Lisa Dillman is the translator of one of the more celebrated authors to come along in English translation in recent years. I speak of course of Yuri Herrera, the author of the best-selling Signs Preceding the End of the World, as well as the two other books in a loose “trilogy” with Signs, The Transmigration of Bodies and Kingdom Cons. All three are published by And Other Stories, with Kingdom Cons just appearing earlier this month.
Lisa has been very greatly (and rightly) acclaimed for her translations of these books, which require a great degree of inventiveness on the part of a translator—Herrera’s Spanish is highly idiosyncratic, often coining new words and finding very creative uses for old ones. In addition, Herrera’s sentence structure, imagery, and means of storytelling very distinctive and original, all things that make his books challenging to bring into English.
In addition to her work with Herrera, Lisa’s work with the Spanish novelist Andrés Barba has received much acclaim lately. Although Barba is a very different writer from Herrera, his prose is also very challenging to accurately render in English. Again, Lisa has proven herself a wonderful translator with her English-language renditions of short novels like August, October (Hispabooks), of which I myself wrote “one is tempted to call August, October flawless,” and the much-praised, recently released Such Small Hands (Transit Books). Lisa will also release her translation of Barba’s The Right Intention in 2018, again with Transit Books, and Death of a Horse in August of this year with Hispabooks.
Lisa teaches in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Emory University, and she received the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for for her translation of Signs Preceding the End of the World.
I recently corresponded with Lisa on her translations of these writers to find out more about her work with them, as well as what is upcoming for these and other writers she translates. Below is our conversation.
Scott Esposito: Can you tell us a bit about your first experiences with Herrera’s work and how you came to translate it?
Lisa Dillman: I discovered Herrera purely by chance, and thanks entirely to a good friend, translator Katie Silver. She translates Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Horacio had recommended Yuri while he was at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. Katie didn’t have time to do a sample and asked if I’d be interested. I will be forever grateful.
SE: You’ve previously written about the great amount of density present in Herrera’s novels, going so far as to say that he can even pack very much into individual words. Did you feel that Herrera was significantly more challenging to translate than other authors you’ve worked with? Did you approach change in any particular way to deal with his kind of writing?
LD: In a word: yes. Next question? (“lordy,” she’s hilarious, this woman!). However, I genuinely feel that every translation is (really freaking) hard it its own way, even if it’s non-fiction, an instruction manual. Lots of texts require huge amounts of background research. Lots require amassing knowledge in a certain field. Every text presents its own series of challenges, but Herrera’s are usually far more nuanced. I am trying to think about whether I feel my approach changed per se. Translators have a bag of tricks (i.e. a collection of strategies) to employ in projects, and the salient characteristics of each text determine which ones you rely on more. So with Herrera, for instance, I don’t do much background reading, which I do do for historical fiction. Nor do I try to read as much as I can that involves characters who speak with a particular accent or type of argot, because his speak in a range of registers. There is no single grounded “event” (e.g. the Spanish Civil War) or time period or even locale in which I try to imbue myself. More of my time is dedicated to trying to track down terms and etymologies and come up with ways to make small incursions into the English language that will communicate a tone. For example, Yuri tends to spell the word for “bones” (“huesos”) as “güesos.. This is a phonetic “misspelling” that I see as a sign of affection. It’s noticeable but doesn’t shout “look at me!” If I were to use “bonz” as its translation, it would ring false, corny, too attention-seeking. So much of the hard part is thinking about compensations. What can I do to produce a similar effect? In a nutshell, I suppose what I’m saying is that translating Herrera requires a lot more literary creativity.
SE: I wanted to ask if you could talk about a particular translation choice you made; namely in Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, you rendered “jarchar” into “to verse,” which has always struck me as a beautiful bit of literary translation. Could you explain how Herrera got to “jarchar” and how you got it to “verse” (and any reaction to your decision on Herrera’s part)?
LD: What Herrera does in his writing is apply a kind of linguistic inclusivity that embraces not only popular language but also archaism, neologism, and more. What makes it so wonderful is that there’s no hierarchy: slang, innovation, classical, all thrown together in a way that comes off as natural. And the verb jarchar is definitely a much-discussed neologism. Jarchar comes from jarchas (or kharjas), the word used to describe the ending of certain 13th-century poems, which were written in a woman’s voice, melancholic, and in Mozarabic, a language in transition that would eventually become Spanish. In a sense they were kind of a bridge from Arabic to Spanish, something in transition. “Jarchar” in the context of Signs means “to leave” but it simultaneously nods to all of these other things.
For me, getting to “verse” as the English translation of “jarchar” was a long process, a question of many many months of brainstorming. I just opened up a document from a talk I gave with Yuri after having completed the translation and at that point I was debating “twained,” “ported,” and “versed.” I’d been trying to decide between the first two when “versed” suddenly occurred to me. No matter what the word was, there were multiple critical things that had to be taken into account. One big one is that there wasn’t any logical way to signal Arabic, since it has nothing to do with the evolution of English. So even if I could have come up with a word with an Arabic root, it wouldn’t have served the same function; i.e., acting as a bridge between English and its prior articulations. That being the case, I felt that there definitely had to be an additional element of polysemy not necessarily included in the original, some way in which the English signaled multiple things. So “twain,” for instance, comes from middle English (i.e., the origins of our language), is hardly used anymore, means “two” (which could signal being between two things (or more than one thing at a time)), is a noun that I’d be morphing into a verb, and also calls to mind Mark Twain, an iconic storyteller. There was another connection, too, but I can’t recall what it was. (You end up doing endless research as part of the process of translation, and it’s impossible to remember it all). At any rate, when I finally thought of “verse” it seemed more fitting, more just. I like the fact that it is a noun referring directly to poetry, since jarchas were poetic refrains, that it’s used as a verb which forms part of things involving motion (traverse, something Makina does on her journey) as well as change (inverse) and unity (universe). I also like that it doesn’t call to mind the Anglo world, as do even oblique references to middle English and Mark Twain. As far as Herrera’s reaction goes, I’ve only ever heard him say positive things about it. He has, from day one, been remarkably generous, willing to discuss anything at all, open and supportive.
SE: Having lived in Mexico for a little over a year and learned my Spanish there, I’m aware that Mexico has its own very elaborate, colorful version of Spanish, and some of these words cut very deep to the heart of Mexican identity. Could you tell us about some of the particularly Mexican Spanish that Herrera makes use of?
LD: As far as Mexican Spanish goes, there are words that are readily identifiable, things like “bato” (which Herrera spells with a “b” rather than a “v”), “gabacho,” “cuate,” and “chambear,” and then there is also more nuanced and subtly infused language, which I suppose is only natural. Things like “le,” the third-person indirect object pronoun, being used on the end of verbs. We stereotypically think of “ándele” as an example but it gets used a lot more than that. To me, to my ear, Herrera shows a lot of real affection for both language itself and its users in his Mexicanisms. Even in tough-guy dialogue, there’s an affection for the language present. For instance at the start of Kingdom Cons, Lobo meets the Jeweler, who tells him who’s who and then says: “—No diga que se lo dije, colega, no hay que hacer chismes. Aquí la cosa es llevarse bien con todos y le va bien. Como ahorita, usté y yo ya nos hicimos amigos, qué no.” (“But don’t say I said so, amigo,” the Jeweler went on, “no gossip allowed. Way it works here is, you make nice with the pack, you’ll do fine. Like you and me right now, we just made friends, right?”) With the exception of “qué no,” there’s not much here that screams “Mexican Spanish!” and yet the whole thing is suffused with this linguistic warmth that derives, as I see it, from an accumulation of little things: calling Lobo “colega,” using “chismes,” in the plural, “ahorita” in the diminutive, and most definitely the phonetic spelling of “usted.” I hope that makes sense. So what I’d say is that the use of explicit Mexicanisms coupled with less explicit things yields the genuine-ness of expression. I hope that makes sense.
SE: It absolutely makes sense—I can definitely see how these little things are coded as “Mexican,” and I can even picture them being used in conversation. I wanted to also ask you what’s coming up with Herrera. With the release of Kingdom Cons this month, Herrera’s loose “trilogy” of the border regions between Mexico and the U.S. is now complete in English. But given the amazing reception of these titles in both the Spanish- and English-speaking worlds, I can’t imagine that this is the end for Herrera. What is next for you and him?
LD: It’s been so wonderful, how well Herrera has been received. Gives me more hope for the world, quite honestly, since he’s such an empathic writer. No, this is certainly not the end for Herrera. I presume he’ll continue to write novels, although I don’t tend to ask anyone this, as it seems like the writer’s equivalent of my least favorite grad school question (“So, how’s the thesis going?”). I do know he’s written several stories and that he is interested in science fiction. I’ve translated a few of them thus far. One came out in World Literature Today and one in the Chattahoochee Review. I’ll work with him forever if I can, because it’s the most rewarding experience. As far as what’s next for me, this summer I’m co-translating another Eduardo Halfon book with Danny Hahn, and after that I’ve got nothing in the pipeline so if anyone wants to offer me an amazing project, I’m available!
SE: I also wanted to ask about another writer of much renown that you’ve translated, the Spaniard Andrés Barba. Barba is quite a masterful writer in his own right, although his prose is so different from Herrera’s: it’s much more naturalistic, akin to what sometimes goes by the name of “realism,” and without the pyrotechnics of Herrera, even if the writing is utterly exquisite, leading to an impact that can be just as profound as Herrera’s, or even more so. What are some of the challenges of translating Barba, and how do they differ from Herrera?
LD: With Barba the challenges tend to be very concrete. One is that he rarely uses subject pronouns, and has long, flowing, multi-clause sentences. So, for instance, in Death of a Horse, you have the main character (who is nameless), a kid and a horse. In one section, I remember, each of them does multiple things, but of course you can’t say, “He looked and him and then glanced over at him, although he was turned toward him, and he wondered why he didn’t say what he was thinking, or why he didn’t move.” I often have to write to him and say, “On page 74, when it says ‘he looked at him,’ is the main character looking at the horse, or is the horse looking at the main character?” Additionally, syntax and sentence structure are really intricate in Barba’s writing, and it’s hard to find the right balance. I don’t like to divide long sentences, so there is a lot of tinkering to find ways to keep them and yet still try to achieve what sounds like a natural flow from clause to clause.
SE: Your most recent translation of Barba is the short novel Such Small Hands, which I believe is the first book from the new translation press, Transit Books. I understand that you first read this book 10 years ago, and felt a very strong desire to translate it. Can you tell us a little about why this story so compelled you and how you ultimately came to publish it with Transit?
LD: Such Small Hands is the first book from Transit, and I’m so so grateful that Ashley [Nelson levy] and Adam [Levy] saw in it what I did because Barba is an amazing author. I discovered his work by chance. I was browsing in a bookstore in Madrid over a decade ago and saw a book by this incredibly young writer—I think he was 28 at the time—about three women: a girl with developmental problems, her sister, who is a stripper, and her mother, who is a prostitute. And I thought, “Right. As if this ‘dude’ is going to be able to write three convincing female voices.” But he did. I was blown away. Then I read Such Small Hands and realized he was no one-trick pony. And Such Small Hands was so compelling that I couldn’t not translate it. So despite having no contract and no interest, I just did it. And sent it to everyone I could think of. People kept saying it was too dark, but it’s not. As Andrés himself says, in many senses, it’s a love story. At any rate, the translation sat around unpublished until Transit came along. And now they’re bringing out another of his books in the fall! Happy ending.