The Literary Tourist Interviews Christina MacSweeney

Christina MacSweeney

The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about books newly released in translation. This month, Andrea Gregovich interviews Christina MacSweeney. MacSweeney is an acclaimed translator of Latin American literature, best known for her translations of three novels by Valeria Luiselli, including The Story of My Teeth (Coffee House Press, 2015), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle and Best Translated Book Awards, and won the Los Angeles Times Prize for Best Fiction and the Azul Prize in Canada. Her most recent translation is A Zero Sum Game, an insightful political dystopia that is the debut novel from Mexican writer, editor, and translator Eduardo Rabasa.

Andrea Gregovich: I was immediately intrigued by this novel when I discovered an epigraph of Radiohead lyrics at the beginning of Part One. It was a hook for me, an indicator that this writer is my contemporary, and an invitation for me to relate more personally to what goes on in the book. Did the prominent Radiohead reference give you any hints as to how to approach the book? And did you make sense of why Rabasa chose these particular lyrics from “A Wolf at the Door”?

Christina MacSweeney: I had the same sensation when I first read the epigraph; as a Radiohead fan, it was like an invitation to go on reading. When I asked Eduardo about the song, he told me it had in some way been an inspiration for Villa Miserias, the residential estate in which the novel is set. I seem to remember that one of the characters—the artist, Bramsos—was based on Thom Yorke. The song also expresses the atmosphere of Villa Miserias, and I listened to it often while writing certain sections of the translation. So, yes, it did influence my approach to the novel.

AG: The way this novel’s story works is fascinating—a community with both intense political machinations and drug-addled gang warfare. There’s this violent drug war in the neighborhood and it’s narrated with the same dispassionate, almost absurdly journalistic language as the politics of the residence committee. There was one passage where this really struck me: “Each gang accused the other of cutting their wares with fertilizer and powdered gelatin. Stories of blindness and other secondary effects were rife. Consumer confidence plummeted.” These local-level committee politics also seem to take over everyone’s lives with their ideological platitudes and campaign propaganda (with certain candidates) and mafia-style manipulations (with other candidates). I feel like there’s so much implicit social commentary about Mexico just below the surface in this book that I’m not quite savvy enough to understand. Can you illuminate some of it?

CM: I think that dispassionate tone heightens the awareness of some of the ghastly situations described in the book. For instance, when Maso, the drug dealer, recounts how he made a living in his street-kid days rolling around on shards of glass in the metro, he does so without a hint of self-pity; and nor does he express the least remorse for the results of his activities in Villa Miserias. This, for me, as a reader, prevents me from relating to him in a way that might otherwise be sentimentalized.

the-story-of-my-teethAnd yes, social commentary is a very strong element of the novel, but it’s not confined to the Mexican context; in fact, it could be set just about anywhere in the world. The example you quote of the drug wars between rival groups is not so different to the cutthroat competition between, let’s say, multinational companies. In terms of political critique, then the main target is neoliberalism and its inherent contradictions, the way in which this discourse can and is used to justify and maintain inequalities. Another thread that runs through the novel, and one I found disturbing, has to do with the concept of charity, or charitable giving: although this is dealt with in a way that is at times hilarious, you see the hierarchies with society replicated through charity, with those at the bottom being kept there by the very schemes supposedly designed to help them. But all this exists outside Mexico too, and Eduardo was careful never to actually state where the novel is set.

AG: One of my favorite things about the art of translation is the challenge of creating a style in English that reflects the style in the original language. I don’t think the general public understands how challenging this is. How would you describe Rabasa’s style in Spanish? And how did you go about stylistically recreating it in translation?

CM: I’m not sure I really like trying to categorize an author’s style, it’s made up of a conglomerate of so many different elements. Eduardo has translated works by Orwell into Spanish, and that influence can definitely be seen in terms of the political content. But A Zero Sum Game is, like so much contemporary fiction, a polyphonic novel, so the story is told by a wide variety of voices, from contrasting angles. When it comes to translation, then, my main aim is to listen to those voices and try to carry them over into English. So what I’m trying to do is hear the different rhythms and tempos in the text, its music, the registers of language… I suppose I start by ‘writing myself into’ the characters, finding their voices as I go along, and there comes a point where I (hopefully) feel I’ve got it, and then the translation can kind of follow its own logic. But it would be pointless to try to identify a single translation strategy: different parts of the text require different approaches.

AG: There was a moment as I was reading where I really wanted to high-five you, translator to translator, when a character says, “Jeez, Don Selon!” I was impressed with such a bold modern colloquial choice, “jeez” being just barely a word and striking me as so American it risks distracting from the Mexican essence of the book. But in fact you managed to strike the perfect chord with it. What was the word in Spanish, and how did you settle on “jeez”?

CM: Glad you liked the “Jeez”, Andrea! I was quite proud of that one. The interjection in Spanish was ‘híjole’ which is often translated as ‘Christ’ or ‘good God’, but I didn’t really see Orquídea (the character who uses the word) making such an overtly religious reference, so I finally went for something that blurs the boundaries. I also like the way you can elongate the ‘e’ sound: “Jeez, Don Selon” has its own kind of music. And as the novel is not essentially Mexican, or any other nationality, finding a term that I could hear coming out of the character’s mouth seemed the most important issue. The different characters in the novel have their individual verbal tics, so one of my tactics in constructing their voices was to make lists, and try to ensure I replicate those tics in the English.

AG: It’s interesting, my unconscious assumption was that this book was set in Mexico, whereas you’re telling me it’s intended to be non-country specific. I connected certain dots—Mexican author, characters with Spanish names, set in Villa Miserias apartments (instead of, say, Misery Condominiums, which would have completely changed the essence of the place)—and missed that I should read it as an international narrative. I find that there are a lot of conceptual problems like this that come up in literary translation—themes, metaphors, implicit cultural knowledge—that get misunderstood or overlooked by readers in translation, who are often coming to the book as literary tourists, so to speak. Do you run across problems like this a lot?

CM: I did think about Anglicizing the names in the novel, but finally decided that would set it firmly in an English-speaking world, which didn’t feel right either. But I like your idea of literary tourism: I think I’ve been one all my life, and there are so many parts of the world I’ve only ever visited in fiction. But at the risk of being relativist, I believe readers, whether they are reading something rooted in their native cultures or from another, bring their own experiences into the reading, and take different things from it. Literary texts work at many different levels, and it’s probably impossible to pick up on everything the author intended on a single reading. What I love about the process of translation is that you have to explore as many of those levels as you can.

among-strange-victimsAG: This book alternates between formal, bureaucratic narration and more casual dialogue, some of which is laced with colorful swear words. How do you feel about translating profanity? Do you have any favorite examples in this book?

CM: Yes, it was challenging to move between the different registers of language; there is everything from very formal, rather pompous legal documents to romantic poetry, with a whole range of colloquial language in between. And the expletives do create difficulties in translation into English: Mexican Spanish has a wonderfully rich vocabulary for insult, and that richness can easily be lost when you try to fit it into the usual ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’ of English. One expression that is very common in Mexico is ‘pinche’, which for me translates beautifully as ‘bloody’; however, when translating into American English, that expression has definite British overtones. The usual alternative would be ‘fucking’, but that can just end up being repetitive, so my solution has been to resurrect the word ‘frigging’, which slips nicely off the tongue. I’m hoping it will come back into fashion. I don’t personally have any problems with the use of expletives, so long as it’s not gratuitous. In this novel the main character, Max, is frequently attacked by the voices in his head: the language here is very strong as their aim is to destroy him, so it would certainly be wrong to dilute that in any way. One problem is that Mexican Spanish can at times seem somewhat misogynistic: ‘madre’ (mother) can be used in very negative contexts, as in “chingada madre’, which literally means ‘fucking mother’, but which I’ve translated as ‘frigging bastard’. I try to avoid replicating the ‘mother’ references unless I definitely feel misogyny is what the character is expressing. But mostly I really enjoy the creativity involved in translating colloquial language. For newly coined expressions, I often look at Twitter feeds in Spanish to get a feel of how they are being used, and work from there. But I do sometimes wonder what my browsing history would look like to an outsider!

AG: I love that you go to Twitter to keep an eye on newly minted phrases in Spanish. Since tweets have to be so short, I think people who use their languages cleverly find precise and colorful ways to express themselves on Twitter. Does Spanish have it own Twitter/texting shorthand that you know of (like OMG and SMH)? And do you have any other interesting places online you use as sources for new and interesting language trends, in Spanish or English?

CM: My forays into Twitter are pretty much limited to looking for particular phrases, so I’m no expert on text-speak in Spanish; I think mostly I’ve noticed abbreviations like ‘d’ for ‘de’ and ‘q’ for ‘que’, but there is a lot of inventive use of language. In terms of keeping up with new coinages in English, I do use urban slang sites, but mostly I think I just listen to people talking on the bus or train or whatever, plus I love listening to the radio, and pick up quite a lot from that.

AG: A character named Juana Mecha, head of the janitorial staff at the Villa Miserias apartments, has a tendency to speak in “enigmatic maxims” such as: “If you put everything in the wash together, the clothes lose their color” and “The speckled cock’s about to stretch its wings.” which are mostly ignored by the residents, but sometimes are interpreted as prophetic messages. How well do these maxims translate? Do they carry any cultural baggage that, as a reader not that well-versed in Mexican culture, I might miss?

CM: Juana’s maxims were problematic in the beginning: I remember checking with Eduardo in case I was completely misunderstanding them. But no, they might sound profound, but are in essence meaningless, and there are no overtly Mexican connotations involved: the ‘speckled cock’ could be found in any rural backyard. The problem then was one of trying to translate something that has no essential meaning, and so must have no meaning in the English, but sound like it might. After a while, I found it quite fun, but it was definitely something Eduardo and I discussed as I worked through the translation.

AG: Because a translator thinks deeply about every single word in a book like this, she really becomes one of the book’s leading experts. So as this book’s expert, why is it an important book?

a-zero-sum-gameCM: Thanks for the compliment! I agree, translators are wonderful readers, and the process on translation takes you much more deeply into a text than a simple reading. So why is this book important? For me, because it is an extremely honest novel that holds nothing back. It’s honest in relation to the characters, their motivations, their desires, and honest about the society in which we live and the ways in which we decry its injustices while all the while colluding in their reinforcement. I recently read Megan McDowell’s lovely translation of Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lágrimas and was deeply impressed by this question: How to depict honesty in this age of disenchantment? I believe Eduardo Rabasa’s clear-sighted look at the world in which we live gives us an inkling of how this might be done, and that seems important.

AG: When you have time to read for pleasure, what do you read? Do you read much in translation, and if so, what do you learn from examining the work of other translators?

CM: Much of my reading these days is related to my work as a translator, either in terms of things I’m asked to read and comment on, or my own desire to broaden my knowledge of Latin American literature. I was in Mexico City earlier this year, and had a great blitz on the secondhand bookstores in La Roma with the wonderful Mexican writer and visual artist Verónica Gerber Bicecci: one of my favorite buys was Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s Los pasos de López; it was first published in 1987, and is a brilliantly funny, irreverent portrayal of the Mexican revolution: I’d adore to translate it. I’ve always read a lot of translated literature, so I suppose I’ve been unconsciously learning from the world’s best translators most of my reading life. It’s such a wonderful moment when you realize just how beautifully or skillfully a translator has dealt with a text. However, it’s also important to keep reading in English, to see how authors are using language, what they are doing with it. I’m about to start on Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, and am very much looking forward to that. Plus Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen is sitting on my shelves, calling to me. I’ve also been reading quite a lot of essays recently, and would love to see the neglected genre receiving more attention.

Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator of Russian literature. Her first translated novel USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid was published by Fiction Advocate in 2014, and her translation of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Wake In Winter was recently released by Amazon Crossing. 

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