‘Pornografismos’ by G. Cabrera Infante

An original translation of Cuban Slang/poetry presented for the Center of the Arts and Translation Nov. 13th @ The Lab in San Francisco:


So-called Mallarmé, the mis-armed, the maligned, the badly arranged, despite his enormous penetrating wit and his relish for a good parlor-roost, damn near gave his critics a conniption fit over his poem in Old Chicago, where he was indeed very poorly read. But of all the literary cockatoos, it was his Chinese annotator, Señor Pun, an Orientalist—which Singapore claims as their own, although he was in fact born way out in the middle of the Orinoco River—who was single-handedly responsible for riding all the way up Mount Titicaca to assemble the aesthete’s ashes into a vast aviary of mythical proportions, thereby taking advantage of his knowledge of our native Putumayo Indians in the art of braiding their own horse manes, pingachas, their pubic hairs, even their own donkey-tails, which are not the same as pony-tails, if you see what I mean. Of course, his mother was partly responsible for the whole dispute as well, placing as she did the name Stéphane before this so-called man we’ve since come to know as Mallarmé: the maligned, the mis-armed, the badly arranged.


*Endnotes / Performance intro:

Russian author and translator Vladimir Nabokov convinced me for a long time that a translator should come up with a deliberately ugly version of the piece in order to get closer to its original purpose; that a translator should “try to curl up in the author’s arms, on a winter evening–to make up for the fact of his inherent betrayal” (from Lectures on Russian Literature–though I may be misquoting this or making it up entirely).

With Infante, I found this advice uniquely impossible and, quite frankly, wrong. For one thing, the author is not at all easy to curl up to. And this is maybe the central thing that informs my version here: Infante is gruff, plucky, and irreverent. He has a suave Cuban swagger that I don’t need to curl up to even if I wanted to; because it’s so close to my own style and voice anyway. That much is obvious.

Infante is not very easy to make ‘ugly’ either. And that is because the style and the music and the beauty in this poem are the real protagonists of the work–much more important than the sense/meaning/logic. And so I felt that was part of the point here, seeing as how what the author is doing throughout this whole collection, in fact, is exorcising many great writers/thinkers/literary figures by mimicking their style (i.e. the lyrical impressionistic fragmented style of Mallarmé, in this case), and at the same time he is exageratting and parodying those stlyes the better to skewer/assimilate/demythologize them:

Infante is in effect curling up to these other authors but only close enough to where he can punch them across the face, or squeeze their cheeks a little bit at least.

My version very much reflects that privileging of sound over sense–of music over meaning–things like tone or attitude become more important than the sexual puns: for example in the first line, instead of the bit about ‘dispelling/perplexing all those literary cockatuas’, I say—

‘Mallarmé damn near gave his critics a conniption fit’.

Frankly, I found the sexual humor unnecessary to the poem, especially because it’s underlying logic has to do with an outdated homophobia. Even though it may be playful to call Mallarmé and his critics ‘gay’ or pederasts in the very first line of the original work, this is something that is more funny to a Latin American audience to an English-speaking one. Anyway, in my experience as a translator and as a reader, this aspect is not very amusing or profound, or necessary to the bigger more interesting themes of the poem.

Bottom line: I decided to prioritize beauty of the language and attitude (specifically in the style of Mallarmé, Raymond Queneau, and Infante himself.), despite what Nabokov says.

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