Lost Without Translation: Margaret Sayers Peden on Work as a Translator

Margaret Sayers Peden, translator of Fernando de Rojas’ fifteenth-century classic La Celestina, among dozens of other books, considers here the joys and pleasures, challenges and frustrations of literary translation. Often regarded as the first European novel and second only to Don Quixote in its importance to Spanish literature, Celestina is now available in paperback from the Margellos World Republic of Letters. Be sure to sign up on the WRL site to receive full e-mail updates and interviews with authors and translators in advance.
Margaret Sayers Peden—

My Work as a Translator

I had a fortunate experience as I began translating.  It happened during my Ph.D. program, begun in 1964.  I was writing on a Mexican playwright, Emilio Carballido, when I came across a small novel he had written, one of only two.  I liked the book, largely due to the structure, and one evening was discussing it with my husband, William Peden, who died in 1999.  I was telling him how interesting the small novel was and Bill said, “You know I don’t read Spanish, why don’t you translate it for me?”  So I did.

I had never done any translation.  In the Midwest there were no courses, no organizations, nothing connected with that endeavor. But why not?  It was fun.  I worked on it amid classes and teaching and running a house, and, what do you know?, ended up with a small novel in English.  So what do I do with it now, I wondered—I was a true novice.  Publish it, I guess.  I went to the library to see who was publishing Latin American literature.
After a little research I sent The Norther, Carballido’s El norte, to the University of Texas Press in Austin, who accepted the novel.  That was pleasure enough, but in addition the editors made no changes in the manuscript I’d sent them.  No editing, no corrections or suggestions.  This was a dream, but one that would never be repeated among the sixty-five books I’ve translated.  I thought that was how one delivered a translation, often wishing it was that simple.

I fell into a career I had never dreamed of following.  After the 1970 publication of The Norther, my translating continued, accompanying my teaching, until my retirement from the University of Missouri in 1989.  The teaching and translation fed one another, books used in courses not infrequently attracted me sufficiently to translate them, and in return books I found in my Latin American literature in translation classes alerted me to good subjects for the more traditional classroom.

I do not believe I have ever devoted my time to a book I didn’t like, though there has been a broad difference in the pleasure obtained from the process of translating: everything from working with a totally cooperative author, with authors who knew English very well and were happy to answer questions and untangle problems, with authors who knew no English at all and preferred not to be involved, and with authors who knew a little English but thought they knew it as well as their own, and thus were sure they were able to choose the best for their book.  All these authors were living.  Working “with” authors who were not alive was a different matter.  Some inevitably faded into their time periods, but others survived so strongly that they seemed more present, more dynamic, than writers still with us.  Cesar Vallejo for his vitality, his language, his social ideals.  Juan Rulfo for his mystic novel Pedro Páramo; he wrote very little else but didn’t need to.  Pablo Neruda for the richness of his poems, and, like Cesar Vallejo, for his humanitarianism.  Francisco Rojas, who wrote Celestina, to whom I am deeply indebted for giving me a view of life in the 1600s, the culture, and the moral and ethical scales.  And Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz seemed to talk to me.  I could hear her, truly so; I am deaf in my right ear and I never heard her voice except in my good one…

To be continued on WorldRepublicOfLetters.org. Sign up on the WRL site for full e-mail updates before they’re posted to the site, and check out an extended, free excerpt from Celestina.

Margaret Sayers Peden is professor emerita of Spanish at the University of Missouri and the translator of major works by Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende, and others.

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Categories: Author Posts, Books, Literature in Translation, Lost Without Translation, Margellos World Republic of Letters, Publishing

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