Talking translation with Dr. Ruben Quesada

Dr. Ruben Quesada visited UMKC on Thursday to discuss the struggles and joys of translating poetry in a lecture titled “Between Reality and Desire: Translating Luis Cernuda’s Poetry, A Conversation.” The lecture was co-sponsored by the Foreign Languages Department, the Latino and Latina Studies Program and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program.

Quesada started off the lecture reading “Cease to Stutter Singsong,” a poem by Monica de la Torre.

“She plays with language,” said Queasada. “And she’s really interested in the way language functions, both in Spanish and in English.”

He first read the poem in Spanish, and then read De La Torre’s own English translation. Quesada used the poem to demonstrate the difficulty of translating wordplay from one language to another.

“I started with that because I found it interesting, what one can do with language, both in its original form or in translation,” Quesada said.

Quesada then went on to describe his own experience with translations, namely translating the poetry of Spanish poet Luis Cernuda from Spanish to English. A man of Costa Rican heritage, Quesada began to develop an interest in Spanish-language poetry. Quesada started working on translations of Pablo Neruda’s work, but a professor introduced him to Cernuda, an early 20th century poet.

Quesada discovered a collection of Cernuda’s work called “Crepusculario,” or “Twilight.” Compared to the poet’s other works, this one had barely any published translations.

“Being the ambitious young scholar and translator that I was, I thought ‘I am going to translate something that no one else has translated before,’” said Quesada. “Once I had translated the poems literally from Spanish to English, I realized that I had to go back and capture the moment of the poem, to get the impression of the poem in the original Spanish.”

In doing this, Quesada had to overcome some linguistic barriers, in addition to doing almost a decade of extensive research on Cernuda.

“I think that time and place informs language,” said Quesada. Because Quesada is a twenty first century speaker of Costa Rican Spanish, he had to do a great deal of research on the Spanish that Cernuda would have spoken.

To Quesada, more important than retaining the language or structure of the poem is retaining its essence.

“What’s important to me is the story of the poem,” said Quesada.

Quesada is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Eastern Illinois University.

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