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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Gained in Translation

Senior Erica Mena is no stranger to hard work. Even though she finished classes in December 2006, she still keeps herself busy. Between working at Lame Duck Books in Harvard Square and volunteer editing at a local press, Mena found time to translate a book of poems by Puerto Rican author Etnairis Rivera, “Return to the Sea,” forthcoming from Arrowsmith Press.

Arrowsmith is a small Boston press that specializes in producing limited and numbered editions of work they believe “enrich the literary world.” The books are designed to be collectible but affordable. The press is in its fifth season and has published 14 books, from authors such as Donald Hall, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Tom Sleigh, Askold Melnyczuk and Fr. Daniel Berrigan.

Rivera has nine volumes of poetry in Spanish, one of which received an honorable mention from PEN Puerto Rico, as well as plays and criticism. This is her first collection to appear in English. Mena discovered the poet in Chile, where she was studying in a Spanish-language immersion program. “Ironically, I had to go to Chile to reconnect with my Puerto Rican heritage,” she said.

Mena was there to celebrate the centennial of the poet Pablo Neruda’s birth. Rivera attended as the poetry ambassador from Puerto Rico.”I discovered her [Rivera] at a reading in a local bookstore,” Mena said. “She was reading from ‘Intervenidos’ (‘Invadings’), a book about stopping US Military testing in a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico.”

Rivera gave Mena her reading copy, and Mena immediately starting translating the book. Upon her return to the US, Mena began translating another of Rivera’s books “Viaje de los Besos” (“The Journey of Kisses”) for her creative writing honors thesis at UMass Boston. There, creative writing professor and co-founder of Arrowsmith Press, Askold Melnyczuk, discovered the work and commissioned Mena to put together what would become “Return to the Sea.” The book contains poems from both the aforementioned books, in addition to another poem titled “I Go To The Sea When I Write.”

Working directly with the author, who speaks perfect English in addition to her native language, was a complicated but rewarding process, Mena notes. Sometimes the two fought over word choice, because successful translation involves more than changing the words from one language to another.

“The idea is to capture the rhythms, and the artistic intent of the original,” Mena said. “It’s relatively easy to transliterate, but translation is a different process. You’re creating a new ‘original’ work, while staying faithful to the author’s work.”

Some of the poems took weeks or months to get right, but others were translated in “two or three hours.” Mena feels these number among the strongest translations, reiterating how helpful it was to work directly with Rivera in both Spanish and English.

“Return to the Sea” is being released on April 29, along with “Ric’s Progress,” a poem in 21 parts from the current US Poet Laureate Donald Hall, “The Kingdom of his Will” by UMass Boston professor Catherine Parnell, and a collection of broadsides that include work of many of the writers of UMass Boston’s William Joiner Center for the study of war and its consequences. The reception will be held at the Pierre Menard Gallery/Lame Duck Books at 10 Arrow Street, just outside Harvard Square. For more information, call 617 868-2022.

Sing, MotherSing, Mother.The one who clouds the seas,the one who usurps the earth,the one who destroys the fruit,the one who burns the woods and wounds the natives,it tears apart, it doesn’t know;the one who orders the bombschews up cruelly a language that has mourned.Sing, Mother, glow and sing.Don’t abandon us to the snakes that threatento engulf our headswhile we sleep the sleep of centuries and chains.Sing, and kiss us and return to usGod, the one who seems to forget.

By Etnairis Rivera (translated by Erica Mena)