Our “Translator Relay” series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. This month, Erica Mena passed the baton to Russell Valentino, an award-winning writer, editor, and translator (from Italian, Croatian, and Russian) who teaches in the Translation Workshop at the University of Iowa.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
It’s different for each of them. Russian I started learning as an undergraduate and eventually went to the USSR to study in 1987. Russian literature was also something I got my Ph.D. in and ended up teaching, so it’s probably the language I have the most formal training in and feel the most comfortable with. Croatian came later and actually started as Serbo-Croatian, morphing later and bordering on the now more commonly used “BCS” (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian). I started studying that in grad school, traveled there in 1988 for the first time and then fell in love with Istria, the little peninsula in the northeast corner of the Adriatic. Italian was something that was always around me growing up, and I dabbled in it and spoke with my grandfather, who came to the U.S. from Puglia in the 1920s as a young man, but it wasn’t something I set myself to study formally until later. Translating authors from Istria and Trieste helped me to bridge some aspects of my heritage with some aspects of my education, a healthy crossing between where I came from and what I’ve studied.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslateable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
How about a line of poetry? The sound is often the most expressive part, but the first thing you do is create different sounds in English. Even if you make a homophonic version, you’ll have a poem that sounds like English rather than whatever the source language was. You can focus on semantic aspects, I suppose, but even then there are likely to be things that sit securely in their home context but resonate very differently in the one you’re trying to bring them into. Can you translate the article “the” into a language that does not have articles? When you put “the” or “a” in the English translation of a work that comes from a language that does not have articles, have you translated that absence? These are not new questions, but new publishing venues seem to allow us to explore them better than in the past. I’ve been toying with the creation of multiple versions lately. Here’s an example from a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov. The different versions take their cue from the method of Pierre Menard (translator of the Quixote), working in a sort of progression back to the source text.
Version one (semantic): “Or how you used to catch flies”
Version two (homophonic): “Eely cock, moo-sheik, tea, love Illy”
Version three (hybridic): “Or how you caught flies for la villa”
Version five (menardic): “Или как мушек ты ловила”
Do you have any translating rituals?
Not really rituals, no. But I’ve learned that reading other contemporary work, translations or not, tends to get me going. It also helps to be working on multiple things at once, so I can bounce from one project to another and get out a certain amount of work every day.
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?
Lately I’ve been thinking about translation as a kind of adoption, as when one adopts a child. You take her from her home context, love and care for her, teach her what you know, and then, when she gets big enough and, you hope, has learned enough from you to live on her own, you introduce her to the world and hope she can thrive. And you hope she’ll write once in a while.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.
I’m working on a series of five-version translations of Russian lyric poems using something like the sequence in my example from answer number 2 above. Two are slated to come out shortly in online lit mags, and more are brewing.
I’m also working on a nonfiction book that weaves together translation, travel, and transgression. It’s called “Crossing: A Braided Memoir,” and I’m about 30,000 words into it. I expect to finish it in the coming couple of months.
Erica Mena's Q: What is your favorite work of translation that's been published this year?
My favorite translation of 2012 is Mary Jo Bang's new version of Dante's Inferno, published by Graywolf.