Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Time and Place: Past/Present/Spring/Fall

I'll be teaching in Rosario in the fall. I always say "fall" when I announce this plan, though it will be spring in Argentina. It is almost impossible for me to think of October as anything other than autumn--I can imagine the month with different weather than that of Oregon or Michigan, but it's hard to affix a different label. This may be one more tell-tale sign of a person who, as my children like to remind me, never managed to leave school. Deformación profesional. For a translator-traveler, it doesn't bode well.

One of the stray details I recall from high school geometry is the idea of translation across a line. In September, I will "translate" myself across the Equator. Translate myself from the fall to the spring quadrant, plotting coordinates that in all likelihood are not functionally equivalent.

I've done this before. But in highland Ecuador, more on the Equator than across it, the seasons weren't marked, or the weather seemed spring-like when I expected spring, or persistent drought threw everything out of whack, so none of us--locals or visitors--knew what to expect.

In preparation for a spatial translation, I'm reading as much as I can. On the page--across the page--I translate just fine, to alternate realities, different worlds, parallel universes, an unbecoming future or a still imperfect past. Right now, I'm mid-way through Angélica Gorodischer's Trafalgar. (To my knowledge, the full collection hasn't been translated, though the first story, "A la luz de la casta luna electrónica"--"By the Light of the Chaste Electronic Moon"--appears in Fares and Hermann's anthology, Contemporary Argentinean Women Writers (1998), translated by Linda Britt.)

The book takes place, sort of, in Rosario. It is told in Rosario, as the inter-galactic salesman Trafalgar Medrano relates his travels and adventures to an unnamed listener/narrator (a woman who keeps cats and brews bad coffee). Questions of translation permeate the narrative, not only as demanded by encounters with the inhabitants of other worlds, but as a preoccupation or labor of the people (beings?) Trafalgar encounters, such as the linguist Veri Halabi in "La sensatez del círculo."

My current favorite, though, is "De navegantes." In this tale, Trafalgar visits the court of Isabel of Castilla in 1492--traveling not in time, but to a world that is nearly identical to the one he and his interlocutor inhabit some 500 years later. In either world, it's a pivotal moment in Spanish and world history. It's the seed of origin myths (the canon of Latin American literature often starts with Colón) and counter-discourses, dominion and resistance. Everything Trafalgar describes is familiar, except that it's not.

Trafalgar changes history, shifting the parameters of the conquest, though he isn't able to stick around and see how things turn out. The ethical clichés of time-travel fiction--the caution against meddling with events that seem all but foreordained, because of what we "know" comes later--are turned upside down.

No, turned sideways. Translated across a different axis. This is a parallel world, remember, just a degree or two off plumb. The seasons may be different, or they may be other seasons, seasons that only look the same from a distance.

It's a story I will keep thinking about. 

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