Dossier: Five Women Writers in Translation

The original is unfaithful to the translation.
Jorge Luis Borges

In 2014, I had the good fortune of participating in the Puterbaugh Festival of International Literature & Culture honoring Spanish-Argentine author Andrés Neuman, whose work I had translated for our parent publication World Literature Today, which sponsors the biennial event.

During the gala dinner, amid the pomp and circumstance, just minutes before Andrés was to deliver his Puterbaugh address, I began to choke on a piece of steak. For several minutes, Andrés and some 200 assembled guests watched as three different men administered the Heimlich maneuver and, quite literally, brought me back from the brink of death. With my permission, Andrés would later recount the harrowing episode in his blog, writing:

In addition to reordering our priorities, George reminded us in dramatic fashion of three other things. That translators deserve much more attention than they usually receive. That a story’s breath depends on them. And that, if one day we did not have them, the entire world would be left speechless.

I mention this anecdote by way of introduction to this dossier dedicated to translators to underscore the importance that translators play in the creation of world literature. With good reason Portuguese novelist José Saramago wrote: “Writers make literatures national and translators make literature universal. Without translators, writers would be nothing, we would be condemned to live locked away in our language.” Saramago was keenly aware that his stature as a writer of world literature was due in no small part to his translators. Indeed, the Nobel laureate’s novels would be unknown to the English-speaking world if not for the labor of translators like Margaret Jull Costa and Giovanni Pontiero. What’s more, only a handful of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature would have reached this highest pinnacle of literary success if not for their translators.    

Imagine for a moment that Cien años de soledad, La muerte de Artemio Cruz, La ciudad y los perros, and Rayuela had never been translated into the dozens of languages they now inhabit. Quite simply, there may never have been a so-called Boom, and the works of García Márquez, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and Cortázar may have been relegated to mere national literature, selling thousands of copies in their native countries and throughout Latin American and not the millions of copies they have sold, and continue to sell, worldwide. These novels, however, have one other thing in common. Not only were they all written by male authors, they were also all translated by male translators. Only later did women translators, Margaret Sayers Peden, Edith Grossman, and Natasha Wimmer, begin to translate these giants of Latin American, nay world literature.

Coincidentally, but fortuitously, all the writers chosen for this dossier are women, Jazmina Barrera (Mexico), Carmen Boullosa (Mexico), Jeannette Clariond (Mexico), Mariana Torres (Brazil), and Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina). If nothing else, this happy coincidence suggests that the male-dominated world of writers and translators is changing. And Latin American Literature Today is proud to be part of this changing trend.

The translators featured here are among the most exciting and respected translators working in Latin American literature today: Lisa Dillman, Christina MacSweeny, Lawrence Schimel, Samantha Schnee, and Grady Wray. Accompanying each translation are short conversations between translator and author (Dillman, MacSweeney, and Schnee), or, in the case of Schimel and Wray, more detailed accounts of the challenges each translator encountered and the strategies each one employed to resolve them. In every case, these texts provide a unique insight, to borrow a phrase from Benjamin, into the task of translator, without whose endeavor literature would remain forever foreign.

George Henson


"Series 201," microfiction by Luisa Valenzuela, translated by Grady C. Wray

At the meeting of the strange Sect of Flash Fiction Writers, we listened to each other with enough suspension of disbelief—to use the curious quote from Coleridge—but also with the necessary contact with reality to enrich our exchange.

It all happened at the conference in Neuchâtel when David Roas read his tiny tale about a succession of hotel rooms numbered 201 that, as luck would have it, he had stayed in on a trip to northern Spain. I felt implicated: 201 was my room number in that very Neuchâtel hotel.

I opened myself up to the mystery proposed by David’s very tiny tale with a somewhat ironic smile, like someone who was watching a game and did not even suspect that it was no game at all: It was a net in which, like David, I would very soon find myself entangled.


"Too Cute for Tiny Tale Tellers: Some Thoughts on Translating Series 201 with Luisa Valenzuela" by Grady C. Wray

When I first read Valenzuela’s series I did not notice any major difficulties that I would confront when translating, but as always, certain obstacles were waiting between the words and between the languages. Some phrases caused me to stretch to accommodate an interesting English. However, I took some of the obstacles too seriously and tried to incorporate them even though, in the final translation, I omitted them because my efforts detracted from the singleness of effect for which I aimed throughout the process.


"Pharos," a short story by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina MacSweeney

As a child, even before I ever saw a lighthouse, I dreamed of one; it was abandoned, far from the coast. At the foot of the structure was a garden and the house where my parents lived. In the dream, I asked my father what he had found during his exploration of the dilapidated rooms. Just the skeleton of a bat, he said. I insistently asked for reassurance that the animal was dead, but he only muttered to himself, like a trailer for a horror movie, “dead, but alive.” The tip of the tower was visible: a dark garret where the bony hands of the bat’s skeleton stirred a cauldron containing a potion. The camera then closed in on the skull that said, in a shrill voice, “I’m brewing my vengeance on the person who killed me.”


"Eavesdropping": Snippets of a Conversation between Jazmina Barrera and Christina MacSweeney

… I actually started working on the subject of lighthouses before moving to New York, but my early experiences there did feel somewhat like lighthouse keeping. It was a time of isolation, of constant struggle with the weather. I also lived at the top of a very tall building and sensed for the first time what it was like to live on an island, surrounded by water. All of that ended up defining the writing of Cuaderno de faros. But you’re right, it also worked the other way around: the constant reading and writing about the lighthouse’s isolation made me more aware of my own. I think it even made me more prone to solitude: I was in love with it.


Three Poems by Carmen Boullosa, translated and with an introduction by Lawrence Schimel

Unlike the individual poems, which obviously share certain details of personal history but are each self-contained units, the sequences have a cumulative effect, giving an almost narrative feel as a result of accretion and repetition more than via the techniques of fiction (a genre Boullosa is also quite adept at). Often the sequences of very short poems, each presented on its own page, use the silence of the white space and what is not said as much as the concentrations of language and imagery and words that act as echoes or refrains. As anyone who has ever tried to write (or translate) themselves, that sparseness of language is something that can seem so simple on the surface yet is so difficult to pull off, requiring many rounds of revision and pruning until it sounds natural.


"March 10, NY," poems by Jeannette L. Clariond, translated by Samantha Schnee

Syllables scented with jasmine. I sowed words / in ancient flowerpots. / Roots / attempting to revive—what vacant house? / At five the hollow sacrifice / and over the cockerel, bells; / damp grass, insects on leaves / and the cry of a magpie. Echoes / of God, life. We die / far beneath the sky, fear / drowns us / in the first and only beginning. / Mirror sky, tomb land, / there is no conclusion, no end. Thread / and texture, / the light of fruit, cold, inside me.


A Conversation with Jeannette L. Clariond by Samantha Schnee

Light is never a metaphor I read from Charles Wright. I feel that we should learn how "to listen" to silence. And, yes, Charles Wright is a gnostic poet. Reality is revealed to us with no intermediaries (as in the final line of my poem, realidad que no alcanzan nuestras vidas). So what we see is light transforming into Light. Through Silence, the big Silence, I mean; ir is a means of interiorization, a connection of man with the Idea, God, but not the almighty we learn about in religion class; it is the abstraction of the Idea therefore we cannot grasp it, for it is invisible, inaccessible.  We arrive to that spiritual Self, through Silence, longing, and desire. You see, completeness seeks out nothingness. So, as with Morandi, we look at ourselves as emptied of meaning.


"Tree Monster Boy Tree," a short story by Mariana Torres, translated by Lisa Dillman

We still don’t know how Óscar came to swallow the seed, and haven’t figured out where he got it. We’re even less clear on how the tree managed to grow inside him, to germinate its seed unimpeded, there in the pit of his stomach, the doctor told us, watered by nothing but the boy’s gastric juices. But you see, at the age of seven, the doctor also told us, that’s how well a stomach works. The body of our Óscar – back then he was still our Óscar – allowed the tree to grow, the roots to spread through his intestines and the trunk – slender, ceremonious – to reach up through his esophagus to his mouth, its branches in search of sunlight. What we do know, or what we choose to believe, is that the tree was not trying to do him any harm, that this tree monster – as I call it when I’m alone, looking in the mirror, still ashamed at what we did – loved him. In a way, Óscar and the tree monster were one and the same, of a piece. And thus the branches that grew up his throat never pierced his chest and instead, patiently, created space for themselves. Never bothering him. Never hurting him. Even if, from the outside, it seemed the opposite.


“There is no better reader than a translator”: A Conversation with Mariana Torres by Lisa Dillman

I always work on several stories at the same time, because I tend to read them many times over and let them rest for months before they’re finally ready. Last summer I finished an unpublished story that will be published in an anthology of authors of the Bogotá39, a story I had wanted to write for years, and I didn’t finish it definitively until they offered me a spot in the anthology. But now, above all, I am mostly leaving my short stories on pause because I’m totally absorbed in a novel. I’m finally finishing it, after many months, and it’s a remarkably intimate and invasive process. As if everything else in life, not only writing, were no longer important. As if the novel took over everything. So I’m looking forward to finishing it, to see what comes next.