Migrant Words / Palabras Migrantes
by Verónica Gerber Bicecci
translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
There are simply too many ways to start a discussion on this book. I’ll say first that I’ve never read a book like Migrant Words / Palabras Migrantes, and my bookshelf is better for having the book on it, which is also how I feel about Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s other book in Christina MacSweeney’s translation, Empty Set. (I also have a tattoo from that book.)
The book is a medley recounting the Migrant Words workshops Verónica Gerber Bicecci held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in elementary and high schools there. Jackson Hole, being “a financial paradise for the super-rich,” is an interesting place to hold these workshops. But perhaps all the better for it.
It’s hard to discuss the book without ruining the pleasure of reading it, the unfolding of form and bilingual (and the “what does that even mean?” the text evokes) words, the appreciated and never spoken-down-to opinions and ideas of the young people who took part in the workshops. Perhaps one of the most lovely things about this book is the seriousness with which the author, translator, and editor—in conversation with each other through the comments peppering the margins of the wide pages, beautiful to the touch—take each other’s and the students’ words. But not just the seriousness, the playfulness, too. Verónica Gerber Bicecci discusses her family’s migrant status, Italy-Argentina-Mexico; in the margin, Christina MacSweeney discusses her own mixed heritage, Irish, but she “[is] definitely English. Not feeling a fixed national identity can free up many areas of life.”
Today, the word “migrant” causes tension in conversation. It is refreshing to see it considered here so head-on, put into context against what most people might not expect—translation—to highlight its place in the world. When Verónica Gerber Bicecci asked students to discuss where they were “from,” “[t]he majority found themselves to be part of a genealogy of every variety of geographical movement: from one continent to another one country to another, one state to another. The Hispano-Americans are not, then, the only migrants to come to the United States, to that classroom.”
If I’m allowed to butt into the margins here with my own commentary, post-author, post-translator, post-editor: I often have the good luck of having the right book land in my hands at the right time. During a time of turbulent travel, I happened to pick up Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft’s Flights; during a time when I felt particularly lost and confused, I picked up Empty Set on a whim (that tattoo picture here). Now, at a time when I am facing another international move, I find this book in front of me, ready with its consideration of what it is to be a migrant. Migrant—immigrant—nomad. What is this spectrum? An immigrant is said to “move permanently to a new country,” whereas the migrant is “a person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions.” My parents are immigrants, and I have the annoying half-accent and restlessness to show for it. Am I a migrant? A very, very privileged one? Does this help the discourse? Probably not. Existential crisis aside, this book begs to be read personally, to be related to. You can read it in an hour, but you should spend many more re-reading it.
We often see translators relegated to the sides, to the inside title pages, left off of covers and out of reviews, and if they’re in them they’re often paired with shudder-inducing words like “apt” and “skillful,” or, if they’re very unlucky, “choppy”. It’s rare, refreshing, and delightful to see the translator—and here, the editor!—invited into the text to comment, to converse. The border of the text is blurred, which is something I’m coming to expect from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and I need more. Christina MacSweeney’s translation is playful (I don’t read Spanish at all, but comparing her translation into English of the English in Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Spanish, I see a teenager saying “I think we both are?” rendered as “Maybe we both are?”, which is a beautiful shift into slightly-flippant-but-still-serious US teen vernacular), elegant, joyful and grounded, and—dare I say—smooth. It is also wonderful to see the issue of translation itself considered by young people and it being tied so explicitly to migration, a metaphor without making a metaphor: “Even though ‘migrant’ and ‘translation’ are two different words, the visual logic of these drawings is very similar: something that is split in two, but also apparently balanced.”
This book is excellent. It is one of a small edition limited to 450 numbered copies, and I’m the very proud owner of #0056. Snap it up and enjoy. Find out about elephants in rooms, white boards, and pages, about bridges and borders, and what the emoji for migration might be.
“Migration… is a movement from one place to another that makes you into an outsider.”