Translator Road Trip

Recalling road trips from the good old days, “when we were young and brave in our innocence,” as Phil says, we chose to drive from Denver to Tucson for the conference.

As far as Santa Fe, we ran the heat from time to time. At 120 miles from Tucson, we turned on the AC, entering another world. The radio had already lost everything but Christian and country. We crossed flatlands on I-10, blond plains barren beyond the reach of sight to faint blue mesas. A road sign: “Dust Storms May Exist.” Much like honest politicians, I presume.

At the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) registration table, the first thing that happens is the woman registering next to me says “Dubrava” correctly. ALTA is the only place where I can count on my name being pronounced right and recognized as Slavic.

Barren, treeless mountains surround Tucson. Gardens are gravel and cactus, trees few and low. Greg McNamee took us on a tour, surprised me with the fact that some of those rocky hills top 9,000 feet. Mark Weiss is with us and when I tell him I’m from Denver, says, “oh, you have wet mountains.”

Eighty panels, readings, forums and presentations fill the three-day schedule. Each time slot has eight options. When the last sessions end at 5:15, there are evening programs: an awards reception, a keynote address, Café Français or Declamación.

I’m determined to see several people, find a few right away. No one has seen C.M. Mayo, from Mexico City, moderator of a panel I’m on and tireless supporter of writers and translators besides being both herself.

In Tucson, with darkness comes a quick chill in what has been balmy air. In Tucson, when a pedestrian steps into the crosswalk, cars have to stop and do so. This astonishes me. In Denver, we run over our pedestrians.

Notes from the opening keynote by Stephen Snyder: Murakami translated Raymond Carver to acquire a New Yorker style and get published in said magazine. His success in writing with the goal of being translated to English created what may be called the Murakami effect: Are there any more like you at home? Writing which resists translation includes cultural markers with no exact counterpart in English. Now third world writers are seen to have failed if they don’t reach an international market, so they tend to strip their writing of such markers, resulting in neutralized literature.

Between Thursday sessions, going up in the glass elevator, Amanda Powell looks down and waves, “oh there’s Catherine Mayo.” I turn to see and she’s gone.

Traffic Among Cultures: Double-Layered Translation. Yvette Neisser Moreno, our panel moderator, reads poems about Madame Mao by María Teresa Ugliastri, a Venezuelan poet. Fascinated by Mao’s wife, the theme of women and power, Ugliastri did extensive research. To translate such work, knowing Spanish is not enough, Yvette says. “You have to acquire the same knowledge the author has.”

I see Clare Sullivan again after the panel. “Have you seen Catherine?” “No,” she says. “I’ve been looking for her.”

For my bilingual reading, I chose an excerpt from Monica Lavín’s Sor Juana novel, and read the Spanish for the last paragraph, because it’s a lyrical ending that can be translated many ways. “I’ve changed it five times,” I say. “Just five?” asks a translator in the audience, grinning.

At the Teaching Translation Workshops session, full of nuts and bolts ideas, I see Jeff Barnett. Has he seen Catherine? No, but he has a theory. At these conferences you get into a clockwise or counter clockwise flow from event to event. Notice how you see the same people over and over again? They’re in the same circulation pattern as you are.

Editors Roundtable. “Data is the new black,” says Susan Harris of Words without Borders, citing translation numbers and Words without Borders’ emphasis on the under-translated. They’ve featured writing from Iran, Iraq and North Korea: “the whole axis of evil,” she adds proudly.

“We like dead people,” Kaija Straumanis of Open Letter says, in response to a query. “Nothing like public domain to free up that budget.”

Most editors find new writers via translators, so the work comes to them translated. They also acquire writers by word of mouth—from other writers, or translators they know. Few have much budget for translation. The news is not new, but still discouraging.

Finally, I spot Catherine across the crowded coffee break foyer, just in time to finalize plans for our Saturday panel and lunch. Mexico City, Catherine tells us, is the capital of everything: literature, arts, education, business, film, government—unlike here, where regional writers fair better. We discuss Agustín Cadena, whom we both translate.

Pets, Epithets and Sobriquets, or Sometimes a Bignose is Just a Schnoz. Andrea Labinger talks about translating nicknames in the Argentine noir novel she’s just finished. References to physical attributes or ethnicity don’t always carry the offensiveness in other languages that they do in English. Yiddish, I learn, is one of the best languages to curse in.

Coming home, somewhere short of Albuquerque I thrill to see a cottonwood and realize I’ve missed trees, real trees, tall and graceful, in aging autumn gold. Near Santa Fe Phil spots the first splash of transparent snow atop a blue range in the distance. “It sent a shiver through me,” he says. We pass riverbeds that actually hold shimmers of water.

The mountains have moved to the west where they belong by the time the snow-dusted Front Range comes into view, accompanied by the traffic that presages a city. The radio has picked up KUVO again, treats us to the incomparable Ella. As the landscape morphed from empty to urban, I thought how I failed to meet others I wanted to meet, couldn’t attend half what I meant to attend. But my regret is fleeting. These days we stop driving well before dark, are no longer young or innocent, and know that less than perfect is how things usually work out.



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8 Responses to Translator Road Trip

  1. C.M. Mayo says:

    Hola dear Pat, It was such fun to see you! Your contribution for our panel was fantastic! I came back home from ALTA and before I could even look at email got shanghaied by monstrous muegano of things. But gracias, mil gracias, and more soon!

  2. Jana Clark says:

    Reminds me of the countless road trips to visit my dad in Arizona! Thank you for the memories. Once to Tuscan when Jen was in “Up With People”. It’s a pretty place!!

  3. Agustin Cadena says:

    How interesting!

  4. Bob Jaeger says:

    Thanks for the road trip, Pat. Wonderful description of the road, the land, and some hints of the fascinating and frustrating business of translation.

  5. “Writing which resists translation includes cultural markers with no exact counterpart in English. Now third world writers are seen to have failed if they don’t reach an international market, so they tend to strip their writing of such markers, resulting in neutralized literature.”

    This made me smile. A former student of mine is working on translating a group of my poems into Spanish and has expressed some exasperation over those stinking markers! I told her to hang in there, and thought: I wonder how you’d say that in Spanish without making it sound like an execution….

    Anyway, a lovely post.

    • dubrava says:

      Joe, ah, yes, the serious issues of translation! Don’t know if you had a chance to see the last post, “Rumors of Death,” but you and Ted Kooser were briefly mentioned there.

      • Somehow I didn’t see that previous post, amiga. My alerts seem to arrive inconsistently … or my mind arrives inconsistently. Thanks for the ink! I love that book exchange memory. Ted has always been generous with other poets…. Cheers!

  6. Interesting to hear that comment about Murakami translations. (I am a huge Murakami fanboy.) He’s not much of a prose stylist to begin with, really. Too many repeated phrases, to begin with. But his stories…!

    Charles Simic: “It’s that pigheaded effort to convey in words of another language not only the literal meaning of a poem but an alien way of seeing things … To translate is not only to experience what makes each language distinct, but to draw close to the mystery of the relationship between word and thing, letter and spirit, self and world.”

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