Writer-in-Residence Francisco Goldman
on “Writing and Translation”
On Monday, October 17, 2005, the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program and the Great Works Program presented “Writing and Translation,” a reading and conversation with Francisco Goldman. The reading from Goldman’s work, combined with a discussion of the craftsmanship behind the work, translated into a literary event not to be missed.
Goldman, the Fall 2005 Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence, was introduced in the Newman Conference Center by Professor Roslyn Bernstein, director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program; President Kathleen Waldron; and Professor Paula Berggren, coordinator of the Great Works Program.
Celebrating the active, if not always obvious, literary life on campus, Bernstein referred to the student magazine Encounters and its current fiction and art contests. “Yes, these things happen at Baruch,” Bernstein remarked. Continuing on that theme, Waldron noted the public impression that Baruch is primarily a business college, but declared: “The Business/Arts and Sciences dichotomy is a false dichotomy.” Noting the literal definition of translation is “to carry over,” Berggren stressed that the value of translation is not just in carrying over one language to another, but also in carrying over “a singular view” to others.
Before reading excerpts from his latest novel, The Divine Husband, Goldman spoke of the fundamental issue that all his fiction addresses in some way: “The idea of being divided between cultures, countries, or religions.” He confessed to being “jealous of other cultures where English has already been transformed,” referring specifically to Salman Rushdie and the revitalization of English in India.
The Divine Husband is an imaginative treatment of, among other things, 19th century Cuban revolutionary and poet José Martí, mixing a re-created historical past with fictional conjecture. One of Goldman’s many descriptions of Martí was “the Latin American de Tocqueville,” for his insightful writings about America while living in New York.
During the Q & A, Goldman was asked how a writer stays true to cultural differences while avoiding cultural stereotypes. By way of comparison, Goldman spoke of Martí’s hidden love life that was kept a secret by lovers, and the challenge of writing about this largely unknown variable in a nevertheless truthful way. His solution was having certain characters in his novel keep secrets as well, both from one another and from the reader. “Sometimes the reader has to read between the lines,” and may even suspect that “the characters are lying.”
A student described the potential futility, yet beauty, of translation, as the act of “putting linguistic failure into art,” and asked if there are times when a translated word is unsatisfactory. Goldman replied that he keeps a Spanish word when there is no equivalent in English and it’s “part of the music of the language.” He later spoke of the ideal goal being “an English that sounds like Spanish.”
Professor Roslyn Bernstein wondered if there are moments when Goldman, though writing in English, is nevertheless thinking in Spanish. Goldman said he continuously translates his Spanish thoughts into English words: “I’m literally translating while writing all the time.”
Published in 10 different languages, Goldman was asked about the translations of his books. “Spain is still the market for Spanish language books,” he said, and therefore Latin American books and characters “have not been translated right…they get put into European Spanish.” The result is the linguistic equivalent of “a Guatemalan character saying: ‘Blimey! Here come the coppers!’” He added, however, that this publishing trend is beginning to change.
Goldman made an illuminating analogy between the art of his writing and the art of living in New York City, where the environment is understood despite periodically “overhearing bits of conversations in foreign languages that you do not understand.” The language must make sense, Goldman explained, but also “retain a bit of an outside feeling.”
Returning to The Divine Husband, Goldman addressed what response the book, and its controversial rendering of Martí’s private life, would get among Cubans. “Older Cubans may say: ‘we don’t want to touch this,’ but younger Cubans seem really interested…the ‘Official Cuba’ will reject it, but that’s not surprising.”
What also isn’t surprising is that Goldman can do justice to both the man and the myth, as he is as fluent in fact and fiction as he is in Spanish and English.
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