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Simpson Center for the Humanities

#UWtranslators: Q&A with Professor Cynthia Steele

#UWtranslators is a series of interviews with translators by the UW Translation Studies Hub.

By Jesús Hidalgo

An active member of the UW Translation Studies Hub, Professor Cynthia Steele is a Professor Emerita of the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media, and former Chair of that department. She has taught courses on Literature of the Americas, Latin American cinema, world literature, and literary translation.

Tell us about your research in the Comp Lit Department.

I’ve been a critic of Latin American narrative for many years, primarily the Mexican novel. I published two books on Mexican narrative: Narrativa indigenista en los Estados Unidos y México (1985) and Politics, Gender and the Mexican Novel: Beyond the Pyramid (1992). Over the years I have published numerous articles on Mexican narrative and film and on the literature of Chiapas and Oaxaca. Beginning in the 1990s, I also began to translate both fiction and poetry. I published a translation of Inés Arredondo’s Underground River and Other Stories (1996) and of José Emilio Pacheco’s City of Memory and Other Poems (2001, with David Lauer). Also during the 1990s, I translated numerous short stories and poems for two special issues of TriQuarterly, one on Recent Mexican Literature and the other on Literature of Chiapas.

How did you become interested in the Translation Studies field?

My earliest translations were of Mexican writers who had become friends during my stays in Mexico City: Elena Poniatowska, José Emilio Pacheco, and Inés Arredondo. As time went by I found that, when I would read a Spanish text that I loved, I would feel the urge to translate it, and that I found the process very gratifying. I have also been motivated by wanting to make more wonderful works by Latin American and Spanish writers available to English readers.

How do you use Translation Studies in your undergraduate classes?

I once had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate practicum on translating from Spanish to English. Students worked in groups, translating short stories by Mexican women authors. It was a lot of fun! Also, on several occasions I have taught a graduate seminar on translation.

I was going to ask about that graduate seminar. Tell us about the CLIT511 class you taught in Winter 2017. What was the aim of the course?

At various points I have emphasized more or less translation theory in my seminars; on this occasion I focused primarily on the practice of translation. I had each student translate three poems and a short story from their source language to English, workshop the translations with the other members of the seminar, and then submit them to literary journals for publication.

What was the most fulfilling part of it?

It was wonderful to read—and to hear read aloud—eloquent translations from a variety of Slavic, Scandinavian, Romance and Asian languages into English. The translators’ enthusiasm about their authors and texts was infectious, and the workshop discussions were stimulating.

What are your recent projects related to Translation Studies?

In 2018, I translated a Spanish novel by María Gudín, Open Sea, for Amazon Crossing. In recent years I have published translations of two short stories by Sergio Pitol, in the Chicago Review and Gulf Coast; and this year I have published, or had accepted for publication, poems by a poet from Oaxaca, Rocío González, in Natural Bridge and by three contemporary Chilean poets, Sergio Mansilla Torres, Jaime Luis Huenún, and Rosabetty Muñoz, in the Trinity Journal of Literary Translation, Exchanges, Lunch Ticket, the Southern Review, the Washington Square Review, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. I have also been translating and submitting poems by two Cuban women poets, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias and Jamila Medina Ríos.

Do you have any upcoming project(s) related to Translation Studies?

I will soon be submitting an anthology of poetry by Zapotec-speaking poets from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Also, I plan to continue translating poetry from Cuba and Chile, including by Mapuche writers.

What translated works are you currently reading?

At the moment I'm reading Cuban and Chilean poetry in the original and criticism of Latin American film, for my course next quarter (Winter ’20).

Finally, what translated works that you read recently would you recommend to a general audience?

In narrative, Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds; Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, Kingdom Cons, and The Transmigration of Bodies; and Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth. In poetry, Víctor Terán and David Shook’s Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry and Natalia Toledo’s The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems