Recently, our literary community and the world lost a great friend. Margaret ‘Petch’ Sayers Peden was at once a beloved professor in MU’s Romance Languages Department and a renowned translator of Spanish-language literature. Kit and I met Petch over two decades ago at a Peden Prize event—an annual event honoring her first husband, Dr. William Peden, who founded “The Missouri Review.” More recently, books connected us again when Petch and her second husband, Robert Harper, became regulars at monthly book talks that Kit organizes for Osher Lifelong Learning.
It was during those monthly Saturday morning gatherings of local writers, published authors, book enthusiasts, poets, and local publishers that we came to know Petch as a true lover of words and the craft of writing. This grand lady has translated over 65 works by esteemed Spanish-language writer—including Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, and Pablo Neruda. In 2012, we proudly shared the news that Petch had been awarded the coveted PEN-Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, a lifetime achievement award.
Early the following year, Petch reluctantly agreed to do a book talk, saying it would likely be her last. The morning of her talk, Petch took her audience of 65 fellow lovers of language on a mesmerizing, unexpected literary journey. She opened by asking, “In the past year, how many of you have read a poem?” A few hands went up. She then proceeded to introduced us to two of her favorite Spanish-language poets.
She then shared the story of her personal hero, the 17th-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Born in 1651 to a Spanish father and creole mother, Sor Juana was a self-taught child prodigy who became an acclaimed writer, philosopher, composer and poet during the Latin American colonial period. She could read and write at the age of three and had read every volume in her grandfather’s extensive library after five years of primary school.
At a young age, Sor Juana wrote influential works of poetry and prose that have had some scholars compare her to another prodigy, John Stuart Mills, another apostle of individual liberty and an enemy of dogma. At the age of sixteen, Sor Juana became a nun and continued to publish prescient and passionate feminist writings. To suppress her popularity, authoritarian forces within the Catholic church forced her to sell her private library as well as her musical and scientific instruments. In 1695 at only forty-four, she died when plague hit her convent. Few if any of us in the room that morning had ever heard of this brilliant young woman whose story is legendary throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
When Petch asked who among us were familiar with Chilean poet/diplomat Pablo Neruda, more hands went up. Many were familiar with the 1994 Italian film “Il Postino”—a fictional story set during the period in 1950 when Neruda was exiled to a small island in Italy for political reasons. While there, he hires a poor, uneducated fisherman to deliver his mail by bicycle, because there are no cars on the island. The postman admires Neruda and is gradually influenced by the poet’s communist political views and sensual love poems.
“Who is familiar with Pablo Neruda’s odes?” Petch then asked. A few hands went up, among them that of Missouri’s first poet laureate, Walter Bargen who rarely misses one of these monthly literary gatherings. “Well,” Petch continued, “this morning, I’m going to share some favorite Neruda odes that I translated.” Leaning forward in our seats like eager students, we were utterly charmed when the distinguished translator read the words that she’d discovered beneath the poet’s words. Her reading of Neruda’s “Ode to Wine” was delicious and his “Ode to My Socks” warmed us to our toes.
Mara Mori brought me a pair of socks which she knitted herself with her sheepherder’s hands, two socks as soft as rabbits….
Listening to Petch read odes and love poems of great Spanish and Latin American writers that morning, I felt as though I’d gathered at the entrance to a cave filled with a babble of languages. Unable to resist the distant voices from within, I entered. Then guided by a woman who had explored here before me, I was connected with past cultures, great minds, and languages in which I am not fluent. Yet, not for a moment did I feel lost.
Over the course of her brilliant career as a translator, Margaret Sayers Peden served as a torch, illuminating the works of great Spanish and Latin American writers that for too long were little know in North America. A perfectionist, she loved “swimming in a sea of dictionaries” in search of the other language’s pure meaning—the word beneath the word. She will long be remembered as a beloved teacher, a brilliant translator and a generous friend who led us to literary works and worlds we might not otherwise have explored.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.