Luther College professor’s collaboration leads to PEN Literary Award

March 13, 2020

DECORAH, Iowa "” Nancy Gates Madsen, professor of Spanish at Luther College, and Dr. Kristin Dykstra, Saint Michaels' College distinguished scholar in residence, have been awarded the 2020 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation. Host of the 2020 award ceremony, Seth Meyers, described the ceremony as "The Oscars for books."

            Winning the award was "absolutely thrilling and delightful," says Gates Madsen. "I am deeply honored to have played a part in this literary endeavor."

Founded in 1996, the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation recognizes book-length translations of poetry from any language into English. Recognized for their work on the collection "The Winter Garden Photograph" by Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez, principal translator Dykstra and co-translator Gates Madsen worked to maintain the artistry and accuracy of the original poems while translating from Spanish to English. A dozen co-translated poems appear in the collection; Dykstra independently translated the remainder of the book.

"When translating poetry you are writing a new poem in English that has a life of its own, while still being faithful to the original," says Gates Madsen. "It is more of an art than a science."

Judges of the event wrote, "Almost impossibly, the translators negotiate the definitive peculiarities of Rodríguez's unique phrasing with inspired English versions that neither normalize, dumb-down, nor exoticize the magic of the originals."

Dykstra and Gates Madsen's relationship began as students at Wooster Public High School. At Wooster, the two were deeply impacted by their own Spanish teacher, Nydia Roque, and dedicated the award to her.

"Señora Roque was influential for both of us. I would not be a Spanish professor if it were not for her," says Gates Madsen. "I have tried to channel Señora Roque in my own teaching; just as she helped expand the limits of my world, it is my hope that I can also expand the limits of my students' world through language."

Gates Madsen also highlights the importance of institutions not only allowing, but encouraging and supporting professors in exploring a wide array of research avenues. It's one of the many reasons she enjoys teaching at Luther.

"My interests are wide ranging, and I am always mindful of how the research I do can be brought into the classroom," says Gates Madsen. "My vocation is teaching. It's one of the reasons I chose to come to an institution such as Luther."

Dykstra and Gates Madsen's winning book can be found here:

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