I started literary life as a poet. Poems arrive rarely these days, but people tell me poet is not a position from which you can resign. As many did in my era, I became a poet without a writing program. My degrees are in English and I spent twenty years in local government, staffing employment and training programs, coordinating entry-level testing for police officers and firefighters. Everywhere I worked my degrees earned me the report-writing.
Taking a hefty cut in pay in a midlife crisis attempt to find more satisfaction, I then spent eighteen years as a secondary teacher of Language Arts, Spanish, and Creative Writing. It was the right move. Being able to teach Spanish got me the job: English teachers were a dime a dozen in the ’90s.
I had the required minimum credits in Spanish to teach it at the secondary level. In the interview I was able to conjugate the verb ir and respond to a few simple questions in Spanish. No real Spanish teachers were to be had that year, and I was hired. Teaching Spanish was stressful at first, as I knew nothing about teaching or teenagers en masse and had to learn each day’s lesson the night before. Eventually I became a real teacher, and the increased knowledge coincidentally benefitted the translation I’d begun to dabble in.
Before finding a calling in education, when I was still an active poet, I acquired the itch to translate. My own poem-making was faltering and I wanted to really learn Spanish at last. Many poets I admired were also translators. W.S. Merwin. Denise Levertov. Gary Snyder. I’d been thinking idly about translating when on vacation in New Mexico I found myself in Allá, Santa Fe’s marvelous Spanish language bookstore.
“Contemporary Mexican women poets?” I asked proprietor James Dunlap, expecting nothing. He directed me to a shelf in that overstuffed store where I found the Mexican poet Elsa Cross. I translated and published some of those poems, including several in the anthology These Are Not Sweet Girls, still used in university classes today. Luck of the novice aided by the poet’s patient assistance.
But you know what? Poetry is hard.
Not only that, but my Spanish was less than stellar and I knew nothing about translation. I just waded in and started doing it, much like I handle an item that needs assembly. “Did you read the instructions?” my husband asks. I glare at him. Doesn’t he know me by now? I never read the instructions. Drives him crazy.
There I was, trying to translate Elsa Cross without instructions. Snail mail in those days. I waited weeks to hear from her, was thrilled by her letters. When we met for the first time in Mexico City at Sanborn’s, I was as tongue-tied as if I were a teenager and she my rock star idol. She is actually a few years younger than me. By the time my poetry translation efforts ran out of steam, we were on email and communication was easier.
University translation programs weren’t yet popping up like dandelions. I’d never taken a translation course, didn’t know such a thing existed, when I heard about Mundo a Mundo, a two-week July 2002 workshop in Mexico City led by Amanda Powell. The language of the workshop was Spanish—half our participants were translators working from English to Spanish, half the reverse. I understood the lectures, discovered I had intuitively arrived at some “best practices,” and learned a few new ones. That workshop introduced me to its presenters, the knowledgeable and excellent writer/translators C.M. Mayo and Araceli Ardón, and to fellow participant Clare Sullivan, now a well-published translator, all of whom I currently count as colleagues. For that workshop, I translated new Cross poems, but the results were middling at best.
Around that time, I reviewed a book on Mexican border issues. We’ve had such issues for a hundred years or more, mis amores, but they do NOT constitute a national emergency. A writer in Montevideo read my review, wrote to me about it, and sent me his collection of short stories, El Mar Rojo. My translation, The Red Sea, by Rafael Courtoisie, was published in 2004. Translating fiction was my new occupation.
I felt under-credentialed at my first American Literary Translators Association conference, where I learned that most translators seem to be connected to universities. Many teach the languages they translate from, others are first- or second-generation Americans translating from what had been their first language, or that of their parents. Almost all have been immersed in their languages, have lived extensively in France or Chile, Russia or Japan. I, meanwhile, have managed only three scant months in my beloved Mexico.
It used to be remarked that being an artist is a luxury afforded by affluence. An independent income was what a woman needed to be a writer, said Virginia Woolf. Working class artists and writers have proved otherwise, but obstacles still arise. Immersion, the only real way to acquire a second language if you haven’t already got one, is often a privileged choice. Luckily, the absolute requirement for a translator is mastery of his or her own language, and I have been immersed in and practicing the writing of English all my life.
Theory and Craft
When I said I understood those Mexico City translation workshop lectures in Spanish, I meant all except the ones about theory: those I am unable to comprehend in either language.
Translation thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the innermost relationship of languages … It cannot possibly reveal or establish this hidden relationship itself; but it can represent it by realizing it in embryonic or intensive form. This representing of something signified through an attempt at establishing it in embryo is of so singular a nature that it is rarely met with in the sphere of nonlinguistic life.
That’s from Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Task of the Translator,” in Harry Zohn’s translation. It’s a text included in every other literary translation course under God’s good sun, but by the time I get to the third sentence, I’m either asleep or making my grocery list. Not to disparage Benjamin. His essay is a cornerstone of modern understanding of translation, contains many gems I find insightful, including this frequently cited one:
A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.
I get that. It’s what I try to do. I have achieved it when the author says of my work, “I was reading my own words, but in English.” I have achieved it when my translation calls attention to the original work. I have achieved it when an editor says “the writing is so beautiful,” because, yes, it is beautiful in the original and it’s my goal to let that beauty make its way through my words. Walter Benjamin defined such standards for my art and craft.
Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher, considered the best literary critic of his time. I feel a pang when I think of his fine mind, how well he articulated many literary and translation issues, how he went from Germany to France and then during WWII succeeded in fleeing to Spain, only to despair too soon. He might have escaped.
But I don’t include his essay in my literary translation class. I’m fond of a quote attributed to Picasso, who allegedly said that when critics get together, they talk about content, style, and meaning, but when painters get together, they talk about where you can get the best turpentine. I’m a turpentine person, myself. I started reading what others had to say about translation after I’d formed a practice of my own.
Gregory Rabassa has struggled with problem titles too, I might exclaim, reading If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents. Margaret Sayers Peden and Edith Grossman, also giants in the translation of Latin American literature, have written about their processes. As with learning Spanish, teaching came to my rescue, for in designing the literary translation course I currently teach for University of Denver’s University College, I did at last read what many translators have to say about translation and am not the worse for it.
When I found Elsa’s poems in that Santa Fe bookstore, I had enough Spanish to sense their intensity, their rhythm, and to feel that “beautiful tolerance for incomprehension” Michael Silverblatt says you need for the art of reading. I understood just enough to want to understand more. To accomplish that, I had to translate those poems. I realize my reaction to art is contrary to my reaction to theoretical writing. Horses of another color. I have similar experiences with the fiction writers I translate now. Like Rabassa, I often don’t read the story before translating it. He said he didn’t like to take the time. I refrain in order to maintain a sense of revelation in my process.
Why I Translate
First: I love the work. It’s challenging, tedious, and rewarding. In the beginning, before somewhat adequate online resources appeared, I would have five or six Spanish dictionaries open on the desk and floor, along with a grammar and a dictionary of mexicanismos. I found the work absorbing, was not willing to give it up even in moments of despair, like the time I learned that the lovely, multisyllabic word murciélago in English is nothing but a bat.
Second: a rich world of connection with “real” writers opened to me. Elsa Cross is internationally known, has a dozen books, awards, a collected works. She did a month’s residency on a Greek island and came home to Mexico with enough sea-salted, sunlit poems for another book. Suggested to me by Mayo, the Mexican writers I translate now, Mónica Lavín and Agustín Cadena, have likewise won awards, seem to publish new books every other year. Both are prolific enough to keep any number of translators busy. I’m in awe of their achievements, have felt my own words and world expanding under the influence of theirs.
Third: To be of use. Marge Piercy’s poem of that title resonates with me, especially about translation:
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
I bring amazing poems and stories into English. I give marketing support to writers, to Mexican writing, to American readers, add threads of enrichment to the weave of world literature. I provide a service. I am of use.
The last time my husband and I were in Mexico City, Mónica made us dinner. Agustín gave us a tour of favorite places. Long ago, Elsa took us to Xochimilco on a weekday. Mariachis don’t play there on weekdays. She was so relieved. I receive so much from such occasions. Writers appreciate translators because they know no one does it for the money. There isn’t any. And it doesn’t matter. The pitcher still cries for water to carry.
Fourth: translators are supportive of one another. Cross had several translators when I started on her poems, including the late John Oliver Simon, whom I met in San Francisco at a Two Lines reading. Introducing me, he said, “We share Elsa Cross.” Translators often collaborate on translations, help out with translation difficulties. At my first ALTA conference, I was invited to serve on a panel. Translators are writers who seldom seem to engage in rivalry.
Fifth: submitting my own work has always been difficult. I do better with translations. I still get rejections, like for the Courtoisie novel I translated, still unpublished. Close, but no cigar. Rejections of work I translate are easier to take. After all, it’s not my story. Nothing personal. Translations may also have better odds of being published. A journal receives five hundred poem submissions a month (because half the people on the planet are writing poems) but only a few dozen translations. I suspect those numbers are rising, as translation programs spring up like happy yellow dientes de león and literature in translation becomes more popular.
I’ve done some paid nonliterary translation work, including a historical biography of an early Mexican feminist, 350 heavily footnoted pages. The author, historian Mílada Bazant, asked me to also help her edit, condense the book. That job was like climbing a steep trail at high altitude and took nearly a year, but at the end of it, my editing knives could cut Gordian knots.
Sixth: Ursula K. LeGuin wrote daily from 7:30 to 1—not a habit I ever mastered, although I write more regularly now than I ever have. Because I don’t have to face the blank page, because I don’t have to decide what the story is about, because I know the author is waiting for it, because there’s a call for submissions I’d like to answer, translation has been a writing task I more readily begin, more consistently work on, more often finish.
My own work has taken a backseat most of my life. Family, career, the usual suspects. I reversed that pattern with translation and my blog, both of which I’ve maintained consistently for a decade. Translation has become a central feature of my writing practice. It is writing, you know. It is an art. I write about it. And once in a while, I write a poem.