Elodie Rose Barnes explores the epic English and Spanish poetry anthology, The Sea Needs No Ornament / El mar no necesita ornamento, and talks to its translators, Loretta Collins Klobah and Maria Grau Perejoan, about the translation process, empowering women writers from the Caribbean and the literary history behind the poems.
This is the first anthology of its kind for over twenty years: a dual language anthology of thirty-three English and Spanish-speaking women poets from the Caribbean. In another first, many of the poets represented have not previously been translated. They live across the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the US Virgin Islands, as well as in Britain, Canada, Spain, and Mexico. Their work is brought together here in an ambitious collection, highlighting the multiplicity of the region and the vibrancy of the poetic voices.
The fascinating introduction gives some context to the scope of this project. The Caribbean is home to a huge variety of languages – not only the Spanish and English represented here, but also Dutch, French, Lesser Antillean Creole, Haitian Creole, Jamaican Creole, Hindi, Sarnami, Papiamento, Urdu, Sranan Tongo, and many more. Every geographical location has its own dialect, vocabulary, and linguistic experiences. There are barriers here, of course, but there is also an extraordinary well of creative possibility. The acknowledgement of how much has necessarily been left out of this anthology is clear, but the thirty three poets included still bring a startling diversity in experience, style, tone, and topic to the work. There are free verse poems, prose poems, and experimental works. There are those that flow exuberantly, and those that are more minimalist. All poems are presented in both languages: those written in English have been translated into Spanish and vice versa, and the elements of Creole that are present in many of them are sensitively preserved. The result is a wonderfully passionate poetic dialogue that is insightful and dynamic.
As women, these poets scrutinise their historical and contemporary place in the region, challenging entrenched attitudes and cultures of misogyny and oppression and, of course, acknowledging the ever-present legacy of colonialism. As Shara McCallum writes in her poem, ‘History and Myth’, here ‘history is a word that will not cease bleating’. The impacts of migration, exile, diaspora are scrutinised and held to account, and in Jennifer Rahim’s ‘Four Meditations on Small’, the language itself is held up as a colonial legacy. ‘Adjectives, / you see, were the luxury / of a Spanish discoverer/ who came upon a land / he described as smaller / than his own…’.
Other poems cry out against inequalities of economics, class, sexuality, gender. They highlight the impact of violence as observers and victims: Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s poem, simply titled ‘Murders’, talks of a city that is at war with gangs and drugs, and delivers an eloquent plea for peace (it is ‘better to live between walls that tremble from kiss to kiss / than to count bullet scars on the windows’); while Tanya Shirley’s ‘Sweet, Sweet Jamaica’ twists a children’s nursery rhyme around the impact of such violence on childhood: ‘What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and army knives…’. Everyday violence is reality for so many. These poems, with a lyrical fierceness, call for something different.
These are the lived experiences of women from all corners of society, and at all stages of life from childhood through to old age. There are celebrations, and there is mourning. There are women loving women, and Dorothea Smartt talks of the ‘dangerous joy / well-travelled all the same / in spite of threats…’ in her poem ‘Loving Women’. The role of women, and their bodies, is creatively explored: Tiphanie Yanique’s ‘Dictionary’ tells the various meanings of the word ‘wife’, while her poem ‘Dangerous Things’ portrays woman as island, seductive and tempting. There are poems of childbirth and sex, and poems of abuse in which woman is an object rather than a human being. All of these poems, despite their rootedness in the Caribbean, feel universal. Jacqueline Bishop’s ‘Snakes’ holds a chill as it begins with a declaration: ‘All those years when my mother knew exactly / what my grandfather was doing…she let it continue…’
Many of the poems explore spiritual traditions, weaving mythology through their pages. They are unafraid to delve into the darker elements: Yaissa Jiménez writes that ‘…this sea of dead bodies / announces that the inquisition hasn’t ended / in the enchanted island, / that here, witches are still being murdered’. We understand, of course, that by ‘witches’ she means ‘women’. Flowing through many of the poems, too, is the natural world and in particular the sea, an ever-present source of wonder and celebration but also of destruction and fear. There are floods, earthquakes, and – appropriately enough – hurricanes. The translators started the project, working together in Puerto Rico, just a few weeks before hurricanes Irma and María devastated the island. They continued through the subsequent months of intermittent or no electricity, water, or internet; through the scarcity of basic supplies, while facing health challenges of their own. As a result the finished anthology feels like much more than a book: it’s a testament to the determination and the power of women coming together. Like the poems, after each destruction, we find a way to move forward.
I was lucky enough to be able to talk to both translators of the anthology, Maria and Loretta. As it seems is the way with this particular anthology, organising an interview wasn’t straightforward – there were technical issues, all of us were in different time zones – but it was absolutely worth it. The flow of conversation was inspiring, and their passion for the project obvious even through a screen. Here’s what they had to say.
On fierceness and power
Loretta: The fierceness in the book is the outcome of more than 400 years of history in the Caribbean. Whenever you read Caribbean literature you always have to acknowledge that the basis of society is largely African and East Indian, and that it was formed through the slave trade and the Middle Passage. The voices in this collection are powerful because they speak to that legacy, and also because they draw on the ‘literary mothers’ who came before. We deliberately selected poets who have emerged since 2000. They were mentored by a previous generation of literary women, all drawing on this well of power and strength, and that is reflected in the writing.
We chose between three and five poems by each poet, because we didn’t want to represent them in just one way. We wanted to show the different topics and themes and styles and yes, the fierceness – we’ve been using that word a lot! Strength of character on the page was very important for us. Everything that women have on their minds, we wanted to express.
Maria: This has been a collaborative project from start to finish. Sometimes, when we couldn’t decide, we would ask the poets to send us a selection of poems they would like to see translated, poems that they felt represented them best. It was also a feminist strategy to work on it together with them. It was exciting, and also surprising! We received some very challenging poetry, and also several – especially from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic – that were previously unpublished. It was very hard sometimes to find the collections of these poets elsewhere. And there were a few that we just couldn’t translate. One in particular comes to mind, that we received from Jennifer Rahim. It was a beautiful poem in English about a red dress, but she had personified the dress as a female character. ‘Dress’ in Spanish is ‘vestido’, a masculine noun, and we simply couldn’t make it work! It would have done too much harm to the poem, so as much as we loved it we had to leave it and translate others instead. I do remember at one point, though, realising that we didn’t have any poems about hurricanes, which seemed like a terrible omission given the situation!
I also think those circumstances in which we started and continued the project made a difference. We were determined to carry on regardless of the difficulties, and we took strength from these women who are all incredible people and writers. We knew how much it meant to them to be translated, and they also saw how much the project meant to us. It made our collaboration very enriching.
On translating both ways
Maria: In terms of our translations, we both translated both ways. We worked very closely together as ‘translator companions’, as theory would call us – my background is in translation, while Loretta’s is in poetry, and we both have a very strong interest in Caribbean literature but with different mother tongues. We made a very good team!
I am Spanish and Catalan and have always been bilingual, which changes the way you see the world. When I first arrived in Trinidad I realised that people weren’t speaking the same English I was familiar with. I tried to learn Trinidadian Creole, but it wasn’t taught at the university and still isn’t, which is a shame – but we both agreed that we wanted to use the anthology to help promote the linguistic diversity of the region. As Spivak said, to translate poetry you need to be ‘the most intimate reader’. You need to understand everything, and then also to translate it to another language. Neither of us could have done it without the other. We both worked on every poem, and all of our translations were done face to face as I was in Puerto Rico for the duration of the project.
Loretta: It’s been several years since an anthology of Caribbean women’s writing was produced, and the translations were only ever done into English. This project came out of Puerto Rico, which is at the crossroads of the Caribbean. It’s both a Spanish speaking island and US territory (known as a Free Associated State), and is located geographically precisely where the Lesser Antilles and the Greater Antilles meet. Some of the Anglophone islands in the Caribbean have just celebrated 50 years of independence, but the site from which we worked in Puerto Rico is still colonised space. Linguistically it’s where, in the Caribbean, English and Spanish converge. There is also a vibrant literary scene that stretches to other islands. Our local poets associate with poets from Cuba and the Dominican Republic and South America. We have connections with the Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica. Anglophone Caribbean literature is taught as well. So the place itself made the anthology possible.
There is a wonderful linguistic diversity in the Caribbean, but also division. We wanted to do the translation not just from Spanish in English, but from English into Spanish, because we see the ways in which the islands get cut off from each other: not just by geography and by history, but by language. Part of the reason there is no coherent Caribbean political identity that can withstand ‘big brother’ in the north, and the effects of cultural and economic imperialism, is that we’re isolated from each other by language divides. And women in particular suffer. They don’t have the same kind of opportunities as men. We wanted these women poets to be able to talk to each other and read each other’s work, and in that sense it was about building bridges. Of course, we wanted the book to be one that any reader could come to, but we were also thinking of the writers included.
When we launched the book, at Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, we brought two English speaking poets and two Spanish speaking poets to read. They didn’t just read their own work, they read each other’s poems in translation. So the Jamaican poet, for example, could hear her poem translated to Spanish and read by the Puerto Rican poet, and vice versa. It was very emotional – it became not just a book, but something that was cultivating real living connections, and we’re continuing to try and organise those kinds of opportunities online.
On languages of the Caribbean and Creole
Loretta: We call it a bilingual anthology, but the linguistic diversity of the Caribbean is all around us. Several of these other languages, especially Creole, were being used in the original poems and we had to contemplate that in our translations. This multilingualism is something I’ve always loved about being in the Caribbean, and teaching and reading Caribbean literature. It’s a wonderfully rich resource for creativity!
Maria: Sometimes the Creole might not be obvious, but it’s there. As a poet and a translator, you have to have the ear to find it. Being able to distinguish it was the first step to translating the poem properly – without understanding the Creole you might not understand all the possible meanings of the poem. Similarly, in the Spanish poems, there were different variations of Spanish. We had to take all of this into account, and there was no one strategy that worked for everything. We had to be guided by the poem, by its meaning and context, and sometimes by the poet themselves.
Loretta: We also weren’t trying to do cultural translation. So, for example, if we were translating a poem by someone of Jamaican descent, who now lives in England and is writing in Jamaican patois, we wanted to preserve the sense of hearing a Jamaican speaker in the Spanish. Like Maria said, we had to use a lot of different strategies, and some words we actually decided not to translate. For example, we kept ‘whitey gal’ in Shara McCallum’s poem ‘What I’m Telling You’, and ‘a jolly good chap’ in Marion Bethel’s poem ‘Fort Charlotte’ – neither of those would have worked in Spanish.
I also remember a wonderful poem that we received about the Carnival in Trinidad, which relied heavily on Trinidadian Creole. We made a start on that poem and thought we were doing pretty well, but about halfway through we realised that we were doing too much damage to it. We were in danger of flattening out the Creole to the point that the translation wouldn’t stand up to the original. Even though we loved it, we had to decide not to do that poem and chose others instead. We never wanted to ignore the Creole, and so when we really couldn’t do justice to it, we made the decision to choose another poem instead. There weren’t many of those, though, and there were also times when we were surprised at how well the Creole worked in translation!
Maria: An element of Creole is the zero copula. The copulative verb ‘to be’ isn’t necessary, but in Spanish it is. So we had to compensate. In Tiphanie Yanique’s poem ‘Dictionary, one line reads, ‘My woman vex with me’. In the translation, we shortened the Spanish word ‘enfogonada’ (to be annoyed or very angry) to ‘enfogona’’, with the apostrophe at the end to represent the Creole pronunciation of the original. Sometimes, too, we couldn’t translate the Creole in its original place in the poem, but we could emphasise the Caribbeaness in a different place.
Loretta: Ann Margaret Lim’s poem ‘On Reading Thistlewood’s Diary’ is a really good example of that. The poem is based on a real person: Thomas Thistlewood was an overseer and later owner of plantations in the eighteenth century, and he kept a meticulous diary of his treatment of enslaved people. Lim, in the poem, is talking to an enslaved African woman who’s been raped several times, and thinking of her taking flight instead. She weaves in a Jamaican dance called the ‘syvah’ in which the dancers half-squat and use their arms like wings. Where Lim uses the word ‘release’, we chose to use ‘descarga’ in the Spanish translation. ‘Descarga’ does mean ‘release’ – it’s like an electrical discharge or unloading – but it also refers to a section of song in salsa music which is also called the descarga, where all the musicians play their own improvisation. It should be chaotic but it all works together. That word has got a trace nuance of Caribbean meaning in it; there’s the association with the dance and then the release of descarga, a release that’s coming out of a long historical process. It’s a long explanation for how we chose one word, but that’s what we did sometimes! We had a lot of dialogue over word choices and we did a lot of research. Above all, we wanted to stay true to what the poet had intended, while also making beautiful poems in their own right. Sometimes now when we look at them we’re amazed that we did it!
In another poem of Lim’s, ‘Star Interviews Andre Brown’, she writes in Jamaican patois, and the last two lines read, ‘An’ last year de bwoy / dem hol’ I’. ‘Bwoy’ means police, and ‘hol’ I’ means in prison. But in the Spanish translation, we used the word ‘Babylon’ even though it’s not in the original. Just translating ‘boy’ to Spanish wouldn’t have conveyed the meaning at all, but in Jamaica there’s a lot of vocabulary around the word ‘Babylon’ that refers to either colonisers, neo-colonial oppressors, or the police. So saying, in Spanish, ‘Babylon enclosed me’, or ‘Babylon locked me up’, is the equivalent of saying ‘the bwoy dem hol’ I’. It carries the sense of Jamaican thinking and feeling, and it’s true to how Andre Brown would think as a character.
María: We even deliberately chose ‘Babylon’, not ‘Babilonia’, which would be the correct Spanish equivalent, as ‘Babylon’ is a term that’s widely known – maybe because of Bob Marley! – and it emphasises the Jamaican roots far more.
Loretta: Of course, all translation creates something new. There are times, though, when it can go too far, as in there’s a track record of transgressive translation of women that purposefully intervenes and changes the original to something more ‘palateable’ for the target language or audience. Our main goal was to work with the poets and have their voices heard. Sometimes we would come up with a lovely line, but then realise that we were actually cannibalising the poem and making it too much our own. We had to backtrack and work on it again, always trying to find that in-between space where we went just far enough. We had so many eureka moments when we’d really worked on trying to find the best word, and when it hit us it was amazing. That was the real pleasure of translating.
In Jamila Medina Rios’ poems, for example, there’s a lot of word play. Her work was particularly challenging to translate because of that; there were so many layers of allusion and unexpected imagery. Eventually, rather than lose one or more of the meanings in translation (and so make the poem much more our own), we decided to use two words separated by a slash in place of the one original word. It suited her style, which is quite experimental, and she also preferred that solution. And having the two words floating side by side is a lovely illustration of that in-between space translation creates.
The Sea Needs No Ornament / El mar no necesita ornamento is edited and translated by Maria Grau Perejoan and Loretta Collins Klobah, and is published by Peepul Tree Press. To purchase a copy of the book, click here.
About Maria Grau Perejoan
Maria Grau Perejoan holds a doctoral degree in Cultural Studies with an emphasis on Caribbean Literature and Literary Translation from the University of Barcelona, and an MPhil in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. She was also visiting lecturer in Spanish there for three years. She is now a Lecturer at the Department of Spanish, Modern and Classical Languages at the University of the Balearic Islands.
About Loretta Collins Klobah
Loretta Collins Klobah lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she is professor of Caribbean Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Puerto Rico. Her poetry collections The Twelve Foot Neon Woman and Ricantations are published by Peepal Tree Press, and she has been awarded the Pushcart Prize, the Earl Lyons Award from The Academy of American Poets, the Bocas Award for Caribbean Poetry, and the Pam Wallace Award for an Aspiring Woman Writer.
This piece was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now closed for this series. Read all work for Life in Languages here.
Feature image is a detail from the cover of The Sea Needs No Ornament / El mar no necesita ornamento, which features the original artwork Fuerza y Maña by Damaris Cruz.