Interview with Eleanor Stevens


This Saturday, April 18, we will be welcoming Eleanor Stevens back to Grinnell to celebrate the publication of her translation Hard Tortillas: Too Broke for Beans by Enrique Romero Moreno. In anticipation of her visit we asked Eleanor to share some of her thoughts on Moreno’s novel and translation as a collaborative project.

Translation Collective: How did you originally come across Tortillas duras: ni pa’ frijoles alcanza? What compelled to you translate this novel?

Eleanor Stevens:In the Spring of 2013, Enrique Romero Moreno (who is the Mexican Consul in San Antonio) came to Grinnell to give a presentation on immigration reform. I went, and by the end of the presentation I’d answered, and asked, so many questions that he could tell I was passionate about Mexican immigration, so he gave me a copy of his novel. He had a whole stack of them. They were neon pink, the weirdest looking things I’d ever seen. That summer I opened the book up, not really expecting to like it. But the immediacy, the intimacy of the language hooked me instantly: my mouth kept dropping open in shock, and then I’d laugh out loud at the goofy, witty turns of phrase. I couldn’t put the thing down. In college I’d studied all about immigration; I’d even volunteered at an immigrant rights nonprofit. But I’d always been an outsider looking in. Romero pulled me right in with the immigrant, just swept me off my feet. While I read, I felt like I was an immigrant myself. All that hope, and heartache, and bitterness, and loneliness, and humor. That fall, when I had an opportunity to translate a text for a seminar, I decided that Romero’s novel had to be the one. Nothing I’d ever read in Spanish had ever felt so alive to me.

TC: Because your translation is an abridged version of Tortillas duras, how did you decide which sections to translate?

ES: [Luis] Enrique [Romero] and I selected what we felt were the novel’s most impactful scenes — the opening description of immigrants’ dreams, an immigrant family torn apart by CPS, Tururú’s car, Coras’ trial — and patch-worked them together into a coherent narrative arc. Although we can only include bits and pieces of the story, we try to give the reader a good sense of the novel’s three main protagonists: Coras, Yes-Yes, and Tururú. Each character is unique and offers a different perspective on the immigrant experience.

TC: What aspects of Enrique Romero Moreno’s writing did you find most difficult to carry over into your English translation? 

ES: Easy: his humor! His humor his subtle, implied in his tone rather than explicit: it’s in the way he uses words, the way he’ll switch from formal to informal registers, the way he’ll throw around slang. It’s Mexican humor! Translated into English, it doesn’t sound the same.

And also, obvious as it may seem, the Mexican-ness of the novel, expressed in the Spanish language.Tortillas duras is so essentially a Spanish book: a book about people trapped by language, defined by language, struggling over language. Romero captures that linguistic struggle in the original by throwing in snippets of English, unitalicized, untranslated: bosses and immigrant workers yell back and forth at each other, completely confused; incarcerated immigrants stare blankly at the English documents their English-speaking lawyers want them to sign. The dignity of the immigrant’s Spanish is constantly threatened by English; it is, therefore, I think, in part a farce to translate this book at all. That’s the great irony of this project.

TC: You originally began this project in a translation seminar at Grinnell College. What made you continue? How did you see it evolve after leaving Grinnell?

ES: The leader of the seminar, Hai-Dang Phan, co-founder of Grinnell’s Translation Collective, encouraged me to continue and said the Translation Collective would publish it if I translated a long enough excerpt. It was a daunting idea, but the challenge excited me. And when I met Romero’s son, Enrique, and saw how passionate he was about his dad’s work, that made me all the more determined to take the project on. We had to share this amazing book with more people!

TC: When you began to translate the book, you worked alone and were not in contact with Moreno. How do you think the process changed after you were able to speak with him?

ES: When I spoke with Moreno, I realized that he was deeply touched by my interest in Tortillas duras. Apparently it is unusual for a random white person to identify so strongly with Mexican immigrants. I had never thought about it that way, but the more I talked with Romero and his son, Enrique, the more apparent it became: it meant a lot to them that I cared enough to translate their book. They felt seen, respected, in a way that Latino immigrants in the U.S. all too often don’t. The Romero family’s gratitude made me see translation in a whole new light: more than simply replacing one word for another, translation can be a step on the road toward social justice.

TC: In a similar vein, did the collaboration with the author’s son, Luis Enrique Romero, have an impact on your process of translation? How would you characterize the benefits of such a collaboration

ES: Enrique helped me in three ways. First of all, his passion strengthened my commitment to the work. Second, he helped me think through all the content and formatting decisions. Most importantly, though, he helped me understand the text better. Enrique is bilingual, bicultural, and more familiar than anyone with his dad’s narrative voice. We spent months working through snarls of Mexican slang: soccer terminology, insults, jokes… When I didn’t “get” something Yes-Yes, Coras, or Tururú said, Enrique usually did. We talked, too, about more straightforward language:  we discussed exactly what the text meant, the precise way Romero used Spanish words, and the best way to recreate that same meaning in English. My text is richer and more accurate thanks to Enrique. He aspires someday to translate his father’s entire book (if I don’t beat him to it); I hope his writing will also be richer because of his collaboration with me.


Spring Into Translation: Upcoming Events

The Translation Collective is pleased to host two exciting events this next week.

On Saturday, April 18, from 3-4  p.m. in JRC 101, please join us in celebrating the publication of the new book Hard Tortillas: Too Broke for Beans by Enrique Romero Moreno, translated from the Spanish by Alumnus Eleanor Stevens (’14) with Enrique Romero (’15). At the book release, the translators will combine readings with a discussion of their translation process and of the book’s sociocultural significance.

Then on Monday, April 20, we are pleased to welcome to campus Susan Bernofsky, one of the preeminent translators of German-language literature. At 7:30 p.m. in JRC 101, she will give a talk, “Finding a Language for the Past: On Translating Jenny Erpenbeck.” Bernofsky will also be in conversation with the current German Writer-In-Residence Thomas Pletzinger for a lunchtime roundtable, from 12-1 p.m. in JRC 209, on the Art of Translation.

We hope to see you there!

Interview with Nate Klug


Earlier this week, we welcomed Nate Klug to Grinnell, where he gave a great talk on translation as transference and read from his upcoming collection Anyone. In a brief interview, we had the opportunity to hear about his experience with translation.

Translation Collective: How did you first come to translate Latin and what made you decide to translate Virgil?

Nate KlugI studied Latin for four mandated years in middle school and high school, though I dropped it as soon as I could, after sophomore year. I returned to it in college, doing an independent study of Horace’s Odes with Lee Behnke, a wonderful teacher at the University of Chicago. My final project was a series of modern adaptations of my favorite odes (one of which I finally finished last year!). Virgil I got into later, after auditing an Aeneid class for undergrads at Yale. I think in some ways Virgil is more daunting (though maybe easier?). I had always been curious about the Eclogues, since so much English language poetry seems to flow out of them, and in fact I found them quite enjoyable. 

TC: Considering the numerous English translations of Latin poetry that already exist, how would you describe your process of translation? Do you find that existing versions influence your understanding of the Latin and therefore your own translations?

NKMy interest in translating poetry has always been consonant with my interest in poetry in general. So I guess my primary goal as a translator is to bring something across that is interesting and dynamic as a poem in English. I publish my translations alongside “original” poems in journals and books, so that’s the sense of context I have for them. I would never feel comfortable with a student looking at my Horace or Virgil and thinking s/he’s getting the whole picture. Rather, I’d hope that my translations might lead people back into the originals, perhaps via more literal translations. 

TC:In some of your translations, you choose to omit particular references from the Latin and utilize slightly less formal diction than, for example David Ferry. What influenced these choices and in what ways do these decisions benefit a reader’s understanding of Virgil?

NKI do try to make myself aware of other recent contemporary translations when I’m working on something. Difficult to generalize about a translator’s choices other than to say, as above, I try to make sure my English version is able to stand up as poetry. In some cases in Rude Woods, I omitted passages from the Latin where the allusions were too difficult, or would have required explanation via footnotes. 

TCIn Rude Woods, you mention that you prioritized sound and diction when selecting the sections of Virgil’s Eclogues to translate. Do you notice that these elements of Latin have influenced your own writing in any ways?

NK: I hope so, but it’s hard for me to say. I think, in general, the compression and exploratory syntax that you get in Latin poetry can be of great use to contemporary poets.

Nate Klug 2.24.15

two step

Moving Boxes: Poetry and Translation

Roundtable, 4:15 p.m., JRC 209

Reading, 8 p.m., Faulconer Gallery

On Tuesday, February 24th, the Translation Collective welcomes poet and translator Nate Klug to Grinnell College. Klug will read from Rude Woods (The Song Cave 2013)–his translations of Virgil’s Eclogues–as well poems from his soon-to-be-published first poetry collection, Anyone (University of Chicago, 2015). At the 4:15 p.m. roundtable, Klug will begin with a brief talk on poetry, translation, and theology–his “moving boxes”–before our regular Q&A format. The event is free and open to the public.

Introducing Rude Woods, W.R. Johnson writes: “Klug has devised a conversational idiom that relies on spare diction and spare syntax, on a pure clarity of sight and sound to give us superb poems that give Virgil’s pure lyricism a genuine ‘answering form.’” Reviewing the book for HTMLGIANT, Jessica Comola writes:

Eschewing the constraints of a strictly “faithful” translation in favor of a more multifaceted dialogue with Virgil’sEclogues, Klug himself becomes one of the lyrical shepherds he invokes as he responds to the Eclogues which are themselves, he writes, “poems about responding—listening, picking out, and answering back the pleasures of song.” Klug’s brief examination of each of Virgil’s original ten eclogues offers a contemporary take on the pastoral tradition that brings to life both Virgil’s lyric refinement and dynamic content.

Nate Klug headshot copyNate Klug was born in Minnesota, grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and earned a BA in English at the University of Chicago and a Masters from Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Rude Woods (The Song Cave, 2013), a book-length adaptation of Virgil’s Eclogues, and Anyone (University of Chicago, 2015). In 2010 he was awarded a Ruth Lilly Fellowship by the Poetry Foundation. A UCC-Congregationalist minister, he has served churches in North Guilford, Connecticut, and Grinnell, Iowa.

Artwork by Kathranne Knight

A Translation Salon

Earlier this month, The Translation Collective hosted its first Translation Salon, an informal meeting of student and faculty translators and translators-to-be. The salon took place at the home of Vance Byrd, Professor of German at Grinnell College, who graciously began the session with a look at Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, specifically, the story’s famous opening lines. After reading the original German version, we read aloud the Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese translations and discussed changes in rhythm, pace, tone, and also how each translation depicted the bug, beetle, cockroach, bicho, or otherwise insect-like body in which Gregor Samsa awakens. This initial conversation highlighted the many intricacies of the craft. Plus it was great hearing the story read aloud in all those languages–that was just very cool and it was a crime we didnt record it!
After the Kafka conversation, we moved on to discussing our own translations, many of them still in progress. The meeting acquired a familiar atmosphere, that of a creative writing workshop. Those who volunteered their work for worksop, introduced it and read aloud some of it. Then readers carefully considered each translation, responding openly, asking questions  and eventually making suggestions to the translator. It was interesting to receive feedback about a piece which you had not originally written but which had your fingerprints all over it. This relationship between author, translator, and reader seemed quite dynamic and engrossing. There were moments when it felt like we were all the original authors, the translators, and the readers, and we swapped roles easily and without noticing. The effect was that words seemed to belong to the author, the translator, and the reader, and at the same time, to no one. Words themselves seemed to rush in, they surrounded us, and we calmly sat in their midst.
While we won’t account for every detail of what went on during the salon, we wanted to mention this event on the blog because this initial salon embodied the spirit of the Literary Translation Collective and our mission to support and bring together those who enjoy this beautifully impossible craft and who find in its practice a rich engagement with the texts and authors whose work we wish to share with other readers.  We will continue to hosts the Salons through the spring and we’ll keep readers posted on further Translation Collective events and projects.
–David Perez

Careers in Translation: Roundtable with Aron Aji

Thursday, November 20th – 4:15 pm, JRC 209

An informative roundtable session with Aron Aji, Director of the MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. For students interested in literary translation, as well as related careers in translation, Aron will provide an outlook of the field, the jobs, the prospects, and the ins and outs of this growing academic field and literary craft.
A native of Turkey, Aron Aji has translated works by Bilge Karasu, Murathan Mungan, Elif Shafak, and Latife Tekin, including two book-length works by Bilge Karasu: Death in Troy (City Lights, 2002), and The Garden of Departed Cats (New Directions, 2004), which received the 2004 National Translation Award, sponsored by ALTA. Aji is also the recipient of a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for his most recent translation project, a third novel by Karasu, The Evening of a Very Long Day (City Lights, 2012), which was also shortlisted for the 2013 PEN Award in Translation.

Peter Cole: Translation as Poetry, Poetry as Translation

This Thursday, October 16th, the Translation Collective welcomes distinguished poet and translator Peter Cole to Grinnell College. A recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Cole will lead an informal roundtable discussion on translation and share a selection of his translations at 4:15 in Mears Lounge, and at 8 p.m. in Faulconer Gallery he will read his own poems and discuss their relation to his translation work and to translation more generally. The event is free and open to the public.

As described by the MacArthur Fellows Program, “Peter Cole is a translator, publisher, and poet who brings the often overlooked works of medieval Spain and the modern Middle East to English-speaking audiences. His highly regarded translations of the poetry of Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Shmuel HaNagid, two of the great Hebrew poets of the Andalusian “Golden Age,” offer readers a lyrical illustration of the extraordinary Arab-Jewish cultural partnership that flourished in tenth- through twelfth-century Spain. A poet himself, Cole’s translations infuse medieval verse with contemporary meaning while remaining faithful to the original text. His renderings of HaNagid’s poems in particular, long regarded as “untranslatable,” retain the subtleties, complexities, and formal elegance of the original verse. Underlying Cole’s translations is an implicit message of cultural and historical cross-fertilization that is also evident in his work as a poet and a publisher.”

Peter Cole was born in Paterson, New Jersey. His collections of poetry include Hymns & Qualms (1998), Rift (1989), What Is Doubled: Poems 1981-1998 (2005), and Things on Which I’ve Stumbled (2008), and most recently The Invention of Influence (2014). With Adina Hoffman, he wrote the nonfiction collection Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (2011). Described by Harold Bloom as a “major poet-translator,” Cole has translated important writers in Hebrew and Arabic, including Aharon Shabtai and Taha Muhammad. His anthology, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492 (2007), was heralded as a new classic. He also editedThe Poetry of the Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (2012).

Cole’s many honors and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. He is the recipient of a National Jewish Book Award for Poetry, the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, a TLS Translation Prize, the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal for outstanding Jewish literature, and the 2010 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Coeditor of Ibis Editions, Cole has taught at institutions such as Yale University, Wesleyan University, and Middlebury College. He divides his time between Jerusalem and New Haven, Connecticut.