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On Translating Melba Escobar’s “House of Beauty”

By Elizabeth Bryer

Elizabeth Bryer’s translation of Melba Escobar’s House of Beauty is forthcoming from 4th Estate in March 2018. An excerpt of her translation appeared in the September 2017 issue of Words Without BordersA Different Solitude: New Writing from Colombia.

One of my favorite things about translation is how the process shines a light on my native-language blind spots. Making passive language into active language brings the world to me. It compels me to inhabit the world of the novel, in all its minute details, going beyond simply offering me a window on it. And so, this novel: there are such things as deep skin hydration, as wax warmers, as slimming massages, as revitalizing exfoliants, as olive-stone grains. Now I can say this, and I know it is true. Not in a general way—those kinds of things exist—but specifically. They exist, and this is what they are called.

Beauty tutorials on YouTube were the greatest help (What is the name of the length of paper or cloth used for hair removal in upmarket beauty salons? And which is it—paper or cloth?). When, in a language class on another computer, I opened YouTube to play a clip for an activity, the suggestions were “My wax warmer collection” and “Hydradermie: Face Hydration Treatment” and “How to do at home waxing!”

I thought a lot about how form can echo content, too. The two main narrators are upper-class women in their late fifties, a psychoanalyst and a psychologist. So far, all very similar. But how might I reflect Claire and Lucía’s contrasting, complementary personalities in my translation decisions? Claire is judgmental, worldly, a go-getter, fashionable, entitled, and forthright, and she chafes against societal expectations. Lucía is timid, conservative, and making tentative steps toward regaining a sense of self after years playing helpmeet to a narcissist.

I tried to keep these contrasts in mind, and tried to pay attention to how they could be reflected in not just word choice but sentence rhythm, too. I tried to imagine Claire spitting out her tirades, especially in the beginning, and so there are lots of stressed syllables, lots of compound adjectives. In contrast, I’ve given Lucía’s narration more fillers and qualifications; it’s simpler, draws less attention to itself. And there was also the need to recognize and recreate when the narrators’ voices fade, when the story comes to the fore.

As for the narrators’ own blind spots, these manifest in both the language they use and the actions they take. Claire, especially, is a walking contradiction: she perpetuates the same attitudes she rails against, which made for some nerve-racking translation moments (and some powerful plot twists). Her unconscious biases are of course the point, but it’s a point being made to a different audience, with different histories and perceptions of such issues. I found it helpful to imagine target-language readers who might identify with the people being described. In each case, I tried to balance this with the imperative to convey the source text, the words on the page.

One final thing: Melba Escobar’s eye for detail is superb. Throughout the novel, the everyday sights, smells, and happenings of Bogotá and Cartagena are brought vividly to life. The specificity of those details is important, but so is intelligibility. Would readers know what picós are? What about picó sound systems? To my mind, the inclusion of picó alerts attentive readers to the fact that a cultural practice is being described here, while “sound systems” makes the meaning clear. And attentive readers now have a word to plug into a search engine, should they wish to find out more.

Published Sep 8, 2017   Copyright 2017 Elizabeth Bryer

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