The anthology editor has a thankless job. Every anthology is a project of exclusion far more than it is a project of inclusion, and every other reader, scholar, and translator will have a set of differing opinions about who should and should not be included, in which translation, and even for what reasons. And this is just the beginning of the troubles an editor confronts when compiling an anthology.
For a scholar like Ilan Stavans, what other people think should hardly matter. He is a respected academic, an exceptional translator, and a brilliant critic of Latin American literature and poetry. You don’t get to undertake a project like this without a lengthy list of credentials like his. I suspect a more significant problem for an editor like Stavans, whose work I have long admired, is that of power. To edit an anthology like this, one of only three major anthologies of twentieth-century Latin American poetry, the newest, and one published and promoted by a major publisher of literature, is without even a slight doubt to actively work toward establishing a canon. It is likely that for a scholar like Stavans this posed all sorts of ethical and academic problems that he had to resolve, or come to terms with as best he could. Especially because the twentieth-century Latin American poets have already drawn substantial attention from English-language translators, and the canon of Latin American poets of the twentieth century is in large part already formed.
The greatest hits, the classic must-reads for twentieth century Latin America, goes something like this: Dario, Neruda, Borges, Paz, rinse, repeat. Of course, if you want to dig deeper, say at the undergraduate level, it gets more complicated, and the list gets significantly longer. José Martí, Roque Dalton, Cesar Vallejo, Vincente Huidobro, Gabriela Mistral (if you’re lucky), Julia de Burgos, Ernesto Cardenal, and the latest addition to the party, Roberto Bolaño. All of these are represented here, and more that a third-year undergraduate studying the field would be able to rattle off easily. So Stavans faced a project in which the greatest hits were already chosen, and for the most part already collected in the Tapscott and Oxford anthologies. Of course, this leaves huge gaps.
The work of an anthologist is violent, like that of a translator, dismembering a whole cultural context and transporting limbs of it to a new environment. And like translation, the result can always be termed as loss—a loss of wholeness (i. e. context), a loss of embodiment in time and place (i. e. culture). The pieces become relics, deadened in a museum of pages instead of alive in their usefulness. The act of collecting them, framing them and presenting them, invariably changes the way we read them. But anthologies like this one are desperately necessary. And, as Stavans points out at the end of his introduction, “poetry refurbishes itself through translation because translation is power.” Poetry survives translation and collection precisely because it contains its own power, and that power is transformable and transmutable. It is not universal in the romantic sense, but becomes powerful by being located “neither here nor there.” Or, perhaps, both here and there. The poetry translated and collected here, pinned up for us to examine like preserved butterflies, gives us a glimpse of a world richer and more complex than can be presented in a single volume, even one that runs to more than 700 pages.
And that is really what a great editor of an anthology, like Stavans, does—whets our appetites, hints at the depth of what is necessarily excluded from the collection, tells us “this is just the tip of the iceberg.” This anthology is alluring, seductive. It gives us a glimpse of a poetic tradition that, through translation, has bled across borders to soak into our own.
Stavans fills out the canon interestingly, by including a selection of indigenous and international writers who belong to the Latin American tradition. The inclusion of indigenous voices like Humberto Ak’Abal (who writes in Spanish about indigenous culture) and Elicura Chihuailaf (who writes in Mapuche and Spanish) adds welcome variety to the usual suspects. In John Bierhorst’s translation of the Chihuailaf poem “The Key No One Lost” we see the multiplied conquest of languages, first Spanish then English, over indigenous culture, and the act of cultural and political resistance it is to write in Mapuche:
Poetry is the profound whispering
of the murdered ones
the rumor of leaves in the fall
sadness for the boy
who preserves the language
but has lost his soul
. . .
And I say no more, because
no one will ever find
the key nobody lost
And poetry is the song of my
Stavans also makes a clear effort to significantly represent women; 22 of the 84 poets included are female. At 26 percent this may not seem significant, but that is as much a result of the machismo of Latin American publishing and the exclusive institutions it has created as it is a problem of the translators and publishers who support (often, inexcusably, unintentionally) that system of exclusion through their decisions about what is “worth” translating. As the anthology progresses towards the latter half of the century, the number of women included steadily increases, and of the five most recent poets included, three are women.
Stavans also includes stunning new translations that compliment the existing translations he’s chosen. The guiding force in selection seems to be, as he puts it in the introduction, the resulting “magic” of the work. This notion is absurdly vague, suspiciously reminiscent of the language used to uphold a normative aesthetic discourse and resist work that challenges the aesthetic power of the mainstream. It wouldn’t be as much of a problem, if it weren’t slipped into an introduction titled “Translation and Power.” The preference for lyrical poeticism in translation can be easily distilled from the translators actually named in the introduction, almost all poets in their own right. My quibble isn’t with the translations that were chosen—they are truly magnificent works of poetry—but with how little attention is given to the principle of their selection. And Stavans, who contributes a number of translations himself, must have thought about strategy and approach during this project. It’s a disservice to an otherwise excellent presentation to exclude actual engagement with translation as a mechanism of asserting or undermining cultural and political power.
Another shortfall in the anthology is one that is fairly easy to ascribe to the editor’s interests: the number of poets from each country. Out of the 84 poets included, 22 of them are Mexican. That’s as many Mexican poets are there are women included in the anthology. With none from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, or Venezuela, and only one apiece from Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala, the bias is clear. Of course Mexico is a larger country with a larger population and therefore more writers, so proportionally having more Mexicans included makes sense. And it’s easy to say that at least part of the responsibility lies with the accepted canon, especially when the other traditional “heavy hitters” of Latin America are so strongly represented, Chile with the second most at 12, Brazil at 9, Argentina with 7 and Cuba coming in fifth with 7. Looking at those numbers makes clear that we’re dealing more with Northern bias than with size and proportional representation. Venezuela is more populous than Chile or Cuba and isn’t represented at all. English-language publishers (and therefore translators) have always gravitated toward these five countries, and that is because the work is more recognizably “literary” by Western standards. Stavans could have made more of an effort to move outside of this pattern and include some of the still-overlooked poetic traditions of Latin America.
Despite the inevitable griping about inclusion/exclusion, mine and others, this anthology surpasses expectation. It is a book that will quickly become indispensable for studying poetry in Latin America in the twentieth century, and will certainly entice its students and readers to dive in to explore its riches—and to see what by necessity was left out.
Erica Mena is a poet, translator, designer, and printer. She is pursuing her MFA in Translation at the University of Iowa. Her original poetry has appeared with the Dos Passos Review, Arrowsmith Press, and Pressed Wafer, and her translations have been published most recently with Words Without Borders. She also co-hosts the Reading the World podcast on literary translation.
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