Art Talk with NEA Literature Translation Fellow María José Giménez
María José Giménez was introduced to the practice of literary translation as a student at Canada’s Concordia University. Having immigrated from Venezuela to Canada, she found herself interested in Canada’s small but thriving community of Latino-Canadian writers. The art of literary translation has not only immeasurably enriched Giménez’s own work as a poet—including giving her the courage to publish her work—but it’s given her a mission to actively promote Latino-Canadian literature as part of the larger collective of Latino literature. As a Board Member of the American Literary Translations Association, she is also dedicated to supporting and promoting literary translators as a vital part of cultural exchange. Most recently Giménez, the recipient of a 2016 NEA Literature Translation Fellowship, translated Bolivian-Canadian author Alejandro Saravia’s Red, Yellow, Green, newly published by Biblioasis. We spoke with Giménez by phone about her her passion for literature in translation, which she believes allows us “to have our feet planted everywhere, not just in our own inward-looking reality.”
NEA: If you had to have a mission statement for yourself as a literary translator what would that be?
MARÍA JOSÉ GIMÉNEZ: It always starts for me with honoring that first impulse to delve into someone’s work. Every piece from a translator—whether they've been published or not—begins with that spark, and that's something that I can't really explain. It’s something that just happens. It can be very serendipitous or it can be through research or [because] somebody brings me work. But that spark has to be there, that desire to enter that world whether it’s a poem or a novel or a short story. I translate mostly living authors and when I can talk to them, it’s a lot more rewarding. I translate mostly Latino-American literature. As a writer who is a part of the Latino community, I feel immense gratitude and one way for me to give back is to bring [Spanish-language] work out into English. I was blown away by how much variety [there is], how vibrant their work is, and how prolific their work is. So I've made it my work in the past seven or eight years to translate their work as much as I can, and to bring out in journals and in print what I can.
[I am also] an advocate for literary translators. [I want] to be public and loud about our work and to promote my colleagues work as much as I can. To stay connected, to see new ways to connect, to make our work visible—that's really important. You would assume that anytime somebody writes an article about a book that’s been translated that the article or the review mentions the translator right away, but sometimes it’s almost like an afterthought. They only mention the translator’s name when they make mistakes, or when something doesn't flow in the book or feels out of place. Then the translator is to blame even if it’s something that was in the original. I'm a board member of the American Literary Translators Association, and that's a huge part of what we do—educating publishers and writers and the general public about the process of literary translation, as well as providing support for literary translators.
NEA: You received your NEA grant to translate Rojo, amarillo, verde by Alejandro Saravia. Can you tell us about this project and how you became interested in his work?
GIMÉNEZ: I had been translating some of his poetry and some of his short stories as part of my [graduate] program for an independent study. I never really thought about publishing them; it was more of an interest and an impulse and wanting to learn more about his work. I was from the very first thing I read completely captivated. I wanted to learn more about him so I went to an event where he was reading, with a few other Latino-American authors and I bought his novel. I devoured it. I got home, and I just couldn’t put it down. It was brutal and tender and multi-lingual. It’s not a traditional novel at all, and I like experimental anything in literature. The other thing that drew me to the novel was how it described Montreal. There’s a quality in the novel of including everything that is Montreal and everyone who lives and breathes Montreal. There's just a richness and authenticity of exploring the full testament of what it means to be a human being. [The novel] was just so compact and full of so many different voices and styles and genres and places. It feels so in the moment, and still feels like my experience of the world and most specifically my experience in Montreal having lived there for so many years.
NEA: What is your process when you are translating literature?
GIMÉNEZ: The process itself is basically [that I] sit down with a book in front of me and translate. My first drafts are very close to finished. When I started out, I used to leave blanks or copy the text of the original and then come back later, but since I started working on this novel—and it may be something have to do with how well I knew the author—I got into a rhythm of producing an almost final draft. [Spending so much time on the first draft] helps me really get into the texture of the words. Especially with this novel there are scenes that are incredibly tender, incredibly brutal, and then some are more lyrical, almost poetic prose. I really needed to spend time with them, as opposed to getting as many pages done as I could, and then coming back and cleaning it up. That was part of honoring what was in front of me that felt important. So I would translate chunks and then move to another project to take a break from the novel. I move around my projects quite a bit so I might be translating some completely different type of material, like technical [documents], and then go back to the novel or go back to translating poems and that keeps the process alive for me. I go back to my first draft to edit while I am still translating later chapters… so everything’s being edited and translated at the same time. During my final read is when I accumulate all my queries to the author to clarify anything that I couldn’t get on my own. I need to get a full grasp of the whole process before I start asking questions. Then it’s off to my editor.
NEA: How do you know the translation is done and it’s time to send it to your editor? That you’ve brought it as far into English as you possibly can?
GIMÉNEZ: Part of that is trusting my first draft and like I said I spent a lot of time on that first draft. With this project, I already knew the characters—how they move in the world, how they feel, how they cry, how they love—because I'd read the novel a couple of times before I started the project. I felt like I had a really good grasp of where to go from there and how to make it come alive in English. My own internal editing phase is more about reading it out loud and hearing the voices of the author and the characters. If [the words] don’t roll off the tongue, there is something wrong with them. So by the time I am doing that, I just know [when it’s done].
NEA: What are the opportunities and the challenges of working with a living author on translating their work? I am particularly interested in what it was like to work with Saravia because he also speaks English so he knows if you got it or not.
GIMÉNEZ: Saravia has given me a lot of freedom from the very beginning, which is not always the case. Because he is a poet and I'm also a poet I feel like there’s a lot of respect and just honoring my creative license and my ability as a writer. At the beginning it was a little bit disconcerting that he wanted to be more hands-off with my draft. He wanted to read it but not to edit it, or to offer feedback. It was a learning process; it was a discovery process of unearthing what it was like to learn about each other’s work. [We have] the opportunity to meet face to face and to appreciate each other’s work, and to be able to have a real literary relationship, an exchange where his work inspires mine, and my work inspires his. Over the years we've seen that our poems, our original poems that we were writing, are in a way talking to each other and so we started compiling in a way a conversation or a dialogue between our poems that we’re still working on and will be wanting to publish in the future. That [kind of dialogue] is something that you can do with an author who’s from the past century, but then it becomes a one-way curated exchange. Of course, the opportunity to be able to consult with him [on the novel project] is invaluable. To be able to clarify obscure cultural references, clarify things that don’t work in my translation or in my research. I'm his voice in English even though he writes in English as well. I'm the one bringing him to a wider audience in Canada and in the United States and beyond. So, there is an incredible amount of responsibility. With the pieces that I choose to translate in a way I'm curating as they’re coming out in English. So, there’s that responsibility that I owe him being a good advocate for supporting his body of work.
NEA: For the NEA Writer’s Corner, you wrote, “Translation is a path I have chosen, and it has become inextricably woven into my own creative writing." Can you talk more about that relationship between your work as a literary translator and your work as a poet?
GIMÉNEZ: Anytime I am working with somebody else’s work I feel like I need to retreat to my own voice, to take breaks, and just go back to myself. But something else happens in the process of translation that’s a result of that. I will encounter a word that really captures me and it can be a new word or a word that I already know. I feel compelled to investigate further and how I write poetry is basically an investigation of the world. I am trying to understand my world and the world around me. Looking into words very deeply, doing etymological research about a word that I encountered that just pulls me for no reason at all or any reasons that I can explain almost always leads to a new poem.
NEA: Why is it important that we have access to literature from other languages in our own language? What’s the need for literature in translation?
GIMÉNEZ: Literature has been translated from the very beginning of books and anything that was printed, any literature that was created or recited. That is one way that cultures grow and get to know one another, cultural exchange. The richness of a country or a culture’s own literature never happens in a vacuum. The same way that there is intertextuality within the same language—different authors influencing each other whether it’s in-person or by reading each other—that’s also happening from one culture to another. It’s just an act of life, you know.
To read literature in translation for me at a personal level has to do with this idea of radical inclusion. How do I incorporate as much of the world into my own reality being someone who is from a different country, who immigrated to Canada? There is no one out there who is like me. No one is exactly like everyone else, even people from the same culture, so coming into contact with other worlds just expands our own world. It enriches it and it adds to the many perspectives from which we can experience what’s out there. Dialogue in culture is important because how else can we get to a place where we respect other human beings just because they’re human beings? When we are isolated and only looking at other people who are just like us, who only speak their own language, then we can very easily value only that kind of human being or only our own literature and pretend that our own literature has a clean linear progression from the beginning until what’s being written now. And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s all messy. It’s all interwoven and interconnected. So to read translation encompasses all of that, to expand our usual world and to expand our ability to be citizens of the world… to have our feet planted everywhere, not just in our own inward-looking reality.
More specifically for Latino-Canadian literature, which is most of my work, I feel like when people talk about Latino or Hispanic studies, it’s very rare that people include Canadian literature in that equation, Even though it’s small, it’s a very vibrant, prolific community of Canadian writers, writing in Spanish and French and English. They’re translators themselves, they’re translating each other, they’re published in other countries, they’re being translated into other languages. All that is part of Latin-American literature, even though Canada is not a Latin-American country. Latino lit lives in Canada [as well as] in in the States, in the Caribbean and Central America, South America, so it’s important to talk about it and to include it in any studies of Hispanic literature.