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The Translator Relay: Regina Galasso

By Words Without Borders

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every few months. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For April's installment, Chantal Ringuet passed the baton to Regina Galasso, who translates from Spanish and Catalan into English.


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

I grew up in New Jersey, where there are so many speakers of different variations of Spanish that it always seemed natural that I’d learn the language living there. In addition, my maternal grandfather was a big supporter of me learning Spanish. I mention my grandfather not only because he promoted my contact with a language other than English, but also because he, and my other grandparents, indirectly introduced me to an awareness of translation. His mother was from Hungary and his father from Denmark. English was the main language of their household in Manhattan, although the presence of Hungarian and Danish was always there, along with feelings that they should be speaking those languages to their children. Something similar happened in my maternal grandmother’s family. Her parents were from Ukraine and she was born in the East Village. The family spoke Ukrainian until my grandmother and her sister entered school and their parents were told that the girls needed to speak English and not Ukrainian. They obeyed. So my grandmother and her family, too, were living in the presence of an absent language.

The situation was similar on the other side of my family, but with Italian. The younger generations wish we spoke fluent Italian, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Rather than holding my great-grandparents responsible for the reason I don’t speak Danish, Hungarian, Italian, and Ukrainian, I thank them for giving me this space to imagine what things would have been like if they existed in another language. This creative, cerebral space eventually helped to produce tangible results in my work as a translator.

Fast forward. While at Rutgers University, I shared dorms, classrooms, and a campus with Spanish speakers from all over New Jersey and the world. I majored in Spanish. I was introduced to translation and interpreting through academic classes and in casual settings. I was finally speaking the language I felt I needed and wanted to know, and I was pretty good at it.

But then came my study-abroad year at the Universitat de València. I directly matriculated at the university. No one had prepared me for the good chance that many of my classes would be in Catalan if I didn’t pay careful attention before registering. My Far Eastern Art History professor, who showed up for the first time during the fourth week of classes, spoke Catalan. Too late to find another class! The friends I made from Algemesí and Benigàmin while waiting for him to show up spoke Catalan. There I was, in the presence of a language that was absent in me but that presented the possibility to learn while simultaneously testing and improving my Spanish. I loved it. I learned some Catalan informally over the years until I finally had the opportunity to take a free, intensive Catalan class in Barcelona. I’m fortunate to be able to use Catalan and Spanish in my daily life in multiple settings. All this is to say that my ancestors’ silent history of language and my own experience with Spanish and Catalan fueled my interest in and practice of translation.


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

Translating literary texts from Spanish to English in the United States today is fascinating because of the relationship and space these languages share, along with their multiple variations. I don’t have an example of an untranslatable word or phrase, but I do have an entire book that I’m uneasy about: my 2010 English translation, titled A True Story: A Cuban in New York, of Miguel Barnet’s La vida real (1986), a novela de testimonio about a man who moves from the Cuban countryside to Havana and then on to Tampa and New York City. La vida real is written mainly in Spanish with a sprinkling of words in English. On a few occasions, the narrator-protagonist, Julián, says a short phrase in English and talks about his resistance to the use of English in New York. In a sense, there was a discomfort in making Julián speak English, but as someone who has lived in New York City for many years, I knew there was an English for Julián. I can imagine Julián speaking a particular variant of Latino English with a Cuban accent. However, as a young literary translator working on the text, I settled on a casual English that included some Spanish words with the purpose of not distracting non-Spanish-speaking readers from the incredible events of Julián’s story. Also, since the early 2000s, politics and poetics have evolved and thus encouraged translators to include more Spanish in their English translations. In the United States, history, context, and the options that Spanish speakers have regarding how they use Spanish and English call for the literary translator to develop a creative strategy that results in a careful consideration of both languages. As a young translator, I didn’t take such leaps. I was aiming to please an English-speaking audience and felt my translation would not be effective if English readers unfamiliar with that variant of the language could not appreciate it.

If I were to translate this text again, I’d surround myself with native Cuban Spanish speakers of Julián’s age who learned English in their late twenties in Manhattan. I’d ask for permission to record them, which would allow me to write their particular branch of Latino English for my translation. The goal would be to gently extract the English that I know Julián has inside him.


Do you have any translating rituals?  

Strong, very hot black coffee and cold, cold water without ice.


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? 

Since 2016, I have been sharing Javier Calvo’s metaphor from his book El fantasma en el libro: La vida en un mundo de traducciones (Seix Barral). On the fourth page of his introduction, Calvo writes: “Traducir un libro, o cualquier tipo de texto, viene a ser como reconstruir una casa de Lego con las piezas de otro juego de construcción.” My translation: “Translating a book, or any kind of text, is more or less like rebuilding a Lego house with the pieces from another set of building blocks.” It’s a metaphor that speaks very well to a younger generation.

I also like the classic metaphor about the reverse side of a tapestry from the second part of Don Quijote. The reverse side of a tapestry has much of what we love about it in terms of color. It is beautiful, but in another way, and gives us access to another perspective of an artistic creation. What’s more, depending on how you find the tapestry, you might first lay eyes on the reverse side, and that will forever influence the way you look at the front—much like books and translated books.


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

There are three main things on my plate that I am excited about. The first is an English translation of Málaga-born writer, poet, and intellectual José Moreno Villa’s Jacinta la pelirroja, which I wrote about in my book Translating New York: The City in Iberian Literatures. The poetry is inspired by Moreno Villa’s first visit to New York City in the late 1920s, when he makes the transatlantic journey to seek the approval of his Jewish girlfriend’s parents to marry her. The goal of my translation is to emphasize the dynamic portrait of this young woman in the 1920s while highlighting the multilingual circumstances of the poems’ creation.

Next, I am putting together a volume titled This is a Classic: Translation and Survival, which explores what it means to be a literary classic and the critical and cultural implications of translating a literary classic for an English-speaking audience. It includes over twenty essays by some of today’s most prominent poet-writer-translator-scholars. I am also at work on my second monograph, titled Edward Hopper in Literature: Iberian Translations of a New York Classic. I unite the literature of Carmen Martín Gaite, Quim Monzó, Antonio Muñoz Molina, and Ernest Farrés to represent multiple genres that have dialogued with the life and paintings of Edward Hopper as a way to write New York. And while all these larger projects are happening, I am honored, delighted, and inspired to interact with and mentor students interested in the study and practice of literary translation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In addition, I direct the forty-year-old Translation Center at UMASS, where we are always working on exciting projects of all sizes in many languages. 


And Chantal's question for you: Since you translate and research Spanish writers from New York, how would you describe their literature? How do they represent/imagine the city? What distinguishes them as "immigrant" or first- or second-generation writers compared to other immigrants who also wrote about the city (I am thinking here, of course, of Yiddish writers in NY)? And is there something special that you find in women's voices?

The first thing that must be acknowledged about writers from Spain who have written New York is that their work is not always in Spanish. I have focused on texts written in Catalan, English, and/or Spanish, but I would love to know more about New York texts written in Galician, Basque, or other languages of Spain. It is also important to note that these languages are not in isolation from one another. Even if a language is not visible in the text, it might still have a meaningful presence in its absence. For instance, you cannot fully appreciate Felipe Alfau’s novels, written in English, if you do not know Spanish.

In general, critical discussions have noted the representation of a love/hate relationship with New York in the literature of writers from Spain, as well as a focus on the physical aspects of the city. There is much more to say about this corpus. For the authors I research, a visit to New York has been a pivotal moment in their careers. Regardless of the length of their visit, many of them walked away with at least one book inspired by the city, and in most cases that book is regarded as one of their major works. Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York is just one example. I’ve been interested in how the languages and sounds of the city are treated in the literary language. Julio Camba’s New York texts in Spanish were widely circulated and taught readers fashionable English terms. Felipe Alfau’s texts seem to purposely avoid the inclusion of Spanish words, but his texts don’t make sense if you don’t know Spanish. José Moreno Villa’s verses are injected with jazz and his prose is contained by photographic language. Overall, this literature is fresh, innovative, and ambitious.

I think a distinguishing feature for any Spanish writer who writes from New York, whether they be an immigrant, tourist, journalist, long-term visitor, or part-time resident, is that since New York is a Spanish-speaking city with an over 400-year history as such, they cannot avoid contact with the many variations of the Spanish language, including its particular New York offspring and even the Judeo-Spanish of descendants of the old Ottoman Empire. The way a writer’s language is challenged, enriched, and expanded in New York impacts their writing.

My work has focused on the first half of the twentieth century, and the authors I have studied have all been male. However, the scholarly voices of women literary critics, translators, and translation theorists including Sherry Simon, Loredana Polezzi, Edith Grossman, and Esther Allen helped me to use translation as an analytical tool to understand what New York meant for Iberian writers. Concha Espina, Rosa Chacel, and Carmen Laforet, to give some examples of notable women writers from Spain, traveled to New York and other areas of the United States and published as a result. Victoria Kent, the founder of the anti-Franco journal Iberica and the first woman to become a lawyer in Spain, spent the last thirty-seven years of her life in Manhattan and had meaningful relationships with literary figures such as Gabriela Mistral and Victoria Ocampo. The work of these women provides rich areas of research, and of course we need English translations of their texts.

Regina Galasso is associate professor in the Spanish and Portuguese Studies Program and director of the Translation Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Translating New York: The City’s Languages in Iberian Literatures (Liverpool UP, 2018), recipient of the 2017 NeMLA Book Award, editor with Evelyn Scaramella of Avenues of Translation: The City in Iberian and Latin American Writing (Bucknell UP, 2019), and translator of Alicia Borinsky’s Lost Cities Go to Paradise (Swan Isle P, 2015).

Published Apr 2, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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