Women in Translation: Interview with Sophie Maríñez, Poet and Translator


Here are excerpts of an interview that ESENDOM conducted with Sophie Maríñez—poet, translator, and French professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) in New York—in celebration of #WomenInTranslation month. ESENDOM writes:

Maríñez is the author of Mademoiselle de Montpensier: Writings, Chateaux, and Female Self-Construction in Early Modern France (Leiden: Brill, 2017) and co-editor, with Daniel Huttinot, of the first French translation of Haitian-Dominican poet and revolutionary Jacques Viau Renaud’s poetry entitled J’essaie de vous parler de ma patrie forthcoming from Montreal-based independent publisher Mémoire d’encrier. In this candid interview, Sophie Maríñez offers her thoughts on translation and talks about her upbringing in both France and the Dominican Republic, literature, language, seminal novels by Dominican women in the United States as well as her unending love for both literature and translation.

[. . .]

How did you get involved in literary translation?

I think I was a translator ever since I first arrived to the Dominican Republic as a child and had to translate words to myself as a first attempt to understand the new world around me. I keenly felt what is meant by “lost in translation” when I could not find the equivalencies in Spanish for what I wanted to convey in French. And vice-versa. I remember writing a letter to my French grandmother describing my new life in Santo Domingo and telling her about my new pet, a turtle, that “here we call ‘jicotea.’” I think writing letters to my French grandmother was perhaps my first translation act.

Then as a teenager, I was going to acting school, at the National School for Performing Arts, and my mother, a French teacher herself, had a collection of critical works by a famous Hellenist, André Bonnard, who wrote extensively about ancient Greek civilization. I was fascinated by his prose, the way he made the Greeks alive in my mind. I wanted to share that with my classmates at the acting school. So I decided to translate his works into Spanish, all by myself, day by day. It was a good exercise. I didn’t even have a typewriter at the time. But then, life happened, and all the work I had done got lost. It was never published, but I did retain a tremendous respect for scholarly work.

Since I was an actress, I had to make the deal with my parents that I was going to at least have a “trade” so that I could support my acting habit. I decided to go for something familiar to me: translation. I already spoke French and was semi-fluent in English, so all I had to do was take both to the next level. Easy! Universidad Apec was offering a new major in French-English-Spanish Translation at the time, and I signed up. I was fortunate to have some really good professors, including Sulamita Puig who taught us about Saussure linguistics, and Minou Tavárez Mirabal, who had just arrived from Cuba. In French, I had Danielle Carron, a veteran French-Spanish translator. For my thesis, I translated the biography of Indira Gandhi, who fascinated me for being the first female president of India.

Soon after graduating, I came to New York, and I was hired at YAR, a leading multicultural advertising and translation agency. I began as a proofreader and editor, but soon became the manager of the Spanish and Portuguese translation department. This first job gave me serious work ethics and acquaintance with what is euphemistically known as a “fast-paced work environment.” I learned the heavy-duty ins and outs of the translation industry, the cost per word and turn-around of a translation project, the quality control process, the clients’ expectations, in sum, all the mechanics of professional translation. Most of the translations we did were technical manuals, but we also did advertising and marketing materials, corporate communications. But then, we were at the dawn of the global era: Internet happened in 1995 and translations began to be outsourced to Argentina, where translators were paid 5 cents/word instead of the 15 cents U.S. translators charged. It was a catastrophe!

Literary translation came to me later, around the year 2000, when I was invited to translate Loyda Maritza Pérez’s novel Geographies of Home into Spanish, a translation that, unfortunately, was never published. Then, in 2015, I translated into French Frank Baez’s “La Marilyn Monroe de Santo Domingo,” a poem that speaks of transgenders’ persecution and mistreatment in the Dominican Republic. To me, the poem also speaks of a general state of mind of discrimination and mistreatment of anyone who carries the mark of unaccepted difference—including difference imposed by racial constructs, socio-economic hierarchies, power relations, moralistic judgment, and, of course, sexual orientation and gender norms. So, in this sense, translating “La Marilyn Monroe de Santo Domingo” was continuing the life and extending the reach of this poem, and screaming to the world the heart-breaking iniquity of this injustice.

This translation act led me to another one, of similar political reverberations, which is the translation into French of the poem “Two Countries: One Island,” by Julia Alvarez. It was recently published along with the version in Creole by my friend the poet, performer, and visual artist, Michèle Voltaire Marcelin, in the Haitian-Caribbean journal Chemins Critiques. Alvarez’s poem rewrites Pedro Mir’s celebrated “Hay un país en el mundo” to remind us that there are actually two countries in the world, sharing one island and a history of colonization and pain. Alvarez wants these translations to be read at the Border of Lightsevent that she and other writers, artists, and scholars, including Eddie Paulino, from John Jay College, conduct every year, in October, at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This annual event commemorates the victims of the massacre that in 1937 took the lives of tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent.

Most recently, I was invited to translate and edit the critical translation into French of the poetry of Jacques Viau Renaud, the great Haitian poet who grew up in the Dominican Republic and joined the resistance against the 1965 U.S. occupation. Jacques was hit by a mortar and died a week afterwards, at 23. His contemporaries and subsequent generations agree that he represents the ultimate symbol of solidarity and fraternity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Because Jacques wrote for his friends and the readers near him, he chose to do so in Spanish, and as a result he is barely known in Haiti. Daniel Huttinot, a Haitian friend and militant living in New York, always had the idea of having his poems translated into French, but it wasn’t until a recent conversation with Amaury Rodríguez that he decided to actually make it happen. Soon, Raj Chetty joined them and they all approached me to coordinate and edit the project, as we were going to do this with a team of translators based in Haiti, Canada, Chile, and New York. Amaury and Raj had already done much scholarly work on Jacques’s life and poetry, and translated his famous poem “Quiero hablaros de mi patria” into English, which they published in the issue on black Dominican studies they edited for The Black Scholar in 2015. Daniel secured the interest of Mémoire d’encrier, the reputed Haitian-Canadian press, as well as the support of the Fokal foundation for free distribution of the book throughout schools in Haiti. The aim of the book, which is titled J’essaie de vous parler de ma patrie and will be published at the end of this year, is to introduce Jacques to Haiti, bring his poems back to his maternal tongue, and put him on the map of Francophone literature. This project has been an incredible honor for me. [. . .]

[Photo above: Sophie Maríñez by Tess Durán.]

For full article and interview, see https://esendom.com/cultura/2017/8/26/womenintranslation-interview-with-sophie-mariez

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