Interview with Carlota Caulfield: Poet, Writer, Editor, Translator and Scholar

Born in Havana, Cuba, Carlota Caulfield is the author of numerous collections, including Autorretrato en ojo ajeno (2001), Movimientos metálicos para juguetes abandonados (First Hispanoamerican Prize Dulce María Loynaz, 2002), The Book of Giulio Camillo (A Model for a Theater of Memory) (2003), Quincunce/Quincunx (2004), Ticket to Ride. Essays & Poems (2005), A Mapmaker’s Diary. Selected Poems (2007), JJ/CC (2014) and ABCD ario (2015). She has also written short stories and creative essays. Her book Fashionable. Una poeta adicta a la moda was published in 2013. The book has just been released in English under the title Fashionable. A poet’s passion for style (2016).

Her work and translations have appeared, among others, in Visions, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Texas Review, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Puente Libre, Nómada, Inti, Textos, Aleph, Arenas Blancas, Café Central, Turia, Poetry San Francisco, Hostos Review, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, Barcarola, Cerise Press, Resonancias and Baquiana.

Her poetry prizes include a Cintas Fellowship for Poetry, the International Poetry Prize “Ultimo Novecento,” Italy, 1988, the International Poetry Prize “Riccardo Marchi-Torre di Calafuria,” Italy, 1995 and the First Hispanoamerican Poetry Prize “Dulce María Loynaz,”(Spain-Cuba 2002). She was awarded Honorable Mentions in the “Mairena International Poetry Prize,” University of Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, 1983; the “Premio Plural” of Mexico City, 1993; the Spain-USA poetry prize “Federico García Lorca,” 1994, and the 1997 “Latino Poetry Prize” by the Latin American Writers Institute of New York. Other honors are fellowships at the University of Gröningen, Holland, at the Institute of German and Romance Studies, University of London, and at the University of Barcelona.

Caulfield is Professor of Spanish and Spanish American Studies, Director of the Latin American Studies Program and Co-director of the Low Residency MFA Translation Program at Mills College. Her research interests include the avant-garde and interdisciplinary approaches to art and poetry. From 1998 to 2002 she was the editor of Corner, an on-line magazine dedicated to the avant-garde, now a website archive at

I was fortunate enough to be one of Professor Caulfield’s students at Mills College and collaborate with her on several projects after graduation. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing her about translation and working with translators across time zones.

SM: What’s the first collaborative translation project you took on? How did you get involved or how did it get started?

CC: Growing up in Havana, Cuba, my mind was always back and forth between different linguistic homelands; listening to a variety of tones in Spanish, English, French and Catalan at home, led me to an awareness for languages and to become passionate about translation. My adventures as a translator began in the early 1970s. At the time, I was getting a History degree at the University of Havana and also working as a young editorial assistant at the Social Sciences Publishing House of the Ministry of Culture. I joined a very dynamic team of multilingual editors taking on very interesting projects. I became a sort of acquisition editor. In that role, I evaluated books to identify them for publication. I read many books in French and turned into a sporadic translator. My reports to the Managing editor included excerpts translated into Spanish. Dealing with translations, I have always felt like a sorcerer’s apprentice.

SM: Who are some of the translators you’ve worked with collaboratively? 

CC: With several inspiring ones. In Havana, with my friend, Fernando Aguado, an exceptional translator of French. I have been very lucky to work collaboratively on the translation of my poetry with Pietro Civitareale, Montserrat Abelló, Carol Maier, Angela McEwan and Mary G. Berg. With them I practiced the art of making decisions in order to “deliver the poem still breathing,” as August Kleinzahler wrote in his reflections “On Hiroaki Sato.” Working with my translators, I became closer to the overall tone, diction, syntactical arrangement, lexical intent and rhythm of my own poems.

I also worked collaboratively with you on translating Spanish poetry and prose (e.g. Gemma Ferrón, Carmen Borja, Antonio Beneyto) into English. Also with the poet Jesús J. Barquet on a selection of poems for a dossier dedicated to the Spanish poet José A. Valente (1929-2000). Currently, we are rendering into Spanish a selection of work by the American poet, playwright and novelist Mercedes de Acosta (1893-1968). In 2004, I was part of an interesting and challenging collaborative project with a team of London-based translators. The project was to translate a selection of the Cuban poet Regino E. Boti (1878-1958) into English. It culminated in Kindred Spirits, edited by Stephen Hart and published by Mango Publishing in 2005.

SM: What are some advantages and/or disadvantages of working collaboratively with other translators across time zones?

CC: I love to work in person with other translators, but it is not always possible. Some years ago, before the advantages of e-mail communication, I worked collaboratively by mail on many projects. Thanks to the power of good correspondence, my books Angel Dust, The Book of the XXXIX Steps, and The Book of Giulio Camillo (a model for a theater of memory) were translated into Italian by the poet Pietro Civitarale. I assure you that there is no e-mail that can compare to the beautiful envelopes that for many months arrived with my translated poems from Florence.

When possible, I work with other translators in person, and it is much easier for me to work face-to-face. My experiences with other translators have been very rewarding and I like their presence. Isn’t it wonderful to share a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of wine (specially if it is an Albariño) while you talk about finding the word or the words?

I have, for example, beautiful memories of working together in person with some of my translators in many cities around the world. What a beautiful adventure!  These days there are really no disadvantages of working with translators across time zones. E-mail is a high speed moving bridge for many of us. But we need to learn how to be patient and not rush the work.

SM: What are some key tools or resources you use when collaborating?

CC: Not many. In general, I am hooked on traditional exchanges via e-mail when I collaborate. However, sometimes Google Drive becomes a good collaboration tool, especially with deadlines. I am learning Chrome for saving screenshots and according to some experts, making my life a whole lot easier. I’m also trying Evernote for storing information and indexing it, but I need to get more into it. A translator friend recommended Podio as a good tool for organizing stuff. As you can see, I still have a long way to go.

SM: Can you give us an example of a project that you feel was a lot of work but turned out to be a great success?

CC: I am not a well-known translator. I am still an apprentice in matters of translation as I was in Havana. Is there any simple translation project? Well, with every new project, I enter a world of paradoxes and contradictions and the eternal multiple choices. Without any doubt, a very creative chaos! I can mention one project in particular: the anthology of contemporary Irish women poets No soy tu musa (I am not your muse). Yes, indeed, it was a lot of work, but gratifying, in particular when corresponding with some of the poets and with my co-editor, the poet John Goodby. The project really turned into an excellent bilingual anthology with poems by Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Rita Ann Higgins, Paula Meehan, Medbh McGuckian, Sara Berkeley and Catherine Walsh. It is also a handsome book with a cover photograph by the Irish artist Alice Maher, published by the Spanish Publishing House Torremozas in 2008.

Many thanks to Carlota Caulfield for sharing her experience and thoughts on literary translation! Fellow readers, what are some resources you use when working collaboratively across time zones? Do you prefer working face-to-face whenever possible? Tell us about your experiences!

Stay tuned next week! Carlota Caulfield has graciously granted Intralingo the right to publish her poem “Mientras traduzco poemas irlandeses” and the English co-translated with Mary G. Berg.

Stacy McKenna received her MFA in English and Creative Writing from Mills College in Oakland, California. Her translations have appeared in The Other Poetry of Barcelona, Códols in New York, 580 Split, Cerise Press, and Río Grande Review. She has taught English and ESL throughout the Bay Area and worked at several nonprofit organizations including the Center for the Art of Translation. She has recently returned to the Bay Area after teaching literary translation and English at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro in Querétaro, Mexico.