Translating the Harlem Renaissance: a conversation with Ignacio Oliden and Juan Arabia

Eponine Howarth


—Langston Hughes

que en este lugar de negros,
deba encontrarme cara a cara con la vida;
cuando, durante años, había estado buscando
vida en lugares de habla más delicada,
hasta que llegué a esta calle cercana
y encontré la vida pisándome los pies.


—Langston Hughes

That in this nigger place,
I should meet Life face to face;
When for years, I had been seeking
Life in places gentler speaking
Until I came to this near street
And found Life—stepping on my feet!


Why an anthology of translations of the Harlem renaissance?

JA: In the first place, because there is no anthology of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance in [Spanish]. Generally I translate books that I would like to have. Many times you have to invent them.

IO: The same. And I think that because it is a much more important phase in poetry than is usually considered. We wanted to work on the movement not just as a cultural phenomenon, but as a phase in which great poetry was being made. We tried to choose what to our judgement were the best poems of the bunch, and allow the Harlem poets to be judged only on the basis of their highest peaks.

Other than it being a book that you would have liked to have, why translate these poets into Spanish specifically?

JA: The most interesting thing is to disseminate and circulate the mechanisms that obstruct the poetry market. Even in the United States it is difficult to find a volume as complete as this one.

IO: And we thought about the value of the movement, and we wanted to work on it. The translation is a kind of excuse to be able to create a book that did not exist, and to present again poems that had been forgotten for more than a century. Although it is interesting to note some links between the Harlem Renaissance and Latin America, such as Scott Coleman being born in Guaymas, or Hughes connection with Nicolás Guillén, whom he translated.

Some of the poems you picked were written by lesser known poets. How did you encounter these writers?

JA: This is something that is being worked on in the preliminary study. It is also a review of anthologies, and of what has been written by various literary critics. Personally, I got involved with Harlem Shadows by Claude McKay, and thanks to that book I understood that it was not only about a particular author (in the romantic sense) but about a structure of feeling.

IO: Exactly. First we had to see which authors were included in the anthologies of the time (like Cullen’s), and then see who were considered in today’s anthologies (like Dudley Randall’s). Then we investigated specialised books and texts, and the magazines they published, such as Crisis. The poems of each poet, on the other hand, were extracted from their books (if they had, since some of the poets of this book have never published one), in order to choose what we consider best by each one.

Writers and poets often write books as a ‘whole,’ in the same way that musicians might curate an album. Do you think extracting poems affects them?

JA: Yes, but in general records—like books—have songs to complete an album (even Pound gave a selection from The Cantos). There's a nice definition of Ashbery in his last book, posthumous, Parallel Movement of the Hands. I think it's in the foreword, written by her assistant Emily Skillings, who compiled these last writings. And she also recalls how Ashbery always divided the poems into categories of A, B and C (let's say, in decreasing quality or importance). Many mediocre poems serve to further illuminate the best. In this case, I think we're aiming for those first two; although a C category author (in a good way, in terms of relevance), he couldn't be better represented with a C poem.

IO: We basically tried to pick the best of each, presenting iceberg tips that reflect the variety and power of these poets. We know that presenting isolated translated poems can be misleading, and often it can help to create a distorted image, for better or for worse. Like Gary Snyder did with Han Shan, he kind of invented him as we know him. And I love that. But in the case of various authors, the poems become part of another corpus that is not the personal work of the author. Fortunately, as we clarify throughout the book, the Harlem poets themselves advocated for the making of anthologies. Many of them, like Bontemps, Cullen, Hughes, Sterling Brown, created anthologies of their contemporaries’ work. So we feel backed in that decision.

I find it interesting that this is a collaborative book of translations. What motivated a collaboration in the first place? How did you divide poems between yourselves? Did you divide the translations and then review each other's work? Or, did you translate all of them together, without any real division?

JA: To tell the truth, the authors were added as the review of what was anthologized and written. And that happened until the last moment. While we divided authors and poems, we read and reviewed each other's versions and brought a ‘poetic tone’ as a team.

IO: I think there are two poets who were aligned with each other’s vision, like McKay, which Juan worked on, and Hughes, which I did. But the rest, after the selection of each poem, which was individual, the translation was done in a very collaborative way.

The Harlem renaissance is a cultural, social, and artistic movement, that played a pivotal role in the evolution of jazz music. Did you immerse yourselves more fully in the epoque to inform your translations? Or, did you let the work speak for itself in a way, translating only the words and not the world per se?

JA: Of course, I listened to a lot of music to translate these poems, to try to sing them in a better way, and currently visit those places. As you can see in the book, we also added a lot of our own graphic design work from many magazines that only published African-Americans. Even the typography on the cover, made by Camila Evia, was inspired by them.

IO: Yes. In fact, I was introduced to the Harlem Renaissance through the sculptures of Augusta Savage. But we did pay special attention to music. Not just music itself but also reflections on the subject, those who were for it, those who were against it, those who wanted to get over old forms. We looked at music that was contemporary like jazz, and music that had had an effect, like spirituals, which Juan even translated as a study, although they were not used in the book. I paid special attention to bebop when translating Hughes latest poems. We realised though that it would be a mistake to apply a musician or a genre to all poetry of the Renaissance. Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, the spirituals that were sung on Sundays... such wide and deep variety in tone, in style, in intention. It was useful more than anything in order to understand the total vision of the movement.

Is there any poet that you really ‘discovered’ in the process of creating the book?

JA: I think Claude McKay is the great poet of that generation, and many women like Gwendolyn Brooks and Gwendolyn Bennett.

IO: I believe that Gwendolyn Brooks is unclassifiable and may be the best poet in the book, along with McKay, who is perhaps the poet with the deepest reach. I agree with Juan there. But I must say that I really like Hughes' ease in shuffling poems, and sometimes doing so with the secrecy that he has in some poems like “Magnolia Flowers” or “Tomorrow”. Helene Johnson, on the other hand, I think has some of the best poems of the movement, and they were for a long time neglected, when in fact they combine vernacular discourses and cultured forms just like William Carlos Williams, Frost, and other so celebrated modernists. The imagery of “Trees at night” and “The Road” is something extraordinarily great.  I also believe that Anita Scott-Coleman, so direct, has a power that very few achieve.

A lot of the female writers from the era are also less famous. Is there anything distinct about their voice that you learned?

JA: I think many female poets like Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Clarissa Scott Delany, Esther Popel and Blanche Taylor Dickinson go deeper into the movement: there we find poems written by ‘blacks’ for ‘black’ magazines. And yet, and despite that, we feel closer and more honest. Surely true poetry speaks more of what happens in life (and in the heart).

IO: I totally agree with Juan on that. And I think that the women in the movement tend to be less rhetorical, less literary, and that makes them much more direct, stronger and rawer. I can think now of “Dunbar”, by Anne Spencer, or “Touché”, by Redmon Fauset, as more classical, but in general, many would not even think of writing like Countee Cullen, luckily. Those poems more drawn towards the traditional and the classic, were the ones that had the most presence in the anthologies of that time, so here we try to do the opposite in that sense.

I’m always fascinated by the translator’s ability to solve the problem of replicating formal contraints. Was there anything about form that you found particularly challenging in the translation process? Or, alternatively, anything you’d like to say about translating sonnets from English to Spanish?

JA: [T]he rhythm, typical of Afro-American speech, when mixed with classical forms. It is complex to give those mixes without having that lived music.

IO: I like the idea that McKay and Cullen try to get black poetry into the western canon using the sonnet like a Trojan horse. The translation is complicated, but no more than a free verse translation, in which you have to respond to the same parameters of sound, rhythm, stress... We do not believe that the rhyme has value in itself, and in many cases, translation gave us the possibility of freeing the poet from the yoke of rhyme, which at times creates somewhat forced verses or constructions.

Do you have any specific example of ‘freeing the poet of the yoke of rhyme’?

IO: A poem by Angelina Grimké comes to my mind, called "Dusk". Four verses, and in the second one, we read the shrivelling husk, so we already know that in the final one she's going to use the same word that she used for the title. The poem is beautiful, and we thought of emphasising the surprise that seems to be prepared by the dash in the third line, of a yellowing moon on the wane—, which suspends the image and the sound for a while to cut off abruptly with the surprise:

Twin stars through my purpling pane,
The shrivelling husk
Of a yellowing moon on the wane—
And the dusk.

Brillan gemelas por el vidrio púrpura,
la cáscara marchita
de una luna que mengua en amarillo—
y el crepúsculo.

More broadly, when you read each poem by a particular author carefully, and follow word by word every line of their work, you start to feel that there are things that the author would have said in another way if it hadn't been for the rhyme or fixed forms. Obviously, this intuition can be wrong, and the translator must take responsibility for these insights, but in those cases it feels undeniable that to a greater or lesser extent, the breathing was dictated by the rhyme, and the rhyme by the form. At least for us, it was necessary to do that dissection work.

Do you think the process of translating these works has influenced your own poetry?

JA: I couldn’t say yet, but I'd like to take ownership of my translation of MacKay's ‘Subway Wind.’ I think I gave it a speed in Spanish that was enviable for my own poems.

IO: Although Hughes was already a reference for me before starting the book, I imagine I have much more things in my pocket now that I stole from him and Brooks, and they’re going to turn up as I write. Surely various things in matters of rhythm, musicality, that way of writing against the grain, and also to let go of the hand and write write write write.

What was the most challenging aspect of bringing this book to fruition?

IO: I think the work that came before the translation was very laborious, the construction of a critical framework. We had to investigate the different positions about the movement. For some, it is something from the 1930s, for others it extends further. For some, only a few poets are part of the movement, for others, all those who were published by the Harlem magazines. For some, you had to live in Harlem and be a conscious ‘member’ and write abour certain topics, and for others this was not necessary. All this is explained in the prologue. And we had to do a lot of research to find the poets who did not survive particular magazine issues. Some of the authors who appear in this anthology never even published a book, and only appeared in the magazines.

Can we look forward to more of the Ignacio+Juan ‘poetic tone,’ as a team?

JA: Surely, and we are already doing it. Given the common interest, we might one day give a good anthology of the lakes poets.

IO: Yes, we collaborate every week with translations for the magazine Buenos Aires Poetry, and we read each other's work. Now we have an anthology of the Lake Poets in our sights.

Link to buy Poetas del Renacimiento de Harlem:

Ignacio Oliden (Buenos Aires, 1997) is a poet, translator, and literary critic. He is co-editor-in-chief of the literary magazine La Piccioletta Barca (Cambridge, United Kingdom), and a member of the Editorial Committee of the magazine and publishing imprint Buenos Aires Poetry. His poetry has appeared in magazines and newspapers in various countries, and has been translated into English, Greek, and Italian. He is a literary critic in the Culture Supplement of Diario Perfil (Argentina), and has recently edited and translated together with Juan Arabia the anthology Poetas del Renacimiento de Harlem (Buenos Aires Poetry, 2023). His first collection of poems, Mester de juglaría, will be published by Buenos Aires Poetry by the end of 2023.
Juan Arabia is a poet, translator and literary critic. Born in Buenos Aires in 1983, he is founder and director of the cultural and literary project Buenos Aires Poetry. Arabia is also in-house literary critic for the Cultural Supplement of Diario Perfil and Revista Ñ of Diario Clarín. Among his most recent poetry titles are Desalojo de la Naturaleza [Eviction of Nature] (Buenos Aires Poetry, 2018), Hacia Carcassonne [Towards Carcassonne] (Pre-Textos, 2021), and Bulmenia (Buenos Aires Poetry, 2022). After the publication of El enemigo de los Thirsties [Enemy of the Thirties] (2015), awarded in France, Italy, and Macedonia, Juan participated in several poetry festivals in Latin America, Europe, and China. In 2018, on behalf of Argentina, he was invited to the “Voix vives de Méditerranée en Méditerranée” poetry festival in Sète (France). The following year he became the second Latin American poet to be invited to the “Poetry Comes to Museum LXI,” sponsored by the Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum. Arabia has translated works by Ezra Pound, Arthur Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, and Dan Fante, among others. Two of his books have been translated into French (L’Océan Avare, trad. Jean Portante, Al Manar, 2018) and Italian (Verso Carcassonne, trad. Mattia Tarantino, Raffaelli Editore, 2022). He lives in San Telmo (Buenos Aires) with his wife — the designer, poet, and literary translator Camila Evia — and son Cátulo.

Eponine Howarth

Eponine Howarth is co-editor-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca.

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