The list of 20th century Latin American novelists and short story writers familiar to most North Americans is a short one. Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and maybe Jorge Luis Borges. National heroes from the middle of the 20th century like Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa, Argentina's Julio Cortázar and Uruguay's Mario Benedetti might be read in literature classes but are mainly unknown outside the Spanish-speaking world. While several more contemporary authors, like Roberto Bolaño, have recently gained recognition in North America, recent literature, with the exception of Isabel Allende’s novels, is largely ignored. One of the reasons for this, according to Professor Gustavo Pellón of the University of Virginia, is the North American fixation on the “otherness” of the Magical Realism of the 1960s “Boom” period that has, in large part, prevented us from embracing the new literary trends and styles emerging from Latin American writers.
The list of poets is even shorter, perhaps limited to only two: Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz, both Nobel Prize winners, but both at the peak of their careers in the 1960s and 70s. As a marginalized literary form to begin with, poetry in North America, even Whitman and Dickenson, is often ensconced in obscure corners of bookstores. Latin American poetry is almost nonexistent in American bookstores with the exception maybe of Neruda's Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada [Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair]and occasionally Residencia en la tierra [Residence on Earth]. There are few works, if not none, by contemporary poets. According to Professor Pellón, not only is there still an emphasis on “Boom” literature, but the precarious existence of Latin American literature in North America, specifically poetry, is due in large part to a lack of willing translators and publishing houses.
After being stunned, while studying in Chile, by the quantity of excellent writing I had never heard of, I applied for the Latin American Studies Summer Research Grant to find contemporary poetry in Latin America and bring it back to Bowdoin to translate and study. I chose to travel to Buenos Aires because it is an enormous city (more populous than both New York City and Los Angeles) and one of the primary centers of Latin American literary action. Before leaving I made initial contacts with several authors and poets living in Buenos Aires. Most willing to meet with me and most intrigued about the opportunity to have his work translated was the poet, essayist and critic Carlos Barbarito.
A few days after I arrived in the city I met Mr. Barbarito at a restaurant downtown. After introducing ourselves we started talking about ideas for my project and my thoughts on his poetry. It was truly a singular experience, drinking coffee with a poet while discussing his work, listening to him explain the ideas and images in his poems and also describe his unique style of working: waking with the sun to write each day. During the month I spent in Argentina we met several times, each time examining the translations I had begun working on and then wandering around the city while he explained the histories of the neighborhoods. I returned from Buenos Aires with Momentáneo reflejo en el agua quieta [Momentary Reflection in the Still Water], a forthcoming collection of poetry, and with the author’s permission to translate.
Along with my meetings with Mr. Barbarito, I communicated with several other authors and interviewed a number of bookstore owners about emerging Argentine writers and the processes of publication and translation in Argentina and Latin America.
My honors project this year consists of translating Mr. Barbarito’s poetry, along with additional works by the Colombian poet Óscar Torres Duque, currently a visiting Professor at Bates College. I will also be writing an essay in which I explore both the unique translational challenges presented by the poets’ individual styles and the place of these two poets within (or outside) the realm of contemporary Latin American literary production.