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Zurbano and “The New York Times”: Lost and Found in Translation
Alan West-Durán, 4/6/13

A recent editorial by Cuban author Roberto Zurbano of Casa de las Américas, published on March 23-24, 2013 in the “New York Times” (NYT) is a lesson in courage and poetic, historically situated political insights on the part of the author; and bad translation, cultural insensitivity, historical blindness, and at best misguided if not deliberately mendacious editorial interference, most particularly in the final titling. Let’s start with the title: the original piece in Spanish was “El país que viene: ¿y mi Cuba negra?” (The Country to Come: and My Black Cuba?) What makes Zurbano’s title historically true to Cuba’s distinctive commitment to social equality, and rich with transformative possibilities, is how he explores the future of Cuba and true equality for its black population while locating his critique within an active, ongoing Cuban revolutionary process in which justice must be worked for and cannot be taken for granted. This understanding of a future to be constructed is significant because the whole essay/editorial builds on the unfinished nature of the Cuban revolution, particularly in light of new economic changes that the country is living through, unleashing new social realities, some good, some troubling.

I was in Cuba when Zurbano received the NYT translation along with the multi-page legal contract (in English) stating that the NYT had final say on both the editorial and its title. This translated and highly edited draft appeared with a different first (but not final) title, with multiple insertions of text ostensibly to clarify aspects of Cuban society but with a great deal of political subtext, and introducing language Zurbano recognized as contradicting his intentions and potentially politically problematic. As he knew I was a translator and Cuba scholar, he asked me to help him respond to the Times and de-code the changes they made to the piece. The title was the first major change: it now read “For Blacks in Cuba, The Revolution Isn’t Over”. This title preserved some of the open-ended element of the original while introducing a subtle but a somewhat acceptable shift in emphasis toward a similar comment by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his recent documentary about race in Cuba, noting that a “second revolution” needs to take place to deal with racial inequality on the island. The title change highlights political and cultural differences, shifting emphasis from a Cuban emphasis on “el país que viene”, the country to come, which is followed by the question about Cuban blacks, to a more typical U.S. framing foregrounding race and suggesting a determinable future to come. Despite this change in emphasis, the title was acceptable to the intent of the essay. However, the final title —which was printed without Zurbano’s consent, and without consideration of consequences for him — was “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun”.

This about face in the title is not only appallingly false but flies in the face of the historical record. Even though the Op-ed’s contents contradict the title, the damage is done. First, it states that fifty-four years of Revolution have done virtually nothing for Cuba’s black and brown population, which is so factually inaccurate as to be laughable. Cuba today has more black doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers than ever before in its history; it has ended legal discrimination in public spaces, the workplace and schools. Black contributions to the Cuban military, sports, and culture are huge, not to mention Cuba’s role in ending apartheid in South Africa. Second, it lays all the blame on the Revolution or the government. Now the government in Cuba plays a large role in society, way greater, say, than in the U.S., but even in the U.S. no one would claim that the racism prevalent in America is entirely the government’s responsibility. The U.S. has implemented anti-discriminatory laws, all public forms of discrimination have been banned and yet racism and racial inequality are still a scourge here. Schools, workplaces, housing, health care still carry consequences of racial inequalities resulting in racial disparities in health, educational, and economic attainment. Is this the responsibility of only the government? No, it takes the efforts of public and private groups, community and individuals. And the same holds true for Cuba. The Times’s attitude actually reveals a kind of paternalism about the Cuban state that ordinary Cubans do not accept.

Third, it ignores the deeper history of racism in Cuba that Zurbano does address, centuries of slavery and the kind of anti-black sentiments that it engendered, decades of exclusion during the period of Cuba’s Republic (including racial violence in 1912) and certain types of segregation based on a family’s housing and history of economic and educational achievement at the time of the Revolution. Although Cuba’s dynamics of race never included the virulence of Jim Crow America, specific consequences of slavery generated through specific colonial histories and their political evolution remain problematic in Cuba as they do all over the world. Significantly, as Editor of Casa de las Americas press, Zurbano edited and introduced a new edition of Franz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks, a text which confronts how Blacks internalize messages of inferiority, lies the colonial master tells to protect privilege, regardless of the violent costs.

Zurbano’s original Spanish text offers a politics and poetics of historical change in the making of a future yet to be determined which is intricately woven throughout the text and worth discussing in detail. The first paragraph of the original Spanish speaks about the recent economic changes: “The results of these gestures which are not only economic, will bring about true change and permit Cuba to exit History and enter, once and for all, into the Present. The Future (the country to come) approaches swiftly, desperately, and in that race dreams and utopias shared until recently by Cubans fall by the wayside.” Zurbano is not suggesting that Cuba will avoid history, but a certain static, utopian vision of History (with a capital “H”) that seems entirely tethered to the past and unable to move forward. His use of the Present, then, is to highlight the notion that Cuba has some catching up to do before it can go fully forward into the future.

His reference to the future recalls Zizek’s distinction of futur and avenir in French, both which translate as future in English. Futur, he claim is a “future as the continuation of the present as the full actualization of tendencies already in existence; while avenir points towards, a discontinuity with the present —avenir is what is to come (a venir), not just what will be.” (Slavoj Zizek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Verso, 2012, p. 134) The original title, el país que viene is an example of avenir, that interruption or disruption of the automatic drift to the fixed point of the future. It is the notion of avenir that ends the piece, when he says “The country as yet to come has not arrived, but aside from dreaming it, I go out each morning searching for it.” This leap into the unknown is what underlines the whole piece and is entirely missing from what the New York Times printed.

In addition to these political and historical mistranslations, the editors initially inserted text ostensibly to clarify historical or contemporary information unfamiliar to U.S. readers but clearly emphasizing a particular editorial vision and reporting bias. These included irrelevant references to Fidel and Raúl Castro. Again, Zurbano is looking at the future (avenir) where Cuban society is building something different (youth, blacks, women). The Times was always trying to explain everything through Raúl (or Fidel), a fairly common feature of Western reporting. Zurbano’s piece is trying to move beyond those clichés and several insertions made by the New York Times were taken out at his request.

Another section added had to do with an insertion about the Special Period, which does not appear with such detail as in Zurbano’s original piece. One can understand the Times’s decision, since not enough of its readership might be familiar with what Cuba went through in the nineties. But even here the idea was to highlight the difficulties of 1990-1994 and then state that the average Cuban salary is $20 a month. The author instead insisted on inserting information about the Cuban social safety net (education, low or no rent, health care). But that was not enough since putting the Cuban salary equivalence in dollars is already setting up an unfair comparison that makes Cuba look like a country where people eat once every three days.  Anyone who has been to Cuba knows that despite the shortages, high prices (for products priced in CUC) and lack of variety of food items, Cubans still eat reasonably well, with the help of el invento. But to simply put this figure without context or any qualifying data or interpretation is irresponsible at best.

Again, when speaking of Raúl Castro’s recognition of the persistence of racism the initial translated version said that nothing had been done to alleviate this problem, again blatantly untrue. Here the author had to re-insert his text noting that more black teachers and black representatives had been added to the National Assembly.

There were multiple examples of this type of editing/translating travesties throughout the piece. It is not necessary to go over every single one, but overall, what was a piece that was looking into the future with hopefulness about solving Cuba’s racial dilemmas has been transformed into its opposite by the New York Times, which owes the author a public apology at least. As of Friday (April 5th) we learned that Zurbano had been dismissed from his position as head of the Editorial of Casa de las Américas, but will remain working at CASA as a researcher. On Saturday, April 6th the times had a reporter from Mexico write about the incident, but on the important issue of changing the title elided the issue by claiming that Zurbano had agreed to the change, which is flatly untrue. The New York Times will say that their contract clearly states neither the author nor the translators and editors working with the authors have final say about the text itself nor about the all-important title, which sets the context for the editorial. However, we wonder whether the New York Times would make such a contentious/controversial editorial decision for other activists in other parts of the world, whose ability to contribute to needed societal change might be compromised by the Times’s willingness to trade accuracy for the controversy that sells papers.

More important is the reaction in Cuba, much of which has come out in La Jiribilla. Since they have only what came out in the New York Times they do not know the original Spanish text, nor do they know what was truly lost in translation, especially with the title. The title has elicited the most contentious response from commentators in Cuba, but interestingly enough few have engaged the real issues brought up by the piece: why has racism persisted after fifty-four years of revolution, why are black and brown Cubans still on the low end of the societal totem pole, why are they still largely living in poorer housing, why are they such a large percentage of the prison population, why are they largely absent from the Central Committee of the Communist Party (or the Politburo), why are they cast in stereotyped roles in the media and vastly underrepresented as anchors, newscasters and TV reporters?

Zurbano’s critics have also brought up insightful critiques of the piece, not surprising since to deal with the full dimensions of Cuban racial realities in 1,200 words is impossible. Some have questioned how Zurbano is defining blackness, or issues brought up by the Cuban census, the economic realities of the Special Period (which hit all Cubans hard, not just blacks), the continued presence of black professionals in Cuba, the country’s increasingly lively debate about race (even if it’s not on the nightly news), or differing strategies about how to advance the plight of their black brethren. All of these themes are important, but I will wait to discuss them in a separate article. What is significant for now is that Zurbano has brought up some important issues about contemporary Cuba: blacks and their sense of citizenship, the combatting of racial inequality, the kind of society Cuba wants to be in the coming years, how the recent economic changes have class and racial dimensions, how a new Cuba will embrace racial, cultural, religious, and sexual diversity.

In Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film The Last Supper, set in the 1790s, there is a banquet scene where twelve slaves eat with their master. Sebastián, one of the slaves, tells a Yoruba story about Olofi, who made the world, including the Truth and the Lie. “The Truth was beautiful and strong, the Lie ugly and skinny. To compensate Olofi gave the Lie a machete to defend itself. One day the Truth and the Lie met and fought, since they were enemies; when the Truth lets his guard drop the Lie cuts off his head. Not being able to see, the Truth searches for its head and blunders, grabbing instead the head of the Lie and places it where his own had been”. At this point Sebastian takes the head of a pig from the banquet table, places before his own like a mask (a man with a pig’s head) and says: “And from then on he goes about the world, deceiving all the people, the body of the Truth, with the head of the Lie.”

This cautionary tale should be kept in mind as we look at what has transpired between the Times and Zurbano. The head of the article (the title) turns out to be the head of the Lie, even if the body (the text) is the Truth. But in viewing what happened in the translation process we also see that a pig’s head wound up on the top of a thinking, perceptive, body. As we look closer at what has transpired we can begin to join the rightful Head with the truthful Body.

In a perverse way, the New York Times has done us a favor: by exhibiting such flagrantly mendacious and insensitive behavior, it might allow us to actually discuss not only what Zurbano is truly saying but also to examine how easily and brazenly the U.S. press can distort the realities of a foreign country or twist the thoughts of an important Cuban thinker into the opposite of what he meant. The real lesson here is not that the New York Times lies and Roberto Zurbano is telling the truth, but that even when the Times is lying there are truths that can be glimpsed, and when Zurbano is putting his finger on the wound of Cuba’s struggles with racism, it forces us to confront the lies we tell ourselves about race, wherever we live.

Alan West-Durán
April 6, 2013

Links/Enlaces top

Roberto Zurbano

For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun 3/24/2013 is the title the New York Times imposed on an article by Roberto Zurbano, an executive at the Casa del las Americas publishing house. The original title, changed without the author's assent, was "The Country to Come: And My Black Cuba?" See the firestorm this has touched off at Comments on "For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn't Begun", 4/2/13.

El titulo original que Roberto Zurbano tenia por su articulo era "El pais que viene: ¿y mi Cuba negra?" Vease Los commentarios sobre "Para los negros en Cuba, la Revolución no ha comenzado," 2/4/13 Andy Petit

Roberto Zurbano demoted from executive to researcher at Casa de las Americas,, 4/6/13.  With all press links. Andy Petit

Prominent Cubans are defending Zurbano's right to talk about racism, 4/7/13 Andy Petit

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