What I would like to explore in these pages is what I know intimately: the
special problems presented to a translator rendering Jesús Díaz’s The Initials of
the Earth into a North American idiom, to be read by a North American
audience. For the historic relationship of Cuba and the United States is so
close, so fraught with ambivalent emotions, and since 1959 so mired in vio-
lence and ignorance that no attempt at communication, including a literary
translation, can steer entirely clear of that di≈cult environment. Bringing the
novel into English thus poses unique challenges, some of which I will describe
in this brief reflection on practice.
considering history
If Cuba and its Revolution—as portrayed through the coming of age of the
novel’s protagonist Carlos Pérez Cifredo during the decades of the 1950s and
1960s—are at the heart of this epic novel, U.S. politics, power, language, and
culture are never more than ninety miles away. They are present in every
chapter, whether it be through Carlos’s identification with comic-book heroes
as a boy, his adolescent erotic fascination with a blond americana, the political
and geographical divisions within his family after the Revolution, or U.S.
aggression at the battle of Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) and its aftermath. In
chapter 18, Carlos must struggle through conversations in English during a
visit to Canada as the guest of a local solidarity organization, trying to think in
that language and to make himself understood despite his anxiety and fear. At
all these points in the narration, the North American reader will find familiar
words, places, and characters. In some ways, then, the task of the translator is
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