The Spanish Riveter: Translating from the Languages of Spain. An online round-table discussion with translators KATIE WHITTEMORE, JACOB ROGERS, KRISTIN ADDIS, CHARLOTTE WHITTLE and JULIA SANCHES

Katie Whittemore: I’m so glad you all agreed to have this conversation. This is the first time The Riveter has been dedicated to writing from Spain, and we’re excited to bring in as much as we can from the official languages of Spain. This conversation with the four of you is an important part of that. We have Jacob Rogers, who translates from Galician and Spanish; Julia Sanches, who works from Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese; Charlotte Whittle, from Spanish; and Kristin Addis, from Basque and Spanish. Let’s start by hearing about how you got into literary translation. And to follow up, how did you find your way to the languages you translate from?

Kristin Addis: I came to literary translation mostly by accident. I was just doing some translation for fun and translating for an author friend, and he was chosen to be included in an anthology and asked me to translate the text. I started studying Basque because on a family trip to Spain when I was in high school, we went north to the Basque Country, and I heard this weird language and saw posters and such on the walls with words full of Zs and Ks, and went, what is that thing? It turned out that there was a woman here in Iowa City who was able to teach it, so I started with her. Then I moved to taking summer courses in the Basque Country, then lived there for a while and did intensive courses and so on.

Jacob Rogers: I had a similar experience with Galician. At university, I happened to take a class on the variety of regional cultures and languages in Spain and was randomly assigned Galicia for a group project. I found a website in English with all these authors that you could click through, and since I was a literature major, my interest lay there. This happened right around the time that I was realising that translation was something you could do professionally, and I figured maybe Galician was a chiller niche than trying to enter the fray of Spanish. I happened to be going to Galicia for a summer and was able to take government-subsidised language classes, which were really cheap. I went to Galician class and just tried to read as much as I could. I felt very welcomed.

Julia Sanches: I’m Brazilian, so I’ve been speaking Portuguese my whole life. After living in the US for a bit my family moved to Mexico City when I was seven or eight years old, and we lived there until I was about thirteen or fourteen, so I learned Spanish. Then I moved around to several more places, and in university I got bit by the literary-translation bug. I was really curious about it. There was no one really talking about that at Edinburgh University, even though I asked all the creative-writing professors, what is this thing called literary translation? How do you do it? And they were like, I don’t know. And I thought, well, I guess I’ll do some research on my own. And although my family has lived in Brazil for a several generations, one of my great-grandmothers was Catalan. After university, to stay in Europe legally, I enrolled in a master’s programme in Spain, got a visa and started taking Catalan classes, and realised that at our big family reunions, we would sing Catalan songs and my mother would sing versions of Catalan nursery rhymes that she’d learned from her grandmother – my great-grandmother. I now translate from all three of my languages.

Charlotte Whittle: I grew up in England in a monolingual household. In my late teens, I started reading Latin American authors and wanted to learn Spanish. I ended up going to Mexico for a year when I was eighteen. Just learning Spanish and having a lot of freedom. And then I studied literature and Spanish as an undergraduate and went on to graduate work in Hispanic studies. I was on the academic path and planned to become a scholar, but I realised that it was this treadmill, and for multiple reasons that wasn’t a treadmill I wanted to be on. So, I taught Spanish for a number of years before I really realised that literary translation could be a ‘job’. I soon stumbled upon an author I got really interested in and basically started pitching her work.

KW: Tell me about some of the challenges of translating from your particular languages.

JS: I recently translated Montserrat Roig from Catalan, and one challenge was that Roig was very pro-Catalan, very enmeshed in Catalan literary culture. In writing this trilogy (the first book was translated by Megan Berkobien and María Cristina Hall) she wanted to educate readers on Catalan history that might have been neglected during the Franco dictatorship, to rescue history that had been obscured. One of the challenges in translating was to try to put some of that same education in without having to gloss constantly. I also had to make certain decisions that would make it clear this was a Catalan-language book and not a Spanish-language book. 

The challenge with Spanish right now is that there are loads of really great, young authors writing in their own particular vernaculars and varieties of Spanish that are worlds apart, and you have to figure out where your translation is going to stand in relation to the original. How much to domesticate, how much to keep the reader at a distance – and all the research that goes into that, because a lot of these terms haven’t actually entered any dictionaries. The fact that Spanish is a language spoken by hundreds of millions of people across vast swathes of land means it has that particular challenge, the sort of variations and varieties within a single country, but also across all of the American continent.

CW: I was going to mention that first and foremost: the massive variations across countries and regions, and going through that experience of learning a new vernacular for every book. It’s very rare that as a working translator, you get to concentrate on a single geographical area if you’re working in Spanish. I recently translated a book from the south of Spain that was a real new area for me. The vernacular was not one that I was familiar with. But this is also one of the joys of translating from Spanish, developing these pockets of regional knowledge.

JR: Galician has technical standardisation from the Academia Gallega. But people aren’t particularly happy with that fact in and of itself, and their dictionary isn’t really all that comprehensive. I always use two or three online Galician dictionaries whenever I’m looking for things. One of them aims for a more Portuguese sort of solidarity, so they’re looking at the language in that broader context. You can usually Google with enough search terms that you sort of figure it out, but it’s not always easy. Often if I’m having trouble, I’ll try to find a Spanish equivalent and then go from there. There’s a lot of triangulating. Otherwise, the main challenge is that it’s not a very well internationalised literary system. It’s very vibrant, but only recently do some of the bigger authors I work with have agents at all, and the fact that they have agents for writing in Galician is unusual; a lot of Galician writers became famous from writing in Spanish, then got agents.

KA: There’s a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of support for getting Basque into other languages. There’s the Etxepare Institute, and a translator’s association with a massive website with everybody who’s ever translated a single word of Basque on it, with all their qualifications and what they’ve translated, and there are more and more resources online. When I first started, I was using an actual physical dictionary, so that was quite slow. But now there are many dictionaries online and a lot of specialised dictionaries as well, including resources for things like old sayings, old songs, and so on. The main problem with Basque is that it it’s quite easy to make up your own words, so as a translator, you often have to break down a word into its components and then look things up separately, and then put them back together and go, OK, what could this mean? And there is a very strong tradition in Basque for wordplay and word games, which are difficult for translators.

KW: Can you tell me about how you tend to get your translation jobs? Are you pitching projects yourselves? Working with agents or cultural institutes?

JR: I’ve pitched endlessly and built good relationships, so, I don’t have any negative feelings towards editors, but it’s been so much work for, concretely, very little.

JS: I’m currently translating the only project I’ve successfully pitched. The stars aligned for this book, Living Things by Munir Hachemi. I sent it to loads of publishers and I got interest from Fitzcarraldo. I think one of the reasons they were able to offer is because the book had already been translated into French and the editors there read French, but not Spanish.

CW: Translating younger authors can also be an advantage, because you’re working with writers who will be producing new work. But there is no single way that books get acquired, or how translators become attached to them. Every book I’ve done has been different. I’ve had a pitch accepted and then I’ve been attached to a project that an agent then sold, or I’ve been recommended by the agent and then contacted by the English-language publisher. There are many ways it can happen, it’s kind of like the Wild West.

KA: There are probably three or four groups supporting Basque that consistently send things my way. They’re the ones that deal with the agents. They’re the ones who get the rights, get the funding. Then they bring it to me as a project that’s already funded, which is very nice. I do kind of plant seeds, though. My experience translating from a minority language is that it’s a small world, and word of mouth counts for quite a lot.

KW: Are there cases where you have advocated for a particular author or work to be translated? Someone, in your estimation, ‘missing’ from work represented in English?

JS: Well, thankfully, translation is having a popular moment, which I hope lasts for a long time. Translation is suddenly sexy now. And part of this is that publishers have latched on to recovering lost voices, most of which happen to be women or people of colour.

KW: Maybe there’s a sort of a cultural caché associated with it. Instead of viewing it as a total risk to take on this sort of project – either somebody who’s unknown, or underappreciated, or under-recognised –from a publisher’s standpoint, it’s almost a badge of honour to be ‘discovering’ these voices and bringing them back in.

CW: I think there’s now a space for that in the publishing ecosystem. If you say this is a project that recovers an underrepresented or underappreciated author who hasn’t had the attention they deserve, there’s the idea that those kinds of projects are on people’s radars a little bit more, perhaps, than they used to be.

KW: Can you tell me a little bit about your process of reading in your languages, and discovering books? How actively do you keep up with what’s being published?

CW: If I’m in a scouting period, I like to travel if I can. One of my projects came about just because I was in a bookstore in Madrid and the bookseller hand-sold it to me. I read it and immediately knew that I wanted to work on it. I’m not always on top of what’s coming out, but if I reach a point where I’m ready to make room for some new projects, then I’ll go into a scouting phase and I’ll put up my antenna and see what’s there.

JR: It’s a little easier with Galician. Instagram is great just for seeing what’s being published. There are a lot of people that I’ve already read and are publishing more books, so that’s easy. Something I’ve realised as a bookseller is that I want to read everything that comes out. When people are talking about a book on Twitter, they tend to get really excited about things … but are they still excited about it six months later? That’s how you start to see what’s standing out versus what’s just hot in the moment.

JS: I like your method of waiting six months, because maybe by then the hype will have calmed down and you’re not having to elbow your way between other translators to get on this book. It’s such an unpleasant feeling to fall in love with the book and find out someone’s already working on it.

JR: That’s a rather rare experience in Galician.

KW: It happens a lot in Spanish. It can be a complicated part of the work. Julia, you mentioned the sexy moment translation is having. Do you think that’s going to result in more money paid to translators?

JS: It depends on the publisher. There’s no standard. I’ve managed to get a US publisher, a big US publisher, to pay me like three times what a small UK publisher pays me. But that feels like a one-off.

KA: I think part of the problem is that there’s no standardisation, but also there’s very little understanding of what goes into a translation. If you ask most people, they think, well, you just sit and put what they said in the one language into a different language, you put your fingers onto the keyboard and you’re done. Obviously, it’s not as easy as saying, oh, well this word means that, so just plug it in and you’re off.

JS: Sometimes we never know what to ask for until we’re deep in the project and we realise, oh God, this is so much harder in all of these ways, and I absolutely need more support. To your point, Kristen, I actually do think people know what goes into literary translation, especially indie publishers. I don’t think that it can be used as an excuse anymore.

KA: True. A lot of indie publishers have had personal experience with translation, whereas some of the bigger groups, they just have no idea.

JS: Literary translation happens in so many different places, and often they do know what goes into it, but often don’t have the budgets. Or if they do have the budget because they’re a bigger publisher, they get top-down orders not to spend it on this. I think people know what we do now is more of an art, or at least they know better than they did twenty years ago.

KW: And that note – translation as an art – is a lovely place to end. Kudos to you all, great luck with your next projects and thanks so much for joining me. I really appreciate the conversation.

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