Interview with Sue Burke, 2016 winner of the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation

The Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation was established in memory of Alicia Gordon, known for creating imaginative solutions to knotty translation problems, based on rigorous research. It is given for a translation (from French or Spanish into English, or from English into French or Spanish) in any subject. The award was established by Alicia’s sister, Dr. Jane Gordon, and the award fund is administered by the American Foundation for Translation and Interpretation. This column will feature individuals discussing a particularly tricky translation challenge and how it was solved.

If you’ve spent years working as a translator, no matter the field, you’ve surely run into a passage that takes your breath away—where you know you’re going to have to slow way down to get it right. This nugget becomes a mountain, and before you know it you’ve spent many hours, perhaps days, immersed in just a handful of paragraphs. The winner of the 2016 Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation knows exactly how that feels.

Sue Burke’s translation into English of an excerpt from a text written in Spanish in 1688 by Joseph de la Vega about the stock market provided many challenges and satisfactions. She graciously took some time out of her busy schedule to tell us how she solved a particular knotty translation.

A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Sue and her husband Jerry have also lived in Austin, Texas, Madrid, Spain, and now make their home in the windy city of Chicago. You can find out more about Sue and read her blog about words on her website: http://bit.ly/2gIawtp.

What’s your background?

I’m a writer. I started working as a journalist over 40 years ago, and I’ve written and edited as a career. In the early 1990s, I branched out into fiction, especially science fiction, and when I moved to Spain in 2000, I made contact with the science fiction community there. As I honed my language skills, other authors began to ask me to translate their work. I enjoyed doing that and decided to make it a second career.

How long have you been a translator? An ATA member?

I started translating years earlier, but I was certified in 2013 for Spanish>English translation by the Chartered Institute of Linguists Educational Trust in London. I was living in Madrid at the time, but I was able to sit for the exam at the British Council there, hoping I could fake British English well enough to pass.

With certification in hand, I joined ATA in May 2013.

How did you come across this particular passage?

The Spanish Stock Exchange Commission contacted me in 2015 to translate excerpts from the 1688 book Confusión de confusions by Joseph la Vega, the first analysis of stock markets ever written. They wanted to publish the book in the original Spanish with a translation of key passages into English to use as an institutional gift. This landmark work had been written in dense and delightful Baroque prose, but I was willing to tackle it.

In choosing my submission for the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation, I found some sections that stood alone and reflected challenging and playful language.

What was your process in translating it?

I read it through and laughed out loud, so I realized I needed to keep it as funny in English—somehow. A lot of the laughs came from wordplay, and I could see where some turns of phrase would be relatively easy, but others were going to require advanced strategy. So, I got to work, sentence by sentence, and then revised, revised, read aloud, and revised some more until the deadline, which was fairly close.

At what point did you think “I’m stumped!”?

This piece was written more than three centuries ago, so the language was antiquated. At that time in Spanish, some words had no standard spellings, and, even worse, de la Vega drew on his deep knowledge of history, mythology, the Bible, and current events, so some of his references were obscure. I kept encountering words that were sometimes close and other times very far from the current meaning or spelling, and terms that had been abandoned or supplanted in modern Spanish and English. In addition, the stock market has always had its own vocabulary.

One word took me hours to translate: Cínara, which the author described as “opulent.” Was this a person, a place? My first attempt to Google the word gave me a kind of aphid that lives on conifers. That seemed unlikely.

How did you move forward?

Sue Burke

Sue Burke

I kept searching. I had learned from earlier problem words that the obscurity of the term was probably due to an old variant spelling of the Spanish form of the word, so I tried Googling for every variety of spelling I could imagine. I also checked the indices of history books and paged through dictionaries. Finally, I stumbled on it: Sennar, a sultanate in what is now Sudan that was famously wealthy at the time de la Vega was writing. (Sic transit gloria mundi.) [Editor’s note: “Thus passes the glory of the world,” meaning what was famous at one time has been forgotten.]

However, the real difficulty lay not in individual words but the constant wordplay. Here’s one example: “Y a pesar de todos estos devaneos, desconciertos, desvaríos, dudas e incertidumbres de las ganancias…” After some meditation, I came up with this translation: “And despite all the delusion, distraction, delirium, doubt, and dilemma that accompany profits….”

Or: “ . . . las ganancias de los accionistas son tesoros de duendes, porque son ya carbunclos, ya carbones, ya diamantes, ya guijarros, ya lágrimas de la aurora, ya lágrimas.” I played with that until I got: “ . . . shareholder earnings are fairytale treasures, because they can transform themselves from carbuncles into carbon, diamonds into detritus, and drops of morning dew into teardrops.”

Every sentence contained some sort of verbal game. I had such fun!

What inspired you? What resources helped you?

The work itself inspired me. I wanted to share its delights with the English-speaking world!

For alliteration and puns, I played with words I found in various thesauri and dictionaries. My husband is a trilingual businessman, so I rampaged through his specialized dictionaries and materials relating to finance for technical vocabulary. We both love history, so I had a fair library of history texts on hand. A few bits of the book have already been translated, so I looked at those to double-check some specific terms (and rarely agreed with the style of what I found).

Finally, I drew on what I know about writing: how to express ideas as effectively and beautifully as possible, being aware that the norms for effectiveness and beauty differ between Spanish and English.

What do you like most about being a translator?

I love to write, and translation gives me a chance to focus on the word and sentence level of writing. The original author has gone through all the trouble of researching, inventing, and creating the content. My only duty is to reword it into the best and most appropriate English: pure writing.

What is your greatest challenge about being a translator?

Getting the English right. Have I really found the right words and the best words?

What is your advice to other translators?

Translation is writing, and my favorite rules for effective writing come from Robert Silverberg, the science fiction author:

“1) Read a lot. 2) Write a lot. 3) Read a lot more, write a lot more.” Both writing and translation are practice disciplines. The more you do, the better you get.


Liliana Valenzuela served as an ATA director from 2005 to 2008. She received ATA’s first Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation in 2006. She has translated into Spanish the work of Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chávez, Julia Alvarez, and many other writers. A poet and a journalist, her work has appeared in The Edinburgh Review, Indiana Review, Tigertail, and other journals and publications. Contact: reporterliliana@gmail.com.

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