Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!

Spotlight on Literary Translator Pamela Carmell

LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?

PC: The short answer is that I translate from Spanish to English. However, after translating writers from Cuba, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Venezuela, Uruguay and different regions of Spain, I no longer see Spanish as a single language. Taking into account the local dialects and words borrowed from indigenous languages, English, French, Italian, African languages, etc., I feel I am translating from a number of languages. Cross-pollinated writers such as a Cuban-American writer, a Mexican novelist living in El Paso, and a Cuban-Puerto Rican poet, speaking and writing in Spanglish or Inglañol, alter Spanish even more. Translating contemporary literature from Spain can mean tracing that country’s hybridization back centuries, delving into influences from every group that settled the Iberian Peninsula. Of course, that is the nature of language all over the world. But I confess I get caught up in researching and unraveling those influences to tease out layers of meaning. What I uncover sometimes surprises even the original writer. I’m willing to bet that that dogged curiosity is a quality all translators share.


I have translated poetry, short fiction, novels, drama, creative non-fiction and interviews and have enjoyed them all. However, I rarely translate more than one genre at a time. When I complete a project, I shift to a different genre as a way to clear my thoughts and find some balance. Recently I translated three fast-paced novels by best-selling Spanish author Manel Loureiro, for AmazonCrossing: The Beginning of the End; Dark Days; and The Wrath of the Just. After immersing myself in that one writer and the drama and action of popular fiction, I eagerly returned to translating poetry which for me is more meditative. In the same way, after I completed a manuscript of Nancy Morejón’s poetry, I wasn’t ready to plunge immediately into the emotion of another poet’s work.

LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?

PC: In graduate school at the University of Missouri, I was taken under the wing of Dr. Margaret (Petch) Sayers Peden, who taught contemporary Latin American fiction. After her translation of Carlos FuentesTerra Nostra received high praise in Newsweek, my classmates and I persuaded her to teach her first translation workshop. In that class we learned an exhilarating and new way to read the literature we had been studying in her classes. The reviews of her translations that appeared in a number of publications, such as The New York Times, gave her a star quality and made the art seem glamorous. Little did I realize how anonymous our art can be. I’m thankful she didn’t dissuade me from that starry-eyed view. When Dr. Peden told me I had a talent for translation, I was hooked. I also credit her for guiding me to modern literature, showing me what a joy it is to translate the work of living writers. She and I have remained close friends and I always channel my inner Petch when I start a new project.

A few years later, Dr. Peden urged me to enroll at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Its Creative Writing Program offers an MFA in Literary Translation. Poet and translator, Miller Williams, one of the program’s founders, had developed a curriculum that elevated literary translation on par with other genres. He and all the professors insisted we view ourselves as writers. Translators enrolled in poetry and fiction workshops while poets and fiction writers often joined us in our workshops. Professors in the Foreign Language Department were also on board and often collaborated with us on translation projects. I emerged from that program firmly convinced that what we translators do is a creative art.

LC: What do you love most and least about this work?

PC: The list of what I love about this art is very long and includes losing myself in a work, discovering something new in the original work even after five or six readings or more, the moment the translation emerges, and the camaraderie with other translators. I even enjoy the give and take with an editor. At the top of that list is the opportunity to meet with the writer and hear him or her read the work.

The list of what I like least is much shorter. I cringe every time someone, even writers and friends who should know better, refers to my art as a hobby. I don’t mean to disparage hobbies; I admire anyone’s dedication to an activity he or she loves. I have several hobbies I enjoy. What for me is a hobby, gardening for example, can be an art form for someone else. But no one calls an artist’s devotion to painting, sculpting, or composing music a hobby. Even when I was teaching and only had time to translate during weekends, holidays and summers, I was as dedicated and focused as someone involved in other artistic expressions.

Many people ask me what I get paid for my work, a question I doubt they would ask a novelist, painter or composer. I explain that remuneration isn’t my main objective, that I translate out of a love of language and literature, but that only confirms their assessment of my work.

No matter how times I point to the novels or poetry they have read in translation, praising the writing style as if English were the original language; no matter how many woeful examples of machine translations I cite; no matter how I describe the way I immerse myself in a project, they remain convinced that translators are little more than handmaidens. Until we translators change the minds of every publisher and every reviewer, that attitude is likely to prevail.

LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?

Homing InstinctsPC: In 2000, I went to Havana as part of the Writers of the Americas writers’ exchange, the creation of travel writer Tom Miller. There I met celebrated Cuban poet, Nancy Morejón. For two weeks, we US writers took part in seminars and workshops alongside many fine Cuban writers. But all of that faded into the background when Nancy met with us. As I listened to her read, I became convinced that I had to translate a few of her poems, even if just for my own pleasure, even if those translations were never published. A few years later, I was amazed to discover that one of Nancy’s dearest friends, Juanamaría Cordones-Cook, was a professor at the University of Missouri and that Nancy visited her often. We three became friends and developed several projects sitting around Juanamaría’s kitchen table. In 2004, I co-translated a collection of Nancy’s poetry, With Eyes and Soul, published by White Pine. This year Cubanabooks in Chico, California, will publish our latest collaboration, entitled Homing Instincts/Querencias. Most of the poems in that collection have never been translated. For nearly four years, Nancy and I conferred on everything from content to cover art. We have sat for long hours over coffee in Columbia, Missouri, or San Francisco, or Havana discussing a word or phrase or the genesis of a poem. But the image that stays with me was Nancy reciting her poems or listening to me read my translations, often with her eyes closed.

Dear readers: Leave your questions or comments for Pam here!

Pamela Carmell earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas. She received a Translation Fellowship from the NEA to translate Oppiano Licario by José Lezama Lima.

Intralingo Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to