The New Normal: Cuba and the Power of Translation

Rafa Lombardino

During the 56th Annual Conference organized November 4-7, 2015 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Miami, I attended a presentation entitled “The New Normal: Cuba and the Power of Translation,” presented by Esther Allen, a writer and translator who teaches at Baruch College and was selected as the Literary Division Distinguished Speaker.

A two-time recipient of National Endowment for the Arts Translation fellowships, Esther was a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She also co-founded the PEN World Voices Festival in 2005, and guided the work of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund between 2003 and 2010. In 2006, the French government named her a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres and, in 2012, she received the Feliks Gross Award from the City University of New York Academy for the Arts and Sciences.

Esther’s ATA presentation was based on an article by the same name, which she wrote for Words Without Borders only two days after the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba was announced on December 17, 2014. She mentioned that many U.S. commentators foresaw an “invasion of tourists, traders, and investors.” ”The mentality is that Cuba existed in a vacuum and now it will be Americanized overnight,” Esther disagreed, explaining that the country is no stranger to globalization, as its founding father José Martí had already written about the diverse origins of Cuba extensively.

Recommended Reading: Cuba: We Never Left
Written by Esther Allen for The New York Review of Books

The presenter told us that Martí spent most of his adulthood in New York City, where he wrote about the United States, and his articles were published throughout Latin America at a time when Cuba was still a Spanish colony. Martí was killed by the Spanish forces in the beginning of the insurgency he had initiated, which resulted in the Spanish-American War that led the United States to occupy Cuba and establish a naval base on Guantánamo Bay. The rest, is history, as we all know.

As the translator of José Martí’s Selected Writings and currently a Biography Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, working on a book about Martí’s life, Esther analyzed how President Barack Obama mentioned the Cuban founding father in his speech. “Obama turned to address the Cuban people directly. He began with a citation from José Martí: ‘Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.’”

She wondered how Obama had arrived at that precise quote from Martí, and whether he had made a conscious decision to leave the second part out of it.

Libertad es el derecho que todo hombre tiene a ser honrado y a pensar y hablar sin hipocresia
― MARTÍ, José. Tres héroes: Bolívar, San Martín, Hidalgo. “La edad de oro” (1889), part of a series that is very popular among Cuban children.

The possible sources she found were:

  1. “Freedom is the right of every man to be honored, and to think and speak without hypocrisy” ― English-speaking guide at the Monumento a José Martí, La Habana, Cuba, February 2015.

  2. “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy” ―Cuban student translation exercise cited in Enseñar inglés básico a partir de textos de José Martí (pedagogical study done in Santa Clara, Cuba, 2011.)

  3. “‘Liberty,’ Martí wrote, ‘is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.’” ― Carlos Ripoli, letter to The New York Review of Books denouncing the “Marxification of Martí,” July, 1988.

Esther went on to say that, in the late 1800s, Martí used to write for Patria, located at 120 Front Street, which is now Wall Street. “He wrote in English as a Spaniard,” she explained, “because Americans were more interested in what Europeans had to say about the United States, rather than a Latin American from a country that did not exist yet.” He also wrote a letter disapproving of a mainstream newspaper that talked about how annexing Cuba to the United States would not have been desirable.

Curiosity: José Martí identified the lack of secular children’s books. He was writing some material on the subject, but his funder from Brazil withdrew funds after they realized the material didn't have any religious content.

The speaker said that Martí’s work as a journalist was paid, but not well enough, so he turned to translations. Martí translated Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, which came out about thirty years after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin and is compared to it because the former raised awareness of the plight of Mexican Americans just as the latter raised awareness of the plight of slaves in the United States. Martí then decided to self-publish and distribute the Spanish version of Ramona mainly in Mexico. Esther said that he used to call it nuestra novela (our novel), meaning that he believed the book spoke to the real struggles of Latinos, albeit within the context of the years following the Mexican-American War.

Going back to normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, Esther reminded that, in the early 20th century, Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortíz coined the term "transculturation" to describe the distinctive cultural characteristics of Cuban history. “And that history holds some significant lessons about the roles translation can play in the process of globalization,” she assured. Whether the new generation of American translators will now be able to keep in touch with Cuban culture and learn more about its literature is something yet to be seen. “Canadians visiting Cuba each year don’t have Communist cooties,” she added, hinting at how our neighbors to the north, just as much as British and Australian individuals, may be better equipped at attempting to bring literature from Cuba to English-speaking countries at the moment.


RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, a collective blog about translation and literature, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS), a project to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.