UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 15 Winter 21 Library
Eternity Was Shaped Like Her Lips by Ramón Martínez | Translated by Caitlin Nguyen and Mary-Dryden Miao
Creative Writing + Spanish, Italian & Portuguese

Global Connections: UVA Spanish Students Publish New Poetry Translations

According to UVA Lecturer in Spanish and professional translator Nieves García Prados, translation is an exercise in challenge and compromise, linguistically, and also culturally: “When translating, students seek solutions to the challenges they face, and therefore achieve, in my opinion, a deeper understanding of the meaning, structure, and use of the language, both the mother tongue and the one they are learning.” 

García Prados, an accomplished literary translator from English into Spanish of well-known poets like Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, and Natasha Trethewey, was able to help four UVA students get their own translations published. Two pairs of College of Arts and Sciences students, Caitlin Nguyen ’23 and Mary-Dryden Maio ’23, and Kiera Goddu ’21 and Dora Eskridge ’21, jumped at the opportunity to translate books of poetry when they were presented in García-Prados’ Spanish 4040 Translation course. Goddu noted, referring to her and Eskridge’s translation of Ecuadorian poet Ivonne Gordon’s Water House (Casa de agua), that translating a woman poet from Latin America was particularly exciting, given that non-canonical women authors tend to be underrepresented in class readings and discussion. Nguyen and Maio tackled an anthology by Spanish poet Ramón Martínez that they titled in English Eternity Was Shaped Like Her Lips

It’s not usual for students in Spanish 4040 to be able to publish their work, but thanks to García Prado’s connections in the publishing industry, she happened to know of several manuscripts looking for translators for bilingual editions. “As a professional translator of poetry, I have relationships with several publishing houses. One of them is Valparaiso USA, whose director is Poet and Translator Gordon McNeer. He is always willing to publish the translations of books of poetry in bilingual versions, and he is open to proposals. I proposed that four of my students translate two books of poetry, with my supervision, and he was happy to publish their work.” Thanks to García Prados’ help, both editions have already been published by Valparaíso Editions USA.

Each group of students understood they had taken on a big responsibility. “Translation requires a deep understanding of text,” said Nguyen. “During this project, I felt that I thought about meaning and word choice more deeply than I ever have before.” Nguyen noted that the work was challenging, but that it was in that challenge and collaboration where she learned the most. “We dissected each poem and thoughtfully chose words that captured the meaning and feeling of the original text. Through this project, I became more thoughtful, aware of authors’ decisions, and mindful of how different parts of a poem come together to add depth to the work. Understanding these elements guided my translation choices.” 

Ivonne Gordon’s Water House (Casa de agua)

García Prados believes that this mediation and minute dissection allows translation to become an essential tool in the second language classroom. “Reflecting on the semantic, syntactic, and cultural differences of specific text helps students to understand in-depth the differences and similarities between their mother tongue and the second language, and avoid cultural mistakes.” It not only helps students with grammar and context, but forms an essential component of a global education. Translation allows students to become “a mediator between cultures, and that sensibility to identify cultural differences leads to a greater tolerance towards the other, and, therefore, to eliminate prejudices and social barriers.” 

The students, too, felt that working on the projects allowed them to reflect on language, culture, and text in-depth, in a way many of them hadn’t before. For Goddu, it helped cement many linguistic skills she knew abstractly but finally understood when working through the translation. “Students in language classes often are told to think in whatever language they are studying and that can be really difficult when your only frame of reference for grammatical structure and word choice is English. Translating Spanish to English helped to point out those obvious and repeated differences in structure, syntax, and culturally specific phrases.” 

Nguyen emphasized the deep collaborative work and problem-solving that she took away from the project. “We had three months to translate the anthology, so Mary-Dryden and I set goals each week to complete a certain number of poems… There were times when the poems were very difficult to translate, and we became overwhelmed. However, I really enjoyed these challenging moments because we worked together to overcome the challenges we faced. It was like a puzzle.” 

The collaborative work with her students was also what García Prados enjoyed most. “I did enjoy spending extra time with them working together. Contrary to what it may seem, we have laughed a lot when translating poetry, although it is not an easy enterprise.” What she hopes that these students take away from their work with her, she says, is that “a poem is artistic text, and [they] must consider what poetic elements to transfer from the source language to the target language: metrics, rhythm, rhyme, syntax, musicality, meaning… The ideal translation would be the one that respects the elements of the original poem, maintaining its artistic functions. This is also an art, and I’m happy to work together with my students toward achieving that end.” 

The future looks bright for the art of translation: García Prados has more translations planned for students to tackle, and Maio is working on a solo book-length translation of Ecuadorian poet Camila Peña. Goddu, who started at UVA Law this fall, hopes to be able to continue translating as part of her legal career. Nguyen also hopes she can continue translating. “Translation,” she says, “has the power to connect people’s ideas and thoughts with others across the globe.” Let’s hope she and other UVA students can continue to connect Spanish texts to English language readers. 

By Caroline Whitcomb, Ph.D. Candidate ’22

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