El Coloquio


By Dr. Priscilla Gac-Artigas

About “Collectfiction” and Literary Translation

Though literary translation has been a lifelong passion, it represents a relatively new facet of my professional life as a language weaver who teaches and writes about languages and literature. I have not completed any professional training in the field; nevertheless, the different paths that I have traveled have prepared me to ride the waves of choices, exploration, and discoveries that translation embodies. Hence what I am sharing in this “coloquio de los peritos” are the reflections of a neophyte finding her way in the waters of the flowing, magical and mysterious world of literary translation.

I started translating fiction from Spanish to English, and it is just recently that I have engaged in poetry translation. My first approach to translation was as a reader of Edith Grossman’s translations of several excerpts of Chilean writer Gustavo Gac-Artigas’ novel E il orbo era rondo/And the Earth Was Round (1992). As a bilingual speaker and as an “expert” in Gustavo’s writing and life experiences, I was able to give her critical insights and some useful suggestions. Many years later, I did the same work with Andrea G. Labinger when she translated Gustavo’s, novel Y todos éramos actores, un siglo de luz y sombra/ And All of Us Were Actors, A Century of Light and Shadow (2017)1. . Then, in 2021 we both translated his poetry collection hombre de américa/man of the americas although this time I dared to translate some of the poems on my own, sharing them with Andrea for feedback.

Before, that, in 2020, Andrea and I worked together on the translation of Gustavo’s trilingual collection deseos/longings/j’aimerais tant. I translated the poems from Spanish into French, having as the reader a French poet, Ada Mondès; Andrea did the translation into English, and I collaborated with her as a reader. This particular work was an illuminating experience. Reading Andrea’s translations into English and comparing them to my translations into French helped us both find the musicality and the right words to build a bridge between three languages and cultures to convey Gustavo’s lyrical universe to two different audiences. The success of the translations was recognized in the trilingual readings we did at several poetry festivals.

Neruda used to say that poetry is not to be analyzed but to be felt, and to me, that is exactly what a translation should do: to make the reader of the translated language feel emotions similar to those felt by the reader of the original work. This is particularly meaningful in poetry, where language and emotions intertwine so tightly, posing a profound challenge to the translator. I always work with the written and the oral word when translating poetry. I read the original lines aloud to taste their sounds and move to their rhythm. I close my eyes and repeat them by heart to translate them into images. I do this several times to concentrate either on the images and the emotions they evoke or on the rhythm or musicality they produce. Then I follow the same procedure with the translation to contrast the effects in each language. My training and experience as a theater actress have proved useful in developing my translating skills. They have provided me the tools to read the texts as a theater play, exploring different perspectives before crafting the final translation: what the poet says, what the poem conveys to me as a reader, and what I need to convey to the reader in the translated text. This exercise becomes even more mesmerizing when working in more than one language, as in the case of the translation of deseos/longings/j’aimerais tant.

Being able to read along with the author in different languages has also represented an advantage for me as a translator. I have had this experience with Gustavo, particularly when we did a bilingual reading in Paris. The audience, some of them bilingual, some only French speakers, expressed their amazement at how the translation evoked the same emotions in both languages. Poems may have a different cadence innate to the language in which they are read, but when the audience of one language can feel the same emotions as the audience of the other, it is proof that the language barriers have been overcome and that the translation has not failed the original.

I affirm with Borges that to translate literature is to produce literature. Translators not only translate words: they translate cultural universes, which makes me think that any translation carries the signature of the translator because a new text emerges in a different language through the filter of the language, the experiences, the feelings, and the cultural background of its translator. The reader who reads in the translated language must be able to feel, enjoy and appreciate the skill of the original writer but also his cultural world. Otherwise, from my point of view, the translation fails. There resides the immense responsibility of the translators; as Guatemalan writer and translator David Unger says in an interview about his recent experience translating Miguel Ángel Asturias’ Mr. President: “What’s the point in saying that a book is great in the original if it fails to work in the translation?”2.  

But whereas writers’ work may tend to be solitary —conversing with their own ghosts— translators’ work, as I practice it, is more collaborative, awakening and establishing dialogues with the ghosts of others and the voices of others: the writer, if he is available; colleague translators-readers; their own voices. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work in such a collaborative manner with Gustavo and Andrea, which makes the translation labor an enjoyable collaborative creative work. As a literary critic, I coined the term “collectfiction”, in opposition to “autofiction” to apply it to a writing or creative modality in which the reader enters the world of the author and becomes part of and participant in the reconfiguration of the story proposed. And I see that same kind of creative process in my work as a poetry translator in which I enter the poet’s universe carrying my linguistic and cultural baggage, their voice and my voice emerging together on the other side in a new text that will be read by other audiences who will, in turn, enter in conversation with it to write their own collectfiction.  

Priscilla Gac-Artigas, PhD, is a Fulbright Scholar, Full member of the North American Academy of the Spanish Language, correspondent member of the Royal Academy of Spanish (RAE), and a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at Monmouth University, NJ. She is the translator of  two poetry collections: deseos/longings/j’aimerais tant to French and co-translator with Andrea G. Labinger, and hombre de américa/man of the americas both by Gustavo Gac-Artigas. Her most recent publication is Colectficción: sobrepasando los límites de la autoficción (Iberoamericana/Vervuert, 2022), a collection of critical studies of which she is the editor and contributor.

1. Second runner-up at the International Latino Book Award 2018 in the category of best fiction book in translation from Spanish to English.

2. “Death, Hope, And Humor: David Unger On Translating Miguel Ángel Asturias’s Mr. President – Asymptote Blog”. Asymptotejournal.Com, 2022, https://www.asymptotejournal.com/blog/2022/07/14/death-hope-and-humor-david-unger-on-translating-miguel-angel-asturiass-mr-president/. Accessed 6 Sept 2022.