Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Adventure Begins

I am Dorothy Potter Snyder, reader, writer, editor, and literary translator. I teach the Spanish language to those who demonstrate a passion for learning it.

This summer, I will enter my fourth and last academic semester in the MFA program at The Sewanee School of Letters, and, on course to create my thesis project during the next couple of years, I am reading ever more selectively and thoughtfully. There is no time to waste. I am focusing my reading on works about translation, classics that I've not yet read, philosophy (from the beginning), and fiction written in Spanish. In the latter category, I prefer close readings of work by women authors, both because I'm interested in their texts, and also because they are underrepresented on every level in the literary world. I want to study women's words, write about them, and, eventually, translate some of them so that you can love them, too.

The short story form is my catnip. The best short stories build a world with tremendous economy, entering  the reader like a stiff drink, burning, shocking, giving pleasure, and leaving a bit of a buzz. I write short stories myself, both for the painful pleasure of it, and also to develop the "chops" I need to be a worthy translator of great Hispanic literature into English. I have some stories in me.

I'm a romantic. I believe that if I translate women's fiction really well, it might change the world in marvelous, metaphysical ways that I can't even comprehend — yet. I always have an eye peeled for fiction in Spanish that addresses difficult human problems head-on, is beautifully written in an honest voice, demonstrates a unique poetic sensibility, and makes me feel powerful emotions. I am on the hunt for women who are writing strong stories in Spanish that reimagine what being a woman is.

Reading like a writer, as the esteemed Francine Prose tells us, is a prerequisite to writing fiction, or for that matter, any type of text. Reading is the foundation of writing. Writing is its own reward — and punishment. Literary translation is writing, but of a very particular and difficult type, perhaps best suited to those of us who would have felt quite at home in the stone cold ambience of a medieval abbey, keeping silence, eating little, and drinking unsweetened thistle tea. The best literary translators are solitary types, able to subsume their egos for the good of another's work; brilliant critics who often know more about the text than anyone else — sometimes even the author. In the best cases, translators are brilliant writers themselves. I like to think that I may be one of these fairy people, daring to take someone else's spell and transport its magic undamaged into English. I  dare to think I might have wings.

A literary translator mounts a digital Rocinante every time she sits down at the keyboard and faces the impossible task before her. She is an expert at stuffing meticulously-wrought messages into bottles and throwing them into the sea. For example, once I thought it would be a good idea to translate all the lyrics of the most classic Argentine tangos — in singable form. It was a Quixotic effort doomed to failure. But it was my passion for the sounds of that strange, violent stepchild of Castilian Spanish, lunfardo, and the gutsy rhythm of the music of the porteño arrabal that set me on fire, and made me want to find a way to turn the words neatly inside out, like some kind of reversible jacket, so that everyone could appreciate the beauty that I saw.  I never finished that extremely nonprofit project. Since I'm 56 years old now, my plan is to avoid mad literary love affairs going forward, and to seek out projects that might get me through my MFA and attract paying customers. And, of course, I still fall hopelessly in love with words, every single day.

If you scan the Interwebz for information on how to become a literary translator, you'll find out that no one really knows, though some people pretend to. There is no map. Of course, you can sign up for a Master's in literary translation if you like, but there's no guarantee of a job there. Or you might get a gig at a major publishing house and be discovered (surprise!) by your boss when he finds out the translator he really wanted to hire for the gig wasn't available. That's how Bolaño found his fairy, Natasha Wimmer. Sure, you might be in the right place at the right time. Or you might not. 

I am trying another path, one less dependent on chance, and definitely less traveled: I am looking for Hispanic authors I want to take a crack at translating, and who I think will be attractive to the American reading public. Will this work out? Only time will tell. I send my intrepid Spanish students out into the world with money to buy books for me as their intuition guides them, my crumpled want-list in their hands. I am fishing. If you read something in Spanish that you love, tell me about it.

The adventure begins!

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