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An Interview with Christina MacSweeney

By Nicole Guappone

Christina MacSweeney is a literary translator specializing in Latin American fiction. Her translations include Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims (Coffee House Press, 2016), Eduardo Rabasa’s A Zero Sum Game (Deep Vellumn, 2016), and three books by Valeria Luiselli: Sidewalks (Coffee House Press 2014); Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press, 2014), which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, 2015; and The Story of My Teeth (Coffee House Press, 2015), which won the Los Angeles Times Prize for Best Fiction. Her work has also appeared on a variety of platforms and in the anthology México20 (Pushkin Press, 2015).

Christina and I spoke about Latin American translation, her forthcoming publications, and how non-translators can get involved in the translation community.

What do you think is the current state of the literary translation of Latin American literature in this country?

There’s definitely been a resurgence in the publication of translated literature from Latin America in recent years. For a while, it seemed like the publishing industry both in the US and UK had gotten stuck in some stereotypical vision of that literature (and many reviewers still manage to sneak the word “magical” into their comments on anything from Latin America). But it’s very heartening to see so many new voices being published now (Yuri Herrera, Alejandro Zambra, Álvaro Enrigue, etc.), and writers whose work was sidelined in the past, such as Sergio Pitol, are also being reevaluated. There’s still a lot of work to be done: for one thing, I think it continues to be more difficult to get writing by women from Latin America into translation. Yes, there are some wonderful exceptions like Valeria Luiselli, Guadalupe Nettel, Laia Jufresa . . . but they are exceptions. And the essay, which is a major genre of Latin American writing, is largely absent too.

Why might it be so difficult to get women’s work translated, and what do you think it is about the particular writers whom you mentioned that make them the exception?

Yeah, that’s definitely a big question. But I don’t think writing by women is only sidelined in terms of translation. Part of the problem might be that their work is also seen as having less authority in the original culture, which means it get reviewed less frequently, and/or is taken less seriously. In terms of the writers I mentioned, what makes them stand out for me is that they have very individual styles, very strong voices. And they seem to approach writing in ways that are surprising, sometimes even unsettling.

Do you have any advice for aspiring translators? What about those of us who may not be able to translate but who are interested in translations?

For aspiring translators, my first piece of advice would be: don’t give up. It can be disheartening to send off report after report, one sample translation after another, and to feel you’re getting nowhere. But you have to hold on to your passion for the works you feel should be available to readers. It’s also important to feel part of a community: I’ve never been great at networking, but those opportunities to exchange ideas with other translators, and members of the publishing industry, can be amazingly enriching.

Something I would like to see in the reception of translated literature is a more nuanced discourse. Like many translators, I’ve gathered a nice little collection of adverbs and adjectives (some even superlative) from reviews of my work, but mostly that’s as far as it goes. So I’d like to encourage readers and reviewers to start addressing what it is about a particular translation that makes it work.

You said in another interview that you and Valeria Luiselli didn’t only collaborate through text, but that music and video clips and even a ballet production played a part in the translation process of Faces in the Crowd. How was it that these other art forms informed your collaborative creative process?

Yes, music and dance were very important in the translation process of Faces in the Crowd. I think it started with Valeria sending me links to videos of the Mexican dancer José Limón’s choreography of The Moor’s Pavane: watching the movements, and feeling the rhythm as I translated and redrafted fed into two important scenes in the novel. And I played Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz”—Valeria had also been listening to it when writing certain scenes dealing with Lorca—over and over to keep that waltz rhythm in my mind. Valeria also told me about the books she was reading as part of her research, so E. L. Doctorow’s novel about the Collyer brothers was very helpful in finding that 1920s New York voice. I think that sharing those things also helped to make our relationship as author-translator closer, and it’s something we’ve continued ever since: for example, with The Story of My Teeth, Valeria made sure that I was able to hear the conversations of the reading group, and also watch a video of a tour around the exhibition on which the original story was based.

That’s fascinating. As a writer I understand how other art forms can inspire one’s writing, but I never considered it in relation to the translation process—probably because I’m not a translator.

Well, there are a great many similarities between creative writing and translation.

Absolutely. And what about your collaborations with other writers? You have two upcoming translation releases: Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims and Eduardo Rabasa’s A Zero Sum Game. What drew you to these books? Can you discuss the differences (and/or similarities) in the translation process for each one?

I really appreciate being able to collaborate with the authors I’m working on, but it is a time-consuming process, and not all writers have that time to spare or feel confident to evaluate the English translation.

In relation to Daniel Saldaña París, Valeria mentioned his work to me, and I first read his poetry, which I loved. I then got hold of his novel, En medio de extrañas víctimas, and was hooked. So I translated a few chapters, started sending the sample to publishers, and eventually Coffee House Press decided to take it on. I also met Daniel briefly in New York around that time, and he was happy with the early chapters of Among Strange Victims. So I continued translating and Daniel read through and commented on the final draft, answering my queries and making suggestions. But the best part of the process was when we had the opportunity to share an author-translator residency organized by OMI International at Ledig House in New York State. We went through the proofs of the novel together, often reading sections aloud to each other. It meant a lot to both of us to hear the other’s voice speaking the novel.

Eduardo Rabasa, who is also Valeria and Daniel’s Spanish publisher, initially asked me to read La suma de los ceros with a view to making a sample translation, and, as I was very impressed, we took it from there. I sent him sections for review as I finished them. I also suggested a few small changes to the structure of certain sections, and getting his feedback on that was immensely useful.

So my experiences, while different with each author, have been very positive. As I live on a different continent than all three of these authors, the time I have been able to spend with them in person, both getting to know them and working on the texts, has, I think, contributed greatly to the success of the translations. Emails and Skype are fine, but nothing beats personal contact.

You described translating Valeria’s work as a  “double translation” because these texts were written in Spanish and translated into American English, but you are based in the UK? How does that change the more typical, or “single translation,” process?

When I first began translating Faces in the Crowd, it was for the UK publishing house Granta. Perhaps because the book is set between New York and Mexico City, using British English spelling and idiomatic expressions felt all wrong. Happily, Granta agreed to let me use American English. I now translate regularly for US publishers, but this does involve a certain amount of role switching, as if I have to step into another place where I can access a more American voice. With Among Strange Victims, I started the process in British English and then, when Coffee House Press decided to publish it, I had to rethink certain passages. I remember that the expletive “bloody” (my translation of pinche) was considered too British when it came to editing, and there was a suggestion of replacing it with “damn.” But the problem was, I’d already used “damn” in other contexts, and wanted something more specific for that very Mexican term. Anyway, after a great deal of thought, I decided on “frigging,” which seems to fit neatly between the two cultures: Daniel liked it too.

What differences do you see between Latin America’s literary traditions and those of North America?

That’s such a difficult question! And I don’t pretend to be an expert. Clearly, North American literature has had a huge influence on writing in Latin America, perhaps particularly in terms of Modernist literature. But it’s not a one-way process. In the first half of the last century, North American writers, artists, and intellectuals were flocking to Mexico, taking back elements of that culture. And of course, both cultures have fed on and into European literature. I guess if I can think of an important difference, it is in terms of narrative: North American literature tends toward a more structured, realist voice, whereas Latin American writing, it seems to me, often uses narrative as a framework for expressing something else that the reader has to uncover for herself. Another difference is perhaps in the relative importance of the short story, the novella, and the essay: those three genres are much stronger in the Latin American tradition.

Do you have any ideas as to why the short story, novella, and essay are a larger part of the Latin American tradition? It seems that while they are making a comeback in the US, they have historically been more highly regarded in other literary traditions.

Perhaps it has to do with literary trends. The essay was certainly a more widely read genre in English in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And many Latin American authors have taken inspiration from those texts. But somewhere along the line the essay was eclipsed by the novel in the English-language tradition in a way that didn’t happen in Latin America. So perhaps it’s just a legacy of the classic, plot-driven novel, and hopefully is something that will change.

What do you find is the most difficult part of translating specifically Latin American literature? The most rewarding?

I’ll start with the rewarding parts. I fell in love with Latin American literature when I first read Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories, and it’s an ongoing love affair. So, giving English-language readers the chance to share that passion is a wonderful experience. And as my name has become a little better known, it’s good to feel I can have some influence in getting writers I admire into translation.

As for difficulties, the most obvious, and perhaps greatest, is that Spanish is used in quite different ways in Latin American countries, or even in regions of one country. So the Norteño Spanish of Mexico uses a very different range of vocabulary to the Chilango voice of Mexico City, which is very playful and witty. Another big challenge is sentence structure. Spanish often uses wonderfully long sentences that can go on for a whole paragraph, interweaving many different ideas. Maintaining that momentum in the English text, while retaining, as much as possible, the original punctuation, requires time, careful thought, and experimentation—and a lot of standing your ground when it comes to the proofreading stage.

Image: Translator Christina MacSweeney, and the covers of Valeria Luiselli's Among Strange Victims (Coffee House Press, 2016) and The Story of My Teeth (Coffee House Press, 2015).

Published Jun 8, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nicole Guappone

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