Staff Q&A: Randall Couch

Randall Couch Photo credit: Mark Stehle

Revered in her home country of Chile, poet, human rights activist and feminist figure Gabriela Mistral was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. But Mistral’s life and work remains largely unknown to many North Americans and she has suffered (more than most) from what Randall Couch calls “simple-minded biographical criticism.”

By all accounts, “Madwomen,” Couch’s new English translation of Mistral’s Locas mujeres poems, should set the record straight.

Couch—himself a poet and writer who works for Penn’s Information Systems & Computing office—has collected 26 of Mistral’s late-period poems in his book, including those left unpublished at her death. On April 24, Couch (and a guest to be named later) will hold a bilingual reading of her work—and his translations—at Kelly Writers House.

Couch sees himself not primarily as a translator, but instead, as a poet and scholar. His diverse body of writing includes essays and book chapters on Ezra Pound, Mistral and poet Harryette Mullen, and he is at work on a book of alternative elegies for his wife and is also collaborating on a project with photographer and designer Joel Katz.

Couch also serves as Adjunct Professor of English at Arcadia University, where he has taught advanced poetry writing and poetics since 2003. “I’ve been writing professionally since I was 17. I worked for 30 hours a week on the city newspaper in the town [where] I went to high school,” he says. “My interest in writing of all types—journalism, poetry, scholarly writing, fiction—all go back a long way.”

Q. What do you do here at Penn?
When I first came I started working in the networking division at ISC at the time when the fiber for the internet was just being laid on campus—before the web, before everything we know today as the realm of cyberspace. I was involved from the beginning with both documenting network-related services and other computing things that ISC was doing for the campus community, as well as doing writing and projects to help make computing friendly for people on campus.
I became involved in what I mostly do now, which is usability and user experience design for some public service applications that ISC develops.

Q. You’ve also been involved with Writers House for years. Talk about how your relationships with KWH people have shaped your writing.
Writers House is a kind of unique intellectual crossroads in that writers of all degrees of accomplishment and reputation can meet as equals—and do meet as equals—from undergraduates to pick-your-famous-author. The physical aspect of that is really important. Because it’s a fairly inclusive place by design, it means that if you just show up, on a fairly regular basis you will cross paths with different kinds of people. It keeps you interested in new things.

Q. How did you decide to translate the work of the poet Gabriela Mistral?
To translate well is to require seeing and understanding every choice that the original poet made in his own language. All translations fail. Good translations fail deliberately. In other words, you choose carefully which things you’re going to depart from. There’s really no better school for poetic technique.
“Madwomen” began as an exercise like that. I was in grad school, at a cocktail mixer, conversing with my faculty supervisor, and they liked the idea of doing some translations. Another faculty member said, ‘Well you should do Gabriela Mistral, because not much has been translated and what’s been done is not that good.’ Like most North Americans, I didn’t know Mistral’s work at all. But she is one of the most widely read poets in the Spanish speaking world. In Chile, she’s a mythical figure.

Q. How helpful was it to delve into her biography?
Oh, essential. There are a lot of things in the poems that are private symbolism. Because you know there is at least an illusion to something going on in the world or going on in her life that you could easily miss, because it may be put in an oblique way in the poem.

Q. What was your approach?
Since a lot of these were not going to be in a crowded field, I wanted to be as informed an advocate and transmitter of her poetics as I could be.
For any given translation project, you can either try to ... make it as smooth and familiar in English as possible. The other extreme is to try and take the reader as far into Mistral’s Spanish as possible and retain much of its pungency and as much strangeness as possible without losing the reader, which is a kind of foreignizing strategy. ... I’ve adopted a mildly foreignizing strategy in this book.

Q. Why did you choose these particular poems?
They were among the ones that seemed to me the most thematically and formally complicated and interesting and ones that had more points of contact with Anglo-American poetics of the modernistic and post-modernist period.
These are poems that I felt merited contemporary translations.

Originally published April 10, 2008

Originally published on April 10, 2008