by Jeffrey C. Barnett
As I sit at my outdoor office with a glass of rum and smoldering cigar, I often wonder: are these long battles with words worth it? Will anyone notice that in the end I decided “sultry” was more apt than the bland word “hot”? Will my deliberate artistry go unnoticed? My question deals with this: do readers know, or care, that a translator experiences the same turmoil that the original author likely passed through as she searched for that one precise word?
Like the author we congratulate ourselves when we come up with a subtle turn of a phrase or alter the syntax to fit just right or, even better, when we devise an appropriate word play. With each page we’re mindful that the translator must cope with controlled intrusion. Yes, we intrude and even invade the original but are careful not to leave footprints behind. Translators wonder and worry about these things but then perhaps all artists spend long, lonely nights pondering a word in a poem or a color on the canvas all the while wondering if someone will notice.
The easiest way to squelch the artistic angst is to spend time with the readers, and during 2014-2015 Uva de Aragon and I were fortunate to have many opportunities to present THE MEMORY OF SILENCE to a wide range of audiences.
After the official book launching at the International Book Fair in Miami in November, we attended the Feria Internacional del Libro in Havana. I can’t think of another book that has ever been launched simultaneously on both sides of the Straits, especially one that has received such an equal amount of praise from both sets of readers. Later in the spring we presented readings to other commercial audiences at Books and Books in Miami and Leisure World in Silver Spring, Maryland. For the most part however our presentations were held in academic circles, including students and colleagues at Florida International University (Miami), Washington and Lee University (Lexington, Va), John Jay College and Baruch College (New York), as well as fellow translators at ALTA–the international conference for translators. And now, finishing up this week at the LASA convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I’ve started to reflect on all the great moments I’ve shared with Uva this year and how important they are for a translator.
There’s no substitute for the personal contact afforded by a public reading. In Havana the audience laughed out loud as they fondly remembered Cachuca, a zany TV actress from the 50s. There was also tension–and yet also agreement I think–as we read a harsh passage about Castro. Their faces showed kindness, regret, understanding, all of this and more in such a short time. The reaction in Miami was no less visceral. As we read about the death of an important character, many in the audience began to visibly cry as they remembered their own relatives on the Island that had died without the chance to say good-bye. I must admit, I had wanted some type of feedback but as I heard people cry I could barely get through the passage myself. In Maryland there were warm smiles as Uva’s sister, Lucia, joined us. Together they performed an eloquent and convincing rendition of a climatic dialogue between the two twin sisters. (I also learned that evening that the original 2002 edition had been taken to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to be read by governmental personnel.) On the college campuses at FIU, W&L, and CUNY, younger readers who hadn’t lived through many of the novel’s seminal moments let us know how much they could identify with what seemingly is a world unknown to them. One let us know he had called his girlfriend abroad in the middle of the night to tell her the novel had made him think of her. Another told us how much she shared Lauri’s pain of leaving home, having done so herself recently. Every venue was another revelation about the readers and how they had connected with the text. It’s true that THE MEMORY OF SILENCE will speak to Cubans in a singular way as well as any who have experienced exile, but I think Uva and I both learned this year just how broad its scope and appeal are.
So let me go back to my original question: are readers aware of the demons we battle in the translation process. I’m not sure, but I know that the laughter, tears, nods, and smiles I saw in the audience this year led me to think that they experienced that visceral connection that any artist hopes for. In rural Virginia and New York alike, among Cubans, Cuban-Americans, or readers completely removed from the Cuban question, the tangible contact with the audience did more than fulfill my angst about “is anybody out there?” It confirmed that THE MEMORY OF SILENCE is a universal novel whose appeal, in both languages, far exceeds my late night anxieties.