Perhaps the way to measure to what extent someone is a translator is by the amount of times they’ve been asked if it’s really possible to translate. In fact, the question conveys a common suspicion, which in turn is reduced to an adage: traduttore, traditore. And so, translation is devalued twice: either it’s impossible or it’s treason, a dagger in the back of the helpless author. The first variant of this saying makes translators practically maniacs because it denies the reality of their daily experience. Either that or they’re especially chosen, blessed with a kind of superpower to overcome the impossible, but with little glory and even less income. The second variant portrays them as somehow morally dubious, constantly switching sides: ghost transgressors –almost always in cases where the (publishing) market rules– or white-gloved con-artists, mostly in academic settings.
Both of these formulations feed on each other. Suggesting the translator’s marginality degrades their work and justifies them bowing their heads and hiding out in the shadows. At the same time, proclaiming their exceptionality cultivates the myth I mention above: that translating is impossible and any translation is a loss or, at most, small change. But myths tend to drape certain habits or trades with an aura of the sublime, turning them into rituals whose logic is unfathomable and whose effects are magical. Translation in particular achieves this goal with a remarkable efficiency and even environmental awareness, because it also supports a small, stubborn ecosystem: Translation Studies scholars. Their natural habitat is usually some private university in the northern hemisphere and in general they have little or no experience in salaried translation. There is a rift between these athletes of the mind, –though with the most sedentary habits– and the harsh bustle of those who usually receive a few pennies per translated word. Speaking frankly, –en plata, meaning “in cash”, as they say in my country– the whole theory of translation can be summed up in three questions: 1. When do they want it? 2. How much do they pay? 3. Do they pay?!?!?! Jokes aside, I don’t aim to detract from the theoretical, but rather point out that, in translation, theory always comes from practice: it IS practice. Above all, translating is a trade as well as a craft. Maybe that’s why it’s almost always so poorly paid while being at the same time of one of the best gymnasiums for the mind. It induces and trains a cerebral stereophony; after all, a translator is someone who can only concentrate when distracted.
We tend to associate the persistent myth of the impossibility of translating with another superstition, one with deeper roots: the original, to which we must be faithful – they say – until the deadline do us part. Still, no matter to what extent translators have experienced the patriarchy and the neoliberal metaphysics of private property, blessed are those who let themselves be guided by an ethics of loyalty –not fidelity– to the written word. It seems obvious, but a poem is first off a poem. It is not an opaque artifact long ago assembled in a foreign language, but rather a scaffolding of words made with materials and tools from a time and place as alive and as terrible as the ones we are living in right now. So, if a poem is above all a poem, it follows that the translation must also be a poem: not that poem, but a different one. “Original” and “translation” establish a relationship based on resonance, on joint and reciprocal amplification, not on hierarchical subordination. To joyfully fall into a Neoplatonic anachronism: the “original” is just one possible translation of a form that exists separately from its particular linguistic embodiment. A translator has to squint, as the near-sighted do, to glimpse the form and find the best way to make it come into being, which is always regional, and even circumstantial.
Of course, none of this means you can do whatever you want: there is a musical score that demands respect. But, that score is not the “original,” and respect doesn’t mean cramming it with clarifications, footnotes, and excuses instead of interpreting or playing it. Here I use “interpret” in a sense that has more to do with the body than with representations. And, analogously, I refer to “playing” as in someone who joyfully contacts and connects with their instrument through their body, allowing themselves to be affected by what is in front of them and by what is next to them: the body, the instrument, audience and score; they all unite to become one collective mind. Translating is exactly that: you’ve got to do it a cappella.
Ezequiel Zaidenwerg (Buenos Aires, 1981) is a poet and translator. His most recent book of poetry is 50 estados: 13 poetas contemporáneos de Estados Unidos (poetry/novel: Bajo la luna, 2018; Antílope, forthcoming 2020). He has translated Anne Carson, Mark Strand, Denise Levertov, Ben Lerner, Brenda Hillman, Robin Myers, Logan February, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Mary Ruefle, Weldon Kees, Kay Ryan, Patti Smith, and Joseph Brodsky, among others. He is the editor of Penúltimos, an anthology of contemporary Argentinian poetry for UNAM (2014). Since 2005, he runs zaidenwerg.com, where he daily uploads his poetry translations. He also produces the podcast series Orden de traslado, also on poetry in translation. He lives in Brooklyn.
Katherine M. Hedeen is a translator, literary critic, and essayist. A specialist in Latin American poetry, she has translated some of the most respected voices from the region. Her publications include book-length collections by Jorgenrique Adoum, Juan Bañuelos, Juan Calzadilla, Juan Gelman, Fayad Jamís, Hugo Mujica, José Emilio Pacheco, Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, and Ida Vitale, among many others. She is a recipient of two NEA Translation grants in the US and a PEN Translates award in the UK. She is a Managing Editor for Action Books and the Poetry in Translation Editor at the Kenyon Review. She resides in Ohio, where she is a Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College. More information at: www.katherinemhedeen.com