“From One Side of the River to the Other”: a Faculty Feature from Pablo Peschiera (’93)

Associate Professor Pablo Peschiera (’93) teaches many different courses, but his heart lies split between two: poetry writing courses and literary translation courses. Pablo writes his own poems in English, and he translates from Spanish to English. His ongoing translation project is on the work of Manuel Ramos Otero (1948 –1990), the Puerto Rican poet, writer, playwright, director, and professor. Otero’s work is passionate and full of experimentation. The below piece—about how Pablo thinks of translation, memory, and language—is the jumping-off point for an upcoming colloquium titled “How I Learned to Trust Myself” at 3:30 pm, January 25th, in the Fried-Hemenway Auditorium of the Martha Miller Center at Hope College. It is free and open to the public.

From One Side of the River to the Other

Associate Professor Pablo Peschiera (’93)

I write poems in English and translate poems and stories from Spanish to English. When we translate, we try to get something from one language into another language. This is like carrying ideas and images across a bridge, from, in my case, the Spanish side of a river to the English side. The word “translate” comes from the Latin words meaning “across” (trans) and “carry” (latus). The bridge in this metaphor is the translator’s imagination.

I’m going to extend this river and bridge metaphor a bit more, because I find it useful in explaining what a translator does. When I translate, my carrying-across-the-bridge only works one way, from the Spanish side to the English side. It’s like I’m an importer/exporter with a license that only works one way: I can carry across from the Spanish side to the English side, but not in the other direction, from English to Spanish.

I could give it a try, though, carrying a poem or story from English to Spanish, but I know I wouldn’t do a very good job. In Spanish, anything I translate from English just wouldn’t sound right. A native Spanish speaker would get it, but they’d probably laugh at it—and they’d be right to! It would sound silly, often incorrect and off kilter.

I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan to which we moved from Peru when I was five years old. English is my native language, which means I spoke it with my friends and in school. At home I spoke Spanish, but not with the same intensity and energy I spoke English. English was the cool language. All the music was in English, the TV was in English, my friends and their families all spoke English—everything was in English. None of my teachers spoke Spanish. Even our high school Spanish teacher only spoke English (but she could read and write Spanish very well—go figure). Translators say “translate into the language of your dreams.” For me, that’s usually English.

English is the language I trust. In English, I believe what I say and what I write, and the words come fluidly, like smooth water rippling over stones. When I cross the bridge from the Spanish side of the river to the English side, I need to trust myself. The bridge is dangerous—which means the imagination is dangerous. No steel girders, stone boulders, or even brick or wood in the imagination. Because the imagination is in the human mind, it’s weak and wears out quickly, as if it’s made of rope. And not even the good stuff, like nylon or poly—not even hemp! It’s cotton sisal, or twine. It rots in the sun and weather and comes unraveled. It needs mending every day. So I need to cross the imagination using the language I know best, the language I trust, which is English.

Don’­t get me wrong—I know Spanish well. My accent is usually very good, especially if I’ve been practicing. If I parachuted into a Spanish-speaking country today, I’d have zero problems understanding and making myself understood. If I’m hungry, I say ¿conoces un restaurante bueno por aquí? If I want to buy a lottery ticket, I say ¿dónde puedo comprar un boleto de lotería? I couldn’t argue a case in court, and I couldn’t have a debate about Manichaeism, but most English speakers couldn’t do either in English anyway. So I’d be fine.

What makes me not a native speaker is that I don’t trust Spanish. When I write Spanish the rope bridge feels like it’s unraveling. I might foolishly confuse boda (wedding) for bota (boot), or sagrado (sacred) for sangriente (bloody). Spanish uses gendered articles and nouns: La cancha (the court) is feminine and el maletero (the trunk) is masculine, because words that end in “a” are feminine, and words that end in “o” are masculine. I get those wrong sometimes because there are tons (tons!) of exceptions. When I read Spanish I have no problem with these things—I read fluidly almost as quickly and pleasantly as I do in English.

What it comes down to is art. If I carry a poem across the bridge (a poem is a work of art), I can’t look up words to use while I’m on rope bridge of my Spanish imagination, with its dry rot and frayed knots. I have to concentrate on the destination of the English side. I need to trust the bridge. It’s only made of rope, but at least it’s well mended and strong. It must hold me up. Why? Because the bridge of language hovers over the river, and the river is chaos.


Alumni Interview with Natalia Connelly (Granzotto ’13)

Natalia Connelly (Granzotto ’13)

What are you doing now?

Currently I work at (gasp!) Calvin College. I write news and stories for the college’s publications, website, and social media. While I had no experience in marketing and communications when I graduated from Hope, I’ve found that a penchant for writing translates across many fields and provides an advantage in the marketplace.

Before this role I worked at an interior services firm in Grand Rapids overseeing marketing and branding. I wrote blogs and provided copy for web, advertising, and marketing tools, oversaw public relations, and adopted graphic design skills to manage our creative output. If there’s one thing that English majors are, it’s adaptable!

I’m also currently a student at Western Theological Seminary in the distance-learning program. While I’m still discerning where this will lead, my hope is to find myself somewhere at the intersection of faith and writing.

How did your Hope English education shape you?

My Hope English education taught me how to think critically, carefully, and imaginatively—and since graduating, I’ve realized how much of a prize and a privilege that really is. My relationships, politics, faith, work, writing, travel, and movie-watching have all been enriched by an education that taught me how to engage the world thoughtfully, to pay attention, to ask questions and find connections. Those things we unpack in class—race, gender, power, narrative—which are the undercurrents of so much of English literature, are also the cultural cornerstones that need unpacking in precisely the same way. Possessing an understanding of the histories and experiences of these themes makes us better citizens and agents of renewal in the world.

There’s no doubt that my English education also made me a clearer communicator. With this being the main objective of my job, I’m indebted to the patient and diligent corrections of professors and peers for making me a better writer.

Lastly, I’ve been amazed by the community I’ve found with English majors everywhere. Those who seek to write and read and explore the human condition seem to find one another and find good and important conversation close at hand. Whether it’s applying literary criticism to Stranger Things or swapping ideas for our writing work, English majors bring a critical eye and sharp wit to their relationships and the world.

What advice would you give to current English majors or students considering an English major?

I’ll be honest, when I first graduated I thought I had made a mistake. While I was networking and job hunting, I wondered why I had just spent four years reading and writing and not learning, say, engineering or accounting, because all those people had shiny new jobs and measurable experience to bring to the table. All I had was a synopsis of “The Taming of the Shrew” from a feminist perspective.

OK, turns out I was wrong. I had my Shakespearean opinions and a whole lot more: extensive writing experience, a degree from a great institution, connections with alumni everywhere, and that ability to think critically that I could translate through my cover letters and resume and, later, on the job. My strong desire to continue reading and writing was met with opportunities both at work and beyond, in freelancing, book clubs, and now my seminary education. And you know what? Writing a paper on “The Taming of the Shrew” helped me get there. Deconstructing literature sharpened my intellect and philosophies, which prepared me for the nuance and risk of being in the world as well as any degree can. I’m a more thoughtful and well-rounded coworker and church member and neighbor because of Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, Simone de Beauvoir, and the brilliant professors who helped me understand and make meaning of them. I also have a great job that requires the distinct outputs of the English degree: sharpness of mind, writing expertise, and a sympathy for the human experience. Looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My advice to current and prospective English majors is to let your mind and expectations widen with your bookshelf. Keep reading and writing, and trust that the world needs your thoughtfulness, sharpness, and intellect.

If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

This is so hard! I loved taking Introduction to Literary Theory, so I’ll opt for that.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

This year my favorite read was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, followed closely by Swing Time by Zadie Smith.