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From poetry to narco gangs: a Welsh translator in Latin America

01 Apr 2024 7 minute read
Richard Gwyn

Martin Shipton

A Welsh writer who has become an acclaimed translator of Latin American literature says he took up translation after being appalled by the poor quality of a book of translated poems.

Until recently Richard Gwyn ran the MA course in creative writing at Cardiff University. His 2016 translations of Latin American poetry, The Other Tiger, was described as a “complex, beautiful and comprehensive collection”.

Gwyn’s new book – Ambassador of Nowhere – tells of his journey across South America in search of poems for his anthology .

Interviewed at Waterstones in Cardiff by fellow writer Jon Gower, he was asked why he’d felt a compulsion to travel around Latin America to meet the poets and get to know the countries they described instead of just sitting in a room in Cardiff and translating their work from Spanish into English.


Gwyn said: “I came to translation fairly late. I suddenly discovered it probably in my early 40s or late 30s, and realised that I could become quite addicted to it. I was reading a collection of poems by a Spanish poet called Jaime Gil de Biedma – the translations were diabolical, and I thought well I can do better than that.

“I’d never seriously thought about translation before, so I translated them and submitted them to Poetry Wales, when Robert Minhinnick was editing it. He published them. And I thought, well I can do this. So I continued and then I did a diploma in translation, and got more and more confident. I did more and more poetry and short stories.

“It was suggested to me that I do an anthology of Latin American poets and I had no idea it was going to be a book as fat as this [The Other Tiger]. This is the result – and this is the reason why, when I went over in 2011, I’d just had the commission to do this book. It took five years to do it, and it became a kind of all-consuming project which led me to travel there, to many different countries over several years.

“The impetus for my translation was very much due to a Scottish poet called Alastair Reid, who was [the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis] Borges’ original translator, and because I was a fanatic of Borges, and although I knew nothing about translation when I was 17 or 18 when I first read Borges, I became curious about his translator. And in many ways Alastair became my kind of translation guru.

“I was very fortunate to meet him in 2014. I went up to Scotland – he lived in New York. He was a staff writer for The New Yorker until very late in life. When I went to see him in Dumfries and Galloway he was 88 years old, and it was like I’d been waiting to meet him all my life – and I go into that in some detail in the book.

“I met him two months before he passed away, and his last words to me were: ‘You must come to visit me in New York.’ I planned to, on the way back from Colombia, but he was no more. And I’m so glad I did that meeting and recorded it.”

Strange incident

Gwyn went on to talk about a strange incident that occurred when he went to visit some Chilean poets in the country’s World Heritage Site city Valparaiso. He said: “It’s about an hour’s drive from the capital, Santiago. I had a very good friend, a Chilean poet called Enrique, who invited me to come and stay. We had dinner and he went off with his girlfriend and lent me his flat. So I was heading back to the flat on my own after dinner, and this is what happened.

“I take the long way back, through the steep streets towards Enrique’s house. I’m not in a hurry – Enrique is staying over at his girlfriend’s place, and I have the apartment to myself. However, after wandering down a street called Esmeralda and taking the fork into Cochrane I am joined by a big black dog, and then another.

“By the time we had reached Plaza Sotomayor, I have an escort of five large brown and black dogs. They seem to have adopted me, and whenever I take a turning, they follow. A sixth dog, which has been lurking beneath a shopfront, starts up as if to join the pack. But the others apparently do not want him. The leader, the first to have joined me, and a specially brutish specimen, attacks the newcomer viciously, and the others join in. I hear terrible squealing, but know better than to interfere in this territorial battle.

“As I walk on, quickening my pace, just when I think I’ve lost them a couple of hundred metres up the street, the pack rejoins me at a run. I’m beginning to feel like some lone caped warrior, or the lead singer of a heavy metal band, with my thuggish canine bodyguard spread around me – the boss dog leading the way, and the others to my side and rear.

“We climb through the Cerro Alegre, and with the dogs showing no sign of leaving me, I decide to stop off for a nightcap. I spot a likely bar on a sidestreet, with a couple of tables on the pavement. It is past midnight, there is no one outside. But in the bar a few late drinkers are chatting loudly. I go in to order a beer, and return to find my escort has taken up position. The dogs are sitting around the table on the pavement, waiting for me.

“When I take my seat, they lie down one by one – all five of them lying there, watching me. I take a sip of beer and remember Alastair Reid’s piece about the foreigner, and about how one might find a place into which one might sink with a single timeless contented sigh. Could mine be here, outside a bar at midnight, surrounded by a pack of large feral street dogs? Could this be my vocation, my function, to pass the rest of my days as a crazy street person, the Dog Man of Valparaiso?”


Gwyn also spoke of how despite having an urbane literary culture, there was often, in Latin America, horrendous violence in the background.

He said: “Guadalajara is the second biggest city in Mexico, the capital of the state of Jalisco, where tequila comes from. The book fair in Guadalajara is the biggest in the Spanish-speaking world. It’s like Frankfurt in the rest of the world. All Spanish language writers want to go there. I was invited there and did a presentation about my book The Vagabond’s Breakfast and read some poems.

“Then on the second day I went to lunch with a friend of mine, an Argentinian novelist called Andrés Neuman, author of Traveller of the Century, who has visited Cardiff several times, and he told me that a few days before the festival began, they had discovered 26 dead bodies in three pickup trucks just a few hundred metres from where the book fair was held.

“But the news had been suppressed because the city authorities didn’t want news getting out, as none of the writers would have turned up. I got a version of this from Andreas, the writer, and then the next day I was driven by a teacher to give a talk at a school and he told me it was one of the narco gangs, Los Zetas, who were trying to wipe out another gang, and it was totally indiscriminate. The proximity of that kind of mass slaughter to this kind of cathedral of culture, the book fair, was so shocking that it really defied belief.”

Ambassador of Nowhere: A Latin American Pilgrimage by Richard Gwyn is published by Seren Books. It is available from all good bookshops.

Read an extract here.

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5 days ago

Can I ask, how did it end? Did the dogs leave him or did he leave the dogs? I need to know, please answer!

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