Translating Poetry by Nancy Morejón: An Intimate Art
My long history of reading Nancy Morejón’s poetry began in the 70s and
80s. It was an exhilarating time for women’s writing from all over the world, with
an outpouring of very ambitious, innovative anthologies of women’s poetry. The
mostly-women editors assembled poems that must have been dear to them, that they had held close for years. These numerous collections covered a lot of territory--North American women, Latin American women, African women, and so
1 In those heady days when women were on. Some had a little of everything.
flexing their literary muscles, these dedicated editors wove a brilliant tapestry, juxtaposing a vast array of cultures and voices. Nearly every one included a few poems by Nancy Morejón. They drew my eye each time I opened those ground-breaking collections.
In 2000 I was selected to participate in workshop in Havana, Cuba, organized by the Cuban writers’ union, UNEAC, and the US organization, Writers
of the Americas, headed by Tom Miller. Thirty-five US writers—poets, fiction
writers, playwrights, travel writers and translators—were invited to attend
1 A few of the books on my shelf are: The Renewal of the Vision: voices of Latin American women poets 1940-1980. eds. Marjorie Agosin and Cola Franzen
(Spectacular Diseases, 1987); These Are Not Sweet Girls. ed. Marjorie Agosín
(White Pine Press, 1994); Ain’t I a Woman: a book of women’s poetry from
around the world. ed. Illona Linthwaite (Peter Bedrick Books, 1990); Women Poets of the World eds. Joann Banker, Deirdre Lashgari (Macmillan Publishers, 1983); The Penguin Book of Women Poet. eds. Carol Cosman, Joan Keefe, and
Kathleen Weaver (1978).
symposia and workshops with their Cuban counterparts. Writers from all across the Cuban writing spectrum participated, from Senal Paz and Miguel Barnet to young writers newly-minted from the university writing program. One afternoon a rumor raced through our workshops that Nancy Morejón would meet with us the next day. Her whispered name was like a chant—Nancy, Nancy, Nancy… The
next day, the modest lecture room was packed with students bunched together, sitting on the floor, in the doorway, couples squeezed into a single chair, poised to take diligent notes; we visitors were tensed for the main event. Then Nancy Morejón appeared—a small, dark woman alone at the front of the room, the sun flooding the white-washed wall behind her. After talking very candidly about her writing life, she mingled with the crowd, lingering over conversations with everyone, in no rush to leave. I finally got a turn and I told her I had translated the fine poetry of her exiled friend, Belkis Cuza Malé (the former wife of the late Cuban writer, Heberto Padilla). Nancy warmly studied my face and said to tell Belkis that “we miss her.” That day, I vowed to translate at least one poem by
Morejón, if just for the satisfaction of trying on her poetry, even if that translation were never published.
Finally in 2003 I got my chance. It was during the cocktail hour at the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), where all the best conversations take place. I was catching up with a long-time ALTA friend, Dennis Maloney, of White Pine Press. He casually said, “So, Pam, what
would you like to do next?” Maybe it was the wine, but I flippantly shot back,
“Nancy Morejón!” As if we had scripted the next line, Dennis said, ”I think I may
have something for you.” Part of a book of Morejón poems needed translating. The original translator, David Frye, had a conflict in his schedule and couldn’t
finish in time. I was thrilled to step in. I’m not exaggerating when I say I couldn’t
breathe for a few seconds. The result was With Eyes and Soul: Images of Cuba,
which also contains beautiful photographs by Milton Rogavin of everyday scenes and people in Cuba. In the process of translating that book, I got to meet and consult with Morejón during her visit with her tireless and creative critic and editor, Juanamaría Cordones Cook, at the University of Missouri. I am honored by my new friendship with Nancy and Juanamaría, which is a joyous benefit of translating.
Finally I could get on to the page the voice that had been haunting me and trying to get out of my head all these years. Now I was entrenched, focused, single-minded. My reading deepened and my metamorphosis began—from
dedicated reader to tool, the instrument with which Nancy Morejón’s poems would be written in English.
A word about translating: a translator is very much like any other reader. We focus on nuance, imagery, music, voice; we sift through the parts of a poem that puzzle us and reread our favorite passages or the unsettling ones. Translating is also about sitting quietly to listen to the new poem take shape in English. During those readings, I realized I was listening in on private conversations with family, friends, compadres, community, country and beyond.
Morejón’s poems are not so much a public declamation as they are intimate debates. They draw a reader in—and I was sucked in completely!
Recently Morejón received the 2006 Golden Wreath Award in Struga, Macedonia. Since 1962, great poets from all over the world have been honored for their work, such as W. S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Allen Ginsberg, Rafael Alberti and Pablo Neruda. In her acceptance speech, Morejón spoke about her poetry in a way that deepened my understanding of her work. Here are a few quotes from that speech.
For forty years I have tried to give life to a chorus of voices
historically silenced who are reborn in the language of my work far
beyond their origins, their race or their gender.
As a reader of Morejón’s poems, I have listened in on those conversations, eavesdropped on private musing and laments. As translator, I searched for a way to convey the intimacy of those conversations, to whisper in someone’s ear
as she did, but in English. To find the tone for my translations, I recalled my private conversations for inspiration; I recalled personal joy, sadness or loss, or the confidences friends have shared with me.
I’ve been interested in history in capital letters and also the history
of those little grandmothers, small domestic marvels who embroider
the table cloths where their oppressors would eat.
As I delved into Morejón’s poems, I marveled at the history that has
informed her life and the figures large and small who have peopled it. At the same time, one of the delights for me has been rethinking the private histories of the people in my life and culture framed by the broader scope of official History. In my translations, I wanted to honor those lives in her world as well as in mine.
I have sought beauty everywhere. At the same time I have
resisted abandoning the tangle of utopia that marks our lives and
the era that has touched us. In my incessant search for beauty, I
haven’t scorned anything or anyone.
I seek peace and even the word peace sounds sarcastic
st today, like a joke in bad taste. Today, at the beginning of the 21
century, the word peace is an abstraction behind which the true
history of Humanity is hidden.
I learned from Morejón not to despair in the face of so much conflict predicated upon greed and jealousy and indifference to the victims of that conflict. Not scorning those who afflict this world with those evils, Morejón finds a way to include them in her “incessant search for beauty, not scorning anything or anyone.” In the end a poem can bring peace through its images.
As both reader and translator, I have entered into these intimate conversations with Morejón and her world, into the dialogue between poem and translation as I wrestled with every level of expression in her poems: the music,
the imagery, the rhythm, Cuba, the tropics, the spectrum of one woman’s
emotions, and the span of Morejón’s life from girlhood to mature woman. In translating Nancy Morejón’s poems, I listened to the voice that haunts me still, her wonderful voice that roams around my thoughts, looking for just the right word or phrase to merge and harmonize with hers.
Presented April 7, 2006, at the Conference on Afro-Romance Theater and Culture, University of Missouri-Columbia.