Kelsi Vanada joined ALTA in July 2018 as Program Manager. This interview was conducted over e-mail.
ALTA: You were an ALTA Travel Fellow back in 2016. How does it feel to be involved with ALTA again, this time as the new Program Manager?
Kelsi Vanada: It feels like a dream! In many ways, I got my start as a translator thanks to ALTA’s support through my Travel Fellowship—it meant financial support while I was a grad student, and the chance to grow professionally by presenting on a panel—and also gave visibility to my translation of Berta García Faet’s The Eligible Age, which was published with Song Bridge Press earlier this year. I couldn’t be more thrilled to support ALTA’s work in this new administrative capacity, supporting the wonderful training provided through the conferences and the Mentorship Program. I’m also happy that working with ALTA will put me in a position to connect with translators and translation publishers I admire—mostly I just feel full of gratitude and very excited.
ALTA: What are you most looking forward to bringing to this new position?
KV: I’ve been thinking recently about how in my poetry MFA program, I only read two books in translation that I can remember: Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land and Fady Joudah’s translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s If I Were Another. So, one thing I’d like to do is to use my connections to the worlds of creative writing and translation in the U.S. context to help forge greater and understanding between translators and creative writers about what their work entails. That’s a main reason why I’m excited about ALTA’s move to Tucson—the University of Arizona has a strong Creative Writing MFA, and they have the Poetry Center! I’m also looking forward to bringing my experience with teaching young people to ALTA—I’d like to see how we can continue to empower educators to incorporate translation into classroom curriculums at every level. And the first piece of advice I always give young writers is to find a mentor, which I think applies to translation as well—so I’m looking forward to working with ALTA’s Mentorship Program. And lastly, as a Spanish-speaker, I can’t wait to find opportunities to partner with and learn from Latinx writers and translators in the Southwest.
ALTA: You are a poet as well as translator, having studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Do you see interplay between your creative work and translations?
KV: Most definitely. I don’t know if I’d be much of a poetry translator without having worked on my own poems, without having learned to talk about other writers’ poems, and without thinking about voice in the context of my own poetic voice. And even more specifically, I’ve found that translating changes what and in what way I am moved to write. Once, Cole Swenson spoke at Iowa about how she found herself writing a book of poems in tercets—upon reflection, she realized the form came from a poet she’d translated years prior. Though I never expected it, I felt the influence of translating Berta García Faet almost immediately after finishing my translation of her book—by the time I was finished, I had started writing in a first-person voice that was much more tied to my own voice and experience in my body than were my previous, more language-driven poems. I feel like translating her poems freed me to do that.
ALTA: You translate from both Spanish and Swedish. How did you get started in each of these languages, and do you find you translate differently from such different languages, or do they influence each other somehow?
KV: I started learning Spanish in elementary school, it was my second major in college,
and then I lived in northern Chile for a time. As for Swedish, I’m not fully fluent, though my (also partial) knowledge of Danish (thanks to my Danish family) has helped me learn. I started learning Swedish in 2014, in order to translate the poet Marie Silkeberg, who was a resident in the International Writing Program in Iowa City at the time. My process with both languages is very different. In Spanish I can read a text on my own and create a translation which finds a new voice in English for the work. In Swedish, my process must be collaborative from the start, because I need help to understand some vocabulary and nuance. I have to be more vulnerable with my first drafts, which I’m usually very private about with my Spanish translations.
ALTA: What are you working on right now?
KV: I’m in the polishing phase of both a translation of Álvaro Lasso’s Izquierda Unida [United Left] and Marie Silkeberg’s Atlantis, excerpts of both of which are forthcoming in Anomaly and Black Sun Lit! I’m also working on a translation of one of Blanca Varela’s books with a Spanish friend: we both draft our own translation of each poem into English, and then we read both versions aloud together and negotiate which parts we like best to create the final translation. I’m also sending out a manuscript of my own poems, as well as starting to write some new ones that are so nascent I can’t talk about them yet.
ALTA: What are you reading right now?
KV: I’m reading through a bunch of the literary journals I have on my shelves, because I’m moving to Tucson soon, and I’m not planning to bring them all with me! I’m fascinated by how most literary journals are able to create such a clear mood or tone across the issue, even as they’re combining varied literature. Two Lines is good at that, for example, as is the Black Warrior Review. I’m also reading Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. She gave a beautiful talk at AWP in March about bells: how different poets/poems create distinct tones like the tones of different bells, and how a good haiku strikes one single tone like the stroke of a bell. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the tone(s) a translated poem strikes in relation to the original poem. And the best novel I’ve read recently is the late Argentine writer Aurora Venturini’s Las primas [The Girls]. I think Roy Kesey is working on a translation into English, for which Anglophone readers everywhere should be glad!
ALTA: Do you know any translation jokes?
KV: I didn’t, so I did what we translators often do well, and asked my community of translator friends for help! One shared this: “Question: How many translators does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: It depends on the context.” Sounds like an inside joke for translators to me!
Kelsi Vanada joined ALTA as Program Manager in July 2018. She writes poems and translates from Spanish and collaboratively from Swedish. Her translation of The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet came out in 2018 with Song Bridge Press, and Toward Muteness by Sergio Espinosa is forthcoming from Veliz Books. She holds MFAs in Poetry (The Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and Literary Translation (The University of Iowa). Other poems and translations have been published most recently or are forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Bennington Review, Anomaly, and elsewhere. She was a 2016 ALTA Travel Fellow, and enjoys building a readership for literature in translation by writing reviews.