Mar 6

On Sovereignty and Self-Ownership

by: Raquel Salas Rivera

Raquel Salas Rivera is the newest poet laureate of Philadelphia—a position that puts art in civic space, that asks an artist to represent a city through their work, to translate a city through art. They’re originally from Puerto Rico, occupied under the label of U.S. sovereignty for over a century, and they often write about place. The last line of their bio is always this: “If for Roque Dalton there is no revolution without poetry, for Raquel, there is no poetry without Puerto Rico.” We’re an organization with creative placemaking on the brain, so we asked Raquel for their thoughts. The following essay speaks to the same ideas of self-ownership that we strive for in our work, supporting Philadelphia’s neighborhoods in representing themselves through art.

The Fetish of the Self-Translator, by Raquel Salas Rivera 

I was told by other translators that one is not supposed to self-translate. It is an inviolable rule like using non-binary pronouns with my grandmother, being queer, standing naked in front of the church, or letting my enemies see me cry. If you self-translate, you end up changing too much or misunderstanding your words. Being too close to yourself is constitutive of identification. We can never know who we are as other, we must always mediate our entry into the workforce of language by asking permission. Are my words worthy of being broken and reborn? Has God chosen this passage? Self-translation is indulgence gone awry. It’s the act of one who is closed-off in perpetuity to transfusions. The opposite of donating blood, it is to be deficient.

I went to school, to more school, and then to the final school of all schools. There I learned I was wrong to believe that the word of an illiterate person was as powerful and determinate as that of a professor; wrong to speak without quoting, believe without an institution, and pray without a god. Violence was normalized. I shouldn’t be shocked that a person who directly oppressed my people won teaching awards. One must learn to unlearn oneself.

I grew weary of learning by submission. When would I be able to trust myself again? I grew jaded. There were only halls and halls of stiff exchanges, lists of accomplishments glazed by skepticism. The whitest cynicism crept into my work. I learned to laugh at others, but with detail. I learned to be cruel. Whenever I read, I was gathering only crucial information. A slow read was called parsing. Parse dates back to the Latin pars or part. We were surgeons, performing exploratory surgeries; we didn’t have time to experience our own embodiment.

One must learn to unlearn oneself.

Somewhere along the way, I began fantasizing about suicide. To end the self I had been dragging through ideas, the tedious form I had taken. My body had become labor. I stopped writing poetry. When my mother and I spoke, she expressed she was worried. Todo está bien, mami. Estoy un poco cansada, pero estoy bien. It was easier to imagine ending my life, than escaping the labyrinth of self-doubt instilled in me by institutions. The old ritual of desire for approval and rejection was being reperformed as emails and meetings. We followed Descartes’s dictum: If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.

And then it happened. I broke free.

Like most freedoms, it began with anger. All the betrayals I had allowed suddenly shook in the body I had set aside, my body. There are no objective stances. There are no intimacies that don’t have their own anti-epistemologies, no proximities and enmeshments that don’t produce translations. To be free, I had to accept that I was not straight, white, or building a career. My translations would always be fetishes, not commandments.

So, in lieu of commandments, I offer a list of fetishes for the self-translator.

  1. The poem is only a body because someone wrote it. If you cannot touch a part of yourself and feel the poem, it has not been written and cannot be rewritten.
  2. Throughout your life, you will be told you are insufficient. Do not believe them. Even if you change, it is not because you were flawed before, it is because you are mid-translation.
  3. There are terrible translators. They enter poems without consent, even when they have a legal agreement. They insist there is a method to love, and will tell you it has been written and researched. They correct you in your language, but when asked about theirs, feign neutrality. They are the bookkeepers. Do not ask for their help. Steal the books.
  4. When your word is the same in both languages, let no one convince you that it must be understood.
  5. For every thing that is withheld by the new language, make sure you are withholding something in return. For everything that is given, give in return.
  6. Prepare the area for the translation. Create an altar of inalterable objects. Make sure it has shells from wherever you were born, an image or an iconoclastic portal. Eat the translation. Dance with it until you are so tired, you feel sore and blissed out.
  7. Care about the words and the people who wrote them. Have opinions that cut through as feelings, vibes, insistences.
  8. Be rude. In fact, be so rude, someone corrects you. Then listen. Come back to your rudeness, sure of where you were and where you are.
  9. Do not believe in transcendence. Do not believe in perfection. Do not believe in universality.  There was no Babel, nor ruins. This is no puzzle, nor are we whole in sameness.
  10. This is neither art nor profession. You are not, as Ezra Pound suggested, a mechanic. Nor is a mechanic, as Ezra Pound suggested, mechanical. This is the part of the poem that survives capitalism, the part that couldn’t be beaten down by fear. You are honoring that part in yourself, as you honor the poem through translation.

May these guide you through yourself with the knowledge you already hold, and may the new words be an unraveling.

Last updated: Mar 6, 2018

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