Invisible Poetry: Poetry in Translation

~from intern Joyce Bohling

Francisco Leal and Silvia Soler

Francisco Leal and Silvia Soler

Francisco Leal and Silvia Soler, both professors in CSU’s Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, are trying to do something they themselves describe as “impossible”: to translate the work of CSU poets into Spanish, including Camille Dungy, Sasha Steensen, Dan Beachy-Quick, and Professor Emeritus Mary Crow. In fact, they’re planning to publish a book of their translations in spring of 2017.

Dr. Leal, whose academic work focuses primarily on contemporary Latin American poetry and who writes his own original poetry, was inspired to start a project of this nature shortly after he came to CSU and read the work of the aforementioned CSU poets. Dr. Soler, an assistant professor with an emphasis in translation and interpretation, was invited to join the project when she came to CSU in fall of 2015.

They have also garnered help from interested undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, as well as those in other departments, such as the Department of English.

I first found out about their monumental task when I enrolled in LGEN 545: Literary Translation in Theory and Practice, for the fall semester. In the course, the students, who speak four different languages (Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese) are almost all working on translating poems by different CSU poets. Students have the option to submit their translations to be included in the upcoming publication.

Earlier this autumn, I sat down with Dr. Leal and Dr. Soler for an interview to find out more about the project: its hardships, its joys, and what faculty and students in the English department might like to know about it.

The most challenging part of the translation process, the two professors say, is transferring what Dr. Leal called “the invisible poetry” from one poem to another. “I think it’s the detail—that invisible part that’s hard to explain or identify that is moving poetry to poetry, not only word to word”: in other words, not just the literal meaning of the words themselves, but the complex web of symbolism, cultural significance, style, appearance, sound, and in some cases, strict structural constraints.

Dr. Soler was amused by the words “invisible poetry.” “That’s the poet’s explanation,” she teased. “I would never say that.”

“I would say that the most challenging part of translating Sasha and Camille’s poetry—especially Sasha’s—is that it’s very concise. She tries to convey different layers of meaning in very few words.”

Both translators also mentioned the difficulty of identifying and understanding allusions in U.S. poets’ work, both literary and cultural, as both come from other cultures: Dr. Soler from Spain and Dr. Leal from Chile.

“It’s sometimes more difficult for non-natives of this [American] culture…to identify those allusions,” said Dr. Soler. “That has been mentioned by many different writers and scholars in translation studies as one of the main difficulties in literary translation—in any text, but specifically literary translation—when you are evoking or referring to a different literary work or just some cultural or historical event, or just some connotations at the semantic level from a specific culture that we don’t find in dictionaries, of course. We have to use our background knowledge, and if we lack that background knowledge, then we are missing that layer of meaning.”

But what is a challenge, Dr. Leal said, can also be a joy. “When you see that [invisible poetry] moving into a different language, it’s extremely rewarding….I think it goes both ways; what is challenging is also a motivation.”

The two translators emphasized how rewarding it has been to get to work on this project collaboratively, with each other and with the authors of the poems they are translating. Dr. Leal is first and foremost a writer, although he dabbled in some poetry translation prior to meeting Dr. Soler and learning more about the methods, theories, and terminology used by professional translators. “How she can make a translation for me is always magic,” he said.

Dr. Soler, on the other hand, had never had the opportunity to work directly with the author of a literary work before coming to CSU.

The professors of Spanish found the poets from the English department to be quite open to having their work translated, which, Dr. Soler said, came as a bit of a surprise; she had expected more resistance. “You are a writer, an author, and you know that somebody’s going to try to interpret what you wanted to convey. I’m not an author, but I think I understand that it’s kind of difficult to not know what is going to be done with your words, feelings, emotions, ideas.” She said she finds the poets—Camille Dungy, Sasha Steensen, Dan Beachy-Quick, and Mary Crow—“amazing” in their willingness to let their work be translated.

Although Dr. Soler stressed that literary translation is not “necessary” in the same way that, for instance, translation of court documents is necessary for someone who doesn’t speak a country’s official language, it still has tremendous benefit.

“It’s just so important, I think, if we want to build healthier and better human communities. And this, to me, means that once you try to think about the world—other humans, and not just other humans but other beings—from different perspectives, and when you have access to other perspectives from which people look at the world, your mind changes. In a good way. It becomes more open and able to accept diversity, which is the basis of healthier, more respectful human communities.”

Dr. Leal agreed that translation can help us understand others from different cultures and with different perspectives, but he also emphasized that it can simultaneously remind us how much we have in common. For instance, in the course I’m currently taking, we read a number of translations of a poem by the eighth century Chinese poet Wang Wei. Because of translation, Dr. Leal said, “it’s not only that we are able to enjoy that poem, but that poem can talk to you straightforward.”

It’s “excellent proof that we all live in one big planet.”

Dr. Soler and Dr. Leal would be thrilled to have more students and faculty from the English department take a literary translation class with them, get involved with translating for their upcoming publication, or both. Collaboration between the English department and the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, they stressed, is very enriching for students and faculty in both programs.

They wished to re-assure students in the English department that one need not be fluent in a language in order to translate from or into that language. “The more you know, the better, but that doesn’t mean you have to be native-speaker level in two languages in order to do translation, necessarily,” said Dr. Leal.

Dr. Soler agreed. “It is important the bilingual competence is always there–no one can say that it’s not important—but…translation is much more than the bilingual competence or the bicultural competence….You are trained in the different methods and strategies and concepts that you need to be aware of, and that helps you start to build your competence as a translator. If you’re able to explain why you do what you are doing, and you’re also aware of the problems that you’re having with the language, the culture, or whatever, that makes you a translator.”

I certainly have gotten a lot out of the literary translation course, even though I’m not fluent in German. Although I was a German minor as an undergraduate, I certainly don’t speak, read or write at a level I would need to translate professionally. Nonetheless, I’ve been able to learn so much from the course about the nuanced differences between languages and found many resources for learning more about German beyond just a bilingual dictionary. It’s also been, as the professors pointed out, an enriching opportunity to get to know students from the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and hear their unique thoughts and perspectives.

Although no translation classes are being offered next semester, Dr. Soler plans to continue offering courses in a variety of kinds of translation, such as film translation. She and Dr. Leal are also happy to hear from anyone in the English department interested in knowing more about their ongoing translation project.

“800-TRANSLATE is the phone number. Call collect!” joked Dr. Leal.

 

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