The Translator Relay: Erica Mena

By Erica Mena

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. First up: poet, editor, and Spanish translator Erica Mena, whose translations from Héctor Germán Oesterheld's science fiction comic The Eternonaut (illustrated by Francisco Solano López) appear on WWB here and here

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
 
I'm 1/4 Puerto Rican, or a quarter-Rican as my father says. I grew up with English, and a smattering of Spanish from extended family. My mother had the foresight to put us in Spanish lessons young, so though I didn't grow up bilingual, my Puerto Rican side was encouraged. Like many heritage speakers, my relationship with Spanish is a bit fraught with shame, shame at not being fluent, at not being a native speaker. It's a barrier that's hard to overcome. But translation has been a great way for me to participate in the literary community in Puerto Rico to some extent. 
 
Can you give us an example of an "untranslateable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
 
I don't really think there is such a thing as an "untranslatable" word or phrase. Or every word and phrase is essentially untranslatable. But I'm an optimist, so I don't believe in untranslatability. Literary language is nuanced and complex, and words or phrases with multiple meanings present difficult choices — but when faced with several choices you have something that is not untranslatable but highly translatable. So translatable that you can translate many aspects of it in many different ways. It's a joyous overabundance of possibility. But an example: the title of a graphic novel I was working on was a portmanteau in Spanish, El Eternauta, which is a combination of eter and the suffix -nauta. So I constructed my own portmanteau, or several actually, and of the ones I constructed I liked The Eternonaut best. For me a lot of it is about how it sounds, and that had the best rhythms. It's not quite homophonic, and not quite literal, but half-way between the two.
 
Do you have any translating rituals? 
 
When I'm translating poetry, I look up almost every word, even if it's a common word. In this way I force myself to read the poem far slower than I might otherwise, and pay really close attention to the underlying context and echos of meaning. 
 
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
 
There are so many metaphors kicking around about translation, and then translation itself is used figuratively or metaphorically so much in talking about other things, that I think really it's as like or unlike other artistic processes as anything else. My favorite is conducting music though — you have the score, but what the musicians end up playing is your interpretation of the score. And no one dings a conductor for making alterations to rhythm and pace and phrasing as being "inaccurate" merely "interpretive." 
 
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about. 
 
I'm hoping to start work soon on another graphic novel, by the same author as El Eternauta. I can't say much more than that, but I'm really excited about it. I love his writing. 

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