Poetry Workshop at UVA Gives Spanish Teachers an Education

Gustavo Pellón, photo by Elaine Bolyard

Gustavo Pellón, photo by Elaine Bolyard

By Nancy Feigenbaum, FLAVA Editor

The tables were turned for a day when 55 Spanish teachers gathered in Charlottesville to learn about Spanish poetry in April. The annual Center for the Liberal Arts Workshop was billed as a “Cómo enseñar la poesía,” “How to Teach Poetry,” but it was as much an education in understanding poetry and translation. Presenters from UVA captivated the K-12 educators from across Virginia with a glimpse into the intricacies of rhythm, translation and symbolism. UVA presents a free workshop annually for Spanish teachers under the auspices of the Center for the Liberal Arts and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Workshops are also held periodically in French and German.

David Gies began the workshops in 1985, a year after UVA’s Center for the Liberal Arts was founded. The  Spanish sessions are now organized by Gustavo Pellón, director of the Foreign Language Project at the Center. “Teachers have told us they want programs that emphasize content rather than teaching methodology,” Pellón said. “Our goal is to provide free programs that will enrich their knowledge of the cultures of Spanish-speaking countries presented by cutting-edge scholars.” The presentations were held entirely in Spanish.

The first speaker of the day-long session, UVA Instructor Pedro Larrea Rubio, proposed that rhythm is primary to meaning in Spanish poetry, but that its significance is often overlooked. If we don’t pay attention to accent in Spanish poems, he said, “estamos perdiendo el punto del poema,” – “we are missing the point of the poem.” A Spanish’s poem’s rhythm may hold clues to its meaning, emphasizing the mortality of its character with a funereal march or changing pace to match the rise and fall of the narrative. His examples included Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, whom he credited with “el rap del romanticismo” and Rubén Darío, master of the use of rhythm in Spanish.  Larrea will be a Visiting Assistant Professor at Hollins University in Roanoke starting this fall. His translation of e.e. cummings poems into Spanish is scheduled for publication in Spain.

UVA Professor Alison Weber followed with a lecture on how to analyze sonnets, originally considered “women’s poetry,” she said, because of their sweet, emotional content. Brought to Spain in the 16th century from Italy, where they originated in the 13th century, Spanish sonnets eventually began to imitate conversation, with “encabagalmiento,” or run-on lines. Even as love poems, sonnets are really about the “yo” – the “I,” Weber said, even if the “I” in question were fictitious.

Professor Andrew Anderson urged his audience of teachers to “dig deeper,” when approaching poetry. An expert in Federico García Lorca, he showed how the century-old poems can challenge a modern reader unfamiliar with the author’s setting and themes. Anderson led the group through an analysis of Preciosa y el Aire, linking the lines to mythology, Andalusia folklore and Christian ritual that few in the audience recognized at first glance. Translate poems word for word, he urged. Later, once the whole poem is “unpacked,” check that your interpretations still “fit in the suitcase,” he said.

Graduate student Allison Libbey showed just how challenging it is to translate a poem and remain

Alison Weber by Elaine Bolyard

Alison Weber by Elaine Bolyard

faithful to its original message, rhythm and structure. The deceptively simple title, Dos palabras Two Words—by Alfonsina Storni, exemplifies the choices a translator must make. The two words in question are “Te quiero,” which becomes the three-word phrase “I love you” when translated to English. Libbey posed the question: Can a translation really capture all the elements of the original poem? “Sadly, no,” she said, but a well-crafted translation captures the essential elements. Libbey, who recently completed her Ph.D. and is going to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee , also showed the potential for misunderstanding, even among people as knowledgeable as her audience of educators. In the poem Balada de los dos abuelos, by Nicolás Guillén the word “ingenio” appears easy to understand as “ingenuity,” but is actually used to mean “sugar mill” or “factory.”

Later, teachers had the opportunity to meet with the presenters as they rotated through smaller groups. Next year’s workshop is likely to be held in April again; information is available at http://www.virginia.edu/cla/  or by e-mail at centerfortheliberalarts@virginia.edu




Leave a Reply