AS INVISIBLE AS POSSIBLE:
Jose Antonio Villarán on Translating Album of Fences
I felt an immediate connection with poet Omar Pimienta when we met at orientation. We were both starting graduate programs at the University of California, San Diego — I was in the MFA program in Writing and he was there for a PhD in Literature. We talked of poetry and fútbol, and before the event ended, he invited me to play with him and his friends. I soon became the newest addition to the Tijuana-based Palermo Fútbol Club; their international ringer, they called me, although that was certainly an overstatement. Every Monday evening, I would cross the border to play fútbol and eat tacos.
Pimienta’s 2016 poetry collection Album of Fences, which I translated into English, presents Tijuana as a gateway, as a point of entry, as a site where the hawkish — really I wanted to say imperialist, but felt the urge to edit myself — immigration policies of countries such as the United States get enacted on the bodies of people from Latin America, the Caribbean, and other parts of the Global South, perpetrating a very tangible, physical and psychological violence, which is nonetheless labeled as adequate, and necessary, and legal.
It presents Tijuana as a site of bodies in movement, of bodies being trafficked, a site of borders and customs officers and walls and fences, a site where the perversion of twenty-first century capitalism rears its ugly face, even on the innocence of newborn babies. Omar explores this site, his hometown, as a way to denounce and rage against, as a way to provide a voice to the often ignored and pushed aside, as a way to celebrate this borderland and the different people that inhabit and pass through this space, driven most of the time by forces of global magnitude, entangled in a complex labor circuit that diminishes the humanity of all sides.
For me, Tijuana felt like home.
I felt like I existed in between countries, in between peoples, in between languages.
It hadn’t taken me long to realize that UCSD was more like UC La Jolla, as in the seaside wonderland where the university is actually located, and where Mitt Romney owns a house with an elevator for his cars. La Jolla was a good 15- to 20-minute drive, or a one-hour bus and shuttle ride, from Normal Heights, the neighborhood in San Diego where I had found a place to live. And as beautiful as it is, La Jolla felt like a strange place to me, inhabited mostly by wealthy conservative white people (and college students) who seemed content living in a place with a glaring lack of ethnic diversity, especially taking into account that Tijuana was only 32.5 miles away.
I was born and raised in Lima, Perú. My mother is Mexican-US and spoke to me and my siblings in English and Spanish, but mostly in English. She was born in México, en el DF, but moved to San Antonio, Texas, when she was a baby. My father is Peruvian. They met in college, although they didn’t go to the same school; set up on a blind date. My two older brothers were born in San Antonio, while my sister and I were born down south. We celebrated Thanksgiving, el Día de los Muertos, y el 28 de Julio. We code-switched and inhabited three different cultures and countries at the same time, sometimes during the same dinner. It was very obvious to me that I wasn’t like my friends at school, that I was different. And as a child, and then as a teenager, and even as an adult, this made me feel like I didn’t actually fit or belong anywhere, like I was some kind of mongrel being, not really from here nor there, but somehow in between.
I felt like I existed in between countries, in between peoples, in between languages.
This feeling of up-rootedness, of not truly belonging anywhere, permeates my work in ways I can’t fully comprehend. I unconsciously gravitate toward artists and scholars who are interested in exploring the liminal, the edges, the borderlands. Omar’s work celebrates his family and the city of Tijuana, and perhaps it’s this celebration of the borderland, of its language and its people, that resonates so deeply with my own family story growing up in a bilingual and multicultural home, and with my own experience as a Latino man raising a son in California.
It was as if knowing other people experienced life in a similar manner gave me a certain sense of reprieve and camaraderie. It might seem childish and naïve, but I found a sort of refuge in this borderland. I identified with Omar’s poetry and life experiences, and in turn, this compelled me to engage with his work.
My favorite part of living in San Diego was Tijuana.
As a translator, I try to be as invisible as possible.
Being a member of the Palermo Fútbol Club had its privileges; tasting Omar’s older sister Tere’s legendary pozole was high up there. During the three years that I lived in San Diego, I had the pleasure of meeting Omar’s family and friends, of visiting his old house in La Colonia Libertad, and so engaging with his work was a very intimate experience for me. I could “feel” his poetry in ways that would have been nearly impossible had I not experienced Tijuana through his eyes and ears.
As a translator, I try to be as invisible as possible. I strive to capture the beauty and sound and meaning of the work in the original language, in a way that conveys the same energy and movement of the original. Ideally, readers won’t even notice there’s a translator, and would just feel like they’re reading Omar’s work in English.
I’m invested in my work as a translator because it speaks to my own experience as a Latino writer and scholar living in the United States, as well as to the geopolitics of the production of knowledge and cultural artifacts. Well-established writers from Latin America and other Spanish-speaking countries who haven’t been translated into English aren’t afforded the same opportunities or recognition as their English-speaking peers in the US. Existing in English matters because it can open doors that would have otherwise remained closed and grants Spanish-speaking writers access to larger audiences. Unsurprisingly, the United States is the biggest publishing market in the world. Furthermore, the US market generates an amount of revenue which, according to the World Atlas Project, is nearly as much as the rest of the other 9 of the top 10 publishing markets combined. It’s also relevant to note that there isn’t a single Spanish-speaking country in the world’s top 10 publishing markets.
Translating writers into English then becomes a political act, and one which can help decentralize (and decolonize) the consolidation of power in the production of culture. And perhaps more importantly, it allows the voices of writers that otherwise would remain obscured or pushed toward the margins to gain exposure and reach English- speaking audiences. Consequently, skillful translation enriches the tapestry that is world literature. This is not to say the situation is free of tensions; the gravitational pull toward English also reinforces and consolidates its power over cultural production. However, I still believe it’s important for non-English-speaking writers to have a strong presence in the largest publishing market in the world, and translation becomes a tool to secure such a presence.
El Álbum de las Rejas, the original title in Spanish, was published by Ediciones Liliputienses (Spain) in August of 2016. The book is divided into three sections: “Don Marcos’ Blacksmith Shop” (Omar calls his father Don Marcos), “The Gradual Invasion,” and “I like to sleep at my friends’ houses.” Each poem is accompanied by a photograph, which was either taken by Omar or borrowed from his family albums. In the translation published by Cardboard House Press in April of 2018, the images are different for each language. In other words, the images on the Spanish side of the book are not the same images as on the English side of the book. I translated Omar’s poetry from Spanish to English, and he engaged in a process to “translate” those translations into an image, establishing another line of dialogue and signification with the readers as they navigate between different sets of images for each language, for each poem.
We are living in a very polarized and divisive moment in the history of this country, as well as the history of the world. Far-right ethno-nationalist movements are gaining power globally, creating a very tense environment for multicultural, multiracial, and progressive-minded people and communities. Writers and artists such as Omar are using their work to build bridges and foster understanding about what it means to live in a city like Tijuana, about what it means to live on the border.
I hope readers who have never experienced life on the border realize the intensity of living in two countries, in two languages, in the same day. I hope they experience the anger and frustration of having to put up with racist/bigoted customs and border patrol officers, and how this reflects on the current state of affairs in the United States as a whole.
But also, and perhaps more importantly, I hope readers can experience the joy and liveliness of this beautiful borderland and its people.
Writers and artists such as Omar are using their work to build bridges and foster understanding.
Jose Antonio Villarán
Jose Antonio Villarán is the author of la distancia es siempre la misma (Matalamanga, 2006) and el cerrajero / the locksmith (Album del Universo Bakterial, 2012). In 2008 he created the AMLT project, an exploration of hypertext literature and collective authorship; the project was sponsored by Puma from 2011-2014. As a translator, he has published an English translation of Omar Pimienta’s Album of Fences (Cardboard House Press, 2018). His third book, titled open pit, is forthcoming from AUB in 2019. He holds an MFA in Writing from the University of California-San Diego and is currently a PhD candidate in Literature at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
Omar Pimienta is an interdisciplinary artist and writer who lives in the San Diego / Tijuana border region. His artistic practice examines questions of identity, trans-nationality, emergency poetics, landscape and memory. He received his MFA in Visual Arts from the University of California, San Diego, and he is currently part of the PhD program in Literature of UCSD. His work as a visual artist has been shown at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art; Oceanside Museum of art; Centro Cultural Tijuana; Centro Cultural de España in Buenos Aires, Argentina, among other venues. He has published four books of poetry: Primera Persona Ella (Ediciones de La Esquina, 2004 and Littera Libros, 2009), La Libertad: Ciudad de Paso (CECUT, 2006 and Aullido Libros, 2008), Escribo desde Aquí (Centro Cultural Generación del 27, Malaga, Spain, 2010), and El Álbum de las Rejas (Ediciones Liliputienses, 2016).