How do you translate azotea for readers in a land of A-frame houses? That was a conundrum that I came across while translating Sara Sefchovich’s novel Vivir la vida [Living Life].

azotea-2For anyone who has not seen an azotea in Mexico, it is more or less a patio on the roof of a house, which is flat. Usually it has a clothesline, flowerpots, a water tank, and maybe even the family dog. Sometimes women use the azotea to gossip and observe the neighbors. In comparison, the A-frame style house or a house with a roof shaped like an A, may have at most an antenna, a couple birds, or a satellite dish for cable TV on its roof, but for the most part, it’s not a safe, comfortable place to hang out.

There are various solutions: keep the original word in italics and use a glossary or a footnote; add a little bit of detail to explain what the word means in context; try to find a cultural equivalent; or use a couple of words that explain the word briefly in the second language.

Here’s the original Spanish and my English translation:

Así que resignada, pasé otra vez una buena parte del día desarrugando mi vestido con el vapor del baño y el resto sentada en el balcón mirando las azoteas vecinas donde había gran trajín de señoras que lavaban ropa y la tendían al sol.


So, resigned, once again I spent a good part of the day smoothing out my dress with the steam from the bathroom and the rest of the day sitting on the balcony where I could see the neighboring rooftop patios where there were always women busy coming and going, washing clothes, and hanging them in the sun.

Fortunately, in the original there is a little bit of detail that shows what people, specifically women, do on the azotea, and that helps form a more complete image or idea in the reader’s mind. I’m not completely satisfied with “rooftop patios” but felt that “terrace” was a bit too fancy, and simply using “roof” was not sufficient. Hopefully those two words together will be enough for people who sleep under an A-frame roof.

Do you have any recent translation conundrums? Do you have a solution that you are especially proud of? We’d love to hear them!

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Stacy McKenna received her MFA in English and Creative Writing from Mills College in Oakland, California. Her translations have appeared in The Other Poetry of Barcelona, Códols in New York, 580 Split, Cerise Press, and Río Grande Review. She has taught English and ESL throughout the Bay Area and worked at several nonprofit organizations including the Center for the Art of Translation. She has recently returned to the Bay Area after teaching literary translation and English at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro in Querétaro, Mexico.