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Subverting Gendered Language: Hannah Kauders on Translating Iván Monalisa Ojeda’s “Las Biuty Queens”

By Shoshana Akabas

In 2019, translator Hannah Kauders stumbled on a copy of Las Biuty Queens, the second book of short stories by Chilean writer Iván Monalisa Ojeda, and fell in love. Kauders immediately set out to translate this unique short story collection, in which Ojeda draws from his/her own experience as a trans performer, sex worker, and undocumented immigrant to chronicle the lives of Latinx queer and trans immigrants in New York City. I spoke to Kauders (whom I first met when we were translation MFA students at Columbia University) over the phone about the challenges of capturing Ojeda’s electrically experimental Spanish—which purposefully plays with gender conventions—in a language that lacks grammatical gender, her approach to rendering Ojeda’s boundary-defying linguistic choices in translation, and how she views her role as a translator. 


Shoshana Akabas (SA): Can you share a little about Las Biuty Queens and what drew you to this project? 

Hannah Kauders (HK): Las Biuty Queens by Iván Monalisa Ojeda follows a community of mostly Latinx trans people living in New York, beginning in the nineties. At the center of this community is this narrator, Monalisa, who is a sort of alter ego for Iván Monalisa (the author) and who narrates the joys and also the very real threats of violence that exist for her in New York. 

I found this book because, in 2019, I was lucky enough to go to Santiago with a Word for Word Travel Grant from Columbia University to do a reading with a poet named Daniela Morano, whose work I had been translating. I really wanted to make the most of the experience, and I went with the hope that I would find a new project that I could translate. At the recommendation of writers from Santiago, I went to a bookstore called Metales Pesados and spoke with the bookseller there, and this was the book he recommended. So I read a couple pages, loved it, and purchased it. 

“[Iván Monalisa] really wanted to subvert the literariness of the way that fiction is often written.”

Later that day, I went with a friend to the National Library in Santiago and just sat down and read a few more pages. They made me laugh, and I was smiling as I read it. I just kept turning the pages, and without thinking too critically, I started translating it there in the library. So the project was born. I didn't have any information about whether the rights were available or whether someone was already translating it, but as soon as I started reading, I felt this very unusual and incredible balance between levity and an acknowledgment of real violence and trauma. It seemed to me to be really special in that way: you read and you laugh and then, every once in a while, you get this gut punch of intense feeling for the characters and what they're going through.


SA: Was that balance difficult to maintain in translation?

HK: Oddly, no. Of course, humor is always one of the hardest things to translate, especially when it comes to language play, and in this case, a lot of that play operates around a very specific lexicon of Latinx people in the trans community—or in the queer community more broadly—in New York from the nineties through the present day. There were a lot of elements of this lexicon that were hard for me to translate, but I think that the balance between levity and gravity wasn't necessarily difficult in and of itself.


SA: How did you go about learning that lexicon? 

HK: The simple answer is that I spoke with as many people as I could. I asked many, many questions (the translation workshops I did in graduate school really gave me an appreciation for asking questions). I have a couple of friends in Chile and a few in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere—because the characters in the book are not exclusively from Chile, they're from all over the Spanish-speaking world—so I would ask questions of these friends in particular. 

My process, which involved translating orally before I transcribed any of the translation, really helped me capture what felt colloquial and playful and spoken about the language of the book. I had only done a four-page sample when the book was accepted by the publisher, and I was working on a really tight deadline. So the way I translated at first was by opening the book, reading the Spanish on the page, and speaking the translation contemporaneously in English, recording it on my phone on a voice memo. This allowed me to get as much of it translated as quickly as possible. I chose the method out of necessity, but I ended up seeing that the translation, when I spoke, felt much truer to the tone of the original than anything I did when I was sitting at my computer writing, typing out the sentences. It just felt more spoken; it felt more fun and more effortless. The process helped ensure that the translation didn't feel overly stiff or literary, because that's not what Iván Monalisa was going for. I think that he/she really wanted to subvert the literariness of the way that fiction is often written.


SA: I haven’t heard of that oral recording process as a translation method! How did you come up with that?

HK: It’s easier for me to synthesize things when I hear them aloud. I'm a very oral learner, so for me, it's actually easier to do things by speaking. My dad is blind, and he writes a lot by speaking into a tape recorder, so I've seen that since I was young. It seems strange, but it works really well because you don't second-guess yourself. You just put it on the page.


SA: I can see how that would be useful, especially if you have a tight deadline and need to get the first draft down so you have time for revisions. 

HK: You and I have talked about this—revision is such a valuable process in that it allows us to establish some critical distance from whatever text we're working on. And it was also a way to keep myself in check and be sure that I wasn't taking too many liberties or moving meaning too far away from where it wanted to be. I was thinking a lot about Susan Bernofsky’s “Translation and the Art of Revision,” especially her advice that carving out moments when you can distance yourself from the text is the greatest service you can do to your work as a translator, because it allows you to return to that text as a reader, essentially, and to notice what feels off or what needs work. 

“All of these instances of code-meshing create texture, and nothing can be accepted as standard.”

I did four revisions of this translation. The first one, as I said, was speaking aloud into my phone. The second was transcribing and then editing as I transcribed. The third was looking at the Spanish with the English on the side to see how they compared, and then the fourth and final revision was going back to the translation as a text in English, not consulting the Spanish unless I had a very specific question, treating it as a text in English that I was editing as a writer would. And in that sense, too, falling back on my experience as a writer was important in giving myself the liberty to make changes that I felt made the English version sing.


SA: One aspect of this book you alluded to earlier that might be challenging for a translator is its use of different Spanishes. How did you approach that in the translation?

HK: In the protagonist's community there is a lot of code-meshing, not just between English and Spanish, but also between different Spanishes, for the simple reason that her friends come from all different parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Often, when I was reaching out to friends of mine who speak Spanish from different places, I would say, “What does this mean? What does la chimba mean?” and a friend from Peru would say, “I have no idea what that means.” Sometimes I wouldn't even know from where that particular slang came until I asked enough people to rule out the regions it couldn't come from. That was one of the things that I did end up asking the author at the end. There were probably a dozen instances when I said, “I have absolutely no idea what this means.” Often those particular bits of slang had to do with names for different drugs or were related to the community of Spanish-speaking sex workers in New York. So there were a lot of things that initially went over my head. 

In the book itself, this linguistic mix feels sort of vertiginous—and sometimes confusing—but there's also a real richness that comes from all of the different Spanishes that come into contact. Iván Monalisa is from Chile, and it might have been possible to write these stories in a more standard “Chilean Spanish,” but that wasn't really part of his/her project. All of these instances of code-meshing create texture, and nothing can be accepted as standard, which I think has something to do with the inclusive space that Iván Monalisa wanted to build in this text.


SA: As a reader, I admired your decision to keep some of the original Spanish to add to that texture you describe. Why did you decide to do that, and how did you choose where it would be most appropriate? 

HK: In translation classrooms, “On the Different Methods of Translating”by Friedrich Schleiermacher is the go-to text for when to leave something in the source language and when to translate it. And Schleiermacher’s idea about domesticating and foreignizing in a translation can help us think about what's at stake, ethically, when we decide either to make the reading experience more comfortable for a reader in translation or to push the boundaries and nudge them out of their comfort zone. 

I think it's important to point out that most of the translations we read in English are pretty domesticating translations. American readers have a preference for feeling as though the text they're reading was written in English. They want a translation that doesn't feel bumpy or “other” or uncomfortable to them. And in the case of this text, I definitely felt the pressure to make the reading experience smooth, but I could also sense that part of Iván Monalisa’s project was to make the Spanish-language reader ask questions about different Spanishes and experience the language in a new way, and I wanted to do the same thing in English. 

“[Translators] have a responsibility to acknowledge our distance from the text.”

So I knew that I was going to incorporate some Spanish into the translation, but I was also wary of including only Spanish words that a reader of English would immediately be able to recognize and understand—words like sí, no, gracias, or señorita. I think there's an uncomfortable exoticizing that happens when the only words in Spanish that appear in the English text are ones that the reader already knows, because it ends up feeling ornamental, and I really did want moments of code-meshing in English that would move the reader out of their comfort zone a little bit. 


SA: Can you think of an example in the text where you tried to do that? 

HK: There's a moment when the narrator is incarcerated and meets another Chilean while at Rikers, and that person asks him/her (because the narrator identifies as both in this story), “Vos soi chileno?” and Monalisa responds with something like “Yes, I'm Chilean” in English. It's great—whenever there's repetition in the original, it's possible to leave one instance in Spanish and one in English in the translation. I like the mirror image that moment created, and even if a reader reads the first sentence—“Vos soi chileno?”—and has no idea what it means, it will be clarified  when the narrator says, “Yes, I’m Chilean.” I wanted the reader to feel that intimate moment between two people who speak the same language, who find a compatriot in an unexpected place, even if it jolts the reader out of their comfort zone for a second and they’re forced to ask, “What is being said here?” 


SA: You just mentioned gender identity, which is a huge part of this book and its subversion of literary norms. Can you talk about how Las Biuty Queens bends the rules and how you brought that into English? 

HK: I think whenever we're translating work from a community that has a lexicon that we're not familiar with, it's really important to ask questions as often as possible. One of the stories in the book is called “La Rayito,” and I translated it as “Little Miss Lightning Bolt.” Rayito literally means “the little ray” or “the little lightning bolt,” and though the noun itself is masculine, Ojeda uses the feminine article la, and I wasn’t quite sure why. I went on to learn (because I wasn't particularly familiar with Chilean Spanish when I started this project) that in parts of Chile, it's very common to use an article before someone's name, which seems simple enough. But then, in this book, you'll see characters like La Fernando, and it will be a feminine article followed by a name that we traditionally think of as masculine. I wanted to make sure I understood the nuances of this usage, so I spoke to Iván Monalisa about it. While it's not always possible in English to maintain those moments of subversion of traditionally gendered language, there were ways that I tried to accentuate the gender duality or to put gendered language where it felt appropriate, and in this case, “Little Miss Lightning Bolt” was a solution that felt appropriate. 


SA: I’m curious: amidst all these complicated decisions, how do you view your role as a translator?

HK: I try to hold on to my experience as a reader of the text and think of myself first and foremost, as Spivak wrote in “The Politics of Translation,” as that text's most intimate reader. As a translator, it can be tempting to feel that you have to be the voice of a project, partially because translators often end up doing a lot of unpaid labor, basically working as agents for books, writing synopses, communicating with publishers about these books, and making the case that they deserve to be translated. And we end up thinking of ourselves as the champion of that project. I don't think there's anything wrong with feeling an intimate attachment to the book and allowing the passion for the project to guide you, but I do think that translators can end up thinking of ourselves as activists. There are translators who are activists, but I don't necessarily think that translation in and of itself is an activist project. I don't think all translators are activists. 

Instead, I try to think of myself as an ally—someone who listens more than speaks, or avoids speaking until I have done a lot of listening first. For me, that's important for any translation, regardless of whether the author belongs to a similar community as the translator. I think listening should always be the goal, because at the end of the day, translators are listeners of the text, listeners to the text. That is our job. And as we listen, we have a responsibility to acknowledge our distance from the text and treat that as an opportunity to engage and learn in a productive way. There's still so much about the language in this book that I could learn more about, and I think that's important to recognize.


Hannah Kauders is a writer and translator based in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she taught undergraduate writing. Her writing and translations have appeared in Fiction International and Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation. She was a finalist for the 2020 Iowa Review Award in fiction.


Related Reading:

Translating the Ancient Female Voice as Queer

Emboldening Queer Characters: On Translating Gender

8 Queer Books in Translation to Read This Pride Month

Published Jun 14, 2021   Copyright 2021 Shoshana Akabas

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