Past Perfect: Hendrix Student Translates Manuscript

For the past semester and a half, junior Will Matheson has been trying his hand at a new hobby: translation. When Matheson’s grandfather Roger Martinez died, he left behind a transcript, over one hundred pages long, titled “Memorias de Mi Vida”. Because of its title, which translates into “memories of my life,” Matheson assumed the manuscript was a personal memoir. He chose to translate the text, in part because he wanted to know his grandfather better.

“He had dementia,” Matheson said. “He stopped being present when I was about twelve.”

Matheson described his decision to jump into the project as “hasty.” He had recently switched his major from Creative Writing to Spanish, and he wasn’t sure if he would be qualified to translate the text. However, he wanted to be able to give the translated version to his family members, who only speak English.

Matheson partnered with the Murphy Foundation and, with the aid of Dr. José Vilahomat, began translating the manuscript. He was surprised to find that the text was not his grandfather’s memoir, but a fictional account of the life of Casimiro Roca, a Spanish-born priest. Roca was known for restoring the Santuario de Chimayó, a Roman Catholic Church and famous pilgrimage site located in New Mexico. “So far,” Matheson said, “it’s about Roca’s early life—family life, country life, going to church and religious festivals.”

While the manuscript is a piece of fiction, Roca and Martinez share a few similarities, such as Spanish heritage and a religious zeal. While Matheson isn’t directly reading about Martinez’s life, he is learning about him through the subjects his writing deals with.

“[My grandfather] was a very spiritual guy,” Matheson revealed. “He was a member of the Knights of Columbus. I think the setting [of the text] is interesting to him—like, a small town, family, community, religion—those are things that he cared about.”

Born in Colorado, Martinez was an American, but Spanish was his first language and he spoke it as well as if he had been from Spain. He also had a master’s degree in Spanish Literature, and he was a Spanish teacher. He spent time in Spain as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve. His command over the language causes Matheson to question his own translating abilities.

“He spoke a technical, poetic Spanish. I wish I had more aptitude with the language to really appreciate him as a writer,” Matheson said. “The more you learn about a language, the more you realize what you’re missing.”

Matheson, who has no previous translation experience, admits that he struggles with the project. Working as a Spanish student, not someone fluent in the language, he worries about capturing the meaning of each sentence while still maintaining its style. He points out that a lot of Spanish words and phrases don’t have English counterparts, and that he often finds himself stuck inside of a lexical gap. He estimates that he’s dedicated twenty or thirty hours to translation. He’s only on page three.

“You have to make so many decisions. Every word is a decision,” Matheson said. “But you kind of learn through experience a little bit.”

Matheson meets with Dr. Vilahomat every week to review his most recent translations. Sometimes his work receives approval, but sometimes it needs correction.

“[Dr. Vilahomat] is really helpful as a cultural reference. I could not have done this without him,” Matheson said.

Aside from the language, Matheson also hits roadblocks in the manuscript itself. It’s typewritten in small print, which makes it difficult to read, and it’s littered with typos and smudges. Sometimes Matheson has to determine if the word he’s trying to translate is written correctly, or if he’s wasting his time on a typo.

“Some typos are easy to catch, like ‘Dimingo’ instead of ‘Domingo’, but some are harder, especially if I’m not familiar with the word,” Matheson said.

Matheson also suspects that the manuscript is a first draft. “It definitely feels fresh off the hand,” Matheson said. “It doesn’t feel like he edited it a lot.”

Matheson predicts that he won’t finish translating “Memorias de Mi Vida” for another few years, at least not until he’s graduated. He hopes to revisit and edit his translation when he has better command of the Spanish language. However, he doesn’t think it will be seen outside of his family.

“I doubt that it will be publishable,” Matheson said. “My dream for it would be to finish it and then give it to my grandma.”

This story originally appeared in the April Print Edition of The Profile

Photo credit: Konrad Witkowski

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