Lost in Translation: The FBI’s File on Julia de Burgos

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Depending on how paranoid you are about government surveillance, it may or may not come as a surprise to learn that the first translations of Julia de Burgos’ poetry into English were done by an anonymous FBI agent working at the New York office. Less surprising is the way in which those translations were used for the purpose of “building a case” against the poet. Fortunately, the stakes were not that high.

In 1945, Julia de Burgos lost her job for…we’ll figure that out later. To be fair, it wasn’t just any job. She was working at the Office of the Coordinator for Inter-American Affairs (CIAA) as a clerk; i.e. menial labor for a government agency that would spend a few years during World War II sending artists from the US to Latin America on “cultural diplomacy” missions.

Preconceived notions figured heavily into the file that was opened on Burgos in July of 1944. The FBI was intent on making a connection between her past affiliations and some kind of subversive political activity.

Naturally, the file contained five of her poems, which is also where things get weird. First off, the translations are mediocre at best. There’s no way to understate this. So keep in mind whenever the FBI comes to a conclusion about her work, it’s based off wrong information.

For example, “Campo” (“Countryside”), an idyllic poem dedicated to the rural landscapes of Puerto Rico, is taken completely out of context. Words like tradición and salto are mistranslated as “treason” and “plunder.” The gender of a young girl is changed to a boy. The translator is unaware of false cognates; not to mention the literal use of syntax. It basically reads like a machine translation with a couple of typos here and there.

But none of this mattered. The FBI had a pretty clear agenda when translating her poems. Harris Feinsod, in his article on CENTRO Journal titled "Between Dissidence and Good Neighbor Diplomacy: Reading Julia de Burgos with the FBI," refers to this as “ghost-translating,” which is a meta-term inspired by a similar concept called “ghost-reading.” It turns out the FBI had been in the literary criticism field for a minute. In fact, William Maxwell dedicated an entire book to the practice of ghost-reading and the pervasive effect it had on African-American writers for a significant portion of the 20th century. Translation just made things a little more complicated.

The solution? Criminalize her writing. I mean that it a very literal sense. The translations represent a cumbersome process in which Burgos’ poetry becomes evidence for this myopic approach taken by the FBI–even if that meant changing a word or stretching its definition.

And you’re still not convinced Burgos was a victim of the system, consider that in one instance, the translator gives up after two stanzas, unwilling to continue because of an overwhelming sense that the poem had nothing more to say. Compare that to another mistake in which “la bondad martiana” becomes “Martian philosophy” in English. What do you think the FBI made of that?

These are examples of the FBI’s willful ignorance toward language and culture…which renders the translations of Burgos’ poems as almost worthless. They couldn’t even catch a José Martí reference.

In the end, it’s difficult to even call what they did translation. It’s even more generous to consider it a latent form of literary criticism. It was more of an adaption, a fictional portrayal of a free-spirited poet working at the wrong place at the wrong time. The FBI even filed her under miscellaneous.

And it’s not like Burgos was the only person to lose their job in this way. Federal employees were vulnerable to investigation under the Hatch Act. So maybe now it seems like a harmless anecdote and we laugh at the FBI’s expense, but the truth is, Julia de Burgos just couldn’t catch a break.


© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices  on 18 December 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.