A Tribute to the Legacy of Margaret S. Peden - A Prolific & Influential Literary Translator - Translation Skills Training

A Tribute to the Legacy of Margaret S. Peden – A Prolific & Influential Literary Translator

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A Tribute to the Legacy of Margaret S. Peden – A Prolific & Influential Literary Translator

Among the forty extant sonnets by Garcilaso de la Vega (1501-1536) there is a very famous one that is often imitated.  It begins with the line: “Cuando me paro a contemplar mi estado….”  initiating a 14-line philosophical reflection, profound as anything Shakespeare wrote, on how his life, soon to be cut ironically short, might have turned out worse for him if certain things had happened differently or if different things had happened.

This universal sentiment comes to anyone who takes the time at different moments in adulthood to contemplate the factors that have brought them to their current circumstances, good or bad.  Events, decisions one has made or decisions made by others over which one has had no control – all of these factors weigh in as thinking people examine their lives and careers.

As for my own career, there is no question that I would not have produced the type of scholarship I did over the course of my professorial life or be engaged in the work I now enjoy at Translation Skills Training™ (TST) had it not been for the impact that Dr. Margaret Sayers “Petch” Peden had on my intellectual development, beginning in 1981.

Given the kind of tasks that Analytic Linguists are called on to perform: monitoring, transcribing and translating court-ordered oral communication intercepts, they also must be trained if they are to be effective.   My contributions to the pedagogy of Translation Skills Training™ (TST), contain more than vestiges of the pedagogical practices and intellectual influence Dr. Peden had on me.  Quite frankly, everything I have ever accomplished with the written word as a translator, writer, scholar, reviewer or editor and translation project manager, I owe to my distillations of her precepts and examples absorbed over the seven years I spent as a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the 1980s.

This blog is an attempt to add a human dimension to what one can read about Dr. Peden in the Wikipedia link accessible by clicking on her name, above.  Several of her former students, in addition to me, have joyfully contributed an anecdote or two to this blog about how and why this professor, in addition to being one of the most prolific and influential literary translators of the twentieth century, has influenced their own careers in positive ways.

Often, when one is in the presence of someone famous, the physical reality of their flesh and blood humanity can seem to eclipse their fame, or it should, if they are famous for anything other than for being famous.  Dr. Peden was naturally gracious and frank; she did not flaunt her fame as a translator.  Her example as a prolific translator of renowned authors, living and dead, commanded respect.  She wore the mantel of fame naturally – the way a stylish man should wear a hat: without looking as if he is consciously balancing it on his head.  Being that Dr. Peden was of the generation of most of our mothers when we were in school meant that we all felt a similar type of respect, as is natural and good.  Her achievements and example as a professor pushed us to emulate her to the extent our talents would allow.  No serious students thought of doing less than their best.  Sometimes she was blunt, but always dignified.

I’ll begin to humanize the Wikipedia type of data with the story of Dr. Peden’s nickname “Petch,” which she always used to sign by hand the typed notes on rose-colored paper (I still have one) she would leave in the graduate student mailboxes in those days before email and the internet.  The nickname comes from her childhood pronunciation of “precious” whenever her grandmother called her that and she would respond by saying she was “petch-us.”  As often as she used it in her signature, I could never bring myself to use it, even when I went to visit her last month in Columbia, Missouri to present her with two of my books, one of which, Círculo vicioso, is a critical bilingual edition of a play by José Agustín, a living Mexican dramatist, which she was directly responsible for me starting in 1981 because she knew I enjoyed the challenges of translating slang.  So my own work would never have been possible were it not for her encouragement and example.

My bilingual edition of Agustín’s Círculo vicioso is valuable to professional Analytic Linguists in the field as well as aspiring ones.  As an intellectual product, it stands as a testimony of the ways in which a professor’s talent lives on to inspire the work of others, which is an uplifting thing to contemplate.  The 100 pages of the play itself, in bilingual format, offer examples of what it is like to deal with the language of criminal underworlds as a translator – maintaining the register of the original and having to translate a lot of rough language, which was one of the reasons Dr. Peden challenged me to undertake the translation.  The phrase pollitos y tortugas (literally chicks and turtles) is one example of a difficult bit of jailhouse slang that took a lot of research to solve, including speaking with a Mexican attorney who had at some time had clients who had been imprisoned at Lecumberri, where the action of the play is set.  For reasons that could never be intuitive, pollitos refers to injections of heavy sedatives and tortugas refers to beatings.  Such are the types of expressions that Analytic Linguists are likely to encounter as they monitor court-ordered oral intercepts, transcribe them and subsequently, translate them into English.  As anyone can imagine from this one example, such expressions offer challenges at each of these phases of an Analytic Linguist’s work.

Great scholars like Dr. Peden do more than produce great scholarship, even though that is what they will probably be remembered for in the long run.  For personal reasons, of course, I would like to believe that great scholars also produce great scholars, at least when they have to opportunity to do so.  It is equally possible that great scholarship and sound pedagogy will have a positive influence on the world and, in that spirit, many of us have labored and continue to labor, almost always out of public view.  From Dr. Peden’s example, which I have endeavored to emulate, great scholarship means sustained scholarship (not a flash in the pan or long periods of dearth), with a genuine trajectory that still includes variety evincing intellectual curiosity.  Sound pedagogy proceeds from principles to examples that do not end dryly but encourage investigation of interesting questions.  These principles, learned from her, have inspired and guided my labors with Translation Skills Training™ (TST) from my earliest moments with the company.

Other former students remember Dr. Peden with admiration and affection, coupled with a deep sense of gratitude.  One of them, Ms. Karen Rubio, is an Applied Instructor of Spanish at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.  She was one of my classmates in Dr. Peden’s lively workshops.  When she found out that I was going to visit Dr. Peden in Columbia, Missouri, she asked me to tell her that she has been a continuing source of inspiration as a role model in her teaching.  It was a message I was eager to deliver and Dr. Peden was very touched by it.

Ms. Rubio recalls many interesting details about Dr. Peden.  Ms. Rubio recalls the origin of Dr. Peden’s nickname differently than I do, and believes it came from “Peaches,” observing that while she recalls the story about Petch-us, she also remembers Dr. Peden talking about “how her nickname was from “peaches, ‘melocotones,’” because that was the first time I heard “duraznos” referred to as “melocotones.”  Whichever etymology of the nickname is most accurate, we may never know, but such variants are the stuff of legend and, indeed, famous authors such as Carlos Fuentes would call her that, but neither of us could ever bring ourselves to be so familiar.

Still more intriguing in terms of Dr. Peden’s impression on her young graduate students, even after 35 years, Ms. Rubio recalls so many other things that never crossed my mind that show how influential she was on my classmate and which truly capture this exemplary scholar-translator’s humanity.  Ms. Rubio retains her youthful memories of Dr. Peden, recalling “Dr. Peden’s cute little bob haircut pulled back from her face with a headband, her Kathryn Hepburn style of dressing, with dress shirt tucked into high-waisted, pleated pants.”  She also recalls visits to her home, noting that “when she invited the grad students over to her house, and the vacuum was in the front hallway because the housekeeper was still there working.”  Ms. Rubio remembers her example in “how Dr. Peden started over after getting married, having kids and divorcing, returning to college to get her Ph.D. and become a university professor, scholar and remake herself into an internationally known translator.”  Ms. Rubio recalls details about the calm and genuine nature of Dr. Peden’s classroom and “how she would mention snippets of her family life (her daughter and family lived in Switzerland).

We both remember, as Ms. Rubio put it, “how she didn’t play favorites with her students, yet we all felt we were special to her, how her office walls were covered with postcards from around the world, how meaningful the translation course with her was, really opening up my eyes to how literary translation is more than just changing words from one language to another.”

Among the more than a dozen valuable things I recall almost immediately that Dr. Peden taught her students about translation, four stand out that are worthy of presenting in anecdotal form.  The first is about her own work method as a literary translator.  It is possible that only a handful of her students saw her work area in her home on Tilly Street when she invited us to enjoy snacks on one or two occasions, as Ms. Rubio must also recall since Dr. Peden showed us her workroom.  To me, the memory is almost having seen sacred ground, considering how many novels and plays by so many famous authors she translated there.

As I recall it, she had a sort of a narrow day bed in a corner of her surprisingly small study on which there was a large cushion with arms against which to sit up comfortably.  There was a large, slightly tilted wooden writing platform that wheeled across the day bed and served as her writing surface.   She translated in long-hand, writing on sheets of paper. There, she would write by hand what she called a trot in English.  As I recall, the word trot was of her own coinage, inspired by her love for horses.  It referred to her practice of getting the whole work down on paper as quickly as she could, like a horse heading for the barn.  She would leave gaps for what did not come easily or immediately.  After a trot was “completed,” she would type it, on a typewriter, double or triple-spacing and retaining the gaps to fill in later, again by hand.  At that point, she had sheets of printed copy constituting a strong first draft on which she had enough space to polish the translation and make notes that enabled her to retype the manuscripts (imagine the thousands of pages over the course of her life!) and produce the final draft that then was sent to her publishers.  In her day, prior to word processors, publishers did all the typesetting and composition and submitted “galleys” to authors on which written corrections were made.

The second thing was that in translating, the first and most difficult thing to “find” is the right “voice.”  This seems to me to be a knottier problem than sporadic issues of register which come up when translating dialogue or when dealing with particular characters.  When translating a novel, voice sets the tone, often, if not especially, through the narrator, while individuals may have their own voices and registers as they appear in dialogue.   In translating a play such as Círculo vicioso, there is of course, no narrator and the register was rather constant, consisting of drug slang and jailhouse language, as well as general Mexican slang.  However, there were enough differences in the characters themselves through which their varying degrees of lacking moral fiber, loyalty and courage was displayed that finding their voices was a challenge.

The third thing about translation that she communicated to us and which seemed natural to me at the time, is the notion that “translation is about doing, not talking.”  It is not a subject of conversation nearly so much as it is something to be accomplished.  Certainly, translation is the loneliest activity of the lonely craft of writing and translators are too anonymous, considering their contributions to literature, commerce, diplomacy, and, in the case of Analytic Linguists, to law enforcement.  The idea of translation not being much of a topic of conversation remains one that is difficult for academics to accept, judging by the number of books on the subject.

The fourth notion she shared with us had to do with the resistance translators met when dealing with other literary scholars.  It was a negative bias which she had to overcome.  There was the notion, hopefully debunked by now due to its own absurdity, that translation was not a scholarly activity on a par with literary criticism.  Translation was viewed as unintellectual by many professors of literature.  Her counter argument and one that has been echoed by other giants in the field, is that there is “no closer reading than that posited by a good translation, and hence no more critical a reading.”   After 35 plus years as a translator of both literary and technical texts, I would challenge anyone who disagrees with that observation to attempt to translate even a product label and, if they take up that challenge, to describe and explain their word choices.  Only then would they possibly discover just how much serious, yet invisible reflection goes on in translators’ minds as they make choices that, to the reader of the final product, it appears to have simply flowed out of their keyboards.

Finally, back in 1981, Dr. Peden told her class of about 20 students that in 30 years, perhaps one of us would be still engaged professionally with translation.   As for me, I took and passed the unforgettable exam of the American Translators Association (ATA) in 1993 and have been an active, voting member as a certified translator (CT) ever since.  I have no idea if any others in the class have ever worked as professional translators or have published literary translations.  A few of us completed her certification program in literary translation within the M.A. program.  I recall telling her when she signed mine that it was more valuable than the M.A. itself and my life has proven that to be true.  Finally, when I was about to say goodbye after our meeting on April 30, 2019, Dr. Peden, at age 91, urged me to keep translating literature.  That is the best compliment I could receive and I may just have to take her up on it.

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: linkedin.com/in/ewvogt32 or tst-online.us/about-us

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