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The Art of Translation: Professor Jeffrey Barnett Publishes the “The Memory of Silence”

In mid-November 2014, Jeffrey Barnett, professor of Spanish and director of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Washington and Lee University, flew to Miami for the launch of his new book, a translation of Uva de Aragón’s “The Memory of Silence” (Chico: Cubanabooks, 2014).

He was one of 450 authors reading from and discussing his work at what is widely considered the nation’s finest literary festival, the Miami Book Fair International. Miami, with its large Cuban-American population, was a particularly fitting venue for the book’s début, which explores the lives of two sisters separated at the outset of the Cuban revolution. The book contains De Aragón’s original novel in Spanish, along with Barnett’s English translation. At the launch, she read from one chapter and Barnett from another. “It’s not often an audience has the experience of a joint reading,” noted Barnett. “It emphasized how much of this project has been a collaboration between the two of us.”

De Aragón, a Cuban-American journalist, poet and professor who lives in Miami, published her novel in 2002, and Barnett began working on his translation in 2008. “There is a vast amount of literature being produced on and off the island, but Uva’s novel stands apart in many respects,” said Barnett. “First and foremost, the underlying theme of reconciliation is a refreshing message and, most importantly, a timely one. As a story that intertwines two simultaneous histories, ‘Memory’ serves as a cultural and historical window into a formative era that has defined, in many ways, both the United States and Cuba. For English readers, this novel offers a unique and convincing voice about a life left behind and life forged ahead.”

He added, “While it is true that the novel most forcibly speaks to those interested exclusively in Cuban matters, its English translation, in my opinion, will transcend that scope and also be of interest to students of Latin American and Caribbean studies, women’s and gender studies, literature in translation, and diaspora studies.”

De Aragón gave a lecture at W&L shortly after publishing “Memory,” and asked Barnett, who had translated one of her short stories, to work on the translation of her novel. “Originally, when the novel was published in Spanish, it had a limited audience in America,” explained Barnett. “Many younger Cuban-Americans are more likely to read it in English, and that’s why she wanted it to be translated.”

Barnett has translated a diverse selection of Latin American authors, ranging from the short stories of Carlos Fuentes to the epic poetry of Martín del Barco Centenera. “This is the first time I had translated anything of this length,” said Barnett. “Not only is it a huge undertaking, but there are so many elements in this book that were not meant for a rookie.” Among the challenges were capturing the voice of each sister, as well as translating the realia—the newspaper stories, political speeches, poems, even an aria that De Aragón included to shape her narrative. “In parts of the novel, I was able to translate several pages a day, but on some sentences or phrases it took me days until I was satisfied I had captured the emotion of the original text. For example, the novel includes several speeches by Castro. He was a great orator, and the fun part of translating him was capturing his cadence, his rhythm.”

Barnett noted that translators are often invisible, but “Uva has been more than gracious in acknowledging my efforts. She has magnanimously emphasized that these are two original works and promotes me as a co-author.” He added, “It’s a great leap of faith for an author to trust someone else with a translation of their work. She generously gave me free rein, and it has been a great working relationship.”

Barnett and De Aragón have several upcoming joint readings in the U.S., including Miami, Puerto Rico, New York, and on the W&L campus in March. But first, they will travel to Havana in February. “In light of the recent diplomatic developments between the U.S. and Cuba, it will be interesting to see what chapters we choose to read from the book,” said Barnett. “Uva is well known in Cuba and has a big following there. I think the book will have an even greater reception than it did in Miami.”