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Hermsen translates poetry to teach foreign language, importance of bilingualism

Hermsen translates poetry to teach foreign language, importance of bilingualism

Terry Hermsen, professor of English at Otterbein University, is taking bilingualism to heart. So much so that he started a new publishing company.

Green Fish Press is dedicated to publishing poetry in translation, with emphasis on Chilean poetry. Hermsen’s first book translated and published at Green Fish in 2015, The Most Beautiful Cemetery in Chile, was written by Chilean poet Christian Formoso, recipient of the prestigious Pablo Neruda Award in 2010. Hermsen partnered with Otterbein graduate Sydney Tammarine ’13 in the translation of the 336-page volume. Tammarine is pursuing a master’s degree in creative non-fiction at Hollins University after teaching Spanish at Horizon Science Academy in Columbus for two years.

“I did a lot of research into the publishing of translation in the U.S. and found that only three percent of the books published in this country are translations from other countries,” Hermsen said.

Hermsen’s journey into bilingualism began in 2007 when he accompanied his wife Leslie to Concepción, Chile, and ended up spending a week as poet-in-residence at the Thomas Jefferson School where his wife was working.

“The fifth-graders were talking in both English and Spanish,” Hermsen recalled. “I thought, ‘what the heck, who am I?’”

From that point on, Hermsen began taking language classes and translating poetry to regain the Spanish he had learned in high school and college, but had lapsed in the intervening years. He went back to Chile in 2009 for his sabbatical and met Formosa for the first time while serving on a panel called “Chile Seen Through the Eyes of its Poets.”

“I was the only U.S. poet on the panel,” Hermsen said. “We exchanged books and a year later I asked him [Formoso] if I could translate his work.”

Hermsen and Tammarine spent four years translating The Most Beautiful Cemetery in Chile, which underwent four revisions.

“Sydney and I work like this,” Hermsen said. “I do a first draft, using my dictionaries, verb book and phrase book. Then we meet and read it out loud. She goes through the Spanish meticulously. We read it out loud again in both Spanish and English and try, most of all, to get the music right. There's a big difference between Spanish music in poetry and the sound of English words. We try to find something like a ‘mirror image’ that has a similar ring.”

Since the book’s publication, Hermsen has created various offshoots, turning the book into a 45-minute reader’s theatre, which already has been performed six times in Ohio, and a full-length stage play in production talks with various theatres around the U.S. But, perhaps most importantly, Hermsen has begun promoting bilingualism in Central Ohio area high schools.

This past fall, Hermsen and Tammarine held several full-day sessions at Grandview Heights and Wooster High Schools, working with French and Spanish classes. Students would look at the translations between Spanish and English and read the poems out load. Formosa, who was in the United States on a book tour, was able to join the pair at one session in Wooster.

“My goal is to encourage students in Ohio, landlocked Ohio, to believe that foreign language matters. It’s just a conviction of mind,” Hermsen said. “I think the United States is way, way too isolated. We have such a limited sense of what’s beyond our borders.

“Bilingualism matters because we need, as a culture, to widen our sense of history, geography and language,” Hermsen continued. “Without that we become isolated without the ability to listen to the rest of the world.”


Learn more about English at Otterbein.