Writer/Translator Liliana Valenzuela
by Abel Salas
I tried chicha for the first time in Peru. It's made from corn," says writer and translator Liliana Valenzuela. The chicha in question appears in the title for an afterword essay she's penned for her Spanish translation of an important short story collection by Sandra Cisneros. "Ni chicha ni limonada," by rough-stab translation, can be vaguely communicated in English as "Neither cider nor lemonade." The gist of the expression is there, but readers, in either English or Spanish, ought to know that equating chicha and cider is kind of like comparing bagels to stir fry. Granted, both are home-brew beverages, more often than not aged and fermented for the appropriate alcoholic content. But that's about as close as they come in similarity. For our purposes here, "ni chicha ni limonada" can also be taken to mean "neither here nor there."
Her toddler son sleeping, finally, Liliana Valenzuela has an hour to spare. In the Clarksville home she shares with husband George Eckrich, her seven-year-old daughter, and said baby boy, the Mexico City native is on the cusp. Her translation of the Cisneros book called Woman Hollering Creek is being shipped as we speak, and before her son wakes she can share a few of her thoughts on writing, motherhood, life in Austin, and the translation process that has brought her to this unequivocal milestone.
Titled El arroyo de la llorona, the book is being issued in paperback under the newly created Knopf Vintage Español imprint. Valenzuela's afterword is what has us enthralled. In it, she describes her role as a translator... the nuts and bolts of adapting a singular and lyrical voice, the deftly glittering prose from one of the strongest writers in an explosive U.S.-bred Latino literary boom.
How does one translate language already weighted with Tex-Mex idiom and Spanglish slang? And more importantly, why has Chicano literature and art become so important to the Mexican cultural elite, the intelligentsia who, a scant ten years ago, once frowned on Mexican-Americans as the bastard cousins to the north, peasants who spoke anemic Spanish or caricatures epitomized by a sinister pachuco (zootsuiter) figure.
"In Mexico, there's an attitude that Chicanos choose not to speak Spanish because they want to be better, that they've abandoned their language and culture," Valenzuela explains. "When I was growing up that's what we thought, that Mexican Americans were pochos who couldn't or didn't want to speak correct Spanish."
A 15-year Austin resident, Valenzuela now holds a master's degree in anthropology from U.T. and works out of her house as a professional translator, billing her one-woman agency La Malinche Translations.
"My husband and I came here, took one look at Barton Springs and decided to stay," she says. About her work as a translator, she ascribes motherhood as a primary factor: "When my daughter was born, I wanted to work at home, so I could be near her."
It was a natural choice, particularly in consideration of her own literary bent. For the first several years her professional work consisted of reports and technical matter. All the while, her poetry and fiction were gathering form.
Telling is the fact that her translation service is named for the indigenous mistress and translator taken by Spanish explorer and seafarer Hernan Cortes in a union that begot Mexico as a miscegenated nation. La Malinche has since born the brunt of the blame for assisting the fair-skinned European in his capture of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.
Throughout Mexico, La Malinche is largely condemned for her part in the drama that led to the fall of a highly developed Aztec nation-state. She is generally painted as the traitor, the harlot who sold indigenous Mexico into slavery and misery.
Ironically, Valenzuela is herself extremely European in physical appearance, a sharp contrast to the author-as-Frida-Khalo photo of Cisneros that graces the back cover of El arroyo de la llorona.
The collaboration with Cisneros, says Valenzuela, began with a workshop presented by the Chicana writer at the Austin Women's Peace House on what was East First Street and is now, proudly, East Cesar Chavez Street.
"Sandra was in Austin. I think she wanted to be away from San Antonio for a while. She was working on the stories that eventually became Woman Hollering Creek. There were other women there as well... Maria Limon, Marion Winik. Through the workshop, I learned that Sandra was living right here in the neighborhood," she recalls.
The proximity was conducive to a friendship and the workshop was extended. Valenzuela, Winik and some of the other women who had taken part in the workshop began meeting on a regular basis to share their writing with one another.
One of Valenzuela's stories, a gripping tale set on the Ivory Coast of Africa and titled "Tiger Sandwich," was eventually published in Saguaro, a Southwestern literary journal. In 1989, Valenzuela was honored with the prize for fiction from the University of California at Irvine, which recognizes outstanding proponents of Chicano literature from time to time through national literary competitions.
As author of the Women Hollering Creek translation, Valenzuela joins Elena Poniatowska, who translated the acclaimed The House on Mango Street for Cisneros, excellent company and no small feat. Poniatowska is easily in league with Carlos Fuentes and Carlos Monsivais in terms of stature within the tradition of Mexican letters.
And having already worked with Cisneros to produce a bilingual children's book, Hairs/Pelitos, a riveting picture book brightly illustrated by San Antonio artist Terry Ibañez, Valenzuela is in a postion to become the definitive Cisneros tranlator.
"We worked very well together. I was really impressed with her," Valenzuela says in reference to the author of Woman Hollering Creek. Using the mail, fax machines and communicating, often for hours at a time, by phone, the two hammered out a translation that is impeccably and touchingly true to a masterfully delivered original.
"There were things that only she as the author could clarify whenever I had a question about a certain sentence or a phrase," she adds.
In her afterword to the translation, Valenzuela approaches the primary issue of usage: "...to use standard Spanish, that is the `generic' or Castillian, or to use Mexican Spanish and, more specifically, Texas Mexican Spanish, or `Tex-Mex' as it is affectionately know along the border."
According to Valenzuela's afterword, "It wasn't difficult to opt for the latter, as a personal preference, but more importantly, because these stories take place in Mexican and U.S. territory and because it was the explicit intention of the author to give voice to the people of Mexican origin, now from this side, now from the other side of that river some call Grande, others Bravo, and still others, Colorado [translation by Abel Salas]."
They are the humble folks, colorful and bravely human characters who populate the "Cisnerian" universe, the people from "neither here nor there."
Pointing to the interest in Chicano culture that has taken a firm foothold in Mexican literary circles, Valenzuela is excited about her own role as a bridge between a people who have been separated for so long by a border.
"I think because of the Chicano movement, the art and the literature... people in Mexico are beginning to see that there is so much more to understand. It's like looking at ourselves in a mirror. And the [Chicana] women even more so, because they're talking about issues, things that Mexican women are still not willing to write about. So, in some ways, they're more daring. They're taking more chances."
One of the women she could easily be referring to is Tammy Gomez, a young Austin writer and spoken word performer (voted Austin Chronicle's "Best in Your Face Poet") who has been invited to read the Woman Hollering Creek stories in English while Valenzuela reads her own Spanish-language translations at a Book People book signing November 9.
As a writer, Valenzuela mentions her inclusion in the upcoming anthology to be edited by Ana Castillo, author of Lovers Boys and Massacre of Dreamers. Her son Diallo, a beautiful boy named for a late friend from Africa, is suddenly awake and in the arms of his father. They wander outside into the Clarksville neigborhood to watch a butterfly take wing.
"Popota," says the fair-haired child who gazes with distant, sleep-laced wonder while pointing to the bright, black-and-yellow creature making its way around a hedge. "Popota" is his very own adaptation of the Spanish word for butterfly, "mariposa." n Still pining for Austin, "(M)exiled" writer Abel Salas has given up restless midnight dancing on the banks of the Rio Grande to flack as a publicist for Houston's La Mafia.