Behind the CETRA Scene: Interview with a Spanish Translator, Paul Grens

Name: Paul Grens

Location: Chicago, IL

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What languages do you work with?  What are some of the intricacies or challenges of the particular language you work with?

I work from Spanish into English, basically with all regions. I think one of the challenges with a wide-spread language like Spanish is the different rate of adoption and employment of technological terminology from region to region. The terminology used in Santiago de Chile can vary widely from that used in Valencia, Spain, for example.

What are some of your most interesting projects? Why?

A recent project that I really enjoyed working on was the translation into English of a short story by Luis Sepulveda, which was being used as the script for a play. The story was a first person narrative and I had the experience of working in direct collaboration with the actor/director, editing and adjusting the script for his performance at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh last year and again in Prague this summer.

What is the best part about being a translator? What do you love about it?

I think, despite our use of technology to speed up the process and maintain consistency, the thing that attracts me to translation the most is the old world aspect of it, of taking part in a trade or a craft that is as ancient as the birth of different languages.

How did you know you were “ready” to be a translator?

This is a tough one to answer. Even after years in the business, you can still come across sentences, structures or phrases that you aren’t ready for. Luckily, we translators stick together and we’ve always got colleagues to run things by and to ask for help. I think I knew I was ready to begin my translation studies after reading the novel Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. I loved it, and read through it voraciously. I then moved on to Death on the Installment Plan by the same author, and by the end of the first page, I knew there was something terribly wrong. It was nearly unreadable, especially after reading the previous novel. Puzzled, I examined the two books and noticed that the translator was different for each, and that Ralph Manheim was the one who had worked magic with the text in bringing it to the English. Luckily, Manheim had also done a version of Death on the Installment Plan and I was able to find it. So, Manheim really inspired me. And later on, when I discovered that I shared a birthday with St. Jerome, the patron saint of our trade, well, that was pretty much the dead giveaway.

What is the most difficult part about your job?

There are three things about this line of work that I have found difficult, though they probably pertain more to being an independent contractor than to being a translator in particular, and they are:

  1. Finding a balance in the workflow, while managing to not overwork yourself, but at the same time keeping your clients happy and your invoicing steady.
  2. The solitude of working on your own. The social aspect and camaraderie of working with a team, be it in an office, on a construction site or what have you, it’s largely absent when you are alone in a room sitting in front of a computer. You have to work hard to make up for this, going out for coffee and bringing the computer with you, meeting people for lunch, taking breaks and doing something social, in my case, cycling with other people who also have odd hours and might have the afternoon off.
  3. As a fresh freelance translator, you quickly discover that you also have to become an accountant, an office manager, an IT manager . . . the list goes on. I was lucky enough to have some training in these aspects beforehand, but things you never expect to come up do come up. You learn pretty quickly that there is a bit more to this business than just being a competent translator.

Can you translate a sentence for us? Your favorite quote? Your favorite word?

I’ve always found poetry to be one of the most challenging of subjects to translate. When I was in undergrad, someone gave me a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. It was one of those books that had the original Spanish on the left page and the English translation on the right. Here’s one of the Spanish verses that I’ve always loved for its tragic beauty:

“Entre los labios y la voz, algo se va muriendo. Algo con alas de pájaro, algo de angustia y de olvido.”

And here’s my attempt at its translation:

“Between the lips and the voice, something goes dying. Something with the wings of a bird, something of anguish and no longer heard.”

The original English translation in the book is slightly different, with the use of “oblivion” instead of my “no longer heard”, but you’ll notice that the endings of the words “pájaro” and “olvido” rhyme in the Spanish, and so I made an effort to replicate that. You can see the original text on Google books here.