David Shook on Translating “Bät Riting” by Jorge Canese

An essay by the translator

I first came across the poetry of Jorge Canese when Peruvian poet Giancarlo Huapaya showed me a copy of the multilingual magazine Hiedra, which he had edited through its first two editions. I was immediately interested in the portfolio of poetry by three contemporary Paraguayans—perhaps in response to the idea that Mexican poet Rocío Cerón articulates in her long poem “Diorama, ” here in Anna Rosenwong’s award-winning translation, that Paraguay does not exist. I asked Giancarlo, who had just been showing me the magazine, if I could keep the issue, so that I could devote the time necessary to read the Paraguayan poets closely, and he kindly agreed, enthusiastic about the prospect of their work reaching a wider audience.

The work of the three poets featured in Hiedra—Cristino Bogado (b. 1967), Edgar Pou (b. 1969), and Jorge Canese (b. 1947)—explores similar themes: the blending of the languages that overlap in the region, which includes Spanish, Portuguese, and the indigenous Guaraní, the rupture of literary and prescriptivist strictures, a boldly libertarian idiolect, and the impossibility—and unnecessariness—of a complete understanding. Of the three poets, I was most challenged and therefore most fascinated by the enigmatic work of Jorge Canese.

Born in Asunción, Paraguay in 1947, Jorge Canese, who also goes by Jorge Kanese, Xorxe Kanexe, and just the initial K, is a microbiologist and a university docent. His books of poetry include Paloma Blanca Paloma Negra (White Dove Black Dove), which was banned on publication in 1982 under the dictatorship that finally fell after thirty-five years in 1989, Kantos del Akantilado (Kliff Songs), Alegrías del Purgatorio (Joys of Purgatory), Indios-go-home, and Venenos (Venoms). Even for Paraguayan speakers of Guarañol, his work—which blends Spanish, Portuguese, and Paraguayan Guaraní alongside a significant percentage of idiolectic vocabulary, grammar, and wordplay—can be difficult to understand. In 2010 he published his most expansive work to date, Las Palabras K (The K Words), a largely illegible and undecipherable volume that remixes his previous work to even more opaque extremes. He has been jailed, tortured, and exiled, but now resides again in his homeland where, in his own translated words, “he continues to believe in poetry, though not much in what is labeled such in the present day.”

I began my efforts with “Kribir Mäu,” a short, rambunctious prose poem which can be read as something between an ars poetica and manifesto laying the aesthetic groundwork for his work in general. Here is the poem in Canese’s original language:

Kribir Mäu
No xe trata de escribir mal. Isso kuaskier pode. No xe trata de exkriwir feio. Tanveim isso poëde kase kuasi-kier. Nu se trotta de krivir lindu. Esso xí-ki pode quasquier goludo-pelurdu. Xi trutta de no-kriwi-wir (luogo non echisto). De kribir para non dechir ke (no) kribimos por ekriwir:::xôlo para romper as voylas: xôlo para meterlas, para xakarlas, para non meter-Kê?; para non xakar numka. Orror a las entelekias. Clarísimo como agua-è-yubia.

My first step was to map the poem’s sentences with frustratingly fluid labels of primary language, which seemed by my reading to randomly alternate sentence by sentence between Spanish and Portuguese, with a few dips into Italian or pseudo-Italian as well as a gradually decreasing adherence to conventional spelling. Once I had mapped the poem out, I began composing a literal crib, which I hoped to then corrupt according to my observations of Canese’s own tactics. Here is my English crib, which still displays moments of opaqueness and ambiguity:

It’s not about writing poorly. Anyone can do that. It’s not about writing ugly. Almost anyone can do that too. It’s not about writing prettily. Any goludo-pelurdo can do that. It’s about not-writing (then I don’t exist). Writing to not say that we do (not) write for [the sake of] writing::: only to break the balls: just to put them in, to remove them, to not put them in—what?; to not ever take them out. Horror to the intellects. Very clear like water-and-rain.

I then launched upon the transformative corruption toward an accurate translation—in this case especially, one that reflects the intentions and spirit of the original poem. I was aided in this process by Giancarlo’s insight as an editor and poet. Some of his responses to my questions affected the final product—How do you interpret “voylas”? Bolas, Reglas? “Break balls,” right? Do you read “echisto” as existo? Is “entelekias” “intellectuals” or intellectos?—and some simply contributed to my own understanding of the poem but didn’t alter the translation—Why does the b of boludo change to the g of “goludo”? Is this an arbitrary or phonological change? What is the extent of the poem’s sexual metaphor?

Often Giancarlo and I had reached similar conclusions, and often those conclusions were that we weren’t sure of the answer to my questions—or even that there was an answer at all. That, to me, is what makes Canese’s work so exciting in translation, that multiplicity of approaches and possible solutions, none of them any more right than another. In my own version of the poem I’ve titled “Bät Riting” in English, I’ve sometimes opted to drop into German or pseudo-German, which, while nowhere near as mutually intelligible or geographically overlapping as Portuguese and Spanish, seems to me to replicate the effect so masterfully employed by Canese in the original. I’ve had to make decisions that I don’t feel read entirely natural in English, like often replacing the “s” in conventionally spelled words with “x. ” While a “z” might be more immediately comprehensible—or at least pronounceable—to the English-language reader, I decided that the “x” better reflects the original. And besides, Canese’s great lesson seems to be that difficulty ought to be embraced and savored rather than avoided.

Here’s my final version of “Bät Riting”:

It’x not about writing poorly. Anyome kann do dass. It’x not about wriding ugly. Allmost anyome kann doë dass tu. It’s nut about riding pritty. Iny bumbass-idiurt kann do dat. Et’x abut no-rai-riding (dann ich nicht echist). Abutta riting to non shay dat we do (not) rite to wride::: juxt to break your bawls: juxt to stuff em in, to pool em owt, to non stuff—Wut?; to non evva pool em owt. Orror to the enteleks. As crystal clear as water-n-reyn.

Just as Canese claims that “It’s nut about riding pritty,” I believe that this thing that we translators do—often, as in my case, obsessively, as a form of writing—is not about translating pretty—or not just about that. Ours is the slipperiest of mediums: language evolves faster than a cell can divide. We make it with our mouths, we innovate with our thumbs, we communicate—or don’t—across the world’s seven thousand languages and seven billion idiolects. In a world of Facebook memes and authoritarian, comment-feed grammarians, it has become increasingly obvious how our prescriptivist ideals so often perpetuate classism and racism. As bridge builders across cultures and languages, I believe that we translators ought to be the first to accept the ambiguity of descriptivism, to champion both the daunting opaqueness and searing clarity of linguistic innovation and experimentation, and begin to radically reimagine how we can use translation to share and interpret this mysterious gift called language, as crystal clear as water-n-reyn.