“…all the words that are running through my head.”
On emerging together and the intimacy of translation
by Michelle Mirabella
Translation is both a solitary and collective practice, and perhaps we need to hold both truths at once. My translations exist in conversation with the original and any other existing translation, which is quite the opposite of solitary, but is rather a chorus of voices…
I think often of the words I wrote while working through the draft of my first full-length manuscript: “…all the words that are running through my head.” This idea, pulled from my translation of Chilean author Catalina Infante Beovic’s story collection, describes either a side-effect or a necessary part of the translation process, at least for me. I find myself jolting awake in the middle of the night with a translation solution, pondering whether and how to foreignize a word while exercising, and rattling off quotes from my translations-in-progress when something someone says is the idiomatic solution I’ve been looking for. The words, in English and Spanish, are constantly running through my head. The act of translation feels so intimate to me, always humming in the background even while I’m otherwise engaged; it’s a relationship with the text developed over time. I spend hours, days, weeks, and now years engaged with a text and a body of work, poring over every word, exploring each and every corner, attempting to truly know it, to then commit to writing each of those words in English.
In the nascent days of my literary translation career, I had the idea that I should start my career with an author who was also recently starting to publish herself, so we could perhaps walk the path together. I was in the second semester of my master’s degree program in translation and interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies enrolled in a literary translation course co-taught by George Henson and Carles Andreu. The semester-long project was to find, translate, and prepare a literary piece for submission to a journal. This was February 2020, and most of the world, myself included, had not yet come to terms with the gravity of the situation we were facing. A close friend was getting married in Delhi and my professors were kind enough to work with me so that I could spend a week in India during the second half of February. So we went, never suspecting the magnitude of what was about to unfurl around the world. After several full days of celebrating the newlyweds in Delhi, four of us stuffed ourselves into a van to do some sightseeing before flying back to the states. Crammed into the backseat next to all the luggage, I was determined to make headway on the semester-long project before returning to campus. I began my research on up-and-coming women authors in Chile, where I’d lived from 2013 to 2016, and came across Catalina Infante Beovic and her story collection Todas somos una misma sombra (Neón Ediciones 2018). I couldn’t put it down. The collection, comprised of eight stories, features women as a collective protagonist, and I felt connected to those women, a part of that collective. At times I saw myself, or the author, or my friends, or women I’d never know—all of us. Some pieces of us were there, I couldn’t look away. I did not know it at the time, but that book would become my first full-length translation draft and the author a constant on this journey.
Before even getting into the stories, the title is what drew me. It spoke directly to me: todas somos. But how to recreate that in English? In Spanish, the phrase Todas somos una misma sombra refers specifically to women, relying on a simple inflectional morpheme at the end of the word tod-as to make immediately clear a thematic element of the collection’s narrative. English requires at least two words to say this: all women. And the second word, somos, means we are. So not only does the title speak directly to women, but it also seeks to include us, bring us into the fold. My working title translation of Todas somos una misma sombra is We Women are All One Shadow. I omit the word misma, or same in English, despite that decision potentially creating some loss, because in English saying that something is one and the same is a bit redundant instead of emphatic in the way it can read in Spanish. Sombra is translated as shadow, which reflects some of the darkness of the content in the collection and creates an opportunity to carry that shadowy thread throughout. The root somb- occurs numerous times throughout the book and appears in six of the collection’s eight stories. When the root appeared in the words sombra and sombrío/a, I choose to maintain that connection to shadow despite the availability of other translation options. For example, sombra can be translated as shade as well as shadow but given that shadow and darkness are themes that run throughout these stories, beginning with the title itself, I translate sombra as shadow or shadows in every occurrence. There were a number of places where sombra could have been translated as shade without this greater context, but I feel English should be challenged to carry this theme throughout the collection as the Spanish has done. Being able to work with all these pieces at once affords me greater context in which to make my translation decisions.
During my continuing work on this unpublished manuscript, I have had the privilege of translating three more pieces by Infante Beovic: “Ferns” and “The Forest of Puerto Varas” published by World Literature Today in 2020 and 2021 respectively, and now “Green Gold, Blue Gold” forthcoming in a HarperCollins anthology edited by Sandra Guzmán. Whether fiction or nonfiction, themes surface in these pieces as threads that loosely tie Infante Beovic’s body of work together: place, climate, loss, women, motherhood, relationships, a struggle for rights and liberation, and silence—sometimes peaceful, sometimes painful. The sensation of silence can be felt in the speculative piece “Ferns” where the protagonist finds respite in the midst of perpetual lockdowns on the lush mountain: “empty of people, the forest forgot us completely, the ground no longer marked for human passage” (World Literature Today, 2020). Silence can also be felt in the nonfiction piece “The Forest of Puerto Varas” where the author seeks refuge from the chaos of our world: “That moment standing before the forest was short-lived, lasting only until my son woke up, but stayed etched in my mind. In my darkest moments, I take refuge in that memory of the jungle rustling in the wind, the trees seeming to dance only for us” (World Literature Today, 2021). In the forthcoming piece “Green Gold, Blue Gold,” Infante Beovic leaves readers with a more ominous silence that hangs in the air as the landscape grows increasingly arid set against a backdrop of water scarcity. In many of the stories in Infante Beovic’s collection, Todas somos una misma sombra, the narration seems not to be aloud but in the protagonist’s head, simultaneously speaking and guarding silence. This tug between speech and silence plays out across the Chilean landscape as the canvas for these works. Translating Infante Beovic’s work as it unfolds has allowed me to observe these themes as they develop and work to make word choices that reflect the whole of her body of work. She has trusted me to bring all of this forth into English with care—my translations in conversation with her originals, translation as an art both solitary and collective. With all her words, our words, running through my head, Infante Beovic and I are emerging together.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of emerging lately. I found Catalina Infante Beovic in a moment of emergence in the Chilean context. As an emerging literary translator, it seemed to make sense to emerge together. Many of the other authors I have been working with as of late may also be considered emerging or recently emerged—Miluska Benavides, Natalia García Freire, Iliana Vargas. Translation is both a solitary and collective practice, and perhaps we need to hold both truths at once. My translations exist in conversation with the original and any other existing translation, which is quite the opposite of solitary, but is rather a chorus of voices. Furthermore, I have found great company in the solidarity I feel with these authors; not only are the texts in conversation, but we, myself and the author, also are in conversation throughout the translation process and beyond. From emails, to Zoom meetings, to doing readings together and appreciating each other’s work, we are, as I had hoped, walking together on some of this journey.
I have been curious about whether other early career literary translators were working with emerging authors as I have been. The opportunity to further explore that question arose in Fall 2021. Larissa Kyzer from Jill! A Women+ in Translation Reading Series reached out to alum from their first year of readings and invited us to guest curate a virtual reading series. Intrigued, I pitched the Emerging Together series to feature emerging translator-author pairs doing a bilingual reading. And so began the surprisingly challenging task of finding available emerging translator-author pairs. So as not to stay confined in my own bubble, I first attempted to tweet on the topic, which did not get much response (admittedly I’m somewhat new on the platform and my followership shows it). So, I decided to approach this as an opportunity for community and relationship building with other early career literary translators via individual outreach. I did my own research to find translators and then allowed those individuals to refer me to others. What began as a search for participants became an enriching initiative to connect with other translators as we also emerge together. In keeping with this idea of collective emergence, I believe in uplifting the work of others as they make their way. To that end, I leave you with “…all the words that are running through my head” written by some of the translators with whom I had the privilege to connect:
Kotryna Garanašvili’s essay “Reading and Translating Theatre” (Hopscotch, 2021)
Salma Harland’s translation of “Four Gastronomic Poems” (Ancient Exchanges, 2021) by Kushājim
May Huang’s translations of “Bopomofo Practice” (Cicada, 2021) by Lin Yi (林儀)
Paige Aniyah Morris’s translation of “Words and Kisses” (The Georgia Review, 2021) by Kim Sehee
Lara Norgaard’s translation of “Anna O.” (Asymptote, 2018) by Ricardo Lísias
Barbara Ofosu-Somuah’s translation of “Linguistic Threads” (Words without Borders, 2021) by Rahma Nur
Jenna Tang’s essay “Why We Should Translate Literature About Trauma” (Catapult, 2021)
Candice Whitney’s translation of “The Marathon Continues” (The Dreaming Machine, 2019) by Addes Tesfamariam
Sharni Wilson’s translation of “A Sunlit Table” (Japan Cultural Expo, 2020) by Yuta Takano (高野ユタ)
Anam Zafar’s translation excerpt from “In the Tenderness of War” (National Centre for Writing, 2021) by Najat Abed Alsamad
Michelle Mirabella is a Spanish to English literary translator whose work appears in World Literature Today, Latin American Literature Today, and elsewhere. Other translations are forthcoming in The Arkansas International, Firmament, and a HarperCollins anthology. She is a graduate of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and an alumna of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. You can find out more at www.michellemirabella.com and follow her on Twitter as @MirabellaM_.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, February 22, 2022