I found my voice as a writer, ironically, by speaking in other people’s voices, which is to say when I started translating in earnest. Before about five years ago, I’d dabbled in translation. In college, I once got out of taking a final exam in an Italian class by turning in a translation of the brief memoir “Winter in Abruzzo” by Natalia Ginzburg, and later it was the first translation I ever published. Still in college, I started translating Camus’s The Stranger to teach myself French. Living in Japan years later, I collaborated with my friend Mark Caprio to translate the Japanese novel A Heart of Winter by Miura Ayako, which we did manage to finish and publish, and also some contemporary Japanese Buddhist poetry. I should have given in to my fate long ago, but I spent many years writing short stories, personal essays, even a travel column for a while, before I committed to translation wholeheartedly.
What brought me back? Catalan. After learning French, Italian, and even Japanese, I finally took an intensive year-long class in the language of my ancestors. Most of the six million speakers of Catalan now live on the Mediterranean coast of Spain in Catalonia and Valencia. My mother’s family spoke it on the tiny island of Minorca in the Balearic Island group before immigrating to Florida; my grandmother was the last one in the family to understand it.
The music of Catalan grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It sounded like no other Romance language I’d studied. I got hooked on the online Catalan television station TV3, especially a pseudo-documentary comedy show about the language itself (“Caçadors de paraules”) and an evening soap opera (“La Riera”). I memorized folk songs like “Rossinyol,” which had a moment of fame because Joan Baez used to sing it, and songs by rock bands like Gossos. I started translating Catalan literature, starting with the medieval mystical poetry of Ramon Llull. And then came Ponç Pons.
I found him because he’s the most famous poet from my family’s island home of Minorca. I translated a dozen poems I found on the internet and mailed them to the only address I could find, the high school where he teaches. He replied within a few days by email with total delight, thanks, and generosity. We struck up a correspondence and exchanged many emails, letters, and packages; he sent Catalan children’s books to my kids, and I sent him compilation CDs of the 1970s American rock that he loves. When I got a chance to go to Spain a couple of years ago, we met for the first time, and he loaned me his beach cottage in a tiny town on the north coast of the island.
Sitting on the porch of Ponç’s cottage, I translated my first Catalan poetry by women: Maria Antònia Salvà, Clementina Ardieru, and Rosa Leveroni. They led me to Maria-Mercè Marçal, who rediscovered and championed and republished all three of them as her poetic godmothers. Marçal led me to the most intense joy I’ve experienced as a writer.
I simply feel that she is my spiritual sister. We were born two years apart, we were in college at the same time, we read the same books, we marched in demonstrations for the same causes, we loved the same way. Her voice speaks to my heart, and my strong hope is to speak her voice in English to people who will never understand it in Catalan. I’m aware (believe me!) that this is impossible, but it doesn’t stop me from trying to sing her astonishing songs to those who have ears to hear them.
Clyde Moneyhun's writing appeared in Issue 55 of Hayden's Ferry Review. He teaches writing and translation at Boise State University in Idaho. His translations of 20th century and contemporary Catalan poetry have appeared in the Notre Dame Review, Inventory: The Princeton Journal of Translation, Lyrikline, Eleven Eleven, and The Winter Anthology. His most recent project is a collaboration with the photographer Maria V. Garth (see mmmintranslation.com). He is the recipient of a Faculty International Development Award (2013) and a Visiting Professorship (2015), both at the University of Alicante in Spain, and an Arts and Humanities Institute Research Professorship (2013) for work on translations of the Minorcan poet Ponç Pons.