John Pluecker translates the epigraph (from Cristina Rivera Gazra) at the beginning of Antígona González—¿De qué se apropria el que se apropria?—as “What does the appropriator appropriate?” This apparently straightforward translation tellingly reflects the translation strategies he will deploy throughout the book.
This central question echoes a pronounced tendency in Pluecker’s translation: peopling. “The one who appropriates” becomes “the appropriator,” the agent of appropriation. Throughout this translation, subjects becoming into people from more distant Spanish syntax are an artistic and ethical point of return. “They” appears again and again in sentences without subjects, “una habitante de la frontrera” (a [female] resident of the border) becomes “a woman living on the border,” and “todos” unfailing becomes “all of us.”
These choices trouble and converse with Sara Uribe’s lyrical palimpsest, Antígona González, a masterpiece of documentary poetry. Originally published in 2012 by sur+ ediciones in Mexico City, Les Figues Press published John Pluecker’s translation in February of this year. The Spanish original is a remarkable work: this book-length prose poem collages and recontextualizes Latin American Antigone plays, feminist Antigone theory, and reports of the dead and missing, victims of the narcoviolencia in Mexico.
Unifying and fragmenting these re-appropriations is the voice of the eponymous Antígona who searches desperately for the body of her Polynices, named Tadeo. The work culminates in a polyphony of questions and answers taken from an (uncredited) Spanish translation of Harold Pinter’s poem, “Death,” and the testimonies of the victims and family members of the disappeared.
The book’s last line is a translation of the last line of Sophocles’s Antigone: “will you help me lift the corpse?” Both an epic poem and an annotated bibliography of Latin American Antígonas, Antígona González is a work of documentary excess and heartbreaking silence.
John Pluecker’s translation on the whole affectingly conveys the stakes of the content and cleverly engages with the documentary nature of the poem. Although his constant decisions to disambiguate and “people” his translation to some extent flatten the variety of Uribe’s grammatical subjects—allowing for different degrees of intimacy and distance—they do lend a poignant urgency to the text. His choices to perform similar archival work—creating a pastiche of original English sources and translations of Sophocles where appropriate—are engaging and have compositional integrity, if less inherent interest compared to the Spanish-language Antigone material. Pluecker’s collaboration with the author and sensitivity to the material are clear, as are his considerable lyrical gifts and intuition as a translator from Spanish.
If I think about appropriation as a problem for this translation of Antígona González, my quarrel is with Les Figues Press, and its decision to copyright both Pluecker’s translation and Uribe’s Spanish text. The 2012 Spanish original was released under a creative commons license and made available for free via PDF as well as for purchase in hard copy. This gesture honored both the collective energy and trauma surrounding this documentary work as well as a thoughtful understanding of conceptual poetics. Les Figues Press’s choice to profit off this work’s translation and the original by restricting its circulation in others’ work is, well, problematic. The answer to the question “What does the appropriator appropriate?” should be diaphanous and generative, not crassly simple: in this case, I fear it is intellectual property.
Laura Ferris is a poet and translator based in the East Bay. She is an incoming doctoral student in UC Berkeley’s Comparative Literature program and has MFAs from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Literary Translation Program. She translates contemporary Latin American poets and writers. Recent poems appear in The Atlas Review, Beecher’s Magazine, and Bombay Gin.
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It’s four in the afternoon and I step out to walk through the streets of downtown São Paulo, looking for what is left of a city I have not actually experienced but have imagined from Roberto Piva’s books. With a sense of nostalgia, I identify mythic street corners, revamped bars, buildings, parks, and statues, but time keeps grinding on and it weighs heavily on the landscape. That boy walking through Praça República, listening to that song “Deu Onda” for the umpteenth time, looks nothing like the kids who wandered around here sixty years ago, always carrying with them a book by Lorca, Artaud, Ginsberg, or Jorge de Lima. In a final, delirious attempt, I pause on a detail of the landscape: I look up, to the top of Edifício Copan, but Polén and Luizinho, spewing all the semen in the universe, aren’t there, either. The little that remains of that nostalgic delirium borne of reading a book may perhaps be found in the place where I’m headed, the second floor of number 108 on Avenida São João: the Roberto Piva Library. There they assemble the books, manuscripts, and other traces of an important poetic oeuvre that is more widely known because of its eccentric author’s cult status than because of a systematic study of his texts.
If we try to insert him in the history of Brazilian poetry beginning in the 1960s, Piva resists, a dissonant voice. But perhaps the silencing of his work ought to be reevaluated. When we read much of the bibliography about the author, we are left with the impression that the reception following the launch of Paranoia turned out to be a fairly isolated case: first, in the 1960s, there was a moralizing silence from critics in which they agreed to read him in direct association with Surrealism. Later, in the 1970s, there was the strange inclusion of his writing in the anthology organized by Heloísa Buarque de Hollanda with twenty-five other poets. In the following decades, there was the “co-optation” of his poetry by homoerotic literature. Finally, he would come to occupy his current position with the launch of his “Collected Works” by Editora Globo, which won over a far wider public and continues to be rediscovered.