Dr. David Lisenby translates Spanish texts to English

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Dr. David Lisenby, assistant professor of Spanish, has recently ventured into the realm of translating literary texts from Spanish to English. His first published translation is featured in the magazine Latin American Literature Today. The translated essay, “What She Understood: A Reading of Sergio Pitol’s ‘Mephisto’s Waltz,’” was originally written by Mexican writer Juan Villaro and can be read on the magazine’s website. He previously translated three short stories by two different authors as well as a play, entitled “Ruandi,” by Cuban writer Gerardo Fulleda León.

“One of [Fulleda’s] plays has been previously translated to French and German and maybe Italian but never to English, even though it has been performed in the U.S. in Spanish. So I started with telling him I would be happy and interested to translate [Ruandi] to English, that was a few years ago, which he was thrilled about, without really knowing what I was getting myself into,” Lisenby said.

Working to translate “Ruandi” was Lisenby’s first experience in literary translation. The play has been performed in the U.S. and Europe in French, German and Spanish. Lisenby hopes his English translation will eventually lead to its being performed for English-speaking audiences. He has spoken with Chris McCoy, associate professor of theatre, and Nathan Wyman, professor of theatre, regarding the William Jewell College Theatre Department doing developmental readings of his translation so the play can become stageable.

Translating a literary work comes with a particular set of challenges. Lisenby states that no work has an innate translation. There is a range of possibilities when attempting to interpret a work in a language other than the one in which it was originally written.  

“Part of what makes a text a literary text as opposed to a non-literary text is the possibilities for interpretation of that text, that literary texts lend themselves to multiple interpretations. You can’t necessarily produce the same possibilities for interpretation because any given word has a constellation of connotations in a language and a so-called ‘equivalent’ in another language has a different constellation of connotations in that language,” Lisenby said.

Lisenby attempts to approach works he is translating by first understanding the socio-cultural context in which they were originally written. Literature can be read and interpreted in different ways depending on cultural perspectives, but Lisenby works to translate words or phrases that reflect the writer’s experience when the work was written.

In “Ruandi,” the titular main character is a 12-year-old Cuban slave boy who escapes from the plantation to a “palenque,” a slave community in the Spanish Caribbean. While the play takes place in the 1840s, it was written by Fulleda in the 1970s in Cuba under the Castro regime. Lisenby states that he has to take into account the culture in which Fulleda was writing “Ruandi” and what certain words or phrases likely meant in that context. Reading the play in the 1970s, under “the most repressive decade for freedom of expression since the 1959 Castro revolution,” can create an entirely different interpretation of the work than what the author intended.

This play comes out addressing issues of racial inequalities in late 20th century Cuba through a filter of historical fiction. In translating the play, I have to think about how certain words and terms and scenes should be rendered given the cultural politics of the original writing of the play,” said Lisenby.

Many students have at one point or another read a translated text. Lisenby believes that these works allow monolingual speakers to engage with different cultures and realize that the world operates and functions in many languages.

“Different languages aren’t just different ways to describe the world. Different languages are different ways to experience the world. Experiencing the world in a different language is not just experiencing the same thing with different words. It is a different experience,” he said.

Lisenby’s translation of “The Lagoon” by Cuban writer Abilio Estévez will appear in the June queer issue of the magazine Words Without Borders and will be his second published translation. He has been a fan of Estévez’s writing for many years. He stumbled upon the short story in an anthology of LGBTQ+ Cuban fiction and found it “deeply captivating.”

Lisenby is focusing on seeing his English translation of “Ruandi” being published for theatre. He will be searching for another project after that, which might be a Cuban novel or short story collection over the next few years. For more information on the impact of translation and how languages shape how the world is experienced, Lisenby recommends a New York Times article about the first woman to translate “The Odyssey” and an episode of the National Public Radio (NPR)  podcast “Hidden Brain.”

Photo by Talia Zook.

Jesse Lundervold

Jesse is a senior chemistry and studio art major and the Lifestyle Editor for the Hilltop Monitor.

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