Monday, April 11, 2005

How do you know you can't translate Spanish-language poetry unless you try?

When you leave your work to die and then don’t do so for whatever reason, it is of paramount importance to keep your mind occupied. I have tried to do that in any number of ways, but the one that has proven most astonishing to me is that I have become a free-lance volunteer translator of Spanish-language poetry. I am not paid for my efforts since I don’t actually speak or read the language, but I am apparently good at what I do. Let me explain...

Around Christmas of 2004, I posted a topic on the 1 Giant Leap bulletin board about having "Lazarus Syndrome". This is a situation, I have since learned, that is somewhat specific to people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s who watched their friends die and who grew to accept their own imminent deaths. It is kind of like Post-Traumatic Disorder Syndrome or PTSD. The name is derived from the story of Lazarus in the Bible. If one were to imagine that Lazarus was dead and Jesus came along and brought him back from life, you might also imagine Lazarus thinking, "Well, just what am I supposed to do now?" That is the gist of Lazarus syndrome, because most of us who have it were supposed to be dying, so we spilled the beans about our illnesses and our sexuality and we burned some bridges and next thing we know, we are not dead. "What do we do now?" I have heard but have not been able to confirm the rumor that when Jesus left town after raising Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus was actually stoned to death by his neighbors because they just could not deal with his having risen from the dead.

So, I posted this story on the bulletin board. A few months later, I logged in to check the messages on the bulletin board and I found a posting entitled "The Gospel According to Lazarus" by a gentleman named Roger Humes. He had read my post from earlier in the year, and wrote a short story based upon Lazarus from the point of view that sometimes you don’t ask for fame or greatness or fortune, but it is thrust upon you by circumstance. It was dedicated to the person who had posted the story of having had Lazarus Syndrome.

Well, as you might imagine, I was amazed, honored, humbled and dumbstruck that someone might write a story based on something that I had done or said! I had always wanted to be a writer myself, but in the midst of dying and all, I lost my writer’s voice. I had begun a hundred short poems or stories, but never felt that they were adequate to share. Here was a man who not only wrote, but wrote about my dilemma in a figurative sense, and who dared to publish his words for the world to see! What could I do? I wrote him and thanked him and I posted a note saying that I was both humbled and honored by his actions.

I also asked Roger if he was a writer by profession or simply for leisure. He emailed me back and told me that he wrote for both reasons. I then admitted that I had dabbled in writing for years, but never had been brave enough to publish my works. In the next email, Roger included one of his poems. I read it and thought, "What the hell! I should send him a couple of my own poems." So I did.

To my surprise, a day or two later, Roger wrote back to tell me that he liked my work and that if I could send him 4 more poems, a biography and a photo, that he would publish my work on his new website, The Other Voices International Project. I think I had compiled a list of poems and my bio and the photo for a submission by that evening. Within the week, I found myself sending out links to my newly published poetry ONLINE to all my friends and family! What excitement for me, this dying man! What Roger Humes did was give me back my voice, only it wasn’t apparent to me at that time.

I began to read the other poetry on the site and to offer comments and suggestions to Roger about their work. I didn’t realize, of course, that this was subtle way of jogging loose my writer’s block. I was exposing myself to different styles of poetry and prose and soaking it all in. I found that Roger’s text editor and mine were incompatible and that it converted some characters to jibberish, so I started sending Roger notes from my readings of where I found errors. Before I knew it, I logged in one day to find my name listed on the site as "Consultant".

In the meantime, I decided that the one Spanish language course I had taken at UNC back in the fall semester of 1981 was going to waste, so I decided to start reading poetry in Spanish. I found I was unable to do so. My vocabulary was gone. I can and do still read French with ease, but Spanish was gone. I decided to try to teach myself to read and speak the language again by visiting Spanish language chat rooms. More specifically, I went to chat rooms of countries from Chile and Argentina to México, all along Central and South America. Having noticed that none of the contributors to Roger's site had been from Spanish or French speaking countries,I ended up using my unpaid consultant position to become translator and recruiter of poets for Roger Humes' site.

Before long, I found a young Peruvian poet named Michael José Morales Arriola. We talked and I convinced him to let me translate some of his work for him and to submit it to Roger Humes for publication. He agreed. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did not let that stop me! We worked together through six poems and I did my best to translate them into English, going word for word through my Cassell’s Spanish-English dictionary and my then "201 Spanish Verbs and Conjugations" book. (I have since been given an updated version of the "501 Spanish Verbs" book by a close friend.) To my surprise, we completed the exercise together, my Spanish improved a bit, and we got him published.

I next found a gentleman from Argentina, Carlos Felipe Hurtado for whom I translated six poems, my favorite being "Speaking to the Moon". By now, Roger Humes and I were well coordinated. I would send in my translations along with suggestions for titles and Roger would pick from his own visual art for illustrations. We made a good team. (Update: On 18 April 2005, I was notified that some of Mr. Hurtado's poetry has been published in translation in Erbacce, an online review based in the UK.)

My next submission was from Panamá, a wonderful artist by the nom de plume -jm. Her work was beautiful, exquisite, understated and full of vivid imagery. I knew that I had found a treasure for Roger and the world when I read her work. I told him so. When I submitted her package for publication, Roger wrote me a wonderful letter to encourage her, saying that with work, she could truly be a great poet. I did my best to translate the letter into Spanish.

It became apparent in working with that letter that I definitely have an impediment when it comes to working as a translator. I can not write a decent sentence in Spanish without help. It has at times been embarrassing to use the same sentence constructs over and over again because of my own limitation in the idiom, but that is where my Spanish skills are lacking. Since I was corresponding directly with my new friends and colleagues, they were taking great risk to allow me to translate their works for them, knowing that I couldn’t put a decent sentence together in their language. I guess the idea of being translated and published in English was larger than the risk…and my price was definitely good…you can’t get a much better rate than "free, with friendship".

After Julina, things began to move a bit quickly for me as a translator of Latin-American Poetry. I think the next works came to me through Roger Humes, himself, but either way, I was eventually introduced to my friend Humberto Garza, a poet and poetry afficionado from Houston, Texas, via Mexico. Humberto is the webmaster of his own poetry site of Spanish Language Poets at Los Poetas Hispanos. Once we connected, he started sending in submissions of Spanish language poetry from a variety of sources, and some people heard of my work through word-of-mouth.

In the next months, I worked with the Argentine poet Elena Cohen Imach, the Mexican, now Bolivian poet Francisco Azuela, the Mexican poet and my friend from the State of Chihuahua Jeannette L. Clariond, the exquisite poet from Chile, Mario Meléndez, the poet from Paraguay Delfina Acosta, and the Argentine who now lives in Uruguay Teodoro Rubén Frejtman. I also am in process of translating works by the Argentine Ricardo Daniel Piña, whose work "Luces y Sombras Para Sofía" and my unedited translations "Lights and Shadows for Sofía" recently appeared in El Interpretador, an art magazine worth seeing if only for the visual art.

Of these poets, each has one has brought his/her own joy to me. Most recently, I have learned of the publication of Elena Cohen Imach’s book of poetry "En el nombre del Nombre" ("In the name of the Name") which will be presented on the 25th of April at the 31st International Book Fair in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is her own Spanish language work, but I am happy for her. Mario Meléndez’ work has been recently published in the English language online review "Literati".

I hold very special regards for Jeannette L. Clariond and Francisco Azuela. Ms. Clariond and I have been collaborating on the translation of her books "All Before Nightfall" and "Amonites". She just held a reading of her works in San Antonio, Texas, where, she told me, she gave some of my translations to people in the audience as souvenirs! For helping her with the translation of her book, I asked only that she list me as translator and that she make a contribution to either the Alliance of AIDS Services Carolinas or to the Human Rights Campaign Fund. I asked the same of Señor Azuela for the translation of his book "La Palabra Ardiente" ("The Ardent Word"), although I didn’t specifically name an organization, leaving that to his discretion for use in Bolívia. He was ecstatic, stating that he has many acquaintances in the medical field who have formed their own organization where they dress as clowns and visit people in the AIDS wards in his country.

About two weeks ago, I received an email from Mr. Azuela telling me that he has given me the full rights to his trilingual edition (English, French, Spanish) of "The Ardent Word" to be compiled into a book on CD, with illustrations (full list of collaborators to be acknowledged later, but my friends Jody Kuchar of Wisconsin and Paula Pedrosa of Brazil are evaluating the work now) for sale to support the AIDS Services organization of my choice. I am now in search of an appropriately large-scale organization of international scope to help me achieve the goal of producing and marketing these CDs for the benefit of their group. If you have connections to someone who can help, please contact me and include the subject line "The Ardent Word".

What a ride, eh? Funny thing, though. I still can not speak Spanish, nor can I read it without my dictionary and verb conjugation book. I tried to help a couple of Mexican fellows at the post office on Saturday to understand their Customs Declaration Form and to offer them a ride home. I ended up making the international sign of driving by holding an imaginary steering wheel and saying "Puedo conducir". Well, I CAN drive...just not very well in Spanish!



Blogger Billy Jones said...

Thanks for dropping by. Sorry the picture wasn't to your taste-- maybe next time. Anyway, I thought you'd be happy to know I listed your blog at

4/11/2005 10:23:00 PM  
Anonymous susan said...

wow this is so cool! somehow this makes me really happy :) i had no idea there were so many translations going on. wonderful :)

4/17/2005 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger Ron Hudson said...

Some of my translations of the poetry of Carlos Felipe Hurtado have just been published in the English online revue "Erbacce" at I will update the text of this posting to reflect the new addition!

4/18/2005 04:53:00 PM  
Blogger melinama said...

Absolutely fantastic! I am so inspired and admiring! I would say "dying" is a descriptor of you which should go way, way down the page, because you are bursting with other gifts and attributes which (online, at least) blow away the shadows. Congratulations, and thank you.

4/24/2005 08:25:00 AM  

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