Greatest Women in Translation: Sophie Hughes

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

It’s August, Women in Translation (WiT) month! Let’s start celebrating it in great style by welcoming our next interviewee, Sophie Hughes, nominated by Juana Adcock. And stay tuned, because this month’s monthly post will also be WiT-related.

Welcome, Sophie!

Sophie Hughes

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1. Back in 2017 you contributed to a Literary Hub series calling for more women authors to be translated, suggesting books in Spanish by Latin American women writers that you would love to see in English. Since it has already been two years, has any of them been translated meanwhile since then? Would you add any other to the list now?

To my knowledge, these are the three that are either forthcoming or now published, which in itself isn’t a bad number, but it’s also possible that there are more in the pipeline (perhaps a translator beavering away somewhere to make it happen by producing an irresistible sample).

Humiliation by Paulina Flores (forthcoming Catapult; Oneworld Publications, tr. Megan McDowell)

Nona Fernanda’s Space Invaders (forthcoming Graywolf, tr. Natasha Wimmer) and hopefully The Twilight Zone will follow now that she has “broken into English”, a horrible phrase.

Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder (And Other Stories; Coffee House Press, tr. Sophie Hughes) and for which I’m proud and even more delighted to say we were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2019.

I think that if I don’t keep adding to these lists in my head, I’m not doing my job properly, because we have to keep reading to be able to find out about new writers and to promote them and pitch them to keep feeding into the system. I see my brief as a literary translator as very wide (this is part of its appeal!). I understand myself as being part of the publishing biosphere where each organism works in delicate balance with those around them. So as a translator I support authors by reading them; I support agents by producing paid samples or simply writing to say how much you liked x book before they go off pitching it; I might support a literary scout by reading for them and doing paid reports; literary journals by writing articles for them; publishers by translating and promoting for them; real booksellers by buying from them, etc.. I suppose there’s also a fear of falling behind in my reading. I live in the UK now, and only visit Latin America once a year if I’m lucky. I’d feel a real fraud if I didn’t try my hardest to keep up to date with what is being read and published and how it is being received there.

WiT month is nearly upon us, so perhaps there will be a repeat or an update of the series. I’ll look into it! 

2. This 2016 article you wrote on the then Man Book International Prize winner is really touching! Could you elaborate a bit more on what exactly you mean when you say “perhaps authors never have quite such an attachment to their books as the translators working them into other languages do”?

That is a great question, and I’m very happy to return to my comment and think about it again, three years on. They are two very different kinds of attachments. Since writing that article, which talks about the translator as a kind of surrogate parent to the text, I’ve actually had a child myself. And I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I feel the same way; I think the metaphor still stands. It’s about responsibility, different levels and senses of responsibility. As a parent (as the author of the text), after the initial feeling of “Shit, I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing with this newborn thing that needs me for everything” (the outset of writing a book), these children (or brainchildren) start to look after themselves a bit more: you grow into your child or text and relax into rearing or writing them because you know them so, so intimately; they are a part of you because they were born of you and bred in your home. By the end, you know them better than anyone.

Enter stage the literary translator! I approach a text that is already complete, mature, sure of itself, and it’s my responsibility to look after it, to respect it for what it is (its nature or essence), whilst protecting it from linguistic butchery, from translationese, from too many mistakes or outlandish mis- and reinterpretations. The anxiety produced from working on a brilliant piece of writing and knowing that it has to be brilliant in English is sometimes overwhelming. Speaking, as that article did, of tears, I cried many times translating my latest novel, Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, and not only because the novel is heartrending. To someone who does not translate, it is hard to express how deeply you have to tap into both the author’s and their characters’ minds, into the world described, into the fabric of both the source and target language, and how exquisite but also acutely discombobulating and visceral and draining that can sometimes be. Read this piece in Words without Borders by Julia Sanches on translating the Brazilian writer Geovani Martins’s O sol na cabeça (The Sun On My Head) and then read her translations of the stories. That is extreme attachment. That, in my opinion, is assuming her translator’s responsibility wholeheartedly (heart being the operative morpheme). And it’s why she’s one of the best.

As a final note, I’d add that if I could amend that article, I might now clarify: “perhaps authors never have quite the same attachment to their books as the translators working them into other languages do”. After all, it’s not a competition! 

3. In this article, you say “In my personal utopia, our English evolves thanks to translation.” Do you still think so? If so, could you elaborate more on this idea?

Oh, absolutely! I think it at a most basic logical level in that if literature helps language evolve, and translated literature falls under ‘literature’, then English evolves thanks to translation. To give a practical example, I like the idea that translators carry across source language punctuation traits. The punctuation system in English as we know it (including words like comma and semi-colons) was still only coming into existence at the end of the 16th century. It isn’t really very old at all. We tend to think that it has sort of settled down, and publishers and editors and writers adhere to norms without really thinking (for practical reasons), but translators have to think about it differently, creatively. I like the idea that translation can create unruly (and often very sensible and correct-feeling) instances of punctuation. It frees up English in this sense. We marvel when, every now and then, ‘revolutionary’ or even ‘genius’ English-language writers do the same thing (the first contemporary writer that comes to mind is Eimear McBride). I marvel every time I notice a translator has stuck closely to the source language punctuation at the expense of English ‘correctness’. Not revolutionary maybe, but certainly evolutionary!

4. You are a member of various associations, West Midlands Literary Translators Network, Society of Authors’ Translators Association, and Emerging Translators’ Network. In your opinion, as a (literary) translator, what are the advantages of becoming a member of professional associations?

The benefits of being a member of each of these associations differ depending on what they offer, of course, but essentially it all boils down to company, solidarity and support in a profession that is filled with lovely people, but is also something of a minefield (from complex clauses in contracts to the dubious ethics or even sometimes safety threat of translating a certain text). I highly recommend translators join local and national professional associations where they can.

5. Are you working on any translation now? If so, tell us a bit more about it. If not, tell us about your last translation. Or talk about both, if you like. 

I’m working on a sample of Rodrigo Hasbún’s next novel, which is wonderful. Very different to his first novel to be translated into English (by me in 2017), Affections. I’ve missed translating his careful, quiet prose. I’ve just delivered two novel translations: a co-translation for Charco Press with Juana Adcock of the marvelous Colombian writer Giuseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World (a more poignant portrait of a father-son relationship would be hard to come by), and a translation of Mexican author Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season for New Directions and Fitzcarraldo Press (one of the best contemporary novels I’ve ever read). Next up: a new writer to me (and to English readers), another Mexican, Brenda Navarro, for Daunt Books. It’s a book about motherhood and disappearances of various kinds.

6. What translated book into English by a woman writer and/or woman translator do you recommend us?

That’s impossible because I don’t know you! To anyone reading this who has just had their heart broken (or ever, I suppose –it always smarts), read ‘Poem of the End’ by Marina Tsvetaeva in Elaine Feinstein’s translation. Read it and weep. 

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

Translator from the Norwegian, Kari Dickson, who I was lucky enough to get to know on a blissful residency in Cove Park in Scotland. To meet her is to be reminded that literary translation is never a solitary act if you embrace the profession and the brilliant, life-hungry people in it.

 

Sophie, thanks a lot for such an interesting interview filled with great tips of books to read and how to support writers, translators, publishers, etc. It was a pleasure e-meeting you and getting to know you a bit better. Congratulations on the amazing job you do!

Greatest Women in Translation: Heather Cleary

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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