Gregary Racz talks translation

 Translation Prize Ceremony keynote speaker shares insights on art of translation, state of industry

May 29, 2013

Gregary J. Racz will deliver keynote remarks as part of the panel discussion, “Literature Without Borders: Why Translation Matters,” at the 26th Annual Translation Prize Awards Ceremony on June 5 at the Century Association in New York. To learn more, click here.

Racz is associate professor of Foreign Languages and Literature at Long Island University— Brooklyn, review editor for Translation Review, and president of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA).

In addition to his critical writings on literary translation, Racz has published many translations from Spanish, mostly of poetic works and verse drama. Racz has won the Luz Bilingual Publishing Poetry Translation Contest (1998), International Quarterly’s Crossing Boundaries Award (2000), and the American Translators Association’s Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation (2010), and was the co-winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize last year.

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What made you want to be a translator, and what was your path to becoming one?
I grew up in a bilingual household and so was exposed to a language other than English and a culture other than America’s from the time I was a child. You might guess from my last name that the language was Hungarian. My father and maternal grandfather were native speakers, and my mother and grandmother were fluent and proficient, respectively. While I remain forever sorry never to have learned my heritage language better, I naturally gravitated toward the predominant foreign language in the United States, Spanish, and undertook its formal study in high school. I began my career as a translator somewhat haphazardly, when an undergraduate professor “advised” me to pick up any book and translate it. As chance would have it, this dreadful advice led to the publication many years later of the historical novel Gerona written by Spain’s Balzac, Benito Pérez Galdós. In graduate school, I met a series of wonderful Spanish-language poets whose works I undertook and who remain good friends to this day. I never really returned to rendering prose.  

You primarily translate poetry, which many say is one of the most challenging exercises for a translator. How do you proceed? What are some of the inherent challenges? What are the greatest differences between translating poetry and prose?
I have translated many types of Spanish-language poetry over the last quarter century or so. While I like to keep my hand in the contemporary scene by rendering pieces primarily in free verse, translating classical works written in meter rhyme such as the Spanish Golden Age dramas La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega into meter and rhyme in English has become something of a specialization. I try to aim for analogical metrical forms in English, typically converting the syllabic octosyllable into the syllabic-stress iambic tetrameter and, similarly, the hendecasyllable into iambic pentameter. The use of rhyme is trickier, as there is a clear bias against it (as there is against archaism, a hint of which I also employ), with critics decrying, among other things, its putatively comic flavor in a target language erroneously taken to be “rhyme poor.” 

I think an emphasis on form, in general, aids the translation of poetry, and I find too many present-day renderings to be little more than lineated prose. Like Judith Moffett, I keep my rhyming dictionaries and thesaurus close at hand. The observation that my methodology boils down to forcing set semantic content into a preordained form seems to be an exaggeration, in my mind. I believe my translations correlate closely with the meanings of their source texts. I have learned that the common shifts or operations at play in poetic refashioning—i.e., transposition, modulation, equivalence, adaptation, explicitation, omission, compensation, amplification, and the like—are not only indispensable tools in a translator’s repertory, but his or her great friends.  

When translating, do you often work with the author to help you make the best choices? How does the process of translating alongside authors differ from that of translating historical and classic works, where such collaboration isn’t possible?
When I speak to incipient literary translators about how they might begin their careers, I often advise them to reach out to an author whose work interests them, adding that writers will likely be not only excited by but grateful for the chance to appear in another language. This has certainly been true in my case, and I have been fortunate never to have found myself muttering, “Authors, the deader the better.” In fact, I consider myself nothing short of blessed to have worked collaboratively with José Manuel del Pino, José Antonio Mazzotti, and Marta López Luaces, among others, over the last 20 years. 

My longest collaboration with a poet, some 16 years now, continues with the Peruvian Eduardo Chirinos. When we lived in the same state, I sent all my drafts to Eduardo before we would meet to consider revisions. As three books of our works were only recently published in a frenzied blast, occasioning a series of bilingual readings together, we were astounded to realize that we had been communicating for more than a decade exclusively by e-mail. Still, the notion of a close collaboration inhered, whether we were seated across from each other or some 3,000 miles apart. As Marta and I both reside in New York, we decided to divide her manuscript into three parts for discussions over lunch. I couldn’t imagine working any other way, and while the English-language competency of these poets varies, it would be hard for me to conceive of imposing on them a translation of their work to which they strongly objected.  

What is the common professional profile of a translator in the United States today? Are job opportunities for translators stable, decreasing, or increasing? Do translators find full-time opportunities generally? Freelance? Can they earn a living working only in literary translation, or do many have other occupations as well?
I will need to limit my answer here to literary translators, and in particular to those who are members of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). A recent survey of our approximately 900 members revealed that over 70% were somehow affiliated with a university. Whether this means that they are primarily full-time college professors or adjunct instructors of some sort, the poll did not say. I think it is safe to assume that literary translators in the United States do not (and cannot) make a living exclusively from rendering literature into English and that the majority are either in the teaching profession and/or creative writers, in or out of the Academy. Pay for literary translation remains stubbornly and woefully low, when it is offered at all, and may be attributable, I believe, not only to the low profit margins in publishing, but to the lack of esteem afforded this specialized talent. Too many people continue to operate under the delusion that bilingualism equates with translational ability, so that there is really no skill, service, or labor to remunerate. 

According to UNESCO, 3,000 languages are endangered and may be extinct within 100 years, and with those languages, the cultures that they convey. What role can translation play in protecting those cultures and languages? 
Of course, translation can play some role in the rescue or recording of the many languages, mostly indigenous, now sadly on their way onto extinction—but perhaps not a great one. Some of the languages that today can boast only a handful of (mostly elderly) speakers are primarily oral, so field linguists are left with the heroic task of compiling lexica and grammars to “save” them, at least for posterity. There is little that they or translators can do, however, to reverse the inevitable decline and disappearance of languages that are essentially no longer “living,” that is, employed on a daily basis by speakers in the routine of their personal, professional, social, and political lives. Some critics even view the dominance of translation from smaller languages and cultures into a hegemonic language, like English, as harmful to the former in the long run, as their speakers/writers come to realize that greater exposure awaits them in English and so begin writing not so much in their native tongues as “for translation.” What once would have been singular local texts bearing marks of their unique source cultures, the argument goes, become homogenized products for global consumption as “world literature.”  

Tell us a little more about your work with ALTA. What is the mission of the Association, and how does it accomplish its goals?
As noted on the organization’s website, www.literarytranslators.org, ALTA, co-founded in 1978 by Rainer Schulte and A. Leslie Wilson, “bridges cultural communication and understanding among countries and languages through the art and craft of literary translation.” Thirty-five years later, ALTA remains the only organization in the United States dedicated solely to the promotion of literary translation. I encourage you to visit our website, where a list of ALTA’s many offerings may be found.  These include: the publication of Translation Review and various ALTA Guides to Literary Translation; an annual conference featuring diverse panels, plenary speakers, translation workshops, and the only book exhibit in America displaying titles exclusively of literary works in translation; the conferral of the prestigious National Translation Award (NTA) and Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize; online access to listservs, the ALTA Newsletter, calls for publication, social media sites, and the ALTAlk blog; the awarding of ALTA Travel Fellowships to literary translators at the beginning of their careers so that they might attend the conference and present their work; and the organization of translation workshops at colleges and universities. For anyone interested in staying current in the vibrant world of literary translation, ALTA is an indispensable association.  

One of ALTA’s focuses is the teaching of translation. What are the options today for people who would like to learn the art and craft of translation? Why is it important to develop translation education?
As I stated above, bilingualism is hardly a guarantor of translational skill, so it is heartening to see the significant increase in translation/interpretation programs in U.S. colleges and universities over the past decade or so. The ALTA website, in fact, lists many of the places in higher education where a student can work toward a certificate, be it in literary translation or, more likely, basic translation or interpretation. The latter may be broken down even further, in some cases, into specializations in, say, the fields of medicine or law. Professional certification exams can be quite challenging, so it is not a bad idea for exam takers to have some sort of formal training in the fundamentals of translation. As technology consistently works to make the world smaller and once distant peoples and cultures have greater contact with one another, translation education seems more crucial than ever.  

Modern technology, specifically the Internet, has created much easier tools for basic translation. Clearly, Google Translate can’t rewrite a work of literature with the same nuance and artistry as an accomplished translator. Has the emergence of such technology impacted not only technical translation but literary translation?
Undoubtedly, technology has aided all translational endeavors by making search engines, online lexica, corpora, and the like immediately available to practitioners. It wasn’t that long ago when practically any hesitation a translator had would send him or her scurrying off, inconveniently, to pore over books in the library. Now, translators can find almost any information they need at their fingertips. I believe that Google Translate, which scours the Internet for frequency of semantic matching, will prove to be an improvement over such dubious programs such as Babelfish, but I don’t think it will have a greater impact than the tools listed above or affect any significant change in how literary translators go about their highly nuanced business. One need only to think of the computer translation of “Out of sight, out of mind” as “Invisible, insane” to be reminded of all that is involved in this complex undertaking.