12 Translators on Why They Do What They Do

I’ve been interested in literary translation since I was a teenager reading Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, Mann, and Kafka for the first time. And when I started thinking about what it meant to declare that Thomas Mann was my favorite writer while only being able to read him in English translation, I was struck by just how important translation is to expanding our minds and introducing us to diverse cultures. I also realized that my experience reading Mann in English differed in fascinating ways from that of a German-speaker reading him in the original. Years later, when I translated the work of several French Symbolist poets for an independent study, I realized how much every single word makes a difference in conveying meaning from one language to another and in capturing tone and style. It was some of the hardest work I had ever done, but also incredibly rewarding.

Recently, I put out a call to literary translators asking them to talk about what drew them to their line of work. After all, it is because of them that we (generally) monolingual readers are able to learn about other cultures and beliefs through stories and poetry. Translation is a complicated and difficult endeavor, and a supremely worthy one, so I wanted to share some thoughts on this work from professional translators themselves. Below you’ll find paragraphs from 12 people who translate into English, explaining why they love what they do and how they got started. I know you’ll be inspired!

 

Rebecca L. Thompson is an instructor and doctoral student at the University of Texas at Dallas. She’s published translations and scholarly papers on Metamorphoses and Milin Havivin, and is currently sending out manuscript samples of her first book-length project.

I’ve always been drawn to languages, because, to me, they seem like the fastest way to enter into and understand a new culture. That, paired with my love of books, made literary translation an obvious choice for me. I love the way we as translators occupy a middle ground and interact with a text. It’s really a documentation and replication of the reading process–in fact, I like to read the book for the very first time as I’m translating it. By moving page by page as both a translator and a reader, I come as close as possible to creating a genuine, unfiltered experience for the reader of the translation. It’s a challenge that never gets old.

 

David Shook is a poet and translator in Los Angeles, where he is founding editor of Phoneme Media. His recent translations include books by Mexican writers Mario Bellatin, Tedi López Mills, Kyn Taniya, and Víctor Terán.

I grew up as a Texan in Mexico City, which meant that I lived in translation, in the fertile ground between languages and cultures. It wasn’t until college that I knew that literary translation even existed. But once I discovered it, it was game on. As in my own practice as a writer, I think that it’s a fascination with language that keeps me interested in literary translation. There’s a combination of curiosity and enthusiasm that I think many of us share. So few of my own translations begin with publication in mind. They’re mostly born from things I’m interested in, from democratic activism in Equatorial Guinea to narrative structure in Mexican literature. Recent examples include the contemporary Kriol poetry of Guinea-Bissau and José Juan Tablada’s 1920s calligrams.

I’m also interested in the literary translator’s editorial or curatorial role. Our literature would be so much poorer if it weren’t for our translators, who are often the first to champion the writers they work with. That, to me, is another aspect of my own attraction to translation, the enthusiasm part: to be able to share the work that I’m most excited about, to enlarge the conversation. There’s something transformative about translation–both the process itself, as the translator destroys an original to remake it in out of entirely new and different words, and the finished product’s potential to challenge and disrupt the literary status quo in the new language it wears as best it can.

 

Manuel de los Reyes is an English into Spanish literary translator, specializing in Fantasy, SF, and Horror. He has over 15 years of experience, and more than 100 titles translated, among them books by Isaac Asimov, HP Lovecraft, Jonathan Carroll or Robin Hobb.

I would have never become a professional translator if not for two very distinct episodes in my life. First, when I was in my teens, I discovered role-playing games. This might sound trivial, but back in the day, no one in my group of friends knew enough English to buy, read, and understand many of the new games that were slowly making their way into Spain from America. We always had to wait until they were translated into Spanish, and young as we were, patience was not really our forte. English was my favorite subject at school, however, and thus the task of directing all those foreign games kind of naturally fell on me. Most importantly, it was around then when I met my first exchange classmate, a Canadian girl named Jennifer. She turned my affinity for her mother tongue into a genuine interest that, eventually, opened up my world to a whole different culture. English became the language I read, watched, and listened to, with a passion. And this, combined with the fact that I have always loved books, somehow ended up steering my steps towards translation, which has the best from both worlds. Jennifer passed away some years ago, her beautiful, radiant light put off by cancer. I do not translate RPGs any more. But my memories of that friendship, of that love, remains. I keep working. And I will never forget.

 

Ezra E. Fitz’s translations of contemporary Latin American literature by Alberto Fuguet and Eloy Urroz have been praised by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The Believer, among other publications. His own novel, The Morning Side of the Hill, was published in 2014.

For me, translation was always something of a family business.  When my dad was a grad student at CUNY, he studied with Gregory Rabassa, and translated The Stream of Life, aka Água Viva, by Clarice Lispector, for the University of Minnesota Press almost a quarter of a century before New Directions made her a household name in English.

Nothing connects you with a text or an author like being a translator. As Rabassa himself once said, “a translation is nothing but a close reading, perhaps the closest reading possible.”  That’s what I wanted to do: read something so closely that the act itself would blur the boundary between the page and the ink that’s seeping into it.  One of the authors whom I’ve translated many times over the years once sent me a copy of a newly published collection of stories.  The inscription on the half title page read, “Ezra, here you are in Spanish.  Now it’s your turn.”  Borges couldn’t have put it any better himself.  The connection had been made, the boundaries blurred, and the family business would continue on for another generation… or at least another volume.

 

Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator. Her novel Fog Island Mountains (Tantor, 2014) won the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction. She has translated the work of C.F. Ramuz (Beauty on Earth, Onesuch Press, 2013; What if the Sun…, forthcoming Onesuch Press, 2016) as well as Julia Allard Daudet, Claude Cahun, Laure Mi-Hyun Croset, and others.

For a long time, I assumed that my love of foreign languages and literatures would have to take a back seat to more practical matters, or, at best, would be an asset to the sensible job I’d eventually find myself in. I focused on science and politics and other things I really enjoyed, assuming these subjects would shape my adult life and career. But I couldn’t seem to put language and literature into its own separate box. It seems foolhardy to me now, but I decided at some point that what I really wanted to do was write novels and poetry, but I realized at the same time that translating could be viable and interesting work that could support me while I worked at the more financially-tenuous career of writing. (I know now that working exclusively in literary translation can be just as tenuous, but I can supplement it with academic and scientific translation work, which is often, thankfully, really interesting.)

My first translation project was entirely for practice. I translated the first section of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness (The Modern Library published a stunning translation of the book in 2009, by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur) under the supervision of an accomplished translator. That first work was a revelation. Within Chauvet’s novel were all of the things I still really loved—politics and history on a thematic side, complex metaphor and intriguing narrative choices on the technical fictional side—and yet I could work within those things while playing with English. It felt like incredibly deep reading, and I’ve never looked back. Translating is, in all the best ways, very much like writing except that I don’t have to make up any of the story.

Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize, and her writing and translations from Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian have appeared in The New York Times, n+1, The Guardian, Guernica, Lit Hub, The Chicago Tribune, BOMB and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a Founding Editor of The Buenos Aires Review.

In college, I majored in English and Russian and minored in Creative Writing. When I graduated, I tried to think of ways to combine those three things, and I came upon translation. In the past fifteen years, I’ve had the enormous privilege of working with some of the most talented writers of Central Europe, brilliant women like Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and Sylwia Siedlecka, or Ukraine’s Natalka Sniadanko. Everyone I’ve translated has taught me something unique and essential about writing and the world. Literary translation has been an apprenticeship for me, and recently I have taken what I’ve learned from the essays, fiction and poetry I’ve remade in English and written my first novel, which will appear this year with Penguin Random House Argentina. I wrote it in Spanish, also making an English version as I went, though neither of those is a translation. All the writers I translate have read my work, and several have even translated excerpts, written responses for the website I’ve created on the basis of my novel (http://homesickbook.space) or otherwise actively participated in this new stage in my career. Thus translation is for me dynamic collaboration, always, and I’m very much looking forward to publishing more in English of all of these fantastic people. I’m also co-authoring bilingual fiction now with Argentine author Eitán Futuro and am excited to see how readers will react to those pieces, where one of our goals is to get to the very bottom of language itself.

 

Allison M. Charette received a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields, the first novel to be translated from Madagascar, forthcoming from Restless Books next year. She has also published two other book-length translations, in addition to short translated fiction that has appeared in Words Without Borders, The Other Stories, Tupelo Quarterly, InTranslation, and the SAND Journal.

Translation makes you read books more closely than you ever have before. Part of the draw of literary translation for me is, thus, purely selfish–I grow to understand anything I translate so much more deeply than otherwise possible. And the more I understand, the more excited I get about all the new worlds opening up to me, which makes me just itch to share it with everyone I know. The problem with that, of course, is that most people I know don’t speak French, so I can’t recommend my favorite French books to them until those books get translated into English. Tragic, I know.

One of the things that has started drawing me more and more to translation, though, is the translator’s role in cultural awareness and general amity. By sharing all these different worlds, we’re advocating for other cultures and educating our own. It’s quite the idealistic view, but humanizing the “other”, making the foreign more familiar: that’s how hatred, racism, and xenophobia can be combated. Books, not bombs, right? As an example, specific to my current translation projects: Madagascar is a country that’s never had a novel translated into English. Besides lemurs and maybe vanilla, most Americans know nothing about the country, so it falls into the same misconception that many Westerners have of Africa as an entirely backward, impoverished, and primitive continent. But now there’s a short story about the nightlife in Tana, the capital city, that’s been translated into English, so there’s another reference point besides just bamboo huts and oral storytellers. We might not be able to change the whole world with such small steps, but it’s not for a lack of trying!

María José Giménez is a translator, editor and rough-weather poet with a rock climbing problem. Recent work appears in Prelude, Rogue Agent, Drunken Boat, and Cactus Heart. Translations include poetry, short fiction, essays, screenplays, and Edurne Pasaban’s memoir Tilting at Mountains (Mountaineers Books, 2014). Her translation of Alejandro Saravia’s novel Red, Yellow and Green (forthcoming: Biblioasis, 2016) has received fellowships from the NEA and the Banff Centre for the Arts. She is part of Montreal’s collective The Apostles Review and has served as Assistant Translation Editor at Drunken Boat. Find her at www.mariajosetranslates.com.

As a child, I spent countless hours in my room reading, writing, and poring over bilingual dictionaries. This is still what I most like to do. After completing undergraduate studies in French, I started working as a translator by chance while living on Vancouver Island, in 1999, when a freelancer I’d just met asked me for last-minute help editing Spanish translations. I now freelance full-time as a translator and copy editor, weaving my passion for language, and languages, into my work.

My transition into literary translation began when I moved to Montreal in 2001 to start a second B.A. in Spanish, at Concordia University. Montreal’s multilingual environment was the perfect setting I needed then, with its plethora of literary and translation-related events, resources and bilingual readings. But the turning point was meeting and studying with Hugh Hazelton (now Professor Emeritus at Concordia), who introduced me to the work of Latino-Canadian authors such as Alejandro Saravia, Nela Rio, Carmen Rodriguez and Diego Creimer, among others. In 2007, I joined the collective The Apostles Review and have been a passionate translator and promoter of Latino-Canadian literature ever since. Hugh also instilled in me a deep love for the craft, as well as a sense of balance between rigor and creative freedom, and he continues to guide and inspire me as an invaluable mentor, friend, and collaborator.

More than simply a career, translation is a path I have chosen, and it has become inextricably woven into my own creative writing, nurtured by rich connections and opportunities for collaboration with colleagues and advocates in our field.

Jordi Alonso studied English at Kenyon College and is the Turner Fellow in Poetry at Stony Brook Southampton. Honeyvoiced, his first book of poems, an exploration stemming from a re-translation of Sappho, was published by XOXOX Press in 2014; his chapbook, The Lovers’ Phrasebook, which flirts with words not found in English as synonyms for “love” is forthcoming from Red Flag Poetry Service. He is the Poetry and Translation Editor of The Whale.

After a childhood spent mixing English, Spanish, and French, I graduated with an AB in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing from Kenyon College in 2014, where I also studied Literary Translation, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Provençal, and ancient Greek. I’ll be graduating from Stony Brook University in the spring of this year with an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature. My studies have given me a solid background in classics, modern literature, and translation. I’ve recently been more interested in using source-texts in other languages as inspiration for original work, just as I did in my first book (Honeyvoiced, XOXOX Press 2014), which I began by translating the fragments of Sappho with the aim of imagining what her complete poems might have sounded like had they survived the centuries while at the same time acknowledging that they were being rewritten by a 22 year-old American poet trying to enter into conversation with contemporary poetry.

I continue exploring languages in a forthcoming chapbook (The Lovers’ Phrasebook, Red Flag Poetry 2017) where I take words from 26 languages, all relating to an aspect of love, each beginning with a different letter of the standard Latin alphabet, which have no direct translation into English. This chapbook came out of a list that I compiled with Phoebe Carter, a translator herself and a good friend of mine who will be designing the covers and illustrating every poem in the chapbook. Currently, I’m working with the Neo Political Cowgirls, a women’s dance theatre company in East Hampton, New York to bring a production to fruition later this year that is inspired by the myths and literature surrounding the mythical figure of Andromeda.

Aviya Kushner is the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible (Spiegel & Grau), a 2015 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.  Once a travel columnist for The International Jerusalem Post, she is now an associate professor of creative writing at Columbia College Chicago, where she teaches courses in writing and translation.

I grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home in New York, and I have been translating from Hebrew to English all my life. The space between languages is a country with no name, a special zone, a state of mind. As a child, I didn’t realize that this unnamed space was what translators went in and out of every day, and that the survival of literature depends on these travelers.

Rosanna Warren’s magnificent translation course introduced me to the theory and practice of translation; reading John Dryden and Robert Lowell’s essays on translation, I realized for the first time that many major writers throughout history were also translators. I was hooked.

The first poet I translated was Saul Tchernichovsky, one of the fathers of modern Hebrew literature—a doctor and also a translator. I felt Tchernichovsky’s obsessions shaping my own poetry, and I realized that I had to absolutely love a piece of writing order to truly translate it. Recently I have been translating the poetry of Yudit Shahar, a prizewinning contemporary Israeli poet who writes about economic justice, the challenge of surviving as a single woman in society, and the legacy of growing up in a religious family. To translate Shahar, I have to use all my Hebrew and all my English, as well as my own experience as a poet and as a financial journalist. I am honored to be her bridge into English.

Lisa Rose Bradford teaches comparative literature at the Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata and has published four book-length translations of Juan Gelman’s verse including Between Words: Juan Gelman’s Public Letter (National Translation Award) and Oxen Rage, recently long-listed for the Pen Award, 2016.

Henry James once said: “To criticize is to appreciate, to appropriate, to take intellectual possession, to establish in fine a relation with the criticized thing and to make it one’s own.” I believe literary translation is founded on a similar rapport, with the added value of affording one creative and productive readings of a text. In my case, this relationship began with German grandparents and a high school exchange in Argentina, both of which enhanced my fascination with words. Once in college, a literary translation workshop directed by Rainer Schulte increased my appreciation of the possibilities of language as regards rhetoric, musicality, and imagery. Translation became a mode of reading and a marvelous challenge.

Regarding my career in translation, initially, the joy of recreating some of my favorite poetry drove me to translate, and I chose four contemporary Argentine poets for the discussion of the translation process for my dissertation at Berkeley. Moreover, my teaching career in Argentina includes the direction of a research group that has published two collections of essays on translation and three anthologies of U.S. poetry translated into Spanish. With the encouragement from other translators, many of whom are involved in the American Literary Translators Association, I began publishing poets from my dissertation in journals, and later bilingual collections of Juan Gelman’s poetry in the form of complete books. A few years ago, a residency at the Banff International Literary Translation Center, where the participants become part an exceptional community of artists, affirmed my belief that there is an enormous level of creativity among translators, many of whom are also writers in their own right, as am I in my free time. Finally, to have gained recognition in the form of a National Translation Award and an NEA has driven me even harder to prolong the pleasure, and the “possession” and memorial involved in capturing a work of art.

Sophie Hughes’s forthcoming translations from Spanish include Laia Jufresa’s Umami (Oneworld Publications) and Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections (Pushkin Press). In 2015, she was awarded the British Centre for Literary Translation Prose Mentorship, and in 2016 she was shortlisted for an Arts Foundation Fellowship.

I’ve often heard literary translators refer to themselves as bridges into other worlds, and it’s true that a large part of what we do is provide a path for readers from one place to reach the literature and ergo the culture, history, even the spirit of another—all without having to speak the language of that place. This idea of it being a bridge-building, empathetic vocation was what first appealed to me about literary translation. In fact, it turned out that the task at hand is really more akin to digging tunnels: (mentally) back-breaking, producing one engineering quandary after another (the idea that we can map one language neatly onto another is as alogical as a tunnel under the English Channel), and the end product is basically invisible.

It has also, in my still short career as a translator, become clear that this bridge/tunnel allows for two-way traffic. Anglophone readers are able travel to foreign lands, yes, and what a treat it is to sightsee and dip into unknown territory. But it is what foreign writers bring over to us via us conduit-translators that keeps our literature and ergo our culture, history, and spirit evolving. In my personal utopia, our English evolves thanks to translation. Just as Shakespeare’s Old English is ingrained in our modern vernacular (appropriately enough, “it’s all Greek to me”), so do foreign authors have a place in our daily speech and thoughts. A few foreign language authors, thanks to their translators, have crossed channels in this way, at least in my life: Kafka’s ‘A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us’; more recently, Mexican Laia Jufresa’s ‘the dead, or at least some of them, take customs, decades, whole neighborhoods with them. When death does you part, it’s also the end of what’s mine is yours’; and lest we forget, Umberto Eco’s ‘Translation is the art of failure’—for me, borrowed wisdom to live by.

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