Beatriz Hausner, Former President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, interviewed by David Garyan
DG: You’re both a poet and a translator of poetry—thus, I’m interested to know: Which art came first for you and how does one influence the other? It seems natural to assume that being a poet is an indispensable part of becoming a translator of verse, and, yet, many people who often produce good translations of novels, biographies, and other texts are neither novelists, biographers, and, in some rare cases, not even writers. Along with the first question, how is the translation of poetry different than that of prose and how have your own poetic sensibilities shaped that process?
BH: For me, initially, translation came first from interpreting between Spanish and English. It is a role familiar to most immigrant children. In my case, when my family immigrated to Canada from Chile, only my mother, Susana Wald, spoke English, and did so perfectly. Ludwig Zeller, my step-dad, found it difficult to learn English, partly, I sense, because he continued throughout his exile to be a Spanish language poet. There really was no part of his existence outside of Spanish. As a result, I often assumed the role of interpreter between spoken English and Spanish.
During those early years in Canada I became an interlocutor to Ludwig, so that parallel to my university studies in literature, I acquired a deep literary education at home. Ludwig was, like many of the authors I translated, and who serve as my models, incredibly broad-minded: there was nothing, it seems to me, that did not interest him in art and in literary expression. His knowledge of the Classics, Romanticism, the 20th Century Avantgarde, Latin American literature and art, was astonishing. I read everything he recommended and listened to him telling me about it.
Of course, the principal context was that of international surrealism. Our home was an important locus of surrealist artistic activity, with my parents organizing exhibitions and publications (through their press Oasis Publications) for and of their surrealist friends throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, a time of fervent activity in the movement. In fact, my first translations of Latin American surrealists were published through my parents’ press, Oasis Publications. So too was my early poetry.
I can safely say that my own bilingualism developed during those important formative years, when I became both a translator and a poet. I have no doubt that translation has provided me with the best poetic education possible.
Having translated both poetry and prose, I can say that the process differs according to the author of the original and, in the case of prose, the length of the work. I loved translating the early fiction of Alvaro Mutis (The Mansion, Victoria BC: Ekstasis Editions, 2005). He was a great stylist and the themes and moods he explored matched my sensibility. I felt the same about translating his poetry. I’ve translated the essays of Aldo Pellegrini, and some of Eugenio Granell’s fiction, but my focus in translation has been primarily poetry. The intensity and concentration of the diction, the way levels of meaning come through analogies and combinations of sounds, the use of images, these are all characteristic of the surrealist poets I’ve had the great fortune of translating.
DG: It’s been my experience that people to whom a certain literary legacy belongs are more inclined to believe in the untranslatability of their own national poets and writers, mainly to attach greater mystique and importance to them; at the same time, those looking in from the outside (foreigners eager to consume the riches of another culture) tend to believe exactly the opposite—that translation is not only just as effective but can also improve the original. On one hand, we have scholars like Mohammad-Reza Shafiei Kadkani, an Iranian writer, who wrote the essay “On Poetic Untranslatability,” in which he argues that translation is mostly about transferring culture, not linguistics. In other words, according to him, it’s not possible to really translate Hafiz into European languages because of the cultural differences that exist between where the work comes from and where it tries to “go.” On the other extreme, in a 1998 review article praising Robert Daglish’s translation of Quiet Flows the Don, the authors, Barry P. Scherr and Richard Sheldon, argue that readers looking to discover Sholokhov’s “original intentions” would actually fare better by reading the novel in translation, rather than in the original Russian, further stating that “in terms of textological issues, Daglish’s translation is arguably superior to any of the available Russian-language editions of the complete novel.” Where do you fall on this spectrum? Do you side more with Kadkani, or Scherr and Sheldon?
BH: I loathe all notions of nationality, or ownership of a literature. Rather, my sense is that translatability has to do with language and the patterns that give form to literary expression as it develops and changes through time and place in each language. Rhyme, formal constraints, devices such as meter for rendering musicality would certainly present different challenges when translating the sonnets of Francisco de Quevedo, than, say the poetry of César Vallejo. In both instances the cultural context absolutely informs the poetics, requiring that the translator of either Quevedo, or Vallejo have a broad understanding of both the cultural and literary contexts of the original and also that of the target language.
It’s interesting what you say about Daglish’s translation of Sholokhov’s novel. Dare I say that perhaps Scherr and Sheldon’s perception, that Sholokhov reads better in translation, is pure and simple a function of Daglish being a very good writer in his own right? I do think that translators are authors of their translations, so that their talent may determine the transcendence of their translations in the long run. In some cases, a translator’s work can have a profound effect on the trajectory of an entire literature.
A case I’ve written about in the past is that of Augusto D’Halmar’s translations of Oscar de Lubisz Milosz. Related by parentage to Czelaw Milocz (he was his uncle) Lubisz Milosz was of Lithuanian origin and is known as a French poet and mystic. His poetry extends the French Symbolist tradition. D’Halmar, a Chilean fiction writer was one of his many followers, and while living in Spain, made it his mission to visit Milosz in Fontainebleau. D’Halmar’s translations of Milosz’s Selected Poetry is extraordinary, no doubt because of his talent for staying within the inner spirit of the original, while assuming creative freedom to render the whole into Spanish in a way that made it almost a classic of Chilean poetry. D’Halmar’s translation was adopted as a kind of guide by two generations of Chilean poets: echoes of his poetry, direct borrowings from D’Halmar’s translation are evident in the poetry of Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, both of whom would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
DG: For many poets and writers, the inspiration to create seems to come out of nowhere; while some have romantic notions of “waiting” for the right moment, others seem to believe in consistency and routine—almost an exercise-like regiment designed for the brain when it encounters the desk. In either case, the spark comes sooner or later. Translation is a different thing, however; in other words, before inspiration even causes you to think of the perfect phrase or expression in the target language, you must first choose the person to translate. How does this happen for you? Is it a romantic experience of “waiting” to fall in love with an author or do you actively and methodically seek out the genius?
BH: Writing for me functions as a response to an inner force that drives creation. Over time I’ve come to accept that the best writing happens when, after a period of accumulation of sensations, material experiences, reading and studying, talking with others, something is triggered and the writing flows. Or not. In the past, when I was doing more translating, often of works commissioned by children’s publishers, I was working towards a deadline, in which case I could not wait for inspiration to take over. Until very recently, I’ve had to do my writing and translating on the side, while complying with the exigencies of a full-time day job as a public librarian. I worked in the evenings, or very early in the mornings. Mornings are definitely better. Regardless, the more time I have to delve into the universe that informs the writing I’m doing, the better. The process is the same where translation is concerned: I feel a need to immerse myself in the inner and outer contexts of the work I am translating.
For many years I put translation aside and devoted myself to my own writing. Part of the reason was a complete failure at finding publishers for the kind of work I enjoy translating. No presses in Canada were interested in publishing my translations of the Latin American surrealists. If they were, they simply could not find the resources to publish such work. I tried with U.S. publishers also, in vain. I believe this is part and parcel of the resistance, even rejection of surrealism, especially after the Second World War. Thankfully, this situation seems to be changing.
DG: Do you think all talented poets—if they master a second language—can become good translators, or is there some other magic ingredient? We’ve already talked about culture; in addition, knowing how to navigate the environment inside which your language is situated can be incredibly useful, but what, if anything, in your opinion, does an excellent translator with poetic sensibilities have that gifted poets alone do not?
BH: Yes, I think all talented poets, who master a second language, can become good translators. The “magic ingredient” is a willingness on their part to surrender to the voice[s] of the author of the original. Also, they need to have a sufficient generosity of spirit to spend the time and energy that translating someone else’s work requires. This is time which cannot be spent on one’s own writing, after all.
My sense is that a gifted translator must possess the same confidence as an author of “original” works. In other words, a gifted translator must be willing to embrace the spirit of the original and act as a creative conduit for the original’s inner reality, while always making sure to remain loyal to the original. It’s a terribly difficult balance, which must be achieved.
DG: We’ve talked about untranslatability and it seems that a focus on aesthetics might be a good compliment to this discussion. What I’ve noticed is that the poetry world has unfortunately managed to divide itself along two lines: Experimental poets, often so difficult that they’re only read by other poets or academics, and those who espouse clarity above all (the lyricists as scholars know them); the argument is always that the former is ruining poetry with their pretentiousness while the latter is simply too easy—prime for Instagram feeds, in other words. Again, we have two extremes, and, once more, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. As a Surrealist poet fond of Rimbaud and Vallejo (not easy poets, by any stretch), for example, how do you align yourself with regard to this issue?
BH: Like Benjamin Péret said “Je ne mange pas de ce pain là.” The stupidity of dividing poets into two camps is beyond comprehension. I reject all limitations. In fact, poetry is the opposite of limitation. Poetry equals freedom; poetry is a vehicle for the transformation of the world. Perpetuating this divide (“experimental” versus “lyrical” poets) is a convenient way of dividing the meager resources that exist for the publishing and promotion of poetry. In other words, the divide is a political construct; it has nothing to do with poetry.
DG: People often ask what it means to be a poet: Is it a condition or a profession? The idealist wants to see it as the former, while the MFA chair, for example, prefers it to be the case of the latter. How do you see the issue? Are people born with the poetry “gene” or can anyone pick up the pen and choose this thing as a career—and to make it even more complicated, what about translation? In either case, language is never something we’re born with—it’s always something we “learn,” and yet, the translator, if he or she is to become one, must either learn, unlike the poet, at least more than one tongue, or have the good fortune to be born into a multilingual society for us to answer this question. How do you see it?
BH: I am of the opinion that artists, whatever their creative medium, should be able to live from their art. Insofar as being a professional is defined as making a living from what one practices, then every poet and every translator should be a “professional!” Being reduced to making a living at something other than one’s artistic calling is society’s way of oppressing the imagination.
DG: What advice would you give young poets or translators who are just starting to develop their skills?
BH: I would advise young poets starting out to learn the classics in the language they write in, at the very least. I would advise that they become educated in literature, that they read literature in translation, so that their world is broadened from an early time. I would advise that they experience the world intensely, that they listen to music, that they try as many ways of writing as they can. I would advise that they organize readings and events with others and for others, so that they get to form communities of writers. To translators I would say start off by translating the most important, the BEST writers of the original literature.
DG: What are you currently working on and how do you prefer to work? Do you focus on both your own poetry and translation at the same time, or do you tend to focus on them separately?
BH: Last winter I finished two poetry books I had been working on for several years. Otherwise I tend to work on several projects concurrently, with a natural cross-pollination seeming to characterize this stage of the process. Over time distinct manuscripts appear. That is not the case with translation, which requires a kind of concentration and focus that eschews a freewheeling mind. I’m currently finishing the translation of a Selected Poems of César Moro.
About Beatriz Hausner
Beatriz Hausner has published several poetry collections, including The Wardrobe Mistress, Sew Him Up, Enter the Raccoon, and most recently, Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. Selected poems and chapbooks of hers have been published internationally and translated into several languages. Hausner is a respected historian and translator of Latin American Surrealism, with recent essays published in The International Encyclopedia of Surrealism in 2019. Her translations of César Moro, the poets of Mandrágora, as well as essays and fiction by legends like Aldo Pellegrini and Eugenio Granell have exerted an important influence on her work. Hausner’s history of advocacy in Canadian literary culture is also well known: she has worked as a literary programmer in Toronto, her hometown, and was Chair of the Public Lending Right Commission. She is currently President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, a position she held twice before.