- You Can’t Say “Ain’t” in Spanish—Or Can You?
You’ve often been quoted as saying that your successful translating career “was serendipity all the way.” In light of all your book-length translations, do you still feel this way? Has there ever been a moment while you were translating a work when you felt you had somehow been led to do this often underappreciated and thankless work?
As I look back, I can still say that it all just happened. I suppose that this is what takes place if one goes along in life expecting either everything or nothing, without any rigid plans except where to sleep the night. A year, or even a day, before I began translating, I never thought I would end up so deeply in it. I did have some thoughts about writing, however.
In 1960 you, Saul Galin, and several other colleagues at Columbia University launched the Odyssey Review, a journal dedicated to literary translation. Was this how you first started? What impact did this experience have on your translation work and on the art of literary translation as a whole?
This was the serendipitous moment I referred to. This was how I got started. I was the editor who tracked down new writing from Latin America, and, as we needed translators, I did quite a bit myself, some under pseudonyms, to give the impression that we had a larger organization. The only impact was that it got me started on what I have been doing ever since.
You mentioned pseudonyms. I translate Mario Benedetti’s work, and several years ago, while researching English translations of his work by other translators, I came across a copy of the Odyssey Review from June 1963 that contained a translation of “La familia Iriarte” [The Iriarte family], by George Rothenberg. Was this one of your pseudonyms? What [End Page 116] did you think about Benedetti’s work? He certainly wasn’t a “new” writer when this piece was selected for translation, so why was his work included in the magazine? Or do you mean “new” in terms of his appearance in English translation?
You are right about the pseudonyms. As you may have noticed, the one in the Odyssey that you mention has a clue in the initials G. R. Benedetti was a “new” writer as far as the American public was concerned. Many of the writers we included were quite established in their own backyards but unknown here.
How has your experience in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] during World War II informed your translation work?
In the OSS I did a lot of work with cipher to and from the field. Since many of the systems were primitive and easy to break, we used double transposition ciphers, for example, we called them DTs. The clear text had to be paraphrased before it could leave the message center. This was a kind of translation from English into a different English. A more important result of my military experience, however, was that I was discharged in 1945 with nothing to do, and since I had received my college diploma by mail while in the army, I decided to get some more schooling under the GI Bill. This led me to Columbia and a Ph.D., to teaching, and, as mentioned, to the Odyssey Review. While in college before the war, I had no idea or plans for the future except a notion that I might like to write. All completely serendipitous, as mentioned.
Was it routine for college graduates to receive their diplomas in the mail while serving in the military? Where were you stationed? Did you enjoy your experience in the army, in the OSS? What was your rank on discharge?
I received my diploma by mail because I had been lacking only six points for graduation and had taken my comprehensive exams, which were required for graduation. Dartmouth evidently thought that I had earned three points in physical education for the infantry and three in modern European history, as we...