LINE LEVEL #2
Welcome to LINE LEVEL: Craft Lessons from Poets of Color, a monthly column in which writer, editor, and educator Joanna Acevedo zooms in on an element of craft from the work of BIPOC poets. LINE LEVEL unfolds in three parts: an excerpt of a poem, followed by a contributor’s note, followed by Acevedo’s own exploration into the poet’s world of language. Guided by a curiosity that yields learning, we are invited to consider historical context, stylistic influences, and more, all the way down to the level of the line. This month, Acevedo discusses LOST (IN TRANSLATION) & FOUND (IN APPLICATION) by Kevin Madrigal Galindo.
Excerpt from “Lost (in translation) & Found (in application),” from Hell/a Mexican by Kevin Madrigal Galindo:
Dicho: Un poco veneno no mata, nomás atrasa
Translation: A little poison doesn’t kill, it just slows you down
Application: Make sure you use the right amount of poison
Dicho: Me eche grasa en México
Translation: I got some lard put on me in Mexico
Application: I came back real shiny
Dicho: Si Dios nos da licencia
Translation: If God gives us permission
Application: Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness
Contributor’s Note // Kevin Madrigal Galindo
My internal monologue can speak two different languages (plus a secret third one if I’m feeling loose enough). This doesn’t necessarily mean I can speak both fluently. Since I was a kid, there would always be moments mid-conversation where I’d be confused in both English and Spanish. I think my favorite dichos come in Spanish from the Mexican and Latinx community that raised me. Over time, I’ve come to learn that dichos can be both silly sayings and real-ass life advice.
I spend a lot of time thinking about language, especially the idea of translation — that of taking what is essentially an observation of the universe and turning it into language, and that of translating observations from one language to another. As a poet, I sometimes feel helpless trying to create language for already indescribable moments. When I feel helpless, I read. I am inspired by the incredible community of artists that are around me, in the past and present. José Antonio Burciaga is by far one of my favorite Chicanx writers. With this piece, I took my own jab at translating a few of my favorite dichos with an eye for preserving their playful nature, as I learned from reading Burciaga’s work.
Craft Lessons from Poets of Color // Joanna Acevedo
Language—it’s what poetry is all about. Language can expand or contract, zoom in or out, but it’s at the core of all poetry, and this is what we think about when we think about poetry. As poets, we’re language addicts, always looking for the more words, better words, the right word, and we all know the absolute satisfaction of finding that perfect adjective to describe the way the light falls over your lover’s dark hair, or whatever it is you kids are writing about these days. Thumbing through the thesaurus, receiving Poem-A-Day emails each morning, and always, always reading—as writers, words are currency, and we’re all just trying to pay up.
But what if you could write in more than one language? In these lines by Kevin Madrigal Galindo, we can see the fluidity and flow of writing bilingual, as well as the absolutely joyous nature that writing in translation can bring to a poem—bilingual poetry can open doors and windows into other worlds.
Galindo’s strength in these lines is in the humor of these translations—they are not simply word-for-word movements from one language to another, but rather interpretations that tell us more about his life than the actual saying itself. This gets to the core of the act of translation: it always reveals more about the translator, leaving traces of their hand as we move through the lines of text. We can see his influence in these short lines, and it’s with a deft movement that he brings light and breadth to these dichos, or sayings. Like he notes in his remarks, writing is a translation in itself—we’re translating a lived experience into a set of words, giving language to sensation—an alien process which will always have limits, but is also limitless.
Writing in multiple languages can be a way for a poet to bring in new audiences, as well as relate or reconnect to an intended audience. In Galindo’s work, he provides a direct translation of the dichos he uses, creating an interesting and playful relationship between the English and Spanish, which can help a reader to feel more connected to him and his work. Other writers, like Cathy Lihn Che, the Vietnamese-American poet, have chosen not to translate when they work in other languages—this can be for a variety of reasons, but in her case, she does so because she wants her work to be accessible to people who share her historical position in time and space. The decision to translate or not translate then becomes about accessibility, who one’s audience is, and how the reader and writer are relating on the page.
Writing in translation can denote a variety of implications, but ultimately it makes the world of the poem larger, inviting new audiences and creating new political and social environments for the poem to exist in and interact with. Poetry may be about language at its core, but the way we use language is so absolutely rife with intention, especially as poets. We must be aware of how we wield language, and as we write in different languages, we have a power that must be treated with responsibility, even if our work is light-hearted as Galindo’s is.
Galindo’s work is self-aware—he knows when he is being silly, and he knows when he is being serious. When he says, “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness,” we know that he is giving us both a funny joke and a life lesson all in one—stretching the boundaries of what is possible within the fracture and chasm of two languages meeting. His inner monologue, he tells us, exists in two languages at once—a rare and exceptional skill that must be recognized—with two vocabularies at once, what can’t a poet do?
Lastly, Galindo’s sage advice must not be ignored. Feeling helpless in the face of language is a normal feeling for any poet. Language can be big and scary! Reading poets you admire can be a touchstone for feeling more grounded in the linguistic world. In this mad world of submissions, contests, and publishing, it’s important to remind ourselves why we love poetry in the first place. We’re language people. We love words. Finding your way back to that original passion, even if it’s just by reading a few of your favorite poems, will help keep the anxiety at bay.
Language is the key to translation—this may seem obvious, but it’s integral to the process. Language is at the core of all writing; it’s the way we translate our experiences into, so that we may connect with others. Translation into other languages is simply an expansion of what we already know, a way to reach new audiences, make new implications, and create new worlds out of the ones we are given. Language is at the core of all of this, simple building blocks which can be used to create more and more. This is the joy of poetry—that creation.
Not all of us have the ability to speak in multiple languages. But we all have the ability to translate, to communicate, and to use language in new ways. Whether we’re writing light-hearted, funny poems or deeply emotional epics, or everything in between, the love of language will always connect us.
Kevin Madrigal Galindo
is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing has been seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, The Rumpus, and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School. Read more about her and her work at https://www.joannaacevedo.net.