On Translating Sistren

Loretta Collins Klobah & Maria Grau Perejoan on The Sea Needs No Ornament / El mar no necesita ornamento


T he Sea Needs No Ornament/ El mar no necesita ornamento is titled after a line of poetry by one of our contributors, Vahni Capildeo. It represents, in a marvelously understated fashion, the full-on audacity, strong themes, thoughtful meditations, skilled vibrancy, and innovative verse forms of the thirty-three Caribbean women writers gathered together in these pages. Both monolingual readers of English or Spanish and bilingual readers can read and enjoy the book since all poems are presented in both languages. It is the first bilingual anthology of contemporary poetry by women writers of the English- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean and its Diasporas to be published in more than two decades.

Some of the writers may have published prior to the turn-of-the-century, but most contributors have published books, received awards, and become established during the first two decades of this century. All have published at least one or two significant collections, and several have also published fiction, essays, served as editors of anthologies or journals, been judges for literary competitions, and actively participated in literary culture on local and international scales. These are writers who will undoubtedly continue to publish and be leading literary voices in the decades to come. Although there are exceptions (especially among the Cubans, a few of the Puerto Ricans, and a Trinidadian), most of the selected poets have not previously been translated or included in a bilingual anthology of this scope. We have chosen some of the very best, but there are many other excellent women poets of the English- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean whom we admire and who also could have been included had our energies, resources, and time as translators and available page-count been limitless.

The poems speak to women’s experiences in gripping, powerful, and radical ways, challenging gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, class, historical, and societal orthodoxies and proscriptions of all sorts. We wanted to suggest the breadth of the poets’ concerns and writerly approaches, to include poems on an array of subjects, written in a diversity of moods, tones, and poetic styles. For this reason, we have included three to five poems by each author. We hope that readers will be inspired to look for and read the poetry collections of all of the authors. Many of the poets have recordings of their readings available on YouTube or elsewhere on the internet. The poems, whether originally written in Spanish or English, have been translated by the two editors, Loretta Collins Klobah and Maria Grau Perejoan. A poem is first presented in the language in which it was originally written and then, on opposite pages, the translated version.

The plurilingual context of the Caribbean archipelago and sites of Caribbean migration is a by-product of multiple campaigns of conquest and colonisation

The plurilingual context of the Caribbean archipelago and sites of Caribbean migration is a by-product of multiple campaigns of conquest and colonisation by the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Kingdom of the Netherlands; the presence and partial genocide of various indigenous peoples; the forced transshipment and enslavement of African peoples of diverse heritages and languages; the forced transportation of Irish and British political prisoners, and those who fell afoul of the law, as bond servants in the 17th century; the indentureship of East Indians, Madeirans and Chinese; the settlement of Arab, Sephardic Jewish and Syrian persons (among others); inter-island migration within the region; and relocation to metropoles abroad. This brief and incomplete sketch of the historical context doesn’t begin to fully represent the cultural admixture and linguistic complexities of the Caribbean as creole societies, the larger circum-Atlantic Caribbean (including the Bahamas, the Caribbean coast of Central America, Guyana, and Surinam), and sites of migration. The historical trauma of the region is still very much a part of our reality and continually impacts the challenges faced by Caribbean societies and peoples, as well as the topics addressed by writers in the current era.

For any contemporary writer, the plurilingualism of the region is both an extraordinary creative potential and, at times, a barrier to fully knowing the work of writers from neighbouring islands and mainland localities, who may publish in another language. English-lexifier and French-lexifier Lesser Antillean Creole with island variants, English, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Garifuna, Hindi, Jamaican Creole (Patois/ Patwa), Papiamento, Sarnami, Spanish, Sranan Tongo, and Urdu are just some of the literary languages available to Caribbean writers, but every geographical location of the Caribbean has its own specific idiom, vocabulary, and shared set of references. Both editors of The Sea Needs No Ornament/ El mar no necesita ornamento revel in the region’s linguistic diversity, hoping that this anthology will promote multilingualism and more solidarity between women writers and their readers, who have been separated by geography and language barriers but who share global histories and the urgencies of the contemporary moment.

As translators, we were aware of working within these different linguistic and cultural contexts. Two fundamental principles helped us find the best solutions to translate Creole into Spanish. Throughout the process, we learnt that when translating Creole, no single strategy can be implemented in all contexts. Sometimes there are no direct equivalents between English and Spanish words.

For any contemporary writer, the plurilingualism of the region is both an extraordinary creative potential and, at times, a barrier

We debated and deliberated over whether or not we would include endnotes about the cultural content – fauna, flora, historical events, persons, or other potentially unfamiliar details or vocabulary in the poems. Respecting our contributors’ intentions, we chose to leave it to readers to have the pleasure of looking up any unfamiliar references.

Some of the poets engage in wordplay, selecting words with multiple meanings, all the layers of which might not even be understood in a neighbouring island of the same language grouping. We tried as much as possible to maintain that multiplicity in the text rather than in explanatory endnotes. This aspect of the project was both challenging and enjoyable, requiring consultation with the writers.

We dealt with questions about cross-cultural understanding by carrying out searches and exploring regional differences in vocabulary when deciding which vernacular of Spanish (Cuba, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, and Diaspora locations) or English (the various islands, the Creole continuum, and Diaspora locations) we were going to use to arrive at the best equivalent translation of a word or phrase for a particular poem.

We began this project just a few weeks before Hurricane Irma and Hurricane María ravaged the Caribbean and left an apocalyptic landscape in Puerto Rico and many of our sister islands. Because we knew how phenomenal these women are as persons and writers and how vital it was that their work crossed language divides, we remained focused and full of hope during the aftermath of having no electricity, water, internet, and communication systems, scarcity of basic necessities, university closure, and the unexpected health challenges and surgeries that we both underwent.

We completed the book at an equally historic Caribbean moment when the island that has served as our project base had risen up in massive, intensely creative street protests to challenge the political system, see a governor resign, denounce corruption and public expressions of misogyny, homophobia, and racism, and defend the right to a better future. Women were protagonists in initiating a social revolution. As we prepared the text for publication, Puerto Rico was dealing with damage and displacement caused by a series of earthquakes and aftershocks. Women again played a vital role in organising community based relief efforts.

We are excited and joyful that this book, crafted in such a charged atmosphere and comprised of the work of our sistren, has found its way.




Loretta Collins Klobah is the author of two poetry collections published by Peepal Tree Press, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman (2012) and Ricantations (2018). Her debut collection won the OCM Bocas Award for Caribbean literature in the category of poetry and was short-listed for the 2012 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection, offered by the Forward Prizes. The second book was a Summer Recommendation by the UK’s Poetry Book Society. She has also been awarded the Pushcart Prize for Poetry, the Earl Lyons Award from The Academy of American Poets, a scholarship at Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, a Fulbright for research in Jamaica, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Maria Grau Perejoan holds a doctoral degree in Cultural Studies with an emphasis on Caribbean Literature and Literary Translation from the University of Barcelona, and an MPhil in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. She was visiting lecturer at the UWI, St Augustine Campus for three academic years, she then moved on to lecture courses in Caribbean Literature and Translation at the University of Barcelona, and since 2020 she is a lecturer at the Department of Spanish, Modern and Classical Languages at the University of the Balearic Islands. She was awarded the scholarship Becas Iberoamérica: Santander Investigación (2016-2017), and The Fulbright Commission, Spain, selected her to be part of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program (2017-2018), enabling her to work on this project in Puerto Rico.

EDITORS’ NOTE: This is an extract from both editors’ introduction to The Sea Has No Ornament (Peepal Tree, 2020), a bilingual anthology of contemporary poetry by women writers of the English- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean and its Diasporas. It received a PEN Translates award in 2018.

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