I have always loved to play with words. Language has been the bridge I've crossed to worlds beyond my reach and the tool I've used to express the worlds that inhabit and surround me. The inspiration and motivation to begin translating came in my junior year of college, when I read short stories by the Cuban author Virgilio Piñera. I was astounded by Piñera's prose. I longed to understand it better and to share it with friends who didn't read Spanish. In 1984, I began translating Piñera's stories into English, and the following year this project became my senior thesis. After graduating in the spring of 1985 (College of Letters, Wesleyan University), I continued translating stories from Piñera's posthumous collection Cuentos fríos. In 1987, Eridanos Press published my completed translation as Cold Tales.
I had started learning Spanish in seventh grade and had continued into college where I shifted to literature. In the spring of 1983, I spent a semester in Bogotá, Colombia, studying at the Centro de Estudios Universitarios Colombo-Americano and the Universidad de los Andes. After college, I worked for two years as a bilingual textbook editor in New York City. During that time I took two graduate-level translation classes, one with Gregory Rabassa (New York University, Fall 1986) and the other with Magda Bogin (City College of New York, Fall 1987).
In 1987, I decided, for personal and professional reasons, to immerse myself in the Spanish-speaking world, the world beyond grammar lessons, literature, and translation workshops. I ended up in the town of Tepoztlán, in central Mexico, where I lived for nearly four years and to which I frequently return. My experience living in Mexico affected my work as a literary translator in a number of ways. First, I connected profoundly with the community in which I lived. Spanish—a particular Spanish, rooted in place and history-surrounded me day and night and entered me deeply. I developed close relationships with my neighbors in Tepoztlán, with whom I lived, worked, celebrated, and mourned. All the Spanish I had previously learned in the classroom and office now acquired a living context, transforming and deepening my relationship with the language.
At the same time I was making a provincial life for myself in Tepoztlán, I was also entering the literary, artistic, and intellectual world of Mexico City. In 1988, I made contact with Alberto Ruy Sánchez, who authorized me to translate his first novel, Los nombres del aire. (See bibliography of book-length translations.) This led to a friendship and author-translator relationship with the author that continues to this day. That same year, I met the poet David Huerta, who pointed me to writings of the northern Mexican author Jesús Gardea, whose stories I would later translate. From Mexico I traveled twice to Havana, Cuba (1988), where I did research that strengthened my translation of Piñera's novel, La carne de René. In 1989, I began a close collaboration with the master translator Cedric Belfrage, translating with him Eduardo Galeano's El libro de los abrazos.
For nine months, I met with Cedric almost every day at his home in Cuernavaca, assisting him with his translation, translating parts of the book myself, and together revising our work through four drafts. This was a critical apprenticeship in my development as a literary translator.
Since those years of initial contacts, my relationships with authors, editors, and translators have multiplied, in Mexico and beyond. These relationships lie at the core of my career and my work. I now count a fair number of the authors I have translated as real friends. David Huerta is one of these authors. These friendships make me a more thoughtful and careful translator. I consider my greatest honor as a translator to be the times when I have read from my translations in bilingual readings with the authors. To date I have had the privilege of reading with five of the authors whose works I have translated into English: Gloria Gervitz, David Huerta, Alberto Ruy Sánchez, Antonio José Ponte, and Alberto Blanco.
In 1991, I returned to live in the Boston area to work again as a bilingual textbook editor and to continue my career as a literary translator. In 1994, driven by a desire to deepen my knowledge of the literature, literary history, and literary criticism of Latin America and Spain, I entered the Masters program in Hispanic Studies at Boston University. After several years of wide-ranging studies —from the 15th century romances and Don Quixote to García Lorca and Alejandra Pizarnik —I graduated from Boston University in 1998.
I have been honored for my work as a translator since the beginning of my career. In my junior year at Wesleyan University I was named an Olin Fellow (1983) for my Piñera translation project. In October 1991, I was invited to speak at Brown University about translating Piñera's prose. Since then, I have received many invitations to speak and read from my translations from institutions such as Brandeis University, New York University, Simmons College, Boston University, Harvard University, Brown University, The Poet's House (NYC), the St. Mark's Poetry Project, the American Literary Translators Association, the New England Translators Association, The Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC), The Society of the Americas, and bookstores in New England and New York.
In addition to these invitations, I have received recognition for my translation work in the form of fellowships and grants. In 1993, I received a Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1993), as well as a grant from the Fund for Culture Mexico-USA (1993), to compile and translate a collection of stories by the Mexican author Jesús Gardea (resulting in the collection Stripping Away the Sorrows from this World.) In 1995, I was awarded the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize at Boston University. In 1998, I received a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant for professional development and the following year, a translation grant from the Arlington Arts Council (MA). In 2005, I received my second NEA Translation Fellowship to complete my book-length selection and translation of poems by David Huerta (scheduled to be published in 2008 by Copper Canyon Press).
My relationship with David Huerta started in 1996, when he approached me to translate some of his poems for a reading he was going to give in the U.S. In 2000, I was asked to translate Huerta's poetry for the Copper Canyon Press anthology Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry. It came out in 2002 with twelve of Huerta's poems in my translation.
In the spring of 2003, Copper Canyon Press submitted my name to the The Banff International Literary Translation Centre (Alberta, Canada) as their sole nominee for the Centre's inaugural translators residency. I was chosen to participate and was awarded a grant that covered all residency costs. I spent the three weeks of the residency (August 17-September 6, 2003) working on my selection and translation of poetry by David Huerta for publication by Copper Canyon Press. The BILTC brought Huerta himself to the Centre for the third week, during which time we discussed my selection-in-progress of his poetry and worked on my draft translations.
Upon returning home, I took up the translation I had begun twelve years earlier of Gloria Gervitz's epic poem Migraciones. She had assisted me with this translation in the early 1990s, when her poem was 101 pages long. Now, in 2003, she had finished the poem, and it was nearly twice as long. I translated the second half of Migraciones and then revised the entire translation, once again with the author's assistance. My translation was published in bilingual format in 2004 by Junction Press in the U.S. and by Shearsman Books in the U.K. In the fall of 2005, Gervitz and I gave a series of five bilingual readings in New York City and Boston. In the spring of 2006, we gave six bilingual readings in California, starting in San Diego and ending in Berkeley.
Published Book-length Translations by Mark Schafer