When presumably innocent Susan Harris and Samantha Schnee were in touch about translating a story by Israel Centeno titled “Romanza Pornomilitar,” selected by editor Ana Nuño for the special Venezuelan issue, the answer, honestly, was a no-brainer. I was “encantada” (a word I once used as a pleasantry with Portuguese writer Lobo Antunes, who responded; “if you are truly “encantada,” you’d be kneeling before me kissing my feet.” I kid you not). The only caveat was time, it was the end of January, I had a number of deadlines looming and was leaving for Cartagena de Indias for the Hay Festival in a week. So I quickly checked the length of the piece, speed-read the first few paragraphs, and said yes.
So I confess, I hadn’t read the entire piece before I committed to translating it. Excellent writer, excellent editors, excellent venue = quick decision. Israel Centeno is one of the foremost writers of his generation in the Spanish language; he was born in Caracas in 1958, and currently lives in exile in the US, as part of Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum program. Perhaps the title should have been a booming indication of the nature of the story, but I thought it was probably an ironic device, and anyway the first two paragraphs didn’t seem particularly shocking, there was only one mention of “dick,” where the protagonist is remembering an old girlfriend, no sweat.
“Romanza,” I thought, interesting he uses the Italian word for the musical form. It suggests romance, but that’s a false friend. I Googled “romanza” to hear one, and the blind Italian tenor, Andrea Bocelli, came up a thousand times, coiffed like a romantic salt-and-pepper hero, at times holding a rose, or dressed in a tuxedo, or in front of some setting like the Colosseum. I figured I could use the long flight from Barcelona to Cartagena de Indias via Paris and Bogotá to read carefully and begin a first-draft translation, figure out what Andrea Bocelli could possibly have to do with something porno-military from Venezuela.
I slept on the way from Barcelona to Paris; it was an early flight. When I finally opened my computer midway over the Atlantic and got into the beef, I found myself lowering my screen little bit by little bit more, checking over my shoulders to make sure that nobody else could read the text. I blushed. By the time I had finished, I was worried the smoke alarms might go off! “Alright then . . .” I thought, rubbing my palms together above the keyboard; a few deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth.
Barcelona had been cold and gray. I was anxious for the womb-like Cartagena de Indias, where the juicy sun squirts little rivulets of heat by day and aromas of ripe-fruit and wet coral infuse the Caribbean’s fishy southern shores by night. The sound of water is a constant, trickling, splashing, gurgling; beads of it dripping down necks, tickling cleavages. Whitewashed walls, bougainvillea a go-go, festive lights, fantasy, and succulents. I was on my way to the perfect place for translating a sexy piece like this, due west along the coast from Caracas, where it’s set.
Ana Nuño described the piece in her introduction to the issue as a “narrative tour-de-force, typical of Israel’s daring, experimental stance.” The episodic story is written using deceptively simple, tender-toned and highly charged prose with occasional gruff exclamations, like a linguistic to and fro between the male thrust—in which violence occurs—and the power of the female as temptress to mystify and absorb and obnubilate. The use of shifting narrators and points of view allows for a fiery erotic choreography that deals with the lasting properties of physical arousal, and its transformation into nostalgia for the body electric.
Here’s where the “romanza” comes in; it’s a light musical piece, meant to be unassuming, gentle, funny . . . battle scenes in the war of the sexes and a slight tone of opera-buffa. After two first-person testimonials, the narrator gives us a third-person voyeuristic encounter with a carefully selected, earthy, organic palette of words and the effect is incredibly arousing. Silvana, child of the forest, represents wild, pulsating innocence. Verónica, the other female character, is an artist who imitates her orgasms using devices, the meme. Eleazar, who tells the story, renounces life with Silvana for middle-class military ambition, power. Quiquo can’t discern between the real and the fake. The story builds following a rhythm, and turns to the third-person voyeuristic at climax, so I tried very hard to keep close to that underground score. Planes, bombs, and the sudden scrutiny of the erect volcano among the parting clouds, seen from between the pungent red geraniums of the terrace, punctuate this enchanted, hyper-vivid, inflamed encounter. The sharp character sketches form archetypes, of innocence, of knowledge, of what is real, what is fake. Revenge is ultimately found in a sick man’s haunted memory of an erotic encounter with throbbing Silvana. There is a lingering question of who has hunted whom.
I don’t know whether location and climatology affect the act of translating, but as coincidence would have it, and fortune, I got to spend a week in Cartagena de Indias while working on this modern-day “ars amatoria.” Believe me when I say that it certainly didn’t hurt.