Book Review

Mónica de la Torre’s Repetition Nineteen—the author’s fourth full-length English-language collection, out this year from Nightboat Books—is a book of translations that addresses and enacts the processes of listening, re-creating, and slippage that take place in the process of bringing a poem from one language into another. At its vacant center, Repetition Nineteen revolves around a Spanish-language poem that first appeared in de la Torre’s debut collection, Acúfenos. In Spanish, the poem is titled “Equivalencias,” which the author translates, distorts, and reinvents as “Equivalences,” “Conversions,” and “Like in Valencia” in a sequence of twenty-five serial translations. She uses the space of this book-length project to explore and dissect on the page the vexed spaces between languages and the simultaneous impossibility and urgency in undertaking projects of translation. Her open and imaginative translations incorporate linguistic signs as diverse as emojis and language pulled from a Rosicrucian pamphlet to demonstrate the types of radical vocabularies that translation can bring to bear on a poem. In de la Torre’s poems, English and Spanish occupy a uniquely fraught relationship—politically as well as sonically—and share many false cognates and untranslatable idioms. As the poet informs readers in “Movement Three” of “Intimacy in Discourse: A Comedy in Three Movements”:

In the source language disparate,
pronounced dis-pah-rah-teh, is nonsense.
Place an accent on the wrong
syllable and it becomes “shoot yourself.”
Let’s not overthink this.

The slippage between sounds and pronunciation patterns from English to Spanish can evidently have grave consequences.

Throughout this collection, de la Torre reminds us of the agitated position of the translator. The translator is at once both conduit and author; she lets language move through herself, but she is not a vacant conduit. This is especially the case in Repetition Nineteen as the poet and translator are the same person with complex memories and personal associations woven into the fabric of the translated poem. As Jack Spicer says in the first of his Vancouver lectures, “Dictation and ‘A Textbook of Poetry,’” ” “Language is part of the furniture in the room.” Of course, the “furniture” (Spicer’s term for latent subjective language) changes from translator to translator. (It’s worth mentioning too that de la Torre engages with Spicer and After Lorca directly in Repetition Nineteen in a sequence of diary entries titled “137 Northeast Regional” that function as a cathartic meditation on the 2016 death of poet C. D. Wright.) De la Torre presses the point further still by, in various translation exercises, reading the poem (in Spanish) to a non-Spanish-speaker and asking them to construct an English-language translation by sound alone, or by utilizing Google Translate as a way to bring Spanish words into English without any human phrasal knowledge. In the poem “Llamaradas are Blow Jobs,” de la Torre engages with Google Translate and other web searches as alternative avenues to knowledge and language. She writes:

Go ahead, I’m listening. I don’t understand what you mean by
“Camaradas are blow jobs.” How about a web search for it? Here’s
what I found: Madonna promises Blow Jobs for Hillary Clinton
Here’s what I found: Multipath routing.
I can help you find restaurants if you turn on Location Services. You
can also try Wikipedia Chicken Fingers.
Here’s what I found: Smart silk dressings—for treating chronic
wounds—Atlas of Science.
Sorry, I’m still not sure about that.

By presenting the reader with twenty-five different translations of the same poem—which deliberately raises questions about what it means for multiple poems to have “sameness,” or to come from the same “source” poem—de la Torre implicitly argues for the translations as a sort of palimpsest or layering-over. She makes this point visually early in the collection, by presenting the Spanish text of “Equivalencias” with a fairly literal translation to English superimposed over it. This emphasizes that the two versions—and by proxy, the twenty-four others—maintain a “both/and” relationship, not “either/or.” That’s to say that de la Torre places no primacy on any of the translations; they sit on a horizontal plane of evenly distributed legitimacy. She phrases this democratic approach to translating with perfect precision in the poem “Same as it Ever Was” with an apparent paradox: “Where’s the source utterance in an echo chamber.”

Throughout the collection, de la Torre emphasizes the aspects of translation that lean towards pleasure, community, and collaboration. It’s a fitting end to the book—or, perhaps more accurately, a second beginning to the book—for its final section, “Replay,” to enact playful community-based translation. It documents de la Torre’s series of public translation experiment’s in New York City’s Madison Square Park in which she enlisted the help of passersby to translate, among other things, the sounds of birdcalls and her poem “Equivalencias.” In leading the daily workshops, de la Torre encourages participants to share what languages they are fluent in and encourages them to approach sound-based translation without pretense. Sounds abound in the heart of the city and, for de la Torre, noise and ambient sound is fair game for sonic translation filled with polyphony and overlapping languages. Her workshop participants take a special interest in language-specific colloquialisms and their seeming untranslatability. Michael, a Chinese speaker, struggles to translate the phrase “The writing on the wall” and eventually admits that to bring the phrase into Chinese—even via Google Translate—is a losing battle.

“Replay” provides a gentle coda to Repetition Nineteen and ends the collection with a sense of optimism and imagination. As one workshop participant calls to a young father whose fussy infant keeps him from joining de la Torre’s group: “Hey, we translate baby talk too!”

About the Reviewer

Connor Fisher lives in Athens, Georgia. He has an MA in English Literature from the University of Denver, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and just completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. His poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Dreginald, Figure 1, Typo, Posit, Cloud Rodeo, Tammy, and Denver Quarterly.