Margaret Carson is a widely published translator of literature, poetry and essays from Latin America and Spain. Her research and teaching interests focus on translation, issues in gender and translation, visualities in writing, transnational poetry and poetics, and women surrealist artists and writers in mid-twentieth-century Mexico City.
1. What makes a good literary translation great?
You have to start with a great book—a book that’s done something unusual or masterful and can reach beyond its original readership in translation. It doesn’t have to be famous or canonical. Some recent great translations have been of works that are somewhat forgotten in their home countries (for instance, one of my favorite translations last year, The Cardboard House by the Peruvian Martín Adán, translated by Katherine Silver, is a novel from the 1920s overshadowed by the “Boom” novels).
For me, a great translation has to pay attention to the deliberate choices of the original author and to the nuances and quirks of his or her language. I’m extremely interested in what happens at the level of language: word choice, syntax, how the author bends the rules and how the translator follows suit. I also associate great translations with excellent commentaries by the their translators in which they narrate the story of the translation and the challenges they faced. I highly recommend reading Lydia Davis’s essays on her Proust or Flaubert translations, Clayton Eshlemann on his César Vallejo translations, and Rosmarie Waldrop on her translations of Edmond Jabès.
2. Do you believe that literary translation can be taught?
Yes, beginning translators can benefit from working on a text with more experienced translators, especially one who translates from the same language. This can be in person, but literary translators can also learn a lot by reading translations side by side with the original and seeing what kinds of moves and choices the translator made. It can be very revealing, sometimes surprising. There are many styles of translation— some are rather free, some stay very close to the original, some fall in between. I don’t believe there’s a “right” way to translate that can be taught, but workshops are excellent for creating a sense of community among translators and for motivating more literary translations. It’s a good time to be starting out as a literary translator, because right now there are more opportunities to publish than ever before, in print and especially in online magazines such as Words Without Borders, Asymptote, InTranslation, the Buenos Aires Review and other online venues.
3. Is it necessary for a literary translator to also be a writer?
Absolutely, even though the sort of writing you do may be very different from the sort of work you translate. You also have to be an intense and voracious reader. Sometimes solutions to a translation puzzle will leap out at you when you’re reading something completely unrelated. Your antennae are always picking up on words and expressions that might come in handy.
4. What makes poetry translation difficult? Is there a theory behind it?
Poetry is often seen as inseparable from the language it’s written in. The question of form often comes up and poetic forms are seldom compatible between languages. But maybe there’s too much of a mystique about translating poetry, and too much theory can get in the way. I’m not sure theory provides much insight into what happens when a poem is being brought from another language into English. When I translate poetry, I tend to work with contemporary poets who write in free verse, so there’s no formal rhyme scheme to recreate. You have to be inventive in other ways to suggest the rhythms and cadences of the original, through alliteration, assonance, slant rhyme, etc. It’s an incredibly complex process, with the ultimate aim of creating a new poem in English.
5. What work have you enjoyed the most translating?
My Two Worlds by the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec, which was published by Open Letter Books in 2011. My current project, Baroni: A Journey, is also by Chejfec, and now that I’ve done a few rounds of revisions I’m finally beginning to read the translation with less of a critical eye and with more pleasure.
6. Who has been the most challenging author to translate?
Once again, Sergio Chejfec, because of his long and syntactically tricky sentences that convey rather dense ideas. The first drafts are always a mess. I’m never sure it will happen, but after many revisions and reworkings, the jaggedness gets smoothed out and sentences start coming together. It’s like finding your way out of a labyrinth.
7. What makes Spanish literary translation unique? Who are some of your favorite Spanish authors and new talents?
It’s an enormous language and the literature is incredibly rich and varied. My favorite authors from Spain are Enrique Vila Matas and Javier Marías. I read them both in the original and in their English translations, which are all superb. Of the newer authors, I’ve read a bit of Agustín Fernández Mallo. I thought his story “Un recorrido por Los monumentos de Passaic 2009,” which uses Google maps to recreate the walking tour described by artist Robert Smithson in his 1967 essay, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” was quite inventive.
8. In your opinion, what would it take for there to be more available translations in the US?
More curiosity about the world outside our borders, and a publishing model that would support taking more risks, especially with respect to international fiction and poetry. Small indie presses are taking the lead in publishing the best in international literature, and we should support their programs by buying the books they publish and recommending them to our friends and family.
9. What is the state of translating Spanish literary works into English?
Within the very small niche of international literature in translation, I believe it’s one of the top languages to be published in translation. However, the number of titles published in any given year is probably fairly small.
10. Is there fair recognition of literary translators in general?
I’d say literary translators are now receiving greater recognition in the literary community. More importantly, we’re also beginning to publish our own work, curate our own online spaces, start reading series, and write essays and books about our work as literary translators. We promote international literature as much as any publisher of literature in translation.
11.What has been the highlight of your career to date?
Because My Two Worlds was the first novel by Sergio Chejfec to come out in English, it was exciting to follow it like a shooting star traveling through the online blogging community, where quite a few bloggers specializing in international fiction wrote enthusiastically about it. There were ripples on Twitter, too. Another highlight was its nomination for the Best Translated Book Award and its longlisting for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
12. Is there an author that you would love to translate?
I’m hoping to translate the writings of the Spanish surrealist artist Remedios Varo—her dream journals and other scattered writings that as far as I can tell, have never before been published in English.
In the New Spanish Books Website you'll find a guide to current Spanish titles with rights available for translation in the US, complete with reviews of titles selected by a panel of experts from the US and up to date information about the Spanish publishing scene, translation grants, Spanish literary prizes, recent translations, news and events in the US and more.
Read more here