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Translator Relay: Esther Allen

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For July's installment, Sean Cotter passed the baton to writer, translator, editor, and Baruch College professor Esther Allen. Allen's translations from French and Spanish include the Penguin Classics anthology José Martí: Selected Writings; Rex, by José Manuel Prieto; Lands of Memory by Felisberto Hernández, Dark Back of Time by Javier Marías, and Alma Guillermoprieto's Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution. She edited, with Susan Bernofsky, In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, and edited and contributed to the International PEN report on translation and globalization, To Be Translated or Not To Be (Institut Ramon Llull, 2007). Allen's honors include being a former fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, a National Endowment for the Arts recipient, a Biography Fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography, in addition to being named a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. 

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

When I was two, my family moved to the Philippines; my parents were missionaries. We moved again, to another former possession of Spain's colonial empire—Southern California—when I was seven. Understandably, what seemed most familiar to me in California was the area's Latin American dimension, even if the language was Spanish, not Tagalog. That may be why I translate more often from Spanish than French: it feels closer to home.

French, though, was the first language I learned to speak. I studied it in college and then became fluent on a junior year abroad in Paris—one of the high points of my life. I spent the summer after that in Spain, working on my Spanish, and later lived for a year in Mexico on a Fulbright: another great year. 

With Sean Cotter, the translator who passed the baton of the relay to me, I've been working on a book about the legendary Michael Henry Heim, who spoke at least ten languages and began learning Chinese at the age of sixty. I'm no hyperpolyglot like Mike—or like another relay participant, Peter Constantine—but I do admire their fearless drive to continually acquire new languages. That's pushed me to start working a bit on Portuguese in the past year.

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

Oficio de tinieblas is the title of the first novel I translated, by the Mexican poet and novelist Rosario Castellanos. The oficio in question is a Catholic mass celebrated during the final days of Easter Week during which fifteen candles are extinguished one by one until the service ends in total darkness to symbolize the moment of Christ's death. In English, this mass is known by its Latin name, "Tenebrae" ("shadows" or "darkness").

The book is about a Mayan uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, an uprising that ends in near-genocide. It portrays the highly syncretic religion practiced by the Mayan communities, which intermingles Catholicism with pre-Columbian belief systems. Tenebrae did not convey that or much else to a non-Catholic like me. The only thing I could personally associate the Tenebrae mass with was François Couperin's 1714 Leçons de tenebres, which sets the readings that accompany the first part of the service to music.

Those readings are taken from the Old Testament, the Book of Lamentations of Jeremiah, the Prophet, and there I had my title: The Book of Lamentations. It works because like the original, it has a deep religious resonance, expressed in ordinary language intelligible to those who don't catch the religious allusion. And even as it echoes strongly with Christianity, it summons up other traditions whose sacred writings are described in English as "The Book of..." (The Egyptian Book of the Dead, etc.).

Do you have any translating rituals? 

Edith Grossman once told me she always listens to jazz while she's translating. I've become increasingly wistful as I read about the rituals of other fellow translators in the relay— Ronald Christ's bibliomancy, Breon Mitchell and Danuta Borchardt's translation-consecrated mornings, Aron Aji's whispered incantations and purring cats, Ellen Elias-Bursac's heightened quest for live performances following days of translation, Shelley Frisch's coffee-cup- embellished "translation sweater," Peter Constantine's attentive playback of his own voice recording of the original, Erica Mena's systematic consultation of the dictionary for every word, and Sean Cotter's special café where grandmotherly waitresses bring you tall slices of crumbling coconut cake on vast antique silver platters. I have begun to yearn for a ritual of my own, and I shall have to develop one! It will definitely involve coffee. I hope (as I type this on the dining room table amid heaps of books and papers) that it will also entail a resolute clearing away of all clutter and the establishment of perfect order in my home. I'll start tomorrow...

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?

In Le Ton Beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter recalls a column by Russell Baker in the New York Times years ago that extolled Derek Jacobi's reading of the Iliad. Spoken word is an important category in our culture and most people require no metaphor in order to appreciate it. There's even a Grammy for it; a huge audience exists for audio books. The skill involved in reading something aloud—creating drama with breath, diction, pace, intonation, accent, register, timbre—is immediately apparent. I sometimes go to Philadelphia for the Bloomsday celebration at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, when many people from the community spend June 16 reading passages from Ulysses aloud. Each person's reading unmistakably says a great deal about their relationship to the text, their understanding of it, their skill as a reader, their skill as an actor, etc.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote a letter to the editor after Russell Baker's column appeared, gently reminding readers that the lines Jacobi declaimed weren't Homer's Greek but Robert Fagles' English (something Baker had neglected to mention).

It's odd—isn't it?—how we sometimes have trouble appreciating the skill required to bring words from one language to life in another—and need a metaphor in order to help us do that—when we're so readily enthusiastic about the skill of bringing written words to life by reading them aloud.

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

My translation of Zama, an Argentine novel first published in 1956, will be coming out this fall from New York Review Books Classics. Its author, Antonio Di Benedetto, deliberately cultivated a certain marginality in Argentina; he lived in his native Mendoza, not Buenos Aires, which made it difficult for his work to become culturally central. Though his politics were quite conservative, he was jailed at the start of the Dirty War, and imprisoned and tortured for a year. After his release, brought about in large measure through the intercession of his German translator, he went into exile in Spain where he met, among many other people, Roberto Bolaño, who wrote about him in a remarkable short story titled "Sensini," which contains a memorable description of a novel that is obviously Zama.

Since his death in 1986, interest in Di Benedetto's work has grown worldwide, and he's achieved classic status among contemporary Argentine novelists, all of whom agree with Bolaño that Zama is Di Benedetto's masterwork. Being the first person to translate a novel of this stature into English has been an extraordinary opportunity and a great responsibility.

Under what circumstances, if any, would you agree to translate a work whose ideological or ethical content was repugnant to you?

This question makes me think of a dear friend, the late Nancy Festinger. Nancy was in charge of interpreting at the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan. In the course of her work, she often had to interpret for people whom she believed had committed appalling crimes. She also had to interpret for lawyers who were prosecuting people in ways she believed were tragically unjust. And she had to do the work while maintaining an entirely dispassionate demeanor. She was able to do it because she believed strongly that by making interpretation available, the U.S. court system enhances the possibility of a just outcome for everyone. Her career made a big difference in consolidating and reinforcing that availability.

As a literary translator, I generally prefer to pursue projects of my own choosing, books I'm convinced by and that I've convinced publishers should be translated. I also receive calls from publishers who have books they want me to translate, and some of my projects begin that way, too. However the project begins, I'm mainly concerned about the work's value and relevance. I mostly translate fiction, and the fictional characters in the books I translate rather often express views I disagree with—but that's part of the novelist's characterization of who they are! I would refuse to translate a fictional text I really didn't like or find relevant, and that's partly out of a kind of loyalty to the author, who deserves to have a translator who can bring some enthusiasm to bear.

With nonfictional texts, it's different. Sometimes the most ideologically repugnant text can be crucially in need of translation. I admire Ralph Manheim for having translated Mein Kampf. This was a book that was going to circulate in English, no matter what. We're better off with a solid, scholarly translation of it that students of history and others can rely on, rather than having it circulate underground in amateur translations done for the worst imaginable reasons.

I translated The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior by Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky. The book is an interview with Adolfo Scilingo, a soldier for the junta during the Dirty War who details his twisted belief system and the atrocities it led him to carry out. Nothing could be more repugnant than what Scilingo says—with or without the final repentance he expresses—but it's undoubtedly of great value to have that text published, in Spanish, in English, and many other languages. Among other things, its publication ultimately led to Scilingo's incarceration in a Spanish jail for crimes against humanity.

Sean Cotter's question: Rosmarie Waldrop quotes a surprising claim by Dominique Grandmont: "We always search for the meaning of our own life in the text we translate." Have you had this experience?

Beautiful question, Sean. You know the answer. We seek the meaning of our own life in everything we do. How could we fail to seek it in the text we translate?

Published Jul 24, 2014   Copyright 2014 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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