Hispanic Canadian Literature in Translation: No Longer from the Outside Looking In by Luciana Erregue

What a difference a pandemic makes. Seven years ago, Mark Medley published in The National Post an article on literary translation arguing that “Translating great books to reach new audiences is a great idea in theory, but difficult in practice.” In the seven years since, Can Lit is waking up to the reality of literary diversity, and a diverse literary translation practice “Made in Canada.” The Festival of Literary Diversity, is a most successful initiative which thrived on the virtual format during the pandemic, spearheaded by Brampton’s own Jael Richardson. At FOLD, I had the chance to listen to, and moderate literary translation panels where finally the cat was out of the bag. Who is doing literary translation in Canada, and who is reading books in translation? Those questions actively called for the Canada Council and the community at large to think beyond the fact that only native speakers could translate into their maternal language, allowing me to imagine for example, an Argentinian born translator translating works into English.

A Translation Rights Fair was established by the Canada Council for the Arts in 2011. The idea is for publishing companies from Quebec and English Canada to gather under the same roof and work out contracts to translate works in the respective languages. The problem is, these two solitudes exclude the many others left out of the equation, case in point, Hispanic Canadian literature and Hispanic Canadian publishing houses.

Here is a bit of background information on the realities of publishing Hispanic Canadian literature in translation in Canada. In 2020 I set up my own indie press, Laberinto Press, to precisely erase the stigma that there is no market for translated books written by hyphened Canadians living in Canada. Our anthology Beyond the Gallery, upcoming October 2021, will publish Hispanic Canadian authors both in their original language (Spanish) and in English. Laberinto would not have been created had it not been for the effort of other independent publishing houses headed by Hispanic Canadians who came before and deserve larger visibility, the attention, and support of the rest of the Canadian literary establishment like Ottawa-based presses Lugar Común, and Editorial Artística.

Presses like ours must apply under the ‘diversity’ or ‘exploration’ funding initiatives. Multiculturalism is increasingly becoming within the publishing industry a ghetto from where to perennially stand from the outside, looking in. With these debates in mind, when James suggested I begin reviewing BIPOC books for The Miramichi Reader, in particular books by Hispanic Canadians in translation I jumped right in.

“For most Latin American writers, translation remains a monumental stumbling block — a prospect that not only enlarges a work’s renown, but sometimes even dictates the content of the work itself.”

American writer Julia Kornberg

There are numerous writers and translators from underrepresented communities making inroads in Can Lit. Case in point, multilingual literary magazine The Polyglot, headed by Romanian Canadian poet Adriana Onita, whose issue “Unfaithful” contemplated literary translation as an act of pleasure; in the words of Teju Cole, an activity best done with “head and heart.” Translating Hispanic works to North American audiences is still riddled with challenges and stigmas, American writer Julia Kornberg reflects on the intricacies of producing Latin American literature in translation and its legitimacy, “For most Latin American writers, translation remains a monumental stumbling block — a prospect that not only enlarges a work’s renown, but sometimes even dictates the content of the work itself.” This stumbling block is alive and well within our own Canadian literary ecosystem.

What are the traditional preconceptions from the North American perspective as it pertains to Hispanic Literature? Do those limit the dissemination, and reading of Hispanic-Canadian works? Of North American readers of Latin American literature in translation, Julia Kornberg argues that “The market for foreign works is so slim that what gets translated is usually tailored to a particular kind of American reader — one who reaches for Latin American literature to encounter difference.” The reality is that Hispanic literature in translation has been encapsulated within the ‘magical realism’ corset well into the Twenty First century. In its most commercial incarnation Isabel Allende repeats herself over and over in an easy-to-read formula of liberation by magic, and it sells like hot cakes all over North America. We are trapped by these tropes of perpetually ‘exotic’ stories. Illan Stavans reflected in his LARB article of 2016 that in the West “El Boom” is viewed as: “A movement characterized by the aesthetics of what came to be known — and often contested — as Magical Realism (lo real maravilloso), the region’s literary tradition, hitherto obscure and even provincial, suddenly [gone] global by means of quick, accomplished translations of steamy, exotic, politically engaged novels.” Its writers, though, rather than writing from their Latin American outposts, were largely based in Europe. And then came Bolaño, exorcising the ghosts of the Boom in the international book market.

Does hyphenated literature in Canada have to follow the trite formula that allows for the easy digestion of ethnic or cultural ‘difference,’ an even more dumbed down version of Magical realism, or must it be imbued by the trusty crutch of ‘trauma porn’? Indigenous Canadian literature is leading the way with interrogating white audiences with books like Joshua Whitehead’s Johnny Appleseed, Thomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen, and Anna Marie Sewell’s Humane, which rest on humour, and mythmaking.

Latin American literature in North America, is not the only literature to be thought of as tokenistic, though, as Sanjena Sathian argues in her piece on East Indian diaspora literature “Good Immigrant Novels.” North American audiences reading minority authors for the cultural instruction they could count on, rely on “a publishing ecosystem that elevates a single aesthetic above others and sometimes markets minority authors as cultural tour guides.” Writing, and publishing, as Hispanic Canadians is also about aspiring to the privilege to be singular, to be seen beyond the tropes and the expectations, in the same way white Canadians have been producing literature for decades. Because it is more radical to create stories beyond the markers of blanket cultural differences.

According to the Publishers Weekly translation database, only 79 books written in Spanish were translated into English in the year 2020 — a decline from the 100 Spanish-to-English translations in 2019. Also in 2020, almost twice as many books were translated from French into English. Canada is very much part of the Americas (NAFTA or Latin American migrant workers, anyone?), and yet. The Bleu Metropolis festival has a Spanish and Portuguese language component, thanks to the visionary labour of people like Ingrid Bejerman, but we have yet to see other Canadian literary festivals that will follow suit. I invite festival organizers to follow suit.

As Octavio Paz once put it, thanks to the Boom “Latin Americans were invited to the banquet of Western civilization.” Hispanic Canadian writers, and editors, this time want to invite the Canadian public to our own banquet. In subsequent editions of The Miramichi Reader I will be reviewing some books by Hispanic Canadian writers in translation. Feasting on them, as Derek Walcott wrote, will be an excellent way to “Feast on your life.”

Works Cited:

Image: América Invertida, dibujo del pintor uruguayo Joaquín Torres García, 1943 (Museo Juan Manuel Blanes, Montevideo). Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Luciana Erregue-Sacchi is a writer, publisher (Laberinto Press), translator, editor, and art historian from Amiskwaciy Waskahikan.
Luciana is an activist for diversity in Canadian publishing. Her work has appeared in Canadian and international anthologies. Luciana is also a Banff Centre Alumni and muses on life, writing, and art in her blog Spectator Curator.