BY EMANUEL GEORGE
In comparison to 1,000-pound marble sculptures and 50-foot murals, the art of poetry seems like a much easy art form to travel with, but there are a surprising number of obstacles in sharing poetry. Language is the largest barrier preventing some poems from reaching a worldwide audience. There are many letters, words, and expressions that may not even exist when jumping from one language to another and that’s where people like Jeannine M. Pitas come into the picture.
Pitas is an assistant professor of English and Spanish at the University of Dubuque in Iowa, a writer, a poet, and a Spanish-English translator. Her latest endeavor has been her work with Jesus Maya on La Tolvanera which she performed last Saturday at the Workers Action Centre.
“When you are translating, you are focusing on every word and every image,” said Pitas. “You are going literally word for word or saying. You say, what is this poet trying to get across here and make something in English – it is never going to be the exact same. It’s not like Google where you just put the words in and the machine and it translates it. It’s about often finding a different word, a different expression in English to get the same idea.”
Through this painstaking process of combing over texts with a fine-tooth comb, translators of poetry and other creative works often develop deep relationships with the pieces and authors they work with. They must be able to understand not just the words on a page but the emotion behind those words.
“There is a theorist, Gayatri Spivak, and she has written about translation that it is the most intimate act of reading and I think that’s really what it comes down to. Reading the text very closely and that means getting the context.”
“The first translation project that I did I was translating a poet who was actually deceased. So the way I went about it was I went there, I was physically there. I met her family I met her friends. It was almost like I was a detective looking for clues about her.”
Pitas has known Jesus for a long time but only started her work on “La Tolvanera” in 2014. With a busy life, she worked on and off on translating it the last couple years till its completion in 2018. Pitas’ experience working with Maya was an exciting one.
“With Jesus, it obviously in many ways is a lot easier because he is my friend. You know it was fun but it was difficult because it’s a different world, it’s a world I don’t know. I did not grow up in Mexico City I do not have the experience of migrating from one country to another and in that way having a totally new experience a new language. I have not had that experience here, living here and looking like the majority of people. I have not experienced racism or had the fear of being deported.”
To be able to accurately capture all of these different experiences Pitas has worked in conjunction with Maya over the last couple of years. Her process consisted of creating a list of questions during her translation sessions and posing them to Maya when they met. She says they had about several of these meetings. She also consulted Maya’s bilingual wife and close friends.
Pitas says her work on this project is just about at an end. Pitas and Maya are now looking for a publisher and hope to have the work on shelves in the next year or so.