Mingus returns to Mexico. A word on the Spanish translation

I finished the translation of Tonight at Noon, by Sue Mingus, at the Mexico City International Airport, on my way to New York City. My flight was delayed and this gave me the opportunity to work, getting the best out of this space, which is for most people uncomfortable but ideal for me for various reasons. The first: transitional places have always seemed inspiring to me, they are spaces where my creative process flows lighter, perhaps precisely because art is about going beyond everyday spaces, crossing limits, transcending borders. And yes, let’s insist: translating requires a creative process; like poetry, I suspect, it has to do with breathing, with breath; it is the art of traitors, it has been said too many times, but in that betrayal thought and language are reinvented, history and its characters are unearthed, readers who remained on the margins are reached.

Second reason: the Mexico City airport is one of the places that Charles Mingus traveled in life and death; In 1977 he was traveling to play in the Sala Nezahualcóyotl of the UNAM, some time later he came in a wheelchair, already ill, and only a few months later he departed, in the form of ashes and bones, in an urn wrapped in a colorful zarape, in his journey to the other world. I realize that during the translation process I have followed in the footsteps of Charles and Sue Mingus, sometimes even without realizing it: I have inhabited their same neighborhood for so many years, the East Village of Manhattan; I have had breakfast at Las Mañanitas, in Cuernavaca; I have passed in front of the Rio de Janeiro building, where it is said, he went to visit the curandera Pachita; I have knocked on the door where Charles died: the old splintered wooden gate, I suspect, is still the same one that saw him enter.

Above all, I have spent the last few years on a trip back and forth between Mexico City, Cuernavaca and New York; I have gone to countless Mingus Mondays at the Jazz Standard, where the Mingus Big Band plays every Monday, there I discovered Sue’s autobiography and set out to translate it. By a very Mingus-like coincidence, thanks to theater director Karin Coonrod, I visited Sue at her apartment in Upper Manhattan on the terrible day Donald Trump won the presidency of the United States. That day Sue told us about how she would like to play with some of the musicians of the Mingus Big Band to change the lyrics of “Fables of Faubus,” to update it: “Tell me someone who’s ridiculous, Sue!” and she would scream, “Donald Trump!” “Why is he so ridiculous?” “Wants to build up a wall!” Reencountering Mingus also transcends temporal borders, it makes us imagine what an anti-racist like him would have said about the current situation in the United States and how relevant his words and work still are.

Returning to the subject of translation and its multiple crossroads, how faithfully or treacherously can one translate? I think it is important to admit that in translation you play your own story: what is known and what is ignored. Like all writing, for me it is a game of sincerity, an impulse towards the unknown, a daring to feel and know myself exposed. It is also a game of imagining readers: in this case, my real and imaginary readers are the musicians from Cuernavaca, Mexico and the world with whom I met Mingus and his music, with whom I hope to share this translation and many reflections.

Translating is also a game of leaving breadcrumbs to show the way to others, although sometimes the crumbs are carried away by crows. Humor, for example, translates badly and does not age well, it often depends on sound, on local and temporal references that stick to the original language. Jazz lovers, I suspect, fans of Mingus, would want some of these phrases, as well as references to scores and compositions, in English so as not to go wrong. In some notes I have included observations that have more to do with my personal research, following in the footsteps of Mingus, than with the usual notes expected from a translation, more specific to the language. To leave these marks of Sue and Charles’s trip, I have also left the addresses mentioned for New York in English, and when speaking of Mexico I have even corrected some obvious errors where Sue, without knowing Spanish, made a mistake in some letter obscuring the meaning. In general, the notes are minimal so as not to interrupt the flow of the narration, Sue Mingus’ greatest achievement in this autobiography, which I hope to honor in my own rhythm, my own beat.

An important decision was to always leave there, in the original language, as it is, the word “nigger”: the most offensive in American English, with an untranslatable historical charge. The racial history of Mingus has much to do with this word, with the discovery in his youth that his father called Mexican “niggers” while they called him the same way back. The original title of his autobiography carried this word to refer to himself, but of course it was censured in the final edition. But it is also the word that Dizzy Gillespie and other black musicians used to refer to Mingus: then it becomes a word of camaraderie, of inclusion, of affection. Mingus, the eternal outsider in America´s binary racial world, deeply apreciated this statement of equility among musicians: “you´re as black as me,” Dizzy seemed to say.

Bringing Tonight at Noon to the Spanish language has to do for me with completing a circle, a journey: the return to Mexico of Sue and Charles´s story. Every so often, around his death anniversary, in January, or his birthday, in April, a note on a newspaper or magazine in Mexico speaks of Charles´s death, venturing reasons and pointing out places, making mistakes and changing the story. Here, Sue tells us the whole story, or at least her own version. This translation is also a perhaps clever or treacherous way of inserting myself into their story, because as a musician I am interested in that discussion that Bird, and Charles, and Sue were having: music and its spirituality, the magic and superstition it involves. And so, this is my way of continuing the discussion, on and off the pages, up and down the stage.

Elisa Corona Aguilar

August 6th, 2019

East Village, New York