Tony Geist, On Translating Poetry: Treading the Line between the Excessively Literal and the Excessively Liberal

Submitted by Casey Colvin on
Professor Tony Geist

The academic year’s first Translation Studies Colloquium, sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities,  was held on October 29th, 2021 virtually, via Zoom.  In this well-attended talk, Professor Geist contextualized translation as a collaborative process evidenced in his classrooms, offering both theoretical framing and practical strategies for doing and teaching translation. He shared with the audience his experience in teaching contemporary Latin American and Spanish poets and talked about the role of poetry in different cultures. 

Geist explained the process of his translation course, wherein students are grouped by interests and complementary skill sets, maximizing the power of collaboration. Geist shared the process in which he introduces each poet and their work, and then students are assigned their poems. As students progress through their translations, they share their work with the  authors who, in turn, respond personally to the students’ translation, giving suggestions, clarification and encouragement. Oftentimes an ongoing conversation develops between the poets and students, negotiating the meaning within the poems. The course culminates in a final class in which the students, the professor and the poets gather together for a recital of the works and their translations, with a discussion that follows. 

When asked “Why poetry?” Geist answered that because many American students not only do not like poetry but are often afraid of it is precisely why he has them translate it. By working through each poem line by line and word by word, they begin to lose their fear of it.

At the end of his presentation, Geist shared with the audience examples of his own translations of poems from the book Roma, peligro para caminantes / Rome, pedestrians beware / Roma, Pericolo per i viandanti. 

Geist’s presentation was followed by a lively Q and A.

Anthony Geist is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature. His publications center modernism and postmodernism in twentieth-century peninsular poetry, including La poética de la generación del 27 y las revistas literarias: De la vanguardia al compromiso, Modernism and its Margins: Reinscribing Cultural Modernity from Spain and Latin America, Jorge Guillén: The Poetry and the Poet, and the edition of the Obra poética de Julio Vélez.

Article By Sabrina Spannagel Bradley