Writing That Travels Between Two Languages: An Interview with Carmen Rodríguez

Interview by 
Rachel Thompson

Author, poet, activist, and educator Carmen Rodríguez was born in Chile and moved to Vancouver after the Chilean Coup of 1973. Her writing is often based on her life as a political exile in Canada. She writes by “travelling between the two languages” of Spanish and English. In the end she publishes each work separately in both languages, after using a unique system of internal translation. When we reached her, she had just finished moving into a new home in Vancouver. 

ROOM: You’ve just moved, which is fitting since one of the definitions of translation is moving something from one place to another. That definition also fits for you because you translate linguistically, but you have also translated yourself culturally when you moved from Chile to Vancouver.

CR: I didn’t start writing in English until about twenty years ago. It was be- cause I was never happy with what other people did with my stuff in terms of translating it into English. I got into it with a lot of trepidation because English is not my first language and [I thought], “What if I make mistakes with this and that and the prepositions and whatever?” But as I started do- ing it, I became more confident. The part that I really enjoyed is that cultural stuff that you’re talking about. I had to find the words and the constructions and the actual writing that would be understood by this different audience. I would start writing in Spanish, and then I would [begin to] rework it into English, but then I would just take off in the middle of a paragraph, because some association came into my head. I took off in English and kept going in a different direction, or in the same direction, but expanding, or changing things, and the story I was writing grew in English and then I realized, “Oh, now I have to work it back into Spanish.”

I would have never been doing this, of course, if I hadn’t come to live here. It was this interest of mine in addressing two different audiences and all the multiplicity that is within those two audiences. In the end, I didn’t realize I was becoming a bilingual writer—

ROOM: And bicultural, too—

CR: And bicultural, right, because, as you have said, it’s not only the linguistic part that you are transposing into the other set of codes, but it’s also the cultural stuff that you are translating for the other audience. That becomes very clear to me, for example, when I’m writing. It’s subconscious when I’m doing it, but when I look back at it I realize that if I’m writing about something to do with Latin America, or Chile in particular, and I’m working things into English, I need to translate the cultural stuff for this English-speaking audience. And the other way around, if I’m writing about Vancouver and Canada, it’s the same thing for the Spanish-speaking audience.

ROOM: In that sense, do you feel like the translations are different works in the end?

CR: No. They are perfect mirrors of each other. They are completely faithful translations of each other.

ROOM: Your book of short stories titled and a body to remember with (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1997) was written in both languages—you were doing the process you just described, going back and forth between the two languages—and your publisher quotes you as saying that you did this until, “both tips of [your] tongue and your two sets of ears [were] satisfied.” How does that work? Are you literally reading it aloud?

CR: Because I also love and write poetry, I guess part of my interest is also to be able to create writing that is rhythmic, that has a cadence, so in that way, yeah, I may not read aloud, but I do read aloud in my head and it has to sound right. That was one of the things that I found when other people translated my work, a long time ago, that’s what was missing. Of course they did a great job of producing a faithful and accurate translation, and that was great, but then I realized that it didn’t really flow. I go over and over [it] again, because I make it flow in English and then it doesn’t work in Spanish. So, it has to have that cadence and that rhythm that satisfies my ear.

ROOM: You said in an interview that translation requires “reincarnating the soul of a piece.” What did you mean by that?

CR: I think that every piece that you write has a soul. It’s like the language is the code, the body, the construction, but what you’re doing with that language is you’re trying to put across something. It could be just plain beauty, or it could be more a political message, but there is something there that goes beyond just the words. It works both ways: the words are attempting to communicate that inner message, that inner soul.

When you’re working in two languages, you really want to make sure that that remains intact. That that soul is the same in both versions. And that what comes around it, which is the construction of the house around it, does justice to that soul and communicates and exposes that soul in the best possible way.

ROOM: That’s the mirroring between the two pieces, then, the mirror of that soul.

CR: Yes.

ROOM: Room, as you know is created by a feminist collective, and you were a founding member of Aquelarre magazine, which is run by a feminist collective. I read the collective’s goal was “room for life and a future without political oppression.” What does “room for life” mean for you in terms of your writing?

CR: I’ve come to realize that my writing, not all of it, but most of it, is a different way of activism for me. I write about things that matter to me in terms of the world and in terms of exposing the horrible things that happen in this world and the injustices that happen in this world, but also propos- ing a different way of doing things. And, in a way, I think that my writing is both—I hope—a writing of protest and a writing of vision. And, because it’s not—I hope—only about denouncing, and showing all the horrible things that happened and continue to happen in the world, particularly for women, but also the other side, the positive things that people do and have done to overcome those things and to struggle forward and to create a future that is more equitable and more just for everybody. So, for me, then, writing is activism in that way.

I am a feminist. I don’t understand how people can not be feminists, men and women. Why would anybody not want equality for everybody?

It’s not that I want to be a man. Actually, when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a boy, because I realized that as a girl I was being shortchanged and it made me very angry. That stopped a long time ago, and I love being a woman, but I struggled my whole life in different ways to do what I want to do and I want all women to be able to have full choices and do what they want to do. For a while there I completely looked down on housework, because I had the example of my poor mother, who was a very intelligent and highly accomplished artist inside the realm of her home, but she spent her whole life scrubbing floors and washing dishes, and became very frustrated and very bitter. I could see that, and so I looked down on that kind of work, but then I began to realize the value of all that work that she did do and how that helped the rest of the family to move forward, particularly me, because she was so adamant about me going to university and getting a degree and working outside the home that she really sacrificed a lot for me to do that.

She made beautiful clothes, she knitted, she embroidered, she crocheted, and her cooking was wonderful ... when I look at that stuff now, I realize how that created a world that nourished everybody. And that also gave satisfaction to her.

The feminist stuff is something that, without knowing that’s what it was, way back, I’ve always had inside me, and when I started going to university and I started to read other people and realize that there was a whole movement, I became a self-defined feminist. At the same time I became very involved in social struggles in Chile and wanting to end capitalism and help build a socialist society. It’s all part of wanting everybody, men and women, poor and exploited, different races, the whole works, to be able to contribute to building a world where everybody would have the chance to be happy.

ROOM: Often in your writing, you address the challenges of women en- gaged in struggle against oppression and capitalism. In one of your stories, the narrator remarks that there is no one at home keeping dinner warm for women who rebel. You still consider yourself an activist. What have you sacrificed for that role?

CR: I had my daughters when I was very young and going to university. My mom stepped in and helped, so I continued going to university. Then, when I finished, I got a job ...

I was the mom, I was the student, the writer, the whole works, and then I became involved politically. When I look back, to tell you the truth, I have no idea how I did it.

It was a lot. I guess, I was young, I had the energy. I took my girls everywhere. If I had a meeting, that’s where they were, with me. Then I had my son when I was thirty-two, and I was involved in the underground stuff in Bolivia. That was hard, but it was also very rewarding to have this beautiful little boy.

I’ve had good conversations with my children about what all of this meant for them. I’m really glad that we’ve been able to do that, because it was hard on them, particularly the underground stuff, the life that we had in Bolivia and Argentina was not easy. And at the same time, they had a great time. The girls were teenagers. They had their lives where they had boyfriends, and went to parties and had their friends and misbehaved. The same thing that every family goes through with children. At the same time there was this whole other life, and they knew there was this whole other life. They didn’t know exactly what was going on, but they knew there were certain things that we could do and that we couldn’t do. And they had to keep their stories straight.

So it wasn’t easy. But somehow, I managed to do all of these things at the same time. I always enjoyed cooking. I don’t enjoy cleaning, but doing the housework doesn’t bother me that much, besides it’s so much easier these days with all the machines. And also I’ve been lucky that since my late twenties, I’ve been with partners who have taken on, have shared the responsibility of the household and the children. So, it’s been okay. Of course there were times when I wished I had had that kind of cushion that I could see my male comrades had, but because in my case both people in the partnership were involved, we didn’t have somebody else making sure that the soup was warm when we got home. We had to get home and make it ourselves.

ROOM: In the story “Accented Living” in a body to remember with the narrator says, “I look at Oma and I see so many exiled immigrant women; women who left everything behind and learned to live again, who brought up their children in other lands and other tongues, always holding onto increasingly fantastic memories of a faraway homeland.” Do you hold on to these fantastic memories?

CR: [Laughing:] It’s been an evolving thing. I know that at the beginning it was that nostalgic thing. Everything was better in Chile. “Oh, these mountains here [in Vancouver] are very beautiful, but the Andes, my god, the Andes are really big and very beautiful. Oh, the ocean? Yeah, nice ocean, but the coast of Chile is so amazing and so beautiful.” So, I’ve gone through periods of making those memories really a lot better than what the reality was. You can still hear it from some of my friends. “Oh, no, people here are so cold and down there they’re so warm and so friendly.” I think I’m over it. [Laughs.] I’ve come to realize that people are very similar and they just express things in different ways. And it’s beautiful here. It’s beautiful there. It’s beautiful everywhere.

There’s also the whole thing about class and gender and race, because I have nothing in common with the upper class in Chile. I think they’re despicable. They’re racist. They’re completely—not unaware, because they cannot be unaware—but uninterested in anything or anybody other than themselves. They exploit workers. You know, the same as anywhere. So, when I go to Chile and I happen to have to be with people like that, I feel disgusted. Whereas if I’m with my family and with friends, or when I did some literacy work in a shanty-town near Santiago some time ago, it was wonderful. I’ve also done literacy work here with First Nations communities and it was wonderful. If I have to rub shoulders with somebody in the upper class I feel very uncomfortable. I don’t like it. So, it’s a matter of getting out of that mode of looking back and being so nostalgic about where you came from. I know a lot of people that hold onto that.

ROOM: And, as you wrote, it’s a “fantastic” memory, versus the reality ...

CR: Yeah, and the stories become more and more fantastic in the sense that you add more things that probably weren’t there and you make them all beautiful and shiny and then when you think back, “Hmm, maybe it wasn’t exactly like that.”

ROOM: What are you writing now? And what are you doing with language?

CR: I’m writing another novel. It started in Spanish, and I got stuck after about thirty pages, so I decided to rework that into English. And that opened up my head to continue. So, I’m very happy writing.

ROOM: How does writing in English open up your head? I also want to ask, because you are very bicultural and bilingual, do you feel almost like you’re a different person in each language?

CR: I am told by people, by friends, that when I speak English I’m different. That I’m more serious. And when I speak in Spanish that I’m more outgoing. I don’t know about when I write.

I think “language” opened up my head.

I needed to find a voice for a little boy, who is a working-class boy in a mine in the beginning of the twentieth century in northern Chile. When I was working it in Spanish, what was coming out was very, very Chilean, and I realized that I couldn’t keep going like that because it would not be understood even by other Spanish speakers, because of all the slang. [It was] accurate in how a Chilean lowerclass boy would have talked, but what’s the sense if only Chileans would understand him speaking? So, I couldn’t get around that and that’s why I got stuck. And then I started all over in English, from the beginning of the novel, after translating that first part, and then I got to the place where the boy had to speak in his first person and it just happened that it came out in English, in a way that I felt good about.

ROOM: In your book of poetry, Protracted War, one of the poems you note was written originally in English is “Working Class Chilean Kid in Vancouver 1988.” Is there a relationship between this and what you’re writing?

CR: No. The book I’m writing now takes place around 1900 and 1948. It’s connected to my other writing in the sense that when people think about Chileans, they think about the coup in 1973. You read over and over again that, “Oh, Chile was so progressive,” and, “Chile didn’t have a history of military dictatorships, like the rest of Latin America did ...” This is in large part true, but not totally, because Chile has its own history of horrible things that the military did to other people, like Peruvians and Bolivians, when there was a war between Peru on the one hand and Bolivia on the other. The Chilean military was ruthless. They were cruel. Of course you don’t find that in the Chilean history books. But you do find that in Peruvian and Bolivian history books.

ROOM: Of course.

CR: The Chilean army went as far up as Lima and took Lima [in 1881]. And raped, and burned books, and pillaged ... They burned the whole National Library of Peru. They destroyed art. And they killed. Killed innocent people. So, what happened in 1973 did not come from nothing. There is a history behind it. There were several massacres of miners. And there were military takeovers that didn’t last for very long. And there was persecution of work- ers. There is a continuum that reaches up to today. So, that’s a bit of the underlying message there, to take a look and expose all of that, while telling the story of this miner boy and a girl who is the daughter of a military man.

ROOM: It seems like that’s a continuation of your work about what you have called the “collective amnesia” in Chile: the forgetting of the events of the 1970s, and now you’re going back even further. Are you still writing to remind people?

CR: I think so. At the same time, this comes from stuff that is very close to my heart, because my dad was the son of a miner and a washer woman, in the mines in the north, so in a way the boy in the book is based on him. And the girl in the book is based on my mom. She was the daughter of a military man. On her deathbed in 1994—

[Stops.] I’m not going to tell you the story, because I want you to read the book. [Laughs.]

ROOM: I will read the book anyway.

CR: I don’t want to jinx myself, but she told me a story about when she was seven years old that had to do with that military man and the atrocities that the Chilean army was perpetrating on Peruvians. It was a story that she had kept to herself all her life, because she was so traumatized and it had also marked her, and her relationship to her father. I’d been hearing my mom’s stories for over twenty years and my dad was a storyteller ... I grew up listening to my dad’s stories about the family’s life when he was a little boy and he had to help make life better for themselves. And then I got this story from my mom when she was dying, so in a way I’m putting all of this together.

ROOM: I know writers don’t often like to talk about what they are currently working on, so thank you for sharing that story with me. Last question: Is there a word in either Spanish or English that cannot be translated but perfectly captures the meaning of something?

CR: There is a word in Spanish that I could never find a good way to translate, and it’s in the dedication of my novel, Retribution. The word is imprescindibles. Basically, it means something that you cannot do without. So in my dedication for the novel, I said “a los imprescindibles.” In English I said “for the essential ones.” 

Author, editor, and member of the Room collective, Rachel Thompson, sends out free weekly letters to writers to help illuminate their writing lives. Sign up on Lit Writers.


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