Passing in Translation: Jessica Powell on Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s Woman in Battle Dress

Interview by Lucina Schell, Editor

Jessica PowellWoman in Battle Dress, the last published work by renowned Cuban writer Antonio Benítez-Rojo, is just out in translation by Jessica Powell from City Lights Books. The sweeping epic imagines the remarkable life of 19th-Century historical figure Henriette Faber, who lived as a man in order to study medicine and serve as a military surgeon in Napoleon’s army and later as a doctor in rural Cuba, before being exposed by her Cuban wife in a sensational legal trial. I had the pleasure of speaking with Jessica Powell about the book and its translation by phone on September 21, 2015.

Lucina Schell: How did you come to translate Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s historical epic Woman in Battle Dress about the amazing life of Henriette Faber? I understand from your 2011 NEA Grant statement that you first came across the novel as part of the research for what became your doctoral dissertation “Fabricating Faber: the Literary Lives of a Nineteenth-Century Transvestite in Cuba,” and I’m curious how this background influenced your translation.

Jessica Powell: When I was a doctoral student and I was trying to settle on a dissertation topic, one of my dear professors at that time, who ended up being the chair of my dissertation committee, was Suzanne Jill Levine, who of course is a renowned translator of Latin American fiction, and she handed me this book one day and said, ‘take a look at this, this is a really interesting new book that’s come out.’ And I read it, and I instantly felt like, ‘oh this is a really intriguing and actually very little known historical figure—at least outside of Cuba.’ And when I then saw in the author’s notes that there are two other earlier Cuban historical novels written about the same figure, I thought this could actually shape up to be a really interesting dissertation project. So that’s initially how I came to the book. At the time, I didn’t know that I would then go on to spend several years on the project of translating and publishing the novel in English, but I realize now that I’ve actually been living with the story of Henriette Faber for a nearly decade at this point, between my dissertation writing and translating the novel.

LS: I can certainly relate to that! (Laughs) How would you say Benítez-Rojo’s book compares to the other two historical novels, or why did you choose to translate this particular one as opposed to the others?

JP: Well, so, the other two…one was published in 1894 and the other in 1895 and the latter was, in large measure, a response to the earlier one. And, for me, certainly the most interesting of the three novels, in terms of literary merit, is Benítez-Rojo’s. The other two novels are so clearly using the figure of Faber for their own purposes, and Benítez-Rojo does that as well, honestly, but the other two are written at the time that Cuba was fighting for independence, and there was an international discussion about what an independent Cuba, a modern Cuba would look like, and both of those earlier writers are really appropriating Faber’s story to put forth their own agendas for how they felt an independent Cuba should be. That’s actually the topic of my dissertation: why would these three male Cuban writers choose to write historical novels about this subversive European woman, and how were they were using her for their own ends? And Benítez-Rojo’s novel, while he is also, I think, using her as a metaphor, he’s using her a lot less as a sort of didactic tool, or an opportunity to pontificate on political leanings. So, that was why. I mean, they’re certainly interesting novels, but for me less so for their literary merit and more so for their historical merit.

“We don’t actually know why she chose to dress as a man and go to medical school, we don’t know why she chose to leave France and go to Cuba, we don’t know why she chose to marry Juana de Leon […] I think those gaps in what we know of her life story provided Benítez-Rojo with an excellent opportunity for creative invention.”

LS: Did you have the opportunity to meet Benítez-Rojo? Where did you turn when you had doubts or questions while working?

JP: Unfortunately, he died in 2005, and that was before I had really conceived of translating the novel. But I have gotten to know his widow Hilda Otaño Benítez fairly well over the last several years, and it’s been really an amazing experience. I traveled twice to Amherst, Massachusetts where she lives and got to stay with her both times, and I feel like through her, I got to hear her stories of her life in Cuba, and her life with Antonio in Cuba, and their life here in the United States. And it’s such an amazing story. Truly, their story is one that should be told at some point—that should be a novel itself. It’s a tragic story in a lot of ways, and it’s their personal story, but the contours of their story are particular to their experiences living through the Cuban revolution and living in exile. And I feel like through her stories, I was able to really get a better sense of where he was and what his approach was when I came to translating this novel. So, she has been a really incredible resource, and she’s so supportive, and so excited that this novel is finally coming out in English. Because it’s been a long time. It was published in 2001 in Spanish, so it’s been a really long journey, and she’s really pleased, so that makes me really pleased.

LS: I’m sure all of the research that went into your dissertation helped you when you were translating the novel, but I was struck by how much history it covers, and really far beyond Cuba, Cuba is really just the end of the book. The novel takes us through the Napoleonic Empire in France, through his various military campaigns, the Haitian Revolution, military history, medical history. What kind of background did you need to assemble in order to translate this book?

JP: Yes, well, I agree with you. I think it’s a pretty extraordinary novel in the way that it combines so many historical elements. And I do think it helped me a lot to begin the translation having already done a really significant amount of research in order to write my dissertation. So, by the time I sat down to translate the novel, not only had I read it many times, but I had done a great deal of research. But, because it’s a historical novel, the fictional is really intertwined with the historical, and so it wasn’t always clear to me which characters and events were historical and which were of Benítez-Rojo’s invention. When I was translating, it was actually great fun because sometimes I would come across a character, and I would look into it and often discover, this is actually a historical figure and he has woven this person into the story and made this person have a personal connection with Faber. There’s one example of that I remember really clearly. When Henriette is wounded during Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Russia and she ends up in a Russian field hospital, there’s the character of Nadezhda who tends to her wounds, and Henriette also has this erotic, almost magical experience with her. I looked up Nadezhda, and I discovered that, although in the novel she’s a nurse and a translator, there was actually a historical figure named Nadezhda Durova who fought dressed as a man during all of the major Russian engagements of the Prussian campaign and also during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. She, just like Faber, participated in the battle of Smolensk, which is actually the setting of their fictional meeting in the novel. So that is a really good example to me of how he intertwines the historical and the fictional.

LS: Wow, that’s wonderful. Nadezhda is actually the last character I would’ve thought to be an historical figure, because she has such a small role and it seems to suit the novel so perfectly.

JP: Well, she has a small role, but it’s really a central role because, when Henriette comes to after being injured, she realizes that she’s been parted from the painting of a woman dressed in military garb titled “Woman in Battle Dress,” and when she sees Nadezhda, she thinks that she’s the woman from the painting. Even though the episode with her takes up so few pages, it’s symbolically important because Henriette identifies with the painting, and so it’s almost like a mirroring moment where she sees herself in this other woman. And the fact that they were both actual historical “women in battle dress” fighting on opposite sides only heightens this mirroring effect. As does their sexual encounter. So yes, it was really exciting to find that Nadezhda is probably based on this actual woman. There’s a lot written about her too, about Tsar Alexander decorating her on the battlefield, really interesting stuff…

“A text in translation still shares a core, or a soul, if you will, with the original text, even though its outward appearance, or external presentation, has been altered […] The translation, much like Henriette, has donned a new cloak or taken on a new accent.”

LS: I want to talk more about the theme of “passing” throughout the book, which is introduced early on, with the overt metaphor of the theater, when Henriette’s friend Maryse, an actor, tells her “the habit makes the nun.” Henriette chooses to pass as a man in order to attend medical school, but that’s not all. She must also pass as a Cuban from Havana—a place she has never been—when she is in fact Swiss-French. And then reading the book in translation made me think about translations as effectively passing for the original, so that’s another layer of passing.

JP: Absolutely, and I love this idea that you raise about passing through exterior presentation as a metaphor for literature in translation. A text in translation still shares a core, or a soul, if you will, with the original text, even though its outward appearance, or external presentation, has been altered. Many readers, I think, when reading a text in translation, especially if it’s a good translation, tend to take the text they found and don’t think a lot about it coming from a different language, and we can debate if that’s a good thing or not. I think that a lot of readers when reading a text in translation are not consciously thinking about the “original,” but it’s analogous to me to the way people tended to see whatever version of herself Henriette chose to display. That doesn’t mean that the original, or whatever her true soul or core is, is no longer present. It just means that the translation, much like Henriette, has donned a new cloak or taken on a new accent.

And then it’s interesting, that quote you mentioned, how Maryse says “the habit makes the nun.” That’s actually an inversion of the popular refrain in Spanish, el hábito no hace la monja, which means, the habit doesn’t make the nun, the point being that, it’s not just what you put on, but the way you are inside. But Henriette is in many ways refuting that, because she’s staying very true to who she is on the inside, but she’s presenting differently externally and that’s how people meet her.

LS: And then, to go along with all that, Henriette is able to pass in this way because she is multilingual. She speaks French as her native language, and she also speaks Spanish, so she’s able to impersonate a person from Cuba. I really enjoyed the way her speaking in different languages is marked as a power play, the way she uses certain languages to “one-up” other characters and it’s not always about her disguise, sometimes she doesn’t want someone to understand her completely, or sometimes she wants to speak in another person’s native tongue, even though they both speak French.

JP: That’s right. There’s that one scene where she’s talking to Robledo, and she suddenly switches into Spanish, and it just completely blows him away that she speaks Spanish. It’s an appealing part of the book, especially for a translator. There were times in the novel where I had to make decisions. When she’s speaking in all those different languages, in the Spanish version, she’s just speaking in Spanish, but it’s telling you that it’s in French, or in English. So there were times when I had to make a decision about, well, do I actually want to translate this sentence into French and leave it like that, or do I leave this one thing that she says in Spanish because then it will stand out against the English text? There were a few times when I did that. For example, when she’s angry with Petit, another surgeon that she travels around with quite a bit, and she speaks Spanish to him, I made the decision to leave those parts in Spanish rather than translate them because the point was that he didn’t understand her, and that it annoyed him. So it felt fine to put something in there that the English reader may not actually understand.

Antonio Benítez-Rojo-Woman in Battle Dress

LS: How much do you think Benítez-Rojo invented or embellished around the scant details of Faber’s life?

JP: Well, I think he invented almost all of it. Obviously, the historical outline is true. But in terms of where she was and what she did, we really have a bare scaffolding of dates, and places, and facts about her life. And almost all of that, we only know from the transcripts of the court case that was brought against her in Santiago de Cuba, which include her own testimony and confession. And of course, whether the confession was a “true” confession or not, we’ll never know. But because she never wrote a memoir, we don’t have any letters, we don’t have anything except for that testimony from the court trial in her own words…it’s really hard to know with any great accuracy where she was and what she did. Or beyond that, how she felt, what her reasons were for choosing to do what she did. We don’t actually know why she chose to dress as a man and go to medical school, we don’t know why she chose to leave France and go to Cuba, we don’t know why she chose to marry Juana de Leon. There are all of these unknowns. And, as a novelist, I’m sure it was very tempting to fill in those gaps, and I think those gaps in what we know of her life story provided Benítez-Rojo with an excellent opportunity for creative invention.

LS: Formally, Benítez-Rojo is essentially writing Faber’s memoir that we don’t have. Given that this was his last published work—and you alluded to the metaphor you think she serves for him or how he might be using her—do you think he saw himself in her character at all, or that he was using this as an opportunity to look back on his own legacy in writing from the perspective of a person at the end of her life looking back?

JP: Well, of course, he didn’t know at the time that this would be his final book. In fact, I remember reading an interview where he says that he was considering writing a sequel to the novel. You can tell, at the very end of the book when Henriette says ‘I don’t even have the time to relate all of these other adventures,’ that he had the idea to maybe follow up and actually tell that part of the story. Of course, the other huge gap in the story is what happens to her, because she was last seen on a boat to New Orleans in 1827, being exiled from Cuba, and then the trail goes cold, and that’s really fascinating for a figure who continually reinvented herself. She may well have taken on another identity—Benítez-Rojo certainly imagines that she did when, in the prologue, which Henriette narrates from the boat taking her to New Orleans, he has her swap clothes with a prostitute so that she will disembark under the guise of yet another new persona.  So, I think it would have been really interesting for a sequel to fill in the whole question of what became of her.

Also, Hilda told me he had been planning to write a screenplay based on the novel, which I think would make a fantastic film since the whole novel is so cinematic, so visual.

As I said, at the time, I don’t think he knew that this would be his last novel, although I agree with you that the form of it, making it into a memoir, an old woman writing her life story from New York, makes me wonder if there wasn’t something sort of prescient about that.

Beyond that, I do think he saw himself in Faber. I think that for him she was a symbol of the conflicted identity of the post-1959 Cuban exile. She was even a symbol of Cuba and the Caribbean itself. The way she continually reinvents herself, her resilience, the paradoxes she embodies, are in a lot of ways parallel to his understanding of what makes Cuba and Cuban identity unique. One of the things I write about in my dissertation is that, in a lot of ways, Woman in Battle Dress is an exploration in novelistic form of many of the theories Benítez-Rojo formulates in his seminal critical study of Caribbean culture and identity, La isla que se repite, published in English as The Repeating Island. I think that for him, in a lot of ways, Faber is his great allegorical figure, and she represents Cuba, the Caribbean, the exile, and even himself. So, I do think he saw himself in Faber, and that she appealed to him in that way.

“It’s a historical novel, it’s a picaresque novel, it’s romantic, it’s a war novel, it’s an epic, it’s a memoir, it’s a realist novel, but it has these fantastical episodes punctuating it.”

LS: I’ve been wondering about the connection between this novel and his critical work, The Repeating Island, or just generally, how the novel relates to his sense of Cuba, because Cuba comes in at the end but most of the book takes place in Europe. Still, Cuba is this omnipresence throughout in Henriette’s Cuban alter-ego Enrique Fuenmayor.

JP: Yes, absolutely. In addition to the ways in which I think Benítez-Rojo saw Faber as a metaphor for the multi-layered Cuban exile, I think he also saw her as a symbolic of what he writes about in The Repeating Island with regard to the heterogeneous and performative nature of Caribbean culture. Henriette was a consummate performer, which comes out in many ways in the novel, not just in her transvestism and in her passing as Cuban, but she’s also actually traveling with a theater troop in part of the novel. So there are all of these different ways in which she’s performing. I think that he really did think of this novel as a Cuban novel, and this is again something he writes about in The Repeating Island: the Caribbean should not be seen as this isolated archipelago, but it’s really connected to the entire world. Just like you mentioned the supposedly Cuban alter-ego Enrique Fuenmayor, who was an omnipresence throughout Henriette’s life in Europe as she went to medical school and served on the battlefield as a military surgeon, I think that Benítez-Rojo felt that Cuba and the Caribbean were also an omnipresence in events taking place in Europe, most especially with regard to Napoleon. Because we shouldn’t forget that the same historical period that Faber lived through was when France under Napoleon was fighting to hold onto its colonies in the Antilles, and that the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution influenced one another a lot. And so I think people often don’t realize that what was going on in the Caribbean at that time was being influenced by and in turn influencing events in Europe, and I think that Henriette symbolizes that. Benítez-Rojo in The Repeating Island, writes about how in the Caribbean, the whole history of colonialism and the slave plantation system had this very fundamental role in the history of capitalism and world events, and that culturally, the Caribbean is this syncretic mixture of histories, societies, and cultures from Europe, from Africa, from Asia, from the Americas. So even though only one section takes place in Cuba, I think he’s making a point that events in Europe and the Caribbean have been inextricably linked since the first Europeans landed in the Caribbean. And again, I think Henriette symbolizes that crossover.

The last thing I’ll say about it, I read an interview with Benítez-Rojo in which he’s talking about this novel, and he says he sees it as a Caribbean novel because he sees it as a mestizo novel. And what he means by that is that it blurs and combines genres. It’s a historical novel, it’s a picaresque novel, it’s romantic, it’s a war novel, it’s an epic, it’s a memoir, it’s a realist novel, but it has these fantastical episodes punctuating it. It’s really a combination of genres, and I think that’s really emblematic of the way that Benítez-Rojo understood Cuba and the Caribbean. And who better to embody it than Henriette/Henri/Enrique/Enriqueta? Even that, her four names mixed, is really the way that he understood the interplay between the Caribbean and Europe.

LS: So that is yet another layer of passing that the novel is doing formally in its mestizo nature, passing as different genres and changing all the time!

“Henriette is a figure who is continually grappling throughout the novel with issues of personal, professional, social, gender, and sexual identity—issues that seem remarkably current given that she was alive 200 years ago.”

LS: Finally, I want to talk about how Woman in Battle Dress is structured around Henriette’s significant romantic relationships, with sections named for these romantic partners, which seems logical since the novel is ostensibly her memoir and we often remember our lives based on periods with certain people. Yet despite alternating between male and female lovers with, significantly, another “crossover” character at the center, it seemed to me that Henriette’s erotic relationships with women were minimized, at least in terms of number of pages. Even Faber’s disastrous marriage to Juana de Leon, which ultimately resulted in her exposure and arrest, is given very few pages. Why do you think Benítez-Rojo chose to minimize Henriette’s lesbian relationships?

JP: I do think that’s true, I agree with you, and it’s something that I’ve wondered about myself. I wish that I’d had the opportunity to talk to him about that, because I think he would’ve had some very interesting things to say about it. But one idea that I have is that Henriette is a figure who is continually grappling throughout the novel with issues of personal, professional, social, gender, and sexual identity—issues that seem remarkably current given that she was alive 200 years ago. You know, these are the issues we’re all still grappling with. But, even though she’s contending with all of these issues throughout the novel, and Benítez-Rojo is clearly trying to give her a voice with which to express her social and sexual yearnings, I think that overall his purpose in writing the book may have been less about making a statement about the fluidity of gender and sexual identity and more about making a statement about self-determination and personal reinvention. And that’s because of all of the things I’ve already mentioned in terms of how he saw her as a symbol of the Cuban exile and Caribbean culture. I think that for him, her transvestism and even her bisexuality symbolized this multi-faceted, border crossing nature of Cuban identity, especially with regard to issues of exile in the wake of the Cuban revolution. And of course, he and Hilda lived that in a very, very visceral way. I think that the mixed identity and performativity of the transvestite is for him really emblematic of the complexities inherent in being Cuban, both for Cubans still on the island, and Cubans living in exile. So in a lot of ways, I feel like her sexuality or her transvestism are not really the point or the true center of his novel, that they’re actually representative of something else, and that may be why he didn’t give equal pages to those relationships, but honestly I don’t know. I have no idea if it’s a reflection in some way of his own comfort or discomfort around it. I really wish that I had had the chance to talk to him about that.

LS: It does seem to me that he answers the question by putting it into Henriette’s mouth when she gives as an excuse for excluding what she calls her “dubious adventures” from her account of her life, “I’ve done it in order to survive as the protagonist of my own story, in order to balance my behavior as though I were walking with a long pole across a tight rope, poised between two fatal falls, since in novels heroines are equally damned for being overly indecent and overly chaste” (350). Do you think Benítez-Rojo ultimately succeeds in transgressing that binary for female protagonists?

JP: I think he does, maybe not 100% of the story, but I think he does. Ultimately, I think he’s interested in portraying her as a fully realized human being, and in contrast to the earlier two novels written about her, that is a really important goal for him, because she was so not allowed to be a fully realized human being in those early portrayals, and certainly not through the court case, either. I mean, this was a completely scandalous trial that went on in Santiago de Cuba, and nobody was thinking of her as a human being, they were thinking of her as whatever she represented for them, or whatever ways in which she frightened them, or threatened them. I think for Benítez-Rojo, this novel was a way to really represent her as a human, complete with passions and flaws and moments of doubt and contradictions, and everything that goes into being a human. There’s that part of the novel where she’s wondering what it is that has allowed her to love both men and women with equal ardor, and why it is that it has never felt wrong to her to do so, and she says that her desire has always taken shape in a completely natural way, and that there was never anything aberrant or shameful about it. And having read these earlier novels, that’s a very clear refutation of what those earlier writers were saying about her. She says she experiences love on a higher, more general plane as a human being, and I think that was how Benítez-Rojo was trying to free her from any binary trap. He was trying to free her from external judgment about her character, about her actions. Really, he was just trying to allow her to be who she was in all of her blurry lined humanity. So, whether that was a complete victory over the binary trap or not, I don’t know, but he really makes an effort I think to portray her as an individual and not as a representative of any one side or another.

To read excerpts of Woman in Battle Dress, visit the National Endowment for the Arts and City Lights Books.

Jessica Powell has translated numerous Latin American authors, including works by César Vallejo, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Cardenal, Maria Moreno, Ana Lidia Vega Serova and Edmundo Paz Soldán. Her translation (with Suzanne Jill Levine) of Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo’s novel Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, was published by Melville House in 2013. She is the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship in support of her translation of Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s novel Woman in Battle Dress. She lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. Woman in Battle Dress. Translated by Jessica Powell. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015.



  1. a superb interview–great insights into the significance of this novel and good discussion of some of the translation challenges.

  2. Sharp and deep, these comments open the door to experience

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