Mexico City Lit on Radical Translation: Part II

"As a way of questioning dominant representations, translation is a way of doing political and cultural work."

Find Part I here.


Mexican Poets Go Home is a radical document of poetry in translation. Eugene Tisselli, for example, channels the spirit of Oulipo in a 79-line auto-generating poem based on an algorithm designed by the poet himself. Also excerpted in the anthology is Karen Villeda’s book-length retelling of the extinction of the dodo, a polyvocal epic woven out of quotes from contemporary scientific journals, colonial documents, and the imagined monologues of sailors.

These, and the other poems in the book, are restless texts: they are far from happy to remain within the confines of a national literary tradition. But the free, bilingual, digitally-distributed format of Mexican Poets Go Home puts it on the frontline of the politics of translation.

The anthology’s format allows it to transcend linguistic borders and forces people to read Mexican writing on its own terms. So in terms of distribution as well as content (form, as well as meaning) Mexican Poets Go Home remains so stubbornly hybrid as to defy any given aesthetic or cultural stricture.

As mentioned, the poem in the anthology is an autogenerative text based on an algorithm. As such, the text collapses language to its most basic atoms and mechanisms of meaning-production. Each line starts out as the buildup of all of its denominators: for example, line 32 is made up of lines 16, 8, 4 and 2.

In order to do justice to the original text’s daring and originality, the translator cannot be satisfied with producing an instruction-manual as to was assembled in Spanish. Instead she must produce a translation that reflects the poem’s inherent auto-generative mechanism.

So instead of translating line 32 in a (more or less) literal way, the translator attends to that line’s DNA strands— lines 16, 8, 4 and 2— and rebuilds them in English, according to the poet’s own algorithm.

The English-language versions of these lines respond differently to the algorithm’s mechanism: this is precisely the point. The poem’s verses develop in a cumulatively different way, as if the seed of that poem had been transplanted to a different linguistic ecosystem and flourished there just as abundantly, if differently.

As such, the putting-into-English of Tisselli’s text stands as an example of radical translation. It would be easier to translate the text more or less directly line for line from Spanish to English, but this would be to transfer the text as if it were a dead specimen in a glass display case. But Tisselli’s poem takes on a new life in its new habitat.

A similarly radical approach was taken in the translation of Karen Villeda’s text. The translator, John Z. Komurki, and the poet collaborated to translate the historical details and scientific terms that stud the text. Villeda’s glosses took the form of tracked comments in a Word document.

In the final “English” version, these chunks of data were left embedded and un-translated in the text, giving rise to a stylized meta-commentary on the act of translation itself. The author’s voice, then, takes on the status of a character within the text, instead of hovering above it in a position of supposed authority. The utopic ideal of an originary, authentic, pre-translated version of the text goes out the window.

Mexico City Lit seeks to enshrine a similarly unconventional and dynamic approach, rethinking translation as a semi-permeable membrane between linguistic cultures. In this way, ideas such as upward and downward translation, language barriers, or national literatures are dissolved in a more accommodating context of mutual osmosis.

It has become a truism that representation is power. As a way of influencing or questioning dominant representations, translation is also a way of doing political and cultural work; removing linguistic obstacles so as remove conventional power dynamics from the equation.

Mexico City Lit quietly opposes traditional imbalances of representation. For instance, the ongoing Trilingual project invites Mexican and Latin American poets to adapt the work of U.S. voices from beyond the publishing mainstream. The project also involves U.S. poets adapting the work of Mexicans and Latin Americans.

In the forthcoming first round of Trilingual, Mexican poets Yohanna Jaramillo, Ambar Past, and Ánuar Zúñiga Naime radically translate the poem “Dinosaurs in the Hood” by Danez Smith, relocating Smith’s text to a Mexican context. What, exactly, this process involves is left up to the poet-translators themselves. The intended result is a new, Spanish-language poem that has employed the ‘original’ text as a starting-point rather than an end goal.

Among the most interesting young voices on the Mexican and international literary scene is Juana Adcock. Mexico City Lit has had the privilege to publish a number of the exchanges which comprise the One-Handed project she curates with U.K. translator Rahul Bery. One-Handed pairs Mexican and Scottish poets who work from literal translations from Adcock’s 2014 collection Manca. The versions are not printed alongside the source text, which is imagined as “decaying and falling away like a perishable item cast in plaster”.

One-Handed collapses the distinction between writing and translation, doing away with the idea of the author as the primary generator of a text. Again, the source text is treated as a starting-point for radical re-composition rather than the end goal. The translator supplants the author, who surrenders all “authority” over her poem.

These—and countless other projects in Mexico and around the world—are rethinking the process of translation, and trying to redress traditional imbalances in the translation of literature. The practices they adopt put them at the forefront of a new radicalization of the traditional roles of author, editor and translator.


Tim MacGabhann, Mariana Rodríguez, and John Z. Komurki are editors at Mexico City Lit, which has recently released a digital book calledPoets for Ayotzinapa, a bilingual, free-to-download anthology.