WLT Student Translation Prize – Prose

July 8, 2020
translated by 
A brown wall with faded spots where pieces of paper where once affixed but have now been removed. A small pile of books and notebooks sits on a table just to the left of the frame
Photo by hdur / Flickr

Prohibitions

to Cristina Peri Rossi,
for the structure

It’s difficult sometimes, but we have learned. We make acts of contrition each night with liturgical reverence for the memories we had that day, involuntarily or deliberately.

People come to see us from abroad as if we were a strange or exotic species, yet we don’t know why. We, in turn, don’t understand how they, the others, can live that way. Their barbarity frightens us.

Our society, our civilization, is modern. No looking back—every day is a brand-new day, no exceptions. According to our order, reading books and remembering are prohibited. We can only read the daily newspapers and watch television: nothing more. Tomorrow we’ll wrap our trash in those newspapers and they’ll cease to carry meaning.

According to our order, reading books and remembering are prohibited.

Our people obey and are happy. How can we not be when each day we are born again for the first time and each night we fall asleep as adults and dreamers of a future that is—oddly enough—the same as the day that has just passed.

We know (it’s said behind closed doors) that there are some rebels who stray from the perfect, established order and brazenly dare not only to remember but also to share those memories with other lowlifes of their persuasion. Can you believe it! Neanderthals. Imbeciles. Terrorists.

I must admit that a few times I’ve felt uneasy about the way things are myself, but only a few.

May the Order of the State forgive me, but I remember (what a terrifying vulgarity) a certain time when a young woman stopped me in the street. She took me by the arms, hugged me, and called me “Mom.”

It’s odd, I don’t know if I had children once—I cannot and must not remember. She shook me by the shoulders and begged me to ignore the law, to rise up and revolt, to remember.

She shook me by the shoulders and begged me to ignore the law, to rise up and revolt, to remember.

For a moment, her face, her voice, her hands seemed familiar to me. But television has taught us the thousand tricks of evil, the voices of sin.

I don’t know why—may the Order of the State forgive me—I remember that sometimes. It must be so I can learn to flee from those memory terrorists.

We are a modern people, happy, safe: we don’t know how to remember.

Translation from the Spanish

Translator’s note: “Prohibitions” is from a 2006 collection of flash fictions titled Llamadas perdidas (Missed calls). “Prohibitions” is a perfect example of the way Barros maintains a sharp, critical focus in her writing while pushing the boundaries of narrative in subtle and playful ways. The story focuses on themes of political and literary memory that remain important today; the recent political protests in Chile have roots in the lack of official retribution for crimes committed by authority figures under Pinochet’s regime, something Barros critiques through her fictional society’s policy of intentional forgetting. The simple language in which the piece is written strikingly contrasts with the complexity of the social issues that make up the story’s content, and this contrast gives the short piece its depth and emotional richness. I would like to give special thanks to Bill Johnston and Oscar Sarmiento for their guidance throughout the translation process.

Pía Barros currently lives and works as a publisher and prolific prose writer in Chile. Her work is among the most celebrated in the country’s contemporary literary scene. She belongs to a generation of writers who established their careers during the latter part of the violent Pinochet dictatorship, and like many of those writers, her fiction reflects concern for the social injustices of that time period and the struggles of the country to move past them.

Jamie Lauer completed a certificate in literary translation at Indiana University, Bloomington, along with a master’s in comparative literature. Under the guidance of Professor Bill Johnston, she has translated different authors from across Latin America, but Chilean literature and Chilean Spanish hold a special place in her heart because of the four months she lived in Chile.

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