Among an already special series of Fall Semester events marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Iowa translation MFA, a working workshop session for us current MFA students guest-led by Maureen Freely was a highlight among highlights. A novelist, journalist, translator, activist, professor, and the newest president of English PEN, Freely visited the University of Iowa in late September for a four day residency as an Ida Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor. Established in 1978, these short-term visiting professorships bring liberal arts teachers and scholars to campus at the bequest of Ida Cordelia Beam, an Iowa native whose gift to the university upon her death in 1976 allowed the creation of the program. During her residency, Freely also read from her own fiction at local independent bookstore Prairie Lights, and gave the final talk of the Iowa City Banned Books Week.
In preparation for our workshop, Freely asked us students to submit a pesky passage we’d been mulling over unsuccessfully for some time (which everyone apart from your above signed blogger dutifully did…), and in turn promised to bring a few of her own thorniest examples to the table. At the after-hours start time of 6:30 pm, another guest lecture already clocked that afternoon, Freely turned to our drafts with the focus and energy of one sitting down to her desk over a cup of morning coffee. (Would that we all set to work so brightly! Though personally I’m a tea-drinker.)
We began with a selection of incantatory verse by Ramón Palomares, a Venezuelan poet his translator feared was untranslatable. (“We don’t say that here, or we have to close up shop!” our director objected.) In search of a liturgical register to match Palomares’ cadence, Freely suggested we tap into the music and vocabularies of the psalms in the King James Version. Did anyone have a favorite psalm? Eager to compensate for my yet undiscovered lack of pesky passage, I loudly proclaimed Psalm 23 the manifest best, and was permitted to read it aloud to the group, despite a prefatory advisory I might cry (I started to waver only toward the last line). Known to her from her Catholic school days, the KJV psalms were written (actually, translated!) in the register Freely recommended for Palomares in English. But his translator was still worried: was she as a non-native speaker (read: near-native) entitled to render Palomares in English in the first place? Freely assured her that she absolutely was, that there are as many Englishes as there are speakers of it, and as many chances as we give ourselves: “If you get the beginning right, you’ll get the end right.” (So the next time you’re breaking your brain over a conclusion, send yourself back to the introduction!)
Next, we workshopped a verse excerpt from the Sudanese poet Ali Abdelaum. Rather than reference a companion text, Freely asked the translator to read aloud both from Abdelaum’s Arabic and his own English, an exercise that often reveals the right word when the obvious choice isn’t working. If you encounter an awkwardly weighted phrase in your draft, collapse adverbs and adjectives into one double-duty modifier; redistribute clutch modifiers to other phrases nearby; or simply reorder for a different rhythm. Try to see through the words, she said, to the images or emotional accumulation behind them. Go wild on the first pass, then pull back on successive passes. Freely admitted to a hate of drafting and a love of redrafting, which at least for one evening assuaged my own anxieties about being a rewriter only.
While these rough draft rules of thumb apply across genres, translating fiction is unique in several ways. The author of seven novels, Freely would know. Whereas scholarly reading is designed for interruptions, she explained (an observation I as a former scholar found revelatory), “with fiction, it’s the trance, or it’s nothing” because “fiction is about evoking a series of images that evoke a series of emotions.” To entrance your reader, try repeating Anglo-Saxon words à la Ginsburg’s Howl, as Latinate ones tend to be longer and markedly elevated in style. (Like “there’s no there there”? Maybe not what Stein had in mind.)
Readers occupy a headspace entirely outside a text, but as translators we have the privilege of being simultaneously within and without. This dual residency can assist us in parsing sloppy sentences, which crop up even with the best writers (without naming names). “Get into the role of the author,” Freely advised. Does the construction innovate in the original, begging innovation in the translation, or can you take something off the rack (“at Macy’s,” my eighty-five-year-old screenwriter neighbor in Los Angeles would add)? What information is essential, and what clogs the works? As translators, we should never improve too much or too little, though in our obligation to the English, the ultimate word rests with us. Freely spoke as a translated author herself when she conjectured that an author’s desire to impose meaning onto a translation originates with a discomfort at being translated in the first place, at the loss of nuance. For an Anglophone translator in collaboration with an author, more dangerous than an author with decent English is one with good, or worse, great English. So trust yourself to be the authority on the target text, if not the author of the source original.
In the second half of workshop, we wrangled with some truly vertigo-inducing passages Freely had translated from the Turkish by Sait Faik, Hasan Ali Toptas, and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. Born in Neptune, New Jersey, Freely owes her Turkish fluency to a childhood spent in Turkey and boasts the distinction of having translated five of Pamuk’s novels to date. To demonstrate her translation process, she first showed us the original Turkish text, then a word-by-word translation, then cluster-by-cluster, then an almost literal rendering, and then the final. Awed faces exchanged glances around the room. We’re in the presence of a master was the general unspoken consensus. Actually, two masters, though our new MFA director Aron Aji was not on the hot seat that evening. A native of, rather than transplant to, Turkey, Aji performs the even more gravity-defying feat of translating out of his first language into his second. Given the agglutinative, ungendered, non-Indo-European grammar of Turkic languages, Freely and Aji have their work cut out for them every time they sit down to bring Turkish into this, our macaronic English tongue.
In the face of obstacles that won’t budge, what should a translator do? “Avoid them,” Freely answered decisively. Instead, ask yourself what the author makes you see, what you love about the original. Love of originals: yes, I guess that’s why we get into this business in the first place, isn’t it? Apart from the desire to lead a multilingual literary life, of course. Freely’s guest workshop ended with a chorus of appreciation from all sides, those of us formerly unfamiliar with her work now converted to her sleekly elegant style. That night I skipped home with the hope of imagery and revision in my heart, my failure to submit a pesky passage still undetected to this very – oh, drat.