The Literary Tourist Interviews Lisa Dillman

Lisa Dillman has translated numerous books, including Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, which won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award, and several books by Andrés Barba. Barba’s novella Such Small Hands tells the haunting story of a young girl who loses her parents in a car accident and is sent to an orphanage for girls.

Andrea Gregovich: I was so touched by Such Small Hands because the young girls’ voices felt so authentic. Your translator’s note touched on the same thought I had as I was reading: how did this male author capture the painful internal world of orphaned girls so exquisitely? Do you get a sense of this from meeting him?

Lisa Dillman: I’ve known Andrés for almost ten years now, and honestly, I’m not sure if meeting him formed or changed this opinion or not. What I’d say is that meeting him gave me a glimpse of the intensity with which he attacks all of his literary projects, which involve creating mind-bogglingly authentic voices, whether they be of a woman with Alzheimer’s, a fourteen-year-old boy, or a group of seven-year-old girls. But I still have no idea how he does it, how he gets inside that psyche. It’s not that he recreates the speech patterns of his characters, but their mindsets, their feelings. And though I now know him fairly well, how he does that is a mystery to me.

AG: As I read for this column, I try to look for places where I can detect that the book was translated—I find these end up being the interesting points to talk about. With this book, though, I was prone to forgetting it was translated. It mostly felt written (and beautifully) in English, which I think points to both the original composition and your artful translation. At the risk of asking you to toot your own horn, what do you think is at the root of this translation’s lovely prose?

LD: Well, first, thank you. Translators are notoriously uncomfortable with horn-tooting, and I’m no exception. But there are two things I could say. One is that it’s often easy to detect where a work is translated for cultural reasons, i.e. it’s embedded in a particular history or geography or dialect. And this book has none of those things. Interestingly, with the exception of a passing reference to Disneyland Paris, there is not a single geographical location, nor any indication of time period or country of origin, and the girls’ language is relatively unmarked. So that helps.

But what’s at the root of the translation’s lovely prose is, I hope, the original’s lovely prose. What marks Barba’s writing the most, in my opinion, is the way his sentences flow, clause after clause, not in what is fairly common Spanish hypotaxis with endless “comma-which” and then a new subordination making the antecedent harder and harder to identify. Instead, Barba’s long sentences create an evocative dreamlike rhythm. One specific strategy I’ve used to try to keep that same ethereal feeling is—perhaps surprisingly—adding a comma. Here’s an example: “It was as if, in a short space of time, we had all become aware of so many things, and they were sad, those things, so different from multiplication tables, from learning c from k, from our natural science book.” In the original, it’s “and they were sad those things”, because Spanish has much more flexible word order. I could have changed the word order and said, “those things were sad” but feel leaving the “things” after the verb creates a more delicate, trancelike tone in my view, one that more reflects the tone of the original.

AG: One translation issue that did strike me was the girls talking about the well-known tongue-twister: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” I’m thinking this the original tongue twister was something too rooted in the Spanish to translate, correct? I always find changing something like this so precarious—I’ve got this fear of dragging in cultural baggage from English.

LD: I completely agree. It’s one of many things that I, and probably most translators, agonize over in just about every translation. Luckily Andrés himself suggested the woodchucks so this was an easy one.

AG: What was the original tongue-twister and how would it have translated literally?

LD: The Spanish tongue twister is:

Compadre, cómpreme un coco. Compadre, coco no compro porque el que poco coco come, poco coco compra, y como poco coco como, poco coco compro.

Which translates to:

Friend, buy me a coconut. Friend, I don’t buy coconut because one who little coconut eats, little coconut buys, and as I eat little coconut, little coconut do I buy.

AG: There were so many moments of beautiful poetry and poignant detail in this book. Here’s one of the passages I underlined, about a line this girl repeats like a mantra:

“My father died instantly and then my mother died in the hospital.”

But the cadence of the words had changed now. They were like an accusation, a shameful secret, something that flowered just below the skin’s surface, like a swamp plant; now the words were moist, now they grew. The other girls’ existence made it impossible for her to inhabit the suburbs of the words.

Do you find yourself thinking like a poet when you choose words and craft syntax? I don’t think all translators necessarily do.

LD: Well, I certainly find myself thinking constantly about sound and rhythm. And about ways to maintain a certain tone over the course of long sentences. I very rarely translate “actual” poetry, but with writers like Andrés and Yuri Herrera it’s clear that their prose is strikingly poetic, that the style can’t be divorced from the meaning, that the style is another form of meaning, of signifying.

AG: How is the meaning signified by style different from the meaning signified by words?

LD: All I mean to say, really, is that style is constituent of meaning, not necessarily a different meaning, but an element that in stylistic prose can be (and in my opinion is) as critical (as “meaningful” if you will) as that signified by words’ denotation.

AG: Back to the passage about the words growing moist, a coincidence: This is the second book in a row in which I’ve noticed the word “moist”, both times used in poetic passages where I suspect it wasn’t the only possible word choice for the translator. The other instance was in an Arabic novel from Saudi Arabia, in which the desert after a good rain had a “moist glow”. I’m asking that translator about moist, and would love to compare answers: How did you decide on moist here instead of, say, damp or wet?

LD: Well, at risk of this reply being a letdown, I’ll say a couple of things. First, I translated this book years ago, so recalling the reasons for specific word choices, with few exceptions, is hard. But you got me curious, so I opened up a few different draft files from 2009 and 2010 and they all have “moist”, which means it wasn’t something I was debating. My guess would be two-fold: one, Spanish has another word for “wet” (“mojado”). And second, “húmedo” is both “moist” and “humid”, but “humid” doesn’t strike me as very suggestive, very redolent. Perhaps because I live in the South, it just strikes me as the unbearable summer!

AG: I noticed Barba likes the stylistic choice of intentional sentence fragments. For example:

Sometimes the words came slowly, rolling in from afar. As if they had chosen her, rather than she having chosen them. A strange homecoming, these words, a strange return to the things that made home. Fragrant. The words take on dimension, shooting upward and outward, making the air thick. Becoming something, becoming a thing.

Are fragments a common choice for this author, or are they part of how he crafts the point of view of little girls? Are sentence fragments more grammatically tolerated in Spanish than they are in English?

LD: This is a great question! Fragments are definitely more common and more tolerated in Spanish in general, though perhaps not to the degree that Andrés uses them. But often, even in less risk-taking prose, fragments are used as a way of adding a commentary, like a tag. Something additional. (See what I did there? J) One of my students just finished a brilliant thesis, in which he translated a Gothic Carlos Fuentes story, and during his defense, an English professor asked about a fragment because he found it jarring in the English. Our tendency as translators is to imitate the syntax of the original, but fragments have a different effect in Spanish, they’re far more accepted. At any rate, Andrés uses them a lot more than many writers, and it’s more part of his style than an intent to capture Marina’s voice.

AG: The book’s point of view alternates in each chapter from Marina to a collective “we” that speaks for the rest of the girls in the orphanage. I thought these voices were stylistically different—Marina’s voice seemed vague and dissociated, while the girls’ shared voice took more of a sing-song storytelling approach. How did these voices come across to you in the original?

LD: Yes, Andrés himself has talked about this, about the way the girls’ single voice serves as a Greek chorus; they explain, provide readers with a glimpse into the psychological workings of their minds, and I agree that stylistically they are different. For me, though, they often felt sort of stentorian. “It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls. They used to say: do this, do that, and we did it, we turned our hands, we drew, we laughed; they called us the faithful city, the enchanting city.” In my head, I hear that as somber. But that’s what I love about literature—we all interpret it individually. So you hearing it as singsong I take as something quite positive, as a sign that it works on more than one level.

AG: Where does this book fit into Barba’s body of work?

LD: It’s one of his earlier novels. I fell in love with it as soon as I read it and had wanted (badly!) to get it published since that time, which is why it took so long—i.e. the rights to it had not been bought yet when I did it. But although it’s almost ten years old, it fits in perfectly with his contemporary books as well, in that it delves deep into the psyche of misunderstood (or unexamined) characters. Andrés is also fascinated with childhood, and has a new book coming out this year that will revisit the childhood psyche.

AG: You talk about the perils of translating on spec in your translator’s note, which struck a chord with me. I taught myself to translate with spec projects and still have a backlog of wonderful ones, but I agree, they’re completely impractical and riddled with frustrations! What is it about this book that compelled you to take it on with no guarantees of publisher or payment? And why is it that we can’t resist putting ourselves through such headaches with our spec pieces?

LD: Well, I might not have done it if it were 500 pages. And despite the fact that this translation has a very happy ending—I love you Transit!!—I would likely not do it again. I went through years of heartache, sending out letters that received no reply or a cursory rejection. I’ve had friends who did pieces on spec only to have the rights bought by publishers who then commissioned other translators. And years ago at least twice I fell in love with books that then got translated someone else. But now that there are so many more really great independent publishers, I also think there’s far more possibility of riskier projects getting taken on, and that’s a wonderful thing.

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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