The walls of language

Paul Constant

July 23, 2019

The New Sanctuary Coalition describes itself as a nonprofit that is "led by and for immigrants to stop the inhumane system of deportations and detentions in this country." It's not an organization that was founded in response to Donald Trump's inhumane treatment of immigrants: New Sanctuary has been at it for over a decade now.

They have always been doing good work — the Obama Administration was zealous in its efforts to deport immigrants, remember — but the moral moment has caught up to New Sanctuary. Because of Donald Trump's inhumane policies, because America in the twenty-first century places immigrants in concentration camps, more Americans than ever are aware of the mistreatment of immigrants. The situation has always been dire, but now, at least, people are aware of it.

Seattle poet Elisa Chavez is no stranger to political activism. Her viral poem "Revenge," which we published on this site in 2017, is a direct response to current political events, and the anti-nonwhite, anti-woman, anti-multiculturalism that has seized control of the government.

Chavez's latest chapbook, Miss Translated, is a direct response to the nation's worsening political situation. And Chavez is selling it as a fundraiser for New Sanctuary Coalition, as a way to directly transform poetry into positive political change. Unfortunately, the chapbook is only available through Amazon, but hopefully Chavez will make it available through local booksellers sometime soon. In the meantime, if you don't want to support Amazon's involvement in ICE but you do want to support New Sanctuary, you can donate through their site. Perhaps if you donate more than the book's $2.99 cover price to New Sanctuary and you find Chavez at one of her events around town and show her a receipt, she'll get a copy of her chapbook to you somehow.

Miss Translated is a deeply personal work, which means it is also deeply political. It features poems in both English and Spanish, in an effort to demonstrate the way that translation often leaves a gap between worlds. It's about going from one place to another in search of transformation, and about coming to terms with the walls that language places between us.

"The mermaid fled the ocean/searching for a better world," the opening poem in Miss Translated begins. In English, it's a fairytale story, a kind of romance that evokes The Little Mermaid, only without the sacrifice of the story. This mermaid gets her legs, and she walks on land, "transforming/the sand of the beach into rainbows." It's a beautiful dream, a fantasy without waking. An English reader might not notice anything out of the ordinary on the page. We're used to skipping past facing-page translation, after all.

But then, of course, one turns the page. The next poem, "El Vampire/ICE," draws a perfect analogy between two creatures who seek to destroy your life: "The vampire loves the law...He does not arrive/unless invited, or at least,/he does not come in." The simplicity of the vampire's arrangement, its inability to enter without invitation, feels almost like a child's game. But the fact that ICE abides by the same rules lends the agency a sinister air. We are raised from the fairy tales of our youth to expect monsters to follow rules, but it's always a little disconcerting when the rules work.

I am far from fluent in Spanish, but I know enough to understand that in her poem "La llorona / campo de concentración," Chavez allows the Spanish and English translation of the same poem to diverge in fascinating ways. The Spanish poem opens (as near as I can tell) with a woman named Mária whose screams make powerful men bleed. The English translation only refers to Mária by her nickname, "La Llorona," (the weeper, or the crier) and calls her "Beautiful but shallow," adding, dismissively, "(Aren't they all?)" The English poem is positively brutal to La Llorona, revealing her as a haunted and vengeful spirit, while the Spanish version seems to cast her in a tragic light. It's the same story, but told in two different languages and with two different ideologies.

From there, the poems separate further and further. The Spanish translation of "Volver, Volver" repeatedly asks "¿Cuándo volverás a mi, amor?" or, roughly, "When will you return to me, my love?" In the English side, the poem chastises the listener: "You were granted the opportunity/to depart from the/U.S. of your own accord,/but have failed to do so."

Eventually, the two poems respond to each other in a disjointed dialogue. In English, a poem announces "I’m scared of spiders./My mom told me/they’re dangerous." In Spanish, the poem asks, roughly, "Why are you afraid of Mrs. Spider? Who taught you this?" But the poem in English seems blissfully unaware of the existence of the Spanish poem. It's not a dialogue, it's a monologue that is unaware of its own interrogation.

The power dynamic in Miss Translation is fascinating. The English poems are bold and declamatory and incurious. The Spanish poems are questing and romantic and beautiful. The English poem is entirely unaware of the humanity that exists on the other half of the same dame page.

The book is an achingly honest representation of the dialogue that is happening in the nation right now. One side wonders why its humanity is being questioned while the other side loses a grip on its own humanity. It's not even a translation error; one side is using language, while the other side — the American side, the xenophobic side — can't even grasp the decay of its own language. We comfortable white Americans are the ones who've lost ourselves in translation.

Books in this review:
  • Miss Translated: A Benefit for the New Sanctuary Coalition
    by Elisa Chavez
    June 28, 2019
    16 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on Amazon

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

December 04, 2018

Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 27, 2018

The man show

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound