A phenomenon in the Spanish-speaking world, Mónica Ojeda’s work has been translated into Dutch, English, French, Greek, Italian, and Portuguese. Some of her translators took the opportunity of this dossier to engage in conversation around our experiences translating her work.
Alba-Marina Escalon translated Ojeda’s Mâchoires (Gallimard, 2022) into French, Els Thant published the short story “Gestold bloed” in Dutch in PLUK, Ifigenia Doumi translated Mandíbula (Skarifima, 2021) into Greek, Massimiliano Bonatto translated Mandíbula, Nefando and Las voladoras into Italian (Polidoro editore, 2021; Polidoro editore, 2022; Polidoro editore, 2023), Sarah Booker translated into English Jawbone (Coffee House Press, 2022; New Ruins, 2022), Nefando (Coffee House Press, 2023), “Earthquake,” published in Southwest Review, 2022, and, alongside Noelle de la Paz, co-translated “Soroche,” forthcoming with Two Lines Press’ Calico Series in 2024.
LALT: How did you come to Mónica Ojeda’s work?
Alba-Marina Escalon: When Gallimard let me know I’d translate Mandíbula, I couldn’t have been happier. Four weeks earlier, the editor had sent me chilling pages recounting a kidnapping so that I could do a translation sample. They sent it without giving me details. I didn’t know what the novel was about, who the author was, or what country she was from. It was like a blind date with the text. This delivery coincided with a visit to the Pacific Ocean I’d planned, so the reading and first lines of the translation—done by hand on loose pages—happened as if in a dream, among waves, wind, sand, and sun. The style, atmosphere, characters immediately captured me. Because of the kidnapping, I thought it was a Mexican author, but when I learned it was a text by Mónica Ojeda, I was really happy to expand my borders to the South. As I’m French-Mexican and have been living in Guatemala for more than ten years, I almost always work with Central American and Mexican authors. Nevertheless, Ecuador felt familiar, and it wasn’t a problem to adapt to the idioms or atmosphere of Guayaquil.
Els Thant: I discovered Mónica’s work on the shelves of my neighborhood bookstore in Quito, Ecuador. I love her poetic style and the intertextual richness of her stories. The Andean imaginary is quite present in Mónica’s work, so for me it is a familiar setting with which I identify. The concrete project of translating a story by Ojeda began a year ago in the context of my literary translation class at the University of Ottawa. It’s been a long, fascinating journey from the first draft to a deep revision process, and ending with the publication coming out this month. It will be my first published translation, the formal beginning of my career as a literary translator.
Ifigenia Doumi: Thanks to Skarifima, a small publishing house in Greece; they are into Latin American literature and particularly interested in contemporary authors. Besides Ojeda they have published Carla Bessa (Brazil), María Fernanda Ampuero (Ecuador), and Rita Indiana (Dominican Republic). So, they contacted me and suggested that I translate the book. After a quick look, I knew I was going to love it, so I accepted. And it turned out to be quite a good pairing; the book was warmly received by the public as well as shortlisted for the first literary translation prize organized by the LEA Festival (Literatura en Atenas) in 2021. I also had the chance to meet Mónica in Madrid, which I believe is what a translator always wishes for.
Massimiliano Bonatto: I learned about Mónica Ojeda’s work in 2018 when Mandíbula came out. Then I was just starting my career as a literary translator and was reading many Latin American authors to propose them in Italy. One day Mónica’s agent, with whom I was already in touch, sent me her new novel. I read it in two days, completely absorbed by the story and petrified by the power of the author’s voice and the voices of the female characters, by the force and the relevance of the topics tackled. So I wrote up an introduction of the book and author, translated some passages of the text, and bombarded with emails different editors who might be interested. After a couple years, an editor decided to give it a go, and that’s how it all started.
Sarah Booker: I learned about Mónica’s work through the 2017 Bogotá39 selection of promising writers under the age of 40. I was drawn to the fact that she was an Ecuadorian writer, as I’ve spent time in the country and was hoping to see greater international representation of Ecuadorian literature. I was also intrigued by her interest in technology, given Nefando was out at the time and getting attention because of the way it looks at the dark side of technology. I was lucky to be in Spain when Mónica moved back and was able to meet her a few times while she was promoting Mandíbula. I was especially drawn to Mónica’s interest in fear as well as her constantly creative use of language.
Noelle de la Paz: I first read “Terremoto” in an online journal as I was seeking out short fiction by Latin American women authors to translate. I was struck by the way Mónica brings the lyricism of a poet into her prose and immediately ordered a copy of Las voladoras and dove in. I have a lot of respect for the short story form and its skillful compression, and in this collection, I was excited to find Andean mythology and a deep sense of place interwoven with the apocalyptic, the feminine, and the grotesque. Through the generosity of the translator community around me (fellow translator Jenna Tang knew I was eager to work on Las voladoras and connected me with Sarah Booker, translator of her novels into English), I was able to talk to Sarah about our shared admiration for Mónica’s work and the possibility of collaborating. When an opportunity for a co-translation came up, I jumped at the invitation.
LALT: Can you share one particular challenge you encountered in the translation?
A-ME: The translation of Mandíbula took nine months. Certain chapters were more difficult than others, due to the themes or the style. Mónica Ojeda’s personal universe is quite complex, and this is reflected in her poetics. An example of this was chapter three, which recounts Miss Clara’s job interview. It’s made up of long sentences interrupted by subordinate clauses between commas, which are then interrupted by other phrases marked by dashes or parentheses. The mental instability of the character facing the stress of an interview is reflected in these complex, confusing constructions, and replicating them without them sounding artificial in French was one of the primary challenges. It was also difficult to translate certain nicknames that referenced cultural elements specific to Ecuador, like the nickname Miss Ángela, alias Baldomera, which I decided to translate as Black Mamba as it had to do with a marginal Afro-Ecuadorian literary character prone to violence. If the reference to the film Kill Bill is a bit forced, it does not sound dissonant and it’s a nickname that teenagers could give their teacher. I thought it was interesting to translate this nickname so that the French reader wouldn’t miss that characterization.
ET: “Sangre coagulada” is a story told by a girl, and it was a challenge to transmit the poetic style of Ojeda, the setting of the Ecuadorian páramo, the intense experiences, and the language that both belongs to and is foreign to the girl. The descriptions are very poetic and even philosophical. The story includes various references to God: a chicken head, for example, is described as a perfect roundness, like God, and when it falls to the floor, it rolls and looks like “geometría divina.” It’s all rhythm and poetry, that’s why more than ever I read my translation out loud to assure I’d reproduced this rhythm in Dutch. Other challenges were the localization of the cultural references, the neologisms (various names for the red color of the blood), and recurrent themes (blood, water, chickens, God, time). Mónica Ojeda tackles topics like rape and abortion so poetically, and from the innocence of the little girl, that you might forget the cruelness they imply.
ID: The main challenge was to follow the pacing of the narration and to maintain its rhythm. The suspense of the parts describing the girls’ disturbing games (I was occasionally overwhelmed with suspense, so I worked too fast and had to go back again and again), the dense parts concerning the teacher (which were the ones I most enjoyed; I loved this character), the prevailing feeling of fear. Also, being hardly acquainted with creepypastas and the community of online storytelling, I had a lot of catching up to do, but this is only part of the pleasant and interesting research you are expected to do as a translator.
MB: There were many challenges. One was the dialogues—for example, those between Annelise and Fernanda that make up standalone chapters—or among the girls, where the translation had to be as fluid as possible and reflect a youthful and current way of talking. Another challenge was translating the chapter where Annelise and her friends are at a party: the present moment of the story is woven with scenes from the recent and more distant past, when Annelise and Fernanda were younger. Mónica doesn’t give any temporal referent, so the sentences mix together, and you can’t tell if she is talking about what is happening now or what happened before, creating an effect of confusion and total loss of control over what you are reading, which I think is fantastic. But translating it, I needed to fully understand what was happening, so I used different colors to underline the sentences according to temporality: in blue for present and in red for the past. That’s the only way I could manage not to get lost in her words.
SB: Ojeda’s approach to layering voices sets her apart as a writer, as she frequently weaves distinct narratives together in alternating sentences. For instance, one chapter of Jawbone intersplices Annelise’s recounting of a horror story with Fernanda and Annelise’s exploration of online creepypasta culture. One noteworthy challenge to translation comes in one of the final chapters of the novel, in which eight-year-old Fernanda and Annelise are at the pool and are starting to figure out the secret lives their mothers lead. There, music is playing on loudspeakers, and the Spanish version of lyrics from these songs are inserted to create a sonorous affect and echo the narrative events. Due to copyright concerns, we weren’t able to include the full song lyrics in the translation, but we wanted to find a way to preserve the effect. As such, instead of using the full lyrics of “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” we included the opening line of the song and then transitioned to a scene from the Hans Christian Anderson version of “The Little Mermaid.” Like the song lyrics, the selected scene describes the mermaid’s encounter with Ursula and even includes mention of a crocodile, thus echoing Annelise’s story about her mother as well as the crocodiles that lurk throughout the novel. While this was a significant deviation in terms of rhythm, the intention was to preserve the effect of interrupting the prose while maintaining the thematic resonances.
NdlP: The story “Soroche” is broken up into the alternating points of view of four women. The biggest challenge—which was also the appeal for me—came with the character Ana. On a craft level, it called for meticulous attention to word choice and rhythm while navigating repetition and graphic language. It was about choosing the right words to render horrifying, humiliating, bodily descriptions in vivid detail while retaining a kind of poetic quality, aiming for a reader experience that simultaneously disgusts and mesmerizes. On another level, if we think of translation as the closest read—to “climb inside [the protagonist’s] skin and walk around in it,” as Bruna Dantas Lobato writes—my challenge was to sit in the discomfort of immersing myself word-for-word in the horror of abject humiliation and self-loathing at the core of the story.
LALT: How is Latin American literature received in your culture?
A-ME: In France, fortunately, many literatures are translated. The literary culture is big enough that there is room for all tastes, for all the countries. There are presses whose catalogue reflects a specialization in Latin American literature (Métailié, Gallimard…), there are festivals that promote Latin American authors like Les Belles Latinas or, a few years ago, the Festival Colibris in Marseille. There are even associations that have support programs for translators who work with authors from the region. Since the Boom of the 70s, this literature is well received in France. Nevertheless, I dare say that authors from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, or Mexico are translated more than writers from Central America, for example. If it weren’t for Miguel Ángel Asturias, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, or, recently Eduardo Halfon, Guatemala would not exist in the French imaginary. Mónica Ojeda is a unique case, and that’s why I’m happy to be her French translator.
ET: The story collection Las voladoras is a good example of a new movement in contemporary Latin American literature, the “new Latin American gothic” or “Andean gothic.” Even though Mónica Ojeda was awarded the Next Generation Prince Claus award in the Netherlands in 2019, her work has yet to be published in Dutch. I hope to be able to change this with the translation of “Sangre coagulada” and her other work. In the Netherlands there is a rich tradition of literary translation. Many exponents of the famous boom of the 60s and 70s were translated, primarily on the initiative of the press Meulenhoff. Today there is a renewed interest in works that come from the American continent in general and from Latin America in particular. As far as presses, Ambo/Anthos has displaced Meulenhoff and is quite focused on Hispanic American literature. Representatives of small countries like Ecuador are rarely included on the lists of the best Latin American authors. In both the Netherlands and Flanders there are funds to promote the translation of valuable works to Dutch. I’m ready to translate the rest of the stories in Las voladoras!
ID: On an annual basis, 50-80 books are translated (and published) from Spanish and Portuguese into Greek. More than half of these are Latin American (and almost all of them in Spanish). The most popular and most published authors are García Márquez and Borges (early 80s), plus Cortázar and Allende (late 80s). Actually, these are the first ones Greeks got acquainted with. (By the way, all the works of Cortázar are currently being republished.) Then came a second wave of Latin American authors in the early 90s and the early 00s: Roncagliolo, Chavarría, Gutiérrez, and of course Sepúlveda, whom we seem to love a lot (his collected poems are to be published shortly). Then came Bolaño, Padura, and Aira; there’s a growing interest in them. Also, Latin Noir is a genre that seems to be gaining ground; there’s even a small publishing house specializing in it, Carnívora. It’s not very common for a Latin American author to have many books translated into Greek, apart from the ones I already mentioned, along with a couple of others, perhaps. However, people who like Latin American literature are, I dare say, obsessed with it, and that’s why editors (both small and big publishing houses, Castaniotis, Patakis, Opera…) keep looking for both new classics and contemporary authors. Also, in the past 15 years a very promising literary festival has been organized in Athens (and recently in other cities as well), LEA (Literatura en Atenas), which invites authors from Spain, Portugal, and Latin America and/or presents their books and even organizes translation workshops and poetry readings. LEA has also established the prize for literary translation of literatura iberoamericana; the third one is to be awarded this May concerning books published in 2022. It is an interesting meeting point for readers, writers and translators and a nice way to get people to learn more about the literature of these languages which, in terms of the local book market, cannot compete with English, French, Italian, and German, I’m afraid.
MB: Latin American literature is well received in Italy. There are a lot of authors translated and there are readers who pay close attention to what is happening on the continent. There are presses specializing in Latin American literature, such as Sur, Polidoro editore, La Nuova Frontiera, Gran Vía, etc. These are independent presses that work closely with the authors, giving a lot of visibility to the books through presentations in bookstores, fairs, and festivals and inviting authors for small tours in Italy. And there are presses that seek out new authors, interesting and unconventional new voices, also risking a lot. Above all Argentine, Mexican, Colombian, and Chilean authors are being translated, but in recent years the focus is widening to include other countries. Ecuador, for example, until quite recently had almost no authors translated in Italy. With the arrival of Móncia Ojeda as well as Natalia García Freire and soon Yuliana Ortiz Ruano, Ecuadorian authors are now well represented.
SB: In the United States, quite a lot of Latin American literature is translated, though often it is marketed within certain narrow parameters. Much has been written about the publishing phenomenon of the Latin American Boom that gave way to the dominance of magical realism as a way to describe anything Latin American that perhaps departs from a strict sense of reality. More recently, the Latin American literature that seems to get the most attention and that has become a marketing tool would be the use of horror among women writers from the region. Wonderful writers like Mariana Enriquez and Samanta Schweblin are part of this movement, and Mónica’s work is also marketed along similar parameters.
NdlP: There’s definitely an appetite for Latin American literature in the U.S. The Latin American Boom familiarized U.S. readership with magical realism and arguably continues to be a reference point for the literature coming from the region(s). More recently, as Sarah Booker points out, there is a growing interest in what’s been called a new wave of Latin American horror/gothic. In these works, forces like indigenous and urban folklore, colonial and political histories, and the everyday violence of modern life collide, more menacing than mystical perhaps. As part of the Filipino diaspora, I find these themes quite resonant with Philippine and Philippine diasporic literature with its shared Spanish colonial past, and I look forward to English translations increasing access to more readers interested in this comparative lens.
Image: Covers of various books by Mónica Ojeda, translated into multiple languages.
Alba-Marina Escalón is a Franco-Mexican visual artist and literary translator who has been living and working in Guatemala since 2012. She works with different techniques such as drawing, photography, and video. Her graphic creations focus on geometry, textures, and labyrinths. Her work has been showcased at several exhibitions in France, Mexico, Canada, Slovakia, Uruguay and Guatemala. She has also illustrated several books including Cuarenta Noches by Vania Vargas (Sophos, 2019) and a Colombian review of translated literature called Barbárika (2022). She has a Master’s degree in Literary Translation from the Haute École de Bruxelles, and has participated in several translation residency programs (BILTC in Banff, CITL in Arles, IFAL in Mexico). She has translated into French several Guatemalan writers such as Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Denise Phé-Funchal, Wingston González, Eduardo Halfon, and Mario Payeras. In 2022, she translated Mandíbula, by Mónica Ojeda (Ecuador), published by Gallimard (Paris).
Els Thant studied Romance Languages and Literature at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium) and holds a degree in Spanish Studies from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain). She has been a Sworn Translator and Conference Interpreter in Dutch, Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, and German since 1998. In September 2022 she started a PhD Program in Translation Studies at the University of Ottawa. She intends to focus on literary translation. Els lived in Ecuador for more than 20 years and would love to translate the work of Mónica Ojeda and other promising Latin American newcomers into Dutch. Her translation of the short story “Sangre coagulada” (Las voladoras, Madrid, Páginas de Espuma, 2020) was published in PLUK, a Dutch magazine that focuses on the promotion of new literary translators.
Ifigenia Doumi was born in Athens, Greece. She studied English Literature at the University of Athens, Literary Translation at EKEMEL (European Centre for the Translation of Literature and the Human Sciences, run by the Ministry of Culture), and Acting. She translates from English and Spanish and has translated several authors from Latin America, such as Guillermo Martínez (Argentina), Wendy Guerra (Cuba), Mónica Ojeda (Ecuador), María Fernanda Ampuero (Ecuador), Beatriz Saavedra (México), Rita Indiana (Dominican Republic), Teresa Ruiz Rosas (Peru), and Mario Benedetti (Uruguay), among others. She has written two poetry books (Love Me Tender, Saixpirikon, Thessaloniki 2018; Όλα μ’ αρέσουν, Kastaniotis, Athens 2022). firstname.lastname@example.org
Massimiliano Bonatto has been translating in the publishing industry since 2011, working with Italian publishers such as 66thand2nd, Codice Edizioni, Black Coffee, Sur, Iperborea and Polidoro editore. He translates both fiction and nonfiction books from English and Spanish. The authors he has translated include Mónica Ojeda, Fernanda Trías, Vanessa Londoño, A. Igoni Barrett, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires. He is currently editor of Spanish and Latin American fiction at Polidoro editore, an independent publisher that is bringing many young and groundbreaking writers to Italy. He also works for the audiovisual industry and collaborates with the international queer festival Gender Bender.
Sarah Booker is an educator and literary translator working from Spanish to English. Her translations include Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone (Coffee House Press, 2022; National Book Award Finalist), Gabriela Ponce’s Blood Red (Restless Books, 2022), and Cristina Rivera Garza’s New and Selected Stories (Dorothy Press, 2022), Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (Feminist Press, 2020), and The Iliac Crest (Feminist Press, 2017; And Other Stories, 2018). Her translations have also been published in journals such as the Paris Review, Asymptote, Latin American Literature Today, 3:am magazine, The Baffler, and Southwest Review. She has a PhD in Hispanic Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is currently based in Morganton, North Carolina where she teaches Spanish at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
Noelle de la Paz is a poet, translator, and artist working from NYC and San Francisco. Through iterative explorations of form, narrative, and translation, she attempts to visibilize and interrogate girlness, brownness, languaging, and movements through borders, real and imagined. Her work is published or forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, The Recluse, Southwest Review, Newtown Literary, Two Lines Press’ Calico Series, and elsewhere, and has been featured as part of the exhibitions Otherwise Obscured: Erasure in Body and Text (Franklin Street Works, 2019) and Boulevard of Ghosts (Local Project Art Space, 2021). She was a 2021-22 Emerge–Surface–Be Fellow at The Poetry Project, and has also received support from Brooklyn Poets, VONA, the Dia Foundation, and Queens Council for the Arts.