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‘The Life Assignment’ Explores Displacement Through Defamiliarization of Language

3.5 Stars

"The Life Assignment" by Ricardo Alberto Maldonado creatively portrays a life of displacement and discomfort.
"The Life Assignment" by Ricardo Alberto Maldonado creatively portrays a life of displacement and discomfort.
By Joseph P. Kelly, Crimson Staff Writer

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado’s “The Life Assignment” aims to put words to the hard-to-describe feeling of displacement, examining the dissonance between Maldonado’s home of Puerto Rico and his current residence in New York City. Not only does Maldonado do so through the substance and contextual effect of his words, but his use of dual language poetry also provides insight into the world of a displaced Puerto Rican living in the continental United States. The collection presents every poem in English, with some accompanied by Spanish translations.

Maldonado explains that some of these poems were first written in Spanish and purposefully mistranslated into English: “Translations and intentional mistranslations are mine. Poems presented in both languages were written in Spanish then rendered into English. Whereas the process of translating work dictated some changes in the original, at no time were concessions made to the language of (our current) Empire,” he writes in the notes. In trying to remain truthful and faithful to his original words in Spanish, Maldonado creates a distance between the original poem and its English result. In this way, Maldonado is able to portray the experience of displacement through the feeling of discomfort with a foreign language.

The English doesn’t entirely reveal Maldonado’s original intention in creating these poems, and despite the fact that these poems still portray the same content, a reader without an understanding of the Spanish originals might find the English mistranslations clunky or one-sided. They depict the life of a displaced individual trying to assimilate with a new language that doesn’t entirely flow the same way their native tongue does. In fact, the reverse experience of reading a purposefully poor translation of the author’s work allows the reader to achieve just a glimpse of this exact discomfort.

These poems, regardless of their bilingual nature, read like incantations, where the sensation of the language in your mouth offers just as much to the feel of the poem as the words on the page. The transcendent feeling of reading a poem out loud is often overlooked, but in the case of Maldonado’s bilingual poetry, every bit of pronunciation is important.

Maldonado’s poetry focuses on exploring displacement through form and content, but the rest of the collection dissects topics like queer identity, love, family, home (longing for and searching for), and the distresses of late-stage capitalism. To some extent, Maldonado’s collection is a love letter to finding peace in a capitalist world that disregards the value of human life. The depersonalization that occurs under capitalism is a struggle that infects nearly every part of our lives. Finding home, finding love, forming relationships — as Maldonado’s poems demonstrate, they all become difficult in the uncaring hands of our capitalist world.

Maldonado’s poetry is stripped bare through the translation process, then rebuilt again into a different form and body under its new language. Still, Maldonado is able to conjure up beauty in lyric, symbol, and metaphor, regardless of the language barriers and mistranslation process. At times confusing and hard to understand, this collection embraces the disorientation of its contents and molds that disorientation into an extension of the meanings of the poems themselves. All the while these poems remain entertaining through Maldonado’s craftful use of both English and Spanish words (sometimes distinctly separate in two versions of the same poem, and sometimes interjecting the English with phrases in Spanish) to depict images that evoke emotion, just as the speaking of his poetry does.

Maldonado’s collection is not only a beautiful manifestation of his experiences, but it also provides insight into the disorienting world a displaced individual lives in. The feeling of being displaced is oftentimes difficult to express through words alone, but Maldonado is able to instill that feeling by masterfully playing with the reader’s own ability to understand language. His English poems are beautiful in their own right, yet not only do they impose a feeling of misunderstanding and confusion, but also the revelation that the Spanish poem is even slightly different creates a longing for understanding: a longing felt by the displaced trying to find their bearings, a longing felt by a queer man trying to find love, and a longing for anyone just trying to find a place to call home amidst a capitalist society designed to perpetuate suffering and that endless feeling of alienation.

— Staff writer Joseph P. Kelly can be reached at and on Twitter @JosephP_Kelly.

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