The Review had the unique privilege of speaking with the poet Claudia Prado and Prado’s translator, the poet Rebecca Gayle Howell. Howell’s translation of Prado’s “1899 | The Dress” (“1899 | el vestido”)—from Prado’s prizewinning collection The Belly of the Whale (El interior de la ballena)—appeared in the Summer 2020 issue. The following interview was conducted in Spanish by assistant editor Hellen Wainaina, and the responses were translated into English by Howell. Prado and Howell discuss family and personal history, the landscape of home (in Argentine Patagonia and Appalachia, respectively), the generative friction of being multilingual, and how these facets of their lives have shaped their poetic and creative sensibilities.
Sewanee Review: In your poem “1899 | el vestido” (“1899 | The Dress”), there are three distinct parts, but it’s only in the second part that the reader finally encounters the titular dress, along with the striking image of the woman wearing the dress engulfed in flames. But the effect of the preceding and following parts of the poem almost obscure this incident; of the community, the speaker notes, “They barely said what happened.” Ultimately, the poem gives the reader a brief window into the life of the dress and of the woman. Why did you create this brief window into interior, into the hidden life of the woman? Or, as the speaker of another poem in the collection ponders, “Why think about / what they have inside”?
Claudia Prado (tr. Rebecca Gayle Howell): I make careful decisions about what I include and leave out of a poem, but such decisions come the same way the rhythm of a poem comes, organically and not with distinction. This was especially true of this book, as many of these poems emerge from stories I’ve heard throughout my life. While I was writing, I think I opened that little window that leads into a woman’s inner life because so many of these poems cross a line between my own voice and the voices of the those who originally told me these stories. It wouldn’t have been good enough to simply give up on the poem in moments when the original story did not offer details. I needed to imagine, I needed to find the realities of that woman’s life. And, as I imagined her, I began to understand that they “hardly ever commented on the details.” The details I wanted were the most concrete ones: that woman’s body enjoying her morning, just as my own body sometimes enjoys the morning. In this book, my voice wanted to become a part of a shared story, but at the same time, the poems also establish that I cannot be a part of it, because of my generation’s perspective. In this context, the book gestures toward appropriation. And that gesture is only meaningful in the presence of the counterpoint: by including both perspectives, my family’s and my own. For this to work, the stories needed to be filled with details.
SR: The poems in The Belly of the Whale testify to the relationship between humanity and the natural world, for example the boss in “1899 | The Dress” who only talks to the horses. Even the title of the collection suggests, even harkens to, cetology (the study of whales) and even to the story (or myth) of Jonas. What is it about the dynamic between the human world (of culture, art, and science) and the natural world that interests you? What was the inspiration or the first poem that revealed this dynamic as the project of this collection?
CP (tr. RGH): This book holds a landscape, a place, that I share with the generations who came before me. Though I left there when I was young, I have loved that place. Long before writing The Belly of the Whale, I loved that place and paid close attention to it. So the natural world became the scaffolding I needed for these stories, helping me finish the stories I’d grown up hearing, while also helping me invent new ones.
I grew up in a city, a small city that was surrounded by miles of semi-arid land, bordering the Atlantic coast of Patagonia. When writing this book, I tried to imagine the experiences of those who immigrated to that strange environment—which is quite hard, even in its beauty—what it must have been like for them to try to make a home there, a home that would provide for their families and for those of us soon to be born. When I was a child, I watched fascinated tourists travel from across the world just to see a place that, to me, was common. The picture of the whale’s tail on travel brochures, the images of whales in literature—in my mind these mixed with my grandmother’s excited voice, telling me how amazed she was by the whales. When I was writing the book, when I tried to pull at the thread of my family’s stories, I realized my family had shared their world, despite the fact that they never got too close to the details. At first, I didn’t think anything was missing, and a strong longing for their pragmatism sometimes rises inside me still. I was driven to write this book because I was interested in the sheer courage and hard labor that was required of the people who built a life in and from Patagonia. But I was also interested in the ways in which language tries to hold nature, while nature holds us, and the many nuances born of language’s attempt. As I worked across the different poems, I learned how much a person quietly abandons, when they are telling stories marked by the keen knowledge of a hard life.
I don’t remember the first poem I wrote, but it might have been “The Dress.” Before that, I wrote a series of awkward, ironic poems, which were ultimately left out of this book, though they made a way for the other poems to follow.
SR: Rebecca, what initially drew you to Claudia’s collection, and what in it called you to begin translating these poems? When the poems express a particular sentiment or idea (unique to the language of origin or place) about the relationship between the human and natural world, did you encounter any difficulties in translating this dynamic?
RGH: Claudia’s book is remarkable. First, let’s address its genre-bending: The Belly of the Whale is a family memoir; and also a novel; and also an aria of a place; and, of course, a book of poems—simultaneously, seamlessly. It shifts at the line level, and in the silences between lines and stanzas. But I’m also grateful to Claudia for writing this book because of what it gives to the reader’s sense of community and responsibility. To write her family’s story, Claudia knew that she needed to locate within herself the space in which her own story was not separate from their stories. I believe she also located a shared space with generations of other families from other landscapes who have created and will create well-lived lives from harsh agrarian circumstances.
I know when I read Claudia’s book, I learn more from my own family’s story (who were recently subsistence farmers in Appalachia). This book speaks to the specific ways we betray and love each other, the ways we heal and hurt each other, when we live so close to our needs. It also speaks to the unsung pleasures and joys that such families know. And it does all this by refocusing the lens on women’s stories. Women in agrarian economies are so often lead laborers and organizers, not to mention mothers and grandmothers, but the local memory, the community’s story, is too often carried through men’s memories, men’s songs and literatures. This is one of those rare books that turns that tide.
However, while I believe the poems are of real interest to readers outside the poet’s national context, the book’s world is meaningfully specific. As Claudia describes above, the poems take place in Argentinian Patagonia, where Claudia was raised and where earlier generations of her family immigrated from Spain. This is important to note for this publication of the book because, first, it is a fully realized articulation of a place that too many Americans have reduced to a vacation (let alone a fashion line). Tourism is an extraction economy, too.
Second, it is important because the book’s specific relationship to that place is at the very root of Claudia’s artistic achievement. The poems aren’t “set” in Patagonia, and neither is the land a “character” in the book. Instead, Claudia created a poetics that sings the way the land sang for her, a language of plateaus and wide oceans, hard winds and silent heats. So the poems themselves become an atmospheric invocation of the land, even as they tell an important story about that land.
In the translations, I am trying to recreate, mirror, and honor this achievement. I am letting go of whatever I can, building into English the silences that are difficult for English to offer, distilling the language that remains. Of course, all translations amount to a series of compromises, and I’m always at risk for losing something that should not have been lost, or adding something that should not have been added, or missing my chance at the truest meaning of a line. The Tower of Babel is a useful myth, but a myth, and anyway translating poetry is a different skill than translating prose, where meaning is tied fast to the existing words and sentences. To say the translation of poetry involves a series of compromises is another way of saying it is a series of tender relationships: poet and story, poet and translator, source poem and target language poem, reader and page, time and place, place and place. Relationship is not a perfect art, and I love it for that reason; in its making, we become.
SR: If we consider being a poet or a translator as forms of artistic expression or ways of being an artist, are there similarities that emerge that feed into your creative process?
CP (tr. RGH): I have lived for years in this country, where the official language is not my native language. Though most of my days are still spent living, working, and creating in Spanish, I am now immersed in an environment where, in addition to English, many languages are spoken. In my neighborhood, a large part of the population comes from India. And the people I interact with everyday speak several different dialects of Spanish. Although I’ve translated very few poems in my life, I live in constant translation. If the book my daughter asks me to read to her at bedtime is in English, I often improvise a translation, then change it the next night. I think that this daily exercise of translating myself and others, this living between languages, a constant friction, has affected my writing. I don’t know how to specify for you the ways in which this is true, but I do know that, since I’ve been living here, I’ve gained a new perspective on my own language. Many words echo in new ways now, and my Spanish has become more elastic, both less and more Argentinean.
SR: Rebecca, in addition to being a translator, you are also a poet. How have translation and poetry informed each other in your work?
RGH: In Willis Barnstone’s “An ABC of Translating Poetry” he writes:
The secular poem marks only the last in a string of Buddhist rebirths and transformations. They started long ago, or rather, like time have no beginning. A translation is the first acknowledgement of a string of original Buddhist rebirths.
So all literature is translation and all translation is unique and therefore original. Octavio Paz goes so far as to declare, “Every text is unique and, at the same time, is a translation of another text.”
I believe this. A thin line exists for me between translation and poetry—not because the versions I make are my own poems; they are not. Rather, I feel my own poems are another piece of my translation practice; or, that all of it is of the same unnamed motion. When I write poems, I welcome history, family, politics, research, relationships, memory, time, place, all that I’ve ever read or sung or prayed, the urgent now—I welcome it, thank it, ask it to resurrect itself inside me. An ineffable voice runs through us all; I translate it, I create a version of it, a hearable thing. In this way, my own poems don’t belong to me anymore than Claudia’s do, any more than Dickinson’s do.
I wish more American poets would translate other people’s poems, and I find it strange that only a few graduate programs in the country teach the craft. I don’t know of a better teacher for the craft of writing a poem than the craft of translating one. From translation I learn a great deal about the flexibility of meaning and music, the exactness of syntax, the possibility that place is our most potent influence. It is also a perfect teacher for learning how to not attach your ego to your work, as translation is so obviously about something shared, and therefore greater than the I. Merwin was the first poet I knew who practiced translation as a lifelong apprenticeship, and I will always be grateful to him for his example. I suppose what I’m saying is that in my life translation is a creative practice, and a school, and I am Claudia’s student. And my version is only one of an infinite number of possible versions of her breathtaking book. And that infinitude is why I read and why I write.