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.”
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.”