Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

An Interview with Man Booker International Shortlisters Alia Trabucco Zerán and Sophie Hughes

By Susannah Greenblatt

Alia Trabucco Zerán’s debut novel, The Remainder, which is shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in Sophie Hughes’s translation, probes the lingering shadows of Chile’s dictatorship twenty years after the fact. The story is narrated by Iquela and Felipe, who grew up under the dictatorship as playmates, both children of leftist militants. In adulthood, Felipe roams the streets of Santiago counting the corpses that appear to him while Iquela dwells in her mother’s memories. Each is unable to remember the violence and unable to forget it. It’s raining ash on Santiago when Paloma, a childhood acquaintance, arrives from Germany to repatriate the body of her late Chilean mother. When the coffin is lost in transit, the three set out in a borrowed hearse (with plenty of pisco and some pilfered hallucinogens) to retrieve it. As they wind their way to Mendoza, searching for something that does not belong to them but for which they’ve somehow become guardians, Felipe and Iquela seek to make sense of their inherited memories of violence.

I spoke with Alia Trabucco Zerán and Sophie Hughes over email about numbers and trauma, extracting beauty from violence, memory, the joys of translating wordplay, and Zerán’s short story “A Bitter Pill,” translated by Hughes, which appears in the April 2019 issue of WWB. The Remainder was published in the UK by And Other Stories in 2018 and is forthcoming in the US from Coffee House Press in August of 2019.


Susannah Greenblatt (SG): Alia, the violence and bloodshed of Chile’s dictatorship is inescapable throughout The Remainder, and yet the story takes place almost entirely after the referendum ending the dictatorship. Our glimpses into life during the dictatorship are through the eyes of the protagonists, who are so young at the time that they can’t quite comprehend the full picture of what’s going on. Can you talk about the decision to keep our view of the regime somewhat removed and obscured?

Alia Trabucco Zerán (ATZ): To narrativize the dictatorship—to write a novel that sets out to contain that period and give it a coherence, a form, an order—doesn’t seem possible to me, nor desirable. In fact, while I was writing this book, I suppose that I was interrogating the very notion of there being a “greater narrative” at all. What interested me more were the remains, the fragments, the oblique and subtle way in which the violence and history of a country enter into and color the biographies of several generations. From the very start, that carried over to the structure of the novel: two singular, subjective points of view that don’t claim to give accounts of the greater history (although they do keep counts!) but rather to narrate their own experiences of that history, with parts that are erased, forgotten, hazy. So what remains are partial versions of that greater narrative, which both belongs to Iquela and Felipe and is foreign to them. There also remains a confluence of emotions that certainly do belong to the characters and that anchor them to their present: humor, rage, sadness, resentment. I suppose that to adopt that point of view was a literary, political, and aesthetic decision. All at once. 


SG: Felipe’s obsessive counting of the dead serves as a kind of heartbeat for the story. While there’s a meticulousness to his counting, it’s also one of the most surreal aspects of the book, as we’re never certain if the bodies Felipe finds and counts are really “there” or not. What drew you to look for the surreal in numbers? Why does Felipe feel the need to subtract the bodies, to count down instead of up?

ATZ: I love the idea of counting being a kind of heartbeat for the story. I guess it is exactly that: a heartbeat, something vital. It is Felipe’s strategy for survival, an attempt to find some order in immense pain. Numbers have an aura of finitude, of precision, which Felipe tries to utilize but always with some irony, perhaps because he knows that he’ll fail. A history as violent as Chile’s is hard to classify or quantify, but numbers have always played an important role. “The one hundred and nineteen” for example, a group of leftists militants who were murdered; or the three thousand people disappeared and detained; or the count of those tortured, of those exiled. Figures that are important historically and politically because they lend official credibility to a reality that was denied in Chile for years. But they also have great limitations. Figures can never account for pain. That pain is uncontainable; it can’t be measured. I think this is where the idea of subtracting springs from. The official figures add, they always add, and to subtract is equally arbitrary, equally absurd and painful, and, perhaps, equally unsuccessful.

A child’s imagination jumbles and plays. And that is something that I took up in The Remainder, trying, at the same time, to extract from it a certain beauty. This cross between violence and beauty has always interested me.

SG: Sophie, Felipe’s narration is ecstatic and meandering, but it has a laser-like intensity and obsessiveness. He often veers away from fixtures like punctuation, particularly when he slugs down the psychoactive cancer drugs left over from Paloma’s late mother. What was it like to translate a character for whom language can’t always keep up?

Sophie Hughes (SH): What a fantastic way of putting it: language really can’t keep up with Felipe. If you hear Alia read his sections aloud in Spanish, that’s precisely how it feels, and it’s precisely this effect that I wanted to bring across. However, and here’s the rub, English can’t always keep up with Spanish. There is a profuseness to aural Spanish, a packing-in of words and a rapidity (or so it feels), that doesn’t automatically translate across in English just by translating as closely as you can. And so I sometimes had to forfeit absolute fidelity to semantics. By that I don’t mean that I made things up. For example, in some instances, I (and my brilliant editors at And Other Stories) chose to use “cos” instead of “because.” There is no change in the Spanish “porque” that would warrant this; it’s all about trying to pick up the pace in English. “Because” is such a drag of a word. People have said that Felipe’s sections have zip, and that was the goal: to find Alia’s Spanish-speaking Felipe in my English-speaking Felipe.


SG: Alia, I love the way you write about Iquela and Felipe’s childhood together. They take so much joy in imagination, but they also seem to channel through it the violence and pain happening around them. They dress up as the ghost of Felipe’s murdered father and run races on their knees across tracks strewn with shards of glass. What drew you to the idea of play and imagination as a means of processing violence and intergenerational trauma?

ATZ: I think that the dictatorship inflicted a very radical violence that not only manifested in the bodies of thousands of people but also in the imaginations of many more. Those of us born during the dictatorship grew up hearing news reports about mass graves, about bodies tossed into the sea, about torture, rape, execution. Those images were inescapable. We’d turn on the TV at seven, eight, ten years old, and see bones, skulls. We’d hear our parents talk about their dead friends, about the different kinds of torture and their sinister names: “submarine,” “parrilla.” And then we saw, in parallel, Pinochet in the senate. Growing up with Pinochet as a senator-for-life and with all those images around was paradoxical and very violent.

I think all of that entered into the imaginations, the language, and the games of those of us who were kids then. I remember how, when I was seven years old, I had a classmate who hit another kid. I can’t remember very clearly what happened, but I do remember being part of a chorus of children chanting, “murderer, murderer, murderer.” This chant, which was out-of-place in the mouths of a group of seven-year-olds, was imitating another chant: the one we heard that year—1990—in the streets. A child’s imagination jumbles and plays. And that is something that I took up in The Remainder, trying, at the same time, to extract from it a certain beauty. This cross between violence and beauty has always interested me.


SG: One of the three main characters, Paloma, is a German woman born of Chilean parents whose Spanish is in some ways native to her and in other ways foreign. There are several moments in which the intricacies of the Spanish language take center stage, when a word’s subtle connotations must be explained or a word devolves into its syllables. Sophie, how did you go about translating these linguistic specificities and blunders?

SH: This novel was full of fun and games. Truly, people always bring up wordplay and “problems,” but I think I can speak for quite a number of literary translators when I say: we live for this stuff!

There is a passage in which the three young characters are getting slowly drunk, and Felipe calls out Paloma on her distinctly un-Chilean Spanish. Literally the words Felipe uses to test Paloma’s Spanish are: redhead, marble, pea, disaster. But these words serve no symbolic purpose; they are tools to show how Chilean Spanish and peninsula Spanish differ. As the “rewriter” of this passage in English, I therefore needed my words to serve just that purpose, and so I ignored the original redhead, marble, pea, and disaster and used examples from the most obviously deviating international Englishes: American and British (sneakers vs. trainers, sidewalk vs. pavement, etc.).

ATZ: It amazed me every time Sophie found some equivalent for a Chilean saying or for a joke or for a word with multiple meanings. And the book is filled with those linguistic turns and with reflections about words that she had to translate intellectually and creatively.

I always feel that nothing escapes the translator’s eye because we read at a macro- and microscopic level. 

SG: The Remainder has met with international acclaim and was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. As a translator, did anything surprise you about how the book translated culturally or how it was received internationally?

SH: What has surprised me is how much I’ve learned about The Remainder from other readers’ responses to it. Even your questions reveal facets of the novel that somehow I’d forgotten about or hadn’t consciously considered. For example, I think in Iquela’s chapters, all of the wordplay and self-conscious parentheses are the parts of the book that best express the idea that language isn’t enough, that it can’t always keep up. But, actually, as you say, Felipe’s “ecstatic and meandering” narrative implicitly supports this idea just as well. I always feel that nothing escapes the translator’s eye because we read at a macro- and microscopic level. I challenged myself to translate his whole, breathless chapters in single sittings, so I suppose I was reading at bindweed sentence level.

It’s really exciting now to read other readers’ responses (positive and even not so positive) to the novel’s eschewal of straightforward historical narrating. Some people want more context, but for me, that’s not what a novel should provide. The genius of The Remainder (and a very brave artistic choice on Alia’s part) is that we experience the same piecemeal history lesson that the three young characters do as inheritors of their parents’ glorified pasts. We, like them, are thrown tidbits; details we know to be important but cannot fully grasp or understand. It’s a very neat way to create empathy between readers and characters. This might be one understanding of the term “cultural translation.”


SG: Alia, one of my favorite passages in “A Bitter Pill” is when the narrator, a domestic worker named Teresa, describes melting into her room on her day off, becoming one with the furniture, the drawers, or what you call the “family of objects.” At certain points in The Remainder, your characters experience a similar erasure of their bodies. What attracts you to this idea of corporeal transcendence?

ATZ: Tough question! I think that in both cases I was interested in exploring a certain strangeness in relation to the body to see if it was possible, through writing, to break—or at least crack the link between—subjectivity and corporeality. Without a body, is pain erased? When the characters in The Remainder take the hallucinatory drug that Paloma brings, what remains of them? Can that inherited pain be sublimated and also belong to them? At the same time, I believe that the characters’ most liberated moments occur when they’re experimenting with their bodies through sex or drugs.

In “A Bitter Pill,” body and work are one. The protagonist of the text is a working body—pained, functional, but also capable of feeling pleasure. Capable of going outside of itself in this exercise that’s painful and sad but also liberating—an experiment in disconnection and rupture. Imagination plays a fundamental role in that—imagination as a vanishing point, including of one’s own body and its tethers.


SG: What was your collaboration like throughout the translation process? What are some of the challenging or exhilarating decisions you’ve had to make working together?

ATZ: From the very first moment, I felt that Sophie had captured this book in a very profound way—its rhythm, its affects, its madnesses, its language. It’s a very strange process to be read with that level of intensity and intimacy, and it was lovely to see the novel begin to appear, bit by bit, in another language.

I remember that Sophie suggested we get together to read aloud from the novel, which struck me because when I was writing the book, I read it aloud over and over. There are entire passages that I know from memory. And that’s saying something in a book that’s precisely about memory! And although I haven’t asked Sophie, I get the sense that there are passages she must know from memory, too.

I admire her work very much, and I feel very fortunate.

SH: Alia is an incredibly generous writer to translate. I imagine it is not easy having an old book picked apart by a stranger (initially, we were connected only by a mutual friend). Translators are like maddening toddlers who want to know the reason behind everything: why, why, why. There isn’t always a reason. And it sort of kills some creative instinct to try to find one, especially if you’re already on to the next project. Wisława Szymborska said, “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born of a continuous ‘I don’t know.’” And yet Alia always indulged me and took the time to think about whether there was a reason behind this or that word choice, and to share her impressions with me.

Alia respects and understands the translation process. She went to the immense trouble of reliving the writing of this book, her debut novel, with me, which can’t have been comfortable. Not because it isn’t a debut to be immensely proud of but because, as Heraclitus put it, we never step into the same river twice. Years after first writing it, Alia revisited a novel she wrote and didn’t write. Alia’s help in my translation involved a kind of self-translation, a co-rewriting, so in this respect, she couldn’t have been more generous.


Alia Trabucco Zerán’s responses were translated from the Spanish by Susannah Greenblatt.


Alia Trabucco Zerán was born in Chile in 1983. She was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for her MFA in Creative Writing at New York University and she holds a PhD in Spanish and Latin American Studies from University College London. La Resta (The Remainder), her debut novel, won the prize for Best Unpublished Literary Work awarded by the Chilean Council for the Arts in 2014, and on publication was chosen by El País as one of its top ten debuts of 2015.

Sophie Hughes has translated novels by Spanish and Latin American writers such as José Revueltas, Enrique Vila-Matas, Rodrigo Hasbún and Laia Jufresa. She has been the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, six English PEN translate awards, and in 2018 she was named one of the Arts Foundation 25th anniversary fellows for her contribution to the field of literary translation.


Read Alia Trabucco Zerán’s short story “A Bitter Pill,” translated by Sophie Hughes

Read WWB’s issue of new Chilean writing

Read Susannah Greenblatt’s interviews with Tamara Tenenbaum and Ezequiel Zaidenwerg

Published May 2, 2019   Copyright 2019 Susannah Greenblatt

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.