I am certain I am not the only literary translator who gobbled up Edith Grossman’s book, Why Translation Matters and Gregory Rabassa’s book, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents. There’s something about being allowed into the minds of other literary translators and having them walk me through how they came to make certain decisions that both inspires awe and alleviates trepidation. I revel in the idea that even great translators with decades of experience wrestle with challenges, have to defend some of their choices and feel a bit apprehensive when beginning a new project.
Whether I am reading Chana Bloch’s essay “The Politics of Translation: Amichai and Ravikovitch in English” for the umpteenth time, listening to one of my literary translation students explain why she prefers one translation over another, or participating in a professional conference about translation, I rarely tire of hearing other translators share their process. When a translator is able to articulate the difficulties of translating literature, I feel both great admiration and a little relief. I appreciate those moments because a translator’s work is mostly solitary and while reading an excellent translation is wonderful, the real wonder for me is how the translator brought A to B. I don’t want to think it’s effortless; I want to know about the effort.
That is the impetus for this new Intralingo series “Behind the Scenes,” and I will kick it off by sharing short examples from an excerpt of Sara Sefchovich’s novel Vivir la vida (Living Life) that was published in Río Grande Review. First, a bit of background. In Sefcovhich’s novel, the reader follows the adventures of the protagonist, Susana, after she leaves her childhood home in a small town in Mexico and her overly protective and highly superstitious grandmother and nana. With little life experience and only her grandmother’s old-fashioned advice and inscrutable warnings to guide her, Susana must navigate her way through relationships, marriage, in-laws, travel, and a variety of random jobs in the metropolis that is Mexico City.
One of these jobs she finds through an older friend’s goddaughter who is working at the President’s house. It is Susana’s first job, but clearly it is not the goddaughter’s first job even though they are about the same age. The Presidential Residence wants someone to take care of the flowers people send as gifts to the First Lady, but Susana doesn’t know anything about flowers. Her friend’s goddaughter gives her a bit of advice:
En este país nadie sabe nada de la chamba que hace dijo mi amiga, todos agarran lo que se puede y luego van aprendiendo sobre la marcha. Y dijo: Ni que fueras gringa o francesa para saber las cosas antes de hacerlas.
“In this country nobody knows anything about the job they’re doing,” my friend said. “Everyone grabs whatever they can and learns as they go.” And she added, “Even if you were a Gringa or a French girl, you wouldn’t know how to do something before you started doing it.”
Translating “chamba” as “job” was a bit of a heartbreak for me. “Chamba” is a great word with a great sound, and this slang Mexicanismo actually comes from the English word “chamber” because foreign temporary workers in the US used to go to the Chamber of Commerce to get work, so “chamber” became synonymous with work or a job and “chamba” came into use. Was I going to fit all that information and history into the text? Nope. Was I going to ask for a footnote in a bilingual publication? Nope. I considered using a slang word for “job” in English like “the grind” or “the daily grind” but didn’t feel that either fit well in the sentence.
I also vacillated between “…nobody knows anything about the job they’re doing,” and, “…nobody knows anything about the job they do.” And although I know that “nobody” is singular and that for correct pronoun-antecedent agreement it should be “…about the job he’s/she’s doing or he/she does,” I felt like using “they” as the pronoun for “nobody” works just fine in English-as-it’s-spoken in a casual conversation.
In the following line, “Everyone just grabs whatever they can…” I now wish I had used “everybody” to go with the “nobody” that I had used in the preceding sentence or had used “no one” and “everyone” together so it had the parallel structure of “nobody/everybody” or “no one/ everyone”. It seems that there is often one detail I catch only after something has been published – insert sigh.
Susana actually likes getting paid to take care of all the flower arrangements that arrive at the President’s residence every day and she tells her friend’s goddaughter precisely that. The goddaughter does not share the same enthusiasm for work and thinks Susana’s enthusiasm is both naïve and exasperating, so she tries to set her straight.
No digas tonterías, que el trabajo es lo peor que existe y lo hacemos porque no nos queda remedio. Ni que fueras alemana o japonesa para que te guste eso de trabajar no inventes. Tú hazte la tonta y ve llevando el asunto, nomás lo suficiente para que no te corran, pero no te lo tomes en serio. Nadie se lo toma en serio, ni aquí ni en ninguna parte de este país.
“That’s ridiculous, working is the worst, and we only do it because we have no choice. Come on, even if you were German or Japanese you wouldn’t like working. Just play dumb and go about your business. Do just enough so they don’t fire you, but don’t take it seriously. No one takes it seriously, not here or anywhere else in this country.
The first thing many Spanish/English translators will note is that I left out “No digas…/Don’t say…” and the “…que existe/…that exists” in the first sentence. “No digas tonterias” went through many iterations: “Don’t say such nonsense,” “Don’t say something so ridiculous,” “Don’t be ridiculous,” “Don’t be stupid,” and even, “That’s crap.” Susana’s friend is incredulous and simply can’t imagine anyone saying something so absurd, so I finally decided on, “That’s ridiculous.” I feel like oftentimes in English we say, “That’s the worst,” or “It’s the worst,” or something or someone is “the worst” without having to add “that exists” or “in the world” or “in the universe.” It seems in English the superlative is sufficient without further parameters and it sounds very colloquial.
In the second sentence “…no inventes” is both common and colloquial, and I needed to find an equivalent expression in English that fit the dialogue. I considered options like, “Don’t joke around,” or “Don’t make stuff up,” “You gotta be joking,” or even “You’re kidding yourself/me,” but once I decided to change the order of the sentence, “Come on,” came out as a good solution and worked well at the beginning of the sentence with that tone of disbelief followed by a reason Susana could not possibly like working.
My commentary could go on and on for each short excerpt of the piece that was published, but just like when I was translating it for publication, there came a time when I had to put my pen down and close the laptop. Deadlines are helpful in that way, but reflecting on a published translation can be both instructional (learning from mistakes) and frustrating (finding mistakes or things I want to go back and change). Meanwhile, I will continue to learn from myself and other translators willing to share their process.
What about you, dear readers? Do you go back and read your translations once they are published? Do you feel like there are sometimes words or phrases you would want to go back and change or improve? Do you have a favorite book, essay, or conversation about translation that you have read more than a few times?
Would you ever want to share an excerpt you translated and your own commentary with Intralingo readers? If so, please get in touch with us email@example.com!