Printer Friendly

Luisa Capetillo in translation: notas para un testimonio.

Note: The following piece should not be read as a standard academic article, but as the subtitle suggests, as notes toward a testimonial essay on what it meant to translate Luisa Capetillo. In part a meditation on translation and its gendered implications, it is equally a philosphical musing on language, and a poetic evocation of traversing the distance between Luisa Capetillo's thought and my own. The essay moves both conceptually (critical models) but perhaps even more so through images and their correspondences.

Any translation runs up against irrefutable distance. That distance can be temporal, linguistic, or cultural. The distance of a century-old text can evoke awe, perplexity, a feeling of evanescence, but also inspire the need to traverse it, to make it a bridge and not a chasm. As translator of Luisa Capetillo (1879-1922), Puerto Rico's foremost feminist of the early twentieth century, I felt this distance as deeply historical, because when she wrote My Opinion on the Rights of Women ..., Puerto Rican women did not have the vote, the vast majority did not go to school, and domestic violence was not an issue but a societal "norm."[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough] From home (Spanish) to host (English) language a double distance arises, also historical. The rhetorical tradition of Spanish, often splendidly baroque, with long sentences, supple syntax, frequent use of sentences without verbs, and Latinate constructions can seem daunting to the English speaker, not to mention panic-inducing for a translator. This is compounded by an interior distancing because the English of 1911 is not the English we speak ninety some years later, given the modifications in language to become more gender-sensitive. The cultural distance is formidable as well, since Puerto Rico is a Spanish-dominant, Catholic, Caribbean island where at least 40 percent[begin strikethrough]%[end strikethrough] of the population is black or mixed race, whereas its U.S. overlord (then and now) is an English-speaking, Protestant country, and an incipient but ever[begin strikethrough]-[end strikethrough]-growing world power, then living under Jim Crow.

These multiple distances imply a yearning, a desire for reconciliation, the aim of any translation in bridging languages and cultures. Walter Benjamin refers to reconciliation as "pure language,"[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] revealing both the Kabbalistic and utopian dimensions of his thought[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough] (Benjamin: 74). This utopianism parallels the political thought of Capetillo, expressed in a feverish desire to realize an anarcho-communist future; however, the sensibility and the language used at the time may strike contemporary readers as either corny or quaint, especially when speaking of relationships between men and women or those of the family, not to mention words, concepts, and ideas that are embedded in the culture of her time. Equally challenging are the book's wide variation of registers, often from sentence to sentence, going from lyrical outburst to exhortative discourse, from moral persuasion to impassioned indignation from rigorous argumentation to rueful and intimate reflections on lost love. This should not be surprising: Capetillo was an anarcho-communist, a vegetarian, a feminist, a trade union agitator, a mother who never married, a lover, a political activist, a writer, and a spiritist. These different voices sometimes speak singly, often they overlap and at times might even seem contradictory, but their multiple tonalities are what make Luisa Capetillo one of the most original, vibrant, and radical voices of the twentieth[begin strikethrough]-[end strikethrough]-century Caribbean.

But as a male translator of a female writer, the translation of this book brought up issues about the gendered nature of translation to the fore. Historically speaking--at least traditionally--an original text was written by a male author, and in some instances was translated by a woman, already establishing or reproducing a dynamic of producer (author, original, paternity) and reproducer (translator, secondary work, maternity). Less important than the person performing the translation is the implied gender dynamics of the model. Several elements can be deduced from this model: first, the devaluation of a translated work as derivative and non-creative; second, the unreliability of translation's "reproductive" abilities, hence the issue of betrayal and infidelity, always the fault of the translator, and the framing (in all senses of the word) of both within a gendered discourse that equates translation with femininity. Implicit in this model is the view that language ("the mother tongue") and the text are female[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough] (see Chamberlain: 315-317). Thus, a bad translation would be seen as a "violation[begin strikethrough]", a[end strikethrough] " a "defilement" of the original text, whose paternity, of course, is not questioned. This model has Oedipal connotations as well: the Father (original text) is in rivalry with the son or daughter (translator) over the Mother (language and the text, the translation).

Serge Gavronsky, drawing on these Oedipal tensions, argues that there are two modes of translation. The first is the pietistic, where the translator pledges fidelity to the text as would a medieval knight to his Virgin Lady. The translator must not tamper too much with the text and be utterly subservient to its purity. The second type is the cannibalistic mode, where "the original has been captured, raped, and incest performed. Here once again, the son is the father of the man. The original is mutilated beyond recognition: the master-slave dialectic is reversed[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough]" (in Chamberlain: 320). These two extremes go from devout to devour, and remind us of how in Spanish one is contained in the other: devo(ra)cion. But in actuality, translations rarely perform these extremes in either/or fashion: sometimes both are combined, more often than not variants of these extremes are enacted, perhaps more along the lines of Steiner's hermeneutic model, which consists of trust, penetration (!!!), embodiment, and restitution. (Steiner: 312-319). It might be more appropriate nowadays to substitute Steiner's "penetration" for immersion, with all of its aquatic and baptismal connotations.

These models and metaphors are useful in providing us with a general framework, but in translating Luisa Capetillo many issues arise that cannot be answered by these explanations. What happens when a male author translates a female author? Do you simply put the female author in the male role, and vice versa, so that everyone involved ends up cross-dressing, so to speak? If so, how does that alter the dynamic? Does a male immersion into a "female" role totally subvert the translator's maleness or is it gender slumming? Does language become a father tongue instead? How does the translation suffer when the author is deceased and cannot be consulted to make the effort a more collaborative process? Is there a way that translation can be seen in a less adversarial, predatory, or suspicious light that still respects gender, sexual, and racial difference? What are the political implications of translating Luisa Capetillo into English, since in her time and to this day Puerto Rico is a colonial possession of the U.S.? This last question is all the more poignant in Capetillo's case since as an anarchist she was at best indifferent to the cause of Puerto Rican independence, which put her at odds with most Puerto Rican progressives of her time and now. It also gives special resonance to her use of the word patria, the word in Spanish for homeland, more accurately rendered as fatherland. Patria, of course, has its roots in the Latin words for father and patriarch, so Capetillo's radical feminism and anarchism coincide to produce a thought that is both anti-patriarchal and anti-nationalistic. (This, of course, does not make her blind to the U.S. imperial rule in Puerto Rico, but her emphasis is different in seeing any state structure as unjust and an imposition of the ruling classes over the toiling masses. For Capetillo, oppression knows no nationality.)[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough] It makes her statement, "The current social system, with all its errors, is sustained by the ignorance and slavery of women." ripple with associations that are still relevant and rooted in our so-called enlightened "postmodern" societies.

Curiously, Capetillo makes no reference in the entire text to colonialism and employs the word imperialism only once, using it as a synonym of imposition when referring to the dominance of the strong and wealthy over the poor within a society, not between countries or nation states. Puerto Rico is only mentioned twice, once at the beginning when she signs and dates the preface, another a third of the way through the book in a reference to a military surgeon stationed on the [begin strikethrough]i[end strikethrough]Island. In none of these cases is Puerto Rico referred to in a political or colonial context. Conversely, the word "mother" appears over seventy-five times,[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] the word "love." over one hundred sixty-five times. As a translator, was I reading my own biases (as a male academic, living and working in the U.S., fiercely nationalistic about Puerto Rico, my adopted homeland), perhaps equating undemocratic home politics and gender domination with colonialism? This is an unanswerable question, and perhaps a reminder that the issue of translator visibility/invisibility can vary within a text, and that it takes part in translation's double construction: its promise (subversiveness, conceptual renovation) or its danger (appropriation, denial, subjugation). In Lawrence Venturi's eloquent words: [begin strikethrough]"[end strikethrough]The violent effects of translation are felt at home as well as abroad. On the one hand, translation wields enormous power in the construction of national identities for foreign cultures, and hence it potentially figures in ethnic discrimination, geopolitical confrontations, colonialism, terrorism, war. On the other hand, translation enlists the foreign text in the maintenance or revision of literary canons in the target language-culture, inscribing poetry and fiction, for example. With various and poetic and narrative discourses that compete for cultural dominance in the target language.[begin strikethrough]-[end strikethrough]" (Venturi 1995: 19)

For the promise in Venturi's words one could invoke the translations of Garcia Marquez, or the rendering of the work of philosophers such as Derrida or Foucault; for a chilling counterpoint one could mention how inaccurately, reductively, and loosely the word jihad is used in our current political lexicon. Between this subversion and danger the dilemma of Puerto Rico's nationhood surfaces, one that Capetillo's silence or omission makes even more evident almost a century later. For some, though, it might be a reminder that Puerto Rico's future is to be found in a post-nationalist configuration.

I would like to propose a model of translation that not only has relevance for Capetillo but for translation overall, one based on a "philosophy of listening" (see Corradi Fiumara: 28-51). Translation is a logomachy, a dialogue, both words we have borrowed from Greek. Logomachy implies a struggle between two languages, cultures and worlds, a contested terrain. Dialogue is used because there is a conversation, an intense dialectic that transpires, or perspires. Corradi's notion of dialogue implies an ethics and erotics. I employ erotic in the way meant by Audre Lorde: "The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects--born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then I speak of it as an assertion of the life force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough]" (Lorde: 55). A translator of Capetillo has to harness that "creative power and harmony" to express the knowledge generated by her language, her story, her loving, her work, her life. A difficult task because it implies confronting the tensions within feminist representation:

[begin strikethrough][T][end strikethrough][begin strikethrough]"t[end strikethrough]wo concurrent drives, impulses or mechanisms, are at work in the production of self-representation: an erotic, narcissistic drive that enhances images of feminism as difference, rebellion, daring excess, subversion, disloyalty, agency, empowerment, pleasure, and danger, and rejects all images of powerlessness, victimization, subjection, acquiescence, passivity, conformism, femininity; and an ethical drive that works towards community, accountability, entrustment, sisterhood, bonding, belonging to a common world of women or sharing what Adrienne Rich has poignantly called 'the dream of a common language.'[begin strikethrough]."[end strikethrough] (de Lauretis: 336-337)

Capetillo embodies both drives, both in the literal and figurative sense: her wearing of men's clothes, rejection of marriage, and espousal of free love, would certainly exemplify the erotic drive, while her arguments for a classless society, exaltation of the working masses, anti-death penalty position, and her pleas to women (and men!) on how to educate their children or run a household would fall within the ethical drive previously mentioned. And while de Lauretis points to the tension that can arise between the two, Capetillo freely moves from one to the other with surprising ease and verve. However, her overall plea for an anarcho-communist society would indicate that the creation of community and the "dream of a common language" is her dominant theme.

What becomes the ethical task of the translator of Capetillo, aside from making sure that the erotic and ethical drives are allowed to become manifest? In acknowledging these drives, the complexity of Capetillo's thought and life are made easier to recognize and disentangle. This complexity calls upon the translator to avoid making Capetillo into what she is not: a post-1960s first[begin strikethrough]-[end strikethrough]-world feminist. In fact, the task of the translator is to capture the ethical dimension of the erotic, transgressive, and subversive side of her thought (and life), in addition to making the erotic aspects of anethical, community--based life[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] "belonging to a common world of women"[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] also become apparent. This task can be accomplished if one considers translation as a philosophy of listening, particularly in being attentive to Capetillo's "situated knowledge" (anarchist, trade union activist, lover, etc.), pervasive throughout this work.

Words like logomachy and dialogue have a common root, logos (noun) or legein (verb). We always associate the logos with speaking, with rational discourse, account, expression, and so forth. In a "culture of competing monologues," as, [begin strikethrough]as[end strikethrough] Gemma Corradi Fiumara points out, we value those that speak eloquently, those who can impose their "masterful" discourse on others--[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough]an expression with loaded gender[begin strikethrough]ed[end strikethrough] connotations. These structures of logocratic domination create "a chronic struggle of territorial conquest where the territory is the set of notions and principles for constructing reality ... [it is] predatory[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough]" (Corradi Fiumara: 21). The logocratic impulse can be seen as analogous to European territorial expansion and empire building in the literal sense. Capetillo's discourse allows us to envision and enjoy an anti-logocratic method of reasoning, one that is neither predatory nor imbued with the need to impose a master discourse. This doesn't mean she was less persuasive, on the contrary, it makes her arguments more convincing.

But as Corradi Fiumara (following Heidegger) indicates, the verb legein also means to shelter, gather, keep, receive, words more linked to hearing (harking, heeding) rather than speaking. Heidegger insists that legein implies a laying before, an ability to listen. "However, legein ... means just this, that whatever lies before us involves us and therefore concerns us ... Proper hearing belongs to the logos ... As such the proper hearing of mortals is in a certain way the same as the logos[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough]" (Heidegger, 1984: 62, 67). Heidegger goes even further and suggests that speaking involves a form of listening: "Speaking is of itself a listening. Speaking is listening to the language we speak. Thus it is not listening while, but before we are speaking. This listening to language also comes before all other kinds of listening that we know, in a most inconspicuous manner[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough]" (Heidegger, 1971: 123-124). He sums it by stating" "How are we to hear without translating, translate without interpreting?" (Ibid.)

Listening, therefore, is not a passive activity, but an active engaged attentiveness that is central to a dialogical ethics and understanding. Listening requires an openness that goes to the heart of translation (and philosophy): "[A][begin strikethrough]a[end strikethrough]nyone who listens is fundamentally open. Without this openness there is no genuine human bond (relationship). Belonging together also means being able to listen to one another[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough]" (Gadamer: 361). Luisa Capetillo embodied, both in her life and writing, the humility of openness and listening cited above. By doing so she provides her readers and translators with an anti-logocratic model that is useful not only for translation, but for political discourse as well. Her philosophical approach is much closer to a maieutic (midwifery) model drawn from Plato. The maieutic process helps a person bring forth their latent ideas or memories, and, of course, requires the engaged attentiveness of listening mentioned above. These ideas emerge from an unforeseen path generated by a willingness to not be triumphant, to not have to win the argument[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough]" (Corradi Fiumara: 143-168). Consider how My Opinion ... frequently interpolates quotes, articles, essays from others in a running dialogue of multiple voices (philosophical, political, literary, sociological). Some of the voices are well known, such as John Stuart Mill, Bakunin, and Allan Kardec, and [begin strikethrough]she[end strikethrough] Capetillo moves deftly and freely [begin strikethrough]on a[end strikethrough] within an intellectually charged world stage. By quoting and bringing forth the thought of others, [begin strikethrough]Capetillo's[end strikethrough] her thought surfaces in subtle and unexpected ways[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough], W[begin strikethrough]w[end strikethrough]e can actually see her own ideas being brought to birth[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] through these multiple evocations or conversations[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] of "belonging together."[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough]

This philosophy of listening entails a unique relationship to language, of making sure words do not become depleted, misused, or lose their power to incite wonder, compassion, and outrage. "Words are not terms, and thus are not like buckets and kegs from which we can scoop a content that is there. Words are wellsprings that must be found and dug up in the telling, wellsprings that must be found and dug up again and again, that easily cave in, but at times also well up when least expected. If we do not go to the spring again and again, the buckets stay empty, or their contents stay stale[begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough]" (Heidegger, 1968: 130). This digging image, of going to the foundations where words will flow forth or well up, is apt for Capetillo's life and thought, for someone who always went to the roots of injustice, gender and class domination.

The aquatic images are consistent with the water imagery used by Capetillo throughout her text, and also mirror her Spiritist beliefs. Indeed, perhaps her I[begin strikethrough]i[end strikethrough]sland upbringing forms part of this love of aquatic metaphors, but is equally expressed in her writings with the mention of the tears and emotions of love, her exalting of physical exercise (and sweat), as well as the nature of her prose, which swirls and moves gently and forcefully like water.

The universe for Spiritists is made up of the universal fluid and vital fluids. The first is the basic substance of all the material and spiritual elements in the universe, and, influenced by the work of divine thought, it generated solar systems, stars, and planets. The vital fluids are what set matter and bodies in motion, they animate matter in general and when a human being or a creature dies, that vital fluid returns to the universal mixture, eventually returning into a new body (reincarnation). Vital fluids are affected by thoughts (good and bad), which in turn affect matter. Capetillo shared these beliefs with her espiritista brethren and one seems to witness a perpetual amniotic fluid of thought, which at its most breathless moments gushes forth at an amazing tempo. Here is where we can also draw an analogy between the immersion into the original text's language and thought and the philosophy of listening.

The eddies of Capetillo's thought should not distract from the profound differences she had with the Spiritists of her time. First, she was a believer in revolution, specifically in anarchist communism, which went way beyond the reformist goals of the local espiritistas. Secondly, her views on marriage, sexuality, and free love were also against the grain of what most Spiritists believed in, even though they favored strong changes in matrimonial relationships, lobbied energetically for women's rights, and believed in contraception and divorce. Capetillo's thoughts on justice were more socially based even if she used espiritista language sometimes to make her point. In My Opinion ... she roundly chastises Spiritists who, when speaking of people suffering from injustice, misery, or discrimination, justified this suffering by saying that those suffering are because they had been evil in a previous lifetime and are now being punished. Finally, while she generally abhorred violence she was not a pacifist like most Spiritists. These complex positions are vintage Capetillo, who was neither a standard feminist, a prototypical trade unionist, your typical Spiritist, nor a paradigmatic anarchist, if such a thing is possible.

The Spiritist tradition is imbued with historical dimensions. Recently, in Cuba I witnessed a palero who is also a Spiritist bring down the spirit of a 16th[begin strikethrough]-[end strikethrough]- century Haitian slave. The spirit not only spoke to those present, offering advice and warning them about unethical behavior, but eventually relented and allowed himself to be interviewed about his life. It was a sobering historical lesson, a reminder that more than being concerned with ghosts of the past there are spirits of the past that we need to be in dialogue with. Ghosts merely haunt;[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] spirits speak. Translating Luisa Capetillo allows an analogous if not entirely identical historical dialogue to take place.

Given the previous discussion translation and Capetillo's Spiritist beliefs, it is tempting to liken the translator's role to that of medium. If a medium is a vessel of communication between the spiritual and material worlds, between the living and the dead, then the distance mentioned at the beginning of this essay is negotiated and traversed by the medium (translator), between a dead author and a living reader (and translator). Tempting as the analogy sounds, it might be more useful to speak of one of the key themes of Spiritist doctrine or esoteric spirituality in general: correspondence. In Spiritism it is meant to include symbolic and real correspondence between all parts of the visible or invisible universe, between macrocosm and microcosm. Correspondence is also a communication (from the original) that begets a response (translation). A response that fashions an analogy (a correspondence), that creates a sense of belonging, a homecoming. Heidegger spoke of Holderlin's poetry as a "homecoming through otherness." [begin strikethrough].[end strikethrough] Interestingly, for someone who never had a traditional family, Luisa never tired about speaking to women about their home, or how to make the home a loving place to dwell instead of a locus of oppression. For me, translating Luisa Capetillo is a homecoming through otherness in more than a linguistic sense, since my English is inflected by my Spanish and vice-versa, and like Luisa I, too, grew up in Puerto Rico and have come to live in the U.S, via Cuba, where she was arrested for wearing men's clothes, thus becoming a cause celebre. Like Luisa, my wandering has also had to create several "homes,"[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] some of them physical, others intellectual or emotional, still others spiritual. Luisa's vibrant thought has made this nomadic grounding a route, an exploration, and an affirmation. In listening to Luisa I have not just returned "home,"[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] but made a new one in her thought, her love, her life.


Benjamin, Walter (1968) Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Schocken Books, NY. Translated by Harry Zohn.

Capetillo, Luisa (2005/1911) My Opinion on the Freedom, Rights and Duties of Women, Arte Publico Press, Houston, Texas. Edited and Introduction by Felix Matos Rodriguez, translation by Alan West-Duran.

Chamberlain, Lori (2000/1988). "Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation,"[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] in Lawrence Venuti (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge, NY.

Corradi Fiumara, Gemma (1990) The Other Side of Language, A Philosophy of Listening, Routledge, NY. Translated by Charles Lambert.

De Lauretis, Teresa (1990) "Upping the Anti (Sic) in Feminist Theory" in Robin Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (eds.) Feminisms, An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, revised edition, 1997.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1993) Truth and Method, Continuum, NY, Second Revised Edition.[begin strikethrough],[end strikethrough] Translated by Joel Wersheimer and Donald G, Marshall.

Heidegger, Martin (1980/1950, 1954) Early Greek Thinking, Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA. Translated by David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi.

Heidegger, Martin (1971/1959) On the Way to Language, Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA. Translated by Peter Hertz.

Heidegger, Martin (1968) What is Called Thinking?, Harper & Row, NY, NY. Translated by J. Glenn Gray.

Lorde, Audre (1984) Sister Outsider, Crossing Press, Trumansburg, NY.

Steiner, George (1992) After Babel, Aspects of Language & Translation, Oxford University Press, NY, 2nd ed.

Venturi, Lawrence (1995) The Translator's Invisibility, A History of Translation, Routledge, NY.

Venturi, Lawrence, editor (2000) The Translation Studies Reader, Routledge, NY.

Alan West-Duran was born in Cuba and grew up in Puerto Rico. He is the author of two books of poems, Dar nombres a la lluvia/Finding Voices in the Rain, which won the Latino Literature Prize for Poetry (1996), and El tejido de Asterion o las mascaras del logos (2000); as well as a books of essays Tropics of History: Cuba Imagined (1997) and African Caribbeans, A Reference Guide (2003). He has translated Alejo Carpentier's La musica en Cuba (2001), Rosario Ferre's Language Duel/Duelo de lenguaje (2002) and Nelly Richard's Cultural Residues (2004). West-Duran has edited African Caribbeans: A Reference Guide (2003) and Latino and Latina Writers (2004).
COPYRIGHT 2008 Hunter College, Center for Puerto Rican Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:West-Duran, Alan
Publication:CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Previous Article:Learning Spanish.
Next Article:Pioneros puertorriquenos en Nueva York, 1917-1947.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters