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University of Missouri

Passing the Antorcha

Professor emerita Petch Peden passes on the love of translation.

Petch Peden and Pamela Carmell

Professor Emerita Petch Peden, left, passed on the love of translation to her protégé Pamela Carmell. Photo by Rob Hill.

The path to becoming an award-winning translator wasn’t an easy one for Margaret Sayers “Petch” Peden, BA ’48, MA ’63, PhD ’66. She had to challenge colleagues who told her that translating didn’t involve research (she’d spend countless hours studying language, history and culture) and editors who told her a plaza was the same thing as a square (Cuba doesn’t have squares, she insisted).

So when the MU professor of Spanish saw the translations of graduate student Pamela Carmell, BS Ed ’72, MA ’77, Peden did everything she could to make Carmell’s path to success easier.

“She took me aside and said, ‘You can do this,’ ” says Carmell, who recently retired from teaching high school Spanish in St. Louis to translate full time.

Carmell spent five years translating her latest work, a book of poems by Cuban author Nancy Morejón called Homing Instincts/Querencias (Cubanabooks Press, 2014).

“Translation is a creative process,” says Carmell, who also has a master of fine arts from the University of Arkansas. “When you’re in the middle of translating, there’s a place where you’re so immersed in the work that it doesn’t exist anymore, and you just drift in between the two versions until it resolves itself in English.”

That’s what both women love about translating — losing themselves in a writer’s world and then participating with the text. Peden, who translated more than 65 books, developed a close relationship with Chilean author Isabel Allende. Carmell has worked with Morejón since 2004 and is collaborating with her on her next book.

Peden retired from teaching at MU in 1989 and from translating in 2012, the same year she won the Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation for her lifetime commitment to the field.

“I didn’t earn any money from translating until the last 15 years,” Peden says. “So you really have to do it for the love of it.”

Carmell agrees. “We are artists,” she says. “That’s what Petch instilled in me.”