By Zeljka Somun
Photo by Berta Nelly Arboleda
The son of Colombian parents, George Mario Angel Quintero was born in 1964 in San Francisco, California, where he spent his first thirty years. He studied literature at the University of California and was later awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Fiction from Stanford University. He has published fiction, poetry, and essays in English as George Angel in literary magazines and the chapbook Globo (1996), and received the Nilon Award from Fiction Collective 2 for his book The Fifth Season (1996). Since 1995 he has lived in Medellin, Colombia, where he has published the Spanish poetry collections Mapa de lo claro (A Map of What is Clear; 1996), Muestra (Sample; 1998), Tentenelaire (2006) and El desvanecimiento del alma en camino al limbo (The Soul’s Dwindling as It Makes Its Way Toward Limbo; 2009) as well as a book of plays in Spanish, Cómo morir en un solar ajeno (How to Die in Someone Else’s Yard; 2009). Since 2003 he has worked as director and playwright of the theatre company Párpado Teatro. He also makes music with the groups Underflavour and Sell the Elephant.
We met only once, in September 2019, when you came to Zagreb to participate at the Festival of the World Literature organized by Fraktura as a PEN-Croatia invitee. Three years later, September in Zagreb again. This time you are a resident of a very young DHKP's Residency for Translators and Writers and you will participate at the Festival again. Three years later the world is a different place. Many things have changed, but some things never change. Can you please tell us a bit about both?
What has changed and what has remained constant over the last three years? Since we last saw each other, perhaps the most important thing that has happened is that we have come face to face with how poorly prepared we are to live in the world. Now, in a general sense, we have always lived in the world. But the truth is we have lived in our villages, in our cities, perhaps even in our districts. Today we live irrevocably together on a planet. The principal damage has been to our peace of mind and to faith in the existence of the objective world.
It was terrifying to have to watch Covid move from China to Europe and the United States and finally here to South America and Africa. It was deeply unsettling to watch a disease move toward us over weeks and months, coming to kill us or our family members and be completely helpless to do anything about it. It is a valid question to ask whether we will ever be at ease again. What is clear is that the most lost among us are asking: when will things go back to normal?
The other great victim of our world awareness has been the truth. Never has it been clear to so many people that so many others are lying. We have seen people in positions of great power, people like Trump and Putin, spectacularly lying without making even the slightest effort to make these lies seem believable, or to mask the clear motivation for political gain. Ridiculous propositions that even a child would laugh at are presented to us daily with a straight face and these impassioned and ludicrous rantings are used to excuse the most heinous of crime. We are more keenly aware of this today than ever. We have passed from the world of convictions to the world of opposing versions.
What has remained the same? Seeing my friend's face still makes me smile. I still feel that keeping each other company is an important human activity. Art, music, literature still make the world clearer and more luminous. Perhaps miraculously, we are still alive. We somehow still feel that every day we are both closer and farther away from hope.
Can you compare your feelings and thoughts the day you left Zagreb and today when you are about to depart for Zagreb again?
In 2019, I left Zagreb on a sunny day with a slight breeze. The entire time I was in Zagreb I could not shake the sensation that we are all drifting in time, that we manage to arrange these passing moments of contact with others, and then the current carries us away again. Maybe it is because I felt comfortable walking through the streets of the city that the temporary nature of the visit seemed so tangible. My head was full of memories of the city, of the readings, of the people I had met, of the food, even of the art nouveau hotel.
Today, those memories resurface, and I wonder how Zagreb has changed. I know it has survived a serious earthquake. I know it has been through Covid. I know that Croatia is becoming part of the EU. A book of my poetry in Croatian has come out since my last visit. I am looking forward to working on translations of my stories, as well as to giving the Fraktura Festival and PEN readings. Whenever we revisit a place, a new image superimposes itself on the first. I look forward to finding new perspectives of the city. I want to weave these impressions into a written meditation on translation I will begin to write while in Zagreb.
It can often be heard that the world stopped, it is a hard time indeed for many, but I know for sure you never stopped. Where do inspiration and motivation come from?
Inspiration and motivation come from being alive and sensing that death approaches. We live and we do, and I have always passed the time making things. In my case, these things are poems or songs or stories or theater pieces or drawings or objects. I like to contemplate shape and proportion. The fact that works express something seems almost a by-product, like asking a tree or a duck what it is saying. I began making stuff as a child, as perhaps we all do. I just never stopped. Making art, verbal, sonoral, or pictorial, became a habit like breathing is a habit. If it is up to me, both of these habits will end around the same time.
Have you been to writers' residences before and what are the benefits they brought?
In my personal experience, the greatest gift that a writer's residency gives the writer is that it disorients him. When I say a writing residency is disorienting, I mean that while the writer is on residency, he or she wakes up every day in a world where art and literature matter, where what he or she does has the dignity and importance of any other job. Just this is extraordinarily confusing. At the beginning, the writer will have attacks of panic and guilt that he or she is not spending every waking moment writing. After all, time is such a precious commodity to a writer! Quickly the writer will become more practical and reasonable, setting up schedules and routines. After having to steal time to write for so many years, between classes, after work and after hours, the writer is confronted for the first time with exploring and discovering the rhythm of his or her own writing metabolism. These brief utopian spells of regularity and concentration are healthy for the writer because they highlight the fact that the precarious nature of daily reality is a matter of society's values and of the writer's opposition to them.
Finally, writing residencies give families the chance to miss the writers in their lives and a rest from having them always underfoot. On their side, writers get the chance to briefly explore new contexts, meet other writers and readers from these places, and concentrate on specific writing tasks they might not otherwise have time for.
How do you feel about your poetry being translated to other languages, some of which you may not understand? What do you think, what happens to poetry when it is translated?
I have spent a significant amount of my time over the last 27 years translating poetry from English to Spanish and Spanish to English. So I have had a long time to think about translation. Basically, I understand a text as an event. As such, it is deeply particular. This event makes an impression on the translator while she or he is still a reader. This impression cannot be right or wrong, any more than someone witnessing a car crash can be right or wrong about what she or he saw. There are however, versions that are more complete or more partial, depending on how deep, how simultaneous, in terms of sensation, the experience was. Throughout history, we have read translators whose nervous systems seemed acutely sensitive or attuned to their authors' creations. These are rare and beautiful pairings.
The experience however, is only half of the translator's job. She or he must use this experience, minutely analyzing the reaction it created, to then begin the process of finding parallels, not explanations, but organic parallel versions that exist in another language and culture. The translator does not tell the poem; rather it is her or his job to recreate a similar language experience elsewhere.
There are obvious dangers to the shapeshifting art of translation. A poem that is bizarre in its original language will always be accused of bad translation in another. Distance in time cannot be reduced by translation. Achilles cannot pull up to the gates of Troy in a sports car or a tank. Voice, rhyme, vocabulary, rhythm, and wordplay are all notoriously hard to render in translation. Cultural and historical references to a particular time and place may be lost on the reader whose collective memory does not include them in the language geography of a translation.
In my own case, translations of my own work delight me. The more thorough a reader the translator is the better. It is a pleasure when I can answer their questions. I have been very fortunate to have been translated by precise and passionate readers. Whether it is Monica Guerra and Flaminia Cruciani in Italy or Zeljka Somun here in Croatia, the eminent Alexander Shurbanov in Bulgaria or Ahmad M. Ahmad in Syria, I have been blessed by translators who see the task as a journey via the very highest standards toward revelations in the target language. I am very thankful, particularly since it is a body of work that has, at times, been seen as difficult.
Another reason that translation of my work is very gratifying to me is that I write in two languages and as a rule do not translate my own work. So, in a sense, the experience of my readership is always partial. It is only in books in third languages that my work appears as a digestible whole.
Where to meet George Mario Angel Quintero in Zagreb: