Cardboard Conscious: Translation in Community

By Kelsi Vanada

My favorite books of translated poetry to hold in my hands are no ordinary paperbacks: they are made of cardboard and screen-printed cardstock and hand-sewn signatures, crafted by independent publisher Cardboard House Press (CHP)’s Cartonera Collective in Phoenix, Arizona. I delight in handling them, rotating them to read the poems placed horizontally on some of their pages, flipping them over to compare the Spanish originals to the English translations, rubbing their embroidered covers, and stretching out their accordion pages. It’s clear these eye-catching art books were a lot of work to make, and that a great deal of care and precision were employed in that making.

I’m referring to three of the Collective’s most recent releases, written by three award-winning writers from three Latin American countries. Spinning Mill (Hilandería), by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, translated by Katerina Gonzalez Seligmann, is pocket-sized, with accent embroidery on the cover and vertical signatures on two different colors of paper. Koan Underwater, written by Juan José Rodinás and translated by Ilana Dann Luna, is a trim book with two notably cut-off corners, giving the book a diamond shape, and with many of the poems inside laid out on the page in landscape format. Kilimanjaro, by Maricela Guerrero, translated by Stalina Villarreal, is an 8- by 8-inch accordion with a shiny stencil spray-painted cover. The design of each is exquisite—and, though the materials are different than those used in CHP’s paperback series, the design is also very much in keeping with CHP’s house style.

But why these books, this way? What is the imperative to produce these texts in cardboard?

A Few Reasons for Cardboard

The choice to use cardboard to hand-make these books is certainly a counter-cultural one. Cartonera is short for editorial cartonera, or “cardboard publisher.” They originated in Argentina in the early 2000s as a way to make literature affordable, increase literacy, support the community’s cartoneros who make their living collecting recyclable materials, and turn bookmaking into a way to draw people together and subvert economic and ideological power structures, including those in the publishing world. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Ibero-American collection holds one of the largest and most comprehensive cartonera collections in the U.S., and is a great source of information and an excellent visual primer—you can click through hundreds of cover images. (You can also read Noa/h Fields’ excellent report on CHP’s Collective, and Tripwire has published a “bilingual history & manifesto of the Cartonera Collective and Cardboard House Press” in their pamphlet series.)

The Cartonera Collective’s books are more uniform than many of the cartonera books I’ve seen images of, which are often literally rough around the edges, and with a great variety of bright-colored hand-painted covers. But each of the Cartonera Collective books looks more or less the same (though they are allowed their imperfections and individuality), has an ISBN, is sold online, is about the same price as CHP’s paperback iterations, and won’t last as long. It shocks me every time my eye lands on these books’ ISBNs, because any sense I had of what a published book looks like or should look like is undone: publishing hegemony subverted!

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Cardboard House Press

In addition, the Collective’s work engages in creating solidarity with Latin American cartoneras, and in recognizing Spanish as a language of the United States. This social statement is complemented by an environmental one: the Collective is reusing materials in a country where climate change is categorically disputed or ignored, and that in and of itself is reason enough for the Collective’s work. Much of the cardboard the Collective uses comes from condom boxes shipped to a local LGBTQ+ health clinic.

Form Follows Function: Translation on Display

Though their covers and their physical form hold my attention longer than that of most books, the text inside these cardboard books is equally impossible to ignore. Reading them, I never for a minute forget that they include not only original works, but also translations (all of CHP’s books are bilingual Spanish/English editions, with eleven countries represented). The books’ tactility foregrounds that these are translations, dispensing with the still-prevalent idea that a translation should be “invisible,” that we should be able to forget we’re reading one. CHP, by contrast, is committed to the idea that the translator is also a writer, that the translator lives in both languages; these books honor that parity and remind readers of it in surprising new ways. They enact translator and theorist Sherry Simon’s idea that “The feminist translator affirms her role as an active participant in the creation of meaning…What feminist theory highlights is a renewed sense of agency in translation” (29).

spinning millSpinning Mill’s two differently colored signatures are a visual reminder of the duality and collaboration inherent in translation. Written by Cuban author Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, the poems in Spinning Mill weave together numerous thematic threads, despite short lines and seeming simplicity. It explores relationships and gender roles via tasks traditionally carried out by women (such as textile work and housework), as well as themes of racial divides and gendered and racial violence in society.

Form follows function in the book’s very structure; the collection is bookended by two poems that directly reference spinning thread: “I had never pulled a thread from a vagina / its soul was about to come out” (9). The poems honor process—the process of textile work, the process of women defining themselves and seeking equality in a society dominated by the patriarchy. “A crying woman is a naked and ugly man […] a woman who fucks / thinks” (11).  And the book shows off its process, too: in the waxed thread that holds the pages together, the decorative knots embroidered in deep pink thread on the cover, and in Seligmann’s translation process and choices placed right next to the original. One example of the translator’s process: “Shorties” is the English title Seligmann uses for the Spanish poem “Las enanas,” effectively putting the focus on the term’s colloquial meaning in Spanish, versus its problematic dictionary definition (dwarf, midget, runt). This move puts the translator’s goal of capturing the spirit of the original, versus fealty to a supposed “literal translation,” on display.

kilimanjaro-by-maricela-guerrero-webKilimanjaro, by Mexican writer Maricela Guerrero, is a big accordion book with large font and lots of open space on each page, which can be extended to reflect the fact that it’s one continuous poem (in fact, it’s an excerpt of an even longer work). Kilmanjaro is nothing if not a long list-rant against capitalism and the forces that make people cogs in a machine—and if that sounds negative, good. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable: “Machine, flukes, tumbles, nonspecific choices…called fugitive, called migrant” (5, 8). Stalina Villarreal translates for immediacy, for sounds indicating hard materials that call to mind a world in which “something broke down on us this morning” (13). The poem has room to “break down,” too—colons and long dashes break up sections of text that ebb between grammatical phrases and bits of lists, and the book is also characterized by beautiful, sometimes-cryptic black-and-white drawings by the author.

The book’s form invites the reader to take it in at one go—It’s a tough book to stick a bookmark in, for one thing, as it doesn’t have a spine! I found the book actively redefining my experience of what a book is and how to hold or take it in: like a Jacob’s ladder toy, I delighted in the book’s ability to cascade from English to Spanish, depending on which side it is opened from. Kilimanjaro reminds me that CHP’s books aren’t only bilingual for the sake of displaying the translator’s process, but they are also designed for a dual readership in the United States, in both Spanish and English. The books in their original languages are given a second life for a US readership, and an Anglophone one. If these books, by nature of their materials, don’t last long, they will live hard while they last.

koan-underwater-webKoan Underwater by Ecuadorian writer Juan José Rodinás is the most koan-like of the three, and my favorite book design among them. Images of swirling water with a dotted line divide sections of poems that are largely written in response to pieces of classical music. “I refuse to move. I just record the details” (15), the speaker says, and that’s a helpful way to think about these poems: language washes over the speaker, tumbling and mixing and mutating. And I can’t help but read lines like “my streets are / asphalt writings and they bend in any direction, / they reverse their meaning” (25) as a guide for how to read these poems in their cardboard iteration: turning the book this way and that to read the horizontally placed poems, and gathering additional meaning by comparing the translation to the original. Here, Ilana Dann Luna’s translation is paramount, even in the physical actions my hands, eyes, and neck must take in order to read the book. And its artistry comes also from its jewel-like diamond shape, which I assume would be much more difficult to produce in a hardback or paperback edition.

“You cannot translate from a position of monolinguist superiority” (324), wrote translator and theorist Gayatri Spivak in 1992. What CHP does to subvert monolinguist superiority by sharing international literature in bilingual editions is the same as what these cardboard books do to subvert “monolinguist superiority” more metaphorically—to subvert established publishing methods, to put book-making in the hands of the many and not the few, to discover the additional artistic possibilities that come when using recycled and handmade materials. While they are all in keeping with the press’ commitment to a few core tenets (as I understand them from reading other CHP books)—like multilingualism, feminism, holding power to account, and social, environmental, and racial justice—it’s also incredible how varied these three cardboard texts are. Each book visually demonstrates the publishers’ commitment to form following function, and they find their perfect fit in cardboard iterations.

Meeting the Collective

I was recently welcomed into Palabras Bilingual Bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona by a small group of members of CHP’s Cartonera Collective. In addition to bookselling and hosting the Collective, Palabras (which celebrated its fourth year in August 2019) engages the neighborhood’s Latinx population in a number of ways, such as holding bilingual writing workshops for young women and an open mic series for people of color.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Cardboard House Press

We got right to work assembling copies of Spinning Mill. The members of the Collective were kind and generous, eager to make me feel at home and share what they knew. For two and a half hours, we sewed, cut, glued, folded, pressed. We chatted, got to know each other, and I listened as members shared family updates. We were sometimes quiet, each allowing her thoughts to run in that meditative space. Community kept coming up. One woman said she makes books because otherwise she’d be alone on the weekends. Others mentioned the importance of taking part in elevating bilingual literature, as well as the multilingual, multigenerational nature of the Collective. Workshop leader Ryan Greene explained that Phoenix can be a tough place to find a literary community, but that the Collective feels like a good place to do so, particularly for more introverted people.     

And so I think the reasons for cardboard books are not only social, environmental, literary, and political, but these things in community. In terms of the time invested by the collective into hand-crafting these books, producing the series is incredibly time-intensive, if more cost-effective. But saving people time by turning over the work to a machine precisely isn’t the point. CHP could, and does, publish paperbacks—and they know how to use the tools available to publish an impressive range of writers and translators. But the Collective puts the art-making in the hands of more people, versus fewer people plus machines designed for mass production. Here, teams of people unite to take part in the work—and how and with whom we work, I’ve come to think, is—in large part—what defines a community.

Sitting with the Cartonera Collective felt almost like a kind of church, done right. It was the “work of the people,” and it was good. We were sharing life together while creating art that will benefit others. After making the books, we read aloud from Spinning Mill and drew our attention back to the fact that even if our fingers were sticky with glue and there were still a dozen unfinished books left to put together, we had, in collaboration with the writer and translator, put words into the world. So we put them in our own mouths, and that was also our work—and it was good. I treasure the books the Collective gave me, and I think you’ll want these books in your hands and their words in your ears and in your mouth, too.

Kelsi Vanada is a poet and a translator from Spanish and sometimes Swedish. Her translations include Into Muteness (Veliz Books, 2020) and The Eligible Age (Song Bridge Press, 2018), and she is the author of the poetry chapbook Rare Earth (Finishing Line Press, 2020).

Works Cited

Simon, Sherry. Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission, (London and New York, Routledge, 1996).

Spivak, Gayatri. “The Politics of Translation,” The Translation Studies Reader, 3rd edition, ed. Lawrence Venuti, (London and New York, Routledge, 2012).

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