This is the second post in a two-part series. Do read author Luis Sanz Irles’ perspective on our collaboration first.
When I was offered the possibility of translating a novel from Spanish into English for an author, I immediately realized two things: what a great opportunity it was, and what a challenge. I had to produce a sample translation of the first chapter of a complex work of literary fiction without having read the entire book first, and knowing my sample would be judged against the work of two others. It’s nerve wracking to put yourself out there, to pin your hopes on an entire book project in just a four-page sample. Thankfully, this wasn’t my foray into literary translation, so I knew that I had to slip into the author’s writing style, and wear it like a conjurer’s cloak, if Luis were to recognize himself in this other language. I pulled off that first hat trick. Phew!
That was only the beginning, though. I know that an author’s work is his baby, a cherished treasure, born of passion and sacrifice. As a translator, my job is like that of a surrogate mother. I am there to co-create, no co-opt. We need to formalize the relationship in a contract to clarify each of our roles and responsibilities. I have to demonstrate how I am integral to the process but a partner in it. I have to allay fears and doubts, convince the parent that I am offering to give birth to a new, equally beloved child, but will do nothing to denigrate the first born or harm the second.
In a deeper, darker level of my brain, I know that an author sees me, the translator, as a sorceress who employs nefarious devices. And I know that I need to convey my true nature, as a nurturer, enabler, surrogate and co-creator. It’s up to me to convince the author that I am there to capture and convey the entirety, from plot and storyline to the inviolable rhythm of the author’s prose, the fine marquetry of his sentences. This author chose me for a reason, and I needed to show him that, as Man Booker prize-winning translator Deborah Smith says, “Translators are like authors in many ways—over the course of a book, we’ll agonise over individual words, dream about the characters, wreck our backs and eyes and relationships spending 14-hour days hunched at our computers.”
As we began to work, Luis came to truly understand that I was not about to kidnap and hold his child ransom. Meanwhile, I came to truly appreciate that he knew the depths of his baby, the way only a father could. And to my great relief, he didn’t dump that baby in my arms and run off. When I couldn’t make a sentence or phrase behave, he was there to tell me what had sparked it, how it had developed, and why it was the way it was. He was not only ready and willing but eager to share these details with me!
So far so good.
As we moved forward, I began to uncover the many finer, distinctive layers of this text, and I grew to respect it more and more. We had multiple intense email exchanges.
Does that Heimito Von Doderer quote have an existing/known translation into English? How about rendering it as “the sharp sweet tooth of memory”? I know this point-of-view switching was a deliberate choice: “Anyhow, lots to read. And he needed to keep in shape, too…he spent three quarters of an hour every day, before showering, on the Swedish gymnastics his notorious Uncle Jorge…had taught him when he was little…Uncle Jorge! A carouser, according to Grandpa Amílcar, who was exasperated by him. “You see, Daphne?” he would say to my mother…My mother would laugh…He had never thought about his family as much as he had in recent days.” It’s more subtle in Spanish, becomes a bit overbearing in English… Are you OK with that? Oh, and by the way, amazing, creative use of the verb pespuntear in different contexts. I have my own picture of what you’ve painted, but can you share some of the specific images you had in mind so I can make sure they match?
Oh, what fun to discuss the nuances of a text! I was in a translator-geek heaven, and Luis could see just how much I cared about his writing.
I had won his trust. My fears now turned toward his acceptance of my work. How much was he going to be able to respect my choices?
He’s not an easy client. His knowledge of English matches—and perhaps even exceeds—my own, and when it comes to words, he’s a self-professed maniac. Those credentials meant I could leave nothing to chance or instinct. I had to know exactly what I had done, and why, where I would capitulate and where I would hold my ground.
I hope he found my behavior tolerable. I accepted every one of Luis’s (few) well-reasoned demands, and most of his (few) personal preferences. With the (few) others, I explained my reasoning, and invoked my right to make the ultimate decision. Luis didn’t blink an eye when following my wishes.
I am happy with the result and can solemnly declare that, whilst I am the translator of the English novel, and those words, that incarnation belong to me in no small measure, the big by-line on the cover of the book reads Luis Sanz Irles, as it should, and I am oh, so proud to be there beside him.
Stay tuned: Silent Shadows will be released soon! We’ll have a Behind the Scenes post in the coming weeks, and perhaps even host a live virtual literary salon for Luis and Lisa to chat about their collaboration.
Readers: What has your experience been in assuming responsibility for an author’s text, building that trust and collaborating to create a new version in another language?
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