From WhatsApp groups and social media communities to online forums and platforms, in this conversation with our translation editor, Denise Kripper, Joaquín Gavilano discusses his journey into the art of translation
Denise Kripper: First of all: Congratulations! You were one of the winners of the 2023 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant from PEN America. This is huge. Tell us a little bit about the process of submitting your translation project for this prize.
Joaquín Gavilano: Thank you so much! God, it was such a stressful process. I heard about the PEN/Heim award for the first time about a year before I applied to it, right as the deadline for that years’ cycle was nearing. I had just been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, and a few of the translators in the program invited me into a WhatsApp group where they would talk about translation-related things. One of them linked to the grant and asked if anyone was applying. I looked through it and thought this was such an amazing opportunity, but sadly, I had nothing. At that point I was barely discovering my passion for translation and wasn’t working on any specific project, just kinda translating poetry for kicks, you know?
I did then, however, make it my goal to have something for next year’s cycle. As an international student on a visa, it is extremely hard to find grants and awards that are open to anyone. Once I started the MFA later that year, it took me a while to find a project I was fully invested in, and thankfully I had a lot of support from my workshop team led by the then-visiting professor to our program, Jennifer Croft. She insisted I apply to it. I was nervous, and to be very honest, just not confident enough in my own work. I had to really push myself to put together a submission packet, but I was able to click “submit” 10 minutes before the deadline.
DK: El rehén (The Hostage) by Gabriel Mamani Magne was the awarded text. What drew you to it?
JG: El rehén came to me in such an unexpected way. I had just started my first semester in my MFA program and had decided to work on some poetry by the late Bolivian poet, Blanca Wiethüchter. As much as I enjoy her work and as much as I still want to keep working with her words, at the time I really wanted to venture into fiction. I didn’t know what, or who, but I did know two things: 1) I wanted to translate a living author, and 2) I wanted to translate a Bolivian author. My problem was that, for one reason or another, I hadn’t read anything from this century by Bolivian authors.
One day around November 2021 I was on a Discord call with my brother, playing some video games and catching up, when I mentioned I couldn’t find much information about contemporary authors from Bolivia. At the time I had been living in the US for 5 years and wasn’t sure how to go about getting copies of books or contact information. My brother then remembered a book that had been recommended to him, but he couldn’t remember the title. However, he did remember the author’s name: Mamani Magne. I looked him up and found his earlier book, Seúl, São Paulo, and that it had won the 2019 National Prize for Best Novel (Premio Nacional de Novela 2019), but my brother told me it was his most recent book that he was talking about: El rehén.
Oh thank God! There’s an ebook version available! I bought it, devoured it, loved it. El rehén managed to capture such a beautiful, heartbreaking story in just 100 pages. I’ve always been a fan of short fiction, but this was something else.
DK: The PEN Advisory Board noted that Gabriel Mamani Magne “represents Bolivian literature’s new wave.” What can we expect from this?
JG: Do a quick google search for “Bolivian Literature” and everything you find is authors who are long gone. Great authors, but authors who represented a time that isn’t reflective of current-day Bolivia. Because of our turbulent history (and present), there hasn’t been a lot of room for the development of art, sadly. There is very little exposure and not enough interest. There are great young contemporary authors who are writing such beautiful work but aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. My goal is to show the world, “Hey, pay attention to this landlocked country in the middle of South America! We are here. We’ve always been here.”
DK: A quick search on the 3% database shows that in the last almost fifteen years, only ten Bolivian works have been translated into English. What are English readers missing about Bolivian literature? What else would you like to translate or see translated?
JG: They’re missing out. And not only from our modern authors like Gabriel Mamani Magne, Guillermo Ruiz Plaza, Liliana Colanzi… but also from our greats from centuries past: Jaime Saenz, Adelia Zamudio, Yolanda Bedregal…
What else do I want to translate or see translated? I want it all. I want every single one of them on shiny billboards. Will I (or other translators) make that happen? I’ll do my damn best.
I think that sadly (for Bolivia) the Spanish speaking world is already one of the most—if not the most—represented language in translation in the anglosphere, which will most likely affect publication numbers and such, even though, like you said, only 10 Bolivian works have been translated into English.
DK: You are also Bolivian yourself, which means that, in translating into English, you’re working in your second language, challenging the cliché that translators have to translate into their mother tongue. What is your relationship to the languages you speak, write, and translate?
JG: The mythical “mother tongue”! What can I say that hasn’t been said by other amazing translators like Anton Hur and Jeremy Tiang, who constantly defy this concept? Language is just a collected set of words that we defined and gave rules to. I happen to be able to speak English and Spanish. I happen to communicate my best in Spanglish. It’s a curse and a blessing? Even though I’m from a Spanish speaking country, I probably have a higher level of English than I do Spanish. It’s almost kinda embarrassing? The worst is when I want to talk to my monolingual grandma only in Spanish and end up sounding like an 8th grader because most of my high-level vocabulary exists only in English.
I think in English, I write in English, I (mostly) live in English.
I feel in Spanish. I curse in Spanish. I love in Spanish.
DK: Your translation publications until now have been mostly poetry. How was tackling a prose project, El rehén, different (or not)?
JG: It’s a whole other game. I write prose fiction myself, but I haven’t had anything published yet. For translation purposes, I think it felt natural, a lot more natural than poetry. I think this might be because I’ve engaged more in my life with translated storytelling, whether that’s from watching TV and movies in Spanish and English, or from reading fiction that was translated into English.
This past semester, my workshop course was led by the amazing Rebecca Gayle Howell. She has really shaped my way of understanding how there are different tiers of translation. If I’m translating a poem, I can choose to translate for literal meaning; I can choose to translate for prosodic choices like keeping rhythm or other forms intact; I can decide to translate for other creative ways of interpretation.
DK: You are currently an MFA student in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas, and you’re also the translator editor at The Arkansas International. How have creative writing and editing shaped your translation practice, and vice versa?
JG: Before I joined the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, I worked as a freelance translator for a few years, mostly with marketing and other technical shenanigans. Like I mentioned earlier, I began my journey into literary translation by translating poems and music for fun and for myself. Joining this MFA program skyrocketed not only my knowledge, but also my passion for this art. I will forever be grateful to my mentors and peers.
I was asked by Ryan Chamberlain, a previous editor at The Arkansas International, to apply for his position because he was planning to leave it soon. I was initially skeptical to apply because I had too much going on in my life, but thankfully he convinced me. I’ve had such a wonderful first few months, reading so much great work by other translators. It’s such a great experience to be able to work alongside other amazing peers of mine at the magazine. Experiencing different styles and choices made by these translators has really shown me the range and talent that exists out there.
DK: In a recent Twitter thread, you shared that a little over a year ago you knew nothing about translation rights or the publishing industry, something that is “way too obscure for emerging translators.” What have you learned since then that you wish more aspiring translators would know? What advice can you give someone who finds themselves feeling like you did back then?
JG: That Twitter thread was such an emotional trip for me. I think the publishing industry by itself is already extremely confusing. One has to really do one’s own research about how publishing works, how literary agents work, publishing houses, etc. etc. On top of that, add all the questions that an aspiring translator has regarding copyrights, contacting authors, contacting the last publisher (or whoever holds the rights), public domain, and many, many more.
I think the best advice I can give anyone looking into literary translation is: don’t be afraid of asking questions and join communities. Reach out to people on Twitter. Join groups on Facebook and Reddit, join the Emerging Translators Network, both the European and North American Google groups. It took me a long time and a lot of research to find out about these communities, and even more time to develop the courage to join them. I have found translator circle’s to be some of the most helpful communities I’ve ever experienced—especially regarding online communities. I think this has to do with the fact that translation is such a selfless art as well as a practice that demands collaboration by nature.