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!

Advertisements

The Three Rs in translation: Nick Caistor

May 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

How did you learn your source language?

I translate from French, Spanish and Portuguese, and learnt each of them in very different ways. I studied French through school (the only foreign language taught) and then through university and as a post-graduate: so I had a lot of formal teaching. I learnt Spanish by going to live in Argentina, and so learnt it ‘on the hoof’ ( or ‘sobre el pucho’ as they say in Argentina). I started translating from Portuguese when I suddenly found I had to translate a soap opera from Brazil for television in Britain.

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

After living in Argentina during the dictatorship, when I returned to Britain I was involved in human rights work on Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and other Latin American countries. This involved a lot of translation work, and that led on to translating Latin American writers forced to live in exile.

An Englishman in Madrid by Eduardo Mendoza

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

I try to leave at least half a day completely free so that I can concentrate on my translation, and set aside another hour to read what I have done the day before.

What are your favourite contemporary books in the source language?

Anything by Javier Marias (translated by Margaret Jull Costa);

An Englishman in Madrid by Eduardo Mendoza (which I translated)

What have you read recently in English that you loved?

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann.

What novel have you translated most recently?

If I Close my Eyes Now, by the Brazilian author Edney Sylvestre.

What were its particular interests and challenges?

The main challenge was the way the book talked about race and its problems in Brazil in the 1960s in a quite oblique but convincing way.

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

Invidious to say.

Do you write (fiction or non-fiction)?

I write non-fiction based on the journalism I have done on Latin America. My latest book is CASTRO–A CRITICAL LIFE, with Reaktion Books, London.

What’s your third R, and why?

Gardening.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

May 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

There’s a great feeling that comes when you start to read a book that is ostensibly historical fiction, yet doesn’t feel like it; the kind of book that adds wonderful period detail to inner lives that both convince us that they are of their time while also resonating with current sensibilities; the kind of book that research imbues with lightness and confidence rather than drag and bombast. Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, is precisely this kind of book.

The Flamethrowers is predominantly about a young artist and motorcycle enthusiast, recently moved to New York in the seventies and wondering how to meet people and make her mark (“I’d thought this was how artists moved to New York, alone, that the city was a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh, and you simply found your pulse, your place”). The narrator—known as Reno, after her hometown—becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, wealthy son of the owner of a large motorcycle company. Reno, supposedly an artist making films about movement and speed, but in fact more interested in the speed itself and the machines that produce it, has the chance to drive a Valera bike on the Utah salt flats, breaking the women’s land speed record. Soon she is invited to Italy by Valera, but Sandro, who does not care for his late father’s business, still less for his girlfriend’s involvement in it, tries to prevent her from travelling. The two end up going to Italy, staying with Sandro’s insufferably prejudiced mother. It’s a period of intense labour disputes and struggles, and Reno becomes unintentionally involved in dangerous politics after a sudden rearrangement of her situation.

This is an incredibly thin summary for a fascinating novel. In addition and at the same time, the plot encompasses so many different things: New York, Italy, the seventies, motorcycles as both a working-class hobby and an expensive sport, art, the pretentiousness of the art world, business, love and betrayal, labour and class warfare, Futurism, machinery … the list goes on. Even better is Kushner’s ability to really know—or make you believe she knows—exactly what it’s like to be in a war, or a violent protest, or to be a man, or to be in jail, or to live during a decade she can’t personally remember (or so her photo suggests). The Flamethrowers is about all these things, but is also, quite simply, about people and about now. It is a dazzling achievement.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg

May 6, 2013 § 3 Comments

Having never read much (anything?) in the way of Dutch literature before, I was intrigued to read two very recently translated Dutch novels that seemed to have much in common in terms of mood and character. Both The Dinner by Herman Koch and Tirza by Arnon Grunberg were translated by Sam Garrett, the translator who answered my Three Rs questions last week, so I took the opportunity to ask him about this apparent coincidence.

To give a bit of background, The Dinner is narrated by Paul Lohman, a middle-aged, middle-class man, with a son in his late teens, and the entire novel takes place over a fancy dinner with his brother, would-be prime minister. Lohman behaves very reasonably at first, appealing to our supposed shared tastes and shared belief that the finer things in life should be tempered with reasonableness and moderation. Over the meal we gradually realise that the narrator’s hostility towards his brother is much more complicated than we at first thought, and the narrator himself becomes increasingly sinister. There’s also a very disturbing reason for the dinner in the first place, and as this is revealed our idea of which character is good and which is bad is constantly shocked into a new place.

My cagey summary stops there, despite the fact that the blurb reveals (as do most reviews) a lot more about the plot than I am setting out here. I rarely read blurbs before reading the novel, so I was possibly one of the few people in the world to read The Dinner without knowing what was coming. Sometimes advance knowledge heightens suspense, but in this case I think it would significantly weaken the novel’s power, which in my opinion is heavily dependent on the not-knowing. The voice would not have been so compelling and persuasive if I’d been expecting the events, having been tipped off by the blurb to interpret clues in just one way.

Tirza (published by Open Letter) is also narrated by a middle-aged, middle class man with a child in her late teens. The novel opens with Jörgen Hofmeester preparing sushi for his daughter Tirza’s high-school graduation party. His wife has recently returned to the house after an absence of three years, not because she wanted to mend the relationship with her husband or her daughters but because there was simply nowhere else to go. Tirza is essentially the story of a man whose life seems to be pretty much sorted, but who has in fact been unravelling quietly for some time. This unravelling gathers pace and intensity as the novel progresses, with Grunberg demonstrating quite masterful control of both characters and readers.

Tirza

Both novels convey a very bleak view of humanity. While The Dinner shocks us with the adults’ apparent unconcern for rightness and honesty, and for the characters’ deliberate cruelties and sins of omission as well as their prizing of individual success over the common good, we can imagine a few people we know, or know of, having these discussions. Tirza’s dark events, on the other hand, seem to emerge from ongoing stress and pressure, individual and societal. Is this novel’s brutal twist more horrifying because it is so extreme and unbelievable, or is The Dinner more dreadful because we can actually believe that people behave like this?

An interesting question. In literary terms, I happen to think that Tirza is the more successful book, but together they are fascinating in the picture they paint of contemporary Holland. The two narrators desperately want, for their different reasons, to seem normal and reasonable, while being unable to stop dropping hints of a darker side that they are not able to entirely cover up. One difference between them is that Lohman in The Dinner seems to care little whether this dark side—in his own life and that of his child—causes damage, whereas Hofmeester is more troubled by changing moral standards and a perceived loss of certain values, yet feels partly compelled to pretend an acceptance of this new state of affairs. He makes much, for example, of not mentioning the teenage boys he encounters in the bathroom after his daughter’s one-night stands. This leads to Tirza feeling as though she can be very open with him about her life, but does not translate to the same level of comfort for Hofmeester.

Sam Garrett agrees that “the two novels share a view of human endeavor that is, well… not particularly optimistic. In fact, to say that Jorgen Hofmeester or Paul Lohman are flawed characters would be an almost hilarious understatement. It would be like calling Hitler an ‘influential German politician’.” He continues, “I’m not sure whether that shared world-view has anything to do with the ‘midlife crisis’ the Netherlands has been going through for the last decade or so. I think, however, that the Dutch wake up more often these days, look in the mirror, and aren’t sure they like what they see. Or at least they don’t like it as much as they used to. Both novels would seem to fit that ‘morning-after’ feel. Fiction, after all, isn’t Alka Seltzer. It’s more like the bathroom mirror and the merciless fluorescent lighting, isn’t it?”

I’d be interested in reading more Dutch fiction after this. Perhaps I’ll start with Sam Garrett’s recommendations: Dimitri Verhulst and Tommy Wieringa.

Review copy.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

The Three Rs in Translation: Sam Garrett

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

This week’s guest is Sam Garrett, a translator from Dutch to English. I asked Sam to take part in the interview series after reading two novels he translated. I’ll write about Tirza, one of those novels, next week.

How did you learn your source language?

I learned Dutch, in fact, as an antidote to boredom. During a long trip to Central America in the late 1970s, while I was lying sick in bed, my Dutch girlfriend began teaching me how to pronounce the language’s peculiar vowel diphthongs. Later, after we moved to Amsterdam, I started reading children’s books to wile away the time as I waited for my residence permit. Then – I suppose you could say – I moved on to bigger things.

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

Some of my colleagues actually have a university degree in translation studies. But I started out as a wire-service journalist: I learned the mechanics of writing prose before I learned to read or speak a second language. At first, translation in general was a useful way to make a living in an otherwise tight job market. The desire to translate literature, however, arose simply because I wanted to share with friends and family ‘back home’ some of the absolutely unique prose I encountered in the Netherlands.

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

I start around 10 in the morning, knock off around 5 in the afternoon. Six days a week, if I’m in the midst of a big project. With lots of breaks in between, though, to read magazines or just get up and walk around: I have a very short attention span, about forty-five minutes, I believe.

What are your favourite contemporary books in the source language?

Flemish writer Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates and his Madame Verona comes down the hill are both wonderful. Tommy Wieringa is a fantastic Dutch writer (my translation of his Caesarion has just been shortlisted for the IMPAC Prize): his novel Joe Speedboat has so much flair and empathy, it deserves to have many more readers than it’s had till now. And give me almost anything by Arnon Grunberg, any day of the week: his novel Tirza is startling, a bleak mind-bender. And The Story of My Baldness, which he wrote under the pen name Marek van der Jagt, is a wonderfully weird Bildungsroman with a serious twist – set in Vienna, appropriately enough.

What have you read recently in English that you loved?

James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds.

What novel have you translated most recently?

I just finished a huge non-fiction project, actually: Congo, a history by the Flemish writer David Van Reybrouck. A marvelously ambitious stork’s-eye view of the history of a huge country we’ve all heard of but about which most of us know little or nothing at all.

My most recent novel was The Dinner by Herman Koch.

What were its particular interests and challenges?

The voice and character of The Dinner’s narrator, Paul Lohman, was a joy and a challenge to capture. I myself have a fairly bare-bones style when it comes to prose, I believe, but Herman Koch actually goes me one better on that. I had to rein myself in, render and reduce.

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

What a terrible question! How could I pick just one?  I’ve loved a few. Do you expect me to kiss and tell?

Do you write (fiction or non-fiction)?

Both. I’ve had things, stories and essays, published here and there.

What’s your third R, and why?

That would have to be “razzmatazz”. In the words of Duke Ellington: it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. That applies as much to letters as it does to love.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for May, 2013 at Slightly Bookist.