Two Failed Rappers Translating a Garifuna Wordsmith: An Interview with Urayoán Noel

I guess since I wrote a book about the Nuyorican poets, I have to think of myself as a teorista del flow—a theorist of flow.

Urayoán Noel has translated Garifuna poet Wingston González. I have too. His translation was for Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP). Mine was for Asymptote and Simon Fraser University. He grew up in a Spanish-language environment, yet speaking English. I did too, sort of. He’s a poet. I tried to be one. He’s puertorriqueño. I’m guatemalteco. He’s got a Ph.D. Yo no. We both like hip-hop. The three of us—Wingston included. I knew Urayoán because of Los días porosos, a book of poetry he put out with the Guatemalan press Catafixia. I remember liking the cover, and being blown away by his use of Spanglish—this was a time when I had only seen this kind of linguistic duality in the lyrics of musical acts such as Cypress Hill and Rage Against the Machine.

I knew Urayoán because of his poetry. He knew of me because I sent him an email saying that I had read his translation of Wingston’s poems, entitled No Budu Please, for UDP and that I wanted to interview him.

I thought it’d be interesting to match up two translators who had worked with the same poet. See if our process and approach were alike. Admittedly, I wanted to know if, in any way, Wingston’s electricity had affected us similarly.

I wanted a duel. Perhaps a rap battle.

It ended up being a friendly and overly excited dialogue between two fans of Wingston’s work. It was casual and warm.

—Interviewer José García Escobar


José García Escobar (JGE): I know you’ve done a lot of research and work based on the Caribbean and its Diasporas. Were you familiar with the Garifunas and Afro-Caribbean people in Central America?

Urayoán Noel (UN): Personally, yes. There’s a large Garifuna community in the Bronx, where I live. So I would say that personally, casually and socially, yes, I was familiar with them. But also there are many Garifuna in the Bronx who are from Honduras. I’m very interested in these diasporic differences. The Caribbean Diaspora is a core element of my work as a critic, and as a poet. But as I was translating Wingston, I found that I was missing a few references, and that I didn’t know much about his experiences. So I consulted with Wingston but also relied on my knowledge of broader Afro-Caribbean poetics and cultures.

JGE: What do you think writers from the Garifuna community, like Wingston, bring to both the Central American literary tradition and the Caribbean?

UN: A lot. First is the way they play with language—

JGE: So, I guess that’s a recurrent theme among them.

UN: It must be. Remember that they might have grown up speaking Garifuna while living in a Spanish-speaking country. They turn language into something dynamic. Garifuna has elements of English, Spanish, and French. For example, people expect Latinos living in the US, those who speak English and Spanish, to play with their language. And that was my case in Puerto Rico. Garifunas, I think, do this, at times, naturally. And I’m very interested in the way the Diaspora and Afro-descendants rethink language and its expressive possibilities within individual communities. It’s fascinating. And that’s precisely what they can bring to contemporary literature.

JGE: I’m not a connoisseur, like you. But I believe Wingston’s poetry, as part of the Guatemalan literary tradition, is unique. Not just in his use of language or scenes. But in how he reimagines poetry. That was one of the first reasons I became fascinated with his work, and why I decided to translate him. Was that also your case?

UN: I knew about him because we both got published by Catafixia (laughs). I never met him, but I had read his poems and liked how diverse they were, yes. Even in the poems that seemed to have a more conventional use of Spanish, I remember he played around with phonetics and grammar. That’s what interested me. His relationship with language, which is ambivalent, irreverent, and at times even hostile towards Spanish. I was also intrigued by his delivery, his performance. I’m also a performer. I wrote a book on Nuyorican poetry, a poetic tradition that centers the body. I felt a sort of closeness with how Caribbean communities are perceived as others, as foreign and distant. And that’s also the case in Central America. I was excited to work on his poems because he and I are very interested in experimenting. John Pluecker and the people at Ugly Duckling Presse put together a nice collection, based on Wingston’s more experimental poems.

JGE: Do you find any similarities between Wingston’s poetry, his use of language or imagery, and the work of other Caribbean poets?

UN: Yes. But Wingston, like many other poets that fascinate me, is quite sui generis. It’s hard to compare him. When trying to capture his phonetic experiments, I thought of Joserramón Melendes and Clemente Soto Vélez, two Puerto Rican poets who also experiment with phonetic writing. At the same time, I see Wingston’s work as aligned with other Creole and Caribbean traditions, including Anglophone and Francophone (e.g. Négritude) poetics. And also, very much like our own experience, he comes from musical diversity: from historically marginalized yet now globally visible Black vernacular forms such as reggaetón and now trap. Wingston’s ferocity, his way of affirming a range of cultural characteristics, the way he uses language, are all part of his poetic appeal. As people in the hip-hop world say, he “represents.” After reading him, and translating his work, I feel that there are a thousand ways to tackle technique. In translating Wingston, I went back to my Spanish translations of Edwin Torres, one of the most important Nuyorican poets/performers. Like Wingston, Edwin builds meaning through sound, though in his case probably steeped in punk and ambient noise/ music more than hip-hop. In translating both poets, I was interested in how sound can carry meanings beyond locales (Guatemala, New York) and across generations and geographies.

JGE: It’s funny you mention hip-hop, because I keep thinking of a thing he said to me, that when he was young he wanted to be a rapper, and since he failed so miserably—his words, not mine (laughs)—he, in these poems, tried to imitate the fast cadence of hip-hop music.

UN: Many of us did (laughs). I have met countless other poets that are failed musicians and/or rappers. Myself included.

JGE: Count me in among those who failed (laughs).

UN: I guess since I wrote a book about the Nuyorican poets, I have to think of myself as a teorista del flow—a theorist of flow (chuckles). The Nuyorican poets, after all, prefigured rap by performing poetry attuned to diasporic vernaculars, which Wingston does too. Another important thing is that you really can’t translate flow. I could never reproduce someone else’s flow because I have mine. Replicating someone else’s flow in another language is complicated. What helped me during the translation process was using things like dub poetry as a starting point. I also had to figure out what kind of phonetics I would have to apply to put emphasis on the sounds he was working with. I had to always keep in mind his punctuation, to let his vertiginous flow run free.

JGE: What were some of the challenges of translating Wingston for you?

UN: All the Guatemalan words, the chapinismos (laughs). Wingston messes around with spelling in a way that, at first glance, might have different interpretations. For example, he had this word, sima, which sounds like cima, meaning the top of a hill. The editors wanted that interpretation. But sima, with an S, means a whole different thing. The complete opposite, actually. Sima as in the depths of the earth. I had to ask Wingston about it. And I was right. He was talking about the ocean bed. Though I’m not sure how much Wingston was just letting me have it my way, or how much he cared anymore about being precise—

JGE: Actually, what happened to me was that I did ask him about some of those misspelled words, and some he couldn’t remember. “I wrote them so long ago,” he’d say. So he would read them aloud. Try different things. And after giving it a thought, he’d decide. He didn’t always have a straight-up answer. Which was not entirely a bad thing. I guess we were breathing new life into the poem.

UN: True. And at times I think he was even against what he originally had there. I think Wingston’s poems are autonomous in that sense. I just let him do his thing. This also gave me the confidence to not get it right every single time, with every single word, but instead to work on capturing his flow. Another tricky element was his use of Garifuna. My editors and I decided to leave it as it is, which made things easier for me. But at the same time, I was missing out on that whole linguistic universe that I wanted to explore.

JGE: Do you think the fact that you write in English and Spanish, and in Spanglish, helped you get close to Wingston’s idiomatic inventiveness?

UN: I’m not sure. I grew up in Puerto Rico. My father’s gringo and my mother is Puerto Rican. So I carry many of the linguistic complexities of my family. I think that complexity, which influenced my language, can also be a tool, and can definitely help me as a translator. But I also think that that translingual imprint has been so strong that sometimes I have trouble turning it off, and that sometimes makes it hard for me to center the voice of the poet I’m translating. Above all, I think that a creative approach is essential while translating. Translation is always loaded with risks and complications. I wasn’t interested in calquing Wingston’s poetry, firstly because a translation doesn’t work that way. But also because of the transgressive qualities of these poems. But that gave me a path: to approach them through transgression and trans-creation. Instead of trying to be nice and polite, to try to trace them perfectly, I tackled them transgressively.

JGE: Does that use of transgression go back to your background as a performer? I’m asking because that might relate to Wingston’s performances too. When I had the chance to translate some of his poems, I always ended up going back to recordings of him reading, to remind myself of his rhythm, cadence, and musicality. Was that something you kept in mind when working on the translation?

UN: Sure. I heard Wingston read in 2013. I didn’t get to meet him, but I managed to keep that performance with me, and that gave me an idea of what his flow is or was like. But I also didn’t want to keep it so close to me when translating; I thought I could get distracted. Also, I needed to inhabit his flow, make it a part of me so I wouldn’t have to check again. It’s almost like listening to a record of your favorite rapper. You know how he or she raps. You understand the flow. And that understanding helped me get closer to his cadence, and how he resolves his poems, how he chooses the words. For me it was about creating a new flow, based on his, but also mine, to pay tribute to his cadence and lyrical beauty.

JGE: You know, I read Los días porosos a while ago. And I remember you also had a peculiar way of using language—well, languages. This was before I even discovered Sandra Cisneros, or Junot Díaz, or Cristina García. It blew me away. What do you think Wingston’s total disregard for language and your own use of Spanglish add to contemporary literature?

UN: One thing I love about Wingston is his radical commitment to not cleaning his verses, to not translating what’s in Garifuna, to making Spanish as vertiginous and messy as he can. That uniqueness we’ve talked about, that’s what he adds to literature. Initially, hip-hop was meant to represent where you are coming from, your everyday life, what you see. It tends to be read through a very US lens. But it also provides this idea of playing around with the language, being irreverent. And it’s also important to think about the cultural context, and where a person comes from. I’m glad people believe my Spanglish is funky, or fun. Los días porosos, in fact, liberated me. I was free to experiment. When I started publishing, I was still a bit beholden to a more conservative idea of translation (my own self-translated poems, in particular) as a means to create equivalencies. But I felt like a fraud because I might have been producing something nice for both English and Spanish readers, but it didn’t reflect the linguistic state of my life. So, slowly I became a much more experimental poet. The poems in Los días porosos come from visual cues, from improvisations recorded as videos on my phone and then transcribed; I was interested in transcription as transgression in poetry and I was trying to cohabit two imperial languages, or rather my incorrect variants of both. In Puerto Rico, we speak an ugly Spanish, ugly, jodido, lo que sea. I’ve been living among Nuyoricans for so long that my English is mixed with so many other types of English, and my Spanish too. But I’m interested in that, in poetic improvisations, in breaking out of those idiomatic impositions. Much like Wingston’s poems. All of that should be at the core of new literature.

JGE: The vanguard?

UN: More or less. Vanguard is a loaded, militaristic term. But I’m interested: how do people in Guatemala feel about Wingston?

JGE: Well, first, the literary community is still quite small. But he’s definitely among the most respected young (I guess he’s still considered young) poets. I haven’t seen any comments saying that he’s too experimental, or that he’s disrespecting poetry. But I imagine there must be someone who might think that way. I remember he told me once that he could shift between traditional and more experimental poetry, depending on where those poems might end up getting published. He even did this once when submitting to a prestigious yet conservative literary prize: he wrote a more highbrow book of poems, and he ended up winning the award. And if you read that book, you can see a different Wingston.

UN: I can imagine there are people who do not like what he’s doing, not just in Guatemala.

JGE: But also, I don’t think he’d mind getting called “too experimental,” or hearing people say his poetry is not poetry.

UN: I imagine he must have his followers, his groupies; wingstoncitos that might want to follow his steps.

JGE: There must be.

UN: And are you going to keep translating Wingston?

JGE: I’m not sure. I think I would like to. I ended up translating Wingston for personal gain and then for a project, and I enjoyed the process very much. As we’ve discussed, his poetry has changed a lot over the years, and while I’m interested in reading him more thoroughly, and perhaps working alongside him again, there are other Guatemalan poets that fascinate me. Julio Serrano Echeverría has this beautiful book about migration, the migrant trail, and Maya mythology; I’ve been working on that for a while. Also, there’s this Q’anjob’al poet, Sabino Esteban. He’s got some of the most powerful poems I’ve ever read, and they’re the size of a haiku. I guess you could call them Maya haikus. But I’m also interested in the writers that got disappeared during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996); I’m sure there are some great poets there as well, worthy of a translation.

UN: Word.

Urayoán Noel is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (University of Arizona Press) and the critical study In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam (University of Iowa Press). A former fellow of the Ford Foundation, the Howard Foundation, and CantoMundo, he is currently completing a bilingual edition of the Chilean poet Pablo de Rokha, Architecture of Dispersed Life: Selected Poetry, for Shearsman Books. Work from his ongoing Wokitokiteki project ( has been published in Fence and Packingtown Review. Originally from Puerto Rico, Noel lives in the South Bronx and teaches at NYU, as well as at Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas.

José García Escobar is a journalist, fiction writer, translator, and former Fulbright scholar from Guatemala. His writing has appeared in The Evergreen Review, Guernica, and The Guardian. He’s Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for the Central American region. He works as a journalist with Plaza Pública.


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