Translating to Slam

Bloomington campus, October

It’s a short piece of prose, nine paragraphs, five of which are composed of one sentence. Not even a page. Yet I have to overcome great resistance to work on it. Legitimate excuses: teaching literary translation and writing classes, the fact that the piece was written in 1922, by Borges. As Andrea Labinger exclaimed, “virgin Borges!” A manifesto he wrote that has yet to be translated. Kudos to Suzanne Jill Levine, our moderator, who found it. But she’s a Borges expert.

Suzanne Jill Levine, the well-known translator, hereafter SJL, selected this piece for three of us to translate in private and share in public at our first translation slam. Since Andrea approached us with this idea for ALTA’s 2018 conference, I’ve noticed reports of translation slams around the world. Suddenly, it’s a thing. Then I do some cursory research: Egypt’s first translation slam: Cairo, 2012. Guess it’s only suddenly a thing to me. The three of us include impressive translators and professors of Spanish Jill Gibian and Andrea Labinger. Those two and SJL have translated half of contemporary Latin American literature.

Back to my resistance. I translate two contemporary Mexican writers, have worked with them in person and online. I’m comfortable with their work, can whip out a first draft, rip through the second, by draft four have things under control, excepting a thorny knot or three. But this is Borges, one of the demigods, Argentine and in possession of a vast vocabulary and usages I’ve never had to translate before.

When I finally read it, my attitude softens: in 1922, Borges was one of the young Turks, serving notice to the older generation that there was a new game in town. Freshly back from Spain with his Ultraist ideas: the supremacy of the metaphor. Such arrogance! Yet he delivered this manifesto without recourse to a single exclamation point. I remember being a young hippie poet and a bunch of us going to a reading of older, drunken beat poets. Their time was done and we knew it.

SJL emailed us to see what we thought of her selection. “It certainly presents some conundrums,” Andrea answered. “Ah, yes,” SJL replied, “that’s why I selected it.” Pleased with herself. Like any good teacher, she enjoys tormenting students, although we usually call it challenging them.

At Draft 2, I’m confident about nothing. I force myself to re-read: “Esta manera de manifestar nuestra labor…” I had: “This method of manifesting our labor,” then “this way of revealing our work.”  Both stink. I click away from the doc and play a game of solitaire, brooding. What have I gotten myself into?

Days later I’m on Draft 3 and have found what might be felicitous alternative solutions, to fix what’s wrong about what I have. But it has been grueling, working through three sentences, getting exhausted and going to see if there’s any ice cream in the freezer. Managing another four sentences hours later and remembering (thank God!) that I need to water the plants.

I hate Borges now, hate this miserable manifesto, and what was Andrea thinking, volunteering me for this task? I’m clearly incapable of it. I imagine getting a diagnosis of leprosy or maybe—less gruesome—an appendectomy right before the conference. I can hear the worthy translators, Jill and Jill and Andrea, sending their prayers and thoughts and pretending my translation would have been awesome.

Having heard me whine for the tenth time, my husband suggests, “why don’t you just cancel?” This forces me to face reality. What? After paying for the room, the conference, the airfare? It’s Bloomington in October. Autumn doesn’t get much more beautiful than that. And it’s ALTA. Translators are among my favorite people, because, as everyone knows, they don’t do it for the money.

After Draft 4 and some small epiphanies, I decide the thing is far enough along for my trusted alpha reader, Phil Normand. With his unerring eye, he red-inks all the places I’m having trouble. (Reader, it’s why I married him.) I have given him the original also, although he knows no Spanish. “What’s this word mean?” He demands. I tick off my potential synonyms: ruptures, tears, rents, as in cloth, lacerations, rifts. “Ah,” he says, “a sense of attack, of tearing down. I don’t hear that now.” I scribble tentative rewrites, and in time, produce Draft 5, let it simmer a week.

Bloomington campus

When I resume, I consult dictionaries and thesauri with the English words I’m considering for the problem areas. Stale. How about stodgy, petrified, outdated, archaic. Select another. Repeat. Painfully conscious of having done so thrice before, I look up the Spanish one more time, in the hope that a new definition will reveal itself. I arrive at Draft 6.

Now I’m fond of Borges again and enjoy his manifesto. That diatribe against museums: I worked at Chicano Humanities and Arts Council in the 80s and the cocky young painters called it The Denver Art Mausoleum. Now a few of them are in it. Borges was just 23, full of youthful confidence he’d never have again. Later he was embarrassed by his “early Ultraist excesses.”

I tweak Draft 6, could rearrange syntax and word choice forever, but have other tasks to do and even a life to live: herewith, I abandon Borges. As he might have put it, may our translations approximate what he meant to say.


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7 Responses to Translating to Slam

  1. Jim Thompson says:

    What a fascinating account of the tribulations of translating between language. I find it challenging enough just to translate my own thoughts from the “English and emotions” in my mind to words in English on the page or screen.

  2. Barbara says:

    Good for you for tackling such challenging stuff. I’m off to a training session to be a standardized patient in a national medical exam and I was feeling a little unsettled about knowing my lines. You inspire me.

  3. Bob Jaeger says:

    Great description, Pat. I see there are things shared by translating and writing—both impossible, for instance, without time to simmer.

  4. Denise says:

    Wow. That sounds like a really fun challenge. I know it is grueling, but what richness to work with. You are a poet, a wordsmith, and full of fire yourself. Enjoy the conference.

  5. Jenny-Lynn says:

    What a wonderful window into a challenging and rewarding process! I’m inspired to stick with writing AND water the plants while drafts simmer. I always enjoy your posts—thanks!

  6. I have spent two Octobers in Bloomington. It is wonderful. Thanks for your thoughts on translation, a thrilling foreign world to this basically monolingual guy. It’s like sci-fi.

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