The Three Rs in Translation: Lisa Carter

May 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

Lisa Carter, translator from Spanish to English, editor, writer, blogger and bookworm is this week’s interviewee.

How did you learn your source language?

I learned Spanish entirely through immersion. In 1992, right after university, I got a job in the Canadian  pavilion at Expo ’92 in Seville, Spain. Though the lingua franca of the fair was English, I did get enough exposure to fall in love with the Spanish language.

I’d studied French and German and Russian in high school, and as an undergrad, but Spanish was the language that truly became part of me.

Once my contract in Spain was over, I moved to Peru. I initially took a one-year contract but wound up staying in that magnificent country for seven years, followed by a year in Mexico. I returned to Canada and my mother tongue (English) in 2001, but Spanish is still part of my everyday life through my translation work.

How did you come to translation in general, and literary translation in particular?

While working at a language institute my first two years in Peru, I mentored under two women who often did work for the American embassy. These were mostly transcripts, letters of reference and other documents for students applying to study abroad.

I enjoyed this work and slowly added other types of translation. Occasional side projects became a part-time job and eventually I began to work in translation full-time.

Literary was always the goal, even if only in the back of my mind. I dreamed about how great it would be to bring novels I loved to a new audience, but I had no idea how to begin.

Soon after returning to Canada, I decided to reach out to an author whose work I admired: Edmundo Paz Soldán. He liked the sample translation I sent and we agreed to collaborate to find an English publisher for his novels. I provided a sample chapter and his agent successfuly found a publisher. Within a few years we published both The Matter of Desire and Turing’s Delirium with Houghton Mifflin (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

What does your day look like while you’re translating a novel?

There’s rarely a typical day when I translate a novel. It all depends what stage of the translation I’m at and what other work I have at the time. I can’t exactly send my stable clients away for the four, five, six, seven or eight months it takes to translate a book, so I usually have to juggle a few jobs at once.

But my favorite sort of day when working on a novel looks something like this. First thing in the morning, I read over what I translated the previous day. I smooth and refine the English. Then, over coffee and breakfast (ideally curled up in my favorite chair, in the living room, in the sun), I’ll read the next chapter in Spanish, over and over again. I read with a pencil in hand, jotting notes, underlining tricky words, particular elements of style I want to keep in mind. I keep reading the same chapter until I can hear the English in my head.

At that point, I race to the computer and dash off a draft, fingers flying over the keyboard. I don’t stop to look anything up at all, but simply try to get an intuitive draft on the page. Once I have that, I’ll spend the next few hours researching and revising.

Usually after a chapter my brain simply can’t process anymore, so I’ll take a break or do some other work for a while. Then it’s rinse and repeat the next day!

What are your favourite contemporary books in the source language?

Unsurprisingly, I have a soft spot for Peruvian authors. Santiago Roncagliolo is brilliant. His portrayal of the light and dark in Peruvian society is truly insightful. Red April was translated by the queen of Spanish to English literary translation, Edith Grossman.

Alfredo Bryce Echenique isn’t entirely contemporary (he started publishing in the 1970s), but quite prolific, continuing to release a new book every few years. My absolute favorite title is La amigdalitis de Tarzán, translated into English by Alfred MacAdam as Tarzan´s Tonsillitis. It’s the story of a long-distance love, a friendship via correspondence that lasts for thirty years as both parties live in exile in different countries.

What have you read recently in English that you loved?

Two books I read last summer have stuck with me ever since: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. The writing in both of these is rich and masterful.

I’ve just begun reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I’m fascinated by both the voice she creates for her teenage Japanese protagonist Nao and the way she introduces Japanese culture through dialogue.

What novel have you translated most recently?

My most recent translation is The House of Impossible Loves, a novel by Cristina López Barrio, due out in June 2013. It’s a family saga of love and revenge, woven through with magical realism, snippets of Spanish culture and history. It’s both complex and yet a smooth, quick read.

What were its particular interests and challenges?

One of the most difficult things in this novel was to maintain the author’s subtle use of magical realism. In this novel, plants are alive, they sprout year round as symbols of hope and fertility. The sea is personified; it is both a man and a father. But all of this is understated, threaded into the fabric of setting and story. My word choice has to be quite deliberate to ensure this aspect was noticeable but not overly salient.

The characters, on the other hand, are exceedingly vivid. Each one has some odd quirk, is in some way larger than life. In the English, I had to make sure these unique characters didn’t sound like caricatures.

Which is your favourite novel of the ones you’ve translated, and why?

I feel almost guilty being asked to choose, like a mother forced to single out one of her children! Each book I’ve done is truly unique and I love them all dearly.

That said, one of the most challenging yet rewarding books I’ve translated is Turing’s Delirium by Edmundo Paz Soldán. It’s a complex, many-layered literary novel with more than one simultaneous plot.

In terms of writing style, there were several distinct voices to master, with chapters being told from an individual character’s point of view. One narrator speaks in second person (you); another is not entirely in his right mind; a third speaks in what was known as l33t speak – like text or chat speak today, but back then was only used by hackers.

Every word, every line, every paragraph and every chapter of this novel required extreme attention to detail. I worked closely with Edmundo to catch all of the many nuances of plot and style.

Do you write (fiction or non-fiction)?

Yes, I write creative non-fiction. I fall most naturally into lyric essays, which are a mixture of poetry, essay and memoir. My main project right now is a memoir of my time in Peru. It’s in the early stages yet, however; I’m still experimenting between lyric and more traditional prose.

What’s your third R, and why?

For me, life is all about Reading, Writing and yet more Reading. I am constantly gobbling up the written word: works I need to translate, works I want to translate, works to make me a better translator and a better writer, works I critique in all women’s international online writing group I belong to, works that simply interest or inspire me. I read all day long for work, into the evenings and on weekends for pleasure. I may be the very definition of a bookworm!

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