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  An Interview with Clayton Eshleman
Going to the Moon with Some Wonderful Ghosts:
Literary Translation and a Poet's Formation

By Ethriam Cash Brammer:

Brammer: The University of California Press has just released your translation of The Complete Poetry of César Vallejo. Is this work mostly a compilation of the Vallejo translations that you have already done, like Trilce and The Complete Posthumous Poetry of César Vallejo, or did you actually go back and revise and rework some of these already critically acclaimed translations?

Eshleman: Everything is reworked. In the Human Poems there are probably between 1500 and 2000 revisions. Maybe 200 to 300 in Trilce. And then, there's a 70 page section of notes. Los heraldos negros, which I translated in 2004, is the only completely new work. Los heraldos negros is the easiest of all the books to translate. It's interesting that I ended up doing it last rather than first, which is probably the way I should have started.

Brammer: What inspired these revisions?

Eshleman: Accuracy, the desire to be accurate. And knowing more and more about Vallejo. Vallejo is very disconcerting for a translator because of the number of intentional misspellings, archaic and coined words that always leave him on shifting ground. And it's very easy to miss simple, little things when you're constantly looking out for these intentional misspellings and then having to figure out ways to misspell in English that will pick up the pun in the Spanish.

For example, in Trilce XI, there's the word "rebocado," instead of "revocado," or "whitewashed." By putting the "b" into it, he evokes "bocado," meaning "mouthful" or "bite." So my translation of the word now is "bitewashed." If you say "bitewashed" very quickly you hear "whitewashed."

Or when he's using a word that's archaic, say, like "calabrina"—

Brammer: "A foul air?"—

Eshleman: I think it comes off of "cadaver" in some way. It's a word that went out of usage maybe two hundred years ago. So, if I'm going to translate it, I can't translate it as "stench" or "stink" because if you translate "stench" or "stink" back into Spanish you get "hedor." So I have to find a word that is equally obscure in English. And, in this case, with the help of the linguist Dennis Preston, I came up with "ponk."

I try to put the reader of the translation in the same position that you as a reader in Spanish would be. That's the idea.

Brammer: Looking for the same amount of unfamiliarity—

Eshleman: Yes, to create an English in which Vallejo is as challenging as he is in Spanish and not to interpret, to always translate and not interpret. Many translations of poetry are full of interpretations.

I've worked on this poetry off-and-on now for forty-eight years. It's been a great companion—a kind of wonderful ghost—that I've learned from over the years.

Brammer: You've worked in so many different contexts as a translator: you've worked in isolation in foreign countries as you learned new languages, like Spanish, in Mexico; you've worked with living authors, like Aimé Césaire—

Eshleman: And Michel Deguy.

Brammer: And you've worked with linguistic and literary scholars as your translating partners. I'm just curious: What are the advantages and disadvantages of partnering with, maybe, a literary scholar or a linguistic scholar, or having access to a living writer? Vallejo's widow, Madame Georgette seems to be more of a hindrance than a help.

Eshleman: For everyone, not just for me. Yes, she was a horror.

Georgette was a teenager when Vallejo met her in Paris. The story goes that he forced her to have a lot of abortions. I don't know if this is true or not. I was told this by an old Peruvian musician, who was—according to Rodolfo Hinostroza, a Peruvian poet living in Paris when we were in 1973—the last living person in Paris who knew Vallejo. And so Rodolfo took us over to his apartment one day. And of the stories he told, one of them was that he claimed that Georgette had something like fourteen abortions, because Vallejo had insisted on not having a child. Of course, Vallejo was the youngest of eleven, himself.

Hinostroza's friend said that in the process of having so many abortions, she turned from a kind of a sweet person into a real bitch. And, by the time she moved to Peru in 1951, she was impossible for everyone to deal with. And it's had a suffocating effect on Vallejo publishing and availability. The plays, journalism, and letters have only recently been published in Spanish. None of this material has been translated.

Now, there's a complete works being published, volume by volume, at a university in Lima.

Brammer: They went back into his archives?

Eshleman: Yes, what's left of them. Georgette appears to have destroyed certain things. Vallejo kept year-dated notebooks throughout the 1930's. When Georgette published them with Mosca Azul in the 1973, one found only a few entries per year. The implication was that she had destroyed any entries she did not like or that reflected unfavorably on her.

Brammer: Did she do that with your own work when you were translating Vallejo? Did she say I don't like the way you translated this line or that line?

Eshleman: When I went to Lima in 1965, I had sent her some of my drafts which had some errors and words that I didn't understand. I doubt if she read them as she did not appear to understand English. She spoke a combination of French and Spanish. In the same sentence, you'd get both French and Spanish. And, so, this was also difficult.

I traveled to Lima primarily to see the worksheets for the Poemas humanos, because at that point the book existed in four editions, two of which were pirated, and all had errors. The first time I met her, she said, "You can't see the worksheets," and, "Vallejo is impossible to translate so I can't even consider giving you permission." At the same time, she was translating a selected poems of Vallejo into French.

Brammer: She herself?

Eshleman: Yes, with the help of Américo Ferrari, who is the scholar who helped me with Trilce. He's lived in Geneva for many years. He's retired now. Somehow he got along with her and they did a few projects together.

In 1968, Francisco Moncloa, who I believe was a wealthy man in Lima, gave Georgette a ton of money to allow him to publish Vallejo's hand-corrected typescripts of the European poetry. This book was published in 1968. All of the notes in the Complete Posthumous Poetry are based on having access, finally, to this material. Poemas humanos appears to have been never completed. While it is possible that the hand-written corrections in the European poetry were final corrections, it is also possible that had he retyped the manuscript he would have made new changes.

Brammer: What about working with Aimé Césaire, for example?

Eshleman: Aimé Césaire was very congenial and helpful, in his own way. At the point I met him, in the early 1980's, he seemed out of touch with the poetry he wrote in the 40's, 50's, and 60's. I visited him three times in Paris. The first two times we met in a café near his then French publisher in the 5th Arrondissement. I would come with my word list. For the third visit, we met at his son's apartment where Césaire stayed when he was in Paris, and he spent some time pulling down African-French dictionaries from the bookshelves.

Brammer: To research his own works?

Eshleman: Césaire's poetry is full of arcane and scientific terminology, as well as African and rare Caribbean words. Over the years, he had forgotten what some of these words meant.

But back to your question about translating with another person: you have to find the right kind of person to work with because, if you're working with the wrong kind of person, your partner can create more problems than you might have just on your own.

For example, I started working on Trilce with Julio Ortega, who's a Peruvian at Brown University. I knew Julio from when I was in Lima. Julio and his former wife, the poet Cecilia Bustamante, were very kind to me that year. They often had us over to dinner. So, in 1989, I thought, well, I can translate Trilce if I can work with a Peruvian, because there are certain words and phrases in it that I'm just not going to be able to handle through dictionaries. So, Julio and I decided to co-translate Trilce.

That fall, I stayed in a Boston B&B with my wife Caryl for a month, and daily, for a month, I took the bus into Providence and climbed the hill to Julio's office. We did a first version of Trilce.

I brought that first version back here to Ypsilanti and started making a second version. At that point, the ground disappeared and I realized what I was in for: I had several questions per line! I soon found out that Julio felt that his work was over, and that I was to complete the translation on my own. But from my point of view, the real work in the co-translation was just beginning.

So I was suddenly on my own. And my Spanish is not up to translating Trilce by myself.

Brammer: Few people could make the claim that they could.

Eshleman: Right. So I wrote to Americo Ferrari in Geneva and told him what had happened. He said, "Okay, send me your questions." We had a fruitful correspondence. I would write him in English and he'd write me in Spanish. We must have exchanged some 50 letters.

And he had to go to the library, because there are a number of words in Trilce that the scholars have all done end-runs around. And unlike scholars, who can write commentaries without understanding every word in a poem, translators, if they are being responsible, are confronted with every word in every poem they translate. With Ferrari's research, I was able to complete the version of Trilce that Marsilio published in 1992. I found errors in that version which I corrected for the second edition, by Wesleyan, in 2000. And I found more errors last year which I have corrected, with the help of José Cerna-Bazán, for The Complete Poetry. Vallejo's non-sequitur density in Trilce prefigures the American Language Poetry of the 1970's.

Brammer: What sort of discomfort or even undermining of language are poets like Vallejo and Césaire trying to perform by creating terms that even they themselves sometimes forget? What does that do with the poetry? And as a translator, how do you deal with it, because you have to make decisions?

Eshleman: Of the people I translated, I did so because I thought, by translating them, I would learn something about the nature of poetry. I've never translated anyone who I thought would not test me. The closest thing to problem-free translating, in my case, would be Neruda's Residencias. I did awkward versions of some thirty poems in the first two Residencias when I was a young man. I revised some of them for a new edition of Conductors of the Pit that came out in 2005.

In the case of Vallejo and Césaire, I think you have a kind of onslaught on language conventions, an attempt to re-determine how language can be assembled. It is as if they sense their given languages as second languages, and in their poetry they attempt to construct a first language that can convey their feeling for existence.

Césaire sees himself as a surrealist. So many of the non-sequitur moves in his poetry, which are compounded in difficulty by the presence of scientific terms, especially for fauna and flora, falls within a politicized post-surrealist frame. He thinks of himself as developing what Breton and Reverdy proposed, as an African Martinican, writing in the generation after Breton.

Vallejo, on the other hand, was contemptuous of surrealism. He felt somewhat the same way about it as Antonin Artaud did. He thought it involved a facile liberty and was more involved with games and cutting up than with moral fiber and the human situation.

Vallejo arrived in Paris in 1923. The first Surrealist Manifesto comes out in 1924. It must have been a fantastically exciting time to be an artist in Paris. But I have no information on him ever having met or associated with French surrealists. However, aspects of Trilce do evoke a kind of pre-surrealist aesthetic in writing.

Brammer: Right.

Eshleman: Except that Trilce is difficult in a way that someone like Breton is not. There's a kind of dream quality to Breton that I don't find in Vallejo. Vallejo is rationally irrational. He's mangled, but he's rationally mangled.

Working on your own—unless you are absolutely bilingual—translating somebody as difficult as Vallejo or Césaire, is impossible. And so if you find the right person to work with, you save yourself a lot of time, do better versions and the work is not as lonely.

José Rubia Barcia, with whom I collaborated on The Complete Posthumous Poetry in Los Angeles in the 1970's, was wonderful to work with. He put in as much time as I did on our translation, often writing to Vallejo scholars like Juan Larrea to research word meanings. And Annette Smith, with whom I co-translated Césaire, was also great to work with. So I've been fortunate that, in contrast to Julio Ortega, I have had, in a couple of instances, people to work with who held up their end.

In the case of Michel Deguy, whose Selected Poems I translated in the late 1970's and early 80's, I had Deguy to talk with. In the fall of 1978 I went over to his apartment in Paris every afternoon for several months to talk through versions with him.

Brammer: And working with Deguy, you had a pleasant working relationship?

Eshleman: Yes, we became friends. The only problem with working with Deguy is that I'd often ask him a question about a word and he'd tell me what he'd had in mind in terms of the meaning and it would have very little to do with what appeared to be the standard meaning of the word. If I would have taken his advice, at times it would have appeared to the reader that I had made serious errors!

Brammer: [Laughing.] Eshleman doesn't know French.

Eshleman: Right. [Laughing.] Because at times he had fantasies about how he wanted particular words to work. So, there are positive and negative aspects to working alone or working with someone.

Brammer: Much of your 2003 collection of essays, Companion Spider, is devoted to the theme of the "novice" and a poet's period of formation or "apprenticeship." You describe the time that you spent in Kyoto, Japan and your relationship with influential writers like Cid Corman. But what kind of poet would Clayton Eshleman be right now if he had never served an "apprenticeship," via translation, under a "master" like César Vallejo?

Eshleman: Impossible to really know, of course. But there's a chance that I would have been more conventional and more in tune with establishment verse.

Coming into poetry partially through Vallejo, I opened up an international base on which I could conceive an American poetry. Some of the best known American poets today operate in a context that is primarily dominated by American writing, often by figures such as Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop. From my point of view, while these poets are all part of the essence of 20th century American poetry, they don't really get under your skin and disturb you into an awareness of being an American in a global expanse.

At some point in the fall of 1962, in Kyoto, Japan, I decided to attempt to translate Poemas humanos as my apprenticeship to poetry. Putting myself through that ordeal made me think about poetry in a completely different way than I had done while I was a student at Indiana University. It made me confront myself, and deal with a range of ambivalences. It made me deal openly with contradictions, and swerves and knots in thinking that don't come up in daily conversation or in simple self-regard.

So, mainly through Vallejo, I came to see the writing of a poem as penetrating a labyrinth whose off-shoots and dead-ends were to be experienced as a way of thinking into, against, and through. For example, if while writing, a line strikes me as a good final line, I put it in as the next line, because I don't want to trap myself into having the poem from that point on be determined by something in the future. I want to stay in what I would call the creative present. A strong sense of that came through Vallejo as well as the other poet I was reading closely in Kyoto, William Blake. I read all of Blake while I was in Kyoto. And that was an initiation on its own.

Brammer: Are there specific poems, maybe one or two collections, or has your entire career now as a poet been influenced by Vallejo?

Eshleman: I think the writing I did in the 80's and 90's is more what I would like to be known by than the writing I did in the 60's and 70's, although Coils (1973) was a breakthrough book for me, because I came to terms with my Indiana background in it. While I now find lots of the writing in Coils too unworked-out, too descriptive or over-worked, I have to acknowledge that I would not be where I am today, in the writing of a book like An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire, without the drilling and excavating that went on in Coils.

Discovering the Upper Paleolithic Caves in southwestern France in 1974, and my consequent long project on them, made me think into material that was completely transpersonal. With the Cro-Magnon people who painted in the caves 15,000 years ago, we have no history, no language, just images on stone. By attempting to attend to them, I made a 180 degrees swerve from the self-preoccupation with having been brought up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and having lived unconsciously for the first 22 years of my life. The turn from personal Indiana to transpersonal Cro-Magnon was a wonderful, fortuitous refocusing for me.

Unless you're one of the few poets who break into poetry and do your best work early, like Rimbaud, Lautréament or Dylan Thomas, most of us need about twenty years to get to what really gnaws at us into a capable language.

Brammer: Twenty years of apprenticeship?

Eshleman: Yes. And also, note that I came into poetry without any literary background, in contrast to my friend Robert Kelly, who was teaching himself Sanskrit in his basement at twelve years old and was reading some of the people that I started to read in Japan. By the time that Kelly was twenty-five, he had a solid foundation in literature. When I was twenty-five, I had hardly read anything.

Brammer: Still talking about being an apprentice, Borges translated Poe, Cortzar translated Defoe, and it seems like most major Modern Latin American poets have translated at least a little bit of Walt Whitman, do you think it would be accurate to say that, in Latin America, translation is much more widely accepted as a part of a writer's "apprenticeship" than in the United States? And why do you think that might be?

Eshleman: I don't know enough about the history of translation in Latin America to respond to that question. In the United States, my generation, which more or less came on board in the 1960's, is a translating generation. Most of the poets that I know from the 60's, that I'm still in contact with, or who have died, were involved in translation. All of that changed with Language Poetry in the 70's. The Language Poets, for the most part, are not translators. And a lot of the interest my generation had in world poetry has fallen off considerably.

Brammer: Do you know if Vallejo himself, in his period of apprenticeship, did translation as an exercise or as part of his growth?

Eshleman: Not that I know of. He was introduced to French Symbolism through Spanish translation around 1918, I think around the time he was starting to work on Trilce, maybe a little earlier. And my guess is that there are a few nuances in Trilce from reading Rimbaud. And he loved Baudelaire.

In the early 1930's, in Paris, I know that he translated at least two novels, Elevacin by Henri Barbusse and La Calle sin nombre by Marcel Aymé.

We have a new chronology in the Complete Poetry by Stephen Hart that has more information about his background than I've seen before. Also, Stephen Hart believes that Vallejo was absolutely involved in the murders and the burning of the buildings in Santiago de Chuco that he was briefly put in jail for. One of the reasons that he left Peru in 1923 for Europe may be that, aware that he had not been cleared of involvement in the incident, he did not want to be around if the judges decided against him. As it happens, in 1926 the High Court in Trujillo issued a warrant for his arrest.

Brammer: Wasn't Vallejo supported once in Europe by a scholarship?

Eshleman: He received a modest grant from Spain in 1925, and while he never intended to live there, he traveled to Madrid three times over the next two years to claim the grant money.

But he appears to have been chronically poor while in Paris. There were times during the first two years when he was homeless. And he only got to Europe because his Trujillo friend Antenor Orrego's nephew, who had a first-class boat ticket to France, exchanged it for two third-class tickets so that Vallejo could accompany him.

Brammer: Do you think novice writers and Creative Writing Programs in the United States should do more to embrace translation as a part of a writer's formation?

Eshleman: Yes, of course. Any student graduating from an MFA Program in Creative Writing should have a reading knowledge of at least one foreign language, and should also have been exposed to literature in translation. While great translations are rare, there are many adequate ones, especially in fiction, but in poetry as well. For example, while Herter Norton's translations of Rilke's poetry are not up to the performance level of the original German, they are accurate and adequate.

Brammer: Do you think it should be formalized or do you think students of writing in this country should just go and do what you did and run off with barely your bus fare in your pocket, learn Spanish and just have the experience?

Eshleman: I think you can do both. Though today, it is not as easy to hitchhike to Mexico as it was in 1959. Travel is both more expensive and probably more dangerous. But getting out of America and seeing something of how other people live, especially the disadvantaged, is important for a young writer. For one reason, because Creative Writing Workshops don't teach you that much. They teach you how to write sufficiently for a degree, but that's about all. I don't think students learn much from their peers. I think they would be better off spending their class time in literature, history, and philosophy, for example, and discussing their writing, on a one to one basis, occasionally, with the writers who teach the literature courses. If they want to talk about poetry with their peers, they should do such on an informal basis, getting together on the weekend.

When I was teaching at Eastern Michigan University (1986-2003), I encouraged writing students to keep a reading/writing notebook, in which they would reserve the left-hand page for writing down quotations from their reading, and the right-hand page for their comments, and perhaps the start-up of their own poems. Such gives you a record of what you have been thinking about your reading, what you have found valuable in it, and it also starts to wean you from dependence on professors and workshops. You have to learn how to initiate yourself off of yourself, and Writing Programs don't teach you how to do that.

To read as a writer is absolutely essential, and a lot of the students never realize that.

Brammer: Do you think your work in translation may have acted as a cultural bridge, bringing readers closer to the people of Peru or Martinique, or even inspired others to take the kind of Bohemian trip you made as a young man to Mexico?

Eshleman: Perhaps. Occasionally, people have written to that effect. Again, keep in mind that when I hitchhiked to Mexico, I was doing so in an On the Road atmosphere, in which young men and women with very little money would just take off for months at a time. I hitchhiked to Mexico without any Spanish and with $200 in my pocket. The following year I went back again, this time in the back of a friend's truck, caught hepatitis in Chapala, but returned, still raring to go. And when I went down to Peru in 1965, that was even crazier. I am surprised that my first wife, who was pregnant at the time, and spoke no Spanish, agreed to go. I sent her by plane on ahead of me, then hitchhiked from Indianapolis to Mexico City, took a bus to Panama, and then flew to Lima. We had less than $300.

So I did all of these crazy things out of some sort of symbolic fascination—not so much simply with Vallejo—but with a project that I had committed myself to. That's interesting. I mean, I felt that if I'm going to commit myself to this, I'm going to see it through. I don't know where that depth of commitment came from—there was no model for it in my family—but I'm sure glad that I got it because I think it's a very good aspect of my personality: if I take on something, I'm going to go through with it, and nothing's going to stop me. Death, maybe, but nothing else is going to stop me.

And I did that with Vallejo. And I did it in a way that I compensated for my limitations with the Spanish language, because, weirdly—and I cannot explain this to you—but, I never took the time to learn Spanish thoroughly. I decided to translate Vallejo without having studied Spanish, which is possibly the most insane project that you could propose in terms in translation. And it took me 48 years, but I think I have done it.

So, I'm not a model of anything. I got bit by Vallejo, and at the same time I became committed to not allowing my own interests to interfere with the translation. I always fought against doing things like Ben Belitt did with Neruda, in terms of doing variations on things that made the translations sound like I wanted them to. But to keep the translation clear of my own fantasies has taken a long time.

I met Neruda and Vallejo through the wonderful 1944 New Directions Anthology and it was great. I don't know why, because I was this kind of monolingual nut from Indianapolis. And when I read the poetry of these people, I said, "This is what I'm interested in!" Then I said, "Who's translating them?" There's Spanish there, English here. Is it accurate?

There was something in me that had not been destroyed. A lot had been destroyed, but something in me hadn't been destroyed that said, "I want to find out what these poets are about. And I'll find out about them by making my own translations."

That was the beginning. I remember trying to translate Neruda in Chapala, my second summer in Mexico. I rented a room in the house of a transplanted American butcher named Jimmy George who had married a Mexican teenager. I would invite her into my room, ask her to sit next to me on the bed, and rather than trying to seduce her, I would say, "Help me with me Neruda."

Brammer: [Laughing.]

Eshleman: And she did. [Laughing.] I would say, "What does this word mean?" And, "What does that word mean?" And she would say, "Hmm" And she was absolutely the worst person in the world to ask about these things because she knew less about the Spanish of Neruda than I did with my fifty-cent bilingual dictionary.

So what was I really up to? I was involved with a kind of mystique that was not directly tied to that poem in translation, a mystique of trying to figure out how I could insert my way into something that was not myself, that was—I can't say that wasn't necessarily Indiana or Indianapolis—but I was trying to cross over to something that was buried within me and that represented an alternative to what I appeared to be.

And it was as though one thing was as good as another. I mean, being with her was great. She was like 18 or 19 years old and she was trying to help me with simple translation problems, and that was an experience in itself. That in itself was more important than trying to seduce her, that, and engaging something that was outside of Indiana.

Do you understand what I'm saying? What I was doing with Vallejo and Neruda had stimulated me into wanting to be more than I was raised to be, because my parents had convinced me that I was no more than I was raised to be. They never said so per se. But all of the life around me in Indianapolis had been making a resounding case for it.

That's why going to Mexico that summer of 1959 was like going to the moon, because Mexico, that summer, represented the possibility of becoming other than myself. And myself was nothing, nothing!

Mexico was the place of my self-discovery. Without Mexico that summer, there would be no Eshleman/Vallejo.

It's true. Absolutely.

Brammer: Do you think your legacy is that you opened up those possibilities for future generations? Do you think your translations of Neruda and Vallejo will serve the same purpose for future translators that the 1944 New Directions Latin American Anthology, in which you discovered those poets, did for you?

Eshleman: Well, I don't know. There are a lot of good translators. What I have done for Vallejo, Eliot Weinberger has done for Octavio Paz, Pierre Joris has done for Paul Celan, Ron Padgett has done for Blaise Cendrars and Rosmarie Waldrop has done for Edmond Jabs.

Brammer: Do you think the translation of Latin American writers into English has had any tangible impact on writers in the United States? Has it truly been absorbed, or, in the words of one of your previous interviews, has it established an "assimilative space" here north of the border?

Eshleman: I was using the term "assimilative space" to evoke one of the things that happens when a translator is moving back and forth between an original poem and the rendering he is shaping. My experience of this "space" is that it allows the poet translator to reflect as much on his own language as it does the language of the original poem. I think that this "space" is also deftly influential in as much as it allows the poet translator to learn from the second language text he is creating, in contrast to being influenced by reading authors who write in English.

As for the impact of Latin American writers—let's restrict this to poets here—I feel you would have to ask particular American poets this question to get a useful answer. Certain American poets have claimed that Vallejo, for example, has had a significant effect on their own poetry. Hugh Seidman, C.K. Williams, Ed Hirsch, and Franz Wright come to mind. And I imagine that there are others who would claim the same thing based on reading Neruda and Octavio Paz. For example, one could propose that the career of the essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger has been contoured and complexed by his translational relationship with Paz.

It occurs to me here to suggest that some poets become translators because they feel the language they have been given is inadequate as a language for poetry, and that by translating they are inducting not only a foreign psyche into their own mind set but increasing their own potential to find a language that can authenticate their sense of being. I mentioned earlier that the language one has been given can be thought of as a second language. Some of us have a vision that the language of poetry is a buried first language, which must be excavated via assimilative reading, translating, and a refocusing of one's life. I also feel that the "assimilative space" just discussed feeds material into the poet translator's subconscious, densifying its mosaic, and releasing certain springs from nationalistic gravity.

Brammer: Do you think there are possible pitfalls of cultural imperialism that come into play in this kind of translation? You've gone to great lengths to learn a culture from within, by moving to Peru, by spending a significant amount of time in Mexico. Do you think the capacity that you mention in one of your critical works for imperialist agendas in this country can even affect the way works from other languages get translated?

Eshleman: I think you are referring to a short essay called "The Translator's Ego" which appeared in my prose collection, Antiphonal Swing (1989). There I mentioned that when a "first-world" translator works on a poem by a "third-world" poet, if he does not translate thoroughly and accurately he may involve himself in something that could be thought of as colonizing the original text. When a translator like Ben Belitt utterly changes the meaning of words and phrases in Neruda poems, a reader might conclude that Belitt thinks his mind is superior to Neruda's, and that he is even educating and re-forming the original in a way that instructs the reader to believe that Neruda is aping American literary conventions.

My attempt has always been—even if I've made errors, and I certainly have—to render the translation as accurately as I can to put the English reader in the position that the Latin American reader would be relative to the original Spanish. I think we talked about this before, but I can't emphasize it too much.

Brammer: How do you carry that through?

Eshleman: Research. Anything that you don't understand, if you can't find it through dictionaries, and you can't find it through a friend, then you find somebody that can find it for you. Everything can be found. And if you can't find it in the long run, then you footnote it, and you say, "I can't find the meaning for this."

For example, Vallejo is full of semi-veiled sexual references. He uses "pajaro" in two cases in the Poemas humanos in conjunction with other sexual material. So, if I translate it as "bird," you miss that, especially if he uses "bragueta" ("fly" or "zipper") in the following line. He's talking about his "pajaro" and immediately afterward about his "bragueta." So I think I've come up with an interesting solution: I translate "pajaro" twice in the Poemas humanos now as "pecker."

Now we all know "woodpecker." [Laughing.] So I think that's a very nifty solution. Now we have Vallejo's "pecker."

That's one of the happier solutions. Others are not as sharp.

Brammer: Do you think there will ever be another great generation of translators in the United States?

Eshleman: Well, that depends on you. That depends entirely on you.

Ethriam Cash Brammer de Gonzales is a Chicano writer, born and raised in the border community of El Centro, California. He holds a MFA from San Francisco State University and has translated a number of significant works of early Latino literature, including The Adventures of Don Chipote: When Parrots Breast Feed, by Daniel Venegas (Arte Público Press, 2000); Lucas Guevara, by Alirio Díaz Guerra (Arte Público Press, 2003); and, The Texas Sun, by Conrado Espinoza (Arte Público Press, 2007). He is currently the Assistant Director of the Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where he lives with his wife Sandra and his two children Julián and Xiomara.

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