Today we bring you insights from a pair of guest bloggers, Laura Shovan, the author of a new middle-grade novel in verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, and Patricia Bejarano Fisher, the translator who helped bring authenticity to one of the novel’s Spanish-speaking characters. In the future, we hope to present more of the angles involved in publishing translated or bilingual books.
By Laura Shovan and Patricia Bejarano Fisher
Laura introduces the story: My new middle grade novel in verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, is set in where Pat and I both live — Howard County, Maryland, right between Washington, DC and Baltimore. People, including immigrants to the U.S., are drawn here by community resources and the strong reputation of public schools. Often, when I’m guest teaching at a local school, there will be several ESL students, speaking a variety of home languages, in each class.
Two of the eighteen students in Ms. Hill’s fictional fifth grade are Spanish speakers. One of those characters, Gaby Vargas, writes her poems in Spanish and then works with her friend to translate them into English. In order to get Gaby’s voice right, I asked Pat to translate the character’s poems from my English into Spanish, but that wasn’t the end of the collaboration.
Laura to Pat: One of my favorite parts of this process was when we collaborated on back-translating Gaby’s poems from Spanish to English. Could you describe what that was like?
Pat: I also enjoyed this part of the translation process. I had your original English poems. I was to be the voice of Gaby, a young native speaker of Spanish who is beginning to develop her English language skills. She has learned quite a bit but is not yet able to express herself fully in English. She still has to look up words in the dictionary, which she finds frustrating.
My first task was to translate the poems into Spanish, taking care to not make it my own Spanish. It had to be the Spanish of an elementary school girl who is learning English. Gaby’s Spanish is clear and direct. It is also colloquial in places, as it usually is in children that age. The second task was for us to work together from a literal reading of the Spanish poems and translate them back into English. The goal was to introduce a couple of lexical or structural inaccuracies, and unidiomatic phrases here and there that would reflect an intermediate stage of fluency where there is some transfer between the two languages. We took special care to respect the children and to avoid stereotyping them.
Laura: I visited an Emerson Elementary in Albuquerque recently. There was a 4/5th grade bilingual class. When I spoke, children in the audience were translating my English to Spanish for their classmates. And we had a chance to read Gaby’s poems in both languages. That was wonderful. You’re an accomplished poet and translator. How was the experience of working on a children’s novel in verse different from other translation work you’ve done?
Pat: My experience translating Gaby’s poems was new and refreshing, and really a lot of fun. I had finished revising some translations into Spanish I had been working on for some time, so I found the idea of translating a few poems for a book about children very appealing, especially since my youngest grandson had been born a few weeks before. Children were once again my joy and my focus at that time, so I felt this translation effort would be a special treat for me.
It would also be very different: one of the poetry collections I co-translated tells a personal story of familial love, resentment, and forgiveness; another speaks of the dehumanizing effects of absolute power; yet another recalls vivid memories of war, loss, and hope. All are reflections of adult feelings and experiences turned into beautiful, moving poems.
Gaby’s poems expressed just as much feeling with the clarity and spontaneity with which children communicate. I could just see her struggling to express her thoughts and her feelings in her new language, trying to find the right words and then deciding to use the universal language of music instead. And then, to witness the miracle that only children can perform: becoming a proficient speaker of the new language in a short time and later attaining native proficiency at record speed. Gaby brought memories of my own challenges with English when I first came to the U.S.
Laura: I’d shared Gaby’s poems — in English — with a few Spanish-speakers, but wanted an experienced translator to prepare them for publication. What does a translator bring to a poem that a native speaker might not?
Pat: To me, reading and translation go hand in hand, and the better one understands a text through a close reading, the better the chances are of producing a translation that reflects the intent and the meaning of the original. By “understanding” a text, whether prose or poem, I mean “getting it” at the textual level in its own social and cultural context, as well as at the interpreting level in the context of both the source and the target cultures. In my experience, fluency in a language is necessary but not sufficient to achieve a full understanding of all the linguistic, social, cultural, figurative and other elements present in a text [and then] transfer them effectively into the receiving language. In poetry, the sounds, the rhythms, the syllable counts, the rhymes, the images have to be felt and understood in the original and reflected in the translation.
Pat to Laura: The 18 children who appear in your book come from different backgrounds and have different life stories. How did you choose your characters and how did you develop their relationships? I’m interested in how kids choose their friends and role models.
Laura: My first draft had 30 students and 30 poems, one in each voice. As the book grew from a collection of poems into a novel, some characters were cut and others grew in depth. I made a seating chart for them, so I could see what their classroom relationships might be like. It’s a mystery, sometimes, how children choose their friends. In the development of the book, some friendships didn’t appear until very late in the process. Gaby’s relationship with Mark Fernandez is an example of that. The two of them connect through language.
The Last Fifth Grade is set in Columbia, Maryland, where you live and where I often teach. How do you think the book reflects our community in particular and today’s schools in general?
Pat: The children in the book are like the kids I see walking to school in the morning or waiting at the bus stop here in Columbia. We take pride in being an inclusive community where diversity is respected and welcome. Access to education for all has always been a guiding principle. My daughters went to school here some years ago. The events in the life of the school and of the children in The Last Fifth Grade could have taken place in any elementary school in Columbia or Howard County. I really felt I knew Gaby, Edgar Lee Jones, George Furst, Norah Hassan, and their classmates. I felt sad about their school… Any such loss is hard; it feels like someone is taking way the heart of the community.
Patricia Bejarano Fisher was born in Bogotá, Colombia. A language and linguistics graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo, she has lived in Columbia, MD for 33 years. She has worked as a Spanish teacher, translator and language-learning materials developer for many years but she now focuses exclusively on poetry translation. Her work includes South Pole/Polo Sur (Settlement House, 2012) and From the Diary of Mme Mao (publisher TBD), both poem collections by Venezuelan poet Maria Teresa Ogliastri, which she co-translated with Yvette Neisser Moreno. She’s an avid reader of Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese literatures and of all languages in translation. More poems translated by Pat can be found here.
Laura Shovan is former editor of Little Patuxent Review and editor of two poetry anthologies. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura works with children as a poet-in-the-schools and was Howard County Poetry and Literary Society’s 2015-2016 Writer in Residence. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary is her debut novel-in-verse for children (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House). Learn more at Laura’s website.