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

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Greatest Women in Translation: Sabine Lammersdorf

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series – the last one of 2015.

As it’s been happening with this series, I didn’t know today’s interviewee. So I’ve been thinking that it has been a sort of networking for me. I get to e-meet the person and to know more about her in order to make up the questions. Fantastic, right?

Now, let’s welcome today’s interviewee, Sabine Lammersdorf, nominated by Giselle Chaumien.


sabine lammersdorf

1. You have two ferrets, Luciano and Mephisto. How is it like to have them around the house being a freelancer?

They are pure joy, fun and distraction. They allow me to escape from my desk and take breaks, although this is not the reason for having them around. I spend many hours at my desk and so Luciano and Mephisto provide the much welcomed mischief, laughter, carefreeness in an otherwise serious work environment. As any other pet would wish for, I take good care of them and attend to their needs; in other words: They enable me to forget work for a little while and help me clear my mind.

2. After your son was born in 1993, you used your long-term maternity leave to attend lectures in mechanical engineering as a guest student and do your Abitur (A levels). How did you manage to study and raise a kid?

Doing my A levels and attending guest lectures in mechanical engineering was part of a long-term plan. After giving birth to my son and at the time I was convinced that he would be content with someone looking after him for several hours, I put a schedule together and started looking for a babysitter. I was very lucky to find a wonderful elderly lady who not only agreed to take care of him whenever I attended night school or lectures, but also became an additional grandmother for my son.

3. What made you decide to attend lectures in mechanical engineering after having worked for 11 years as an in-house translator and interpreter in IT?

My father was a passionate mechanical engineer and I used to spend the better part of my childhood together with my father at his drawing board. I was fascinated to see the sketches on his drawing board come to life, first as small scale models and later as huge and live equipment. He constantly encouraged me to experiment, to play with the most basic laws of physics explaining why they worked – or not (more often than they did).

After completing my studies, I happened to land my first job at a company selling and servicing, including repairing, hard and floppy disk drives. Back then in 1982, hard and floppy disk drives were very expensive, so they actually repaired them. The parent company was Indian, supplying all the then big players in the industry with their hard and floppy disks. My main task was to translate the complete documentation into German and act as an interpreter for the trainer during training sessions and conferences. In order to understand what I was talking and writing about, I spent quite a while in the workshop actually repairing disk drives. Admittedly, I enjoyed this combination of “theoretical” and hands-on work – which is entirely based on physics and mathematics, just as mechanical engineering is.

As disk drives became more affordable and the development focussed more and more on software it was fascinating to learn how strings of electrical impulses made things happen on the screen, offering the possibility to scale down the necessary hardware. I never got round to learn how to programme; at that time, I still worked as a translator and interpreter with a gradually changing focus on software, as I did not feel that my knowledge was sufficient enough at that point to specialise in mechanical engineering. It was really fascinating to learn how computers and large machinery items were combined, especially in the area of high precision machinery.

4. Why have you decided to relocate to Spain after your son was born, after having lived so many years in Germany?

Well, the long-term plan had always been to work as a translator and/or interpreter for a major multi-national company and to relocate to Asia. For many reasons, I found this too difficult with a small child, so I began thinking about European countries which could provide career opportunities for me and a stable, safe environment for my son. As I did not want to learn another language and because I loved the Mediterranean, Spain and France were on the cards. The dice fell on the Spanish Mediterranean Coast which is where we now reside, within a multi-national environment which I actually enjoy. The internet and computer era not only liberated us from typewriters, they also granted us the opportunity to allow us to live and work wherever we wished or to travel the world whilst working, as some colleagues actually did.

5. You and Giselle Chaumien have a blog together, Wissenswinkel, where you both share lots of information for newbies in the translation industry. Why do you feel it is important to welcome and help newcomers in the translation industry?

“Wissenswinkel” is in fact the result of a failure. It all originated from a discussion about mentoring in general on Facebook and as a result of some newbies informing us that they would appreciate guidance and support when starting their own careers. And thus I founded a mentoring group on Facebook, which was in fact far too spontaneous – without any planning in advance. Giselle Chaumien became a member of this group, this is where we actually met and soon discovered that we both felt the same about sharing our knowledge with newcomers. The former Facebook mentoring group failed, and Giselle Chaumien and I decided to find another way of relaying our knowledge and experience free of charge – that is how “Wissenswinkel” was born.

Generally speaking, newcomers leave university or any language institute with plenty of theoretical knowledge; they usually learn everything connected with the translation and /or interpretation process, but are not introduced to real-world practicalities such as company procedures, processes, organisational issues which inevitably arise when being self-employed. This has not changed since I passed my exams, and having had something like “Wissenswinkel” at hand would have saved me a lot of time and would have helped me to avoid many mistakes. 

There are countless workshops, conferences, webinars, etc. subject to attendance fees. However, a newcomer with very little income, if any, might not be able to afford to attend them. The number of limited resources available which are free of charge mostly focus on marketing aspects. Marketing is undoubtedly an important topic, however, there are many more equally important topics which are hardly ever covered and newcomers might find it difficult to obtain further information or answers to their questions. I had the opportunity to learn so much, gather so much information, sharing this is my pleasure and joy.

“Wissenswinkel” continues to grow at a steady pace. We want it to become some sort of knowledge database covering topics from advice and pricing to case studies to explanations of technical terms and terminology. Our aim and hope is that it shall be helpful and that newcomers will not find themselves completely lost at the beginning of their own working careers. Besides that, newcomers are always welcome to contact us via other channels.

6. Giselle describes yourself as “very reliable”. Do you think reliability is an essential quality as a translator? Why (not)?

Well, the translation industry belongs to the service sector and everything related to service in its broadest sense is based on trust and reliability. This is even more important if someone works in a field where they never (or hardly ever) meet their clients. As we all expect our clients to pay our invoices, so they expect us to deliver our product – the translation – as to the specifications agreed beforehand. 

Reliability, trust, and the delivery of mutually objectives are the foundations of any business – and the translation business does not differ from any other business within the service sector.

7. Contracts and other legal documents were always part of your work, so you recently decided to study Business Law. Do you think it has helped doing a major after already working in the area?

I adore legal language and I very much like translating such documents. Legal language is beautiful and sometimes a challenge, as one single sentence may cover an entire page. The more contracts I translated over the years, the more interesting they became and I began researching the possibility to broaden my horizons without having to interrupt my career. Thanks to modern technology and “newish” types of study courses this is now possible, providing me an option to further dig into this very interesting subject, and to explore new fields of business in the long run.

Contract translation work is the somewhat logical consequence of technological product translation work, as whatever the result of a development is going to be sold. I would not say that this helped to take this decision to study, but love of legal language was certainly its root and the beginning of a very interesting open-ended journey 🙂  

8. One can hardly find information about your business online. Your website is still under construction. Do you think that not being visible online hinders your possibility of being found by potential clients?

Actually, I do not think so. A website is nothing but an extended business card or an extended entry in the yellow pages. Just as back in the pre-internet days nobody would actually file through the yellow pages to find a translator, nobody, nowadays looks at the numerous translator websites available. For sure, access to a website certainly makes it easier to showcase one’s work and capabilities, and thus the marketing element becomes easier; however, I personally do not consider it as a major pre-requisite. I do believe in the principle of meeting potential clients where they are visible, for example, at conferences, trade fairs, specialist forums, etc. My approach might be very old-school, however, this approach allows me firstly to establish the client contact and then explore the needs of a potential client somehow more detailed than just being contacted through a website without really knowing anything about the background of such an enquiry. I find it easier to establish long-term business relationships via my old-school approach, many of my clients come through recommendation anyway.

Nevertheless, my website will be completed sometime next year, and I will then see what it can do for me and how to use it. 

9. Now it’s your turn to nominate a Great Woman in Translation. 

I would like to nominate Allison Wright, she is a German, French and Portuguese to English translator based in Portugal and an accredited member of SATI/SAVI (South Africa), and more recently became a member of the Association of Portuguese Translators and Interpreters, APTRAD. Besides her translation work, she has her own blog “That elusive pair of Jeans” and I really enjoy her eloquent writing.

I feel a bit like standing on the red carpet and I would like to thank you, Caroline, for this forum and also I would like to thank Giselle Chaumien for nominating me. A special thanks goes to Isabel Wilkins, who took on the task of putting my “Germlish” thoughts into proper English. She is a market researcher, a true professional in her own field and a very dear friend.


Thank you, Sabine, for promptly accepting Giselle’s nomination and my invitation to be interviewed for our series! It was a real pleasure e-meeting you and getting to know you better. 🙂