Greatest Women in Translation: Heather Cleary

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Image created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our amazing Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Please welcome this month’s interviewee, Heather Cleary, Spanish into English literary translator nominated by Allison Markin Powell.

Heather Cleary

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1. First of all, it’s a pleasure to be talking to one of the nominees for the inaugural National Book Awards in the category of Translated Literature. Congratulations, Heather! Could you tell us a bit more about the book that rendered your nomination, Comemadre, by Roque Larraquy?

Thank you for the invitation! And for your kind congratulations. Roque and I are very excited about the NBA nomination; the longlist is full of wonderful books that your readers might enjoy checking out. Comemadre is a short novel—very dark, very funny—about our collective obsession with progress and with leaving our mark on the world; it’s about hubris, violence, and love (specifically, the violence inherent to different kinds of love). The title refers to a plant that releases carnivorous spores, which plays a key role in each section.

Comemadre is divided into two parts, the first of which takes place in 1907 in a sanatorium near Buenos Aires, Argentina. A group of doctors has decided to experiment on unwitting test subjects to determine what happens in the moments after death (I don’t want to ruin any surprises, but there are guillotines involved). When they’re not trying to swindle their patients into signing away their lives, these men are busy stabbing one another in the back professionally and romantically; a number of them are infatuated with Ménendez, the Head Nurse. Unsurprisingly, things end badly. We then flash forward a hundred years to drop in on an artist who made a name for himself with a piece involving a two-headed baby, and then teamed up with his doppelgänger to develop performance pieces that involve physical mutilation. Think Damien Hirst on acid. This second part of the novel addresses, through the lens of art, many of the ethical and philosophical questions raised in the first section through science.

This book was extraordinarily fun to translate. It’s grotesque, insightful, and perversely hilarious. It’s full of dirty puns, which I love, and presented other interesting challenges. For example, the “oracles” in the first section of the book occasionally blurt out snippets of text from the second section; finding a way to make this continuity clear without giving too much away or slipping into anachronism was a delightful puzzle.

2. After having two Japanese translator nominees, Allison Markin Powell and Ginny Takemori; a Scandinavian, Nicky Smalley; and a German translator, Jen Calleja, we are back to Latin language translators with you, who translates from Spanish. How did your connection with Spanish start?

It was peer pressure, really. I was in seventh or eighth grade, I think, and my friends were studying Spanish at school. So I joined them. But most of them stopped after a year or two, and by that time I had already fallen in love with the language. I studied it straight through high school, then spent the following summer (and a semester in college) in Spain. After that, I spent some time in Mexico, and later lived in Buenos Aires for almost two years. I kind of stumbled into literary translation in a similar way: I had been frustrated with the shape my undergraduate honors thesis was taking when Richard Sieburth, a professor in the department of Comparative Literature at NYU and a gifted translator of French and German, suggested I switch gears and try my hand at translation. I was immediately hooked, and ended up organizing my life around my desire to do more of it.

3. I noticed your name is placed in a highlighted position on the cover of Comemadre. As far as I know, not all publishers display the translator’s name on the cover, right? At least not in Brazil. So, besides being on the cover, you are highlighted! This is fantastic! Do you think this is something that has been changing lately? What role do translators play in convincing publishers to recognize the translator on the cover of translated books?

Thanks! It has been an absolute delight to work with Coffee House; it really is a press that values translation. As for how common it is here to note the translator’s name on the cover, it varies from publisher to publisher, with independent presses tending to be a bit more open to the idea than the bigger houses. There are always exceptions, though. I think there has definitely been a greater awareness about translation in recent years, and a greater appreciation of what it is that we translators actually do. For this, we have a number of vocal advocates and organizations, like the PEN Translation Committee, to thank.

4. I have already heard of the Japanese term ikigai, which is about finding your purpose in life. Now I see you translated a book called Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles, also from Spanish. Something interesting is that the authors describe the term as “the happiness of always being busy.” Now I am curious. Could you tell a bit more about this book?

Héctor García and Francesc Miralles both spent time in Japan and discovered a shared fascination with certain aspects of the culture there, above all with the value placed on staying active and engaged with friends and family in some of the longest-living communities in the country. In the book, they combine their personal experience talking with centenarians in Okinawa with research from different parts of the world into the benefits of staying active by finding a passion to pursue. From what I understand, the book has done very well.

5. The books you have already translated vary from non-fiction, fiction and poetry, in diverse topics. Do you have a favorite genre?

I wouldn’t say I have a favorite genre, necessarily, but rather that there are certain things I look for in a project. I love working on books that are linguistically complex in one way or another: one of my earliest translation projects was of the work of an avant-garde poet from Argentina named Oliverio Girondo. His later collections are full of neologisms and derive much of their meaning from the sound of the words, the way they ricochet off one another. Sergio Chejfec’s novels are marked by long, intricate sentences that require juggling nested clauses, and Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre, as I mentioned above, is full of puns and wordplay. In this last case, I also enjoyed the challenge of establishing two distinct narrative voices that evoked two very different historical moments. One of the writers I’m working with now, Fernanda Trías, is fascinating for a different reason: she writes emotionally charged narratives with absolute restraint and precision.

6. You are a founding editor of the digital, bilingual Buenos Aires Review, where I found a link to Brasília, among other worldwide cities, and other fiction writings from Brazilian authors. Could you tell us a bit more about this project?

Ah, the BAR! I’m very proud of the work we’ve done, though our production schedule has slowed down [clears throat] significantly. In late 2011, I picked up and moved to Buenos Aires, where Jennifer Croft (winner of this year’s International Man Booker Prize for Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights) was living. She and I spoke extensively about all the wonderful writers around us who were entirely unknown to readers of English; we decided that we wanted to do something about it by creating a platform that was more nimble than print publishing, and able to take more risks. She then invited the writer Maxine Swann, who also lives in Buenos Aires, to join us, and Maxine brought in Pola Oloixarac. And so the magazine was born. It was our hope that it would serve as a launching pad for writers and translators, alike; we’ve also had the privilege of publishing new work by luminaries like Ishion Hutchinson, Ada Limón, Mario Bellatin, and Carol Bensimon. We started with a focus on creating an exchange between English and Spanish, and then broadened our scope to include Portuguese, Chinese, German… the list goes on. Every text on the website appears in at least two languages. It has been a (huge) labor of love that wouldn’t have been possible without our rock star editors, Martín Felipe Castagnet (whose Bodies of Summer was published last year by Dalkey), Lucas Mertehikian, Andrea Rosenberg (see Aura Xilonen’s The Gringo Champion, among her many fabulous translations), and Belén Agustina Sánchez.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate Elisabeth Jaquette, who—in addition to being a brilliant translator from the Arabic—is also a vital part of the translation community as the Executive Director of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)… and as a member of the Cedilla & Co. translators collective, of course. Her work has been shortlisted for the TA First Translation Prize, longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, and supported by PEN/Heim and several English PEN Translates Awards

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Greatest Women in Translation: Allison Markin Powell

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Image created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our interviewee today, Allison Markin Powell, was nominated by Ginny Takemori.

Allison Markin Powell

Image created with Canva. Picture credit: Jonathan Armstrong for The Documentist.

1. Japanese is your third language. How have you become a Japanese-to-English literary translator then, translating successful Japanese novels?

Well, where I grew up, it wasn’t until seventh grade that we had the opportunity to study another language, and at that time it was French (or nothing). But I loved learning French, so when I entered university I knew I would study at least one more language, and that turned out to be Japanese. I had been interested in literary translation from the time when I was assigned Le Petit Prince in high school, and ultimately I ran with it in Japanese. I think one of the reasons is that there are fewer Japanese literary translators, and fewer Japanese works that have been translated as well. That said, I feel there are greater challenges in bringing Japanese books into English than from Western languages.

I came to translation from a publishing perspective—I worked in various editorial departments where I learned how the industry works—in the U.S., that is—before I began translating books from Japanese. And now I translate all sorts of books—primarily fiction, but I work on nonfiction projects as well. This past summer, for instance, I’ve had the chance to translate a book on Zen and one on embroidery as well. It certainly keeps things interesting.

2. In this interview you gave to The Japan Times, you say, “I don’t really see the author as more or less of an authority on their book from a translation perspective.” Could you elaborate and explain what exactly you meant by that?

I believe that, once a work of literature is out there, it becomes something like the communal property of readers, open to infinite interpretations. Some of those interpretations may not have been intentional, yet they exist, for better or worse. When I translate something, I always try to convey the myriad possibilities that are incorporated in the original, rather than simply the version that I might prefer personally. It’s also been my experience that an author’s attitude toward their work shifts and changes, so that they may see things differently at one point from what they meant at the time it was written, especially as they mature as a writer or gain a more international audience—and that might change their answers to my questions.

3. In this interview you gave to PEN Atlas, you mention book titles are translated differently in the United States and in the United Kingdom. We hear a lot about different translations of movie titles, but I don’t think I have ever heard the same happened with book titles. Could you talk a bit about that, based on your experience with your own translations? Are the books themselves also translated differently for both markets? If so, how?

The first novel I translated by Hiromi Kawakami was published in the U.S. as The Briefcase, and then retitled as Strange Weather in Tokyo by the U.K. publisher. The Briefcase is a more literal translation of the original title in Japanese, and it was a rather oblique title at that. The author agreed to the change, and the book ended up being much more successful in the U.K. Last fall, it was reissued in the U.S. with the U.K. title and the U.K. cover as well. I think it was confusing for readers, and it’s hard to say how much of the book’s success has to do with the title and the cover—though some would say, “A lot!”—but it’s fair to say that a book’s packaging and presentation has a lot to do with how it is received. As for the text itself, I translate into American English, and the British publisher edits for context. I aim for neutral English, if there is such a thing, but inevitably certain details—like the register vs. the till or the trunk vs. the boot of a car—are adjusted for different markets.

4. As Ginny Tapley Takemori already told us about, you, she and Lucy North formed a collective called Strong Women, Soft Power, which is committed to promoting Japanese writers, in particular Japanese women writers who are being overlooked in translation. What’s your role in this collective? Has it shown any positive outcomes so far?

I don’t think I can overstate how positive it has been to be a member of Strong Women, Soft Power. As translators, our work is most often solitary and isolated. And yet, especially to those of us for whom it is a full-time occupation, the fact is that our work and practices affect one another, either in the form of setting precedents for the terms of our contracts or by the choices we make about which books we translate. The three of us—Lucy North, Ginny Tapley Takemori, and I—are equal members in the collective, and we work to support each other as much as we try to promote Japanese women writers. Our first endeavor was a reading we held during the London Book Fair in 2016; next we collaborated on an article for Literary Hub about ten Japanese books by women we’d love to see in English; then we planned a full-day symposium in Tokyo in 2017; and we have some exciting things on tap for the future. We really are stronger together, and the fact is that, rather than feel we are in competition with each other for the small number of books that are being translated from Japanese, working with each other has had the effect of creating more opportunities. It’s been very true for us that “A rising tide lifts all ships.” And the collective model is tremendously invigorating—we are inspired with ideas and to create new initiatives, especially when we know that we have the others’ support.

5. You have translated both women and men writers. Are there any differences or particularities in translating women versus men or are authors all the same, regardless of gender?

I have translated both women and men writers, including female protagonists written by male authors as well as male protagonists created by women authors. I wouldn’t say there are gendered differences in translating the work itself, beyond the fact that every writer is distinct. With each author, it’s necessary for me to feel comfortable and confident about capturing the voice and style of the piece that I’m translating. But as for how the work is received—or whether it is received at all—I do believe that there are imbalances between male and female authors. I have done some research, and recent data show that women writers in Japan currently maintain something close to parity within publishing in terms of prestige—the number of literary prizes won—and popularity—their representation on bestseller lists. But that equality does not appear in translation—little more than a quarter of the books translated from Japanese are by women—and I have yet to figure out why that is the case.

6. You have a website (which is a searchable database) where you showcase all existing literary works translated from Japanese into English, Japanese Literature in English. Besides this great initiative and the collective Strong Women, Soft Power, in which other ways are you engaged in promoting Japanese literature in translation?

My website has been sadly neglected lately, and I am eager to update the database with recent publications and found titles. Besides Strong Women, Soft Power, I am also a founding member of another collective, Cedilla & Co., and through that initiative I work closely with specific writers to bring their work into English and introduce them to English-language readers. Through my experience in book publishing, I have met many people who are champions of literature in translation, and that enables me to recommend and promote Japanese authors and books that may have been overlooked.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I am thrilled to nominate one of my Cedilla colleagues, Heather Cleary, translator from the Spanish.