Translation as Activism: An Interview with Rachel Galvin

Hay caballos en su pubis, hay caballos en su vientre, en
su pelvis hay una gaita algebraica, hay unos engranajes
de volteo, hay galápagos, en su vientre. Hay galápagos y
golpes: galopes.
                                    –excerpt from “Cowboy,”
                                    by Alejandro Albarrán Polanco, 2017.
“There are horses in the pubis, there are horses in the
abdomen, in the pelvis there are algebraic bagpipes, there
are some dumping gears, there are galápagos in the abdo-
men. There are galápagos and wallops: gallops.”
              -excerpt translation by Rachel Galvin, 2019.

On May 8, 2020, Ugly Duckling Press held a “Poetry and/in Translation” event as part of their Señal series, a chapbook collection of contemporary Latin American poets and their translators. Featured among the evening’s guests were Alejandro Albarrán Polanco, who zoomed-in from Xalapa, Mexico, to read from Cowboy & otros poemas, and his translator, Rachel Galvin, who zoom-translated in tandem from Chicago. Dr. Galvin, an award-winning poet, translator and scholar based in Chicago, graciously connected with Columbia Journal for a phatic chat about wallops, activism and the future in self-translation.

I was knocked out by your work and Alejandro’s poetry through your work at the UDP event, and also very interested to discover that you’ve translated Raymond Queneau. (President and co-founder of Oulipo, a literary group formed in France in 1960, who married poetry and mathematics through structural constraints such as the N+7 formula).

Thank you for your interest, thank you for reading and wanting to talk about it; I’m really grateful. I was doing a creative writing degree at the University of Texas at Austin, and a professor suggested that I try some translations since I knew other languages. So for my thesis, I did a selection of three French authors: Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert and Boris Vian.

What are some of the differences in translating Spanish and French?

That’s a great question. I started learning Spanish as a baby so I have a very visceral connection to the language, whereas French was something I learned in High School and spent a lot of time studying and feel very close to, but it’s a different level of affective and corporal relationship to the language. I respond differently to poems in Spanish than I do to poems in French. They pluck different chords for me. And of course, I try to do the same in French as I do when translating from Spanish in terms of creating a poem that’ll correspond to the original poem and how it makes me feel affectively and somatically. But I will say there is that initial feeling toward the language, which is very hard to put into words.

For me that’s the Tagalog, as opposed to when I translate from French. I understood Tagalog as a child, there’s an emotional connection, it’s the language of my parents. Do you think that your understanding of Spanish in this special way taught you about the conundrums of translating in general?

I like how you’re thinking about that because it’s exactly those emotional, as you say, and cultural connections, that are inherent in language and how language works. There’s so much that’s phatic about language, there’s so much that’s socio-linguistic about language, and especially in something like poetry where the music is everything. It’s very important to me when I translate from a fixed form––I have done a fair amount of translation from French––it’s really important to me to translate a poem in form into form in English or to create, like with Alejandro’s poems, some kind of word play, or multiple associations to evoke the polysemy in English in the same way that I feel it happening in the Spanish. Sometimes that’s incredibly frustrating when you have a pun that brings a philosophical concept and a vernacular joke together, as Queneau and Alejandro both do.

A major difference in working with Alejandro, as opposed to the living members of the Oulipo, like Paul Fournel, Hervé Le Tellier, Olivier Salon––I’ve had direct conversations with them to help clarify and to ask permission to do things––but the major difference is that Alejandro has given me a kind of license to make the poems in English chime in the ways that they do in Spanish.

When you begin a translation, how many dictionaries do you have around you? Which do you favor? Do you do a fast treatment initially? What’s your process?

A long time ago, I carried back a giant Spanish dictionary from Argentina––it was huge, I don’t know what I was thinking. And a Harraps from France, over a dozen years ago. I still have them but the truth is I start at, and for Spanish, the Real Academia Española, the RAE Dictionary online. It is, of course, produced in Spain in a Spanish context, so it’s not always in tune with the particularities of Latin American usage, and, let’s say, Mexican usage.

With Alejandro’s work, I always read a poem of his out loud, multiple times, and look up words I don’t know, try to seek out the basics and do a rough first pass to just get it down so I can see the shape of the poem on the page. I feel like I’m talking it through to myself the first time. It also helps me see the places where I know I’m going to have to spend extra attention to make something work, and the places that are rough or that I don’t understand and are challenging.

One of the great benefits of being able to work with Alejandro is that I have a friendship and a collaboration with him. I’ve been able to ask him questions very particularly and repeatedly. I check with friends and colleagues if I’m not up to date on all the latest Mexican slang––as much as I try to keep up, it’s not going to happen. So I talk to people to get those questions resolved. But then after, I have to say, it’s just revision after revision after revision of reading it out loud. The sound is super important to me, the rhythm is super important to me. I make many passes at it in that way.

Is there a Spanish word for Cowboy?

Not really. There are words like gaucho, which is specific to Argentina only. Or cowboy.

(mutual laughter)

There’s vaquiero. I guess that would be a sort of general term. But each country has their particularity and so forth.

Is there a section in this collection that you felt really proud of, or was there a section that was really troublesome, and you had to keep going back, testing different combinations?

One example would be in the long poem, “Cowboy.” Hay galápagos y golpes: galopes––that was something I really loved, it’s like a mathematical equation. There’s some kind of equivalence, like if you add galápagos and golpes, you get galopes. I wanted to do something like that in English, and I sweated over it and then felt really good when that fell into place.

Some people talk about translation as activism. The recent outrage and BLM activism sparked by footage caught on phone-cameras makes me think about “The Citizen Witness,” a theme your own work addresses as well as Alejandro’s poetry. How else can translators work as activists?

Don Mee Choi has written a pamphlet on translation as a decolonial politics. She’s writing as a South Korean person who is clearly, deeply and personally aware of, not even the legacy, but the active effects of American imperialism. For her, translating in between Korean and English has a certain valence to it, which of course is slightly different from, say, me translating a white man from France who published his book in the 1960’s. Action Books, founded by Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson, have been publishing a range of poets who would not have reached English translation and reached circulation otherwise. Antena, founded by Jen Hofer and John Pluecker, have been working for language justice in California and the Southwest for some time, arguing for the political import of translation and of creating multilingual spaces.

I started working with Alejandro, (via the 2016 Lit&Luz Festival) in an Arts exchange with Mexico, just as Trump was elected. We’re having this crisis at the border: children being kept in cages, people wanting to seek asylum at the border and being imprisoned, their rights being stripped away from them. It felt really important to create conversation and exchange between the average people in the U.S. and Mexico, to build bridges and to have connections that don’t go through the state apparatus. It also feels important, now that the U.S. is the largest Spanish speaking country, after Mexico––we’ve actually beat Spain with the number of Spanish speakers––and I live in a city, in Chicago, where one out of four people is a Spanish speaker. If there is a very modest and heavily-circumscribed activist bent to my scholarship and to my translating, part of it is to help bring visibility to the fact that we are a multi-lingual nation––obviously, it’s not just Spanish that’s spoken here. This is the reality about our culture. To bring that to the fore, to bring voices forward who wouldn’t be heard otherwise, is really important to me.

Thoughts about untranslatables?

That gets back to your question earlier about emotional and cultural associations with words and phrases. That is very real and very powerful. For example, the idea of saudade in Portuguese, which is a kind of melancholy or longing, a nostalgia for something you might not have experienced yet, or of someone you might not know yet. So we need sixteen words to say that in English instead of one.

That said, I’m part of a creative translation group called the Outranspo. One of the things that we say in our manifesto is that if you believe that something is untranslatable, there’s no problem, you just need to stop not-translating it.

Karen Emmerich’s Literary Translation and the Making of Originals, which came out three years ago, argues for understanding translation as a kind of iterative process. She argues against the idea of equivalents. She says there are no invariants in language. She gives anecdotal examples in her introduction of trying to translate a Greek text and discovering there was no singular original; There were so many versions of it that she had to interpolate them in order to arrive at something to translate. On the one hand, the text is not stable or coherent itself, it’s not coherent unto itself, and on the level of language, language is discontinuous and shifting, and the translator is an author. These are elements that combine to make a compelling argument for setting aside the idea of untranslatability, and instead recognizing the creative potential of an element that might stump you about a text, which is really an opportunity to make something in the language.

Which came first, your poetry or translation?

Poetry. I’ve been writing since I was a tiny, naive child who had no idea what I was doing. But again, growing up with two languages, you’re aware of translation in a different way. My mom was working as a simultaneous interpreter during the first sanctuary movement for Central Americans fleeing violence, especially from El Salvador. I witnessed her doing that work and the political import of that in a way that also made me aware of the differences between the languages.

How has your work in translation affected your poetry, your writing?

It took me some time to recognize this…translating from rhyme into rhyme in both English and Spanish, I think, started affecting my brain patterns. The linguists study this––we pick up patterns of thinking, patterns of sound, word chains from speaking other languages and being immersed in other texts. I find that those imprint themselves upon me in ways that I don’t expect. I’ll look back at something and oh, there’s an echo of the syntax of a poem by Queneau here. It has nothing to do with the content or anything.


Something I’m writing about now which has been very inspiring to me is the work of some contemporary, Latinx poets who are translating themselves. Urayoán Noel, Mónica de la Torre and Raquel Salas Rivera are all translating themselves. This is a very different kind of Latinx poetry that doesn’t necessarily code switch or involve the use of what’s sometimes called Spanglish, but rather an English and Spanish version that’s done creatively by the same person. This is complicated because it changes ideas of authority around translation and who gets to make what decisions with the text. Some of these writers describe a kind of mutually influencing process of writing both texts at once. There isn’t necessarily a primary text in Spanish and then a translation in English; one is written at the same time as the other. I find this very productive for conversations in Translation studies right now. To do away with these very hoary notions of fidelity and translation as being reproductive as opposed to productive. These contemporary examples of experiments in self-translation throw that all up in the air. It’s also exciting work that’s thinking about the experience of being Puerto Rican and living in New York, being bi-cultural Mexican and American, having active lives in both places at once, and two sets of reading publics and so forth.

About the Translator
Rachel Galvin is a poet, translator and scholar. Her translation of Alejandro Albarran Polanco’s poems  will appear in Best American Experimental Writing 2020. She is the translator of Raymond Queneaus’s Hitting the Streets (Carcanat Press), which won the Scott Moncrieff Prize for translation, and co-translator of Decals: Complete Early Poetry of Oliverio Girondo with Harris Feinsod (Open Letter Press), a finalist for the National Translation Award. Her books of poetry include Elevated Threat Level (Green Lantern Press), which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Alice James Books Kinereth Gensler Award, and Pulleys & Locomotion (Black Lawrence Press). Her poems appear in journals like Boston Review, Colorado Review, Fence, Gulf Coast, The Nation, The New Yorker, and Poetry. She is the author of a work of criticism, News of War: Civilian Poetry 1936-1945 (Oxford University Press), and is associate professor at the University of Chicago. Galvin is a co-founder of Outranspo, an international creative translation collective (
About the Author 
Alejandro Albarrán Polanco is a poet from Mexico City. His poetry collection Algunas personas no son caballos won the Premio Internacional Manuel Acuña de Poesía en Lengua Española 2018. His other books include Ruido (Bonobos Editores), Tengo un pulmón que no es el cielo (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, La Ceibita), and Persona fea y ridícula (Fonda Editorial Tierra Adentro.) His poems have been translated into Danish, English, French, Polish, Portuguese, and Swedish, and will be featured in Best American Experimental Writing 2020. La Tempestad  magazine named him Emerging Writer of 2017.

About the Interviewer
R.F. Dua sits on the Translation Board of Columbia Journal, Issue 59. She is pursuing a joint MFA in Fiction and Translation at Columbia University.

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