Will Vanderhyden is a translator of Spanish and Latin American Fiction. He has translated two novels by the Chilean writer Carlos Labbé for Open Letter Books, Navidad & Matanza (2014) and Loquela (2015), and an anthology of Puerto Rican crime fiction, San Juan Noir (2016), for Akashic Books. His translations have appeared in journals like The Literary Review, Asymptote, Two Lines, Your Impossible Voice, and The Scofield. In 2015 he received a NEA Translation Fellowship and Lannan Foundation Residency for his translation of The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán, which was published in May of 2017 by Open Letter Books.
For an Eye 94 review of The Invented Part click here.
Will and I corresponded through email after the Lumpen Radio show with Open Letter Books. He keeps simultaneous translation projects running to make his living, and so made a hell of an effort to answer my questions. It was and is much appreciated.
When and where did you learn Spanish?
I took Spanish classes in school as a kid and my mom was my Spanish teacher. She took us on trips to Mexico and Guatemala and had a fair number of Spanish-speaking friends around, so that helped give me a solid base and at least a superficial familiarity with parts of Latin American culture.
Then I studied Spanish in college and lived in Chile for six months. That’s when I really got comfortable with the language and when first I started reading literature in it. But years went by before I took my first stabs at translating any books from Spanish.
Were there a lot of idioms in The Invented Part?
There really aren’t a lot of idioms in The Invented Part. At least not idioms specific to a particular country or region. I mean, of course there are some. There’s a part where the narrator explores the meaning of a handful of Mexican slang terms/idioms, for instance. But in general, Fresán writes in a kind of transnational literary Spanish and a lot of his references come from the Anglophone world. So translating him, I don’t have to translate a whole culture of references and regional idiomatic expressions the way some translators do with some authors.
But there is a great deal of self-consciousness/awareness about language in The Invented Part, and Fresán plays with and recycles clichés and sayings and idioms drawn from a broader context than one particular Spanish-speaking country. And, of course, he has his own set of personal idioms: stylistic tics, turns of phrase, and recurrent/characteristic ways of saying things.
How does a translator deal with idioms they may not understand in translating a book?
I think there are a variety of ways translators deal with idioms. If you’re translating a text that’s full of slang and colloquialisms, first and foremost, I think it helps to have spent some time in the place the text was written. Being able to discuss things with the author or having contact with a native speaker from that place can be super helpful too. There are also all kinds of idiom and slang dictionaries that can come in handy. Of course, the Internet can be useful if you know how to use it effectively and how to filter out some of the noise.
But most important, I think, is to be a careful reader so that, even though you might not recognize a phrase as an idiom or know it’s meaning right off the bat, you are able to recognize that something is different, that the language has shifted into a figurative space, that a literal rendering of what you’re reading/translating would be very strange or even nonsensical, and know that you need to pay more attention to it.
That said, sometimes the literal translation of an idiom where a natural/equivalent idiom doesn’t exist in English can create a cool effect and, I think—well translated and in the right context—can be thought provoking and expansive for readers and can add to the lexical richness of English.
Is it common for a translator to work with the original author? Did you correspond with Rodrigo Fresán while translating The Invented Part?
I think it’s pretty common. I shouldn’t speak too generally, but most of the translators I know who work with contemporary/living authors have at least some contact with them.
I have translated stories and short pieces for different collections and anthologies and in those cases—because I was translating multiple texts by multiple authors and the time I could devote to each one was limited—I was not in touch with the writers unless something really pressing came up.
But for all novels I’ve translated, I’ve had regular contact with the writers throughout the process. I try not to pester them too much with whatever inanity might occur to me, but after I finish an initial draft, I typically have a list of questions that we go over together.
With challenging novels there can be a nagging thought that you're not "getting it," as a reader. Did you experience that in the process of translating The Invented Part?
I came to Fresán as a fan. So when I started this translation, I had read a bunch of his books and already translated one of his shorter novels (The Bottom of the Sky, coming next year from Open Letter Books). In that sense, I like to think that I was pretty familiar with his sensibility as a writer and so whenever I felt confused by something or didn’t get how a particular reference was working, I could take a step back and look at it through that lens, and usually figure things out.
Something about Fresán that many of his readers in English might not know but hopefully will discover as more of his fiction becomes available to them: it’s all interconnected. His body of work is like a perpetual-motion storytelling machine, constantly feeding off itself and the world of references it incorporates to produce new variations, new possibilities. Characters move from one book to the next, assuming different guises. Storylines cross and overlap, riff off and retell each other. All adding up to a polymorphic profusion of fictions tied together by Fresán’s unique narrative sensibility, by the linchpins of his literary and pop culture obsessions, and by a style characterized by what he calls “referential mania.”
So, I think that not always “getting it” is part of the experience of reading this kind of book. At least at first. Part of the joy of reading a writer like Fresán is that, along the way, he teaches you how to read him. The more you read, the more you tap into the overarching sensibility and see how everything fits together. To be honest—and I know this might seem presumptuous with such a long text—this is a book that comes together and opens up more and more with each rereading—that form of reading that is, according to the book’s narrator, “the most sublime condition of reading.”
What book(s) have you reread the most?
Well, I would say that the books I reread the most are the books I translate. But other than that, a few books that I’ve gone back to frequently/compulsively in the past few years are: Carnívora by Fernanda García Lao; When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz; Oblivion by David Foster Wallace; Cuentos completes by Enrique Rudolfo Fogwill; Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Right now I am rereading (and reading some for the first time) Denis Johnson’s books.
What are your prospects for making a living in literary translation?
I think it is pretty tough to make a decent living just translating literature. There are people who do it, for sure, but I think most literary translators make much of their living elsewhere. Many work in academia. Some are writers. Some work in publishing. Some work for translation agencies. So, translating literature is more like something they do on the side.
I would love to be able to get by just translating books, but lining up enough (interesting) projects and getting paid a decent rate for them are both tricky propositions in this business. To say nothing of sustaining it year after year. It’s definitely kind of a hustle. As far as I can tell, the people who are successful at it have made themselves sort of go-to translators for multiple presses in a given (or multiple) language pairing(s) and have a reputation for being both very good at their work and very pleasant to work with.
What do you do for full time work?
I am a freelance translator for several translation agencies. So that, in addition to translating books, keeps me pretty busy.
Is there work being done to show the value of translators, and literary translators in particular, and to increase their earnings in the workforce? It's such a frustrating topic to approach, placing monetary value on art and culture, and empirically proving its place in the economic scheme.
I think it would be great if people had a better appreciation for the work of literary translators and everyone involved in publishing international literature. Translated literature makes up a pitifully small percentage of overall books published in the U.S. in a given year. The number typically cited is about three percent. Compare that with some Western European countries where that figure is closer to thirty percent. Suffice to say we export our culture at a much higher rate than we import other cultures.
But the number of translations being published in the U.S is on the rise. Thanks in no small part to small non-profit publishing houses—like Open Letter Books, Archipelago, Phoneme Media, Two Lines Press, Transit Books to name but a few—that almost exclusively publish literature in translation, to independent booksellers, and to organizations like Three Percent and The Translation Database, The Center for the Art of Translation, Pen America, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
As far as translators getting paid better, there are some translator collectives that have popped up in the past few years that are working to that end, among others. It’s tricky though because many of the presses focusing on publishing translations are non-profit and have limited budgets, so it’s hard to know where the money would come from. Maybe if the popularity and readership for translated literature continues to grow, so too will the rates and recognition of translators. Here’s hoping.
Like you say, it is a frustrating topic to approach, and it seems like translators spend an awful lot of time feeling underappreciated and underpaid. I know I feel that way sometimes. But being—as you point out—at the beginning of my career, I also feel really lucky to get to do this at all. I get to spend my days reading and rewriting books that (at least for the most part) I love. Hard as it can be and as thankless as it can sometimes feel—for people who love to read and write and think between languages—it is also really rewarding and a lot of fun.
What are the names of some of the collectives you’re talking about?
Well, there are a few out there. The one I’m most familiar with is the relatively new Çedilla & Co. It has nine members who are all well-established and well-respected translators from a variety of languages. Here’s a link to a Publisher’s Weekly article that explains sort of what it’s all about: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/international-book-news/article/73226-cedilla-co-unveils-collective-model-for-translations.html
I was recently introduced to the translation controversy* of Pevear and Volokhonsky. Do you have any opinion on that whole thing? (I enjoyed some of their translations, and was kind of embarrassed to hear how poorly they're thought of in the academic community)
I’m not that familiar with the controversy. What I do know is related mostly to an essay about the multiple translations of Anna Karenina and to the differing approaches of Tolstoy’s various translators. The P&V approach falling more into the camp of literal or word-for-word renderings, aiming to restore the idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy’s prose and “to energize” (as Pevear once said) the English language. This approach emerged in response to an earlier translation by Constance Garnett (who, for a long time, was the voice of the classics of Russian literature in the U.S., a mantle now assumed by P&V, at least to some extent, if I’m not mistaken) that P&V saw as having taken too many liberties with the text, smoothing out the prose into a style that would read naturally to English readers. And in turn, P&V’s critics take them to task for producing a translation that is stilted and uneven and, according to some, just poorly written; for the fact that their fidelity to the word erodes the overall feel and quality of Tolstoy’s prose.
Being relatively uninformed when it comes to the different translations of Russian classics, I hesitate to weigh in too much on any of the specific translations. But I can say that I like the idea that multiple translations of classic texts exist. I like that this debate exists. That people are aware of some of the nuances involved in rewriting a work of literature in a new language. I can also say that I don’t really believe in the idea of a definitive translation. Of course some translations are better than others and people are always going to have their opinions, but, in the end, every translation—every book, really, to take the Borgesian view—is a work in progress.
That said, I also don’t believe, one, that literal translation is possible, and two, that literal translation is translation. At least not when it comes to literature. For me, a translation is most successful when it is faithful to the style of the original. And style not just taken to mean characteristic sentence structure, word choice, etc., but also, to quote Adam Thirlwell, “a writer’s special way of looking at the world.” Capturing that unique sensibility is an elusive thing and you’re probably never entirely sure you got it just right, but I think it is best approached by, in the words of David Bellos, “taking a slight distance from the text and allowing its underlying patterns to emerge by their own force.” Something like that.
*As controversial as literature can be in the US. The shape of any Karadashian’s shit, if it were discovered and documented, would probably get more press coverage.
Do you think anyone interested in literary translation as a career, or at least as a respected skill, needs to go to a graduate program in literary translation?
I definitely don’t think that an advanced degree is needed to be a literary translator any more than it is to be a writer. Some foreign-language training is obviously needed, however.
As far as foreign-language learning, I wouldn’t really know where to begin in terms of recommendations. A quick web search can kick up a variety of different non-academic organizations (some of which I mentioned in a previous response) that have information and resources for translators and people interested in literary translation.
More than anything though, if you’re interested in translating literature, I’d say get some books by an author you like and see how you like translating them. Start there and see where it takes you.
This interview was posted on 20 June 2017