Full and Empty:
The Contradiction of Translation
I don’t like to say that Ivón Gordon Vailakis and I met online. It seems banal, as if our bytes had bumped elbows on a wiki, but the electronic anonymity of our first exchanges, that faceless dialogue of email, created a safety zone. Through questions and responses we began to build a structure that connected us. We tested one another to see if communication were possible between an east coast poet about to study conversational Spanish in Quito and an Ecuadorian poet chairing a language department at a California university. Would language become a bridge or a barrier? A few days before departing, I emailed my last test: the title poem of my first chapbook. Ivón responded with an invitation to call her five days after I arrived in Ecuador. As it turned out, she would be in Quito, too. She sent a phone number and a suggestion that, when I called, I leave a message in Spanish. She knew I had not spoken Spanish in 15 years. This was her test.
We met in the lobby of the Quito Hilton, I in crisp linen, which I had thought appropriate for the equator, grateful that long sleeves concealed my goosebumps, she in cozy wool perfectly suited to the chill wind of the heights. Quito sits in a saddle between mountains, 9,000 feet above sea level. I had not known that for every 1,000 feet of altitude, the temperature drops three degrees Fahrenheit. Learning a language is more than understanding words; it is understanding history, culture, landforms, climate. Ivón did not need to know the temperature formula; she was born and raised Quiteía. In front of three-story windows designed to blur the border between hotel lobby and streetscape, we exchanged books, read inscriptions written for each other, traded smiles, made small talk. The light thinned. Dust devils swirled in the street. Ivón checked her watch, “We could go to the lounge for a drink.”
Moving from the outward orientation of the lobby to the inward orientation of the lounge was more than a change of location; our locution–how we spoke to each other–changed, too; we became less guarded, more intimate. Ivón revealed she had come to Quito for the debut of her second collection of poems, Colibríes en el exilio. I revealed the depth of my ignorance of Spanish by asking her to write out the title so I could understand it. “Hummingbirds in exile,” she said, but I insisted that the translation lost the darting, jeweled colors embedded in the sound of colibríes because the consonants in “humming” were soft. Poets know the impossibility of translation, the trope that in translation, the poem is lost. “You’ll have to teach me to say it,” I insisted, and she cautioned that I would have to practice shortening the vowels and moving them forward in my mouth to say colibríes correctly.
Ivón left to make a phone call. I practiced moving vowels forward, warming as I drank a glass of tinto, red wine. A gentleman with the burning, soulful eyes of a Werner Herzog conquistador lifted his glass to me and then to Ivón as she slid into her chair. I raised mine in return; she raised an eyebrow. “Shall we go to dinner?” she asked, proposing a restaurant the guidebook rated with four stars and four dollar signs. A gauntlet or a gift? “Exquisite Ecuadorian cuisine,” she said. “I think you will enjoy it.”
We dined for hours, sharing tapas, entrees, sauces and stories. I kept dipping shrimp, bread, cheese, vegetables, everything into the ají, a spicy-hot sauce that sweated the chill right out of my bones. “Are you sure you’re notQuiteía?” Ivón teased. “Most Americans stop after their first taste.” Perhaps the pungent ají was her final test. During dessert she passed two poems over the dulce de leche. “When you learn more Spanish, maybe you’ll try translating these.” One of them was “La maleta” or “The suitcase was stuffed.” I didn’t realize then that by taking “The suitcase” I had crossed a border into unfamiliar territory where my attachment to my mother tongue was both disrupted and clarified by explorations into a new language whose structures, associations and history I entered as an immigrant. In Spanish, I am a displaced person, one whose sense of location is tenuous as if she stands on a bridge that threatens to become a barrier.
Almost two months passed before I sat down with bilingual dictionaries and Ivón’s translation to try to bring the poem into English while preserving the longing of displacement that is at its core. As I worked on translation, I came to understand it is a poem of double diaspora. Ivón’s father, whose pocket is “pierced by a star,” is a German Jew, the only survivor in his immediate family. Her mother’s family includes Jorge Carrera Andrade, whom Ecuadorians revere as their greatest twentieth century poet. His legacy is encoded in the poem’s final phrase from which Ivón’s book takes its title: colibríes en el exilio. Carrera Andrade titled his autobiography El Volcán y El Colibrí, The Volcano and the Hummingbird, a pairing that expresses the extremes of Ecuadorian life. This is the heritage Ivón both brought with her and left behind when she emigrated to North America, the heritage to which she is connected and from which she is in exile. Yet this poem and “Those who leave their land” are not “about Ivón;” they are about transplanting, about being uprooted, then re-setting roots in a soil that does not provide complete nourishment. How could I, who have always lived within 350 miles of the city of my birth, find language to carry this experience across into American English?
I was flummoxed from the very first line, dissatisfied with my initial translation of “estuvo repleta,” full. No, the suitcase is not full, I realized. There is so much that cannot be taken. But there is so much jammed into the suitcase, it is. . . . In remembering how Ivón had offered the poem at the end of a feast, I remembered how I had to push myself away from the table to force myself to stop eating. The meal was so delicious, I was almost sick from overeating. Yet there was more to enjoy, a whole menu’s worth of extraordinary dishes I probably never would taste. Recalling my own sense of loss, I knew the suitcase–packed full, yet emptied by the longing for what had to be left behind–that suitcase was stuffed.
J. C. Todd, winner of the 2016 International Literary Award’s Rita Dove Poetry Prize and a Pew Fellow in the Arts, is author of three collections of poetry, What Space This Body, Nightshade, and Entering Pisces, as well as FUBAR, a limited edition artist book created in collaboration with visual artist MaryAnn L. Miller (Lucia Press, 2016). Other awards include finalist for the Robert H. Winner Award and for the Lucille Medwick Lyric Poetry Award, both from the Poetry Society of America.
Todd is the 2016 Pew Fellow at the Ucross Foundation, a Fellow of the Ragdale Foundation, and has been a Virginia Center for Creative Arts international exchange artist at Schloss Wiepersdorf in Germany. Other residencies include those at VCCA, the Hambidge Center, and the Baltic Center for Artists and Translators in Sweden. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Big Bridge, and elsewhere. She is a faculty member of the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Program at Rosemont, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
JC Todd in this Edition
Full and Empty: The Contradiction of Translation
Instant of Turbulence
Mock Orange on Wash Day
Morning After the Bombing
Necklace of Silence
The Suitcase was Stuffed
When the Envelope Opens, Open