From Sevilla, where she is working as a visiting lecturer in the Department of English and North American Literature, Sarah Booker tells us about her latest translation project, Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest, out this month by the Feminist Press. A story about insanity, gender, language, memory, and the crossing of its borders, Sarah defines Rivera Garza’s writing as “trying to remember a dream upon waking up,” which made for an interesting and stimulating translation process.
Denise Kripper: I’m going to let Elena Poniatowska ask the first question. In the Afterword to the English edition of The Iliac Crest, she asks: Is Cristina Rivera Garza a cultural phenomenon, Wonder Woman, or a hardworking young writer? What do you think?
Sarah Booker: I’m not sure I like the idea of the writer as a cultural phenomenon as it takes away the writer’s agency, suggesting it was some sort of external force or influence that had a hand in creating the individual. However, I do think Rivera Garza is an incredibly hardworking, insightful, and inventive writer, in particular because of the way that she perceives and interprets her cultural context. Perhaps this does indeed make her a Wonder Woman?
DK: You’ve translated other stories from Rivera Garza (See LALT Vol. 1 Num. 3). How was this text different?
SB: I think that the ambiguity and sense of strangeness that is so inherent in The Iliac Crest along with the continual border-crossing—literal and metaphorical—are elements that persist in much of Rivera Garza’s writing. So, in that way, this novel was quite similar to her other works. But the obsessive focus on Amparo Dávila that drove a lot of the vocabulary choices and even required me to translate another writer’s words—Dávila’s stories are spliced into the novel—meant being constantly aware of this element. The longer form of this novel also made it a different experience from translating the short stories as I found that the extended narrative allowed the text to develop its own set of vocabulary and recurring set of images. I’m thinking, in particular, about the Spanish term “retroceder,” which I translated as “to turn back,” or the images of that highway that appear throughout the novel. I will say that I translated the short stories first and this was a really valuable opportunity to get used to Rivera Garza’s writing, with all of its twists and turns.
DK: In your Translator’s Note, you indeed say that you were drawn to translating The Iliac Crest because of Rivera Garza’s literary ambiguity and the transgressive nature of her writing, because of the way she “acknowledges borders in their many forms.” What are some of the borders that are crossed in this novel and in your translation?
SB: Yes, I think that one way to characterize Rivera Garza as a writer is her constant focus on the border and her approach to crossing and subverting it. A certain element of this interest, I believe, comes from her geographic experience living along the US/Mexican border. Something resembling that geographic border does appear in the novel as the characters move away from the hospital and travel to both the North and South city, the descriptions of which are reminiscent of cities you might find along the US/Mexico border. The gender binary is another major border that is crossed in the novel, which we can read as a process of acceptance of gender fluidity. The setting of the hospital for the terminally ill gives rise to another border, that of the living and dying, and the protagonist doctor himself traverses this frontier as he cares for his patients—however begrudgingly—and then as he himself falls ill. That question of the living and dead, the healthy and sick, could also be read as a question of lucidity and madness. Finally, I think the question of the past and present in terms of literature is important as the novel uses intertextuality to bring the past into the novel’s present. The translation of the novel adds another element to that play as it brings the text from Spanish to English, simultaneously crossing temporal borders.
DK: And this question of past and present is very much connected to memory as well, right? In the novel, Amparo is trying to recover a manuscript that she’s sure will help her remember, and the narrator spends the entire novel trying to remember the name of the hipbone he’s so hypnotized by, and which ultimately gives the novel its title. What is this book trying to recover from the past?
SB: I almost think it would be going against the book to name a singular thing that the book is trying to recover from the past. Certainly, there is a search for literary heritage, professional identity, and health (however we might want to define that term), but I also think that the process itself of turning towards the past is key to the novel. The recurrence of the verb “retroceder,” which references a somewhat ambiguous movement towards the past, signals that very process.
DK: One of the things Rivera Garza’s book goes back to is the writing of Amparo Dávila, who appears as a character in the novel, and whose writing is also immersed in the narrative, as you’ve mentioned. English readers might not recognize her as an actual Mexican writer. Was this a challenge or concern for your translation?
SB: Yes, absolutely, I was concerned that the English readers might not recognize the character of Amparo Dávila as a writer, which would mean those readers losing the all-important intertextual aspect of the novel. While I did not want to insert anything into the translation that might give a more explicit clue to the reader, I did think it was important to discuss Dávila in my Translator’s Note. While the character Amparo Dávila is not necessarily a reflection of the writer herself, her literary resurrection is important to both the novel itself as well as its reception. I have been excited to see that Dávila is starting to appear more in translation, beyond the two stories I have done, which makes me think her writing will come to be better known among the English readership. While The Iliac Crest cannot take all the credit in this process, I do think it plays a role.
DK: And did translating Dávila (see “The Square Patio” and “Griselda”) play a role in your translation of Rivera Garza?
SB: Yes, I think Dávila’s work informed this novel quite a bit. Translating an author forces you to pay extra close attention to the text, calling attention to things that you (this is the case for me, anyway) might have missed upon a more casual reading. Having those details already in mind was quite useful when I started translating. Rivera Garza samples excerpts from Dávila’s writings quite frequently throughout the narrative (most of the blocks of text set in italics come from Dávila, though some have other sources), she makes repeated use of terms like “retroceder,” and “se va a matar” that also appear in Dávila’s stories, and she draws on Dávila’s characters (the nurses Moisés and Gaspar from the end of the novel are titular characters in a story written by Dávila, for example).
DK: Fear and danger are prominent in Dávila’s work, and there’s a lot of that in Rivera Garza’s novel as well. But against all the different threats that appear in the novel (disappearances, epidemics, suicide, madness), language seems to be key. The secret language the two guests in the novel share is like an almost shield against external forces, against invasion, and not knowing the language makes the narrator feel like an exile, like “an outcast in my own home” (33). What role does language play in the hospitality relationship between host and guest?
SB: I’m not quite sure I have a direct answer to your question about the hospitality relationship between host and guest—though that language brings up all sorts of interesting questions relating to the book about biology and medicine, if you think about the host as the body and the guest as a virus, as well as the question of the home and who is allowed into such a private space—but I am glad you bring up the question of language. I think language is key to the novel; we have an invented language, a lost manuscript, an uprising called for through a particular use of language, and, among other aspects, the blurring of gender through syntactic grammar. And then the process of translation adds another layer of language play to the novel. Perhaps this act of language manipulation relates to your question about the relationship between host and guest as it creates a bridge between the Spanish and English writers and readers, the hosts and guests of the novel, if you will.
DK: Speaking about the blurring of gender, in her author’s note, Rivera Garza says the novel delves into “the fluid nature of gender des/identifications.” And indeed, there’s definitely a lot of gender involved in the story. In fact, the title of the novel alludes to the only bone in the human body capable of revealing a person’s sex. The translation is also being published by the Feminist Press, and in the novel there’s a group of Feminists, the “emissaries from the past.” Would you say this is a feminist book?
SB: Gender fluidity and ambiguity play an important role here. That ambiguity, in particular, is what I tried to focus on the most in my translation as I continued to explore the different tools that Spanish and English have to create it. The best example that comes to mind is the question of the subject; whereas Spanish allows the writer to make the subject of a sentence obscure, denying the reader the knowledge of whether the third person actor is a man or a woman, for example, English is able to hide such gender markers in our adjectives. So yes, I would definitely say this is a feminist book in the way it deconstructs gender binaries and shifts positions of power, but I also think there are other possible lenses through which you could read this book; illness and (in)sanity play an important role, for example, as does the question of disappeared bodies and Mexican literary heritage.
DK: In your personal experience as a translator, have you found any differences between translating a male or female author?
SB: Hm, good question. Not really, in part, perhaps, because I haven’t translated that many men in the last couple of years. I do try to approach each author as an individual writer, focusing less on gender and more on a more comprehensive picture of their biography and approach to writing. At the same time, though, I do make an effort to seek out more female authors than male in part because of the well-documented (thank you, Chad Post!) imbalance in the translation of male and female writers.
DK: There’s actually quite a bit on translation itself in the novel as well, right? Some of the characters are named The Betrayed / The Betrayer / The Impostor, there’s also talk about being invisible or disappearing, being unfaithful, about being “the true one” or “the false one,” which are all themes very much connected to translation theory. Would you agree or am I reading too much in between the lines?
SB: I love it! I read a lot of literature about translation which means I see it everywhere, so I am happy to talk to someone else who reads these elements in the novel! I do think there are important elements of translation, as you point out. I think that constant play with the real object or person and its copy with the implication of possible betrayals is important to the novel. There is also the whole question of the language the two women speak to one another and its impenetrability for the doctor until the very end of the novel when he/she is finally able to use it, if only briefly.
DK: The novel certainly brought about a resurgence in the reading of an often overlooked or even forgotten writer in the Mexican canon like Amparo Dávila. What do you think will happen with an English-speaking audience? Along or against which other American authors do you think this book can be read?
SB: This novel has definitely influenced the reading of Amparo Dávila in Mexico. Actually, one of Rivera Garza’s other novels, La muerte me da, has done a similar thing with the writings of Alejandra Pizarnik, who has also seen a resurgence in interest both in Latin America and in the US. My hope is that this translation does generate interest in Dávila’s writings. There are actually some other translators working on a collection of her stories. They published a fantastic translation of “Moses and Gaspar” in The Paris Review earlier this year. I also think this book can be read alongside an author like Samantha Hunt. There are a couple minor references in the book to Steve McCaffery’s Panopticon as well, which is interesting to read in dialogue with The Iliac Crest. And while not US authors, writers like Yuri Herrera, Carmen Boullosa, or Guadalupe Nettel are important contemporary writers for Rivera Garza.
DK: And finally, how does Rivera Garza sound in English?
SB: Surreal, ambiguous, and poetic are some of the terms that immediately come to mind when I think about Rivera Garza in English. There is also a sort of weirdness or an unattainability to her writing; the narrative is slippery, like trying to remember a dream upon waking up. At least I hope this has translated to the English!
Sarah Booker is currently working on a PhD in Hispanic literature at the University of North Carolina where she’s focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Spanish and Portuguese-speaking authors from Latin America that deal with translation in one way or another. She attended the Bread Loaf Literary Translator’s Conference this past summer where she participated in a translation workshop and met with a lot of other emerging and experienced translators. She tries to fit in translation projects where she can, since –she confesses- she’s starting to become somewhat obsessed with it. Here’s to more translations from Sarah soon!