When we read a book—the particular, personal or historical context in which we carry out our reading—holds the power to shape the lens through which we do so. At present, we are reading in the midst of what for many has felt like a wasted year, burdened by missed opportunities, delayed gratification, and unimaginable loss, intersected with continued racialized violence and ecological collapse. In Jeanine Marie Pitas’s translation, poet Selva Casal writes from 1975 Uruguay and declares that We Do Not Live in Vain. The title reads like an affirmation, a reminder, a response—or perhaps a challenge or a dare. Overall, the poems embody resilience in the face of uncertain reality. Published as a bilingual edition by Veliz Books, We Do Not Live in Vain is a slim volume that can be read in one sitting, and then once the shock wears off, picked up and read again.
First published during Uruguay’s military dictatorship, these poems are written from the vantage point of living amid pervasive violence, fear, and uncertainty. When framing Casal’s poems, Pitas foregrounds the United States’ active involvement in the establishment of Uruguay’s military regime, situating her translation as also a form of education for Anglophone readers who may be unaware of the history of U.S. imperialist intervention in Latin America. Pitas, a seasoned translator and poet who has also brought into English other Uruguayan poets, such as Marosa di Giorgio and Amanda Berenguer, deliberately chose to translate this text, out of Casal’s sixteen books of poetry, in large part due to its bravery. This book, after all, cost Casal her job as a sociology professor at the Universidad de la República. In Pitas’s lovely, candid translator’s note (more on this later), she writes that Casal is one of those writers who “pierce through the rhetoric of tyrants. She’s the kind of poet who reminds us why power-hungry rulers have always been wary of writers” (82). In this sense, Pitas taps into translation’s political potential: her deliberate selection of this text makes evident the role translators play in actively shaping thought and understanding.
Familiarity with the context from which Casal writes adds to the impact of these poems. The speaker is often disoriented, giving the reader, by proxy, the sensation of being swept out to the oft-mentioned sea, tossed around, and spit back out, simulating a loss of control over reality. The poems lack punctuation almost entirely, with nouns stacked on top of each other, in turn creating an at-times jarring experience. Disorientation, then, is reflected in form, carefully recreated in English: “liquid lips / harsh trembling / an embrace some foam / crystals of skin” (11).
Life and death, wakefulness and sleep, merge into an indistinguishable blur. Everyday life takes on the quality of a lucid nightmare, lathered with seafoam and punctured by bullets. The speaker is both alive and dead, often unsure which, bobbing back and forth between the two: “it’s the sea / it’s the sea / each wave revives and kills us” (31). Notably, death in these poems is portrayed as a collective, rather than individual condition:
I leave my body and return
this afternoon I saw a man in the street
it was my own death
detached from me
ahead of me (29)
The speaker is an observer, watching herself and others, separate from her body, but in doing so, is able to sense a form of connection to others. To this point, most poems are written in the first person, often addressing a “you,” but the title sweeps others into a collective: we do not live in vain.
The speaker’s ghostly existence also reinforces how deeply death and violence seep into everyday reality, even into sexual spaces: “guns penetrate our embrace” (29), “it’s night and they’re knocking they’re killing a man / somewhere / someone detached from their body / looks at me loves me touches me” (33). Even intimacy cannot be protected from violence, and yet, there is intimacy all the while. Beneath life and death’s overlapping embraces lies a firm undercurrent of resilience, a voice speaking up and out: “I will never be dead” (53), “there’s too much of a fight in me / to let myself go” (63). Most explicitly, in a poem addressed to her mother, Casal writes, “I don’t know how to die in vain” (79). It’s not that she won’t or refuses to, it’s that dying in vain is simply not an option.
While Casal’s poetry offers a lesson in resilience, Pitas’s translation of it offers a lesson in what it means to translate from a place of attention, respect, and care. Pitas’s esteem for Casal, her work, and her political convictions, radiates off the page in the translator’s note. This is clearly a translation made with immense thoughtfulness, a careful molding of Casal’s words into English. I imagine Pitas turning over each poem in her hands and shaping them with immense tenderness, intelligence, and utmost respect for the task.
In this regard, Pitas’s transparency surrounding the very human, very affective process of translation serves as a refreshing reminder that translation is not just labor, but also a way to honor someone’s work. I think of Kate Briggs’ affirmation that, “we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves, some recognition of what it might have meant to have handled every single word (space and punctuation mark) of the writing-to-be-translated, to have taken a decision in relation to its every single word (space and punctuation mark), and indeed to have written every single one of its parts”(268). Translation does often result in a certain emotional intimacy with the work or author being translated (for better or worse), after having engaged with it or them in such a sustained way. How can translators not fall a little bit in love, after such close reading? After the author’s life intersects with the translator’s, either directly or indirectly, for such a sustained intellectual and creative endeavor? After paying that much attention?
Casal died in her nineties, just months after the publication of We Do Not Live in Vain, her first book of poetry to be translated into English. As her poetry continues to make its way into other languages, the resilience packed within her words only grows stronger, louder, and more enduring.
Casal, Selva. We Do Not Live in Vain, transl. Jeannine Marie Pitas. Veliz Books, 2020.
Gabriella Martin translates from Spanish and Catalan, and holds a PhD in Hispanic Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. Currently based at Aarhus University in Denmark, her academic work explores twentieth and twenty-first century Iberian translational literature.
Briggs, Kate. This Little Art. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.