Obituaries

Cola Franzen, 95, award-winning translator of Spanish literature

03colafranzen -- Cola Franzen at work at her desk in her Cambridge home. (undated). (Eric Cody)
Eric Cody
Mrs. Franzen did work on translations at a desk in her home in Cambridge, where she lived for about six decades.

Cola Franzen was edging into her 60s when she began translating Spanish in earnest, inspired in part by a collection of poetry she found one day while searching a bookstore’s shelves.

The poems from medieval Moorish Spain had been translated into contemporary Spanish but were unavailable to readers who only spoke English. “Centuries of marvelous poetry had been lying submerged, lost from sight,” she wrote in a translator’s note for the 1989 book “Poems of Arab Andalusia.”

Initially translating a few poems “simply to show friends who couldn’t read Spanish some hint of the treasure I had found,” Mrs. Franzen expanded her efforts and attempted “to recreate a poem in English that would find an echo in today’s poetical sensibility, reverberate in the modern soul.”

Advertisement

At the outset of her 80s, she received the PEN/Gregory Kolovakis Award for her work in Spanish-language translation. Mrs. Franzen, who had lived in Cambridge for decades before moving to Hartwell, Ga., a year and a half ago to live near a niece, died of congestive heart failure April 5. She was 95.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Bringing her own writer’s sensibility to bear on the art of translating dozens of books, articles, and chapters, “she was free to invent in the English language and she was a poet in her own right. She had that particular playfulness in words,” said Alicia Borinsky, a poet and novelist whose work Mrs. Franzen often translated.

Mrs. Franzen received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2000 for her rendering of Jorge Guillen’s “Horses in the Air and Other Poems.” And the Cambridge City Council declared Nov. 13, 2003, Cola Franzen Day.

Breon Mitchell, a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Indiana University, wrote in an e-mail that from when he met Mrs. Franzen a quarter-century ago “I sensed her rare combination of personal strength and literary talent.”

When she began producing the bulk of her work, “her qualities as a literary translator included an unusual sensitivity to the nuances of language and a deeply perceptive understanding of the complexities of poetry and prose,” Mitchell wrote. “Although she was already entering the later stages of her life, she was overflowing with energy and enthusiasm — with some of her best work, and national awards, yet to come.”

Advertisement

Eric Cody of Plymouth, a longtime friend of Mrs. Franzen and her late husband, Wolfgang, said she “was living proof that you could excel at something pretty late in life. She was an exceptional role model. You couldn’t put anything by Cola, even when she was 93.”

Mrs. Franzen “was amazing in the range of interests that she had, and she had taken Spanish as a way of making a personality for herself that she could not have in English. She was very free in Spanish,” said Borinsky, a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at Boston University.

The two often discussed writing and translation during long walks through Cambridge and Boston, searching for words that would give an English voice to poems and prose Borinsky wrote in Spanish.

“We would look for vocabulary everywhere,” Borinsky said. “We would look for them in books. We would look for them in long walks in Harvard Square and in the Public Garden.”

Like Borinsky, Mrs. Franzen loved to walk, though of the two she had a richer appetite for public readings of poetry and fiction. “I said, ‘Cola why are we doing this?’ And she said, ‘We are conquering the world, door by door,’ ” Borinsky recalled.

Advertisement

A life that would one day be measured in translations, book by book, began on a small family farm in rural Hart County, in northeast Georgia. Born at home, Cola Mae Wakefield was one of eight children, only three of whom lived past early childhood. Her parents were Jule Wakefield and the former Iney Duncan.

Mrs. Franzen was 4 when her mother taught her to read, and she skipped grades en route to graduating at 16 as her high school valedictorian. Studying through the summers, and cobbling together scholarships, loans, and income from jobs, she received a bachelor’s degree from Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga., after turning 19.

With help from a fellowship, she moved to New York City and received a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. The journey north was her first train trip, and aside from a brief childhood visit to Atlanta, New York was her first city.

While there she worked in a snack bar, where she met Wolfgang Franzen, a physics graduate student. They married just after she graduated in 1943, at age 20. Early in their marriage, she wrote for United Press in New York, and then in Raleigh, N.C., while he was in the Army.

After World War II, she worked in the American Friends Service Committee’s public relations department in Philadelphia while he did graduate work, and she joined the NAACP.

The Franzens lived in Princeton, N.J., when he taught at Princeton University, and moved to Switzerland when a teaching job took him there. She first learned German and then switched to French, becoming fluent enough to read, in French, all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.”

The Franzens moved to Cambridge about 60 years ago, and at her husband’s suggestion, she learned another language, taking every Spanish language and literature course the Harvard Extension School offered.

Wolfgang’s travels as a physics professor at Boston University took them to Spain, Mexico, and Colombia. They also visited the Soviet Union, England, Iceland, and Scandinavia, always keeping in touch with extended family.

“I just remember when I was a child it was such a treat to get a letter from her, and the family pored over it for days,” said Mrs. Franzen’s niece Donna Chambers of Hartwell, Ga.

“She was an extraordinary woman,” Chambers added. “The opportunities she created for herself were just phenomenal.”

In Cambridge, Mrs. Franzen’s haunts were Cafe Pamplona, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, and Harvard’s Widener Library, where “she’d go off and disappear into the stacks,” Cody said.

“I miss her,” Borinsky said. “It was a gift to be able to develop that special kind of friendship — through walks, through words, through whimsical association, through music.”

A service will be announced for Mrs. Franzen, whose husband died in 2012. She leaves her nieces.

Mitchell, who also is director emeritus of Indiana University’s Lilly Library, secured for the institution Mrs. Franzen’s papers, including correspondence with authors that “offers a treasure trove of intimate commentary on contemporary culture and politics, while revealing insights into the creative process of literary translation seldom seen in such detail.”

In a note for Borinsky’s novel “All Night Movie,” Mrs. Franzen spoke of how they played “with the ‘inbetweenness’ of the two languages to produce a translation that would render as accurately as possible the tone, irony, and sheer energy of the Spanish.”

Writing about Borinsky’s “Dreams of the Abandoned Seducer,” Mrs. Franzen said of the novel — and perhaps of her approach to translation: “When the curtain comes down the story does not end. The door is left wide open. We’re invited in to see where it leads. Who could resist?”

Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.