Helen Lane, 1921 – 2004

Context N°16

by Ronald Christ

Helen Lane, who died August 29, 2004, at the age of 83, was the preeminent translator of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian fiction. Among the long list of authors she translated are Augusto Roa Bastos, Juan Goytisolo, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jorge Amado, Luisa Valenzuela, Mario Vargas Llosa, Marguerite Duras, Nélida Piñon, and Curzio Malaparte. A long-time supporter of Dalkey Archive, as well as a contributor to the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Helen Lane will be remembered as both a friend and coconspirator in bringing the best of contemporary fiction to the English-speaking world. We asked her good friend and fellow-translator Ronald Christ to write about Helen’s life and accomplishments.

Though petite, Helen Lane was mighty and sometimes called the queen of translators, leading Margaret Sayers Peden, known to all as Petch, into fondly dubbing her “Queenie.” Helen was also an intensely attracting person, like some babies and certain animals, and with age her small stature grew enhanced by the disproportionate size of her head, leading me to dub her “Panda.” She acknowledged her titles with that inimitable smile and tilt of her head revealing half-closed crescents of large eyes, and we now fondly and proudly recall all that those titles hailed, Helen having left us—been translated, she liked to quip—on August 29, 2004, after a stroke at her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Helen’s mastery of translation flowed from several converging sources that made her unique. She had been a cryptographer during WWII; she had served as foreign editor in the 1960s at Grove Press, and she continued writing reader’s reports on proposed books for various publishers and agencies into the 1980s; she had studied both Romance languages and literatures at UCLA and the Sorbonne, coming to command seven languages, as written and spoken; and she was a graceful as well as forceful stylist in English. The last quality is the most important for any translator, while her editing prowess gave her a rare reader over her shoulder—herself. Her editing extended to the books themselves: I recall a shocked academic discovering that Helen had trimmed Sábato’s Of Heroes and Tombs and also recall a critic, Latin American, who told me that the English translation was the only version of the book, including the original, that she cared to read.

Helen’s manner of working, as she described it to Margaret Sayers Peden and as I observed it at her home in France where Dennis Dollens and I had gone for a weekend and stayed three months, was remarkable, literally astonishing. Early on, between the lines of the books themselves, later, on enlarged photocopies (140% was her preference), she wrote brief solutions and posed queries as she read the book. Then, on her doughty Selectric or, later, her Mac, she typed out the translation, apparently retained in her head from that preliminary reading, leaving only the puzzle passages and the revision of her English to the final editing phase, which she relished. All accomplished between 10 p.m. and 3 or 4 a.m. on seven-day workweeks. She hated bright sunlight as much as she hated bending over, so she tended her vegetable and flower gardens seated on the ground, shielded by an umbrellasized straw hat; she kept her main dictionary and Roget exactly at her fingertips on a low, deskside table in her midnight study.

Helen’s greatest satisfaction came from difficult texts, the harder the better; her final pleasure from squaring up the pages for mailing, knowing there was not a grace note she could add or subtract. When she reached that final state, her expression matched the silently beaming one when she ate fine, exotic food. Translating was both art and service, work and ritual for her: “To translate is to ‘carry across’—and what better way of helping in the dharmatask of bringing all sentient Being ‘to the other shore?’ ”

With Helen’s being carried across, literature loses a great artist; to translators, publishers, and authors, an intimate idol. Her prized friend, the award-winning translator Carol Maier, whom Helen admired for her dedication as well as her craft, writes:

During the last decade, it was my honor and privilege to be Helen’s friend. From her I learned what it means to define oneself as a translator. Her written words about translation were few, but her words in translation are innumerable. In those words she leaves an unparalleled legacy, a rich example to be treasured and studied in depth. She was a woman of wit, precision, candor, and spunk. And she knew how to laugh.

And Petch, our grand doyenne, recalls:

When I began translating, there was a role model ready and waiting: who but Helen Lane? I am, and have always been, awed by the scope of her knowledge as well as her unerring ear. Imagine, memorable translations from French, Portuguese, and Spanish. We have lost a treasure, a friend, a stellar member of our community, but she has left us a legacy: her work, and the inspiring figure of her person. We will miss her, but she is here.

Indeed, Helen Lane ¡¡presente!!

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