Navigating the stories – (but in essence, the different but sometimes-intersecting worlds) in the Book of Havana – from their native language across more than one bridge to bring them to readers in the English speaking world was a work of love and profound sweat. Orsola Casagrande, as editor and ‘midwife’ had already immersed herself in the stories and their complexities as well as spending time with the authors before I myself arrived, and it was her quiet yet determined commitment to take this work a step further that made the task seem worthwhile. Being a resident of Havana herself and so having experienced many of the landmarks (both spiritual as well as geographical) that the stories used as references, also inspired our collaborative commitment to try and preserve the integrity of the writer’s vision while at the same time helping them find their place within the English speaking world. That this work also offered to bridge the gap between the socialist past of a revolutionary Cuba and an uncertain future also made it seem like a voyage worth taking.
Ernesto Guevara wrote (in Socialism and Man in Cuba, 1965) shortly before his untimely ‘execution’ by those more concerned with the status quo than with the “new man and woman” of the future:
“While a person dies every day during the eight or more hours in which he or she functions as a commodity, individuals come to life afterward in their spiritual creations. But this remedy bears the germs of the same sickness: that of a solitary being seeking harmony with the world.”
The Cuban revolution was going to change all that. Sixty years later I was genuinely curious to see if these writers, nurtured in the ‘deep heart’s core’ of that revolution, had found the door to this future and would thus be capable of guiding the rest of us, the lost ones, towards the Promised Land? Why else spend endless precious hours staring at a white screen and ‘listening’ to its strange murmuring that struggled to take shape and coherence?
It would be ‘nice’ if translating from one language (with all its nuance and complexity) to another (with similar complexity yet often differing culture and context) were simply a mechanical process. Likewise it would be even ‘nicer’ if the tension between the two was to become a dialectical experience where the collision of the end result would be the creation of an ideal world; one where the imagination and creativity of these Cuban writers could find a universal place to call home and welcome many English-speaking visitors. But the difficulties encountered in translation probably result more pragmatically in compromise than in dialectics and while the dialectical spark in ‘The Book of Havana’ was there in the love generated through the labour of the project (as well as its many characters searching for meaning and fulfillment within its boundaries), the compromise was the sweat and tears of travelling through these often meandering, sometimes distorted, certainly often highly-individual fictitional neighbourhoods, with very real (i.e. heartfelt’) characters and events where ‘reality’ becomes a challenge and not a given.
In a way, I sense, not totally dissimilar to our own work traversing these landscapes in the hope of accompanying these writers in their individual explorations, is the still-solitary excavations of the writer, trying to discover the possibilities of a Cuba, whose heart has to be in its oldest city, yet apparently now trapped between the past and the future, with all the uncertainty of the present as nourishment (as well as torment) for its body and soul.
In other words, staying true to these writers as well as following the unravelling (if not revolutionary) thread of their explorations, was a difficult if worthy task.
But passion, (perverted or not and despite its potential for abuse as we find in some of the alleys and apartments of this ’fictitious’ Havana), is what gives life and body to the stories, helping them to bridge the sometimes significant chasm between their local tastes and smells and oftentimes sensuous touch (all dilemmas to be experienced, overcome or made sense of) and this larger world we hope to arrive at, the one where, though we may share the same language, we are never sure if we have reached an adequate understanding of or with each other but are compelled nonetheless to reach towards.
This, of course, as Guevara pointed out, is the work of the future, the revolutionary future for him; for ourselves often the task now of finding out where, exactly, the present is…
Thus the days went by, and the passion and the work of ‘translating’ (discovering/uncovering) The Book of Havana evolved.
And it proceeded slowly over the course of almost a year a single world (i.e. ‘story’) at a time from the early days eavesdropping on (or perhaps taking dictation from) a notorious “terrorist” with a number of significant hits to his name but still only learning the profession (as well as the difference between the world of fantasy, that is “the movies” and the other, 9-to-5, one) to getting lost, more than once, in a surreal landscape filled with peculiar creatures, both human and other, somewhere and somehow interconnected with this one here, yet where the dead come back to life, the victims of a thoughtful killer returning to haunt not necessarily the assassin but rather the reader with a more-than slight unhinging of our sense of reality. One of the many worlds offered down the different days to explore with less certainty than was comfortable.
Some of these challenges made the work of translation extremely difficult. However it also made the work much more collaborative (and in a sense less personal) because there were many long discussions between us (both translators) in order to guarantee that in so far as is possible the integrity of the Cuban writers’ vision would be preserved. I noticed during this time that my inner sense of ‘listening’ (not to external sounds but to the inner dialogue) became acute.
Thus, while for the reader The Book of Havana will hopefully be a stimulating voyage through the many worlds contained in a single city like the Cuban capital, the work of translating was equally a sometimes unpredictable journey out just beyond my own comfort zone, but intense enough that eventually being forced to ‘let go’ in order that these ‘fictitious’ worlds would be able to breathe, I ended up with the quiet satisfaction of having genuinely travelled, not in geographical space (which is merely one of the possibilities reality offers us) but rather through a multi-dimensional void where, it appears, a potential of different possibilities are offered us to exist, to become and to live, and ultimately, (neither confirming nor denying Comrade Guevara’s great hope) showing that the human subject remains a work in progress, often an adventure that entails risk but always (as shaped by the writer if not the factory worker) with depth (and not the superficial) and certainly, (as Guevara would have agreed) with the promise of what is to come – “Revolutionaries will come who will sing the song of the new man and woman in the true voice of the people.” (Guevara) – though now, probably and for the foreseeable future, tragically, only metaphorically speaking.
Nevertheless to go the distance alongside these writers, in their time of transition (for Cuba in particular) matching our own uncertainties here in ‘the West’ was a work of learning, well worth the many long hours spent grappling with these ghosts now fixed firmly on the page; the phone calls, the emails, the missed meals, and ultimately the satisfaction that each of the writers and each of the stories, in their own unique way, had survived the voyage, crossed the bridge, if not between the past and the future then the one between languages and cultures, and arrived safely where an eager audience, hopefully, waits for their own adventure to start.
The Book of Havana
edited by Orsola Casagrande and translated by Orsola Casagrande & Séamas Carraher
available now from commapress.co.uk
Séamas Carraher is a working class writer and poet who also moonlights as a freelance translator and has also worked as a filmmaker. He is currently supporting long-term homeless street drinkers at night to pay the rent, having been a community activist for over 30 years. Orsola and Séamas have worked together for a number of years translating, writing and publishing in a variety of journals and literary reviews, in both English and Spanish. Orsola and Séamas continue to work together on the web magazine Global Rights (www.globalrights.info).