A literary world: Local book translators inspired by love of languages

  • Stephanie Kraft’s translation of ”Stone Tablets” into English is a first for the 1966 novel by the late Polish author Wojciech Zukrowski.

  • Maria José Giménez, left, and Jeff Diteman are professional book translators. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Michael Goldman JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Maria José Giménez’s love of language started early: When she was a child, she spent leisure time perusing a bilingual dictionary. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Michael Goldman spent time on a pig farm in Denmark to learn the language Danish. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Maria José Giménez, left, and Jeff Diteman are professional book translators. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Michael Goldman spent time on a pig farm in Denmark to learn the Danish language. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maria José Giménez and Jeff Diteman talk about their work translating books into English, Thursday, June 16, at Eastworks. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Michael Goldman talks about his work translating Danish books into English, Thursday, June 16, at Eastworks. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Michael Goldman talks about his work translating Danish books into English, Thursday, June 16, at Eastworks. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Maria José Giménez and Jeff Diteman talk about their work translating books into English, Thursday, June 16, at Eastworks. JERREY ROBERTS—

Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 29, 2016

For María José Giménez, it started as far back as childhood, when she was more likely to curl up with a bilingual dictionary than a book.

For Michael Goldman, it was sparked by falling in love with a young Danish woman he met during a cultural exchange program in Denmark when he was in high school.

For Jeff Diteman, it was born from his experience studying linguistics at the Sorbonne in Paris and then living in France for several years.

What these three Valley residents have in common is what they jokingly call “a translation problem” — a frequent desire to take a book or text in one language and render it in another.

“I’d been reading books in Danish for 25 years for my own enjoyment,” Goldman said during a recent interview. “I got to a point where I really wanted to share some of that material with friends and family.

“And so,” he added with a laugh, “I developed a translation problem.”

Goldman, Giménez and Diteman are all professional translators, though Giménez is the only one who does it full time at the moment. Born in Venezuela, she has lived in the United States and Canada since the early 1990s and is fluent in English and Spanish. Now living in Easthampton, she translates books, screenplays, health documents and other material from Spanish to English and vice versa, and she also does translation work in French.

Goldman, of Florence, a longtime carpenter, has built a busy side business over the last four years translating various Danish authors, generally little-known outside their own country, into English. He’s published a collection of the work of Benny Andersen, considered Denmark’s most popular contemporary poet and songwriter, and he has two other books due out in July.

Diteman, of Deerfield, is pursuing a doctorate in comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But for more than 10 years, he’s also worked extensively translating French and Spanish texts into English, including literature and technical manuals.

All three say translating, most notably for literature, is much more than a mechanical exercise. Capturing a writer’s voice and spirit in another language is a creative art, they note; a text needs both to be faithful to the original and able to stand on its own for a different readership, and it may well have to account for cultural differences and nuances that are difficult to convey. 

 “You have a big responsibility to a writer,” Giménez said. “But it’s also a wonderful challenge — you’re able to bring that writing to a new audience.”

Talking shop

Giménez, Goldman and Diteman are all part of the Pioneer Valley Literary Translators, a loose-knit group of seven translators who meet fairly regularly to talk shop, discuss specific translations and network. The group includes a colleague of Diteman from the UMass Comparative Literature program as well as a Smith College professor who translates Yiddish and Esperanto.

Giménez says the group, formed about a year ago, has been a big help in navigating some of the business aspects of translating, such as identifying sources for grants and publishing opportunities, as well as giving its members a sounding board when they get bogged down in their work.

“[Translating] is really a solitary exercise,” she said. “You spend most of your time with your text, a dictionary, a computer. It can be hard to find people who can relate to what you’re doing.”

And, Giménez adds, “If you’re in a text too long, you can lose perspective.”

Yet she, Goldman and Diteman say there appear to be growing opportunities for them, as some North American publishers are seeking more work from non-English writers. Meanwhile, online literary journals like The Missing Slate and Drunken Boat, as well as any number of university presses and journals, publish short stories, essays and poems by writers from around the world.

Diteman, for instance, is currently translating a historical novel by contemporary Spanish author Pablo Martín Sánchez, “El Anarquista Que Se Llamaba Como Yo,” (roughly, “The Anarchist Who Shared My Name”) for Deep Vellum Publishing, a Texas nonprofit dedicated to publishing international literature.

Observers say only about three percent of books published annually in the United States (and in Great Britain and Ireland) are works translated from other languages. By contrast, the percentages of translated works published in countries such as France, Italy and Germany tend to be much higher, Diteman noted.

“Part of the appeal of [translating] is working on a book that doesn’t seem like something an American writer would write,” he said. “There’s a different tone, a different sound. … It opens up a different way of looking at things.”

The internet is likely helping break down some of those language barriers, added Diteman, who’s something of a sponge for language: He’s also studied German and is reading Russian. He sees that interest as part of his overall attraction to the arts, as he’s also a painter, musician and poet.

Building a reputation

Getting paid for translation work can vary according to the project, Giménez notes. It can be by the word, sometimes for a flat fee, sometimes through a percentage of royalties from sales of a book; or a grant can pay for the work. For her, having her name on the front cover as a book’s translator is an important part of an agreement, one way to alert other publishers to her work.

Only a relative handful of translators have the kind of notoriety that sends publishers chasing after them, Giménez says. For instance, the married couple Richard Pevear (American) and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian) became big names in the last 15 years for their fresh translations of many classic Russian novels such as “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Anna Karenina.”

Then again, Goldman imagines a lot of people, including himself, initially get into the work because of their love of other languages, not because they’re hoping to strike it rich.

For instance, Stephanie  Kraft of Amherst, a veteran area journalist, began visiting Poland about 28 years ago and slowly learned the language. In 1997, to test herself, she translated some Polish short stories that were then published in “Metamorphoses,” the Five College journal of literary translation. She says Robert Rothstein, professor of Polish studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, gave her some help with the effort and said her work looked very good.

That spurred her to spend several years translating the novel “Emancypantkj” (“Emancipated Women”) by the 19th-century Polish novelist Boleslaw Prus, simply because she so admired his writing. Then in 2005, a Polish friend put her in touch with the daughter of the 20th-century Polish author Wojciech Zukrowski, whose epic 1966 novel “Stone Tablets” had been a huge though somewhat controversial success in Poland.

Kraft says Zukrowski’s daughter, Katarzyna Zukrowska, gave her the novel seemingly as a gift, but that she was actually hoping Kraft would translate the book, even though she couldn’t offer any guarantee of payment. A bit flummoxed at first, Kraft read some of the novel and became convinced it was a great book that warranted translation.

She spent more than four years doing that, then a few years ago finally found an interested publisher. “Stone Tablets” was released this spring by Paul Dry Books of Philadelphia to good reviews; it’s the first time the novel has been available in English.

“I really want Polish literature to be better known,” said Kraft, who did get a fee from her publisher for her translation and will also get royalties from sales. “That’s really why I got involved in this.”

Falling in love

 In Goldman’s case, he fell in love with his now-wife, Jette, when the two met during his stay in Denmark as a high school student in the early 1980s. Over the next few years, the couple stayed in touch through letters and occasional visits, and Goldman ended up working on a pig farm in Denmark, in part so he could learn Danish.

He eventually taught himself to read and then speak the language, and his interest in Danish literature prompted him about five years ago to write a letter to Benny Andersen, the Danish poet, to ask about translating some of his poems.

Since then Goldman has gone to meet Andersen and another venerable Danish writer, Knud Sørensen, in Denmark and translate their work. More than 80 of Goldman’s translations of poetry and prose have appeared in some 30 literary journals such as Rattle, World Literature Today and International Poetry Review.

Giménez, a poet who also does editorial work such as copy editing, is currently translating into English the novel “Rojo, amarillo y verde” (“Red, Yellow and Green”), by Bolivian-Canadian novelist Alejandro Saravia — one member of a sizeable Hispanic-Canadian community in Montreal, Giménez says.

In fact, Giménez, who used to live in Montreal herself, says the city, with its mix of French, English and some Spanish, embodies the kind of cultural and linguistic mix that makes translation work so appealing to her.

As she said earlier this year when she was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts grant to work on the Saravia novel, “More than simply a career … translation is a path I have chosen, and it has become inextricably woven into my own creative writing.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.