Elisa Wouk Almino

introduction by Elisa Wouk Almino

Translators, like myself, obsessively revise single words many times over, pruning the shapes of sentences and paragraphs as if they were topiaries. The process of translating a text can take months or years, and even then, you could easily keep on tweaking it, moving back and forth between the two languages, thinking of the endless permutations. “Translations never stay still,” observes the poet and translator Zoë Skoulding. Simply put, a translation is never really finished.

Lara Schoorl, who created the journal Close Distance, explains that its title arose out of a mistranslation of the Dutch words dichtbij zijn. A more “correct” translation would be something like “to be near to,” but Schoorl couldn’t let go of the words she had come up with. Ever since she left Amsterdam for the United States nearly five years ago, she hasn’t quite felt grounded in one city. For her, the words “close distance” embodied this sense of “never fully being in one place, constantly moving, being in a process, and never ending.” In other words, she cannot feel close to a place without also feeling distant from another.

As someone who grew up moving between cities and countries, I identify with Schoorl. My nationality is Brazilian, and while I only really lived in Brazil for three years as a teenager, each day, some part of my memory still travels there and back. As people who divide our time between multiple languages and places—like translations and their translators—we similarly never stay still.

For Close Distance, Schoorl seeks work that is considered “in process,” and for this particular issue, she chose the theme of home. The featured poems, artworks, and stories mirror Schoorl’s own feelings about belonging: we come away with the sense that home is constantly oscillating between multiple places. Perhaps this is a coincidence, but it is also a definition of home that is increasingly common in a globalized world where some of us chase new travel experiences and others are forced to find better lives.

You’ll find a split sense of home in Gabriela Torres Olivares’ powerful essay “Border Prodromes (an American dream),” translated by Jennifer Donovan from Spanish into English. Olivares, who is Mexican and currently lives in San Diego, describes the “migrant migraines” she’s been having: ever since she’s had dreams of being unable to cross the border, she’s experienced severe headaches and sensitivity to light. Presented here side by side, the Spanish and English renditions of this essay appear to mirror the here and there, the translation seemingly integral to the piece.

The US-Mexico border pops up again in Forrest Gander’s poem “Evaporación: A Border History (2),” a version of which originally appeared in his book Be With, published by New Directions in 2018. Gander paints a conflicted, chaotic picture of the border, where corpses lie beside purple and yellow flowers. Spanish words complete English thoughts and vice versa (“Paisanos we call / roadrunners brothers of the land,” the poem begins). The border is porous, absorbing the languages and cultures it divides.

“Evaporación” makes me think of Gander’s translations of Spanish-language poetry, where he similarly mixes words from the original Spanish. He tries to maintain the language’s song and semantics—to show how it uniquely works, rather than erase it with an English structure. He recognizes his approach to translation is unconventional but has noted in an essay that “the work in translation is necessarily subjected to alteration, transformation, dislocation, and displacement.” He wants his translations to openly exist in this dislocated space, neither fully in English nor in Spanish. The same is true of “Evaporación,” which is in itself influx—he has changed it since the first time he published it, and he plans on continually changing it over time. It is, once again, a poem that refuses to stay still.

Another poet, Ruben Ulises Rodriguez Montoya, also mixes Spanish and English, but to a more personal effect—to talk of his tios and abuelas, of las vecinas who “come in droves.” Rodriguez Montoya grew up in El Paso, Texas and New Mexico, walking distance to the Rio Grande along the US-Mexico border.

Throughout this journal, you’ll find it difficult to settle in one place, to find your grounding in one sense of home. This is in part because of the international profile of its contributors, who have roots in Hong Kong, Colombia, Mexico, and Iran. We are often thinking of elsewhere with them. Someone or someplace seems to be missing—the distant close and the close distant.

I am reminded of what Salman Rushdie once said about living in exile: as our past life in another place recedes, we attempt to reconstruct it with the partial memories we have left. We create, in Rushdie’s words, an “imaginary homeland,” thinking of an elsewhere that doesn’t quite exist as it does in our minds. We do not fully inhabit the place we are currently in, nor the place we left behind, creating instead a third place altogether that moves back and forth between the first two.

But as Czeslaw Milosz also once said, “Imagination can fashion a homeland.” This is certainly true for me. As I’ve been away from Brazil for 15 years, I have developed my own imaginary version of it that nonetheless feels real (some combination of Brasília’s deserted planes, coconut water, and delicious meat). In a way, I see my translations in a similar light: they are versions of their Brazilian originals—representing and recalling the Portuguese renditions but not quite being them. (“This poem in another language would be another poem,” writes Ana Martins Marques in her poem “Translation,” which I translated.)

“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across,’” Rushdie observes. “Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately, to the notion that something can also be gained.”

This issue of Close Distance is filled with echoes of other languages and other places. And while this might sometimes portray a painful or torn vision of home, filled with longing, it is also a beautifully dynamic one—one that is continually in the process of being built.