Translating Together

I have worked very hard to master the Spanish language over the past seven years of my life.  I am taking a class on current literature published in Spanish with Eduardo Lago, “Spanish Language Authors of the 21st Century”. This class is both challenging and exciting, since we are reading novels published as recently as nine months ago.  For my conference project, I’m writing a paper on Spanish-language poetry.  The process of translation has always fascinated me, and now that I am proficient enough in another language to be reading, analyzing, and writing about literature, it has finally become a viable option.

This past Thursday afternoon, I headed over to the Pillow Room to listen to two translators talk about their work.  María Negroni, a Sarah Lawrence professor and  distinguished poet herself, introduced the talk.  I barely noticed the two hours that passed as Sarah Riggs and Omar Berrada discussed the complicated art of translating literature, particularly poetry.  They are both accomplished translators and poets in their own right.  Riggs grew up in New York and Berrada grew up in Casablanca, Morocco.  They now both live and work in Paris, mostly working with texts in French and English.

Riggs described one strategy of translation, developed by poet Rosemarie Waldrop.  It has three phases: first, the translator creates a fast rough draft of the entire piece.  Second, the translator gets rid of the original text and focuses solely on honing the draft, paying attention both to idiomatic phrasing and poetic aesthetics.  Lastly, the translator compares the original text with the newly created translation to check the alignment of the two texts.  Riggs told us, “[Translation is] the closest kind of reading I know.  [It is almost like] writing the piece as you read it.”  We did an exercise as a group, in which we translated the first three lines of a poem by Arthur Rimbaud from the French.  We could see how complicated the choices involved were–our translation was quite different than the one she showed us, by American poet and translator John Ashbery.

Omar Berrada went on to talk about several ideological considerations with regard to translation.  In particular, he emphasized that there is no such thing as a “sacred text”.  Translation and re-translation is always necessary.  He suggested that, instead of thinking of translation as being enclosed by a limit of language (which is unreasonable: the idea of the text exists outside a particular language) or as happening across a border (which is too simple of a transaction), we should think of translation as a continuous process happening in a kind of no-man’s-land, the outskirts of a forest. To illustrate these arguments, he played us two minutes of a ten-minute piece by a woman who had compiled a list of no fewer than forty-eight variations of the opening line of Dante’s Divine Comedy by various translators over several centuries.  The Divine Comedy is as “sacred” as it gets for a work of literature; clearly, texts can always be revitalized, or translated differently.

Afterward, I went outside the room to start reading out of the giant anthology of Spanish poetry I have for conference with Eduardo.  I also got out my tiny, dark purple Moleskine notebook, (yes, I know, very hipster, but they were the smallest in the bookstore, okay?) in which I keep a list of all the words I need to look up.  María Negroni, the professor who introduced the talk, had some poetry in that volume.  I flipped to the page and read a few of her poems, each of which was written as a single paragraph of flowing language.  I allowed myself a silent moment to geek out over the poetry itself and the proximity of the poet.

I went back into the room to talk to the presenters.  I wanted to tell Sarah Riggs about how my style of reading Spanish poetry is similar to the way she translates poetry (I read poems in Spanish three times: in their entirety once, again as I write down all the words I don’t know, and a third time after I look up the definitions of the unfamiliar words).  However, as I went into the room again, there was already someone talking to her.  The petite woman who introduced the translators smiled at me and asked me if I was in one of Eric Leveau’s French classes, and that’s how I ended up talking to María Negroni about my conference work.  I explained about the poetry and my little notebook.  She was very interested in the latter because it reminded her of an object she had found once on a street in Buenos Aires: a much larger notebook, in which was painstakingly written a Spanish-English dictionary of sorts, ordered alphabetically, with the writer’s phonetic spellings as well as the correct spellings.  She told me that if I ever stopped by her office she could show me the facsimile she had of it.  There was a lull in the conversation to our right, and that’s how I ended up explaining my story again to Sarah Riggs, Karen Lawrence, and another professor.

That afternoon was important to me for a few different reasons.  First of all, hearing about the work of translators was captivating, as translation has always been a vague aspiration of mine.  Second of all, Professor Negroni’s story reminded me of one of my favorite projects, FOUND Magazine, which collects interesting things that people find (online at: and tells us that these things show a randomized psyche of our humanity.

Most importantly, though, the event made me believe in what I am doing.  At Sarah Lawrence, it is easy (especially as a first-year) to be a little intimidated by the brilliant and talented people who study and teach here, or to think that I am not doing things that are important enough.  But that afternoon, respected poets and professors (not to mention the president of the college) were listening to my ideas, and taking them seriously.  (Hey, a little external validation never hurt anybody.)  After talking to Eduardo in conference, we decided that at least a portion of my project will be translation of a few poems.

In their presentations, Riggs and Berrada expressed repeatedly that translation is not something you can do alone.  You must work with other translators, ask questions of the author (if he or she is still living), and bounce ideas off of your colleagues.  Overall, you must not be afraid of changing the material in some way.  When you translate something, you are not creating an imitation; you are creating something new.  As a liberal arts student, little could be as inspiring as a discipline in which literature, language, and creativity combine to meet the needs of an audience that would never have been able to appreciate a particular writing otherwise.

Image Credit: Tiffany Robyn Soetikno

Gina Caputo is a reasonably well-mannered young woman from Norwalk, CT who enjoys the company of frighteningly honest people and the occasional antihero. She steals ideas from her real-life twin sister Maria, a vast array of books, and (of course) the internet. She hopes to continue conquering the Romance languages at SLC.

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