What drew you to Words Without Borders (and literature in translation more generally)? What is your personal relationship to language and translation?
I remember learning about Words Without Borders when I was a graduate student of comparative literature at the University of Michigan and taking a course led by Christi Merrill. The course began with a reflection on a vibrant painting of a woman sitting on a rich red sofa, with a shotgun hanging on the deep-blue wall behind her and a tiger rug sprawled under her sofa. The subject of Farazed Syed’s “Attire” was guarding the portal to the magazine’s collection of Urdu feminist writing, or at least that is how I understood it. Soon, I made my own way through the magazine and the Campus websites, guided by curiosity and tags. Where was I going? Carmen Boullosa’s “Sleepless Homeland,” as translated by Samantha Schnee. I was then drawn to a call, a radio’s live transmission of “the insurrection of the dead” in Luis Felipe Fabre’s poem “Notes on a Zombie Cataclysm,” translated by Amanda Hopkinson. I read Juan Villoro’s “Violence and Drug-Trafficking in Mexico,” translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and found myself in an unexpected place, Mictlán—the Aztec underworld. But this was not my final destination. I was lured by a poetic voice. “What’s real, muchacho, is the joy / the / faith / in / our / encounters.” Pedro de Jesus’s poetic address in “If I could live on the vision without trying to say it” (translated by Dick Cluster) had reached me. As a reader of Words Without Borders, I went on a journey and met a variety of voices from the literary world along the way. As editorial fellow, I would like to draw readers in and provide them with the opportunity to pursue their own paths by engaging with our contributors and their stories every step of the way.
Now, my relationship to language and translation goes further back than my excursion into the digital pages of Words Without Borders or even my graduate studies. I am from California, but my mother is from Puebla while my father is from Zacatecas, meaning that they grew up in Mexico but in different environments, with slightly different customs, and they speak Spanish in their regional accents. For me, this meant being raised in a primarily Spanish-speaking home with extended family in the state, but maintaining ties to family in Mexico too, ultimately learning to understand the cultural similarities and differences between my first- and second-generation family members in the United States, and between my family in the United States and my family in Mexico.
My formal education began in Spanish and English, and that was the case until California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998 and restricted the state’s transitional bilingual program. From then on, my instruction was English-only, and I can still recall the minor shock I experienced when I was corrected for using the inverted question mark in an English writing assignment. To a close observer, my reaction would have sounded something like, “¿What?” I, like many other California students from my generation, was caught in the middle of a bilingual debate that coincided with an important shift in demographics. The San Gabriel Valley registered an increase in Asian, Latino, and Pacific Islander populations across its cities, a phenomenon that was mirrored throughout the state and in our contributions to American culture and society. We could be seen and heard over the airwaves, our cuisine consumed on restaurant and family dining tables, our fashion worn on people’s backs, and our stories read in the newspapers and literature of the time. What did this add up to? An increasing interest in intercultural communication and linguistic enrichment for all sectors of society. In California, this interest translated to the passage of Proposition 58 in 2016 and thus the restoration of bilingual education in the state’s public schools.
By then I had graduated from Princeton, where my experience growing up between cultures and languages had led me to study comparative literature and Latin American studies. I continued this track at the University of Michigan and built on prior research I had conducted as an undergraduate on the poetry of Black Brazilian poet Miriam Alves and her bilingual anthology Enfim…Nós/Finally…Us, translated by Carolyn Richardson Durham. This time, however, I put her work in conversation with the translation and circulation of Nancy Morejón’s and Claudia Rankine’s poetry in the American hemisphere. This is all to say that my personal and academic journeys converged and led me into the field of literary translation and, in particular, to Words Without Borders. Now, I hope to draw on the particularities of my personal and academic journey to engage readers, translators, and writers in a common mission to understand the complexities of human experience through literature.
Could you share some of your favorite books and/or writers? What do you look for in a great book?
Oh, these questions make my head tingle. I am very interested in writers and books that demonstrate the powerful effects of poetic address, of calling, and of knocking. I am thinking about Dawn Lundy Martin’s poetry volume Good Stock, Strange Blood, as well as her essays and interviews; Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro; the anthology Letters from the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing, edited by Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin. In fact, it would be great if these books were translated into other languages.
I am also drawn to intricate storytelling. For example, I recall reading Lu Min’s “Scissors, Shining” and “Song of Parting” in Michael Day’s translation and being moved by her carefully tailored language. Now, her Dinner for Six (translated by Nicky Harman and Helen Wang) is on my reading list.
Lastly, I will point readers to Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone, translated by Sarah Booker, for an example of horror and gothic writing from Latin America, and to Cristina Rivera Garza’s Liliana’s Invincible Summer for a story exploring the issue of femicide in Mexico.
Are there languages, themes, or genres that you’re eager to see more of in English translation?
I would like to see more dramas translated into English. In particular, I would like readers to become familiar with the plays of Panamanian author Javier Stanziola, who has won the Ricardo Miró National Prize in Literature for three of his plays: De mangos y albaricoques (1996), Solsticio de invierno (2002), and Hablemos de lo que no hemos vivido (2008). This summer, the Out of the Wings Festival in London produced a script-in-hand reading of his play The Myth of Gravity, in my translation. The piece centers around a lesbian couple engaged in a legal battle to retain adoption rights over their son. In general, his writing explores topics such as immigration, sexuality and gender, and sexual harassment in the workplace. For an example of his prose, I would point readers to “Gustavo,” an extract from his novel Hombres enlodados (Muddy Men).
I would be very interested in seeing more about disappearances (as in, “they were disappeared”), missingness (as in, “you are missed” or “they went missing”), erasure (as in, “he was erased from history”), whitewashing (as in, “the story was whitewashed by Hollywood”), but also appearances (as in, “by all appearances, I am here, and you are here, too”), debuts (as in, “she’s a debutant”), and reappearances (as in, “the stains reappeared”).
You recently moved back to the States after two years in Madrid. Can you tell us about your experience living abroad?
My partner had the wonderful opportunity to pursue a master’s degree and complete it in Madrid, a city he had lived in during the 2018–19 academic year and that I had gotten to know briefly during my visits that year and when I was an undergraduate studying Spanish art in Toledo. We were fortunate enough to have family there already—his aunts and uncle had immigrated from Ecuador and put down roots in Spain. On our return, we reconnected with old friends and made new ones, too. In a sense, we were returning to a place we had grown familiar with but wanted to know better.
This time we became more attuned to the city’s cultural and political landscape. During our final summer in Madrid, for example, Neapolitan pizza chains were playing Peso Pluma’s corridos tumbados, Paulina Rubio was coming to town to accept the Mr. Gay Spain award, city residents were protesting the city’s plan to fell trees, Pedro Sánchez called snap general elections, the country experienced another heat wave, and the Mercado de Los Mostenses was about to undergo renovations. Madrid is a dynamic city, but I will end by reminding readers that the Latin Grammys will be held in Seville this year and that we are in pomegranate season, so I am sure there are plenty of good stories, poems, and dramas to come out of all the exchanges taking place in Spain.
Beyond literature and translation, what are your passions and interests?
Listening to music! My goodness, where do I even begin? Ana Gabriel’s “Evidencias,” Fever Ray’s “Carbon Dioxide” and “Tapping Fingers,” Kim Petras’s “Heart to Break,” Donna Summer’s “On the Radio,” Peso Pluma’s “Ella baila sola,” Belanova’s “Me pregunto,” Alejandra Guzman’s “Mírala míralo,” Rosalía’s “LLYLM,” Konstrakta’s “In corpore sano,” C. Tangana’s “Cuándo olvidaré,” Doja Cat’s “Boss Bitch,” Niagara’s “L’amour à la plage,” Dorian’s “La tormenta de arena,” Alvan’s “Fulenn,” Kali Uchis’s “Deserve Me,” and Caroline Polachek’s “Dang.”
Ivy Queen’s Tiny Desk Concert is required viewing.
I also enjoy listening to the interviews, reviews, and stories on the podcasts Alt.Latino, Pop Culture Happy Hour, and Radio Ambulante.
Alexander Aguayo is a literary translator and independent scholar. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Michigan and an AB in comparative literature with a certificate in Latin American studies from Princeton University. His translations and interviews have been published in Words Without Borders, and his translation of Javier Stanziola’s play The Myth of Gravity was featured in the 2023 Out of the Wings Festival in London.
Copyright © 2023 by Alexander Aguayo.