Julián Delgado Lopera’s Fiebre Tropical (Feminist Press, 2020) attracted readers because of its radical and irreverent use of Spanglish that decenters English in the US. As I was reading the novel, I kept wondering how a translator would approach this novel to maintain the linguistic juxtapositions and playfulness. So far, the novel has been translated into both Brazilian Portuguese, by writer and translator Natalia Borges Polesso, and into Colombian Spanish by Juana Silva Puerta. To explore this question, I spoke with Silva Puerta about her experience translating the novel. What ensued was a delightful conversation about the challenges she worked through and descriptions of Zoom meetings that consisted of debates about the translation of “homegirl,” revising drafts, and dancing.
Sarah Booker: How did you come to translate Fiebre Tropical?
Juana Silva Puerta: It was serendipitous. Before the pandemic, I was working with the Cámara Colombiana del Libro, where I met Carolina, the editor of Fiebre tropical. Carolina generally works with YA books. While this one isn’t marketed as such, the versatility was why she wanted to publish the translation. She pitched it to me and had me do a translation sample of the first few pages of the book. Back in April 2020, everyone was at home and there was no sense of hope, so when I heard about this, I got really excited. Eventually it came down to another translator and me, we did a second sample, and Julián liked mine. Fiebre tropical was a son of the pandemic and the paradigm shift happening for all of us. Everyone involved was excited about the book because it’s bold and defies a lot of preconceived notions of what should and shouldn’t be written in English and in Spanish.
This is not a normal first literary translation; I know I’m debuting with a bold statement. I’ve studied languages all my life and have always been interested in what rules you can break. I’ve always been a bit of a rogue translator as I understand that grammar and syntactic rules are social constructs. I’ve always felt that tension between what is standard and what is deviation becoming a standard. What really drew me to this project is that it’s rule-breaking at its finest. I love the fact that Julián wanted people to feel uncomfortable. Readers need to feel that discomfort of not knowing 100% what’s happening and being in front of something that’s constantly mutating, that’s oral, that’s even violent, because you get these punches of discourse that intertwine.
SB: What was the process of translating the book like?
JSP: When we started the translation—Julián teases me about this—I first tried to break it down. In the first chapter, I underlined in different colors the words in English, the words in Spanish that could be translated into English, then the words that needed to remain in the original language, and I started making this map of utterances. It helped me understand the ingredients of Julián’s writing, even though I quickly realized I couldn’t take such a structured approach. It started out very academic in terms of compensation strategies, and then it got more intuitive as I talked to Julián about his writing process.
SB: It’s interesting you say it became an intuitive process because Julián has used the exact same word to talk about his writing style, that it’s not an academic blending together of a certain number of words in each language but is intuitive. But I also understand the need to start by pulling apart the language to see how it works in English before you can put it in Spanish.
JSP: Absolutely. I had to first take the translator’s approach and then the writer’s.
The first time we properly started the translation process, Julián told me dancing inspired him while writing, so he gave me a playlist to dance to. I had to start my work session by dancing to some of the music that was in the story and that inspired him to write the book. It got me into Francisca’s mindset. As a narrator, Francisca is very oral; she’s a lot like a vendor at a flea market who is always luring you in. She talks directly to you but also gives a communal perspective. The narrative is spontaneous and is always intertwining different things that are happening. When I started translating, I had to forget all the structures I was taught; subject-verb agreement goes out the window, everything must be challenged, and you have to see it in a different light if you want to start doing a translation that mirrors a book that is in itself a defiance. So, I had to dance.
It became a team effort in many ways. Julián, Carolina, and I had meetings every month or so when I’d give them a chapter or two, they’d give me their notes, and we’d discuss the meaning of the word “homegirl” and how to translate it. It was so difficult that Julián even made an Instagram poll about it.
SB: How did you translate homegirl?
JSP: We mixed a lot of strategies. For some dialogue we kept homegirl. We also used “socia” as a compensation for “parcera,” which is too Medellín. We borrowed “socia” from Junot Díaz, from Achy Obejas’s translation of Oscar Wao. We used that the most. But we had to use other translations as well because Francisca uses homegirl to talk to her friend Carmen, but also with her mom, and we couldn’t use the same word for her mom and for her friends.
The conversations with Carolina and Julián were great because we’d start recommending books and movies. I binged RuPaul’s Drag Race for the slang words in English related to the ballroom scene that I could incorporate into the translation. I also studied the slang the subtitlers used.
SB: Speaking of Drag Race, I wanted to ask about the queer language that’s woven throughout this novel. How did you approach this in your translation?
JSP: There are a lot of clues in the book for the drag community and the queer community. Julián left breadcrumbs for the LGBTQ community that were only perceptible to them. For example, Chapter Three begins with “Category is.” This is from Paris Is Burning, about the ballroom scene in New York where they do categories to walk down the catwalk. In Spanish, we couldn’t just go with “La categoría es…”, so we used a catchphrase from the Tupamaras (the drag scene in Bogotá), which is: “Póngales tapas a los tacones que la siguiente categoría es.” Those are things the drag community uses. It was a way to hint that the book is also about an exploration of the body, even though Francisca doesn’t identify as trans.
This project became a gateway for me to understand a lot of the world I hadn’t been acquainted with. I had to do a crash course on drag, ballroom scenes, and queer identity. I had to read a lot; I re-read Junot Díaz, I read Papi by Rita Indiana, Pedro Lemebel. I used El diccionario de colombianismos, and Julián and I shared a love for the Bogotálogo. We became obsessed with collecting bits and pieces that could help us with the translation.
SB: Continuing to think about the different layers of discourse in this novel and the creative, unconventional approaches you had to take, I’m curious whether there were significant deviations from the English version.
JSP: The process was collaborative, so any small deviation—because there were not as many as you’d think—was discussed at length with Julián. They were mostly related to slang. And not even young people’s slang, but mom or aunt slang, because there are things that mothers or aunts say in the book that would sound weird in Spanish. The biggest decisions were which characters could and couldn’t use Spanglish, because in English the mother and grandmother both had to code switch so English readers could understand their latinidad. But in Spanish, it made no sense for Tata or even the mom to use English, so we decided certain characters wouldn’t use Spanglish. We compensated with a lot more aunt’s discourse, sayings or things my mom would say.
There was also the big debate around how to make sure the diasporic nature of the book could be perceived in Spanish. The book is narrated by Francisca, a Colombian immigrant using English as a survival language in a world that isn’t hers, so everything inserted in Spanish is used to reclaim identity. Whereas in Latin America, most of the time English is used in upper-class contexts; it’s a way to show your status. That was a big question: how can we ensure the English we use has the same ring of resistance that the Spanish in the original book does without readers seeing English as an imposition?
We also thought about how to make sure the Spanish reader would feel the same awkwardness as the English reader, like how to incorporate English in a way that was still strange for a Spanish monolingual reader without losing the meaning, and without losing that sense of rebelliousness that code switching usually has. In the end, there’s a lot more Spanish in the English version than there’s English in the Spanish version. We compensated for the lack of English with more Caribbean words. The Diccionario de colombianismos and the Bogotálogo were important, as was talking to my friends. My group chats became beautiful translation polls, like, how do you say this, how would your mom say this, how would you say this at school. I’d also call my mom’s friends from Cartagena to ask what they and their grandmothers would say.
Because Julián is bilingual, he would catch a lot of nuances a monolingual author wouldn’t. I think that’s also the key to getting into the author’s head. When you’re translating a novel as intimate as Julián’s, there’s a lot of the author’s soul in it. I felt like I was borrowing Julián’s drag clothes, like I was stealing things from his closet. I was borrowing the way he was perceiving the world, and that’s a huge responsibility.
SB: Sometimes I feel weird as a translator that I get so much access to the author through their writing when they don’t get that same insight, even when we have established a relationship.
JSP: It’s weird because you feel like you’re snooping through a window and seeing so much of their intimacy. In my case, it was fun. We were working for a year and were all in lockdown, so we shared more. I got married, and Julián and Carolina were invited to the (Zoom) wedding. I’m shy when I first meet people, but we were quickly talking about identity, experiences with languages and with family. I had to talk a lot about my mom and grandma because one of Julián’s prerequisites for his translator was that they have a good relationship with their family, and that they have a big family. I had to explain that I have a thousand cousins and describe my grandma and my aunts. It became a big conversation about who I was as a translator for him to know whether I could understand all the levels of discourse.
SB: One difference between your translation and Natalia Borges Polesso’s Portuguese translation is that she uses footnotes and a glossary to explain some of the Spanish terms. Did you consider doing this?
JSP: We talked about that. We didn’t use footnotes because we didn’t want to make the book self-explanatory. In my first attempt at the first ten chapters or so, we tried to see if discourse markers, like the em-dash in Spanish, would work to help the Spanish reader. Halfway through we decided we weren’t going to help them, that the narrative should be confusing. The book itself was telling me not to do this. There are parts of the book where dialogues get mixed with Francisca’s inner voice, and lines get blurred. It was better for us to keep that strangeness than to try to explain to the reader what is and isn’t dialogue. The book allowed that; you could explore how far you could get with convention and how far you could get with deviation from the norm. It turns out it’s a rebel book through and through.
SB: Thinking about the content of the book, do you see themes of translation in the book itself that relate to the translation process?
JSP: Francisca is always reflecting on the weight of Spanish and English in her life. That is a translation process. Julián told me that when he started school in the US, he’d write his essays phonetically in Spanish so he could know how to say them out loud if he was called to the board. And that’s thinking in translation. Also, when Francisca joins the youth group and observes the group’s gestures and ways of using language and nonverbal communication—the high-fiving, the praying, the hands in the air—that also involves translation. The book reflects on cultural translation as well.
SB: Something I thought about while reading is the notion of female sadness that runs through the book and how it is translated from one generation to another, evolving with each generation.
JSP: Definitely! Not only are there cultural things that come from one generation to the next, but there are also linguistic cues. There are sayings like “pájaros tirándole a las escopetas” that Francisca starts to incorporate into her own discourse that come from her mom or grandma.
SB: That backpack of phrases gets limited once she gets to Miami as she’s no longer around all her friends and is suddenly confined to the previous generations’ use of language as well as that of the other Latinos around her.
JSP: And that’s another cool thing about Francisca’s Spanglish—it isn’t Colombian American, it’s Latino, so there’s also a lot of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Dominican slang, as well as expressions from Julián’s own experience. We wanted to keep that in the translation, so we explored slang from Mexico and other countries to make sure it would read well in translation.
SB: Do you have other projects you’re working on right now?
JSP: Not right now. I’m in a bit of a transition period, but thanks to Julián, I’ve been exploring Latino writers who work in English. There’s a lot happening in that area, and I’d be very interested in working with some of those writers. There’s Myriam Gurba and her book Mean, for example. Fiebre opened my eyes to something I didn’t think was possible, which is to have a conversation with Latino immigrants around the world who are producing high-quality literature abroad that needs to be seen in Latin America, in Colombia. Many of them are exploring the diasporic nature of language in different ways. It’s interesting to explore what I can do with language, all the rules I can break. I’ve been a rule nerd all my life, so breaking rules is therapeutic for me! I also translate from Italian, so one of my next goals is to do some digging into that area as well.
SB: Finally, what did this translation experience teach you about what a translation can be?
JSP: This has been such a unique translation experience. When I talk about it with my fellow translators, they’re shocked I had a WhatsApp group with my author and editor and got to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. There’s a bunch of things that don’t normally happen when you’re doing a translation. But maybe this is what translation should be! It should be a conversation. And there are other ways to do this that don’t necessarily involve being in your little translator’s cave 24/7. You can dance to a translation, you can catwalk a translation, you can drag your way through a translation. Julián taught me how to do drag makeup. I rarely even use eyeliner, but I tried to embody that. Turning it into a collaborative experience is so much fun, and it opens a lot of possibilities of what you can do as a translator.