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Translator Relay: Carol Maier

By Carol Maier

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. Ronald Christ passed the baton to Carol Maier, whose honors include fellowships from the NEA, the NEH, and the Illinois Arts Council. She has translated work by Octavio Armand, Nuria Amat, Rosa Chacel, Nivaria Tejera, Severo Sarduy, and María Zambrano, among others, all from Spanish. Her current projects include work by Armand and Chacel and a volume she is editing in memory of the late Helen Lane.

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

Spanish is the language from which I translate, but to say that is to say little. Each of the authors with whose writing I have worked writes in his or her own Spanish, and the connection I experience is with their highly individual Spanishes. “Visceral” is the first word that comes to mind when I try to describe that connection. Translation so intimately involves not only semantics but cadence that, particularly when working with syntax, I sense my body rhythms alter; it is those altered rhythms that return when I re-think a passage or a poem. I suspect this is the case for most translators, but I don’t find it sufficiently discussed, and I doubt it’s sufficiently acknowledged. With respect to place, almost without exception, the authors with whom I have worked live or lived in—I will use the term loosely—exile. The place where something was written thus often bears less consideration than a place removed, consequently one reflected and/or refracted. Ideally, a translator would know each place first-hand. This is seldom possible, if ever, but the more personal contact I can have with place, the more at ease I feel where I do my work.

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

Recently I translated a long prose poem written by Octavio Armand to introduce a reading from his newest collection (Clinamen. Caracas. 2011). The piece, “Dimitra,” is a parable that exemplifies the paradoxical coup worked by the carefully crafted verbal error--to use Armand’s term, the elicitous “misteak” that prompts poetry as experience. One of Armand’s examples in “Dimitra” is the deliberate misspelling found in a well-known line from César Vallejo’s “Sermón sobre la muerte” (“Sermon on Death”). In that line, Vallejo turns on himself, turning to into wolf by changing the “b” in the Spanish lobo to “v,” thanks to their similarity of pronunciation. There are several fine translations of Vallejo’s poem, but I preferred not to consult them. Their success was achieved in the context of Vallejo’s poem and I knew that a change of consonants would work no such effect in “Dimitra.” The trick was to find a deformation appropriate to Vallejo’s as refracted by Armand in a different site. One day, during a long look at the English noun, my eye was drawn to the vowel instead of the consonants. Suddenly the “o” opened and I heard a horrifying howl: “Woelf is me.”

Do you have any translating rituals?

No, at least not in the sense of ceremony, site, or circumstances. I find routine and repetition reassuring, but to depend on either is to forget that neither guarantees identical return, whether in terms of results or recurrence. By definition, to do something again is to seek or speak anew. For me, the best way toward the simultaneous tension and relaxation I experience when translating is to read, sometimes at random from a book of poetry or essays, sometimes from my own journal, sometimes from another work by the author of the work I’m translating or from a section of the draft I felt pleased or displeased with the day before and deliberately left open on my desk to a passage that promised to draw me in when I went back. No work time ever begins quite the same way. Gradually or suddenly, though, words read prompt words in response and I’m writing, rewriting. Immersed, engaged.

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?

Regretfully, I must respond in the negative. Years of translating, reading about translation, and discussions with writers, students, friends, and other translators have shown me that metaphor in all its complexity is intimately entangled with both the conceptualization and the practice of translation. However, I have yet to find a metaphor that countered the association (deeply embedded in Western thought) of successful translation with the unachievable goal of total transfer. Recent work in Translation Studies is rich with reflection on metaphor; outside the discipline, though, even thinkers whose understanding of language is otherwise highly sophisticated evidence scant recognition that “translation” is itself a metaphor--an inappropriate, misleading one at that.  As master translator, the late Helen Lane once remarked that, “a case could be made for the process of translation as one of the Great Metaphors.” Her comment could serve as a corrective: to seek an appropriate metaphor for translation is to seek a metaphor for a metaphor for an often exhilarating but also invariably messy, imperfect endeavor. I continue to look for a term or terms able to embrace the inevitably approximate nature of all verbal communication without a hint of lament.

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

Long-term, I look forward to completing translations underway of work by Octavio Armand and Rosa Chacel. More immediately, I’m translating a section of El criador de luciérnagas (The Firefly Breeder), a whimsical yet wise and moving novel by Mario Satz, an Argentine writer who has lived in Spain for years. This translation is one component of a volume that I’m editing in honor of Helen Lane. Satz and Lane became close friends when she translated his novel Sol (Sun), and in El criador he includes a tribute that immortalizes her ingeniously and insightfully. His protagonist is an African American firefly breeder and tap dancer recently retired from a circus. Having just turned one hundred, he travels through the North American South in the 1930s, riding an animal half zebra, half horse. One afternoon he meets an entomologist named Helen Lane who devotes herself to healing wounded lacewings. A short woman with a friendly face and small feet, Lane reminds him of a female Prince Viking because of her helmet-like haircut. She shows him her magnificent garden; her workroom filled with the accoutrements of her profession and books about insects in three languages; and her collection of snowflakes, meticulous ivory paper reproductions based on microscopic observation. If you discover two snowflakes exactly alike, Lane tells him, the Inuit say you’re worthy of two lives. Most importantly, though, as you observe the beauty of things small all things large enter your heart without your realizing.

Ronald Christ's Q: The difference between the literary languages of Spain and those of Latin America are noted but apart from academic distinctions are seldom pursued in a broadly, critical way; and then, women's writing in Spain may demonstrate a literary-based, philosophical dimension neither expected by nor familiar to English-language readers of fiction. How may a translator approach and represent so many differentials within apparent concurrence?

This situation suggests challenges I encounter when translating work by Spanish (Peninsular) authors Rosa Chacel and María Zambrano, both of whom lived in Latin America after the Spanish Civil War. I offer the following general comments bearing in mind that work and the relationship to language described above in Question #1.

(1) The translator informs herself thoroughly about (a) the readings and experiences that formed the author and the author’s particular use of Spanish; (b) the “alien” context in which she wrote the work being translated; and (c) the most innovative and challenging features of that work.

(2)  Without either hiding the fact of translation or making the reading difficult in a way unrepresentative of the work being translated, the translator strives to prompt a reading informed by (a), (b), and (c) above.

(3) With the goal of the reading described in (2), and taking into account the expectations and backgrounds of her reader, the translator selects from a wide range of possible strategies.

(4) The requirement above—I want to stress this—does not mean translating for, much less pandering to, a particular reader (or publisher). Even if a translator expects no reader other than herself, she works with attention to reception.

(5) The translator not only accepts but affirms difference(s) between informed reading as experienced by translators and readers of translations.

Published Aug 28, 2013   Copyright 2013 Carol Maier

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