Historical Fidelity: Margaret Randall on Translating Cuban Poetry

By Harris FeinsodJuly 24, 2018

Historical Fidelity: Margaret Randall on Translating Cuban Poetry
DURING AND AFTER the Cuban Revolution, many US poets and artists who came of age in the Lower East Side art and poetry scene of the 1950s went on to express sympathies for the Latin American political left. Yet, only a few went beyond faddish appropriations of revolutionary style in order to sustain a literary culture of deep transnational social commitments. One such figure is Margaret Randall (b. 1936), whose remarkable six decades of work as a poet, translator, editor, activist, and scholar include her direction of the renowned bilingual literary magazine El Corno Emplumado (The Plumed Horn, 1962–1969), founded with her then-husband Sergio Mondragón in Mexico City, where the Mexican student movements left profound marks on her political outlook. Soon, she became a fixture of the Latin American literary left during a decade of residence in revolutionary Cuba (1969–1980), followed by four years in the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas (1980–1984). When US authorities attempted to deport Randall upon her 1984 reentry into the United States, her five-year legal case, defended by the Center for Constitutional Rights, helped to end the 1952 anticommunist legislation known as the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act. 

In March 2018, I sat down with Randall and her partner, the artist Barbara Byers, at their modest home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, not far from where Randall grew up. They had recently returned from Ciudad Juárez, where Randall was the second US citizen to receive the Medal for Literary Merit from Literatura en el Bravo, and from Cuba, where they travel frequently for literary collaborations, talks, readings, and exhibitions. As our conversation unfolded, I became increasingly astonished by the prolific pace of her most recent publications as a cultural historian (including books on Che Guevara, Haydée Santamaría, and Cuba’s global solidarity programs) and especially as a literary translator. These translations, many published by underacknowledged small presses, include dense multi-voiced books such as The Oval Portrait, co-authored by 35 Cuban women and edited by Afro-Cuban poet Soleida Ríos. We conducted the following interview about her translation work by email from April 15–25, 2018. This interview also continues a conversation we filmed at Northwestern University in spring 2017, about Randall’s place in the Mexico City and Cuban avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s.


HARRIS FEINSOD: It is hard to keep up with your stunning pace as a translator in the last few years. I count at least 10 standalone collections of poetry in print since 2017 and several others on the way. I hope we can talk about many of these projects, but would it be fair to say that your renaissance as a translator begins with your anthology Only the Road/Solo el camino: Eight Decades of Cuban Poetry (Duke University Press, 2016)?

MARGARET RANDALL: It’s an interesting question, and one I’ve asked myself. It’s true that my renaissance as a translator, as you put it, began with Only the Road/Solo el camino: Eight Decades of Cuban Poetry. I’d been translating on and off for years, beginning in the 1960s when we had El Corno Emplumado and wanted so much to make poetry in Spanish available to an English readership and vice versa. I’d translate a few poems by one or another poet. Back then, I rarely attempted a whole book. Exceptions were Otto René Castillo’s Let’s Go!, published in London by Cape Goliard in the early 1970s, and two book-length poetry collections that never saw publication: Carlos María Gutiérrez’s Prison Diary that won the Casa de las Américas poetry prize in 1970 — I was on that jury, along with Ernesto Cardenal, Roque Dalton, Cintio Vitier, and Washington Delgado — and a book about Vietnam by Roberto Fernández Retamar; I can’t remember the name of that book right now. In any case, neither the Gutiérrez nor the Fernández Retamar books were ever accepted for publication. Back then, I thought of myself as a very occasional translator. For years I concentrated mostly on my own poetry, as well as on doing oral history and essays.

What led you to conceive of an anthology of Cuban poetry today?

In the 1990s, I began returning to Cuba, first to take groups of US women down, and then to attend cultural events of one sort or another. I had long been interested in Cuban poetry; I’d produced two collections. In late 1978, Colorado State University brought out These Living Songs, a compendium of 15 very young Cuban poets. In 1982, a small Canadian press published Breaking the Silences: 20th Century Poetry by Cuban Women. Two and three decades later, I could see that Cubans were continuing to write very fine poems. The small island has long produced a great number of excellent poets, especially considering the size of its population. And I wasn’t only interested in the individual poets, but also in their development within a very different context from our own. In Cuba, as you know, the arts are very well supported. Despite tremendous economic problems, poetry is respected, and poets are encouraged to write, perform, and publish. I myself, when I lived in Cuba, had been part of that poetry scene.

So, I found myself excited by what I was reading. I can’t even remember the precise moment in which I decided to do the anthology. I do remember that when I presented the idea to my editor at Duke University Press, she was immediately enthusiastic.

Did you feel a particular political imperative to take on this project?

I’d say it was more of a literary imperative with political dimensions.

One of the most groundbreaking dimensions of Only the Road is the representation of women poets. These women represent an extraordinary diversity of standpoints — from poets of bourgeois elegance like Dulce María Loynaz to Afro-Cuban poets like Lourdes Casal and Nancy Morejón to younger writers like Anisley Negrín. Did you build on previous translations like Breaking the Silences? Can you tell us how your experiences in Cuba have shaped your commitments to feminism?

I’m glad you noticed the high percentage of women included in Only the Road. Almost half, which is extremely unusual for a national survey of this kind. Of course my feminism has something to do with this; I see and hear women, which not everyone does. Still, because using a different measure would have been unfair to the anthology as well as to the poets in it, quality was my first criteria. There’s an interesting story linking Breaking the Silences and Only the Road. The youngest poet in the first book was Chely Lima, 19 at the time. When I was reading for Only the Road, I wondered what she was up to and looked for recent books. I learned she had left Cuba and I didn’t track her down in time to include her in the new book. Later, I did find Chely, now living in Miami but as a man, and still writing groundbreaking poetry. One of the individual books I recently translated, and that The Operating System in Brooklyn published in 2016, was What the Werewolf Told Them. It’s an extraordinary collection about Chely’s own transition, and The Operating System produced a very beautiful bilingual edition.

Anthology projects require you to translate in so many different styles and registers. Chely’s transition suggests how voices might change in the arc of an individual life. I’m reminded of Octavio Paz’s remark that every poem offers a unique and unrepeatable expression of “something lived and suffered.” How do your translations negotiate between so many different voices?

I think poets can be very good translators of poetry, but there are dangers. The first thing one must avoid is imposing one’s own poetic voice. The challenge is to find the voice of the person you are translating and to figure out how to present it — with all its syntax, rhythms, inflections, and other characteristics — in an entirely different language. One of my biggest challenges in this respect was actually a book I recently translated that wasn’t poetry but prose. It’s The Oval Portrait, published by Wings Press in 2018. This anthology, which appeared in Cuba several years earlier, brings together 35 Cuban women, each of them writing in the voice of another: sometimes an imagined character, sometimes a historical figure. I had to find the writer’s voice and then also that other voice in which she chose to speak. When approaching a translation project, whether poetry or prose, I first read the book several times. I familiarize myself with the writer’s culture, time, and mode of expression. Then I experiment in an effort to see how I can best reproduce all that in English.

People you’ve met during return trips to Havana and Matanzas have inspired some of your recent translations. How have these encounters led to the projects you’ve taken up? I’m thinking of books like Transparencies, by Laura Ruiz Montes, who edits Ediciones Vigía. Did that arise from your work with Vigía?

In 2013, when I was in Cuba to do the fieldwork for my book about Haydée Santamaría, I asked a friend to take me to visit Vigía. The handmade book collective is famous far beyond Cuba’s borders. Many poets would love to have a book published there. It was on that trip that I met Laura Ruiz. She gave me a book of her poetry, and I fell in love with her work. That led to my translating Transparencies. On another trip to Cuba, this time for the 30th anniversary of Vigía, I met another excellent Matanzas poet, Alfredo Zaldívar. I translated a book by him, and Red Mountain Press published both those collections. Coincidentally, Alfredo was one of Vigía’s founders. He now directs Ediciones Matanzas. But I should make it clear that I don’t translate people because they are friends. It’s the work that inspires me.

Vigía has also published poems by you in translation, has it not? What have been your experiences with translators bringing you over into Spanish?

I’ve had the good fortune of having had two books of mine produced by Vigía: La Llorona in 2016 and When Justice Felt at Home/Cuando la justicia se sentía en casa in 2018, both in gorgeous hand-made limited editions created by Elizabeth Valero, one of Vigía’s talented designers. The first of these was translated by María Vázquez Valdez, a fine poet in her own right, who has been generous in rendering several of my books into Spanish for publication in Mexico. The second was translated by the Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and the North American Katherine M. Hedeen, literary giants who have also been very attentive to my work over the years. Recently, the fine Cuban poet and translator Israel Domínguez rendered a collection of my poems into Spanish for publication on the island. I’ve been very lucky that such sensitive talents have taken an interest in my work.

Translating Cuban literature has always been something of a family affair for you. Your mother, Elinor Randall, produced some landmark translations of José Martí. Can you tell us about her work? Did she come to translation through you, or did you come to it through her?

My mother devoted a great many years of her life to translating. Although she worked with several authors, José Martí was her passion. She was still polishing some of those translations a few days before her death at almost 97. I was actually the one who suggested my mother translate Martí. When I went to live in Cuba, in 1969, I was asked to translate an anthology of his work. At that point, he was much too difficult for me. I passed the task on to my mother, and she flew with it.

Perhaps the first translation of yours that I encountered was Let’s Go!, your collection of poems by the slain Guatemalan revolutionary Otto René Castillo. Recently you translated another militant poet, this time a young woman named Rita Valdivia, who was radicalized in Europe, trained in Cuba, and killed in Bolivia in 1969. How did you come to Valdivia?

I’ve actually translated quite a few of the “guerrilla poets”: Roque Dalton, Otto René, Carlos María Gutiérrez, among others. I came to Rita Valdivia purely by accident. I was on tour with my Cuban anthology, and in Chicago met a young Venezuelan poet named José Delpino. José mentioned Rita over lunch one day. I had never heard of her, but several years earlier, I had written a book about Che Guevara, Che on My Mind. It’s long bothered me that when speaking of Che, people almost always ignore the women who fought alongside him, Tania being the token exception. I knew that the 50th anniversary of Che’s death in Bolivia was coming up and decided to research Rita’s life and find and translate what I could of her poetry. By the time I had that little book, The Operating System offered to bring it out quickly to help commemorate the anniversary. Rita’s poems surprised me. They are not your typical “guerrilla poetry,” but rather lyrical in nature, almost surreal at times. She died at the age of 23 without having published a book. Had she lived, I have no doubt she would have become one of Latin America’s important poets.

In a short biography you’ve written of Valdivia’s life, you reflect: “How many unremembered men and women took part in the social justice struggles of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s?” Do you view translation as a means of remembrance for writers and revolutionaries like Castillo and Valdivia?

I think we must remember them in many ways. Translating and publishing their work keeps their legacies alive. We must be vigilant, because the history we are given is sometimes very different from the history that happened.

In the 1970s, testimonial literature offered writers a path toward vigilance for historical truth. I’m thinking of your books Cuban Women Now (1974) and Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle (1981). Both testimonials and translations are often evaluated in terms of “fidelity,” whether toward history or toward another language. How do you think about the problem of fidelity in translation and/or testimonial? 

Fidelity is key, but fidelity is not always simply a telling of “facts.” Real fidelity depends upon being able to recreate context, culture, the deepest meaning.

You mentioned your translations of Roque Dalton. I’ve always admired the Poemas clandestinos he published in newspapers and magazines toward the end of his life. This topic brings us back to the question of multi-voiced texts, since Dalton invented five distinct revolutionary personae with their own biographies and literary styles. You once told me you thought you could hear your own conversations with Dalton inflecting the persona of Vilma Flores in the Poemas clandestinos. What were those conversations like?

In our last conversations, before Roque left Cuba to return to his homeland and take part in the revolutionary struggle there, we had a few heated discussions stemming from what I perceived as his very male-centered gaze and my burgeoning feminism. When I read his Vilma Flores poems, I thought I heard echoes of those conversations.

What are you translating now?

I’m involved in a very exciting project, a book by another Cuban poet, Gaudencio Rodríguez Santana. He’s also from Matanzas, and I met him on a recent trip to the Book Fair there. I read his book, Economía nacional (The National Economy). It uses the collapse of the sugar industry as a metaphor for the problems currently confronting the Revolution. Producing sugar in Cuba was important, as you know: central to the country’s identity. The industry’s demise has affected thousands of people whose way of life was intimately linked to its production. Gaudencio’s poetry is profoundly original and very powerful. He is able to capture images, sounds, smells, a whole way of life that is dying. His are the kinds of poems that make me want to keep on translating.


Harris Feinsod is the author of The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford University Press, 2017), the co-translator of Oliverio Girondo’s Decals: Complete Early Poems (Open Letter, 2018), and the director of Open Door Archive. He is associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University.

LARB Contributor

Harris Feinsod is the author of The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures (Oxford University Press, 2017), the co-translator of Oliverio Girondo’s Decals: Complete Early Poems (Open Letter, 2018), and the director of Open Door Archive. His recent essays appear in American Literary HistoryCentro, The Iowa Review, Modernism/modernity, and n+1. He is associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University.


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