Interview with Urayoán Noel

Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico and currently residing in the Bronx, Urayoán Noel is assistant professor of English and Spanish at New York University. A self-described stateless poet, his words fluctuate between island and mainland, between textual forms, linguistic spaces, and corporeal hemispheres. As explained on his website, the moniker also “alludes to the ultimate ‘statelessness’ of identity, inspired in part by de-territorialized and/or utopian Nuyorican poetics.” Distorting the distinction between translation and original poetic production, Noel’s verse resists universalizing impulses and opens non-monolingual discursive space. Author of several books of poetry in English and Spanish, the most recent of which are Hi-Density Politics (2010), Los días porosos (2012; second edition 2014), and EnUncIAdOr (2014), he is also editor and translator of a bilingual edition of the poetry of Pablo de Rokha forthcoming with Shearsman Books. His latest project, a collection of poems entitled Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (University of Arizona Press, forthcoming) extends his exploration of self-translation, performing untranslatable difference in spite of and amidst the hegemony of our digital age. In this interview he offers us privileged insight into his process and practice.


Christopher Schafenacker: As a point of entry into a conversation about the spaces in translation that you navigate, create, fill, and inhabit, I’d like to first ask about your early experiences with language. Do you have a first language? Do you remember a moment wherein you first became aware of the language(s) you grew up speaking as one(s) amongst many? Were your early years as plurilingual and polyphonic as much of your poetry?

Urayoán Noel: I was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the only child of an Anglo father and a Puerto Rican mother who met at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. I was raised in a bilingual household but I really didn’t start speaking English until we moved to Bristol, England, for a year when I was three years old—my mother did graduate work there. My father says that when we got there I couldn’t speak English but when we came back to Puerto Rico a year later I didn’t want to speak Spanish. So, yes, I would say that both biographically and affectively Spanish is my first language but that I feel bilingual to the core (if there is such a thing)—my experience of the world and the voices in my head are messily, beautifully, inevitably bilingual. They were so long before I moved to New York in 1999, but NYC (and the Bronx, where I live, in particular) has helped me understand my own eccentric experience in the context of long and complex exilic, migratory, and diasporic Puerto Rican and Caribbean histories.

I think returning to Puerto Rico from Bristol helped me appreciate the contingency and plurality of languages. For example, having separate languages for my two sets of grandparents (speaking Spanish with my mom’s parents and English with my dad’s) was an early indication to me that my affective life would always somehow have to take place across languages. I realized pretty early on that there were not only different languages but also different versions of the same language, each with their own music and history and politics: the English I heard in the U.K. and from my father’s family in California, the “proper” Spanish I was taught in school and the vernacular Puerto Rican jokes and songs and sayings I heard from my maternal grandfather. Also, while they were together my parents made it a point to trade languages: my mother would often address me in her accented English and my father in his accented Spanish—they still do. So by the time I was a teenager and started seriously writing poetry I already understood that language was a performance, and that accents and slang and vernacular forms were all somehow central to my experience of family and place and culture, and in that sense the linguistic explorations in my poetry simply reflect that. Of course, what I’m doing in my work with the mixing of languages is also an attempt to imagine a non-monolingual public sphere, as Doris Sommer does in her book Bilingual Aesthetics (2004).

CS: Reading about your bilingual upbringing reminds me of Homi K. Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994) and his argument that in-between cultural positions underscore culture’s untranslatability by disrupting the fiction of stable difference. His proposition, of course, is that translation cannot pretend to provide a transfer between two discrete poles but must instead be re-conceptualized as a force that provokes cultural hybridity. In this sense, do you think of your poetic project as an act of translation? Picking up on your statement that language is performance, would you consider yourself as acting in translation?

UN: I certainly have always thought of my poetic project as one of translation in a pragmatic sense (inasmuch as I am always going back, forth, across, and beyond languages) but in the past ten years or so I have come to think of what I do as translation in a more processual sense, especially in my explorations of self-translation. I have been playing around with translating my own poems since my teens, but I began to take the process more seriously for my book Kool Logic/La Lógica Kool (2005). I had written some poems in Spanish and wanted to include them in that book but I needed to make them readable for an Anglo U.S. audience, so I translated them and included both versions in the book. In the case of the title poem, this involved working across forms—from the Spanish ten-line décima to ragged English quatrains—while seeking to reproduce the highly musical rhymes of the original. Over time, my approach to self-translation has become quite open-ended, extending in my book Hi-Density Politics (2010) into experiments with performative and homophonic (software-assisted) translation as well as to the collaging of my translations of Latin American poets into the body of poems. My forthcoming book Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico locates translation at the intersection of planet hemispheres (south-north) and brain hemispheres (left-right) in a poetics of global-local noise. There, I self-translate everything from décima and sonnet to oral poems improvised on a smartphone or poems composed via apps, seeking to blur the boundary between translations and originals, and to perform untranslatable differences in and against the hegemony of our GoogleTranslate age.

Of course, I agree with Bhabha that translation cannot pretend to provide a transfer between two discrete poles, but I have always been ambivalent about his theorization of hybridity, about how hybridity becomes a way to name the result of cultural processes but also an abstraction that purports to do all kinds of theoretical and political work—maybe it’s my Latin American Studies background and my unease with the similarly loaded term mestizaje. As a translator of Latin American poetry (and of U.S. Latina/o poetry into Spanish) and as someone who seeks to write and teach from a hemispheric perspective, I am interested in Haroldo de Campos’s transcriação (“transcreation”) precisely because it politicizes the failure of translation. Certainly, de Campos’s theory is uneasily mediated by his investment in both a Brazilian nationalist project and a transnational modernist one, but I find his work so compelling partly because it foregrounds the ways in which translation is ideologically invested. As a Puerto Rican poet, I can’t help but bring my own de/colonial investments (and anxieties and ironies) to bear when translating, say, the Chilean communist poet Pablo de Rokha. Similarly, my interest in what I have called a practice of “non-equivalent” translation is surely linked to my experience of identity in and as a field of differences.

CS: You speak of an evolving practice of self-translation, leading me to wonder about your process. How do you translate? How has your craft developed as you’ve moved from Kool Logic/La Lógica Kool through the open-ended, performative, homophonic translations of Hi-Density Politics and now into blurring boundaries and performing untranslatable difference in Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico? And might I also ask: How does your craft change when you translate another’s work?

UN: I consider my translation process as guided by what I have been calling a performalist poetics: my poetics is always about form (whether strategically closed or radically open) but ultimately about embodied form, its possibilities and pitfalls. I think in KL/LK I was still aiming to be legible in an Anglo U.S. context whereas in BH/RH I am more interested in translating for a translocal reader, even if it is a community of one. Thus, in translating the title poem in KL/LK I sought out culturally specific equivalents to the references in the Spanish or else preserved the references altogether (“Ricky Martin y John Cage / de gira por Tierra Vasca” becomes “Ricky Martin and John Cage / Are touring the Basque Pyrenees”). Meanwhile, in BH/RH‘s “Décimas del otro mundo / Other worldly décimas” the line “y le mostrará el camino” becomes, unexpectedly, “the sorrow songs only we know,” which preserves the rhyme and syllable count but adds in a reference to Du Bois’s “The Sorrow Songs” entirely missing in the original, one that frames the original’s investment in embodied form and that opens up its Puerto Rican-specific context to broader Afro-diasporic histories. It is less about getting the form “right” than about using form as a point of departure for new kinds of oracular/vernacular performance and genealogies. Sometimes this involves a more conceptual approach—as in the homophonic smartphone translation of a Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz sonnet in BH/RH—in an effort to reflect on how form (in this case Sor Juana’s radical feminist inversions) resist an instrumentalizing translation. Here, translation-as-equivalence fails but a poetics of performalist differences insists on the body’s survival in and against language’s untranslatability. (I’m also thinking of Emily Apter’s Against World Literature (2013), and of how a differential approach to translation resists universalizing impulses while stressing translocal tensions, as in Josefina Báez’s marvelous book and social media project Levente no. Yolayorkdominicanyork (2011), which is a decided influence on my recent work).

When translating another for publication, there are of course institutional expectations (getting the original more or less “right” and making it legible to a non-existent “general” audience), but even then I tend to pick poets who complicate what legibility might mean. I have been thinking about translating the late-great Stephen Jonas into Spanish, and part of what draws me to his work is how the difficult beauty of his work at once embodies and upends various (queer, African American, and potentially Latina/o as well) histories and genealogies (Sor Juana would work here as well, and I would love to attempt a conventional translation of her work). His work exists as a field of differences of the sort I seek to map in my own performalist poetics. Having just read Anthony Reed’s important new book Freedom Time (2014), I’m also thinking about the critical process of “translating” poetics across hemispheric contexts, as Reed does in his insightful reading of black experimental writing in and against Brazilian concrete poetry.

CS: I’ve got once last series of questions that I hope you won’t mind answering as a means of wrapping up this interview.

To begin, you speak about creating non-monolingual public spaces, about performing untranslatable difference, and about resisting universalizing impulses. Do you think this is (or ought to be) the work of translation generally, or is it but one application of the craft?

Second, and similarly, you write that translation is ideologically invested. As such, do you think that translators must likewise be ideologically invested? That is, what political responsibility do translators carry?

Lastly, what is missing in translation? Who needs wider representation and, specifically, which writers or literary movements go under-translated or not translated at all?

UN: I don’t think translation is ideologically invested in any essential way, but I am attuned to the cultural politics of translation. In a Latin American and U.S. Latina/o context, I can’t help but think of La Malinche or of the ways in which, as Harris Feinsod’s research shows, so-called “Inter-American” poetry was shaped by Cold War politics and translation practices (Williams is a fascinating figure in this respect). My own approach to translation acknowledges ideological contexts while thinking strategically about reading practices and communities, especially as these take shape inside, outside, across, and along institutional spaces. Given that many of the poets I translate are performance-oriented, experimental, socially engaged, and/or working outside academia and mainstream publishing, I try to use my translations to put these poets in conversation with poets doing similar work in the target language, and to reflect on the contentious circulation of locally and regionally inflected yet increasingly globally attuned poetic practices. Some of the tensions I am exploring mirror my own experience as a poet, performer, researcher, and translator privileged to be working in a tenure-line scholarly position at a research university. In that sense, my politics of translation is not only about language but also about translation across and along cultures, aesthetics, material practices, and institutional spaces.

What is missing is more translation. More translations of indigenous and creole languages, of writing by women and queer folks and minorities of all kinds, of hybrid or vernacular or independent writing, of socially engaged writing that doesn’t fit the political and literary boxes of the U.S. and its friends. Of course, finding and promoting this work requires research and the sustaining of literary communities. What is needed is in part a better synergy between scholars, translators, publishers, and communities of readers and writers. (For instance, research universities could place more value on published translations, and especially on those that involve substantive archival work. Publishers could also establish more prizes for work in translation, as well as transnational partnerships with other publishers interested in promoting translation. More attention could be devoted to online platforms, where some of the most grass-roots and most daring translation projects are happening.) Speaking as a Puerto Rican poet, I would love to read translations of post-1950 poetry from my island, whose poetic tradition is so rich yet so little known. It is weird for us to be American citizens yet so invisible in the U.S. literary landscape, and it is weird for me to be publishing poetry on the mainland when almost all of my island influences (and many of my diasporic ones as well) remain unknown or underappreciated. I guess I know what my next translation project is!

CS: Thank you!

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