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The Translator Relay: Katherine Silver

By Katherine Silver

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. This month, Russell Valentino passed the baton to award-winning Spanish translator, and co-director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC), Katherine Silver.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I learned Spanish in the 1970s in Israel with Chilean and Argentine refugees, many of whom I later hung out with in Paris. When I finally wanted to finish college after coming and going several times, I looked at my transcripts and saw that I had already completed a major in Spanish and Latin American literature, so I went with it. That was an exciting time for literature from Latin America, and only some of it was being translated. There was also the music, which I sometimes think hooked me in even closer, and the politics—all rather compelling. In the ‘80s I lived in Peru for several years and spent a lot of time in Chile and some in Argentina. I am from and now live in California, which has been, unofficially, bilingual for many decades. Spanish is the language of the remarkably present but invisible “others.” To greatly simplify one motivation: translating literature from the south was one way of reaching across, giving voice to the voiceless, or at least the inaudible.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslatable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

Besides “do no harm,” I hold dear to only one other tenet: “nothing is untranslatable,” ontologically speaking, of course. Not to be confused with what is not worth translating. Daniel Sada’s entire oeuvre has been said to be untranslatable, but you wanted a word or phrase by way of example. I am still dissatisfied with my solutions to the name of the title story of his last collection, ESE MODO QUE COLMA, which was published in Zyzzyva in the spring as “In a Way That Satiates.” Titles can sometimes be changed altogether to better effect, and that may happen when I translate the book, but I still want to crack this puzzle as phrase. It is a story about what ensues after three severed heads are found in an ice chest during a narco party in northern Mexico. One can start with word choice and work it like a puzzle (Anne Carson has called translating “puzzle mind”):

That, A, The, What a

way, custom, manner, fashion


fill, fulfills, completes, satiates, overwhelms, sates, lavishes

Then one can play with syntax, making the last word into a modifier of the first. 

Or one can move away from the “literal” or word-for-word approach, and explore the range of connotations, none particularly poetic but suggestive nonetheless: “Enough, already” “A custom we’ve had enough of” “One helluva custom” etc.

The problems are multiple: the lack of an actor or a direct object, the irony, the ambiguous meaning of the two main words, among others.

If anybody reading this has any suggestions, send them my way. I keep thinking I might be digging too deep here, complicating things unnecessarily, which we translators sometimes do. 

Do you have any translating rituals? 

I don’t have any rituals, period. I used to clean my office and clear everything off my desk whenever I finished one project and before I started the next one. Now that projects are constantly overlapping, you can only imagine the state of my horizontal surfaces.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

I’m not sure this is exactly a metaphor, but I find it helpful to compare what we do as literary translators to what actors or performing musicians do. At Banff last year we held a panel comprised of literary translators and chamber musicians, and the exchange was fascinating, the similarities (and differences) in terms of process and method and the layered considerations that go into an interpretation of a score or a text, so much food for thought. When we translate, our performance is our reading/writing and our stage is the page. The greater the score/script/text, the more readings/interpretations/ performances it can hold. Can there ever be a definitive performance of Hamlet or a definitive translation of Rilke? I don’t think so, and how much poorer we would be if one could somehow be assumed or imposed. 

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about. 

I’m very fortunate to be able to continue translating the work of two authors who could not be more different from one another, and both of whom I consider geniuses: César Aira and Daniel Sada. I’ve also been greatly enjoying translating the work of a very interesting young-ish Spanish author, Marcos Giralt Torrente, for McSweeney’s

Russell Valentino's Q: Who influenced you most in your translation career?

I fear I read Borges when I was much too young and impressionable and before I’d ever thought about translation in any other terms. Which means I take as a given that the word “original” is a convenience that we must constantly question and that translation touches on the core of what it is to be human. Otherwise and off the top of my head: when I started, Gregory Rabassa was creating a boom in Latin American literature in English; Eliot Weinberger’s dedication to translation, poetry, and L.A. lit was an inspiration; Tom Colchie both encouraged me and gave me concrete assistance; and a professor of Spanish at San Francisco State University, Edwin Williams, lived his love of language and literature and the craft of translation in a way I deeply admired.

Published Nov 28, 2012   Copyright 2012 Katherine Silver

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