Life Among Languages
Harold Augenbraum ’76 is fluent in English, Spanish, and French. He’s an accomplished translator and critic who has published six books on Latino literature; has held high-level offices at the United Way, the Museum of the City of New York and the Mercantile Library of New York; and is now Executive Director at the National Book Foundation. He’s also worked a few less-than-glamorous jobs along the way; “My senior year [at BU] I took a job washing floors in the Student Union, five nights a week from seven to eleven. I was the only English-speaker on a crew of about six or seven, so if I wanted to talk to anyone I had to burnish my Spanish pretty quickly. They were terrible pool players and the craziest poker players I have ever seen. They dealt three cards at a time from the bottom of the deck, claiming it was the way it was done in Colombia, which made playing five-card draw pretty weird.” Harold’s late nights of poker and Spanish conversation came in handy after graduation, when he decided to head to Barcelona to teach English. Originally planning on a six-month stay, he lived and worked in Spain for three and a half years— an experience he describes as life-changing. It was the beginning of a long engagement with the international culture of letters, a goal he originally thought might have been lost after deciding against an advanced degree in comparative literature.
Always a voracious reader, Harold has found translating to be the creative outlet that suits him best because it allows him to focus on the puzzle of language without having to worry about complications like characters and plot. He says, “every translator has a theory of translation, articulated or not. Mine is fairly simple: I would like the reader to experience the book in as similar a way as possible as a reader in the original language, while never forgetting that the language in which she or he is reading is not the original.” Harold often speaks about the experience of reading, and he keeps a blog called “Reading Ahead: The Future of Literary Reading” where his posts range from commentary on T.S. Eliot and Robert Graves to reflections on youtube, twitter, and comic books—among many other things. It’s clear that he is a scholar to whom community is as important as intellectualism. He speaks fondly of a tradition he and a fellow English major began their senior year at BU; “we started going to the student office in the English department on Wednesday afternoons, with a bottle of wine, to talk about literature. As people began to hear about it, more people showed up. The only requirement was that you bring a bottle of wine. By the end of the year, about fifteen of us were crammed into that tiny office every week, with fifteen bottles of wine.” While he admits that these meetings didn’t always produce profundities, the enthusiasm he felt at 236 Baystate Road is unforgettable.
These days, Harold’s optimism about reading isn’t waning. Given the title of his blog and his prominent position in the literary world, he’s often asked how he sees the role of literature changing in this age of internet and e-readers. He points to both marked differences and similarities between the forms of the past and those of today but insists that he’s merely a commentator, not a prophet; “predicting the future of book reading,” he says, “is like eating Jello with a fork.” Harold posits that a more-or-less wholesale shift to e-readers is inevitable—devices that will allow readers to switch between novels, websites, correspondence, and other forms of media—but he sees this as an avenue of ingenuity rather than a dead end for literary fiction; “the biggest change from the advent of the new digital delivery systems will be the development of new kinds of literary abstraction and the exploration of a sort of literary surface tension.” Wherever the future of literary reading takes us, Harold Augenbraum will certainly be at the forefront, happy to translate if necessary.