Grunting and Grooming in a Room of One’s Own: On Translating Giannina Braschi’s Yo-Yo Boing!
AFTER TRANSLATING GIANNINA Braschi’s collected poetry into English (Empire of Dreams, Yale University Press, 1994), I figured her new bilingual novel Yo-Yo Boing! (Latin American Literary Review Press, 1998) would be a piece of cake. After all, Empire Dreams is poetry and Yo-Yo Boing! is fiction. Shouldn’t prose be easier? And, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a bilingual book would take half the time to translate since the author already did half the job? I thought so, but it didn’t take long to change my mind.
Written in an unprecedented blend of Spanish and English, Yo-Yo Boing! takes a hard look at life in the global metropolis of New York City at the turn of the 21st century. In a time when elected officials are pushing for more restrictive immigration and English-only laws in backlash to the booming Hispanic population in the United States, Braschi insists on celebrating the beauty and force of an explosive new American language and experience. She rides the controversial wave of bilingualism today, making sheer poetry out of dark politics and radiant music out of stark madness.
Though the first chapter Oh-Oh was written entirely in (Spanish) prose, each sentence has a high-dose of life-affirming poetry pulsating through its veins. The novel opens with a close-up description of a woman in her bathroom doing bathroom things. Alone in a private physical and mental space, she stands before a mirror and performs an intimate body ritual that becomes a self-reflexive language ritual. In her introduction to Yo-Yo Boing!, Doris Sommer explains this ritual as the book’s refusal “to decide between performing in English and reveling in Spanish.” She writes:
“The fact that the first pages are written in a rush of gloriously nuanced Spanish sentences, that teeter between grotesque and burlesque bodily functions, may leave the readers clueless about what will come next. But if the protagonist in her toilet is a hint about things to come, it’s because she doesn’t decide between her toilette’s alternative meanings of water-closet and of beautification process. Instead she relishes the slow-motion, unnervingly detailed processes of voiding and indulging in vanity, of grunting and grooming.”
The excruciating detail of the zoom lens narration reveals as much about seeing and writing as it does about being and aging. The scene is as much about self-reflection and isolation as it is about inspiration and communication. It’s also as much about human nature as it is about the nature of the Spanish language. Herein lies the difficulty in translation: in rendering the exquisitely nuanced, meticulously crafted, rhythmically mesmerizing complex Spanish sentences into plain ol’ English. In short: how d’ya make it flow?
Because English has always felt more concrete to me than Spanish, the zoom lens technique that Braschi uses with extraordinary virtuosity loses none of its perceptive or magnifying power in translation. Precision comes with English, but melody doesn’t. Therefore, finding the explicit words was easy; arranging them in musical order was not. I have restructured many lines and phrases in Oh-Oh to save what must always be saved across language barriers: the spirit of the poetry, its rhythm and run.
Lest the readers feel “clueless about what will come next,” I can tell you this much about the rest of the novel. The camera zooms out, third person narration ends, and the rest of the book is a fast and furious bilingual dialogue about art, sex, food, movies, books, and everyday city life. Scenes vigorously cross-cut throughout public and private spaces of New York City with rapid tempos and humorous gusto — from the Upper West Side soiree to the Lower East Side tertulia, from the diner booth to the subway platform, from the movie theater line to the unemployment line, and from the bathroom to the bedroom.
The ideal audience for Yo-Yo Boing! is obviously a savvy bilingual reader who can enjoy the novel hot off the shelf “as is.” Others will have to wait until I can figure out to translate all the code-switching bilingual dialogues, without losing all their humor and gusto. Perhaps English-only readers can spend some time with Empire of Dreams while I keep plugging away at Yo-Yo Boing! In the meantime, please enjoy this preview entitled Oh-Oh.
—New York, New York, August 10, 1998
SHE STARTS ON all fours, crawling like a child, but she is a wild animal with a great big trunk, an elephant. And little by little her neck starts popping, and little by little her neck starts growing, one inch, then two inches, then five inches, until her head inches its way so far from the floor that she’d almost swear it reaches the ceiling and she’d almost swear it’s grown so big and so fast that it doesn’t fit inside the house anymore. And then it dawns on her that what has grown is not her head but her neck, which means that she must be a giraffe. Then she starts hunching over, the bones in her hands and feet start crackling, there’s a rumbling throughout her body, bombs exploding, fireworks, thunder, lightning, throbbing, and she tries in vain to allay the uprising. She feels like spreading her cheeks like a ham and cheese sandwich, opening wide, releasing that other part of her body, those brown pebbles which are sometimes pleasant and sometimes prolonged, which are sometimes nearly melted inside and out, which are big and round and green, which are her darling pooh-poohs, her little poopsie-woopsies, and the yellow waters melting and plunging with them into the bowl, smelling of that other smell, violently sour, enticingly foul like budding buds and violets. She wanted to feel her black blood cascade, her body’s dead blood, and she wanted to bathe in all of the blood of the death of her youth. She felt the urge to sit on the throne, to squat slowly, to pull down her pantyhose which doubled as a girdle and then her panties which were so tight that she could barely breathe. She wanted to breathe freely, unfasten her bra, scratch and stroke her itching breasts, fondle her nipples in front of the mirror, turn sideways, to see her nose looking hooked and humped like a scorpion, a hairy spider, she wanted to become the hairy spider she was and scratch the itch like she was picking a berry, one of those pimples that look like chicken pox, and to see the spurt of blood and suck it like a vampire, then burrow into her sex where the wavy hair tangles into curly knots, and see the layer of crust and smell the sweet smell of coffee skim, sugar crust, and sleep on one of her blisters and milk its clear and frothy nectar until she gladly felt it burst, and explore all her little nooks and crannies until she was empty, hollow and broken. She noticed a little scab on her knee. The top was dry. She could either yank it off and let it bleed, or she could peel it back like a band-aid and see another layer of skin under the first, not tanned, but musty and pink. First she acted like she wasn’t interested, then she started tracing its outline, caressing, charming and wooing it with her fingertips, rousing a vibration, a rich metallic sound, and it looked like it wanted to leave the knee for the hand that played it like a guitar, yes, they made music together, drew blood, yellow waters, then it started reaching out to the hand, unraveling itself from the knee, while the fingertips seduced it, the nails flayed it off the kneecap, and though the scab was uprooted, bloody and sore, it posed like the beloved maiden in the palm of her hand, where it was caressed again, adored by her eyes, yearned by her saliva, suckled by her tongue, momentarily teased by her lightning desire. After having sucked and nibbled and kneaded it, she spit it out, stepped on it with her big toe, then picked it up and flicked it in the sink. She turned on the faucet, and it was sucked down the drain. Detached from her roots and whims, she restlessly searched for another star, another match to light a fire under her kettle of yearnings, a concrete, objective goal, a grain of sand to roll between her fingertips, a warm bread crumb where she could stop to think for a moment or sleep in the tenderness of what she touches. In doing so, somewhat obsessively, her breathing began to sound like the breathing of a weary animal, and this breathing, deliberately slow and deep, began to sound like the breathing of a surgeon about to make the first incision. She gently placed the bloody wound in her mouth, the blister’s sheath on her tongue, and played with all the different textures she found on her body — her snot and the gook from her sleepy eyes were her dolls and toys — and she played hide-and-seek and stuck them to different parts of her body like a stamp collector, and she did all of this while listening to slow and deliberate music, while feeling some deep desire to push out, to breathe in, to breathe out, in and out, in and out. There she was excavating a cave with the knuckles of her forefingers pressing against a hole, when slowly out wriggled the profile of a white worm. She pressed her knuckles harder against the irritated skin a few more times until a blackhead emerged. Nice start, but the lava was still bubbling inside. Another squeeze, a little pus and blood, the volcano was erupting, but it wasn’t the blood she was after, no, blood alone wouldn’t do it, all the pus had to be drained, the pollen, the whole worm had to come out, alive and kicking. The first attempt was too abrupt. She must steady the squeeze and hold the pressure, she must smother the little hole, suffocate it, bust it open, spread it wide, leave it empty-empty of water, blackhead and blood-leave it empty, shiny and clean. Having spread its legs, it was cornered and kicking on one side of the pore where it defended its cavern which was attacked from all sides by cannons and rifles, but the more it was attacked, the more it resisted, burrowing deeper into the walls of the pore, showing no sign that it would ever surrender or accept defeat. It had become part of her flesh, it had lived in plenty of other pores around the wings of her nostrils, and it had sealed them all with blackheads, but it was only here-in this little hole-that it had felt at home. Yes, it was a cave-dwelling nomad, but it was only here — in this little hole — that it had lingered longer at leisure, incognito. It had tried to keep a low profile, having learned its lesson from other places, having been ousted for wanting to shine, bright and sunny, for pretending to be thorn, for being light, but it was only here — in this little hole — that it had camouflaged itself and its bitter misery. At first she thought it was a mole, but then she noticed the edge, the crest, and she squeezed it furiously because she had been fooled. She wet the open pore with some water. This time it won’t get away. She would force it out against its will with her firm and steady fists, it would have to come out with its hands up, it would have to surrender its wounds, its bulges and all its goods. And so it did. Out came its neck, then its hands, its legs, the belly was enormous, gigantic, it was perfect, plackity, plackity, plack, plack, plack, that’s how it emerged and surrendered itself whole, looking all shiny and greasy on the swollen tip of her pink nose. There it was, wide-eyed and nosy, probably trying to snoop on the blackhead, it puffed itself up, it looked like a fly, yes, like a fly about to fly. It crawled around the circumference of the dimple like a tick, and ate meat, and was swarmed by ants, speckles of freckles, as we all know-wherever you find meat, you find pesky critters. She looked closer, oh, yes, it’s you, a queer bug, queer indeed, how d’ya pick it up, she loosened it with her finger. It danced on her fingertip like a cricket or a grasshopper, zigzagging, wigwagging its tailend, zaggling, waggling like a piece of wire, like a piece of white string, acting out its joi de vivre, its lust for life. As she paused upon her captive, her mouth began to water. It was her tongue rather than her teeth and lips that wanted it most. And what for? To pass it along so that the palate could taste the pleasure of taking a guest and keeping it captive, and then after napping on the silver bed of a molar for a second, or a few days, why not tease it some more, start a riot, make a funny face, or have an orgy, sure, why not get it rip-roaring drunk and then make it vanish. Bottoms up. Down the hatch. Want some more? Well, help yourself. Now’s the chance. Her mouth is open. It’s now or never. You’ve got to act fast. You’ve got to find the first little crack and peep through the gap and squeeze yourself through, yes, jump right in there, between her two front teeth. Com’on, hurry, hurry, you’ve got to hurry, it’s a golden opportunity, a once in a lifetime chance, you’ve got to hurry and slide down her nose and bypass her tonsils and let her palate say hello-good morning, tongue, excuse me, molar, yummy phlegm is passing through-quickly, yes, run and run as fast as you can and push your way through, swing from her tonsils, bounce off her palate, land behind her teeth, push your way through, squeeze your way between the gap, hoist yourself onto the front tooth, yes, the one on the right. What a riot! Though she searched and searched and couldn’t find you, she laughed and found her dimple instead, open and naked with its shameless grin. Look at me, sweetie. Look this way. She looked at the cabinet mirror and saw three little hairs on her chinny, chin, chin. She took a pointy pair of tweezers out of her make-up bag and tried to pluck the first little hair. Impossible, it was newly born, smaller than a zit, and far from ready yet. She went after the second little hair with another pair of tweezers that were squared at the tip. She quickly sized it up from the corner of her eye and plucked it out with one swift pluck. Harried and obsessed, she returned to the first little hair, and she plucked and she plucked and she plucked until she finally plucked it out. She moved swiftly along the course of her jaw, and yes, there was peachfuzz, as well as scanty pricks, which, though they had no thorny tips, stood out in the sunlight ugly and thick, and so, she uprooted them one by one using a magnifier and the tweezers that were squared at the tip. Then she ran her fingers underneath her chinny, chin, chin, searching for the last prickly-pear, the third little hair. She gave it three smart tugs, but couldn’t get it. Then she took the pointy tweezers, firmed her grip, grabbed the third little hair by the head and savagely yanked it out, root and all. Now her chin felt flat and smooth like an iron, and she felt happy and soothed. Then she began browsing her jawbone for pimples to pop, but she found only little black markings of the pimples she had already popped. Her bare face was full of little pliers and wires, nooks and holes, warts and moles. She had to cover these blemishes, her monotonous and daily sufferings, with base. She dabbed some drops of Doré on her forehead, letting it dribble a bit, before dabbing some more on the tip of her nose and gliding it down the wings with her forefinger, covering holes and dashing Souci on her plump cheeks. She started spinning, smearing and encircling her flushed cheeks, skating in concentric circles, sliding her greasy fingertips over little lumpy bumps, shooting comets and bullets, gliding them back over the nose as if they were trapezists or tumblers. Crossing a catwalk of memories, memories that breeze by, quickly regarded, as swiftly as a train leaving behind town after town in the blink of an eye, journey and remembrance, staring out the window at grazing animals, batting eyelashes, and dimples. She smoothed the base into her forehead, allowing it to blend into her temples, then she gave an orange, green and violet expression to her eyes. The eyeliner flowed across her eyelids, startled eggshell, yellow yolk, and it started spitting and shining and doodling little blossoms. She opened the dusty blush-on, huffed and puffed on it, then wiped its mirror with kleenex. She didn’t see her turtle neck, pug nose or open pores. As she turned sideways, her nose blocked the view of the bags under her eyes, but not the blinking of her lashes. She lowered the mirror until she saw her dry lips, which she moistened with the tip of Nimphea. She chose Bloonight from the cabinet, as well as a round handmirror to magnify the dimensions of her complex, perplexed, farfetched misfortunes. She saw ticks and roaches and sank in the terrifying panic of her pain. She flipped the handmirror over, and once again contemplated the surface of the landscape and the geography of her continent. She coated her lashes with Bloonight, which was sputtering at the mouth, and as she was batting her lashes, the mascara brush hit her eyeball, causing a furious flutter and a long, thick crocodile tear, salty and black. She drew over the bags under her eyes with coverstick to mask the stain, blinked again, and powdered her face with a powder puff, imagining that she was erasing drawings from a chalkboard. A clown. All painted-up in white, with two dark shadows over her eyes and two plums on her cheeks, and her lips, wet and ready to kiss a cherry, were puckered and painted in blood-red wax. And two streams flowed down her temples, two long streaks of sweat that lingered in the wrinkles, not wrinkles quietly settled by age, but wrinkles quickly etched by the emotion of her eyes, by the furrows that furrowed and drained into her mouth where they melted on her tongue and vanished beyond the knot in her throat. It was mesmerizing to watch how the lashes resembled the blustering of an autumn tree trying to balance its branches, how the leaves were falling, blinking leafy and startled, how the windows of the skin opened to breathe, and how the pores absorbed the make-up that was melting like a candle in a candlestick, and how the illusion was darkening, and how the powder, in trying to hide the caves and thorns, made them even more noticeable, and how the cold transparency shined through and how it warmed and thawed in the flames, and how the same lights and shadows and the dance of lights and shadows were playing havoc on the neck, while the skin was sucking the succulent juice of the grease, and one wondered whether it was the grease that came from within, maybe from deep within, or whether it was the cream from the make-up, or whether it was a combination of both, with the dusty, crusty blush-on and the dry, chapped lips, having used all the lipstick, and even when she wouldn’t remove any of these facepaints, when her face had already become the mask it was, when she could no longer rid herself of the magical spell of her sweat, and the furrows and reefs where the currents of her tears flowed, and the smile and elongation of her squinting eyes and the wrinkling of her expression, smoothed, cooked, uncooked in its crucifixion had been sculpted into caterpillars, warts, turtles, spiders, hunchbacks, tattoos, in markings that no longer grow or, if they grow, they only grow old, but at least they don’t crawl backwards like crabs, instead they persist in prolonging themselves, in opening themselves wider, in extending their movement and growth until it’s paralyzed in high maturation and stunned by the death of youth, and the ear of a wrinkle listens to the sounds in a seashell, and one wonders whether they will ever be warts or moles or wrinkles again. Oh, mirror, mirror on the wall, shattering into so many faces, which is the realest of them all, which always lies, which fears it’s not the call of death, which is too real, but the very death that is reality, and won’t swallow lies or mask itself in make-up. She turned on a little green bulb, spotlighting her left side. As the light spread across her face, she closed her eyes slowly and strained to open them again. Reflected was the displeasure of seeing herself sideways, half in darkness, deformed, not only by the light, but also by the disharmony she felt in her eyes and crooked mouth. She searched her face for the cause of her displeasure. She fancied it was a fixation, just a peeve, that made her see herself this way, if she had some distance from the image reflected, she would have liked being herself, yes, maybe that was it, that she was sick and tired of seeing herself confined to the loneliness of her own face. And if that weren’t so, then how was it that others found her attractive, how could they, unless they saw her differently than she saw herself. She thought about the tone of her voice, so shrill when she screamed, when she didn’t know why or how she became so enraged with a rage that sent tremors through her jaws, hardened her gullet, and scorched her throat. She thought about all the times that she had the exact image of how her hair should look, but no matter how she combed it, her hair took whatever shape it wanted. But what bothered and baffled her, truly baffled her, and set her beside herself, was the desire to see herself as others saw her. She wanted to know what they were thinking of her, and if they kept what they were thinking to themselves, and if they were thinking something different than what they were saying, and why was her face, and not only hers, but everyone who looks at herself, a high cement wall, so impenetrable, so truly impenetrable, mysterious and silent. Why were they at war in her face, the accumulation of grease and the shine in her eyes glazed with crocodile tears, and the devastating bags under her sleepless eyes, and she heard within herself, throughout herself, in a muted stillness forming a shore in her face, shores of thoughts, not thoughts buried in a tomb of an alarm clock, not thoughts barred in a coffin with padlocks, but those wrinkles that flourish and blossom, those subways heading downward from the tip of the nose, toward the half-open mouth, because they were puckered and marked and cooked, they were the ruminations of the face with the face, the encounter between the interrogator and the interrogated, between the trench and the ditch. As the film, awash with stains, was developing in the sunlight, as she was revealing herself at this very moment, as if she had been veiled in white, as she was appearing, never the same in the changing movement since the first slide down the toboggan of her profile, she wanted to free herself from herself, and from all her thoughts. She wanted to reflect without them behind her, forcing the way. When her eyes were focused on a fixed point, and she began to project all kinds of images on the screen of her forehead, it was almost always after spending a night far away from her yearnings, her desires, when they eagerly returned and struggled to appear on screen. And they almost always came light, soft, not rough, like a bubbling waterfall, like cheerful solace, refreshing her face, allowing her eyes to recover the first illusion. Indeed, her eyes clouded and cried with childish excitement, and while the music played on the stereo, she started speaking with the projected images that suddenly appeared, bubbling, easy, uninterrupted, with no short circuit of communication, as it was impossible to short circuit because it had surged from the pleasure of a night when the drunkenness and its hangover had freed her from her anxieties of feeling clenched in her own jaws or tied down by the chains that bound her to the hips of her own body. But it was necessary to feel the heaviness and the bitterness of her body, to feel the whip and the bar, in order to later soar like birds and sing as she had never sung before, in perfect tone with the color of the music, which, emerging from her mouth full of feverish illusion, would communicate the splendor of her liberated agony. She had to sustain the note, hold it firmly, loving it, but resisting and pushing it because it should keep rising, surging up through the elbows of the imagination, down through the armpits of the earthquake, and trembling in the vibrant, divided gravity of the tone. She had to conduct it with the baton and at the same time resist its invasion from afar, and control her emotions, and be the producer, the motor, the speed, as well as the ear listening to the rise of emotion and interrupting the imbalance, disharmony, tone-deafness, and be the hand holding, grabbing, lifting and encouraging it, causing the pain of pleasure as her blood rises. And she had to do all of this not only with the flight of her hands, but with slow and deliberate movements, by lowering her eyes to intensify the movement of her hands, and by following the movement of silence and the pause of her finger, by allowing her hips and shoulders and breathing to be moved by her hands, and by conducting the measure and the diapason, making her neck arch back and her brows furrow, maintaining the emotional current running throughout her body, while her feet are tapping to the beat in her head, her eyes are feeling the vibration, and she opens her mouth uttering certain mute words, and then lowers her tone and submerges it in a balanced effervescence that lowers the voice even further until it vanishes, down the hatch, and then it rounds out the corner of her lips mouthing a round O, and then a vibrant semi-open E to dot the aggressive divided i that precedes and interposes another gracious figurative note laughing like a goat, which is an E that comes before a white open A. Proud and distant, a minor climbs the scale of A major, and from there looks for E and tells it how to act toward the most fertile U, while O is too self-absorbed, it’s like a closed ball, assuming it can’t join E or i because they’re always together or mingling with other fertile couples, but O is the motor of O, of the exclamation OH-OH! You close your mouth slowly. But your yawn slowly dawns again — it opens its desire to see the sky cloudy — yawn falling from the sky-open, open your mouth wide, never keep it closed, even a yawn like a prayer can turn into a replica, a replica of the same, the very same thing, when the open mouth opens the open mouth O and it becomes the exclamation OH-OH! And it awkwardly balances on its two swings, on its two hips, moving, holding and enclosing itself in the claustrophobia of a whole orange, a full moon, or the sun in its highest permanence and splendor as the other vowels of the alphabet make their wigwagging, zigzagging pilgrimage toward the closed O, toward its obscurity and silence, musically rendering their desire to be loved or joined at last to O. Imagine U‘s fury when it almost touches it, but U feels like it’s missing a few hairs on its head, or it’s missing a hat to cover it completely and protect it from the burning sun. And by now, A, standing tiptoe on top, arches its leafy branches, covered with bouquets and herbs that make it feel so important in the power of the music and the scale. And all of them, each and every one at its own level, feel completely potent and vigorous and fulfill their mission of exalting the production of her name, in complementing and developing all her vigor, from the tip of O‘s big toe, to the weedy crop on top of E, they are formed by forms that have formed forms, they have tightened the measure of her forms, exercised her muscles, heard the grumbling in her belly, the rumbling of her ribs, the knuckles and joints in her hands, the underarm hair, the counterbeat, the countersweat of the smell, the sulfur and the sopor, the white steam of black breath, the black steam of white breath, the intense soporific contractions, the warm breath of the open mouth, closing and opening, opening and closing in the slow and deliberate movement, attentive to the movement it makes when opening and closing, the supreme control of herself over her own death, watching this death while closing her eyes, falling silent as she closes them, listening to the gentle tremble of her eyelids, and gently trembling with them in the splendor of this gentle tremble, in the union of the body with the body, dying and opening, contracting and fading, dividing and closing itself off from everything, on all sides, full of permanencies.
(translated from the Spanish by Tess O’Dwyer)
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