Dick Cluster: An Interview



Daniel M. Jaffe

Dick Cluster, a novelist and literary translator, has written a nonfiction book that evolves from his background and experience: History of Havana. Co-authored with Rafael Hernández, it is due out in November from Palgrave-MacMillan in a series called Palgrave Essential Histories. According to Dick, the book is “an account of the city from its founding in the early 1500s to now—above all, of the people, and of what it has been like to live there. This implies doses of political history, economic history, music and literature, architecture, but done through illustrative characters as much as we could—from a Vermont volunteer in the British attack on Havana in 1762, to the famous novel character Cecilia Valdés in the 19th century, to the poet Dulce María Loynaz, the musician Chano Pozo, the pimp Alberto Yarini in the 20th, or a guy Rafael happens to know who was both in the anti-Batistia underground and a contestant on the Cuban version of ‘The $64,000 Question’ in the 1950s, to some who emigrated in the 1990s and some who did not.”


How did Dick, living in Boston, collaborate with Rafael, who lives in Havana? “The collaboration implied mostly dividing up chapters—or, sometimes, pieces of chapters—and then critiquing and advising about each other’s work. Only in this case we did a lot more sitting around (when we could get together despite obstacles like visas and such), drinking, bouncing ideas off each other about the shape of the book or the right symbol for a given time or place. And a lot of email, of course. Then, in terms of language and voice, the final authorial voice all the way through is mine, since he’d write in Spanish and I’d translate/edit it and get the style to conform. But it’s mine as shaped by his, both because I’m starting with what he wrote in some chapters, or he’s cautioning me about what my North American eye is missing or overemphasizing in others. We hope the result is really binocular—again, something very readable but getting away from the one-dimensional images of Cuba in the U.S. press or television—or in Cuban press or TV, for that matter.”

Dick is no stranger to Cuban culture. He’s actually one of America’s most prolific translators of contemporary Cuban literature. His interest in translation began “because I was living a bilingual life in Cuba—teaching Cuban professors of English (in English) and carrying out daily life in Spanish—or in English, depending on whom I was with. When that rather miraculous gig ran out, I thought to myself, ‘What piece of this life can I replicate back home? Well, I’m a writer in English, and my Spanish is finally good enough, so why don’t I become a translator?’  

“I’ve been visiting Cuba off and on since 1969, and more regularly since working there in the 90s. The visits keep me enmeshed in the living language, the culture, the latest allusions and slang, everything. I’ve translated work from other countries, and from Cubans living abroad, but my main goal has always been to bring the full spectrum of the fiction written by Cubans living on the island to U.S. readers who have mostly been cut off from it for political reasons. What Cubans on the island write is very diverse, and it gives a much more complex picture of the country than the spoon-fed simplifications that dominate the media here.”

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How does Dick find authors to translate? “You know, it varies, because this is both an art and a business. Sometimes a publisher will ask me to do something that I wouldn’t have chosen myself, but when I get into it I become fascinated, because translation—as is often said—is the closest way of reading. That was true of Frigid Tales by Pedro de Jesus, which I translated for City Lights—stories of gay life which I might have passed up as being too intricate and experimental, but I was very glad to have worked on—and met the author and discussed his intentions and his thinking, and to have brought him to U.S. readers. On the other hand, when Mirta Yáñez asked me to translate and help her find a publisher for a version of her anthology of Cuban women’s short stories that was about to come out in Havana, I said, “Yes!” because I had sought her out in the first place to ask why Cuban women’s published writing was so hard to find—then, in the mid-90s, not today—so I could find some to read. That book became Cubana here thanks to a series of happy accidents, which is how many good things in publishing happen—or don’t, because the right accidents don’t come together—in my experience.


“To take a less happy case, I really wanted a broad range of U.S. readers to read Abel Prieto’s The Flight of the Cat, which was published not only in Cuba but in Spain and Italy and elsewhere. Because Prieto is Minister of Culture—a ‘Castro apparatchik’ in official U.S. eyes—no commercial publisher would touch him, which is bizarre because the novel is a study of the Cuban character, not politics, yet at the same time it’s full of stuff about race, opportunism, the Russians—all kinds of stuff that’s often not officially discussed in Cuba and that’s not what Americans would expect from someone in his position. Finally Random House Mondadori in Spain published it, hoping to get it into the U.S. market, but their U.S. affiliate just buried it, as near as I can tell.”


Dick frequently seeks collaboration. When working on Antonio Jose Ponte’s short story collection, In the Cold of the Malécon, for example, Dick translated three stories and Cola Franzen translated three stories. Dick and Cindy Shuster took a similar approach in Cubana, with each translating half the stories. How did those collaborations take shape? “Well,” explained Dick, “Cubana was a big project, and an anthology of many voices, and it was women’s fiction, so I thought it would benefit from collaboration and from a woman’s eye. Cindy and I divided up the stories by who liked what and who felt most confident or adapted to what, and then each of us critiqued the other’s drafts and helped with the other’s questions and doubts. We were also complementary because I’ve been both a fiction writer and a journalist, and she’s a poet, so we brought different speeds and styles. I’d say, ‘But what matters most is getting the over-all impression right.’ And she’d say, ‘But this word here, I don’t get it, why did she use this word?’ With Ponte’s book the initiative came from Cola, but the way we worked on it was pretty much the same.”

Dick’s currently working on translation of a short story collection that won Puerto Rico's 2005 National Short Story Prize, sponsored by the Puerto Rican chapter of International PEN. Dick discussed this translation experience: “I’m working on Jorge Luis Castillo’s book called La Vida Vulgar—a nightmare of a title to translate, since ‘vulgar’ in Spanish still has the original meaning of ‘ordinary, common, daily-life’ kind of thing. We’ll probably end up inventing a whole new title for that story and the collection. The challenge of this collection is that the stories are written in different narrative voices, though often about the same themes of relationships, sex, connection and disconnection. I always say that translation is an act of double or triple impersonation. I’m impersonating another writer who is in turn impersonating a narrator and some characters. In this case it will be like a stand-up impersonator who turns around, between stories, to assume a new face each time.

“Because it’s Puerto Rico, not Cuba, I can’t serve as the same kind of cultural interpreter, and I’m sure there’s work from Puerto Rico I’d have to turn down for that reason. But I don’t know. In these stories it didn’t feel that way—many are set in the U.S. or in unspecified countries—so it’s mostly a matter of some unfamiliar slang. Luckily Jorge is alive and well, and fluent in English, so we get to go back and forth as writer-to-writer, and as two people obsessed with the same two languages. So far we’re getting any confusion straightened out.”

Dick is also a novelist with Return to Sender, Repulse Monkey and Obligations of the Bone. Has he found that translation and fiction writing influence each another? “My published fiction,” he commented, “is detective novels. When we were working on Cubana, Cindy said I approached translation like a detective, looking for clues and mysteries to solve, so perhaps yes. Whatever I’m writing, I like going back and forth between my own writing and translation—between the different kinds of impersonation, but also between writing as self-expression and writing as pure play with words. In any writing, some of the time the writer is probably engaging in pure play with words—I know I am—but translation offers me more chance for that. And my own fiction, or nonfiction, offers me more unexpected stuff, surprises: ‘Oh, so that’s what I had inside me that wanted to invent itself” or ‘So that’s the mystery I was trying to solve.’”

Given Dick’s expertise in Cuban culture, I asked whether he thought American interest in Cuban literature might change after Fidel Castro dies.  “Hmm, ‘once Fidel Castro dies’ is on everyone’s mind, and who knows whether he’ll still be ‘physically present,’ as some tend to say in Cuba, by the time you post this. To my mind, the key question is whether our economic embargo and travel ban will end. If so, there will be more exchange of all sorts, and it will become less strictly politicized. Exactly how that will affect ‘the market’ and ‘the publishing industry’ I don’t know, because these have always been irrational and unpredictable to my eye, I’m sorry to say.”

Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and his web site is:



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