11, maybe, the moment that comment was uttered, and I worked nonstop until July 28, or something like that? Which is a long time to be doing that. So—I can’t remember where I was going. [laughs] What was your question?

KMB: How they sort of speak as a collective.

LMFC-V: Oh right, right, right! So the reason for this, the reason that it took that long is because I asked Jen Zoble, the editor of InTranslation, to give me time to start, like—I wanted things to fit together. Because even in the rush of things, which you just have to let some things go, this is one of the most important things as a writer, is, like, learn to let things go, like, this is the deadline, you just work as fast as you can and as hard as you can until you reach it. But even that, like, I was still really wanting to be very much in control, so all weeks fit together, like I—they all have a theme, so there’s a—I wrote an essay where I talked about Celia Cruz, who I will forever love, she is a patron saint of Latin American music, and Latin America in general. And she—that entire week was music, and then I think "The Interrogation of Assam" was about slavery, so like, the—if it seems like they’re all these happy accidents, it’s actually just me sleeplessly, like—I had a whole work wall covered in Post-it notes and just kept moving the essays—the poems back and forth to fit, and then once I had that week, then I would write the essay. But the essay—I think the—you wanted me to talk about the pineapple essay?

KMB: Oh, yeah.

LMFC-V: I wrote that essay during Mission Creek, which is a music and literature festival in Iowa City, and I had to go do a reading, and I was just there that week, and I wrote that essay in the library an hour before I had to go do a reading on a scrap of paper and a napkin because those were the only paper pages I had, and I just, like, wrote it as quickly as I possibly could, and then that night, like, I got home to my friend’s house and I just typed it up, and I sent it, like, that’s it, like, that was all the time that I had. So I had—I did my best to organize things as much as possible, but I still had a day job, like, I was still teaching, and I was still doing all the readings and all the things that I had to do, so—the only happy accident is that I’m—that it all got published, that it all made it through, and I just try not to look at it because I know that it’ll drive me crazy when I do.

KMB: So nothing surprised you?

LMFC-V: Nothing surprised me of, like, all the hard work that I put in tracking things down, is that what you’re asking me? I don’t know what you’re asking me, like, the poems didn’t exist, like, they’re—I read forty-three anthologies.

KMB: Content-wise, I mean having them all laid out together, there was nothing that you hadn’t anticipated?

LMFC-V: So I—it was such a rush, Katie, it was—I had, I tried to do as much as I could before I got there, but even when I got there, like, I was—even on the last week—I was pulling things out, like, I was still reaching out, like, waiting for a poet to write me back, and all of these things happened where, like, poets started pulling out when they started feeling vulnerable, or somebody was processing their visa. Somebody—the US—was processing their visa, and they justifiably felt like, “This is going to hurt me, like, I can’t.” So they pulled things out, and I had to, like, reorganize everything, so the surprises were when things really worked. But I also had more poems than I ended up including, so I think I translated something like 132, 134, something like that, so—if you’re in a period of time, slavery’s going to get talked about a lot. Yeah, I think the surprising thing is that so many people said yes, quickly and immediately, in an email. And just trusted me with their work, I think that was the most surprising thing.

KMB: So my final question. In the “Manifesto,” there is that really visceral sense of rage and injustice upon hearing the comment, and then the works that follow operate on a spectrum of emotion, it’s not just this one point of rage. Then in the “Coda” there’s this repeated phrase “faith and effort,” which really seems to speak toward the project as a whole. “Faith”and “effort” both bear a great sense of gravity, and themselves can arise from rage or from contentment, and have the capacity to bring a person to either place. How has your understanding been changed by this project, or how have you been changed by this project? And was there a sense of revelation?

LMFC-V: I wanted there to be. I wanted it to crack open at some point. It is a lonely thing, and I—because we were rushing through it so quickly, I never got—I never knew how many people were looking at the poems, like, Brooklyn Rail had all those stats, but I literally had no time to ask, like, I didn’t have time to, like, write the email to say “Jen, do you know the stats of, like, how many people are seeing this?” And I don’t think I—because I’m not lying, there isn’t any facade to how I’m presenting the birth of the project, like, it was just I was angry, and I didn’t know where else to turn, or where to yell. So this was just me yelling a lot, hoping that I would keep my voice long enough to keep yelling for a hundred days, for six months. But it’s a very lonely thing. I like—I often, like, find places to volunteer and I like volunteering because there’s an immediate thing, like, you know at the very least, this person has a coat, this person had a meal today, this person did this, this—I helped this person, like, put a job, like a resume together, or find a job, or like they’re looking at a house. Like, that’s immediate, and it’s real, and that’s raw, and, like, the essence of evil is the suffering of another human being, like, that’s just it, it’s simple, and it’s clear, and it’s direct, and we can talk about moral philosophy and obstruction all we want, but that’s concrete. This wasn’t concrete, and I never saw anything or anyone, so I think that part of, like, the big exhaustion is that I was seeing cages, like, I was seeing that suffering, like, that was really present and clear and concrete and inescapable, but all of my raging was very abstract and invisible, and I never, like—I think that there were, like, secret fantasies of being able to see something from it—that never happened. And that’s—that’s just really, really exhausting because that was the most real thing in the world. And I’m often—because I have more time to work on my essays, because I write about this—this isn’t a departure, it’s only a departure in that it’s, like I’d never translated that much poetry in my life so intensely and consecutively.

But everything else that I do is always about this violence, and always about—we have this, I think, very stupid notion that violence and brutality is something pertaining to the animal part of ourselves, but animals don’t commit genocide. Like, this animalistic aspect of it is our own personal scapegoat; civilization and violence go together. This is our thing; this is our invention, and this is a thing that we continually feed, and then feed ourselves the lie that “if only we were more civilized, if only that were true,” there’s nothing more civilized than the Crusades. There was nothing more meticulous than the Holocaust. This is an absurdity, and the moment that we let go of that and we accept it, I think that we might be able to deal with ourselves better. And each other. So that’s, I think, the essence of most of my work: the belief in exposure, exposure to the humanity of others and the brutality of ourselves.

If I could have anything, if I could wish for anything that somebody, like, picks up something that I write and then walks away with it, it’s I would hope that you were a little bit more afraid of yourself than you were before, that’s my goal. So—I was a little bit more afraid of myself at the end of this, that wasn’t what I was hoping for, and I was afraid because I had allowed myself to believe that this would be something tangible, that this could—that I could feel good about myself at the end of it. And that’s not how this works. We are also, like, we get stuck in these notions of—I will offer to, like, give up my coat and then the fairy will come up and go like, “Because you’ve given up your coat, you can have this palace of gold!” That’s not how sacrifice works. Sacrifice is actual, and it’s real. You give a thing up, and you don’t get it back. And one of the things that I gave up was missing an awful lot of deadlines. I should’ve been finishing—I would’ve finished a book by now. Another book, by now. And I didn’t because I chose to do this, a thing that very few people have seen. So how do I feel about that? That’s actual sacrifice. Sacrifice is a thing that I get no glory for. Not “sacrifice is the thing that you do because you think you’ll give it up, but secretly somebody’s gonna recognize it, and go like, ‘Here’s a million dollars, write us more books! Like I recognize how good a person you are!’” I gave up a thing, and that thing is gone, and that time is gone, and it’s not the thing that I wanted, but it is the person I want to be. So I’d much rather be someone, you know, in a moment rather than have the moments that I long for, if that makes sense.

KMB: It does. Thank you so much for answering all those questions. Maybe we have time for a couple questions.

Student: I wanted to ask—I have seen a few translations, but I would like to ask how can you balance out the original message with the interpretation? Especially when so many things are cultural references or historical references that get lost in between?

LMFC-V: I think you don’t. I think that’s what you do. I think you—I love the idea of the—the question you get most often when you say “I’m a translator” is, like, “Okay, so tell me what’s the good translation?” Like, let me, like, go through and go, like, [Lina mimes rifling through a file] and very few times will I go, like, “Don’t read this translation.” I’m, like, “So, this is a good translation to start with,” right? Like, why not have, like, a thousand flowers bloom, and, like, have all these different translations—I can’t give you anything but my own interpretation, and I can tell you that because I’m an essayist, I have a very particular way of translating certain things, and I also have a particular taste, and I love, I love surrealist poetry. So you’re going to find a lot of, like, strange, surrealist poetry, going, like, “How does this speak to this thing?” There was an animal week. That was my favorite one, and my favorite—I have a lot of poems, all of them are my favorite, I picked them, they are my children—but my favorite title was, “The Existential Nothingness of Crabs.” I’m, like, “Whatever that is.” I contacted the poet before I read the poem. I’m, like, “I read the title, and I’m, like, I WANT IT, THAT’S IT, LIKE, THAT’S ALL I WANT.” Was is four in the morning? Sure, yes. Was it the good, right choice? Yes, it was. I stand by it; she’s fantastic. So that is, like, a shortcut is to ask the translator, and I think that there was one line that I could’ve translated as “a banner” or “a She-Christ,” and I was able to, like, contact her going, like, “So do you mean banner or She-Christ?” And surrealist poetry is the hardest thing to translate because they put things together, like, “I am a banner” or “I am a She-Christ,” and, like, that makes as much sense as a sentence as anything else. So translating live poets is great because they’ll tell you, but it’s terrible because they’ll tell you. So I think you just kind of have to decide, “I am the person translating this now; no one else was translating it,” and I love, I love the idea that somebody would read my translation and go, like, “She got it wrong, let me retranslate it for you.” Great, now there are two things online that you can search for a poet that no one had translated before, and you can go, “Yeah, these two are better,” or “Lina is terrible, but this one is great,” and no one knew about it before I could put it on top, so I know that there’s quite a few that had never been translated before, so that wasn’t your question, but the answer is: I don’t think you can; I don’t think you can really fully divorce yourself of your own biases, but you can invite other people to, like, join the conversation.

AJ White: So I definitely want to know if it was “banner” or “She-Christ.”

LMFC-V: It was “She-Christ.”

AJW: Okay.

LMFC-V: “I am a She-Christ. Soy una Christa.”

AJW: And then going off of that, I want to know, in the process of translation, you have to acknowledge that perhaps—maybe not in that instance, but perhaps—the poet or the writer was using a word that had more than one meaning on purpose, and how do you deal with that in translation if it doesn’t translate neatly to another word that has both of those meanings?

LMFC-V: Well, this was the one thing that I gave up. The one thing that I gave up was nothing rhymes, like, I just gave up rhyme. That was the one thing that I could, like, compromise and go, “I’m okay with this, and this is the only way that I’m going to be able to do this.” Translating the—the last poem that I translated before 100 Refutations took me three weeks to translate, and it’s about this long [Lina indicates a short amount] and I had help. Like, that’s how much, like, obsessed I’ve gone, like, okay—there was, it’s called “La Perijá” by this famous—José Manuel Marroquín, he’s this Colombian poet, and also he became the President; it was complicated. But he wrote this absurdist poetry about this squalid dog and this big boar, and the big boar was, like, just tearing—like, what is it, causing havoc, that’s how you say it in English?

KMB: Wreaking havoc.

LMFC-V: Wreaking havoc, and the knights came, and then the archers came, and everyone came, and, like, full armor trying to take down this boar, and then lo, comes this squalid dog that no one knows, like, no one has noticed before, and is this, like, Wild Wild West “WAH WAH WAHHHH” type notion. [audience laughs] And then she, like, faces against the boar, and the poem ends with, “and she, too, could not take him.” Like, what?! [audience laughs] Why?! And it took me three weeks to translate this, and the big conversation—I had hours of conversation with my writing partner, Sara Viren—going, like, do we translate it as “the little bitch” because perijá, is “she-dog,” like, “little bitch,” or “the wee she-dog,” or “the wee dog (feminine)” and put brackets around it? So, like, that is three days of conversations and debating. I threw that out the window, and—or rather, you know, I kept that, like, I felt that that was a better conversation for me to have with myself, than to do the rhyme, so I threw out the rhyme, and a lot of, like, the 1700 poetry was dependent on the rhyme, and once you took that out, it was a lot easier to, like, do the interpretation. And when it was really, really hard, I kept both things in. I’m, like, “I’m going to add a line, and then those two lines are going to play off of each other,” and that’ll give enough sense of equivocation for somebody to, like, understand some aspect of the poem.

I think some aspect of the poem is the only thing that you can aim to translate. That’s just it. If you don’t believe me, go read Le Ton beau de Marot, which is a five-hundred page translator’s joke where I think Hofstadter translates one poem, like, sixty, seventy times? Just over and over again. It’s about this long. [indicates poem length] Anyway, it’s really good, if you like translation jokes. I don’t know. I don’t know you! I’ve never met you before! I’m doing my best! [audience laughs]

KMB: I know you have to go—

LMFC-V: I do.

KMB: So maybe we can all just thank Lina for coming.


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