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Found in Translation: Professor and alumna translate Spanish poems into English

Maria Bartlett '18 at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City in 2018.

On the surface, the objective world of math and the subjective world of poetry appear to be opposites, but not for programmer Maria Bartlett ’18, who set out with her mentor in Spanish, Furman Professor Ron Friis, to translate an entire book of verse by noted Mexican poet Alberto Blanco.

“I think translation actually involves a lot of the same types of problem-solving and reasoning techniques that are characteristic of math. I love puzzles and I found that translation was often like working on a puzzle,” says Bartlett, who majored in applied math and Spanish.

In her last year at Furman, Bartlett and Friis together translated 40 poems in Blanco’s “Medio Cine” (“Cinemap”) as part of a year-long independent study funded by The Furman Advantage. Thirteen of the poems have been accepted for publication; five of those were published in the Oct. 15 issue of the literary journal Cagibi.

Blanco is considered Mexico’s most important poet. He has published more than 70 books and 20 more of translations, anthologies or illustrations. Widely studied at the postgraduate level, his poems appear in over 100 anthologies and dozens of dictionaries and textbooks.

The project took Friis and Bartlett to Rollins College where Bartlett gave a presentation on the balancing act that is the translation process. “There are far more considerations in the process than first meet the eye,” she says.

“For example, how do we effectively communicate the poet’s work in English without losing its nuance or altering the poet’s point for each poem? How do we respect punctuation, line length, syllabic length and other elements? And how do we distinguish between a personal interpretation of a poem and the poet’s intention for their work? These are questions we puzzled over each time we considered how to write a translation that was faithful to the original text,” Bartlett says.

poetry translation
Bartlett ’18 speaks at the annual Undergraduate Latin American Studies Symposium at Rollins College in 2018.

Bartlett and Friis also traveled to Mexico to meet Blanco and have him review the translations before submitting them for publication. “The opportunity to correspond directly with the poet of the book was extraordinarily special,” Bartlett says.

Bartlett says the project was “one of the highlights” of her Furman career. “I felt extremely privileged that Furman recognized the deep value in this work and was willing to facilitate my participation as a project co-collaborator,” she says.

In “Medio Cine,” Friis says, “each poem in the collection is a small dialogue with a film or film director. Three of the translations published in Cagibi are about light, and one, “Light in the Quince Tree,” reminded Friis and Bartlett “in different and abstract ways of our experiences in Madrid as part of Furman’s Spanish immersion study away program there,” he says.

Since graduating, Bartlett has continued to tap into her analytical sensibilities in her role as research programmer at Mathematica, a policy research firm in Washington, D.C.

“Learning a programming language is similar in many ways to the process of foreign language acquisition,” she says. “Ultimately, a love of analytical thinking unites my love of language, math and programming.”

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