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The Intimate Presence of the Other: An Interview with

Margaret Sayers Peden

Margaret Sayers Peden

By James Hoggard

Margaret Sayers Peden is one of the most highly respected and prolific translators of Spanish-language literature. Ceremonially honored by the Feria Internacional del Libro on December 4, 1998 in Guadalajara, she has brought into English major works by Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, Emilio Carballido, Isabel Allende, Juan Rulfo, Sor Juana InŽs de la Cruz, and numerous others. Her many awards include PEN's Gregory Kolovakos Award (co-winner in 1992), fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and an Honorary Life membership in the American Literary Translators Association, among others.

JAMES HOGGARD: A number of translators have come to their work indirectly. By that I mean they didn't start out to be translators. They were trying to refine their own sense of language, or they set out to explore, out of what seemed like simple curiosity even, the work of someone who wrote in a language other than their own. What about you? How did you get started?

MARGARET SAYERS PEDEN: Dear God, it was nearly backwards: unintentional, accidental, serendipitous, and on and on. Was I trying to refine my sense of language? I didn't even know I had one. So what was I doing exploring the work of someone who wrote in another language? Yes.

JH: What happened?

MSP: I returned to school in 1962 to get a Master's in those years that degree led to good employment. I had two children, no skills, and a pending divorce. After the year at the Master's level, however, I thought graduate work was rather exciting and I went on for my PhD. Nothing planned, nothing dreamed, undirected forward movement unless the good angels were guiding me. Anyway, I had chosen Emilio Carballido—he's now Mexico's premier playwright—for my dissertation subject. I told my (then) new husband, Bill Peden, that I loved a novella Emilio had written, El Norte, and wished people could read it in English. "Why not translate it?" Bill asked, and I did. That's where it all began. I never had a sense, I don't think, of "moving toward a career." But I loved the idea of being a—what?—conduit? vehicle? bridge? I liked bringing this novella I loved to a new public. I think that's what a lot of us want to do—bring something new to people who wouldn't have it otherwise. And even though I've lost my naiveté about the translator's ability to make much of an impression, I still get pleasure from hammering even a small chink into the obsidian wall of ignorance we have about other cultures and other literatures. Yo're right about curiosit—curiosity about work in another language. That was an essential attraction that brought me to translation.

JH: When did your efforts at translating seem to become an activity, a calling even, that you knew would stay important to you?

MSP: The work seemed important from that first book on. Remember, I had done nothing literary or academic before 1962, after I had taught a year in junior high school (and what respect I have for those teachers!). I knew, though, I couldn't do that for the rest of my life. I needed to get a degree that would allow me to teach in a higher grade, yet still let me be a mother to my children—and that meant getting home when they did. I loved doing Emilio's book. I loved the process of translation itself. I loved looking for the right words—finding someone to answer the questions I couldn't touch myself. That in itself has been one of the great rewards—meeting some of the most interesting people in the world. To put this simply, I was drawn to translating by forces I didn't understand, and I still don't understand them. But once started I wasn't going to be stopped.

JH: Did you get encouraged quickly?

MSP: After my appointment at the University of Missouri, I was told more than once by a senior professor that what I did was fun enough—I don't remember his exact words but he made it clear that what I was doing had nothing to do with serious scholarship, and if I wanted to "get ahead" in the profession, I'd blow translating off and get on to important things. Incidentally, I ought to add that I always did my share of criticism; and translation helped me in that. After I translated a book, who was going to know it better than I did? But I still spent a lot of my career fighting the prejudice against translation that was (is it still?) so rampant in foreign language departments. I spent more energy than I want to remember in suggesting that critics can focus on some part of a work that interests them, but the translator has to deal with every word. Translation is a research endeavor requiring knowledge of the language, the culture, the individual writer; and hours and hours of the time I put into a translation are spent in library research. Knowing a language does not make one a translator.

JH: Something else happened between you and your university. What was it?

MSP: You know the story. You know how serious I'd gotten about translation Then came the greatest moment of my academic career. I received the University of Missouri Presidential Award for Research and Creativity. By the way, that still failed to convince a number of colleagues that I was a serious scholar.

JH: I understand. We'll let them stir in obscurity.

MSP: A phrase you used awhile ago comes back: "drove you." I am driven to translation. I don't have to do it, I'm "retired"; but what that means is that I have more time now "to do my work." I'd go nuts if I didn't do it.

JH: Your versatility strikes many of us as thoroughly interesting. In addition to translating a considerable body of fiction, You've translated poems, plays, and essays.

MSP: "Interesting" to me is an interesting word. Does it mean, perhaps, foolhardy? Overly ambitious? But before I get to that subject, in regard to my own range of work, I should say something about "interesting" responses from editors. I've had editors of all stripe—some who wanted to retranslate the book, some who'd just walk through the manuscript for typos. But in general I've had the least reaction from editors to poetry manuscripts, next fiction, and the most uproar from editors checking non-fiction. I can't really explain this, other than that it may be that everyone feels that he or she can write a straight sentence. There may be nuances, certainly stylistic intricacies, in fiction that the editor is unsure about. At any rate, I've been given the most leeway with poetry. It's as if the editors assume: Who the hell knows what a poem says anyway?

JH: Was there matter in any of those genres that made you realize you needed to back up, you needed more technical preparation before you continued in earnest? Or did you feel pretty well prepared to handle work in the genre when you began? If so, what did you do to become satisfactorily versed?

MSP: It never dawned on me that I couldn't translate anything I wanted. I know when I'm not doing well, but being blocked by questions of genre never arose—at least consciously. I just didn't think about not being prepared to work in the various genres. There would be a work I liked a lot, and I'd start in on it. Problems are essentially the same among the genres. There's music in prose, information to be communicated in poetry. I think I've made mistakes in every genre, but my mode has always been to listen to the Spanish and then try to do the same in English.

JH: Despite common points of reference among the genres, let's consider here that the demands of poetry and drama require technical points of understanding that are perhaps often more subtle than what is ordinarily required by fiction or essays. What do you think?

MSP: Theater is indeed closer to poetry than to prose. Pacing is central in both. There's the important presence of the unexpressed and the force of economy in poetry and theater, both of which are painfully easy to weigh down with words. Both also demand to be spoken. Sure, of course, we read prose aloud, but we can also do justice to a novel or an essay with the eyes and the interior voice. That's not true with poetry or theater; both of them demand a spoken voice. But let me interrupt us both here. I want to digress. I want to go back to the early days. After that first novella, theater is what I concentrated on translating for a good while. It went along with my research interests. And this has nothing to do with what we're talking about, but I do want to say that I've never understood why Latin American theater has never made the kind of breakthrough we've seen in other genres.

JH: Maybe you're throwing down a gauntlet that others can pick up. Let's turn the focus, though, back on you. Has there been anyone, inside or outside the realm of translation, who's inspired you during the course of your career, anyone who helped make you conscious of limits or possibilities? Someone who you knew you needed to pay acute attention to?

MSP: Bill [Peden, my husband] was always the person most closely connected with my work. He founded the creative writing program at Missouri and was a superb master. He used to break my heart a little, though. We'd sit down together, he with what I thought was a pretty good translation in hand, I reading straight from the text, just the first draft kind of reading you do without thought to convey to him what the Spanish said. As I read, he'd react, often with something like "We don't say this in English!" Sobs, of course, from the distaff side. I'd just said it, hadn't I? But Bill was right. I had a very persistent flaw. I wanted to stay too close to the Spanish. That was something very difficult for me to unlearn. My tendency to stay too close to the original came from my respect for the author, but what was coming out in my version sometimes sounded like an assault. Later, when I was teaching translation, I tried to condense some of the process of what Bill and I had dealt with by urging my students to forget the words of the Spanish, to scrape down through the words to the essence, then find new words in English. That's really the trick of translation, I think: to get to what underlies those treacherous words!

JH: Who else has captured your attention in notable ways?

MSP: I've always greatly admired Greg [Rabassa], though I've never consciously imitated anything he's done. In all honesty, I have no idea how he works. Then there's Helen Lane. They're my two ideals. I could also add that there have been editors along the way who taught me things, and I'm grateful for that kind of help.

JH: A lot of people, certainly in the academy but not limited to those environs, pay significant attention to theories of literary translation, to the extent that they align themselves with one particular path or another. Are you, or have you been, intensely concerned with matters of theory?

MSP: Oh, Jim, I just don't relate to theory—of any kind—because it doesn't make a dent in my consciousness. Maybe I have some brain cells or genes missing, but I can't cope with anything abstract. Philosophy gives me a headache—not because I dislike it but because I can't follow it. The same thing was true about music. In elementary and junior high school, I took lessons from a college teacher who said he thought I had the talent to be a professional. Was he conning my mother? Then the word concerts was mentioned, but I never got anywhere near that. Everything came in through my ears and fingers. I blocked on keys, progressions, anything having to do with the theory of music. I couldn't transpose anything. I had little sense at all of how the notes on the page were related to their positions on the strings. As I said, everything came in through my ears and my fingers; and I realize now I've always thought of myself as a fingertips kind of translator. I'm not an intellectual one like Helen [Lane], for example, who can articulate everything she does.

JH: Let me press the issue a bit more. Do you think an intense concern with translation theory is helpful to one's pursuit of excellence in translating, or an inhibiting factor?

MSP: Look, I simply can't get close enough to it to know how it affects or doesn't affect anything I do. I do believe, however, and I've heard many authors say this in regard to their own writing: the text leads to theory, not vice versa. Theory is deduced from extant writing. I just don't think a writer sits down and says: I'm going to write or translate this work according to Barthes. Is this just my prejudice?

JH: Insight might be more precise. Perhaps a more immediately crucial concern has to do with the fact that in certain quarters touched by ALTA and other groups, such as ATA, there's an element of fear or at least notable concern about the questionable importance literary translation has to sizable portions of our culture. One could cite the relative scarcity of support for it in our own country in contrast to that found in European countries such as France, Germany, and Italy, each of which, to use figures released by Publishers Weekly, publishes three to four times more translations each year than we do. Do you think the perception that American publishing is at best lukewarm to translation is accurate? Or primarily the fearful projection of what in a slightly different context Arnold Bennett called "the passionate few"?

MSP: Good Lord, yes, I'm concerned! This is not paranoia. American publishing, and the American reading public, are either lukewarm, indifferent, or unconscious in regard to us. Publishers hate dealing with another step in the process, especially when it comes to money. Readers—ours, though growing a little—distrust most things that are not Am-ur-ican. We're not organized like European translators. I don't know why—maybe it's due to our country's size. If we all lived in New York, or San Francisco, or Columbia, Missouri, for that matter, we could get together and agree on standards and practices. But support? What support are you talking about? The NEA is gone by the boards, or almost, and foundations look at us as if we had the pox. I don't know what beginning translators do these days—unless, of course, it's what I did: translate and give thanks for having something published. Forget any idea of money. That happened to me and many others for a long, long time.

JH: Are the short numbers on our side symbolic pointers toward other issues, such as parochialism?

MSP: Sure, they reflect a cultural matter. Europeans are more accustomed than we are to proximity to other cultures and the linguistic and social interchange that entails. For so long—until very recentl—we were, in effect, a monolithic culture. That still shows in our attitudes about reading something from a different language.

JH: Isn't that also connected to the resistance from numerous editors and publishers through the years about putting a translator's name on book covers?

MSP: Yes, unfortunately. They have the notion that potential buyers are quicker to shell out money if they don't think of the work as a translation.

JH: As long as we're courting the dreary, I might say that I and others have noticed how often people—including friends—shy away from the volumes of translations when they're looking over one's wares at signings. Does all this suggest that translation itself is perceived by many as a strangely recondite genre, in spite of the fact that so many of the works we measure time by came to us through translation? Many in our culture, of course, having let their Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Russian, German, French, Italian, and Spanish, etc., get what we'll euphemistically call rather rusty.

MSP: We have not done a very good job of blowing our own horns. I very much want to read the new book about translation as performance [Robert Wechsler, Performing Without A Stage: The Art of Literary Translation. North Haven, CT: Catbird Press, 1998]. We should be evaluated as an actor or opera singer is evaluated, as performing a previously established text. We might get more respect if we as translators were considered as performers.

JH: I know many people have similar troubles with poetry. I've seen the fog rise in students as well as the general public when the subject of poetry comes up. But in the ancient world, certainly with the Hebrews, poetry was the idiom used when the message seemed most urgent. Witness the prophets. But back to our day. Is the alienation from poetry, that most intense of genres, due to inadequate teaching? Frankly, we all know professors of literature who bring little to a discussion of poems. I and others also know of numerous poets today who apparently lack a serious level of expertise in regard to their own preferred genre. What I'm really wondering is this: Is the American public's perception of poetry and translation as odd, or formidably otherworldly, a result of too willful a sense of homogeneity, chauvinism, or simply an unfortunate kind of innocence?

MSP: Oh yes, poetry suffers a PR problem, too. But it's carried an elitist tag for a long, long time; and it probably is often not taught well. Maybe those of us who read, write, and translate it are intensifying the aura by making things seem more
difficult than they need to seem. I do know, though, how difficult, nearly impossible, it is to find a publisher for translations of poetry. And I know it's the same for original poetry. Maybe poets and translators should form a club for the outcasts.

JH: Let's get more directly personal. You read widely and translate a lot. What draws you to work that rises from environments not your own?

MSP: Good writing draws me, and perhaps previous experience with the author—a unique voice, a rip-roaring tale, beauty. I don't believe I've ever read anything I didn't learn something new from, even if it were something as alien to my life as a new coroner's procedure in one of my going-to-bed detective novels.

JH: Are you saying, then, that in your case at least, foreignness is not so much an obstacle to overcome but a magnetic force that encourages you to move outside yourself and what we'll call our own?

MSP: Foreignness is not an obstacle to me but an attraction. The first two books I remember told me stories of cultures IÕd never known [ancient Egypt and the Hopi Indians]. Maybe my attitude comes from having been born in the Ozarks. The exotic—anything about 200 miles out of my range—looked pretty exciting to me.

JH: Let's get even more personal. What has working on Isabel Allende's writing meant to you? I mention her, in particular, because recently you've translated not only her fiction but work of hers that is deeply and directly personal, like Paula and Aphrodite, not to mention The Stories of Eva Luna, which I think stands toe to toe with Chekhov.

MSP: Working with Isabel Allende has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I love her writing, that lyric, oral quality, and I love the woman. She is fun, funny, compassionate, and extremely talented. There is a kind of bond there—from my point of view. I remember the first time I read her. I was in Oaxaca, waiting to catch a plane to Mexico City-Dallas-St. Louis. The book was her Casa de los esp'ritus, and as the plane arrived I had reached the section about the earthquake. We flew into Mexico City shortly after the big earthquake there, in 1985. My involvement with her and her work has been a lot like that. I'm convinced, by the way, that she has ESP.

JH: Let's shift time-frames a moment. Do you remember a time that you were, in effect, translating without thinking of it in those terms? I have in mind something like this: during the year when I was taking fourth year Latin in high school I wanted to see if I could bring some Latin poems into English and have them still be poems. This had nothing to do with class assignments. Keep in mind, too, that I was a rather severe formalist then, so the enterprise was full of demands. But what seems strikingly interesting to me about that effort is that I don't even think I was conscious of the activity as one of translation. A new poem was my goal. Years later, though, after I'd been translating awhile, I recalled those early efforts with a strangely comforting form of recognition. I realized that work in translation can be perhaps as personally intimate as what one draws more directly from self, through memory or invention. Has anything like that happened to you? How personal does your work in translation seem to you?

MSP: Infinitely personal. I feel as if I enter each work I translate, and I live there while the work lasts. I'm constantly thinking about it, searching for a word I can't find, solutions I haven't reached. When I was in school, however, I was basically indifferent to literature. I always read, but I made no link between reading and creating.

JH: It's easy to suggest, as many have, that translators are admirably selfless, to the extent even that the phrase "well-known translator" has been seen as an oxymoron. I was thinking, though, as I was reading your 1985 collection, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Poems (Tempe: Bilingual Press) that maybe translation can be one of the most wickedly delightful tasks there is, in that it gives one motivation and permission to enter the richly appointed worlds of interesting others. What do you think?

MSP: Oh, it is wicked. You can tramp around at will, and there's no little hubris involved. I hear myself thinking—specifically this was true with Sor Juana—"I know what she meant to say." Then you might say, "Do you really believe that?" And I'd answer, "Yes. You either have to believe that or"—to mix a metaphor slightly—"get out of the kitchen." Incidentally, there are lots of things I would do differently in the Sor Juana translations—and lots I would refuse to change—but the translation I'm most proud of is "First I Dream."[The complete version of MSP's translation of this nearly 1,000-line poem is in Poems, Protest, And A Dream. New York: Penguin Classics, 1997.] That one is true to the original in a lot of ways.

JH: That puts it mildly. Its sounds in English seem as strongly echoic as they are in the Spanish original. I know it's a long poem, but would you read a few lines from it?

"The breeze becalmed, the tranquil dog adoze,
both at rest, such is the mood
the still air not an atom moves
for fear its faintest murmur might disclose
an innocent but sacrilegious hum,
a profanation of the soothing calm."

[El viento sosegado, el can dormido,
éste yace, aquél quedo
los átomos no mueve,
con el susurro hacer temiendo leve,
aunque poco, sacrílego ruido,
violador del silencio sosegado.]

JH: Crowds of sibilants and liquids make the passage whisper while alliterative and rhyming, and half-rhyming phrases intensify the dependability of the measures. To tell you the truth, though, I think I could have picked another set of lines blindly and heard similarly insistent rhythms and graceful yet densely rich music. You sustain the effects remarkably well. And the length of the effort that such a long work requires raises another question. When you translate, say, extremely long works—we'llgo to prose now, such as Carlos Fuentes' mammoth Terra Nostra—do you make a special effort, for the sake of consistency, to keep track of the way you've translated particular words that reappear throughout the work?

MSP: Yes, I do try. It's difficult, though, unless you start early on keeping some kind of side list. At the same time, to keep myself honest and to be totally inconsistent here, I also believe that the same word, given the fact that words are slippery and treacherous, needs to be translated differently within different contexts. There's an especially rich example of this in Neruda's work—his word corola, which can refer to flower, sun, starfish. I went from one possibility to another—starfish here, sun there—then I said to myself, Words are so stretchy—the occasion demands whether you honor one particular equivalent or another, then other times it makes sense to keep the word itself, in its untranslated form. I'd hate to be tied to a specific translation of a particular word. I tried once to express this by a figure: to me words are like amoebae. They have a perceptible core, which once was probably very firm and specific, but now is surrounded with this translucent, fluctuating, what?—skirt? aura? matter of some kind—and it's rare to "hit" the word in that core. The right meaning or equivalent is much more likely to be found in its gelatinous fringe. Words aren't always reliable.

JH: What are you working on now? What are you thinking about working on?

MSP: A new Allende novel. I'll also be working on the second in a cycle of six novels projected by Juan José Benítez. He's a journalist and a mystic, and he's very much removed from the literary community in Spain, though more than four million copies of his books have been sold from his cycle alone—I don't know how many his other books have sold (he's written thirty in total). The cycle involves time-travel, it's cosmic in scope, and Benítez is working to present a new and radical meaning of Jesus. I may also start working on some poetry, if I find something I like, or maybe a woman whose book I'm about to read. I'm not terribly piled up, except for the cycle, which would take a lifetime [to finish]. I also want to go back to Sor Juana.

JH: Why?

MSP: I can't stay away.

JH: For what particular reason?

MSP: Let's just leave it at that: I can't stay away.

[The remarks in this interview found voice in Columbia, Missouri, Wichita Falls, Texas, and Guadalajara, Mexico, in November and December 1998.]

Translation Review, Volume 56, 1998.

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