Emily Toder is a poet, translator and student of library science. She attended the UMass Program for Poets and Writers and the University of East Anglia’s Masters in Literary Translation. Her translation of the Argentine poet Edgar Bayley’s The Life and Memoirs of Dr. Pi has just been released by Clockroot Books. Clockroot intern Leora Fridman sat down with Emily to discuss her process of translation and Bayley.
LEORA: When did you start translating and how did your interest in it develop?
EMILY: I’ve been translating for about six years out of my own drive. After college I was living in Spain and, quite simply, I had favorite poems and literature that I wanted to show to my friends who didn’t speak English, so I started translating James Tate, and it went from there. I took Spanish in middle school, but didn’t take it seriously until my twenties. I’d studied abroad in Alicante, a small seaside city in Spain, and when I graduated from Oberlin I knew I wanted to go back to a big Spanish city. I went to Barcelona and enrolled in a TESOL certification, but ended up doing all kinds of odd jobs and taking a class in literary translation. At the time I was writing 2-3 poems a day – you know, you just couldn’t stop me! It seemed inevitable to go into translation if I was obsessed with language and living somewhere where I was moving between languages all the time. In 2004 I got a job doing technical translation, and I’ve been doing it since.
Does commercial translation relate to your literary work?
Commercial translation is just so straightforward after literary translation – the style is dictated in a very basic way and the emphasis is on conveying the meaning. It’s a very simple act of communication – you communicated the idea or you failed. It’s a yes or no thing. It’s not that I don’t worry about how it sounds, but it’s not the same kind dilemma as it is with literary translation.
How did you find Dr Pi and why were you drawn to it?
Writers always lead you to other writers. I found Bayley when I was translating something by another Argentine, Sergio Checjfec. I remember I was sitting at the kitchen table translating this very complex poem with lots of literary allusions, and there was an epigraph with a line from Bayley. So I thought, “I better read this Bayley guy to figure out what’s going on.” So, I took out everything they had of Bayley out of the UMass library. I sat down that night reading Dr Pi, and I was captured. I got started right away.
How did you decide to translate Dr Pi?
When I sat down to read Pi, I completely forgot about not only that poem but the entire world – I could not prevent the translational impulse to see how it would sound in English. I was just very enchanted by Pi and totally mystified. In Pi there’s a sense that the reader doesn’t know at all where he’s going, and that Bayley also doesn’t know. It’s a really sense of spontaneous absurdity that is absurd and banal at the same time. It really whisks you away. There is also something very inclusive about his style. All literature is based on the cultural reference at some degree but Bayley is certainly not stuffy. He wants you to come along. In that way he’s a very generous author.
In the process of translation, what elements of this book did you think were most important to preserve?
Style is paramount. Style is everything. There’s not a way you could do something and sacrifice style, because style is in every battle. That said this book was not so tricky to translate. I struggled with some small references about the city of Buenos Aires. For example, the reader might not know that two places are far from one another, so I slip in the phrase, “all the way to” to indicate that something is far away. But there were not major cross-cultural obstacles. The book has a universal aspect of the adventure story. It did not need a lot of coaxing to work in English. Pi is appealing to something that is very expressible and experience-able across cultures.
Are there parts of Dr Pi that you think were lost in translation?
Some things are lost that are cultural references. For example, there’s a word morocha for something kind of like mamacita – a brunette sexy chick of sorts, but in its Argentine usage it isn’t derogatory or gross. I used the term “brunette.” It’s a cultural difference in our America that it’s a little bit sensitive to be describing people’s characteristics. Everything referring to skin tone is going to sound bigoted. We don’t have the same machismo culture, so if I used a morocha kind of word, it would just sound disrespectful, which isn’t how it sounds in the Spanish.
That’s interesting, because I as a reader definitely got that sexy, seductive kind of character when you refer to “brunette” in the book, even though it doesn’t necessarily have that connotation in English.
Yes, and that’s because you know Pi – he helps to inform what “brunette” means for him.
What was your working process with this book like?
I’m an impulsive translator. I think like that, I write like that, too. I’ll translate like touch typing. I’ve got the book behind this plastic polyurethane cookbook holder. I’ll just touch type while reading the book, and if I don’t know a board I’ll leave it bold in the Spanish, then go back later and fill it in. I go through it ten or twenty times to make sure it sounds good to me. I also check it with a native speaker if I have doubts about the context.
Did you complete Pi while you were getting your Masters in Literary Translation this past year?
It was my plan to translate Pi as my thesis, but I ended up actually doing other poems of his because it became clear that Pi wasn’t going to require that much more work by that point.
Given that there are so many different dialects of Spanish, and that you learned your Spanish in Spain, how did you adjust to translating Argentinean Spanish?
When I was learning Spanish in Spain I had many Latin American friends, so I was exposed to their accents and slang. I had a very wonky accent for a long time from all the different exposures I had! I love the sounds of Argentine Spanish – I’m very partial to their double-L sound. Recently I also listen to the public radios of Argentina, Mexico and Spain – the internet makes it really easy to the point where it’s inexcusable not to expose yourself to multiple sounds and sources.
What is the intersection for you of being a poet and a translator?
I believe that they derive from the same thing but they are not the same. They both derive from general interest in language’s capacity to say something. It’s really important for a translator to be kind of smith in that sense, and to have a linguistics competency that is very developed and self aware. I think they go hand in hand.
However, I’m hyper aware of inserting my own partialities into translating. It’s like you try something on and your body is in there but you’re wearing something else. You don’t get confused that the fabric of what you’re wearing is your body – you are just wearing it. Or, you’re babysitting and you know that the child is not your child, but you are just keeping it alive until its mom gets home. You’re kind of a custodian… there are really so many metaphors for translation it is ridiculous!
Do you relate to translating as writing?
It’s inevitable that your own writing will get inserted in translation, which is precisely why you don’t need to make it obvious and purposeful. If someone else translated Bayley it wouldn’t be the same. This is my translation. It’s always an interpretative, subjective, act. When I’m writing my own work, I change voices from poem to poem, anyway. There are certain tendencies in writing that I know I love – like repetition and certain words – but that won’t make me use words in translating Bayley that he doesn’t use.
How do you feel about the book of Dr Pi now that it’s published?
I haven’t looked at it – I’m scared to look at something that is called final and to which nothing can be done! Reading my own translation is also nerve-wracking the way it is to listen to your own voice.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on Bayley’s poetry. He has about ten collections of poetry that are not translated. I did about fifteen of his poems for my master’s thesis. I would like to translate as many of his poems as I can and see where it leads. I’m going exhaust the Bayley supply. Translating also gets to be better when you’re really familiar with the author. There’s a level of familiarity that assists you when you come into a dilemma, a familiarity that is guided by your experience with that particular author. That’s also why I’m compelled to do more of his work.
The Life and Memoirs of Dr. Pi is now available from Clockroot Books.