Woman in Battle Dress
Jessica Powell ’06 Translates Antonio Benítez Rojo
Two hundred years ago, a cross-dressing Swiss doctor was tried and sentenced to four years in a women’s hospital in Havana, Cuba. After watching her husband die in battle, Henriette Faber dressed up as a man to attend medical school in Paris. She served as a surgeon on the field of battle during Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, was captured by British troops at the Battle of Vitoria and emigrated to practice medicine in Cuba. She married a woman – who later filed for an annulment and exposed Faber’s real identity to the authorities.
Faber’s real-life story is the stuff of fiction – a cross-dressing caper of Shakespearean proportions, a plot stirred thick with betrayal and loss, replete with the evergreen themes of gender and identity.
Faber’s audacity and determination captured Jessica Powell’s imagination when she first encountered the story writing her doctoral dissertation at UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. “Why was it that three male Cuban writers wrote about this marginal European woman who ended up dressing up as a man?” she said. “She crosses the centuries – we are still grappling with how women are not included in all aspects of society and the professional world.”
A voracious reader, Powell sought works about Faber before falling in love with Antonio Benítez Rojo’s novel Mujer en traje de batalla (Woman in Battle Dress), published in Spanish in 2001. “It was a page turner,” she said of the author’s fictional take on the historical figure’s life.
Powell did her research: the novel was the only Benítez Rojo oeuvre without a published English translation. But getting the permission to translate the novel—and the funds to be able to devote the time to the project—was filled with challenges. “The translator needs to pound the pavement to get the rights and to find a publisher,” said Powell. “You have to wear a lot of different hats.”
A huge obstacle was Benítez Rojo’s death; he passed away in 2005, a year before Powell finished her doctorate. Then life—academia, raising her children and the pull of other translation projects—took over.
Lost in Translation
After graduate school, Powell taught courses on contemporary Cuban writers at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, and went on to work as an editorial assistant to professor Suzanne Jill Levine, a leading translator of Latin American literature. Together, they worked on a five-book translation of the works of Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, published by Penguin Classics in 2010.
“She is spectacular,” said Powell of her teacher and mentor. “When I was in grad school, I was doing purely analytical type of work. Then I attended a seminar with Professor Levine, and she opened my eyes to translation, this new art form. I fell in love instantly. I knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
Translation is both livelihood and creative outlet for Powell. “I have always loved being able to immerse myself in a language and culture different from my own,” she said. “My love of translation is, in part, an extension of that passion and respect for cultural knowledge and exchange. There is so much nuance and complexity involved in translating a book. It requires extremely close reading of the text. I delve into the historical, linguistic and cultural context of the work, all at once.”
Through collaborations and on solo projects, Powell has published translations of a wide variety of Latin American authors like César Vallejo, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Edgardo Rivera Martínez, María Moreno, Edmundo Paz-Soldán, Liliana Heer, Alan Pauls, Anna Lidia Vega Serova, and a play “Persistence Until Death” by Lope de Vega. “I feel grateful to bring authors from the region to people in America,” she said. “Translation is crucial and critical to our world now, the more globalized we become.”
Ever-present on her radar, however, was Benitez Rojo’s epic and the unforgettable life of Henriette Faber. After years of research, Powell contacted the author’s widow. It took her a year to work out the rights. Hilda Benítez Rojo, in the end, was more than happy to be able to share her late husband’s final work with the English-speaking world. Financial support was the next step. Powell applied for a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship. She received the grant in 2011 – and then spent the next two years working long days and late nights to bring Faber to life in the English language.
Translating a novel is very much like writing an entirely new book. “I feel like I’ve been living with this project for so long,” she said. “You have to really want to spend years reading a book and knowing it so well. It has to feed you in a spiritual way. It’s that’s contemplative, and it’s work you do alone. It was pretty great when I had little kids. I could set down the translation to be with my children, and then there it was, waiting for me, when I was ready to work again.”
After finishing the book, Powell spent several years searching for the right publisher. She settled on City Lights, a small publishing house based in San Francisco. “I am thrilled where the book ended up,” she said. The book is set to launch at City Lights Bookstore this month, with both Hilda Benítez Rojo and professor Levine in attendance. Powell is also working with her mentor to find a publisher for their translation of a novella by Silvina Ocampo.
So what is life after Henriette Faber? “Writing is a natural direction for a translator, but I haven’t taken the plunge yet,” said Powell. “A good translator is analogous to being a good writer. The best translation is often not the most literal. It’s the one that captures the mood or register. This is not necessarily easy to teach. It comes from experience.”