Literary Translation and the Art of Capturing Nuance

In our interview with Lisa Dillman, one of this year’s National Book Award Finalists in Literary Translation, she shared valuable insights about translating works from several Spanish-speaking regions.

Every translation project, literary or not, comes with its own set of challenges to remain true to the source yet make the language work in the target language, all the while persuading the reader that you were never there at all, or at least were there simply to help the language become language again. It takes research — no small amount of research — and deep attention to detail and nuance truly to capture the work in a translated text.

But translation is not just a challenge. It is also an immensely rewarding process replete with the joy of learning about other cultures, as well as one’s own, and seeking ways to reconcile the differences in languages.


We reached out to Lisa Dillman to learn about her prolific work in literary translation and the experiences and insights she has developed translating writers from several regions. Lisa was raised in California and studied Spanish at the University of California, San Diego before completing an M.A. in Spanish Literature at Emory University and a second M.A. in Literary Translation from Middlesex University in London.

She is co-editor (with Peter Bush) of the book Spain: A Literary Traveler’s Companion and has translated many novels and scholarly works, including Zigzag (by José Carlos Somoza), The Scroll of Seduction (by Gioconda Belli), Pot Pourri: Whistlings of a Vagabond (by Eugenio Cambaceres), Op Oloop (by Juan Filloy), The Mule, by Juan Eslava Galán (the original novel was turned into a motion picture), Critical Dictionary of Mexican Literature (by Christopher Domínguez Michael), The Frost on His Shoulders (by Lorenzo Mediano), Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World (by Sabina Berman).

She also co-translated The Polish Boxer (by Eduardo Halfon) with a team of five (Ollie Brock, Danny Hahn, Thomas Bunstead and Ann McLean) and his novel Monastery with Daniel Hahn. Most recently, she has translated several works by Andrés Barba (After the Rain; August, October; Death of a Horse; and Such Small Hands) as well as Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies. In 2016 she won the Best Translated Book Award for Signs Preceding the End of the World.

Most recently, Lisa was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award in Translation for her translation of The Bitch by Pilar Quintana.

How did you get started in literary translation?

I became interested in translation in my last year of undergrad. I had spent my junior year at the University of Barcelona, where I had an incredible experience studying literature and language, and when I returned to the US felt struck by how much “didn’t translate.” I don’t mean literally, but more philosophically, things along the lines of: What makes something funny? Or scandalous? I also became quite enamored of Spanish and Latin American literature, and from there sort of segued into the idea of “I want everyone to be able to read this!”

Can you tell us about a particularly memorable project?

As cliché as it sounds, all projects are memorable – honest! – albeit in different ways. So here are two divergent examples. Ten or so years ago, I translated a Spanish Civil War novel that featured a Moroccan character whose speech was represented phonetically, i.e. his accent in Spanish was textually legible. So in order to translate it, I spent days listening to recordings of Moroccans speaking English to make an analogous move in the target language.

I also struggled over whether the entire thing was culturally appropriate or not, and labored to try to ensure that the man wasn’t depicted as comical, that the narration didn’t come off as scornful or mocking of him. I felt fairly pleased with it, but the publisher decided to nix the entire concept and have him speak in standard Spanish. And in retrospect, I think that was probably the right decision.

A second example would be the project I’m working on right now: it’s a non-fiction account of a group of Peruvian Jews who are totally Orthodox, albeit not accepted by Israel or by other Peruvian Jews. The tale itself is fascinating, almost a cliffhanger, but from a translatorial perspective it’s also amazing because their Biblical knowledge involves a lot of comparing and contrasting of various Bible translations. And when you go to look up a certain chapter and verse, and see just how many versions there are in both English and Spanish, it’s staggering. Trying to find translations for certain prayers and mitzvahs is a challenge that’s also incredibly edifying.

Translators work in a myriad of industries, making it difficult to define a translator’s job. What do you feel are some unique challenges you have faced in literary translation? What do you share with translators working in other industries?

I think one of the somewhat unique challenges to literary translation is the fact that readers and reviewers often have the concept of “the original” lurking in their minds. So your work resides in this very odd space of tension. On the one hand, a translated novel really is and must be an autonomous text. On the other, it’s not your name on the cover, most of the time (or if it is, it’s in far smaller font). I believe David Bellos is the one who expressed this paradox so poignantly in saying that people are always keen to remark that translation is “no substitute for the original,” when the fact of the matter is that that is precisely what it is.

In general, though, the challenges of literary translation strike me as almost entirely akin to those of other types of translation. All translators deal with the extra-linguistic, i.e. translating terms, concepts or mindsets that are quite different in another language. When my ex-husband immigrated to the US, he had to have his academic transcripts professionally translated, and they decided that a 7 was equivalent to a C (in fact, I’d argue it would be an A or maybe an A-). In translating governmental or legal or educational documents, you come upon these tricky issues of equivalence – or non-equivalence – all the time because the systems of government and law and education are conceived differently. You have terms in a SL for referents that simply don’t exist in the TL. All of those concerns I think entirely analogous between literary and technical translation.

Computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools are gaining momentum in the translation industry, but have yet to prove their worth in unsupervised projects. Have you ever considered using CAT in any part of a project? Do you see CAT ever becoming a normal tool within the process of literary translation?

I never have, no. And I hope it will never become a normal tool in the literary realm, but I can think of many things I’ve hoped would not happen that later came to pass!

You have translated authors from several Spanish-speaking countries: Yuri Herrera (Mexico), Andrés Barba (Spain), Pilar Quintana (Colombia), Graciela Mochkovsky (Argentina), Alejandra Costamagna (Chile). What is it like entering a new idiom? Was any dialect easier to translate into English?

Translating a new Spanish is fun, it’s challenging, it’s daunting, and more than anything, it’s research. People outside the industry often seem shocked by how much of translation is research. Lots of that research is now far easier with the number of forums and such that you can find online. And of course human beings are walking dictionaries. So I do as much research and consultation as possible. And I am always in contact with my authors, peppering them with questions if they are open to that.

I don’t actually think I find any one dialect, per se, easier to translate than any other, but I do find certain genres easier to translate than others. Fiction that is a bit more “genre” often has more standard syntax, for instance. So historical fiction, for example, is easier to translate in linguistic terms. Of course it also has its own set of challenges, because the Anglophone readership is not familiar with the nuances of, say, the Spanish Civil War.

As a follow-up, can you share any insights about notable regional differences in the languages?

One thing I always find notable is “you.” In English it’s so straightforward. Singular, plural, formal, informal: it’s all “you.” Obviously, Spanish has the formal and informal, “usted” and “tú.” Then in addition to that, some parts of Central and South American use an alternate informal singular (“vos”), and Spain has an informal plural (“vosotros”) and so on. But more than the existence of these forms is the usage: how people determine what counts as formal or informal.

In Bogotá, you can hear parents treat their children formally and children treating their parents informally. In Spain, I remember being chastised for using the formal with an older person when I was in college and being gobsmacked. Textbooks basically say, “use the formal to show respect and the informal with peers or younger people” but it’s so much more nuanced, complex and localized than that!

The National Book Foundation selected The Bitch – your translation of Pilar Quintana’s novel – as a National Book Award Finalist in Translation. What was it about this work that you feel propelled it to this kind of success?

Quintana’s prose is gut-wrenching. Her tone is quite spare, almost minimalist, very unadorned. There’s nothing superfluous, she just cuts to the quick. So while the book is ostensibly about a woman’s frustrated attempts at motherhood, it’s also about other things that don’t form part of the plot. Poverty, and racism, and their intersection on Colombia’s Pacific coast are not commented upon, they’re simply there, as inexorable as the jungle where the main character lives.

What are you working on currently?

A book called Prophet of the Andes, which I mentioned earlier. It’s a non-fiction book by Graciela Mochkovsky, about a community of Peruvian Jews and it’s riveting.

Is there anything I haven’t asked, but should have?

Yes! What book would you love to be asked to translate next? Cristina Cerrada’s Europa. When I get the time, I hope to propose it to a few publishers.

Jonathan Pyner
Jonathan Pyner is a poet, freelance writer, and translator. He has worked as an educator for nearly a decade in the US and Taiwan, and he recently completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.

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