Monday, August 4, 2008

Found in Translation: Alexis Romay on Miguel Correa Mujica

The following text accompanies Alexis Romay's translation of Miguel Correa Mujica's novel Al norte del infierno (North of Hell), forthcoming from Green Integer. This piece originally appeared in Passport: The Arkansas Review of Literary Translation, issue 4.

In 2003, I was working as a Spanish-language editor, translator, and copywriter for a New York publishing house when I came across a copy of Al norte del infierno, Miguel Correa’s first novel. The book had had an amazing trajectory: in 1983, the manuscript had won the Jesus Castellanos Literary Award in Florida and was published by SIBI within a year, with an introduction by Reinaldo Arenas that any writer would have killed for. The broadcasting rights were immediately bought by a Miami radio station, and the chapters were read every week to an amused and clandestine Cuban audience back on the island.

Shortly thereafter, the book fell out of print, the publishing house kept the rights, and for eighteen slow years, the author, like Penelope, had to stop, learn to weave, and wait for his moment. Finally, in late 2001, after Correa had regained his publishing rights, Carlos Espinosa, a Cuban writer, editor, and scholar, offered to publish an edition of the original Spanish work.

And here you have, in two condensed paragraphs, a summary of two decades of tribulations for the Spanish edition of North of Hell.

I bought my copy of Al norte del infierno soon after meeting the author at a reading at Columbia University. It was July, 2003. At that point, La entrevista, Correa’s first play, had been performed on the radio in Argentina and on the stage at Rutgers University. The Firestone Library of Princeton University had purchased the original manuscript of Al norte del infierno for its magnificent archives. An excerpt of the novel had been published in a German anthology of Cuban literature, and the same excerpt had appeared in English in an American quarterly. However, throughout the years, Correa’s work remained systematically ignored and/or banned on the Island of Dr. No. (Although it has never been officially disclosed, the list of forbidden books in Cuba may have as many digits as your bank account.)

Until then, I had never translated a work into English, with the honorable exceptions of a couple of short stories and articles by my admired friend Enrique Del Risco. I had under my belt almost a dozen picture books translated into Spanish and would soon embark on translating, also into Spanish, Flight to Freedom, a novel by Cuban-American author Ana Veciana-Suarez. But I had never considered translating a major work into English, mainly because Spanish was my native language. I was frankly horrified by the mere thought of “reverse translation.”

And then I read Al norte del infierno.

My first reaction was that of complete shock: although the book had been published in 1984, it described my complete Cuban experience, and I had left the island in 1999! The novel was simultaneously horrifying and hilarious, or rather, horrifyingly hilarious: It tickled my fear, my nostalgia, my sense of loss--of a place, a culture, a language--my permanent state of paranoia, and my personal exodus. The really scary part was that Al norte del infierno could also comprehend the gestalt of those who had fled the Socialist Tropical Paradise in the early sixties.
When I reviewed the re-edition of the novel for the New York Spanish-language newspaper Hoy, I wrote: “A healthy writer’s envy forces me to admit that this is the book, or one of the books, that I wish I had written” [translation mine]. I mentioned this factor--my familiarity with the content, that is--not only because I felt that I could have written Al norte del infierno, but actually because I (and, for that matter, anybody who had lived at least one year under the rule of He Who Mustn’t Be Named) had this book inside, knew this book before having read it. Correa’s novel was at once virus and antibody: something indelible, probably acquired through the Cuban water supply.

I was still a greenhorn when I first read Al norte del infierno: a displaced human being, a Cuban element surrounded by an overwhelming ocean of English-speaking editors and “book people.” As odd as it was for all parties involved, this was also mutually beneficial: I, Neanderthal-at-Large, would learn office politics from my colleagues and, in exchange, they would constantly bombard me with questions about my place of origin. Was I in contact with my family in Havana? Did we have nice beaches down there? Could I go back? Where did I stand in the case of the famous little rafter? Was I a rafter myself? Was I close to my relatives in Miami? Did I know a good recipe for black beans? Was I a defector? Was mint the secret twist to Mojitos? What would happen after the demise of Castro?

I would spend many hours and much energy trying to explain to my American friends and colleagues the many fallacies of the so-called Cuban Revolution until I realized that I had all the answers in my hand, in a delicate Spanish edition that was starting to fall apart from all the wear and tear. If only I could recommend to them that book.

The issue was, of course, that the book was in Spanish.

As a consequence of my constantly quoting from Al norte del infierno, a colleague dared me to translate the book into English. His suggestion came around the time I had finally coped with the fact that this novel had already been authored by Miguel Correa Mujica. (Some chutzpah!) I could not write something that had already been written. But I needed to have some kind of involvement with this book. So I decided to take the challenge. I approached Correa, told him of my fascination with his work, and asked him if he would allow me to translate his novel into English on speculation, in the hopes that we would find a publishing house for North of Hell. Once I had his approval, a minor issue arose: in order to embark on the translation, I had to convince myself that English was no longer my second language. That was an easy task. I lived in English; I worked in English; I spoke primarily in English. My communication with my wife, novelist Valerie Block, would take place a good eighty percent of the time in English. Spanish was my native language, no doubt, but at some point it had fallen to a secondary status.

The translation of Al norte del infierno occurred almost entirely during a daily rush-hour commute to New York City, facing industrial decay and the swampy reeds of the Meadowlands through a window of a train on the Boonton Line of New Jersey Transit. Every night I would return home with almost one vignette translated. As soon as I finished each chapter, I would share it with my wife, who would return the piece the same night with great recommendations for English usage, English equivalents, and, of course, with all the prepositions corrected. Correa would receive each new fragment by e-mail, fresh as a Boston lettuce, the next morning. He would comment when necessary, praise at all times, and call back at reasonable hours with an enormous wave of gratitude.

Translating his novel took as long as it took. And that was the relatively easy, enjoyable part. The tough job was finding a house interested in publishing a literary translation of a novel that followed no traditional narrative pattern.

I submitted the work to eight publishing houses, large and small, throughout the USA. In less than a year, we received two lovely rejection letters, were monumentally ignored by four houses, and had two publishers interested in North of Hell: David Landau, from Pureplay Press--who ended up buying the rights for Correa’s second novel, both in Spanish and English, as well as for my bilingual book of poetry--and Douglas Messerli, from Green Integer, who took the deal home for North of Hell.

And here you have, in just a few pages, a summary of two years of tribulations for the English edition of Al norte del infierno.

It is common knowledge that there are always things that get lost in translation. I must add that, in this, my case, quite literally (and literarily) some things have been gained, mainly to my advantage. With the advent of this new English edition, Al norte del infierno, North of Hell, my dear friend Miguel Correa Mujica and I will be, once and for all, bound in translation.


Correa Mujica, Miguel. “A Decent Woman.” Trans. Judith C. Faerron. Caribbean Review 12.3 (1983): 30-31.
-----. Al norte del infierno. 2nd ed. Cincinnati: Término, 2002.
-----. Al norte del infierno. Miami: SIBI, 1984.
-----. “Eine anständige Frau.” Trans. Christiane Friedl Zapata. Geschichten aus der Geschichte Kubas. Ed. J. A. Friedl Zapata. Frankfurt: Luchterhand, 1990. 183-87.
-----. Furia del discurso humano. Los Angeles: Pureplay, 2006.
-----. North of Hell. Trans. Alexis Romay. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006.

Romay, Alexis. Ciudad de invertebrados / City of invertebrates. Trans. David Landau. Los Angeles: Pureplay, 2006.
-----. Rev. of Al norte del infierno, by Miguel Correa Mujica. Vida Hoy 14 Nov. 2003: 9.

Veciana-Suarez, Ana. Vuelo a la libertad. Trans. Alexis Romay. New York: Scholastic, 2004.

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