Translators Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia have given shape, together, to Andrés Neuman’s fiction in the English language. For the special feature on Neuman’s work in this issue of Latin American Literature Today, I spoke to Lorenza and Nick about their team effort to bring Neuman’s growing body of work into English.
Arthur Dixon: To date, the two of you have collaboratively translated three novels (Traveler of the Century, Talking to Ourselves, and Fracture) and one short story collection (The Things We Don’t Do) by Andrés Neuman. Which has been the most difficult of Andrés’s books to translate thus far, and why? Which has been the most rewarding?
Lorenza Garcia: They have all been rewarding and challenging in different ways. Andrés likes to experiment with genre and form, jumping between times, places, sexes, ages, although his way of thinking, of looking at the world through fiction, and at fiction itself, is more of a constant.
Nick Caistor: Yes, Andrés often says he wants each new book he writes to be completely different from the previous one. That means as translators we have to be equally flexible, making sure we are open to surprises as well.
A.D.: Andrés’s novels are full of dialogue—sometimes they are almost entirely dialogue—and he goes to great lengths to distinguish his characters in their speech. What is it like translating the dialogue in these books? How do you achieve the same kind of characterization in translated dialogue? Have any of Andrés’s characters been particularly memorable to translate?
L.G.: We do our best! It’s all about tone and intonation, and of course register, about following the rhythms without trying to force the characters into a phoney sort of dialect in the TL, which even in English few writers are able to pull off.
N.C.: I think Watanabe in Fracture is the most memorable, he seems to me the most intensely imagined character Andrés has created so far.
A.D.: Translating Andrés’s poetry book Vivir de oído, I’ve become more conscious of how he uses idiosyncratic language in Spanish—phrases and constructions that one wouldn’t normally say, but that carry a lot of significance for this reason. One example from Talking to Ourselves is the lovely line “sharing a sincere doing nothing,” from the Spanish, “La verdadera compañía es compartir un sincero no hacer nada.” How do you deal with these syntactical peculiarities while translating?
L.G.: Again, it’s about following the author’s intention, and seeing if it works. If the phrase jars or is ambiguous in the TL then we look for an alternative that avoids sliding into cliché, which is precisely what Andrés strives to avoid.
N.C.: Andrés looks closely at our translations, and most of his comments are about this avoidance of cliché, of trying to find a new way of expressing just about everything. Which as a translator is great, because it forces you to look even more closely at the original.
A.D.: All of Andrés’s books are written in Spanish. That being said, the characters in Traveler of the Century are understood to be thinking and speaking in German, unless otherwise noted, and certain characters in Fracture are thinking and speaking in Japanese, English, or French, all while being written in Spanish. Does this multilingualism have an impact on how you translate Andrés’s books?
L.G.: Not really. He is using one language and so are we. Where he changes the syntax, uses longer sentences, or inserts foreign expressions in the various languages, we follow.
N.C.: Again, we follow the author. Andrés is imagining all these characters and creating a Spanish that can accommodate them, so we need to do the same in English.
A.D.: In Talking to Ourselves and Fracture, Andrés emphasizes specific regional varieties of Spanish and the differences between them: European Spanish vs. Argentine Spanish, etc. How do you reflect these differences when translating to English?
L.G.: This chimes somewhat with your other question about dialogue. Specifically in Fracture we employed local idiomatic expressions in the SL to try to show that Mariela and Carmen are respectively from Buenos Aires and Madrid—much as Andrés did by peppering Violet’s language with French expressions.
N.C.: It helps that Lorenza lived for years in Spain, while I lived in Argentina: I think that makes us sensitive to the differences. Andrés has written that he feels his language is always “on the border” between the two different kinds of Spanish spoken in the two countries, and that in fact is what gives his work such impetus.
A.D.: Translation itself is an important theme in much of Andrés’s writing, especially Traveler of the Century and Fracture. What is it like, as a translator, to work on books that place so much thematic emphasis on translation?
L.G.: As translators we collaborate very closely with Andrés on the final draft, and occasionally, this becomes a two or three-way process. His deep understanding of the role of the translator, as reader, interpreter and writer, is at once stimulating and satisfying.
A.D.: Traveler of the Century and Fracture are long novels—564 and 348 pages, respectively—while the stories in The Things We Don’t Do are often very short, sometimes more “flash fiction” than traditional short stories. What are some differences between translating a long text and translating a short one? Does the translation process change depending on the length of the text?
L.G.: With any long novel, the challenge is to keep an overview of the whole, not to flag before the finish line. To remain alert to the various unifying threads that run through it, imagery, metaphor, linguistic tics, etc. With a short story there’s less space for exposition, and one or two words, which may appear simple on the surface, can speak volumes, so the challenge is to reproduce that sparseness yet intensity of language—a bit like poetry.
N.C.: Yes, I would say that Andrés’s approach to any work, however long, is basically poetic, in that he uses words with great precision and intensity, and we try to recapture that in our English versions.
A.D.: Traveler of the Century is, in part, an homage to the nineteenth-century novel, and is likely the result of a lot of reading in order to capture the mood of its more old-fashioned influences. Did you have to do a lot of reading or research in order to translate Traveler of the Century, or any of Andrés’s other books?
L.G.: Probably no more or less than Andrés, as we are both familiar enough with that genre to be able to identify its style and tropes. It might be different if his characters were living in a shanty town and using urban street slang.
N.C.: Traveler perhaps owes more to Schubert’s Winterreise than to nineteenth-century novels, so it is the musical sense that seems most important. I did though read Goethe’s Elective Affinities and found many echoes of that in Andrés’s characters in his book.
A.D.: You probably get this question a lot, but what is your translation process as a team of two? How does it differ from working independently? What would be different about your translations of Andrés Neuman thus far if you had completed them independently and not as a team?
L.G.: Undoubtedly there would have been some differences. And yet, the reason why we work together is precisely because we coincide a lot in our solutions to the various translation problems.
N.C.: In translation it is always good to have a second pair of eyes to see if you have misunderstood something or have slipped back into lazy habits. It is always stimulating to see how another close reader has understood the text, and it’s great to have someone to discuss and argue with, as otherwise translation can be a very lonely business. I should add that often it’s the three of us, including Andrés, who are involved in finding satisfactory solutions. And in the best of cases, there is also dialogue with the editor.
A.D.: Do you ever read your translations after they’re published? If so, how does that feel? How does one feel confident of having “finished” a translation, when there are always possible changes to be made?
L.G.: I once read an article by Zadie Smith in which she described seeing authors at literary festivals furiously editing passages of their published novels before going out on stage to give a reading. I think that says it all. Any sort of written text is open to endless tinkering, and as translators we frequently make changes in earlier drafts which we then change back in subsequent ones. So, yes, for that reason I make a rule of not looking at my published translations.
N.C.: A translation is never really finished, but hopefully you store up some of what you have learned from a specific translation and that helps improve the next one. I’m very interested in all the unconscious work that goes on when you translate, and it is fascinating to read a published translation and to think “where on earth did that come from?”
L.G.: Yes, that’s happened to me, and in the case of our co-translations, I usually think: “Wow, that’s so good, it must have been Nick!” Happily that isn’t always the case.