Sunday, March 26, 2017

Debunking the myth: "Translations are never as good as originals"

Presentation of El mundo oculto (The World Unseen), by Shamim Sarif in San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 2016.

The World Unseen, by Shamim Sarif: Translation Presentation

by Roslyn C. Famous

Let me begin by saying that I am honored to have been asked to be here. When Patricia first called me to ask me to be on the panel, I was at once flattered and frightened.

While I AM a translator and a grand admirer of both the art and the craft of literary translation, I am NOT a literary translator. It is an arduous craft that requires a depth of literary skills and patience. Now, while I can eventually learn the literary skills, it’s the patience and a long attention span that I cannot.

So I come before you all tonight as a representative of a casual bilingual reader who knows about translating.


Set in South Africa in the early 50’s, THE WORLD UNSEEN by Shamim Sarif is a novel that, in my opinion, stands out for its cinematic descriptions and narration. In other words, you feel like you are at the movies.

What makes the novel so great for me is Ms. Sarif’s ability to paint brilliant imagery with the brush strokes of simple text and dialogue that move you—breathlessly and with great anticipation—from one chapter to the next. I liken her novel to impressionist artwork painted solely with primary colors.

Secondly, the author describes emotions so well that that reader immediately identifies and empathizes with the characters.

From the very beginning, this is a book that instantly jolts you into tense moments that spark your curiosity.  As you read along, you soon realize that the first chapter was only the start of the emotional rollercoaster that keeps you turning page after page, as it takes you from one climatic moment to the next.

I mean, like, the book is 315 pages long, and when I got to page 307 it STILL felt like a cliff hanger.


So with all that in mind, the question NOW is: how does one appreciate the translation?   What are the hallmarks of a translation worthy of recognition?

Well for me, in a work such as this, I’m less concerned about whether the translator—in this case, PATRICIA, found the precise word.  As an “accidental translation critic”, I am more interested in finding out if the reader of the translation experiences the same emotions, the same thoughts, the same context, and same writing style as the reader of the original text.  That, to me, is my litmus test. 

And in my assessment, Patricia PASSED that test. She deftly transmits the simplistic, cinematic writing style of Ms. Sarif.

And let me tell you, I tested this with the most “scientifically proven” method possible.  I’ll let you in on the secret: I… would flip back and forth between the two books. Yep.  Totally legit science. 

What impressed me was just how seamless it was to do this. I could read one chapter in English, and the next chapter in Spanish and feel that both were written by the same person.

What’s the big deal, you say?  That can’t be too hard, right?  Wrong. Writing style is as personal and unique as the way we think and dress.  And finding someone who shares your style is a special moment. To echo the style of the original author so flawlessly is a feat worthy of admiration.

Patricia spoke to me and mentioned how one of the things that first drew her attention to the book was her affinity for the author’s writing style. I’d have to agree.


As mentioned earlier, another characteristic of Ms. Sarif’s writing style is her ability to engulf the reader in the emotions, tension, suspension, and tenderness of her novel.

Without giving away any part of the plot, all I can say is that there is one scene that had me on the edge of my seat, my heartbeat racing with each word, and identifying with the protagonist’s fear. So much so, that at one point, as I was lying in bed, I literally screamed a dramatic NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!, leaped up, threw the book aside, and was terrified to turn the page and find out what would happen next.

THAT, ladies and gentleman, is pure magic.

That ability for a story teller to awaken your imagination with a specific combination of words is a beautiful skill.

Recreating that magic in another language is, to me, one of the hardest challenges of translating literature. For it’s not just a matter of opening a dictionary and picking any word, it’s about understanding the power of words.

Patricia masterfully recaptured that magic in her translation. I’ll use an example that doesn’t give away the plot.

So, imagine this:  A young wife is being sent back to India because she “shamed” her husband and his family. Before leaving, she begged them to let her take their 1st born son back with her.  We are now at the train station, and her husband has accompanied her and their 2 children as they board the train.  The husband is standing outside on the platform:


As I said:  PURE.  MAGIC.

This is but one of many emotional scenes, each of which was brilliantly translated by Patricia.


Congratulations Patricia, on finding this gem and sharing your act of love with the Spanish-speaking world. Thank you for uncovering yet another layer of THE WORLD UNSEEN.

And thank you, for bestowing me the honor of being here.

El mundo oculto (The World Unseen), by Shamim Sarif
Translated by Patricia Schaefer Röder
Ediciones Scriba NYC
ISBN: 978-0-9845727-3-1
Buy it here 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Patricia Schaefer Röder: Biologist and Writer Turned Literary Translator; Interview by Stacy McKenna for Intralingo, Feb 28, 2017

Patricia Schaefer Röder: Biologist and Writer Turned Literary Translator
by Stacy McKenna for | Feb 28, 2017 | Interviews | 0 comments
I had the pleasure of meeting Patricia Schaefer Röder at the 2016 San Jeronimo Translation and Interpretation Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, and then had the pleasure of interviewing her and learning even more about her work. 
SM: How did you get started as a literary translator? 
PSR: I have been writing creatively all my life; and interpreting—informally—my whole life, too. I have a passion for biology, and got my Bachelor of Science in Caracas, Venezuela. Nevertheless, the lab was not really where I wanted to be. I found a way to match my knowledge of sciences with my language and writing skills by translating scientific texts for the general public. I worked for some years, acquired experience as a translator, and got certified by the American Translators Association (ATA). Then I diversified to different scientific and technical subjects and even reached out to other fields, such as media and advertising, but I kept on writing short fiction stories. One day, a friend told me about her friend who was an editor and publisher, and who was looking for a translator who also was a writer, so I sent the editor some samples, and she gave me an excellent opportunity: I translated from English into Spanish The Reddening Path, a beautiful and powerful novel by Amanda Hale. I really loved every part of the project: the challenges, the creative process, the research, and the final rendition of the book translated into my mother tongue, under the title of El sendero encarnado. I definitely fell in love with literary translation; since then, I have kept on translating for other writers. 
SM: What languages and genres do you translate? 
PSR: I like to translate narrative—short and long—of all genres, but I have to admit that I enjoy translating song lyrics very much, too. Although I’ve done some literary and lyrical projects from German into Spanish, most of my translations in this field have been from English into Spanish. 
SM: Do you do other creative writing? 
PSR: Oh, yes! I write short fiction, as well as poetry. I like to play with the language, that’s why in Yara y otras historias—my first collection of short stories—I included nine tautograms: stories in which each word starts with the same letter. Ironically, these stories cannot be translated. 
In poetry, I created the form “siglem 575”, a type of minimalist poetry consisting of stanzas composed of three verses of five, seven and five syllables, respectively. Being so didactic in its nature, the siglem 575 is now used by people from many countries and is now taught in different schools around the Americas. I have to say that it’s really difficult to translate siglems 575. 
SM: What do you love most about literary translation? 
PSR: Literary translation is a way to reach out to the public and break down cultural barriers, while helping to build tolerance among different peoples. The challenge of transmitting the feelings, emotions and depictions created by the author, so that they can be enjoyed and felt by people of a different culture, motivates me to always reach for perfection. Getting into the characters and giving them life in another language lets me be creative with them, while at the same time, I learn from them. And, since I will always be a scientist, I also love doing research. 
SM: What’s a recent project you’ve worked on? What was most challenging about it? 
PSR: My last literary translation, published in 2016, was El mundo oculto—the Spanish translation of the novel The World Unseen, by Shamim Sarif. It’s a beautiful and important story about human and women’s rights in 1950’s South Africa. I found out that Ms. Sarif’s writing style is very similar to mine, which made this project very delightful. It felt as if I was writing the story from scratch, my hand held by the author, guiding me. The translation received wonderful comments, for which I am very grateful. 
At this very moment, I am working on Mi dulce curiosidad, the Spanish translation of the novel My Sweet Curiosity, by Amanda Hale. It’s a very interesting book with two parallel stories, which include modern day Toronto and 16th century Europe. Although Ms. Hale and I share a similar writing style, the biggest challenge is the slang in the young people’s dialogue. But I’m working on that. Each project has its own character and poses its own challenges, and I love them because they make me learn and grow even more. 
SM: Many thanks to you, Patricia, for your time and sharing a bit of your path to literary translation with us. I always enjoy hearing about how talented people in other fields find their way and get started. It’s also interesting to learn about translators’ other creative outlets and writing. 
Fellow readers, do you do any creative writing outside of literary translation? Does it compliment or sharpen your literary translation skills? If so, please share your thoughts with us! 
If you enjoyed this article, please consider giving it a Like or a share! 
Stacy McKenna received her MFA in English and Creative Writing from Mills College in Oakland, California. Her translations have appeared in The Other Poetry of Barcelona, Códols in New York, 580 Split, Cerise Press, and Río Grande Review. She has taught English and ESL throughout the Bay Area and worked at several nonprofit organizations including the Center for the Art of Translation. She has recently returned to the Bay Area after teaching literary translation and English at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro in Querétaro, Mexico.

Patricia Schaefer Röder: Biologist and Writer Turned Literary Translator by Stacy McKenna | Feb 28, 2017