Translating Aislara Pinzón

Aislara Pinzón first came to me as a footnote, while I was preparing an article on Jean Dubuffet’s role in the art brut movement for The New Yorker Magazine in 2003. With the disaster of September 11th still raw in the minds of many Americans, the intentional illogic of modernist thinking had found a new resonance with many artists in the city – reality made realist work unpalatable – and I found myself once again chasing down an erstwhile schoolgirl preoccupation. As a student at the Darrow School in New Lebanon, NY, I spent many precocious hours arguing with friends about where true art comes from (forgive us – we were young).


Rebelling against what we saw as the classicist perspective of our devoted teachers, my friends decided – with the conviction only sixteen year olds can muster – to abandon the mediocre restrictions of linear thinking and narrative form and embrace pure artistic impulse in the style of Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists. Intent on going one step further, I insisted on the primacy of outsider art as the only work truly capable of evading the trappings of the free market and society’s influences.


I’m sure our passions were quite tiresome to the faculty. Nevertheless, in 2003 the claims of rebirth in the post-9/11 art world kept pricking at me with the familiar feeling that art can’t be purified through the declaration of a manifesto. The neo-modernist thinking I encountered was replete with good intentions and stock disdain for the influences of the inflated art market, but it lacked the one thing that I truly craved: access to the “pure art” it claimed to manufacture.


Outsider art or art brut – that is, artistic work produced by artists and writers untrained through traditional means and often suffering from acute psychological disorders – originally fascinated me for the same reason that ghost stories are compelling to children around a campfire: it was different, and just a little frightening. But as an adult, the compositions of these “naïve artists” lost their mesmerizing tang of tragedy and took on a much subtler sweetness – a sense of originality and impulse that emerged organically from every brushstroke, every word, every image.


As a writer and a translator, I am naturally compelled by the power of language to access ideas. But translation complicates the notion that any work of art can be the final expression of a sentiment or epiphany – if I read Lorca in English, I am not reading the words that Lorca wrote, but somehow I am still reading his poems. The act of finding an English articulation of Spanish writing requires me to look beyond (or indeed above) either existing set of words and phrases and into what Walter Benjamin calls the possibility of “pure language.”[1]


Outsider art is also innately suited to bypassing the restrictions of an existing system and touching on pure inspiration, however unsteadily. But as I sat in the New York Public Library stacks and read about the founders of the art brut movement, this idea was still theoretical to me. My editor at The New Yorker wanted me to focus on Dubuffet so that my piece could double as a review of an upcoming biography, and I was feverishly digging through scholarship and raw microfiche, looking for some unknown element that would catalyze my research into a cohesive article.


I chanced across a footnoted mention of an unfamiliar Andalusian poet and, intrigued, searched for Pinzón’s work in the library’s computers. There was nothing, but the footnote quoted a line of such dreamy eloquence[2] that I couldn’t quell my rising curiosity. Having spent too many hours to count huddled in the stacks that day already, I decided to go out and grab a quick meal, taking my laptop and cell phone with me for research purposes. Internet searches yielded little more than the few cryptic references I’d seen in the Dubuffet scholarship, and it wasn’t until I began calling local Spanish language bookstores that I yielded any results.


It turned out that Pinzón had a fervent cult following in Spain, but had never been popular enough for wide translation. My article forgotten, I trekked out to the most promising bookshop on my list, and was rewarded by a slim volume of Pinzón’s posthumously published poetry: the incomparable Pinta Niña.


Pinzón’s work, like that of many outsider artists, has a focus that borders on the obsessive. Many of her poems express their themes rhythmically, even repetitively, calling to mind a chant or meditation; these repetitions, far from limiting the scope of Pinzón’s writing, act as signposts for moments of thematic expansion, triggering variations in the poet’s thinking. Of course, her shifting styles and eclectic vocabulary make her a unique challenge for a translator – how does one render the description of the parasitic passenger in “The Vessel,” for instance, when the original gives equal weight to the sensory and sonic qualities of the descriptors? Should primary attention be given to the poem’s rhythmic qualities? The lyric? The visual? In this poem, as in all my translations of Pinzón, I attempted above all else to maintain the frenzied precision of her diction and the sense of alienation that is so characteristic of her work.


Although Pinzón herself never traveled outside of Spain, a clear line can be drawn from Pinta Niña to the wild American west – and in particular, to Native American spiritual traditions. Pinzón was fascinated by the idea of a New World available for exploration, into which we might enter, infant-like, free of any preconceived understanding of reality. Of course it is probably her blood link to the Pinzón brothers – Martin Alonso, Francisco Martin, and Vicente Yañez – who captained for Christopher Columbus that originated this fascination with the American territories and the dangerous journeys required to reach them.


In this selection of work, Pinzón’s heritage is most directly referenced in the poem “Remains.” Here we see not only the incantatory nature of Pinzón’s lyrical style, but also her fraught attachment to the voyages of her ancestors. The marvelous moment when the poem’s speaker cries longingly “Si pudiera ver…” uses the ambiguity of the Spanish language to express Pinzón’s inability to place herself either to close to or too far from the poem’s action – what I have translated here as “If I could see it,” might easily read “If you could see it” (emphasis mine). Though the next full stanza pulls us back towards the “I” speaker, for a moment one feels the haunting tug between a lament for the other and a lament for the self. 


Pinzón’s work expresses a magnetic draw towards all that is unfamiliar, even on the level of language. In translating “Song for the Migration” I directed my focus to a proper English articulation of the physical images, favoring a precision and plainspokenness that mirrors the Spanish original without descending to the level of the grotesque. Almost every image in “The Vessel,” on the other hand, serves as a demonstration and deepening of a reader’s estrangement from the poem – whereas in “Song for Migration” the poem’s speaker moves from a solitary “I” (Yo) to a more welcoming “we” (nosotros), the speaker in “The Vessel” moves not outward but inward, towards an even more distant, internal self.[3]


Pinzón saved me from an overly theoretical examination of outsider art by demonstrating that the only true measure of a poet’s value is in the quality of their work. Her poems are deceptively straightforward, layered with folkloric images, psychological frameworks, and Native American myth, and I could never shake the feeling that they required a sort of double translation – once from Spanish to English, and again from peculiar world of Pinzón’s mental and literal incarceration into a network of images that modern readers can access even while experiencing their unparalleled strangeness.








[1] Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Trans. Harry Zohn. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Eds. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 71 – 82. Print.

[2]Tres hermanos con una mapa de las estrellas/tirar de su papel inútil aparte…”

 From the poem “Remains,” translated here.

[3] Interestingly, Pinzón’s language also alienates the speaker from her passenger, referring to the parasite “she” not with the usual ella but with hembra, a mutable, adjectival noun normally used to reference objects or livestock.