Interview: Translating Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad

Released last month, Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad is a picture book biography of José Martí, a renowned political figure and revolutionary who dedicated his life to the promotion of liberty. Known for his leadership in the fight for Cuban independence, Martí is celebrated throughout Latin America. To many Latinos, particularly Cuban Americans, he represents the bridge between the cultures of Latin America and the United States. Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad received five starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews.

For this post, we asked author Emma Otheguy, editor Jessica Echeverria, and translator Adriana Dominguez to take us through the translation process for Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad:

What was your role in the translation process?

Jessica Echeverria: As the editor, my role is to make sure the meaning and rhythm of the original text is reflected in the translation. Sometimes I have to make that call on my own if the author isn’t fluent in Spanish. With Martí’s Song for Freedom, Emma and I were able to discuss and go over the translation together. But we didn’t have too many changes; we really loved Adriana’s translation!

Emma Otheguy: I translated Martí’s poetry from Spanish into English for the English-language text (the verses in italics on the left-hand side of the page).

Adriana Dominguez: I translated Emma’s English text into Spanish.

 What does the translation process look like with children’s books?

JE: The translation is the last piece in the puzzle. It takes place after the illustrations are complete and we’ve finalized the English text. We wait for the illustrations to make sure there is a strong interplay between text and art. Once the text is finalized, we send it to the translator.

EO: Since Martí’s words are woven so tightly into the narrative, translating his poetry into English was a part of my writing process even from the very first drafts. Poetry was integral to Martí’s life, he didn’t understand poetry as something separate or distinct from his efforts towards social justice—I would go as far as to say that he didn’t distinguish between poetry and life at all. So to tell the story of his life, poetry had to be in the fabric of the narrative. Even the first drafts of Martí’s Song for Freedom included translations of [his seminal work] Versos sencillos.

Image from Martí's Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad
Image from Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad

AD: The process varies, depending on whether the author wants to be involved in the translation, and this usually depends on the author’s familiarity with Spanish. Bilingual authors are usually very helpful, as they have enough knowledge of the language and cultural context to be able to provide feedback, and to let me know if I am doing a good job of capturing the tone and meaning of the original. In those instances, translation becomes a wonderfully collaborative process. This was certainly the case with Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad, as both Emma and Jessica are bilingual. I think that having a knowledgeable team that was also very invested in the project certainly helped to make my translation better than it would have been if I had created it in isolation.

What were the specific challenges, if any, when translating Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad

JE: Translation work is an art form. The challenge with any translation project is to capture the voice of the original text, but not have a word-for-word translation. The translator needs to take in the meaning and rhythm of the original text, and then recreate the same effect in a new language. This is so much harder when it comes to poetry. The beauty of this project is that Adriana knew the text so well. She had seen every version of the story. This really shows in the translation. The Spanish text seems effortless and is in keeping with the beautiful rhythm of the original English text.

 EO: The tremendous responsibility. Martí means so much to me, to my family, to Cubans and to the entire Latinx community—what if my translations didn’t ring true to readers? What if my translations didn’t convey the simplicity and elegance of Martí’s poetry to children being introduced to him for the first time? I didn’t take that responsibility lightly, and so there was an emotional challenge to my role. I also wanted the English translations of Martí to be completely accessible to a child reader, without sacrificing the musical quality of Martí’s poetry or his powerful message. There’s one line where Martí alludes to the softness of gold in a crucible (“Denle al vano el oro tierno/que arde y brille en el crisol”). I wasn’t sure that the connection between the tenderness of the gold and its material value would be obvious to a child, but I did know that children would understand what Martí meant in that verse—that the beauty of the forests far surpasses the value of material possessions—and so I found a translation that would convey that to children.

AD: I have worked on poetic texts before, and am keenly aware of the difficulties involved in this type of translation. And so, at the start, I had concerns about translating Emma’s beautiful lyrical text, which I knew could be challenging. An important deciding factor for me in choosing the translations I want to work on is the question of whether the text resonates with me—and by that I mean, if I can “hear” its tone and rhythm as I read it in a way that may enable me to also “hear” it in Spanish. I have always had a deep appreciation for Marti’s writings and feel that Emma’s own text captures its essence so well, that “hearing” what I thought the translation was supposed to sound like for this book was not as difficult as it may have been for another one of its kind. Once I began to work on the translation, and the sounds of the Spanish became a little steadier and more predictable as I moved forward, the task became a little easier and the words began to flow more smoothly.

Image from Martí's Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad
Image from Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad

Do you use form-based (follows the form of the source language) or meaning-based translation (follows the meaning of the source language text)? 

JE: I encourage our translators to use meaning-based translations. This is why the translator receives credit on the title page along with the author and illustrator. The translation is its own entity.

EO: I decidedly took a meaning-based approach. In many cases, the excerpts I was translating had been with me all my life: I had heard them sung by Celia Cruz and countless other performers who recorded the song “Guantanamera” (whose lyrics draw from Martí’s poetry), I had heard my parents quoting them when I was a child, I had read them over and over again as an adult. By the time I started writing Martí’s Song for Freedom, I had developed very specific understandings of the verses, and translating them gave me an opportunity to think through those understandings. For example, I decided to translate “En los montes, monte soy” to “In the mountain chain, a link” because I have always understood that verse to be about solidarity and connection. Martí was collaborative, always seeking to organize and work in solidarity with people of all social classes and races—he knew that many links on a chain were more powerful than a peak. Martí bridged Latin America and the United States with his writing, his political action, and his personal life—he created links around the world. By taking a meaning-based approach to the translation, I was able to pour this understanding of that verse into the English text.

AD: I think that my translation of the book’s title points to a meaning-based translation. I wanted to include the word “versos” in the title from the start as a nod to the interplay that takes place between Marti’s poems and Emma’s lyrical text in the book. I am also aware of the popularity of “Versos Sencillos” in the Spanish speaking world, and wanted that reference in the title to draw Spanish readers to the book, and to invite them to celebrate his well-loved poems along with Emma’s writing.

Was the book translated from English to Spanish? Or the other way around? 

JE: The translation for this book is so interesting. The story about Martí’s life was originally written in English and then translated to Spanish. But Emma translated Martí’s verses from Spanish to English. Emma read Martí’s work since she was a young girl. It was really important to her that her interpretation of Marti’s work be reflected in the book.

Image from Martí's Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad
Image from Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad

EO: I wrote the English text, translating Martí’s poetry into English as I worked so I could integrate it with the text. Then Adriana Dominguez translated my English text into Spanish (preserving Martí’s Spanish originals, of course).

Why was it important for Martí’s Song for Freedom to be a bilingual book? 

JE: Martí is an important and luminary figure in Latin American history and literature. He is considered one of founders of the literary movement called modernismo. I couldn’t imagine this book dedicated to Martí not include Spanish. It had to be bilingual.

EO: As Jessica said, it’s difficult to conceive of a book about Martí not being bilingual. I hope that families and classrooms will move fluidly between the English and Spanish texts, sharing the book across generations and linguistic diversity, forging more of the links that are so central to Martí’s legacy.

 AD: Martí has always belonged to the Spanish speaking world, where he’s a beloved, inspirational figure, in addition to one of the language’s most important literary figures. One of the aspects that most excites me about Emma’s book is that it is making it possible for Martí and his beautiful songs for freedom to now belong to the youngest of English readers as well.

You can purchase a copy of Martí’s Song for Freedom/Martí y sus versos por la libertad here.

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