Ever Newer Versions: An Interview with Farid Matuk

Farid Matuk author photo

In 2022, Noemi Press published a new English translation of Akrílica, the groundbreaking, bilingual 1989 book by Chicano writer and United States Poet Laureate Emeritus Juan Felipe Herrera. Farid Matuk, Carmen Giménez, and Anthony Cody served as the volume’s editors. They translated many of the poems themselves, forming a collective to join them. The editors write, “Akrílica was translated both individually and collectively with the vision of honoring the original text, but also its jubilant energy towards the new, the contemporary.” After hearing Matuk read from the book with Herrera and describe the project at the University of Arizona Poetry Center (recording available here), I was eager to talk with him further. What follows is an edited version of our conversation at a Tucson coffee shop, in which we talk about retranslation, translation ethics and dreams in the 21st century, collectives, queer translation, ideas of originality/authorship/ownership, and the pleasures and pitfalls of English.

Vanada: Could you start by telling the story of this new iteration of Akrílica from your perspective and experience?

Matuk: Carmen Giménez, the co-founder of Noemi Press, wanted to honor the namesake of the press’s Akrilica series, which showcases Latinx poets whose verse challenges the linguistic conventions of American poetry. The series is named for Juan Felipe’s Akrílica. In this new edition, we wanted to honor that book’s range, how restless it is. We also felt that this book was missing from the ways that different lineages of innovative poetics get codified, so we wanted to imagine what it would be like if it were in circulation now, in a new translation. Poetry in the 2020s feels more flattened, in the sense that there’s a flattening between poetic schools and coteries, or there’s an easier transit of ideas and influence among them, so maybe now is a good time for US poets to revisit Akrílica.

Then Carmen brought in Anthony Cody, who has a more personal connection to Juan Felipe, being a long-time collaborator with him. At the time we started translating Akrílica, Anthony was on the editorial team at Noemi. During our process, Carmen transitioned to serve as publisher at Graywolf, and Anthony was stepping in to co-publish Noemi alongside Sarah Gzemski and Suzi Garcia. So the Akrílica project honored both the source of the Akrilica series and it also brought into collaboration Noemi’s founding publisher and one of its current publishers. So it was this great bridge project between eras at a small press. And then, as an artistic contributor, Anthony brought his typographic experiments to the project, which really blew open the range that we could allow ourselves as translators. We had an amazing crew translating that consisted of Carmen, Anthony, Rosa Alcalá, Suzi F. García, hanta samsa, J. Michael Martinez, and myself.

Vanada: When I heard you read from the book with Juan Felipe at the Poetry Center, you talked about how he handed off his property. He was open to this re-creation through translation in, as you said, a culture that's into personal ownership as the highest goal. Could you say more about what it means to hand off ownership or authorship to a group of translators?

Matuk: So what Juan Felipe offered us was an invitation to an approach that kind of elevates the translator as co-creator. I guess all translators have to take responsibility for their interpretation of the text, and then we allow that interpretation, for better or for worse, to shape our final translation. And I think it’s fair to say all translators have a healthy respect for and desire to achieve a kind of fidelity. But a generative translator might think of their interpretive ability and their particular version of fidelity as an invitation toward proliferation, seeing their version as one among many that could and hopefully will be produced, rather than toward a fidelity that might seem so authoritative, so canonical, that it would dissuade too many other versions from coming into being.

And maybe if queerness comes into translation, for me, it's in wanting everything. I want translation to serve as resistance to US assimilationist habits, and I want it to serve as access to as much context and to take us as close to the original or to the original difference as we can get. And I want translations that are creative and violent and generative and unafraid to recontextualize and reimagine.

What Juan Felipe did by trusting us to make these kinds of changes was to stop making the manifest version of the source text the compass point for our work and to instead imagine that we could bring forth some of the latent versions already carried within the 1989 Akrílica. To be clear, for the most part, it’s a set of fairly conventional translations, with the most radical flourishes being the typographic experiments that Anthony Cody does, and the algorithmic experiments that J. Michael Martinez does in his “Infected Text” [a process of “distributing DNA codons to represent each word in each poem”]. And in this new version, we’re still making the original Spanish available, so folks can judge for themselves the choices that we made, but we hope they might also get curious about the kinships of diction we explored and about the critiques and perspectives those choices signal.

The freedom we allowed ourselves is also founded on the circumstances of this project in the sense that we were mindful of exactly who Juan Felipe is and when and where we’re translating. It’s not a hundred years from now. He’s a poet-artist who occupies a healthy amount of space in contemporary US poetry. So, while we definitely hope our edition will travel the world, we’re first translating a US bilingual poet for a US audience. We felt less beholden or less responsible to provide a terribly literal or minimally mediated translation as a point of scholarly reference. That said, we also hope to post a PDF scan of the 1989 bilingual edition on a special page of the Noemi Press website so readers can access all existing versions.

Vanada: I’m curious about the collective that formed to re-translate Akrílica. Did you feel you shared the project in the same way?

Matuk: The collective of translators didn’t meet together very much at all. It was Anthony, Carmen, and myself who were able to meet consistently. But what we did is trust that the translators assigned to each section would bring their amazing talent with them. We tried to offer the same trust that Juan Felipe offered us as editors to each of the translators on the team. We had no idea J. Michael was going to do the algorithmic work. We were thrilled when we saw it. And then the editors decided to translate those poems ourselves, so that the reader would have a more conventional version in English alongside J. Michael’s algorithmic experiments. In fact, maybe that section gets closest to my queer translation dream of having a lot of everything.

Vanada: What you’re saying about this new version puts me in mind of poems in Akrílica like “Exile Boulevard,” where it feels like the language has very explicitly gotten an update. Words like “hip” for “moderno,” or “datastream,” “flashmob,” “influencer,” or “pumpkinspice” show the translator’s ability to live the current moment into these poems. Or in the poems “Grafik” and “Forever, Maga” there is “LOL-ing” for “risas y risas,” or “cheugy.” But translators often talk about translations having a short lifespan. I wanted to ask about that. And, what are the political and social implications of inserting one’s current moment and Latinidad into these iterations?

Matuk: We did consciously lean toward disposable diction. I can’t speak for everybody who translated on this project, but for me, it’s about denying any posture toward an authoritative translation that would be THE reference translation for generations to come. I remember reading William Gass’ Reading Rilke in graduate school, and I was deeply affected by the chapter that lists the first line of the first Duino elegy as translated into English across almost 70 years. Gass makes the point that each translator is translating to their contemporary aesthetic, trends, and sensibilities, so none of them are really authoritative. Our attitude was: why would we pretend to make the authoritative translation that will outlive our moment? Why would we want to project our authority into the next generation? Almost like how a landed gentry would project the value of their estate through generations of inheritors. So it is a conscious celebration of the movement, of instability, and of disposability.

I think this is part of my problem with contemporary uses and abuses of Latinidad, is that if we’re not willing to understand identity positions as geographically and historically specific and dynamic, then we’re playing into a dream of stability and ownership that only serves the position at the highest point of the white supremacist power structure. A similar logic applies in thinking of sexual identities: I love this meme that says: “Wait, you guys actually believe LGBT+ people were ‘born this way,’ and not that orientation and gender are complex socially constructed phenomena with some biological basis that are subject to variation and change over an individual’s life? I thought it was temporary political rhetoric to win over homophobes and transphobes.” I want to lean on that word, “temporary.” We can create rhetorics and choose dictions that resist our structures in a moment, but once we confuse those rhetorics or identities with immutable truth, we shut down the possibility of change. In the case of queerness, it’s not that “being born this way” is incorrect or can’t be part of the truth, but it’s a rhetoric that seems to ask for tolerance and not celebration. “Born this way” doesn’t seem to leave room for agency that chooses expansive ways of being and loving simply because some of us think they’re terrific. So I love the disposable diction in our versions, as a very queer or camp strategy to say, well, you think you translators are out there making authoritative versions that will outlast your lifespan? Look at us, we don’t even want to play that game.

But most importantly, as you said in the question, what really matters to me is not just that it’s disposable for its own sake and then thrown into some dustbin. We’re not interested in change for its own sake. We’re interested in the new perspectives and critiques our choices can make legible, and even more than that, we’re interested in activating the agency that comes with actually living in language, agency to re-articulate the front of resistance to normative power, agency to reinvent oneself and one’s community identifications, agency to give up legibility for the chance at some freedom. We hope that the next generation will be interested enough to play with the text again.

Vanada: When you read this book, it’s so clear that the space it was originally written into was very dynamic and included a lot of exchange. Juan Felipe spent time with theater artists and other writers and visual artists, and this new edition even includes black and white photographs from that time. Part of me wonders if collectives happen in the same way today? Or do we think about collectives very differently?

Matuk: That’s such a good question. It did come together very differently. The most prosaic answer is that it came together during COVID, so we worked long distance during the first two years of the project. And the other answer to that question gets us to a more exciting conversation, which is that we gathered around the literary project of creating a book. We didn’t gather in the project of reimagining life. We weren’t in geographic proximity, so we weren't reimagining social relations.

Where we live in Tucson, there’s Splinter Collective, which hosts literary readings; they host workshops of all kinds, from sewing to weightlifting. It's a queer, trans, Black-led space, and they engage in both literary culture production, celebration, programming, and mutual aid. Currently, they're engaged in helping unhoused people who took encampment around the property where Splinter Collective hosts events. Just one example off the top of my head of a collective that is reimagining social relations even as they’re doing cultural work.

I’m not of the right generation to speak to it, but there probably is something generationally and historically specific to the 70s and early 80s in the Bay Area–to my understanding, it’s a transition moment. In the 60s and early 70s, there was a lot of direct engagement like action/activism against the Vietnam War, Chicano activism in California, the struggle for agricultural workers’ rights, student walkouts, and strikes on farms. And those direct-action projects often had cultural/artistic components, like the campesino theater. When Juan Felipe is writing these poems in the late 70s and early 80s, and, as I understand it, there’s a transition to a more institutional front, which is the university. Groups are starting to agitate, engage in long battles to create Ethnic Studies programs against a lot of academic institutional resistance. So that’s my non-historian grasp of that moment. And of course, there were intense militarized struggles across Central America that Juan Felipe is deeply interested in, as a lot of US anti-war, anti-imperial activists are in that moment. But that kind of direct engagement, I don’t think, is happening within the US as much in the late 70s/early 80s, which is what makes Juan Felipe’s poem in Akrílica dedicated to activist Sal Mercado so interesting to me. It’s in about 1977 that Mercado confronts David Duke, who was organizing militia patrols of the US/Mexico border. Mercado’s bravery must have felt like a meaningful callback or resurgence of the earlier Chicano organizing. So I think that’s part of the context for the collective energy Juan Felipe is drawing into Akrílica.

I think another important context–if you talk to Juan Felipe I think he’d say this–is that there was also the beautiful collective of two friends, he and Francisco Alarcón staying up late into the night, trading books, making weird stuff on the page for the sheer exuberance of testing one's own reach. And that energy is really present in the book to me too.

Vanada: Can you say a bit more about collectives that gather for a literary project versus for a living project?

Matuk: It’s a distinction I tried–maybe unsuccessfully–to make in the introduction to Akrílica, which is that we’re completely aware that we made a book that’s a physical object, with a limited print run, that takes advantage of book culture and typographic design conventions, even as it pushes against them (we were blessed to work with multi-talented Doug Kearney as the book’s designer). For example, the margin gloss was a typographic convention that we used with J. Michael's translations. So we're aware of and committed to the project of making a book object and making a book that’s as interesting as we can, we’ve got the photographs and art reproduced in grayscale, which makes them accessible, fully aware that we are making a book we hope new viewers will engage with, teachers will assign, librarians will archive, and young poets will read late into the night in the privacy of their rooms, enjoying all those good private literary pleasures that books are adept at offering.

But the dream, the poetic of the translations, is that all of this print work is a trace of the dynamic energy that can’t be settled in print or on a shelf or in an archive. And that dynamic energy is relevant when we think about identity and literary legacy and culture in translation, because the value–in this case–is not, to me, in a more accurate translation that would purport to correct a previous version, no, the value is in another translation. When I speak of generative translation, that's what I mean, it isn’t just a whole new idea, it’s an idea that should lead to yet another idea, a reading that should lead to yet another reading. Which is a way to say I hope that people gather and then change the book again, that another collective forms and changes the book again and, along the way, maybe remakes some of their own social relations.

I had this really lucky accident teaching last semester: I assigned Édouard Glissant’s “For Opacity” translated into English, and then this essay called “Play and Be Gay” [New Life Quarterly Issue 6], a testimony of Juliana Delgado Lopera, who discovers a really cool queer POC summer camp for adults. And in the article they write about all of the fluidity of gender expression, cultural expression, and intimacy that they witnessed and experienced at the camp. And my students asked, “Is Glissant saying there’s something wrong with this experience of the summer camp, where someone finally feels free to be themselves?”

We sat with that question and read the two texts against one another for a while, and we hit on the possibility that Glissant isn’t saying it's wrong to uncover layers of oppression or projection, or to finally find oneself beneath those layers, but what might be problematic is when you think that self is stable. Once it’s stable, it can be commodified and made legible to others. Hence, opacity. He says opacity is better than legibility. Maybe opacity is better than legibility not because it protects a stable thing, or an original version, but because it leaves a space where an original version can change, and change again. And that was the point of overlap with the experience at the queer camp. Delgado Lopera celebrating the great time they had doesn’t seem to be saying “I found my true self” but rather “I found a true self that doesn't stop changing.” So I'm interested in engaging in translation that undermines the idea of a true self or a stable self, and imagines what true selves or true texts could look like given over to ever newer versions.

Vanada: That makes me think of something Karen Emmerich says in her book Literary Translation and the Making of Originals: translators often “decide…what the ‘original’ or the ‘source text’ is, or at least what their original or source text is.” She says that translations shape originals, “a further textual extension of an already unstable literary work.” Does that resonate?

Matuk: I think that’s definitely true, certainly in the act of curation if nothing else, curation is often forced by market pressures that prevent us from translating whole books and whole bodies of work. I like “already unstable;” I think that’s a nice brief way of getting to this idea that I tried to get to via Glissant, that any social relation or cultural production is already part of a certain instability as it delivers selves and texts over to new interpretations and new relations. We considered experimenting with the Spanish text of Akrílica as well but we set that aside in order to focus on the task and space afforded us as translators, as well as to keep the printing costs manageable, as we would have wanted to include both the 1989 Spanish alongside whatever new Spanish we could have created among us. And, also, that kind of generative experimentation would have required Juan Felipe to collaborate with us more closely. He’s a poet in his 70s who’s deeply committed to a lot of service work and to doing a lot of public events and who is protecting time for his current practice as a writer and multimedia artist. But I think that in a heaven of multidirectional instability, or bidirectional instability, the Spanish would have been up for deeper engagement…I wouldn’t say a new version, but some kind of play with the Spanish would have been ideal.

Vanada: I guess I think that by your work on these iterative translations, you have changed or engaged with the original.

Matuk: Yeah, it’s a way to read back some of the instability that’s there to begin with. But I do think in an ideal world, there would have been time and money to support that deeper collaboration. Then we could have a reprinting of the 1989 version, and the 2022 edition with new Spanish and new English, and we could have had four books in one.

Vanada: That would be really cool, I agree. What were your conversations like with Sesshu Foster and the first team of translators of Akrílica?

Matuk: Sesshu was excited, and in fact, I think we invited him to translate again, but he didn’t have time. As I said, we hope to post a scan of the 1989 version on an Akrílica-specific page of the Noemi website, so that there’s as much and as many reference points and versions available to scholars and readers as possible. That is, leaning on an ethic or strategy of “thick” translation: translating as much context as possible, for example, any reviews, newspaper articles, interviews, any kind of engagement that the poet you're translating has had in their own literary conversation, to try to bring that over along with the particular piece of literature you're translating. So in this ideal, the translator is bringing over some version of whole conversations and debates as a kind of backdrop for a single literary text. (As a sidebar, that's a really difficult ethic to hold onto in the marketplace of literary translation in the US, because publishers are afraid to lose money on translation projects, and so to ask publishers to invest not just in a selected poems, but also a selected prose from a poet, is a big ask.)

In fact, we stumbled on a kind of paratext that exists online in the University of Texas El Paso archives website. It’s a Spanish-language interview with Sal Mercado, the border activist of the late 70s/early 80s who I mentioned earlier. I’ve now translated about half of that interview, and so another dream is to include my translation of the transcript on the Akrílica website.

Vanada: I also wanted to talk more about experimentation. Juan Felipe writes about his text “as a new way to shape Spanish,” in the interview you did with him for this new Akrílica. Is experimentation in translation, for you, a new way to shape English? Is it, to use the words of Turkish translator Aron Aji, a way to make English “more capacious” and stretch English? Is that what you see as an experimental mode of translating?

Matuk: Yes, categorically. I don't know that that is consistently at play throughout our version, though. I think it is in Anthony Cody’s and J. Michael’s contributions. There’s also the fact that Juan Felipe mentioned Lorca as an influence on Akrílica. In pursuing that, I came across a Lorca scholar, who I cite in the introduction, who writes about Lorca’s occasional habit of creating imagery that really resists a logical interpretation and instead asks to be taken on good faith–you just have to accept an odd juxtaposition, or whatever the case may be. Even a very literal translation would have captured those kinds of stretch moments that are already in the 1989 version. I guess–I don’t know that you need translation to make English different or unassimilable. I think about people writing in English from the US who make English more capacious, like Leslie Scalapino, who stretched conventional syntax in English. But I don’t know that I’m terribly interested in making English more capacious for its own sake.

To go back to the dream of generative translation, maybe that ethic is maybe that we can critique ownership of self and ownership of text, especially when that ownership is understood as stasis, as unassailable or inviolable, because that static and unassailable property leads to a defense of boundaries that itself is a source of so much of the brutality that we claim to want to resist.

Vanada: Could you share an example of how this ethic might play out?

Matuk: So, for example, there’s a review of the new Akrílica that questions the choice to change the word “plantation” to “estate.” And the reviewer worries that the loss of “plantation” elides historical and economic specificity in El Salvador, that it elides the specific history of coffee cultivation there on Indigenous land and through labor that’s enslaved in different systems. That we [as translators] lose that particularity in order to make the text more palatable to US readers who might be offended by it.

But what the reviewer doesn’t ask is a kind of a basic question we tend to ask in translation, which is: if something is lost in a decision, we need to also ask what’s been gained. So the translator, Rosa Alcalá, opted for “estate” rather than “plantation.” And what’s gained by the word “estate” is–at least in my reading of her choice–an indictment of property as such as a site and logic of violence. The poet and theorist Fred Moten has talked about this, that in the very etymology of “estate,” going back to the Latin, you have a connection to the verb “to stand.” And so to stand somewhere, anywhere in the logic and cosmology of Western thought and of capitalism, is to stand on an owned thing, on property, whether private or public. And in the contemporary white-supremacist US context that can only organize people and entities as adversaries, you stand your ground against those who would reach your borders. And so you see that perspective operationalized in “stand-your-ground” laws that ended up exonerating Trayvon Martin’s murderer, among others.

The translator’s choice to use “estate” also has a wonderful resonance of implicating all of us who are engaged in capitalist economies in the project of wealth creation that we might think to hand down to another generation. And generational wealth is absolutely a product of logics of extraction–from bodies and from land–that shaped the plantation system and its various regional variations. So there’s more kinship between the words than there is estrangement. Or there’s the possibility to read kinship rather than a lack of fidelity. And I think the reviewer failed to read that kinship because the compass point for their understanding of translation was limited to a notion of fidelity to the source text where that source text is relatively stagnant, rather than to the ways we can imagine that source text as already carrying within it invitations to proliferate.

Vanada: English’s imperial history is also evident in these word choices. How do you think about this as a translator?

Matuk: I just found this snippet of a Jorge Luis Borges interview that was going around on the internet. He basically says that English is better than Spanish. He gives two reasons that I remember. One is that because of English’s imperial history, it has assimilated so many other languages into it, and there are Latinate and Germanic options for every word: like “forest” or “wood.” He finds that exciting. Then he talks about how great it is that English uses so many prepositions. It creates a spatial point of view in English–you work through something, over something, etc.

I guess I’m curious about all the ways we hate ourselves as artists and thinkers and people in the 21st-century empire. I’m curious, I'm not sad. Meaning, I don’t think it’s wrong to hate ourselves fundamentally. I think there is a fundamental complicity that we shouldn't try to wash off or rehabilitate ourselves out of. Which is not to say that everybody in the US is equally complicit. There are so many differences in how people experience empire from within the US–all the ways we’re embodied and positioned and, therefore, experience and participate in this matrix differently.

Nonetheless, one way we hate ourselves is to hate English, and to understand it through the label of the oppressor's language and empire's language. We understand it as this force of hegemonic control in geopolitics, in the economy, in cultural exportation or cultural assimilation–all critiques which I think are totally valid. One response to that hatred is to say: we need to make English more capacious, we need to push against it or change it or subsume it under one of the languages it has tried to assimilate into itself, if that were possible. To make English more–whatever it tried to swallow. To make the language it tried to swallow impossible to swallow.

But I guess I’m taken by Borges’ uncomplicated and unapologetic excitement about English, as just a different set of tools. So I was thinking, in a current translation project I’m working on, where is the line between a “faithful” or “faithless” version that I’m making, versus a version that just exercises the tools of the target language? With prepositions, for example: if they're just not as commonly used in Spanish, what does it mean to suddenly activate them in the English version–is that relevant to the poems I’m translating? And if I decide it’s relevant, is it violent? Or is it just making use of what’s possible?

In my own processing of what Borges says, I want to think about my own immigrant experience–and my mother’s–and think about leaving a place of violence or of limited possibility and moving to a new place, for us the United States, with different sets of violences, but with different possibilities. With my own history in mind, Borges’ excitement about English is personal, or it makes me wonder what can I do with this dirty, dirty, hegemonic language that so many of us globally live in, whether we want to or not. And as I say that, I don't think any of that curiosity or disposition nullifies the very real problems with the hegemony of English, problems that are more than worthy of being resisted or thought through.

Vanada: How does this come into play in Akrílica? The reviewer you mentioned feels that the collective missed an opportunity to experiment with Juan Felipe’s original Spanish.

Matuk: In the case of Akrílica, that’s where the proposition of messing with the original Spanish becomes more exciting. In that it’s not just about equal treatment for all players, but that if we’re interested in resisting imperial hegemony, we could equally resist it in all the imperial languages, and Spanish is certainly one of them. But I guess what I’m saying is I think that there’s a tendency to hate ourselves that I affirm, that then produces ethics that can become narrow orthodoxies. And I'm curious about the ultimate value and all the energy some of us spend to decolonize language, when we could be spending some of that energy in living language.

That’s what I’m wrestling with in the translation I’m doing now, of the Peruvian poet Tilsa Otta, whose poems are at times political and at times sexy and at times mystical–but they’re incredibly easygoing, if I could label their disposition. They're so easygoing, so at peace and entitled to be part of the life that wrote them, that they make me wonder why we work so hard sometimes in English in the US. They make me wonder why we flex so hard. Obviously, we’re inheritors of global literary modernism and postmodernism, and those traditions of thought and writing come with all kinds of wonderful ideas and writing techniques, and we can't pretend they don’t exist. But if translation is an activity that brings us into some proximity with difference–I won’t say “contact,” but proximity to difference–then I have to be honest and say that part of the difference I’m engaging with in Tilsa Otta’s poems is ease, and how radical that feels. It brings me back to the earlier distinction between a collective that comes together for literary production versus for one that comes together for living. Can we imagine our coming to the page with the unselfconscious entitlement that says “poetry is part of my life, playing on the page will be as quotidian as any of my other pleasures.”

Farid Matuk is the author of the poetry collections This Isa Nice Neighborhood and The Real Horse. His book-arts collaboration with artist Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez, Redolent, won the Anna Rabinowitz Prize from the Poetry Society of America. With Anthony Cody and Carmen Giménez, he co-edited and contributed translations to the reissue of Juan Felipe Herrera’s Akrílica. Matuk’s translations of contemporary Peruvian poet Tilsa Otta are forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

Kelsi Vanada's translations include The Visible Unseen by Andrea Chapela; Damascus, Atlantis: Selected Poems by Marie Silkeberg (longlisted for the 2022 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation); Into Muteness by Sergio Espinosa; and The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Rare Earth. Kelsi works as the Program Director of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in Tucson, AZ.

More Interviews