Now Open in Cuba: English-Language Bookstore, Cuba Libro

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Image: Courtesy of Cuba Libro

Cuba Libro is the island's only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Cuba Libro is the island’s only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Because my husband is Cuban and because I’ve visited Cuba nearly a dozen times over the past decade, I get lots of travel questions about the island. I can’t answer most of these questions, as I tend to stay with my mother-in-law and I’ve never experienced Cuba as a tourist; I end up directing inquiries to my friend Conner Gorry, who has lived on the island for longer than I’ve been visiting. Her blog and her travel app are as much intel as you’re going to get without moving there yourself.

Conner just sent word about Cuba Libro, an English-language bookstore and cafe in Havana… the island’s only English-language bookstore and cafe. It just opened this week. Here’s everything you need to know about it, straight from Conner:

This island is unique in so many ways (both good and not so) and one thing that has always struck me is that Havana must be one of the only – if not the only – capital city where you can’t get an English-language newspaper or novel. The reasons are complex (what isn’t in Cuba?!) but it means literature lovers have to beg, borrow or steal books in English or bring their Kindle well-loaded.

Located on a terminally shady corner in the desirable Vedado district, this ‘café literario’ is bringing the bookstore/coffeehouse concept to the island. All books and magazines pass through the ‘Conner filter’ (if you find a Harlequin Romance on the shelves, you get a free espresso!): I guarantee if you’re in need of quality reading material or conversation with interesting, creative Cubans, you’ll find it here.

In addition to featuring monthly shows by talented local artists – August showcases over a dozen captivating images by photographer Alain Gutiérrez – Cuba Libro offers many services travelers are after: water bottle refills; postcards, stamps, and mailing; a cultural calendar (so you won’t miss that hot concert or polemic play); and expert travel tips. This is an ethically-responsible business that offers a lending library for those who can’t afford books, a collective employment model where the entire team benefits, and an environmentally-friendly approach. Like Cuba itself, Cuba Libro strives for equity and a healthy, culturally-rich atmosphere.

This is also a regguetón free zone – we listen to real music at Cuba Libro! Come early to snag a coveted hammock or hanging chair in the garden.

Open Monday-Saturday, 10am-8pm.

Lost–and Then Found–in Translation

When we dropped out of the 9-to-5 world, Francisco and I took an inventory of our skills and realized that as a fully bilingual couple we might be able to pay the bills by translating documents from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English.

We were right.

Craigslist is replete with ads posted by folks in need of written material that makes sense in the target language. We’ve translated everything from a strategic plan for a winery in Galicia, Spain and instructions for the safe use of bathtub toys to an advertisement for an exterminator claiming to specialize in bed bug elimination and treatments for documentary films.

Translation is work we enjoy but which inevitably leads to dynamic debates about how to take words from one language and make them resonate effectively in another. Translation is much more than the literal transcription of words; good translation requires that the translator ensure that the meaning and tone of a message are conveyed as well.

Furthermore, good translations demand that the translator know more than the original and target languages: the translator must know the target culture, too. While translating an article about the Cuban rap group, the Orishas, Francisco and I hit a stumbling block as soon as we began translating the title. “‘In the house of the blacksmith, a wooden knife?!’ That makes NO sense!” I said. Francisco explained the cultural reference and the relevance and resonance the phrase has in Cuba. But the concept didn’t translate at all to English. We decided to leave the title in Spanish, with a footnote about the cultural reference. This translation project was a reminder that even in Spanish, regional expressions vary considerably, as do metaphors. This fact affirms the importance of knowing the intended audience: an Argentine’s Spanish is not the same, for instance, as a Puerto Rican’s Spanish.

Lots of companies and small business owners skimp on translation.

They shouldn’t.

In addition to compromising the potential power of their message, a poor translation can have serious negative outcomes. In the case of the bathtub toy instructions, for example, a bad translation could lead to someone’s injury or death.

Whether a company does a low-tech, low-cost dictionary translation performed by someone in-house or produces a high-tech translation aided by an increasing variety of “instant translation” software, the message is sure to be lost in translation.

The best and most effective translations are those done by a pair or team of translators comprised of native speakers of BOTH languages. While Francisco speaks fluent English and I speak fluent Spanish, every translation we’ve done has been better because of our ability to draw from a range of linguistic and cultural experiences and to discuss them as we’re translating.

Need translation work? Feel free to contact us at

What’s the funniest bad translation you’ve ever seen? Submit your favorite in the comments below!

Photo: burningoutofcontrol (creative commons)

Photo: MinaFresh/Amanda (creative commons)