Selfishness and Process

Selfishness and Process: Translating Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s «Pajarito»

by Lily Meyer

Good writing and good translation are, of course, not ultimately different. I want my translations to be fluid, elegant, snappy, captivating—all the same traits I strive for in fiction. But the processes are deeply un-alike. Translation requires a unique form of compromise. It asks the translator to be both selfish and self-abnegating.

Ulloa Donoso, Claudia. Little Bird, translated from the Spanish by Lily Meyer. Deep Vellum Publishing, July 2021, $14.95, 112 pages. ISBN 978-1-6460-5065-9

Let me begin with a promise. This will be, by the end, a craft essay, or a description of one approach to translation craft. First, though, I want to talk about selfishness—a human trait I don’t necessarily condemn. I would say I’m pro-selfishness, to a point. Very few people are genuinely selfless, and, as far as I can tell, those who are come by it naturally. It seems to me that, for the rest of us, it makes more sense to admit to our self-involvement and then do our best to make ethical, productive use of it than it does to bend over backward denying it exists. Selfishness, when properly wrangled, is a tool.

I point this out because translation can seem selfless, especially to non-translators. Certainly, the old-school image of the translator is that of a vanishing self, somebody who erases their own traces from the text. I have written elsewhere about how impossible that idea seems to me, and how unproductive I find it. To me, it is incumbent on translators to identify our good and bad selfishnesses, then banish the latter and make use of the former.

I began teaching myself to translate fiction for three selfish reasons: one good, one neutral, and one bad. First, I’m a fiction writer, and, during my MFA, I decided I might be able to improve my craft by rewriting other people’s stories. (Nobody will ever persuade me that translation is not a form of rewriting.) Second, I was living in Norwich, England, a basically monolingual place where I was convinced my Spanish, which I had worked very hard through high school and college to learn, was going to wither and die. Third, I was nurturing the first seeds of what would become a novel critiquing American interventionism in Chile during the Cold War, and I felt some kind of hazy responsibility to translate books from the region I wanted to write about.

This third idea, clearly, was terrible. It was 22-year-old noblesse-oblige bullshit, and it vanished when I became self-aware enough to realize that my novel project was about examining the infinite moral troubles and pitfalls of white American identity. My second idea—that life in Norwich would kill my Spanish—made essentially zero sense. Norwich might not be linguistically diverse, but the University of East Anglia, where I was a graduate student, is. Finding language practice wasn’t hard. That leaves the first idea: translation would make me a better writer. I still consider this selfish, but not unproductively so. After all, it turned out to be true.

Good writing and good translation are, of course, not ultimately different. I want my translations to be fluid, elegant, snappy, captivating—all the same traits I strive for in fiction. But the processes are deeply un-alike. Translation requires a unique form of compromise. It asks the translator to be both selfish and self-abnegating. Sometimes, good translation means asserting that you know best; other times, it means admitting you don’t know shit. Both skills are vital. Neither is easy. Had I understood, when I was first flirting with translation, that I would need to learn to mix the two, I probably would have ditched the whole idea.

I almost abandoned it anyway. After finishing grad school in Norwich, I moved back to Washington, D.C., my hometown, and set up a chaotic life. I had four roommates, three part-time jobs, and two less-than-boyfriends. I wrote poorly and translated rarely. Then, through dumb luck, I stumbled on the Peruvian-Norwegian writer Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s collection Pajarito, which compelled me instantly. I have no better explanation. Her stories are brief, elusive, and hallucinatory in their oddness. They bear no resemblance to any fiction I have ever tried to write. On my first several readings, I couldn’t identify a single craft principle I might borrow from them, since I had no idea how the hell they worked. I didn’t care. I loved them, and I was desperate to translate them. It was a new kind of selfishness: I wanted to make this weird, magical collection mine.

I should pause here for some clarifications. First, I’m not a monster. I hoped to collaborate with Claudia, not steal her work. Also, I was—rightly—convinced that I wasn’t good enough. How could I have been? I was self-taught, minimally experienced, basically clueless. But I was also obsessed enough to improve. I spent months refining a draft of the collection’s seven-page title story, then sent it to Claudia’s Chilean publisher, Libros del Laurel. Emailing them terrified me. When their editor-in-chief wrote back to say she’d liked the translation and would gladly introduce me to Claudia, my first impulse was to hide under my bed. Instead, I set up a Skype date. Claudia and I liked each other instantly, and, with her permission, I set out to translate the rest of Pajarito.

Earlier, I wrote that translation requires compromise. I didn’t clarify where or when that compromise happens. I know this is different for every translator, and depends on project and context, but at a guess, I’d say I do 90 percent of my compromising inside my own head. In the first months I spent working on PajaritoLittle Bird, in English—I know it was 100 percent. I was petrified to show Claudia bad drafts; I was convinced that if I did, I’d screw up our working relationship. I didn’t want to make her lose trust in me, and so I only showed her hyper-polished translations that barely needed feedback, then accepted every single suggestion she made.

Slowly, I realized how backward this was. If I wanted Claudia to trust me, then why was I refusing to let her in on my process? Why wasn’t I asking for help when I needed it? Why was I spending hours combing through WordReference discussion boards instead of texting or emailing to ask what a turn of phrase meant? I was being selfish, and not in a productive way. Because I was frightened, I was refusing to be vulnerable, and thereby letting my ego get in the way of our collaboration. I was concentrating too hard on seeming like a good translator, and not hard enough on being one.

So I let go. I learned to ask questions, to send Claudia drafts with bits of text marked don’t like this yet or no idea what to do here or help?? Along the way, though, I turned my former obstinacy into a translation process rooted in self-compromise. I translated every passage in Little Bird three ways. Option 1 was a more-or-less literal translation. Option 2 was the English text adjusted to capture the original’s mood as precisely as possible, even if that meant making significant changes. Option 3 was the text written in the way that sounded most natural to me. Once I had my versions, I mixed and matched. I negotiated. Whenever I felt tempted to use an Option 2 or 3 phrase in my final draft, I made myself justify it. Sometimes, my Option 2 changes were just too big; other times, comparing them to Options 1 and 3 revealed how necessary they were. Often, my Option 3 changes came from personal preference or habit, and didn’t serve the story; occasionally, though, they helped me create tone, amplify voice, or generate flickers of linguistic interest that matched the sound or spirit of the original. When that happened, I went with it. I knew I was choosing my own style, but I also knew I wasn’t doing so reflexively. I was making aesthetic selfishness into a tool.

I no longer use this process strictly—you would not believe how long it takes. Still, I am grateful I developed it. Self-compromising taught me how to translate, and it taught me my own style. It forced me to identify and understand even my smallest writing preferences, tics, and habits. Some were easy: I write dialogue and first-person narration using contractions because I speak in contractions. Spanish doesn’t contract verbs the way English does, and so my Option 1 translations were full of phrases like I do not, I cannot, and I have been. I would only say cannot if I wanted to be dramatic, and Little Bird is, tonally, a drama-free collection. Even at major plot moments—a woman pulling a gun in her workplace; a job candidate releasing a bird from her pocket mid-interview—, Claudia opts for laconic, understated prose, which creates productive tension between narrative and event. In English, I realized, I could amplify that tension by using contractions in even freighted moments. They helped me reproduce her work’s dampened mood.

Other habits were trickier for me to understand. Sentence structure was, possibly, my biggest difficulty in translating Little Bird. In my own fiction, I naturally write medium-long, digressive, comma-heavy sentences. I use lots of subclauses. I love em-dashes. My narrators often interrupt themselves to qualify or contradict their own statements, which makes sense: I come from a family of interrupters. In fact, I come from a culture of interrupters. According to the linguist Deborah Tannen, Jews from the northeastern United States—so Jews like me—are very prone to what Tannen kindly calls “cooperative overlapping.” We express enthusiasm, empathy, and solidarity by talking along with each other. My prose style replicates this conversational effect.

But cooperative overlapping has no business influencing Little Bird. To start, the collection is largely about life in Norway, which is very culturally different from East Coast Jewish life. (Cultural self-awareness, needless to say, is bedrock-level vital to translation.) Also, it is, overall, a quiet, peaceful collection, not a cacophonous one. Its most social stories revolve around silent companionship. Nearly all the rest have protagonists who feel lonely, isolated, or alienated from their surroundings. Many struggle to initiate conversation. My interruption-influenced syntax, which sounds so right to me, is completely wrong for Little Bird.

Consider “A Writer’s Pastimes,” in which an unhappy novelist decides to reinvent his life. In Spanish, it opens,

He decidido dejar de escribir. Desde que mis libros están en todas las librerías del país vivo solo y me emborracho; mi comida sale siempre de una lata y fumo más que nunca. Algunos creen que este tipo de vida que llevo me hace bohemia, más atractivo, y hasta me ayuda a vender más libros, pero la verdad es que soy solo un miserable.

My final translation of this passage has five sentences, where the original has three. It has no semicolon and significantly fewer commas. It reads:

I’ve decided to stop writing. My books are in every bookstore in the country, but I live alone and I drink too much. I eat out of cans, and I smoke more than ever. Some people might find this bohemian. They might think it helps me pick up women, or sell books, but the truth is, I’m a sad son of a bitch.

Strictly speaking, my restructuring of this passage isn’t faithful to the text. (Cue communal eye-roll at the concept of fidelity in translation.) But adding periods slows the passage down, which creates emotional drag. Claudia achieves that effect by using many small words, but that’s easier to do in Spanish than in English. I needed a different tactic, and syntax worked. Adding periods also creates pauses, which let the reader imagine the narrator sighing, or getting distracted, or trailing off. Breaking these sentences up makes him seem less eager to tell his story than a more headlong kind of syntax—the kind I naturally prefer—would.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that my final translation was Option 2: the text adjusted to prioritize tone and mood. Option 3 would have looked more like this:

I’ve decided to stop writing. My books are in every bookstore in the country, but I live alone, I drink too much, I only eat out of cans, and I chain-smoke—which may seem bohemian to some people, or sexy, or good for book sales, but here’s the truth: I’m a sad son of a bitch.

See? He sounds too proud of how shitty his life is. He seems excited to describe his terrible lifestyle. My natural syntax turns this narrator from depressed to self-pitying. It’s no good.

Learning to negotiate with my previously-unconscious stylistic tendencies was vital for me as a translator. It made me a better writer, too. All the self-analysis required for effective self-compromise helped me modulate tone, voice, and character on the page. Learning to selectively erase myself from translations helped me erase bits of myself from my fiction, too. It made me a better, more conscientious reader and critic. Maybe it even made me less selfish—hard to say, but I can tell you this: it taught me to interrupt less.

Lily Meyer is a writer, translator, and critic from Washington, D.C. Her short translations have appeared in the Brooklyn RailContra VientoElectric LiteratureJoylandLatin American Literature TodayMAKE, and Tin House. She is a Ph.D. candidate in fiction at the University of Cincinnati. Little Bird is her first full-length translation.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, June 22, 2021

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