by John Pluecker
Joseph Mulligan's work while reading his recent translation of Against Professional Secrets/Contra el secreto profesional by César Vallejo. A review of the book is forthcoming in Literal´s fall issue. As I was reading the book, I became curious about the translator behind this work and decided to send off a few questions. I wondered how he came to this project, how he thought about his work in translation and its place within his larger writing practice. Also, since this is Mulligan's first book as a translator, I thought it would be interesting to see how he thinks about his work at this stage. So often the literary world erases the translator in a desire to get “closer” to the original, for example in reviews that do not name the translator of a particular book. This interview is a small part of a larger movement to make translators a bit more visible and to recognize their role as collaborators, writers and artists.
JP: When did your relationship with César Vallejo begin?
JM: It began in a small plaza in the town of Huaráz, Peru, at a flea market, when a vendor sold me a small, flimsy, knock-off anthology of Vallejo’s poetry. I was nineteen. At the time, the poems where a mystery to me, but I was captivated by them. A few years later, back in Albany, Pierre Joris suggested I take a crack at a few poems from Trilce and then write an essay about some of the problems that I was sure to encounter. Like many young, over-zealous writers, I got in way over my head, and over the course of the summer of 2002, translated a complete (albeit very rough) first draft of all 77 poems. The next year I continued to work with Pierre and began working with Ernesto Livon Grosman, editing my versions over and over again, constantly referencing Eshleman's Wesleyan version, to deliver, in May of 2003, my “finished” translation. Of course, it was not finished, and I ended up spending another seven years researching, editing, rewriting, and annotating it.
JP: How did you begin in your work as a translator of poetry? What lead you to begin this work?
JM: About 10 years ago, at SUNY Albany, I had the good fortune of taking classes with three translators: Pierre and Ernesto, as I said, and also the Russian translator, Rodney Patterson. As a young poet, raised in a small western New York town, I felt the need to explore the “outside” and venture beyond the habitual poetics that were already known to me in search for other meaningful writings. Studying poetry in translation was essential in this regard. I was not bilingual at the time and recall scouring bookstores and the university library to find multiple translations of a single poem, so that I could compare and try to figure out why the translations were different. As I became acquainted with the ethnopoetics of Jerome Rothenberg (in Shaking the Pumpkin, Technicians of the Sacred and Symposium of the Whole), I was drawn to the notion of a “working,” a transformative text that does not necessarily claim to be a translation, even though it may very well be one. More than anything, ethnopoetics showed me how to write toward a text, how add on to one, or to put it another way, it revealed the relational meaning of language in transformative writing, and I would say that both poetry and translation very deliberately address such relations. I recall, early on, writing a series of “imitations”––I think I put Sartre, Whitman and Becket at a dinner table––more for my own amusement than anything else; but in writing them, I realized that by identifying the tonality of language one can learn to adopt different tones, to expand on those voices and modulate them. Throughout my years at Albany, I focused more and more on Spanish language studies, traveling to Peru and studying for a semester in Concepción, Chile. When I came back to the US, literate in Spanish, I started translating short poems and talking about them with Spanish-speaking friends. I found that writing poems in translation was fascinating, and I also soon realized that doing so opened up a dialogue between those who could read the Spanish version and those who could not. I was hooked.
JP: How did you come to this specific project translating Against Professional Secrets?
JM: When I left SUNY Albany in 2003, Pierre and Ernesto were encouraging me to continue my research on Vallejo and my translation of Trilce. That's when I met Renzo Roncagliolo, who had been teaching Philosophy in Lima and had just moved to Albany for a PhD program. He was thrilled with my plan and immediately put me in touch with his friends and family in Lima. For the first month or so I lived with his family. While I was in Lima, I got a hold of the 13 volumes of Vallejo’s Obras completas that the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú was just coming out with in those years, and I soon realized that, while this was a writer who was and would always be primarily known as a poet, poetry only accounted for about one sixth of his total corpus. This fascinated me and while I continued my research on Trilce, I also started to read/translate a vivisection of his writings, selecting articles, chronicles, reports, plays, narratives, letters, and of course, texts from his books of thoughts. That’s when I first discovered Contra el secreto profesional and I was moved by the idea of publishing a collection that seemed to defy the laws of genre. My intention was always to publish my version of Trilce first, but after compiling 400 pages of notes (comprised of translations of commentaries from Vallejo specialists as well as my own descriptions of translation problems), it became apparent that the chances of convincing a press to publish a 600 page version of a 90 page book by a major poet, translated and edited by an unknown writer, were probably slim to none. So aside from the personal enrichment I got from that work, what good would it be if it wasn’t accessible to readers? Added to this, there was something else that attracted me to Contra el secreto profesional. Reading it over and over again, I started to make connections between it and articles Vallejo had published in magazines in 1930s. I soon realized that some of the magazine articles were longer, more expository versions of the shorter, prose poems I was working with. What attracted me so much to this collection was that it tries to propose an alternative to the avant-garde literature that was being written in Europe and imitated in Latin America during those years. Growing up and studying in the US, the alternatives to avant-garde literature, say William Carlos Williams, did not show me a viable path. I think that Against Professional Secrets is one of the strongest proposals I have come across, and it gives the trajectory of Vallejo’s poetry a new light, recalibrate the scope it's seen through, by Anglophones anyway, since in the US very few readers even know that Vallejo worked beyond the genre of poetry.
JP: The book jacket states you live in New York and Lima. Do you go back and forth? Spend time in both cities? What does your relationship with Peru have to do with your relationship with Vallejo?
JM: I’ve been going to Peru for over ten years. First, as an attempt to shed the chimera of US cultural isolation, and then for literary purposes. My relationship to Peru gained a new depth when I met my wife, Beatriz Sosa Matta, who had grown up in Chincha and had been living in Lima for 15 years. So, of course, my tie to Peru is also through our family, our friends, and a shared belief that expatriation is a thing of the past. Beatriz and I try to go back and forth between Lima and New York as often as we can.
JP: How do you think about the distinction between “your own work” and your translations?
JM: There are several ways to make this distinction. The easiest for me is to translate something I dislike, or, at least, don’t admire. It creates the necessary distance to remind me that I am at the service of another writer. However, I also believe that all languages are foreign to begin with, which means that an act of language is already an act of translation. I have spent more time translating works by César Vallejo than I have spent translating the works of any other writer, and this, among other reasons, because I admire many elements of his writing. But, as Oliverio Girondo somewhere says, “there comes a time to write something worse,” or, in our case, to be cautious of the danger implicit in translating heroes, since it can lead the translator to champion a text, where we run the risk of replacing rather than opening up the source text and no longer encouraging the reader to go back to and question the translator's criteria, evaluate his or her performance based on that criteria. For example, this is one of the reasons why I have translated Alejandra Pizarnik. Not because her poetry shows me a path I aspire to take in my own poetry, but because it is one that I specifically want to avoid, and in order to stay off that path, I had better know what it feels like to be on it in the first place.
JP: Does this distinction make sense to you in your own poetic practice? It seems that each poet-translator has their own idea of the relationship between these two pursuits and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.
JM: The distinction between my poems and my translations doesn’t make that much sense to me, but this is because it is hard for me not to read a translated poem without the eyes of a translator. For example, I cannot look at Eshleman’s versions of Vallejo’s poetry without thinking of Eshleman, but this is because I am constantly going back to the Spanish, often line by line, trying to figure out why he made the decisions he made and what other options are available. This is one of the great achievements of Eshleman’s work, I think. It makes the reader see the translation of a poem as a new poem. And yet, he is surprisingly loyal to Vallejo's Spanish. This contradiction may be inherent in translation itself.
JP: What projects are you working on now?
JM: The most pressing project I am working on right now is a sweeping anthology of Vallejo's papers that I am editing and co-translating: Selected Writings of César Vallejo. The project is massive, as it will include ample selections of the poetry, narratives, plays, articles, chronicles, meditations, reports, notebooks and letters in a 600 page English only edition. While this project is still in the preliminary stages, I have been very motivated by the encouragement it has received from Clayton Eshleman, Suzanne Jill Levine, Eliot Weinberger, Pierre Joris, Jason Weiss and Michelle Clayton, all of whom have expressed their interest in contributing translations to the anthology. This project, which was not my idea––indeed it was suggested by Eshleman––will give an anglophone readership the opportunity to look at the interconnectedness of texts across the genres, rather than limiting a reading to the poetry. It's my sense that the trajectory of Vallejo’s poetry will make more sense once we can read his poems in the context of the whole breadth of his writing. Among other things, these selected writings seem to show that Vallejo’s socialism, beyond a polemical stance, was for him a practical philosophy that led him into an anti-specialist exploration of writing beyond genre.