Friday, March 30, 2007

Not Lost in Translation

I have exactly one experience of translating literature, a required class in translation, taken when I was getting my MFA at American University. What I remember from that one class: the student who told me to chose something short was right on. I quickly found that having someone else’s words there in front of you already doesn’t make anything easier. I used the work of an obscure female, South American poet whose name and country escape me, and I spent a lot of time flipping through a Spanish-English dictionary and channeling distant memories of high school Spanish. (Yes, kids, this is how we did things before the Internet.) Of course, getting the meaning right is only the beginning of the process, because then the words also have to sound good. Duh.

It was hard and tedious work that I wasn’t very good at; I’m sure I totally destroyed this poor woman’s poems.

So it’s no wonder I’m in awe of my friend C.M. Mayo, who can write AND translate AND is an unwavering advocate of Mexican literature. I’m pleased to present an excerpt from her Translator’s Notes to Carne Verde, Piel Negra / An Avocado from Michoacan, a new chapbook, published by Tameme, written by Agustin Cadena.

"On process: Translating this story was a delicious pleasure. Cadena is an accomplished poet, and this shows in his use of vivid imagery and elegant pacing. And, as all good storytellers, he has a big heart that sees clearly into other hearts. How did I proceed? As they say about sausages, loaves of bread—and avocados—the best way to work through it is a slice at a time. I made a photocopy of the original, and then cut that copy into paragraph-sized bits. I taped each to the top of a sheet of paper, leaving a large blank area for my draft. The work went quickly. First I penciled in what came to mind. I skipped ahead, backtracked; scribbled here then there. I circled words I wanted to look up in a dictionary and/or thesaurus. Then, I went and looked them up. Another draft. Finally, I typed it up; then, gave it a polish, then, retyped. I showed it to my secret weapon: my husband, who is Mexican. I gave it all another polish. Finally, I had a version we were both happy with. It was copyedited by translator Katherine Silver. It was proofread by both myself and the author. And proofread again. There is always something to fix. A translation, like writing itself, is a potentially endless process. At some point, one has to say, pencils down (and fingers crossed)."

C.M. Mayo is the author of the widely-lauded travel memoir, Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico, and Sky Over El Nido, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction.

And she’s the founding editor of Tameme, the bilingual Spanish/English) chapbook press, Mayo is also a translator of contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction. Her anthology of Mexican fiction in translation, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in March 2006.

Check out her blog, Madame Mayo!

For more information about poet and writer Agustin Cadena, go here. To be really impressive and read his blog in Spanish, go here.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.