Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Difficult Beauty of Translation: An Interview with Yvette Neisser Moreno

As readers of this blog may know, translation and international literature are near and dear to my heart. As readers may not know, The Writer's Center offers translation workshops taught by Yvette Neisser Moreno, the Pushcart-nominated poet/translator of Luis Alberto Ambroggio's Difficult Beauty. (Incidentally, since Yvette introduced him to us, we've also brought Luis into the fold as a workshop leader. He teaches a poetry workshop exclusively in Spanish.)

Kyle Semmel: In your translation of Ambroggio’s Difficult Beauty, there’s a beautiful poem called “Conversation” that would probably ring true for any writer: “I know how it hurts to be tortured by words,/ to use them, to live insufficiently in their weak outlines,/ to want to eat them again, convinced they will taste of needles.” When a writer writes, it’s obviously a matter of finding the exact right word. For translators the process is really the same—though textured by an extra layer of cultural and linguistic skin. What advice would you give to a young translator?

That’s kind of a tough question. In my translation workshops here at The Writer’s Center, I spend about six weeks answering that question!

The best brief answer I can give is to spend the time trying to find the exact best word or phrase for every key word that you translate. This is especially true for poetry. Literary translation is not to be rushed through—take your time to dwell in the words of the original language, and then take the time to dwell in the possible ways to convey the meaning in the target language. When I’m translating from Spanish to English, I find a good English thesaurus indispensable.

KS: Though you are the translator for the majority of the poems, some poems are translated by other translators (including Writer’s Center workshop leaders C.M. Mayo and Naomi Ayala). Can you talk about the collaborative process of working, as editor, with so many translators? What if you disagreed on the translation of a line, for example?

I didn’t actually collaborate with most of the translators, but I did have the chance to collaborate with Naomi Ayala in editing her translation of “The Poem Bodies Make,” which was a real treat, as Naomi is one of my favorite poets. In this case, the editor at Cross-Cultural Communications, the book’s publisher, had pointed out to me some aspects of the translation that he wanted me to revise. I then went through the (English) poem carefully and made notes for Naomi of how I thought those issues might best be addressed. Then we sat down together and went through it line by line, discussing options, brainstorming, and then coming to agreement. It was fun and very interesting!

KS: In the Ambroggio translations there is an admixture, to me, of playfulness, sexuality, and social critique. This may reflect the range of translators, perhaps, and Ambroggio has many books. How did you determine which poems to include, which to leave out? The poems demonstrate significant range, in other words. For readers unfamiliar with Ambroggio’s work, how would you describe it? What should they look for or expect to find in his poetry?

That’s very true—Ambroggio has an incredible range of topics and styles in his poetry. Sometimes it is hard to believe from one page to the next that you are reading the same poet. This is partly because his writing style has changed over the years, and Difficult Beauty covers a period of 20 years.

What readers should expect to find in this book are all the features you mentioned—an appealing sense of humor, poems of love and sexuality, poems about social issues—as well as beautiful lyric poems, poems about the human condition, about human relationships, about death… What you will encounter is a poet fully engaged with the world around him at the macro and micro levels—a poet concerned about what happens in all parts of the world, and also who is moved by the flight of hummingbirds. You will find moments of surprising tenderness and beauty, moments of social outrage, of political commentary, of musings on ancient myths. You will encounter short lyric poems and long prosaic poems. You will find wisdom and insights, and beautiful language.

KS: To shift to your own work, you’re also an emerging poet in your own right. How has your translation work inspired or influenced your own poetry writing?

First, reading good poetry—and translating is a form of very close reading—often inspires my own poetry.

Second, the play of words and attention to words required in translation may indirectly influence my own poetry, as the words I use and discover while translating get stored in my head and added to my poetry “word bank” if you will.

And finally, one of the reasons I encourage young poets to translate is that by translating you get to try out a style of writing that might be different from your own. You get to take on a new, different voice. The words in the translated poem, to some extent, become your own. So, while I can’t trace a direct influence from Ambroggio’s poetry to my own, I do think the experience of translating has probably influenced the way I write.

Can you tell us a little bit about your poetry translation workshop here at The Writer’s Center? What should participants expect when they take it? How much of a foreign language do they need to know?

I LOVE teaching the poetry translation workshops. In the first session or two, I give an overview of the various approaches to translation used by well-known translators, as well as the major issues that one has to consider when translating poetry. Then we usually look at a few different translations of the same poem as a way to see how a translator’s choices can impact the poem’s effect in English. And I typically do a translation exercise where I ask all the students to do their own “translation” of the same poem. (To find out how I do this when the students don’t always know the same languages…you’ll have to sign up for the class.)

After these introductory sessions, I run the workshop very similarly to other types of creative writing workshops, in that we spend most of our class time reading and discussing students’ translations, and giving suggestions for improvement/revision. Students choose which poet/poems they want to translate.

Also, I’d like to point out that I teach two different versions of this workshop: the Spanish-English translation workshop (which will start this month) and the general poetry translation workshop, in which students can translate from any language into English.

In the Spanish-English workshop, obviously we focus on these two languages only. The emphasis is on translating from Spanish to English (my specialty), but students are also welcome to translate from English to Spanish. In this workshop, we have the opportunity to delve more deeply into the two languages and how they are used in poems.

In the general translation workshop, English is the only common language among the students, so we concentrate mostly on the English translations, with context about the original language provided, as needed, by the student-translator.

For both workshops, however, anyone who can read a foreign language with the help of a dictionary is welcome. My personal experience has been that the act of translating itself can improve your knowledge and comprehension of a language.

Finally, I’d like to mention that students can expect to be part of a diverse and fascinating group of classmates, from whom I always learn as much as they learn from me.

Yvette Neisser Moreno is a poet and translator whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The International Poetry Review, The Potomac Review, Tar River Poetry, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Her translation (from Spanish) of Argentinian poet Luis Alberto Ambroggio’s Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems was published by Cross-Cultural Communications in May 2009. In addition to working as a professional writer/editor, Moreno teaches poetry and translation at The Writer’s Center and has taught poetry in public schools in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.


C.M. Mayo said...

What a delightful and informative interview! Good wishes to you Yvette! May you inspire more poets to try their hand at translating. What you said about how it informs your own poetry is crucial.

C.M. Mayo said...

Congrats on the review in Monserrrat Review!