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University of Missouri

Professor Emerita Honored for Lifetime of Translation

“Petch” Peden won the Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation.

woman sitting in chair in front of bookshelves

Margaret Sayers “Petch” Peden won the Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation from the PEN American Center. The organization is recognizing Peden, professor emerita of Spanish at the University of Missouri, for her lifetime commitment to the field of translation. Photo by Rob Hill.

On Oct. 23, 2012, Margaret Sayers “Petch” Peden will walk across a stage in New York and accept the Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation from the PEN American Center, the world’s oldest international literary organization. The organization is recognizing Peden, professor emerita of Spanish at the University of Missouri, for her lifetime commitment to the field of translation, an award given out every three years.

When she accepts her award, she’ll want to thank a few people.

She wouldn’t be standing there if it weren’t for her high school Spanish teacher, Esther Hepple, who made the language seem so foreign, so fun and so not Jefferson City, Mo., which Peden says was “not very exotic” in the 1940s.

Peden, BA ’48, MA ’63, PhD ’66, might thank the only man she recognized in the Spanish department, John Brushwood, when she returned to MU 12 years after getting her bachelor’s degree. He helped her start the master’s program without filing the proper paperwork (which she eventually filed), easing the path to her doctorate.

While she was working on her dissertation on Mexican playwright Emilio Carballido, she found his short novel, The Norther. She told her then-husband, the late MU English Professor William Peden, that he should read it. “He said, ‘Well, you know I can’t read it. Why don’t you translate it?’ ” Peden says. “So I did.” Peden might thank him, too. The Norther became her first published translation in 1968.

Teaching Spanish at MU allowed her the opportunity to scope out which books she wanted to translate next. “They fed each other,” she says. “I’d teach a course in contemporary literature, and I’d come to a book that I thought, ‘Wow, I’d like to translate that.’ ”

With her first work under her belt, she sent a letter to Carlos Fuentes, a world-renowned Mexican novelist, asking if she could translate some of his novels. He sent her a few “tests,” shorter stories so he could get a feel for her work. When he was satisfied, he sent her Terra Nostra, a 1,400-page behemoth. “[Fuentes] was a turning point because he had an agent,” Peden says, possibly adding him on her list of people to thank. “I never had to worry after that. Publishers would call me.”

Throughout her career, Peden has translated more than 65 books from Spanish to English. She can name the hardest (Terra Nostra); her favorite (The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly, a children’s book by Luis Sepúlveda); and the most fulfilling (La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas, for which she won the biannual 2010 Lewis Galantière Translation Prize from the American Translators Association).

Greg Rabassa, a judge for the PEN award and translator of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, writes of her career, “Her characters speak as they would have had they been born to English, and their authors likewise acquire a style in their transformed tongue that is true to what they say or are trying to say … ”

Peden might thank Rabassa for “the beautiful words” he wrote and for acknowledging the research that goes into learning someone else’s language, style of writing and culture.

Finally, as the music begins to usher her off the stage, Peden might thank her second husband, Robert Harper. She’ll exit and sit with him, her daughter, daughter-in-law and several friends. “And then we’re going to have a party,” she says.

After a lifetime of work, it’s much deserved.

To read more about Peden’s career in translation, check out “Peden Translates Book into National Prize” from the Spring 2011 issue.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Carlos Fuentes and Esther Hepple’s names.