By Kathleen Driskell
Spalding MFA Associate Program Director
The directors of the low-residency Spalding University MFA in Writing Program are very pleased to welcome Jeremy Paden, an accomplished translator and poet, to our faculty. Jeremy will mentor MFA students interested in working in translation during their independent studies.
Jeremy Paden received his Ph.D. in Spanish and Latin American literature from Emory University. In addition to teaching in Spalding’s MFA Program, Jeremy is an associate professor of Spanish at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he teaches classes on, among other topics, Latin American poetry and literary translation. In spring of 2015 he was awarded a Bingham Teaching Excellence Award, Transylvania’s highest honor for teaching.
He is the author of one chapbook of poems, Broken Tulips (Accents Publishing, 2013). His poems have appeared such places as Adirondack Review, Atlanta Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, California Quarterly, Cortland Review, Louisville Review, Rattle, and other journals and anthologies. He has been nominated for a Pushcart and was a 2013 finalist of the Nazim Hikmet poetry competition. His translations of poems from the Spanish have appeared in Words Without Borders and are forthcoming in other magazines and journals. His articles on Latin American and Spanish literature have appeared in Calíope: Journal for Renaissance and Baroque Hispanic Poetry, Colonial Latin American Review, Review of International American Studies, Romance Quarterly, and other journals and books of collected essays.
Recently, we asked Jeremy a few questions about the art of translation.
SU MFA: In what ways do you think all writers can improve from working in translation?
JP: The history of writing is one of apprenticeships, of authors learning how to write by studying and imitating the work of others. Not only this, but the history of literature one of cross-linguistic pollination. It can be argued that translation is midwife to modern poetry. Many of English’s major poetic forms (ghazal, haiku, ode, pantoum, praise poem, sestina, sonnet, villanelle, and others) first entered the tradition through translation. Translations of Whitman and Poe sparked Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Rimbaud, whose writing, in turn, inspired the English and Spanish avant garde of the early 20th century. From this perspective it could be said that translation is the very life-blood of poetry. And, it’s not just poetry. A similar argument can be made for prose. Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of translated, reimagined stories, is a source for Chaucer and Cervantes. The great Latin American novelists of the latter part of the 20th century—Cortázar, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, and Fuentes—were all avid readers and imitators of Poe, Hemingway, and Faulkner. In fact, both Borges and Cortázar worked as translators. Some even argue that Cortázar’s facility with and affinity for the fantastic was due to the time he spent translating the work of Poe into Spanish early in his career.
This is to say, the art of translation is one possible way to learn and hone the craft of writing.
Translation provides the writer with both a literary model and a special encounter with language and craft. On the one hand, structure, logic, argument, and story are all provided. The translator can study these in-depth and does not need to worry with metaphor and symbol, or whether to choose between reason and dream-logic, or wonder about lyrical fragment vs. narrative flow. All of that is given. The translator simply needs to follow and note the choices made. In this way, translating is an extreme form of close-reading and attention to craft. But, it’s also a creative act that demands precision and control over language. The translator, though freed from most macro-level decisions, must now suss out nuance and play with language to communicate the meaning and feeling of the original. In this way, translation is a special sort of apprenticeship: one where linguistic play and experiment with expression happens at the same time as the translator studies structure and plot.
SU MFA: How language proficient does one have to be when undertaking a translation project?
JP: The jury is out. While Gregory Rabassa is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, W. S. Merwin in French and Spanish, and Gary Snyder in Japanese, Coleman Barks is not fluent in Farsi, nor was Robert Lowell in Russian. Though Lowell’s handful of renderings from the Russian—which he judiciously named imitations rather than translations—haven’t caused much controversy, Barks’ Rumi is quite controversial. While many love his versions, detractors cite the freedoms he takes and how he makes the 13th-century Sufi mystic over into a contemporary American Zen master. This criticism also often cites his lack of linguistic mastery. And arguments are made that were he fluent, he’d be more faithful. Yet, lack of proficiency in a language is a red herring and an ad hominem that tries to discredit the translator without getting to the heart of the matter—the difficulty of translation and the problem of taste. And, translation is wonderfully difficult. In part, because literary language walks a tight-rope between ambiguity and precision. And, of course, because all translation is only always an approximation, only always one reading that is unique and made in the image of the translator. Yet, because it is written and published, it becomes itself subject to multiple readings. And, more often than not, especially for monolingual readers, translations become indistinguishable from the author.
It’s more important that a translator have a deep care, respect, and understanding of language and a mastery of the language into which they translate, than fluency in the language from which they translate. It’s better to be a studious and dedicated translator that has no mastery of the original than to be a sloppy bilingual who lazily relies on facility with both languages. All translators, regardless of fluency, need to study and understand the literary traditions of the original language. Likewise, all translators need to be fascinated with how language works. Translators who don’t have fluency in the language they translate from will need to work with what Willis Barnestone calls, an informant or a living dictionary (http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/abc-translating-poetry), someone fluent in that language; and, hopefully, they will be able to collaborate with the original author. In fact, in the solitary and lonely world of writing, translation can and should be wonderfully collaborative. Indeed, since a translator’s primary concern is effective rendering of someone else’s creation, constructive criticism and suggestions by other readers can be weighed and considered without the interfering noise of the creator’s ego getting in the way. Roger Sedarat talks about the wonderfully collaborative nature of translation in this lovely essay on the differences between creative writing workshops and translation workshops (http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/translation-vs.-creative-writing-workshops-structural-differences).
Famously, W. H. Auden rendered Icelandic sagas into English working with rough translations and with informants who read the original texts to him, so he could hear the rhythm and cadence of the original language. More close to home, Kentucky’s own Rebecca Howell translated Amal al-Jabouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation by working with the Iraqi poet and a close friend, fluent in Arabic. (This said, I myself have only worked with Spanish.)
SU MFA: What approaches do you take when helping a student become a better translator?
JP: First and foremost, just like with any kind of writing, translators need to be readers—readers of the genre they are working with, readers of translations made into the genre they work with, and readers of craft and theory essays on translation. One of the resources I provide is a bibliography of craft and theory essays.
I also provide the eyes and ears of a second reader who asks probing questions. Questions that move the translator to think about the relationship between the music and the structure of the original poem, that ask about the possible larger cultural implications of words, phrases, and allusions, that give permission to the translator to play more, that call into question the freedoms taken by the translator.
As I’ve said, translation is a collaborative endeavor. The role of an instructor is to be a sounding board, to be that first active reader who asks tough questions that need justification but who also celebrates and encourages play.