On May 17, 2021, the City of Asylum hosted an online seminar entitled “Native Language vs the Publishing Industry.” The presentation was part of the first Pittsburgh International Literary Festive (LitFest), a ten day event designed to brings together writers, translators and other artists to discuss the craft of translation as well as important social justice issues.
For those not acquainted with Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, it is an organization dedicated to advancing free expression worldwide and to providing sanctuary to endangered literary writers. It offers short and long term residencies to persecuted writers while also contributing to the revitalization of the community by transforming neglected housing into homes for its programs. It offers a wide variety of free programs in the areas of literature, the arts and the humanities.
The May 17th event featured three prominent young poets, writers and translators: Frank Báez, Adalber Salas Hernandez and Rajiv Mohabir. The discussion was moderated by poet Sony Ton-Aime, Literary Director of the Chautauqua Institution, which partnered with City of Asylum for the event. Mr. Ton-Aime is a distinguished Haitian born author, teacher, editor and translator.
Frank Báez is one of the Dominican Republic’s most important young poets and writers. A translator of English and American poetry, he has also published his own poetry and short stories and edits the online poetry review Ping Pong which publishes the work of poets from Latin America, North America and Europe. Venezuelan author and translator Adalber Salas Hernandez was born in Caracas and is the author of seven collections of poetry, two collections of essays and numerous translations from English and French. The Indo-Caribbean poet Rajiv Mohabir was born in London but has lived in Canada, New York City and Hawaii, where he completed his translation of Holi Songs of Demerara, a 1916 text published in India and the only known literary work written by an indentured servant in the Anglophone Caribbean.
Mr. Ton-Aime began the discussion by asking the panelists what literature means to them. A theme that emerged from the discussion was the difficulty that writers from smaller nations have in seeing their work published in their native countries. Frank Báez mentioned that his first book of poetry was published in Madrid only with the financial assistance of a family member. He was also faced with the problem of the lack of a broad audience for poetry in the DR. As a result, he decided to create an audience himself. He and fellow poet Homero Pumarol organized poetry readings in non-academic environments such as bars and were surprised by the size and enthusiasm of the audience. Mr. Báez and Mr. Pumarol formed a “spoken word band” called El Hombrecito where poetry is read accompanied by music. The group has come out with three CDs of their words and music.
Rajiv mentioned that while there is a flourishing Caribbean literature scene, local writers are pushed into publishing abroad largely in non-local languages due to the lack of publishing infrastructure in their home countries. This phenomenon works against the preservation of the region’s native languages, many of which, like Caribbean Hindustani, are largely disappearing. He suggested that perhaps a local University Press might take up the mantle of local writers to encourage publishing in the local patois.
Salas Hernández spoke of the impact that Venezuela’s economic distress has had on its literature as millions of Venezuelans emigrate to more stable countries. Prior to the mass emigration, Venezuelan literature was inward looking. Now it has opened itself up to new linguistic phenomena and influences. He considers Spanish to be a treasure trove of accents and dialects and in his own writing tries to showcase the vocabulary, syntax and unique rhythm of his country’s language. The writer/translator thus becomes a guardian of the local language and its modes of expression. Nonetheless, he pointed out that literary success in his country is still largely defined as being published in Spain and other important cultural centers such as Mexico City and Buenos Aires.
When asked about what is gained and lost when the literature of a small country is published abroad, Frank mentioned how a Madrid publisher was engaged in producing an audio book version of one of his works. When he heard the audio version for the first time, he realized that the reading had been done with a madrileño accent. This changed the character of the book to a large extent. The publisher’s rationale for doing this was their desire to reach a wider audience.
Mr. Ton-Aime asked the panelists to explain what publishers expect of their writers. Frank mentioned how publishers tend to expect Dominican writers to write about issues like Trujillo, sex, drugs and racism, themes which are somehow associated with his country. Limiting authors/translators to an approved list of topics facilitates the publishers’ marketing efforts but may also constrain the voices of artists who write about more intensely personal themes.
The three poets then read short selections of some of their works in the original language and in translation. The readings served to underscore the commitment of these young translators and writers to preserving their unique linguistic heritages and sharing it with a broader audience. Despite the strong headwinds working against them, their struggle is a brave one and one which undoubtedly continues to enrich the canon of world literature.