The Scribes: Translator and wordsmith Kelsi Vanada (BA ’09)

As soon as her teaching day was over, Kelsi Vanada would rush to a class of her own. She jumped in her car, changed out of her stuffy professional wear into her “cool poet clothes” and sped toward the University of Denver campus.

Vanada already had a bachelor of arts degree from DU, but the English and Spanish teacher was craving a way to stay connected to the writing community. Her mentor, experimental poet Eleni Sikelianos, formerly of DU’s creative writing program, invited her to audit a class on campus, which triggered a realization: If she was going to pursue her true passion, she needed to make a clean break from her career and environs.

“I needed to find a community where I could call myself a writer,” Vanada says, “[and] be around a bunch of people who took it for granted that I was a poet and didn’t think it was just some sort of cute hobby like some of my friends in Denver did. For me it was more than a thing I did in my free time. It was who I was.”

Vanada, who grew up in Monument, Colorado, had always been driven toward creative writing. Attending DU as an undergraduate just punched the accelerator. She cherished the discussions she had with classmates and relished the opportunity to study abroad in Denmark, take literature classes and expand her horizons.

“That taste of what it felt like to be among a literary community [showed me] that that was something I really desired for my life,” she says. 

Today, Vanada, based out of Tucson, is not only a published writer (a chapbook of her poems debuted in March 2020) but an accomplished translator, a niche she stumbled into when brushing up on her Spanish during graduate school at the University of Iowa. As the program manager at American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), she supports the translation industry, creating opportunities for underrepresented populations and connecting new translators to writers. (According to data from the University of Rochester, only about 3% of the United States’ published works are translations. That’s nothing compared to such countries as Italy, where the rate is closer to 50%.)

Moving a poem from Spanish to English (or Swedish to English, as Vanada also has done) isn’t as simple as plugging the text into a website. Although Vanada’s work often starts with a literal translation, her craft is much more than word-for-word substitution.

“It’s a process of going over a work multiple times and choosing words that will convey not just meaning but, because it’s poetry, it needs to be poetry that works in English,” she says. “When I’m translating from Spanish, I’m constantly [asking], ‘What are all the various ways of saying this?’ and then I choose the one that seems most fitting for the poem.”

To create the best translation, Vanada constantly communicates with the authors. Each question she asks about a reference or a description informs her ability to sketch a list of English options. 

“I sometimes ask a poet to describe something for me, like: ‘Help me see this as you saw it,’” she says. “And then I’ll find the words for it. But if I can’t get the right image in my head for it, it won’t be a good poem. It won’t be clear. It won’t come across to an English-speaking reader.”

For Vanada, conveying a poem’s meaning in another language is more than “getting it right,” so to speak. Rarely, she finds, is there one correct answer when translating. After all, she says, “that’s not how poetry works in the first place.

“Unfortunately, a lot of peoples’ experience of reading poetry is that there’s something cryptic that they just have to unlock to get the answer to what this poem means,” she says. “But I believe poetry is language alive. I’m very conscious that when you’re translating poetry, you’re making a new poem. It’s totally not definitive.”

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