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The Translator Relay: María José Giménez

By Jessie Chaffee


WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. 

For May’s installment, Corine Tachtiris passed the baton to María José Giménez .

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I was born and raised speaking Spanish, and I learned English while living between the US and Canada since the early 1990s. Being fully bilingual I translate between the two languages, as well as from French, and I write in all three. French came through studying francophone literature in college and then living in Montreal for nine years.

My translated work and works in progress are from literature in all three languages from Canada to the Southern Cone, with a significant portion by authors based in Montreal and the Caribbean, and a dash from Spain. I enjoy moving around and discovering new authors.

Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

My understanding of (un)translatability is rooted in my own practice, so I can only address it from the position that I can translate any text. It just depends on how I approach it, my intended audience and effect, how much I wish or am allowed to stretch the boundaries of the language or the piece itself.

One way I’ve experienced untranslatability is tied more to my relationship with the text itself, a type of internal resistance to challenging sections or emotionally charged content. One example is a series of excerpts about the death of Boxeador, a character who haunts the protagonist in Alejandro Saravia’s Rojo, amarillo y verde. One of these excerpts appeared in the Issue 26 Online Exclusive of Two Lines Journal this spring. This is one section of the novel that I just didn’t want to enter, and the death of the character recurs throughout the novel from different angles (in narrative, dreams, memories, hallucinations). The scene of Boxeador’s makeshift funeral is narrated in gorgeous prose loaded with brutal violence and heartbreaking loss. I didn’t really want to be in it, but to translate it I had to fully inhabit it—be the dead soldier, the doubt surrounding the circumstances of his death, the soldiers weeping, dancing, getting drunk, passing out. In a way I also didn’t want to finish it; I felt I could never get it right. I didn’t want to keep writing about Boxeador’s brutal, endless death over and over throughout the novel. I wanted to rewrite it, make him less shattered, less dead, the soldiers around him less drunk and broken. I wanted to release the protagonist from his haunting memories. Seeing “Boxeador” on the page literally jolted me out of my chair every time. There was a lot of red wine and procrastinating around it that winter.

Do you have any translating rituals?

Not really. But a pattern has emerged over the years: I work with words all day, translating everything from the most technical documents to the most experimental poetry, in addition to copy editing, copywriting, and proofreading. When I need a break from technical professional work, I often translate difficult poems—it’s almost an impulse to shift gears and enter a completely different space. It’s the perfect antidote and it’s been extremely productive.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

I have so many! One is the beautiful chaos of possibility, the myriad ways in which a musician can interpret a score in a variety of contexts—alone or in public, for a small or large audience, intensity of emotion, and intended effect—and having to choose one at a time. I’ll quote Nora Bateson (Small Arcs of Larger Circles, p. 48):

In the space between the instrument, the musician, the notes, the audience, and silence, the song arrives. It is not in the instrument, nor is it in the musician, nor in the silence. The notes on the page are a map, not a territory. New meanings, new levels of understanding, come pouring into combinations born out of our eagerness for contact.

And another I’ve been thinking about from the very first time I tried translating a poem, and it goes for my own creative practice as well. It’s like—do I really want to say this here?—being with a lover, all aspects of loving and being in love: physical, emotional, sexy, searing, tender, embodied, wondrous, frustrating, impulsive, all-consuming, maddening, painful, healing. I fall in love easily but I’m extremely picky, and the same goes for the texts I work on. And just as I never really stop loving a person, even when I want to, I always wish I could keep writing or translating the same poem again and again. I never want it to be over. Even after a piece is published, I often feel like going back to try a different way, even if it’s just for fun.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

I’m thrilled to have a chapbook of poems by Puerto Rican Mara Pastor, As Though The Wound Had Heard, coming out this September from Cardboard House Press. I’ve been sharing her work at readings since last fall, and it’s been really well received. Her work is timely and poignant and beautifully complex. I’m also working on two of her collections of poems and will be looking to place those starting this summer (which is not as fun as translating them).

6. (Corine Tachtiris’s question for you) You do a lot of collaborative community arts work. How do you see that in relation to your translation practice, which many often consider a solitary art?

It is true that translation can feel solitary in the actual sitting with a notebook or computer to translate a text from one language to another. But it really isn’t so isolated outside of that: We’re always sharing our work with others at readings, publishing, or consulting with colleagues. Even if you do it just for yourself, you’re still interacting with another mind (the author’s).

In recent years, I’ve realized that translation is in everything I do, even when literary work is not in the picture. As someone from another place who thrives in change and movement, playing with translation allows me to inhabit that edge where most growth and expansion happens—think of a well-tended garden and where it turns to a wildflower meadow or forest. I’ve been finding ways to take the practice of translation outside the page and the stage and working with other translators and artists in other disciplines.

Exploring intersecting areas in our materials, vocabularies, and skill sets has been deeply stimulating for my own practice: collaborative translation; translating someone’s ink drawing into text; being gifted the perfect title for a poem as a painter created work prompted by it; working with a sculptor and putting weird objects together in conversation with my work; performing with a poet and singer/songwriter and weaving our work together. It’s all incredibly fun and productive.

Read María José Giménez’s translation of Alejandro Saravia’s poem “Plamondon Metro”

María José Giménez is a Venezuelan-Canadian poet and translator. Recipient of a 2016 Gabo Prize for Translation and fellowships from the NEA, The Banff International Literary Translation Centre, and the Katharine Bakeless Nason Endowment, María José is co-director of Montreal’s collective The Apostles Review and assistant translation editor for Drunken Boat.


Published May 22, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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