Translating the African Diaspora
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Translating the African Diaspora

My ongoing, deeply fulfilling collaboration with Callaloo dates back to the translations I prepared for the 1995 special issue on African Brazilian Literature, which was dedicated to "Zumbi of Palmares and to all who resisted enslavement and other forms of oppression in the Americas." The issue marks the 300th anniversary of the death of Zumbi and is entirely bilingual, a composite publication that spins on an axis of full color reproductions of paintings by contemporary Brazilian artists. I admire Charles Rowell not only for compiling this massive anthology of poetry, prose, drama, essays, and interviews, but also for personally launching it in different Brazilian venues for audiences who are, in his words, "heirs of the Middle Passage and its consequences." Over the last dozen years, I have relished the challenges of translating (from Portuguese and Spanish) authors of the African Diaspora for Callaloo, a publication that has established itself as a port, not of separation, but of reunification. In its pages, the reader can find a gathering of international voices engaged in a conversation that is a centripetal counterforce to the cruel centrifugal energies of the diaspora.

The writer whose work opened the African-Brazilian issue of Callaloo was Edimilson de Almeida Pereira, born in 1963 in Juiz de Fora, Brazil. The five poems that appeared in my English translations were his first publication in the United States. When I recently asked Edimilson about the importance for him of his debut in Callaloo, he replied, "Callaloo created new areas of reception for my poetry and it also enabled me to know the work of other important poets of African descent. Due to this dissemination and dialogue, I believe that Callaloo has played a key role in my literary trajectory, consolidating, for me, the perspective that poetry can act in an enriching way as a bridge between different cultures and social realities." As a translator, I concur with this idea of bridge building, but equally important is the notion of canon opening. The new writers who appear in Callaloo defy traditional, sometimes discriminatory, ways of organizing knowledge.

The following year, in 1996, Callaloo published a long interview I did with Edimilson along with translations of his pioneering poem sequence Livro de falas (Book of Voices), which draws its strength from Yoruba mythology. One of his goals in this project, he said, was to return "the myths with some extra meaning, beyond the sacred meanings they possess in Candomblé . . . The poems seek to be another voice, conversing with the original myth." As the translator of Edimilson's voice, I too, became part of this dialogue that Callaloo has preserved in its pages. When I met Edimilson in Minas Gerais in 1994, during a year-long research project on contemporary Brazilian poetry, I knew I had been blessed with an extremely rare opportunity to learn from someone who is certain to become a world-class writer, someone who, at the time I met him, already seemed so much [End Page 439] wiser than his years. And I was thrilled that Callaloo's editor, Charles Rowell, shared my enormous enthusiasm for Edimilson's poetry and cultural projects. Initially, it seemed that Edimilson's work was more appreciated outside Brazil (in the U.S., England, France, and Portugal) than in his own country. Since January, 2003, however, with Brazil's Law 10.639, this has changed. The law, which was the result of mass mobilizations of Brazilians of African heritage, mandates the teaching of African-Brazilian culture and history in public and private primary and secondary schools. Few people are as well-qualified as Edimilson, with his Ph.D. and broad range of knowledge of Luso-Brazilian literature and African-Brazilian culture and history, to teach about these mandated areas. He is in great demand for this important work in Brazil, and his own numerous publications have become much more well known and respected as a result. Edimilson points out the importance of the research support from his university in Belo Horizonte that has enabled him to build a reserve of materials for teachers and students. But it is also true that Callaloo has provided an international...