Art Talk with NEA Literary Translation Fellow Johanna Warren
Johanna Warren. Photo by Monik Geisel
"I used to do a lot of waiting...for inspiration and luck, but then I realized both of those things are like lightning, and you can either sit at home wondering, 'Why haven't I been struck by lightning yet?' or you can cover yourself in aluminum foil and run screaming into a treeless field." ---Johanna Warren
How much does NEA Literary Translation Fellow Johanna Warren believe in the art of translation? So much so that her 2011 senior thesis project at Bard College---where she double-majored in studio arts and Spanish---comprised a "double translation" of Salvadoran writer Claudia Hernández's On Boundaries. Warren not only translated the text from Spanish to English but she also translated the text into visual art. While Warren is now focusing on music---she plays acoustic guitar, sings, and writes music for the indie band Sticklips---she's still committed not only to literary translation but to Hernández's fiction, which is little known in the English-speaking world. In fact the project for which Warren received her NEA grant is to translate four collections of the Juan Rulfo prize-winning author's short fiction. We caught up with Warren via e-mail to find out how she understands the relationship between music and literary translation, get her advice on waiting for inspiration, and discover how she works on the "dangerously beautiful patchwork" that is Claudia Hernández's work.
NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?
JOHANNA WARREN: A cramped kitchen with a bubbling pot on every burner and a sink full of dirty dishes. Being stranded on a desert island: making stuff to stay alive and sane, cramming messages into bottles, and talking to myself a lot. Being broke, trying to get better at things like "networking," baking cookies and watching Kate Bush videos to boost morale, and not even claiming anymore that I'm "trying to make time to exercise." Finding balance between productivity and relaxation, manic-depressive waves and troughs, being a crotchety art hermit and having friends, etc. Wishing I had a ghost writer to answer interview questions.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement or experience with the arts?
WARREN: I don't actually remember this but my mom likes to tell the story of how when I was a baby I watched a sunset and, when it was over, demanded, "Again!" Was that art? Well, I engaged with it like it was.
NEA: What decision has had the most impact on your arts career?
WARREN: Accepting that I will never be the best at anything but that's no reason not to try everything. I don't have time to be a perfectionist; I have too many ideas rioting to get out. There's no art form that doesn't appeal to me at least a little, and while at this juncture in space-time I've whittled my focus down to two general points---music and translation---honestly that has had more to do with external factors than decision-making on my part. I've lived my life thus far as an ambitious art-making amoeba, extending hungry pseudopods in every direction; or like a tree, branching endlessly, waiting to see which boughs will bear fruit. But "waiting" is a bad word---I wouldn't advise waiting for anything. In fact, that's another important decision I made: stop waiting and get to work! I used to do a lot of waiting, primarily for inspiration and luck, but then I realized both of those things are like lightning, and you can either sit at home wondering, "Why haven't I been struck by lightning yet?" or you can cover yourself in aluminum foil and run screaming into a treeless field.
NEA: How did you become interested in the field of literary translation?
WARREN: My junior year at Bard I took a Spanish literary translation workshop that blew my mind. Every week we would all translate the same thing for homework and then read the results round-robin, sentence by sentence. Hearing how vastly the results varied taught me how important a translator's work is; it's not some technical feat of one-to-one substitutions, it's an art and, like any art, it's easy to do badly. So I became obsessed with trying to do it well. The instant I lifted the lid on that can of worms, though, I was sucked in and eaten alive. I started seeing translation everywhere; I became obsessed with this Saussurian revelation that all language is a translation of the nonverbal things it signifies. It totally hijacked my brain.
NEA: You are also a musician. How does that art practice inform your work as a literary translator and vice versa?
WARREN: Music is at the heart of any good translation, because language is so musical. Literal meaning is just one tiny facet of translation---the real work begins when you start thinking about rhythm, harmony, and tone.
I think all artists, regardless of their field of expertise, engage in the same basic activity: perceiving the world as sensory information, processing this raw data, and translating it into some kind of artistic medium. In that sense, all art is translation---from an apple to a drawing of an apple, from a feeling in your gut to a catchy melody, from voices in your head to words on a page, from a script to a performance---and I like to approach songwriting from that mindset, rather than thinking of it as a pure act of genesis. I'm just a medium channeling vibrations from the aether. It takes the pressure off.
NEA: You translated Claudia Hernández's On Boundaries from Spanish to English, but also from text to visual art? How were those processes the same? How were they different?
WARREN: Yeah, that was my senior project at Bard. It was an experiment based on my suspicions that all art forms are roughly interchangeable. As far as I could figure, the difference between verbal and visual artists is just the tools they use: word choice, syntax, punctuation, metaphor, and style versus composition, color, subject, scale, media, and mark quality. So, my hypothesis was that replacing words with images shouldn't have to limit or even drastically change the emotional impact of what's being expressed. I strove to create a visual language that could convey the wordless essence of the stories. I realized early on that it does not suffice to produce an effective image; you have to render it in an effective way. Every mark you make means something. Lines, brush strokes, drips, and splatters are a visual artist’s words, and to effectively get a message across you have to choose the right ones.
NEA: What attracts you to the work of Claudia Hernandez? Why do you think it’s important to introduce her work to English-speaking audiences?
WARREN: She has this dazzling ability to seamlessly integrate horrific brutality and playful innocence in a dangerously beautiful patchwork that bears a striking resemblance to human nature. Often, the grotesque and the heart-warming are one and the same: a woman cuts out her own tongue and feeds it to a hungry dog; a man chops up his grandfather’s body and gives the pieces to his overjoyed family as cherished keepsakes; the unclaimed bodies of murder victims are turned into a delicious stew to feed the homeless. In El Salvador she is regarded as the voice of her generation, and that voice needs and deserves to be heard---for its own merit, for the generation it speaks for and, for God's sake, to combat the lamentable drought of “notable” female authors that still plagues Spanish literature.
NEA: Can you give us an idea of your process when you are working on a translation project? And if your project is work by a living author, how much and in what ways do you engage the author with the project?
WARREN: Translation, etymologically speaking, means "to get something across." With that in mind, I try to bend myself into a bridge from one riverbank to the other so the words can scurry over. I first try to clear my head of all my own words and preconceptions, so as to be a pure medium. I never read anything before I translate it---I type a first draft as I'm reading it for the first time. That preserves the freshness of my first impression, which is generally the most vivid glimpse I get of the color and essence of a work.
Working with a living author is such an honor and a luxury. Claudia and I have a lovely email correspondence; I would be constantly harassing her for opinions on my work, but luckily for her she doesn't speak much English. I try not to ask too many questions, but if I have serious doubts about something it's comforting to know I can ask her advice. I plan to use some of my NEA grant money to visit her in San Salvador this year.
NEA: At the NEA we say that “Art Works.” What does that phrase mean to you?
WARREN: It sounds like the happily shrugging conclusion I reach after all my best existential crises. I've often worried that being an artist is a selfish, or at least self-indulgent, path---the world is a mess, there is so much that needs fixing, and in the past I've dealt with major guilt about choosing an artistic path over a humanitarian or political one. But the beautiful truth I come to again and again is that art is humanitarian and political. Art works, for me, as the one way of life I haven't been able to talk myself out of.