FICTION ON THE EDGE FROM LATIN AMERICA

On October 7, the Center for the Art of Translation began its 2008-09 “Lit & Lunch” series with a reading by Katherine Silver. BY ANDREA BINDEREIF

Katherine Silver, a renowned translator of some of Latin America’s leading contemporary authors, read from her latest translation, Senselessness, a novel by Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya. This is Moya’s first novel to appear in English. Silver received grants from the PEN translation fund and the National Endowment for the Arts to complete this translation and she has since been recognized with an NEA award for her outstanding work. → continue reading

LIT & LUNCH

In a sparkling presentation, the distinguished literary translator Edith Grossman shared her insights at CAT’s “Lit & Lunch” series in San Francisco.

BY ALISON ANDERSON

In her introduction, Olivia Sears, president of the Center for the Art of Translation (CAT), told us that Ms. Grossman had not set out to become a literary translator; her dreams were more along the lines of “a sculptor, or (the blues singer) Bessie Smith.” But in recent years she has been aptly referred to as the “Glenn Gould of translation”—a reference to the famed Canadian virtuoso pianist. Earlier this year she was invited to give a series of lectures at Yale on the art, entitled, “Why Translation Matters.” A longtime resident of New York, Ms. Grossman told us she had been a student at Berkeley and was glad to be back in the Bay Area, although she missed her 24-hour jazz station.

The first part of the literary lunch was devoted to readings from books Edith Grossman has recently translated. The first, from Manuscript of Ashes, was by Spanish author Alberto Muñoz Molina, to be published by Harcourt this summer. Very evocative and atmospheric, set in part during the Spanish Civil War, it was a perfect introduction to Ms. Grossman’s skill as a translator. She then read a more humorous excerpt from Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl, published recently by Farrar Straus and Giroux, and this in turn showed her wonderful versatility and ability to take on different styles.

Formalities

For translators, perhaps the most enthralling part of the presentation was the Q&A. Ms. Grossman displayed a wry, self-deprecating humor as she elaborated on a number of issues familiar to literary translators. Asked first about her relationship with publishers—and the certain clout which she can command as the translator of Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes, to name but a few—she pointed to the Vargas Llosa book and said that the publishers had agreed to display her name in large type and provide a short bio on the back flap. But when the book was published, her name was “too small, and there was no bio. The publishers apologized deeply,” she sighed, mock-wistfully. Does she have a lawyer for the negotiation of contracts? At the beginning of her translating career she had “made the mistake of swimming in shark-infested waters” and quickly learned her lesson: she now has an attorney to guide her through the “make-believe language” of publishers’ contracts.

Could she recommend a particular title to help novice translators in their career? “Guide for the Perplexed?” she quipped, and went on to elaborate that she is not an adherent of translation theory, nor does she feel that any one book can provide the guidelines better offered by the “school of servitude.” By servitude she means constant revision and editing, reading out loud, checking for accuracy—and then more revision. And, if at all possible, a cooling-off period for the manuscript to settle, before more revision.

Authors and poets

How does she pick her titles? She does not pick, but is contacted by publishers directly. In earlier years she tried recommending authors she had discovered and loved, but this, she lamented, seems to be the “kiss of death.” Now she never mentions an author to her publishers if she hopes to see him or her in English some day.

On the subject of collaboration with authors, Ms. Grossman said she finds them to be extraordinarily generous. She does not contact them until the final revision, to iron out the “ten or fifteen knotty places” remaining in the manuscript. Had it not been problematic then, translating Cervantes, since she could not question him? She laughed and said she once told García Márquez that it is easier translating Cervantes than a living author, because there is such a wealth of academic and scholarly work to refer to. But regardless of the “bodily state of the author,” she feels a huge responsibility to the writer to get it right; it is less an issue of translating actual words than of translating the author’s intention.

She does not believe you can be taught to be a translator, any more than you can learn to be a poet. The craft can be taught, she said, echoing Gregory Rabassa’s words, but to become a translator or a poet you either “have the impulse or you don’t.” Asked if she misses the sound of the language when working into English, she insisted on the necessity of putting the Spanish to one side after the second draft, to work solely on the English text; only when doing a final accuracy check does she return to the Spanish. She believes in maintaining the foreignness of proper names and place names, but does not subscribe to the position that a translation should “feel” foreign. “It should read like a domestic text” and provide the English-language reader with the same impact experienced by the Spanish language reader. If the text is in any way strange or eccentric, she tries to convey that oddness, too—but it must always read as smoothly as if it had been conceived in English.

Meanings

“The author and the translator are saying the same thing in two different languages,” Ms. Grossman explained. While she hears the Spanish in her mind, it comes out in English. “It’s a mistake to think you can match words.” She illustrated her point by describing a cartoon she once saw in The New Yorker: a translator sitting across from the irate author says, “Do you not be happy of me as the translator of books of you?”

In Edith Grossman’s case, there is no counting how many happy authors— and readers—she has shared her talents with.

Kids! They Translate Into Promise: CAT’s Poetry Inside Out Program

By Ines Swaney

Put a bunch of fifth-graders into a bilingual immersion school, introduce them to poetry, and then teach them to translate it, and what do you get? The sky’s the limit.

Shortly before the start of the ATA Conference in San Francisco, I was asked by Kirk Anderson of ATA to be part of a unique presentation sponsored in part by the San Francisco-based Center for the Art of Translation (CAT). I was to be part of a two-person team scheduled to speak about languages and the translation profession in general to a fifth-grade class at Monroe Elementary School in San Francisco, which has a K-5 Spanish/English immersion program. My partner in the presentation was Tony Beckwith, an ATA colleague from Austin whom I had never met.

Our presentation would take place during a special class period known as “PIO”—Poetry Inside Out, the innovative program developed by NCTA member and CAT President Olivia Sears. In PIO, kids of various backgrounds—many Hispanic, but also Asian, African-American, and Caucasian—are taught poetry, which they learn to translate before beginning to write poems of their own.

Originally the plan was for Tony and me to speak for about five minutes each, followed by questions and answers. Then, if time remained, we would have the opportunity to listen to and enjoy some of the poetry the students had been translating. To begin, Tony pointed to various geographical regions on a world map. Although Tony was born in Argentina, at a young age he moved with his parents to Uruguay. When my turn came, I also used the map to explain that I had been born in Venezuela to parents who had arrived from Hungary.

By a show of hands, we learned that many of the children in this class came from families where a language other than English is spoken at home. Tony and I each commented that our respective home situations while growing up had been similar to theirs, because English was the language predominantly spoken at home by Tony’s family in Argentina and Uruguay, and Hungarian was the language spoken at my home in Venezuela.

Throughout our presentation the children often raised their hands and asked questions, sometimes thoughtful and intelligent, sometimes funny. Tony and I explained the differences between translating and interpreting, the subtleties involved in accurately conveying meaning in another language, how much we enjoy working between English and Spanish and the variety of situations we find ourselves in professionally. For a few minutes we also demonstrated to the students the skill of simultaneous interpreting.

Simultaneous excitement

As Tony proceeded to explain some details about the profession, I interpreted his comments simultaneously into Spanish while noticing the kids’ undivided attention. Most, of course, understood the two languages that could be heard at virtually the same time. We pointed out that speaking more than one language is a definite asset that will undoubtedly enrich any field, occupation or career these kids were to pursue in the future. “Baseball player,” said one kid; “veterinarian” said another, when asked what they’d like to be when they grew up. I then went on to explain how being bilingual would make them more valuable as individuals and employees, and how knowing a second language would enrich their professional prospects in the specific careers they had mentioned.

An audible “Ooooh!,” conveying admiration, could be heard in the classroom when Tony mentioned that he had recently served as Spanish interpreter in Miami for the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate hosted by Univisión. Likewise, the children appeared to be impressed when I confessed to being the Spanish-language recorded voice of the California Lottery. Just by calling the toll-free number 1-800-LOTTERY from any phone from within California they would be able to hear me.

Perhaps that explains why we were made to feel like celebrities at the end of the presentation. Inspired by one student, most of them asked both of us for our autographs. At least one of the boys said to Tony, “when I grow up, I want to do what you do!” From looking at the faces of the rest of the students, we could see that new horizons had been opened to them.

The presentation that we had planned for just five minutes each lasted over an hour, thanks to the enthusiasm and interest on the part of the students. For both Tony and me, being part of this year’s pro-bono activity on behalf of the American Translators Association was one of the highlights of the Conference.

The Case for Interpreters

By Luba Chernov

The California Federation of Interpreters met this year in San Francisco to discuss vital issues in interpreting.

Court interpreters are a special breed. They live and work in real time, just like hardcore financial investors. And like those professionals, they have to keep their unique, essential skills honed at all times.

To help court interpreters do that, CFI has made it a San Francisco tradition to host a series of annual Continued Education Conferences. This year’s conference was held October 5th through 7th at the newly renovated Cathedral Hill Hotel.

The conference started on a somewhat heroic note, as it ran concurrently with the strike of our comrades-in-arms: the court interpreters in Region 1 (Los Angeles and Santa Barbara). Mary Lou Aranguren, chief spokesperson for the union, was our “embedded reporter,” sending her passionate email dispatches twice a day from the LA trenches to the Bay Area court interpreters’ community. Her general message was, “even the staunchest among us are no more driven than striking interpreters.”

I attended the conference on Friday, October 5. The soundtrack for it was provided by the roaring Blue Angels practicing their deft maneuvers in the blue expanse of the San Francisco skies. The conference started at 6:30 p.m. sharp. The agenda of that day included two hands-on expert-led presentations by a former public defender and a supervising attorney of the family violence law center.

Public defense

James McWilliams, former public defender of the Alameda County, was the first presenter. He kept the audience under a continuous spell reminiscing in a lively manner and drawing on his vast, eventful experience. Early in his presentation Mr. McWilliams pointed out that the role of a court interpreter has substantially evolved. When he started his career in the early 1970s, there was only one Spanish interpreter in Alameda County. Nowadays, of course, you cannot get by with one Spanish-language interpreter; you need many, and in many languages. Indeed, as Mr. McWilliams pointed out, the public defender’s office strives to secure competent and vigorous representation for its clients.

Further, technical innovation in the form of PDAs, Blackberries, laptops, cell phones, and listening devices has reached the realm of courtrooms and law offices, allowing interpreters, lawyers, judges, and support staff to have their business offices on the go, without missing a beat.

Mr. McWilliams also spoke about the evolution of the trial system, including jury trials. Unlike in the early 1970s, when a jury was likely to be composed of only white males, a jury in the courtroom of the 21st century is represented by speakers of Chinese, Singh, Russian—in a word, by every ethnic group of in diverse, present-day society.

Domestic violence

After a short break, Tara Flanigan, a veteran in domestic violence and civil litigation and a supervising attorney in the Family Violence Law Center in Berkeley, took the rostrum as the second presenter.

She shared her knowledge and expertise of such ubiquitous topics as civil domestic violence restraining orders, domestic violence court, child custody and visitation, and legal options for survivors. “Without you, stoical court interpreters,” she emphasized a number of times, “my job would be impossible!”

Ms. Flanagan gave a broad definition of domestic violence, which included physical, sexual, verbal, and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion used against intimate partners for the purpose of obtaining power and control.

Both presentations were followed by lively Q&A sessions. The three hours of the Friday evening seemed to fly like a nanosecond. Saturday and Sunday promised to be even more enticing. After the conference, walking to the BART station with my colleague, I thought to myself, “Like a prudent money manager, I invested wisely: I saw the CFI community at its finest, its best.”

Center for Art in Translation Reports on Joint Workshop

By Shevi Berlinger and Olivia E. Sears of the Center for Art in Translation

The Center for Art in Translation was thrilled to present its first collaborative workshop with NCTA, entitled “Literary Translation: An Introduction for the Novice and New Ideas for the Experienced Literary Translator.” Hopefully the first in a series, the workshop was presented at the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco and was well-attended by an audience of almost 50 literary and nonliterary translators alike.

The workshop provided an overview of the field of literary translation, covering both practical advice and artistic approaches to the craft. Opening with a discussion of thorny copyright issues, the workshop included an informative slideshow, group translation exercise, and ample opportunities for questions and answers. Marian Schwartz, an award-winning Russian translator and former President of ALTA, was the workshop facilitator. Judging from the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the audience, CAT is looking forward to holding many more translation workshops in the future. We thank NCTA for this wonderful opportunity.

Translators in High Demand in Europe

Translators’ future is bright in the European Union. As the Union just expanded on May 1st, integrating 10 more nations for a total of 25 countries, the number of official languages went from 11 to 20, bringing the number of language combinations to a mere 380! “If you know someone who can translate from Maltese into Finnish, please let us know!” begs Karl-Johan Loenroth, head of the EU’s Directorate-General for Translation. With a budget growing from €500M to €800, Loenroth will engage in the hiring of 110 additional translators for each one of the 9 new official languages.