An X Marks the Spot: A Conversation with Ellen Jones, Translator of Nancy, by Bruno Lloret
Denise Kripper: Nancy tells the story of a harsh coming of age, told retrospectively from the protagonist’s point of view. What drew you to translate it?
Ellen Jones: Nancy was first recommended to me by Alia Trabucco, another wonderful Chilean writer who I met in London. I hadn’t planned to translate it at all—in truth, I thought it would be a nightmare to try and do so. At the time I was being mentored by Samantha Schnee as part of the National Centre for Writing Emerging Translator Mentorship scheme, and we were meeting up over Skype every week or so to discuss my translations of different texts. I’m pretty sure I groaned internally when, having listened to me describe the book, she said “let’s give it a go –– it’ll be a good challenge.” But I started and, yes, it was hard, but also fun, and it wasn’t long before I fell in love with the book’s poetic weirdness. I felt like it was really different from other contemporary Chilean literature I’d read––it’s not the dictatorship that looms large in the background of Nancy’s story, but rather capitalism, environmental collapse, poverty, religion. It also started to remind me of Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World––a book I love––in its concision, its use of local speech patterns, and the biblical cast to its language. All these things made me want to keep going with it, even after the mentorship came to an end, and eventually I started pitching it to publishers.
D.K.: The reading experience of this novel felt somewhat different. The narration includes images and footnotes, but, most notably, it is punctuated by a series of bold X letters. Featured in every page, sometimes they create shapes or insert breaks in the narrative. In your English translation, in fact, an X even appears prominently on the cover of the book. What do you make of these X’s?
E.J.: The X’s are many things, I think. They do important textual as well as symbolic work in the novel. For me, above all––and perhaps this is a function of my job as a translator––they are a kind of alternative punctuation. They mark pauses for breathing, as full stops and commas do in prose or as line breaks and other white space sometimes does in poetry. Bruno assiduously avoids the use of other signifying symbols like em dashes or exclamation marks, and even full stops are often omitted. Em dashes in particular were hard for me to avoid, because I tend to use them prolifically in my own writing. Some might call this laziness, but I like their versatility. Here, though, it was important that the X remain the text’s prevailing visual signifier.
That being said, the X’s in my English version aren’t always identical to those in the original Spanish. Bruno encouraged me to be flexible with them, to use them to support the sound and layout of the English, which are naturally different to those of the Spanish. I got them more or less how I wanted them before submitting the manuscript to Giramondo, knowing that they would inevitably need to be adjusted in the process of typesetting as the text’s visual appearance changed. They have a way of leading the eye across the page, sometimes creating soft pauses, sometimes periods of intense silence.
D.K.: And, of course, the X’s can also be crosses. In fact, religion plays a key role in the text and biblical references serve as epigraphs to every chapter. Did you work with official translations of those or did you translate those passages specifically for the novel?
E.J.: For those passages I used the King James Version so that the words would be as familiar as possible to readers of English. You’re right that the X’s have thematic relevance too––death and religion are ever-present in this novel. Nancy narrates the story of her life, including coming to terms with the disappearance and probable death of her brother, while she is dying of cancer. Her grieving father (and later Nancy herself) is persuaded to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
D.K.: At one point, Nancy’s father tells her that “this world is a desert of crosses” and I can’t help but think about gravestones and femicide. In fact, Nancy’s family is very dysfunctional and the novel tackles domestic violence and abuse. At the same time, however, there’s also a lot of innocence and tenderness in Nancy’s sexual awakening. How did you balance these two poles in finding the tone for your translation?
E.J.: I love that line, which appears in one of my favourite scenes in the book: Nancy and her father visit a graveyard, watch the sunset turn everything copper-coloured, and then, once night has fallen, watch strange phosphorescent bushes create a dreamlike light show. It always makes me think of Mexican artist Alejandro Santiago’s 2501 Migrants, a colossal work of art inspired by the fields of crosses on the US-Mexico border commemorating those who have died trying to cross it. Santiago created 2501 unique, life-size clay sculptures, the extra one suggesting that there is always one more person willing to risk their life to make it to the US. It’s not the same part of the world, of course, but it makes sense to me in the context of this novel, which is about the (possibly endless) escape from and return to a life of misery.
But you’re right, the “desert of crosses” pertains to femicide. It’s a threat that pervades Nancy’s teenage years, when women’s bodies start turning up on nearby beaches and she is advised to stay at home for her own safety. Her mother is a victim of gendered violence and young Nancy’s sexual relationship with an older man is perhaps most kindly described as perfunctory. As you say, one of the most striking things about her narrative is the swing between the vulgar/violent and the gentle/tender. Beaten by her mother, she suffers from nightmares and bed-wetting as a child, then grows up to develop a disturbing link between sexual pleasure and the need to urinate, suggesting that, for her, there is something frightening and possibly violent about sexual pleasure.
The idea of translating a man writing a young female voice is potentially an uncomfortable one, especially when the book is in part about female sexuality and violence against women. But Bruno writes Nancy with all the sensitivity and humanity she deserves. I tried to do justice to that in my translation, taking care that her voice retained all its contradictions and sharp tonal shifts. I also tried not to over-explain language that is often spare to the point of strangeness.
D.K.: I felt your translation recovered very nicely the orality of the novel. There are traces of speech that even reading it in English, I could feel characters speaking in Spanish. The novel also includes some Chilean cultural references, and some Bolivian and Mexican ones as well. What were some of the translation strategies you used in trying to both keep some of the Spanish flavor while making it accessible to English readers as well?
E.J.: I’m glad you thought this––thank you for saying so. The novel’s orality was probably the hardest aspect of the translation, and one of the reasons I was reluctant to give it a go at first. In particular the character Jesulé, who is from a traveller community that sells pots and pans and refits second hand cars, speaks in very marked, colloquial Chilean Spanish. Thankfully he is a man of few words, but when he does speak he uses shortened forms and unusual vocabulary (some of which took me literally weeks to figure out). In English, his voice had to be distinct from Nancy’s. I did a few things to try and achieve this, one of which was to try to achieve extreme concision in English too (“Course. Told you, din’t I”). Another was to keep some terms in unitalicised Spanish, like the names he calls Nancy (“paisa,” “chilena”). This was something I did more widely throughout the novel, not just in dialogue with Jesulé. Words like “tío” and “hija” are unlikely to cause too much confusion for readers, and are another useful way of reminding readers of the novel’s setting.
D.K.: I found time to be pretty elusive in the narrative. The plotline goes back and forth in time, but also it is pretty hard to know when these timelines are actually taking place. Somehow the story feels like it could be happening now or a few years, even decades ago. Did this influence at all some of your translation choices?
E.J.: You’re completely right. The first time I read the novel I didn’t even clock that it’s actually set in the near future, about ten or fifteen years from now––a detail that’s revealed only by a date on a tombstone. The novel starts and ends at the exact same moment, with almost the exact same words, and the text is framed by several pages of Xs that form the shape of an hourglass (it might also be a church steeple). Sometimes the narrative moves slowly, dwelling on a few hours in a day, sometimes it speeds up almost comically, taking in decades in a matter of sentences. Part of this is to do with Nancy’s illness. In the narrative present she is in a pain—and solitude—induced delirium. There are passages of dialogue that are sometimes difficult to follow, and images that are hard to visualise. As a translator I felt it was important to try and keep as much of the language’s strangeness and ambiguity as possible, despite the temptation to clarify or straighten things out.
D.K.: A few months ago, Chilean writer and journalist Antonio Díaz Oliva published an article on a new wave of women translators who have been responsible for making Chilean literature available in English. Do you see yourself as part of this group? How do you position yourself as the translator of a Chilean author?
E.J.: How wonderful to be among such a talented group of women! All the translators mentioned in this article are more experienced than me and have done some extraordinary work of which I’m very admiring—Sophie Hughes’s translation of Alia Trabucco’s The Remainder and Megan McDowell’s translation of Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red are favourites of mine.
My own connection with Chile and Chilean literature goes back about ten years, when I spent a year living in Santiago as part of my year abroad from university. There I did my very first bits and pieces of literary translation, and my interest in Chilean literary culture has only grown ever since.
Oliva’s article points out that almost all the Chilean books published in English in the past five years have been about living under or in the aftermath of Pinochet. Megan McDowell explains that, in the US at least, readers know very little about Chile apart from that it went through a dictatorship, and for that reason books about that period are easier for readers to connect to. Nancy is quite different in that respect. It’s a book about the present, rather than the past, one that paints a fairly bleak picture of a part of the country (the north) largely abandoned by the state, and that predicts for it a similarly bleak future.
D.K.: I was wondering if you could also tell me a bit about Giramondo Publishing. They’re an Australian press and they have just started a Southern Latitudes series, focusing on writers from the Southern Hemisphere. How is working with an Australian publishing house different than an American or a British one?
E.J.: The main thing is the time difference! I tend to receive emails from my Giramondo editor at four in the morning, and vice versa I expect. Nick Tapper and I were lucky enough to meet in person at the Guadalajara book fair last year, after which we sat down together to go through line edits. It was such a joy to talk to someone who had read and thought about the book so carefully––working with him has been a genuine pleasure.
Giramondo are known for taking a huge amount of care over how their books look, which is one of the reasons I think they are the perfect home for Nancy. Nick was as meticulous as both Bruno and I about getting the layout of the X’s just right. And the Southern Latitudes series is just one of their new ventures––they’ve now also teamed up with Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and New Directions in the US on The Novel Prize, a new biennial award for a book-length work of literary fiction written in English.
D.K.: And finally, this is Bruno Lloret’s debut novel and his first to be translated into English. What are some of the responsibilities in introducing an author to a new audience? What would you like your English-speaking readers to know about Lloret and what do you hope they get from reading him?
E.J.: In my opinion this is one of the best bits about being a translator: getting to advocate on behalf of authors you admire and whose work you love. Bruno is currently living in the UK, where he is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, and is enviably young to have already published two novels––his second, Leña [Firewood], came out with Chilean independent press Overol in 2019. His writing is both technically and conceptually ambitious. He’s not afraid to take formal risks, writing prose that combines hyperrealism with flashes of the postmodern, nor to tackle the twenty-first century’s most pressing global problems, from environmental collapse to the social fallout of capitalism. Nancy is undoubtedly a Chilean novel, but its moving account of loneliness, grief, and the endurance of physical pain, shot through with unexpected black humour, will resonate much more broadly. I hope interested readers will support an independent bookshop at this strange, difficult time, by taking advantage of the delivery services many of them are now offering during the quarantine.
Denise Kripper is Assistant Professor in the Modern Languages & Literatures Department at Lake Forest College. Her research interests include Latin American Literature and Translation Studies. She has a PhD in Literature & Cultural Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in Translation from the Lenguas Vivas Institute in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has worked extensively as an interpreter and audiovisual translator. Her literary translations and academic work on translation has been featured in World Literature Today, Asymptote, Farlag, Mutatis Mutandis and Trans: Revista de Traductología, among others. She is currently working on a monograph on the fictional representation of translators in recent literature in Spanish. She lives in Chicago, where she’s a member of the Third Coast Translators Collective.
Ellen Jones is a researcher, editor, and Spanish-to-English literary translator based in Mexico City. She has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and is Reviews Editor at Hispanic Research Journal. She writes regularly about multilingualism and contemporary Latin American literature, including for publications like the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and The Irish Times. Her translation from Spanish of Rodrigo Fuentes’s short story collection Trout, Belly Up (Charco Press, 2019) was shortlisted for the Translators Association First Translation Prize. Bruno Lloret’s Nancy is published by Giramondo Publishing.
The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.