We know good writing when we read it, or at the very least we know the style of writing we prefer to read, but what are the key elements that make a certain couplet, description, soliloquy or opening line resonate within us and remain in our minds for so long?

If we use a sonnet by Shakespeare as an example, it’s tempting to point to the familiar heartbeat rhythm of iambic pentameter, or the ease of the ABAB quatrain, but it’s not just those two elements. What makes Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems stop our hearts? What makes Toni Morrison’s descriptions of her characters so compelling and unforgettable? What makes the parent-child relationships in Jhumpa Lahiri’s work so masterful and moving?

As literary translators, we have to ask these questions and then begin the difficult task of answering those questions in a different language. To put it another way, translators want to understand the style in which an original work was written and capture that style in the target language.

But after reading the text, where does a translator begin? Even a seasoned translator with years of experience and accolades will feel challenged by an author, style or genre that is new to him or her, and to a certain extent, each new translation project presents new lessons to learn. That’s why it’s essential to understand what writing style or voice is; be able to identify a range of elements that contribute to writing style; develop a process for determining writing style; appreciate the importance of style in translation and, after doing all of that, go forth and conquer that next project.

Consider the following excerpt from Sandra Cisnero’s short story “Eleven.”

‘It has to belong to somebody,’ Mrs. Price keeps saying, but nobody can remember. It’s an ugly sweater with red plastic buttons and a collar and sleeves all stretched out like you could use it for a jump rope. It’s maybe a thousand years old and even if it belonged to me I wouldn’t say so.

 

Maybe because I’m skinny, maybe because she doesn’t like me, that stupid Sylvia Saldivar says, ‘I think it belongs to Rachel.’ An ugly sweater like that all raggedy and old, but Mrs. Price believes her. Mrs. Price takes the sweater and puts it right on my desk, but when I open my mouth nothing comes out.

 

‘That’s not, I don’t, you’re not…Not mine.’ I finally say in a little voice that was maybe me when I was four.

 

‘Of course it’s yours,’ Mrs. Price says. ‘I remember you wearing it once.’ Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.

How would you describe the style or voice in this excerpt? Which elements of style is Cisneros using to create that eleven-year-old voice? What kind of vocabulary, syntax, and cultural flavor would you use to bring this excerpt into a different language? Want to give it a try? Want to practice identifying and capturing writing style? Please join Intralingo for our next session of Defining Writing Style starting February 16, 2016. In addition to studying examples like this one, you work on an excerpt from one of your own projects, applying what you learn in class to your own translation work immediately. I’d love to see you in class, so register now!

Stacy McKenna received her MFA in English and Creative Writing from Mills College in Oakland, California. Her translations have appeared in The Other Poetry of Barcelona, Códols in New York, 580 Split, Cerise Press, and Río Grande Review. She has taught English and ESL throughout the Bay Area and worked at several nonprofit organizations including the Center for the Art of Translation. She has recently returned to the Bay Area after teaching literary translation and English at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro in Querétaro, Mexico.
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