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An interview with Rabbit Island translator Christina MacSweeney

Can’t get enough of Elvira Navarro’s Rabbit Island? Check out our 2017 interview with translator Christina MacSweeney.

old map with open book on top

If you missed our recent virtual event with Rabbit Island author Elvira Navarro and translator Christina MacSweeney (video coming soon!), you can check out an earlier interview between Associate Editor Sarah Coolidge and MacSweeney in celebration of Navarro’s earlier book A Working Woman. MacSweeney talks about the hand-drawn map of Madrid that Navarro made for her to help in visualizing the city as she translated the book–and we’ve included a photo of the map below.

You probably know MacSweeney as the translator of Valeria Luiselli’s novels, including The Story of My Teeth, for which she won the 2016 Valle Inclán Translation Prize. She is also the translator of Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims, a finalist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award, Eduardo Rabasa’s A Zero Sum Game, and On Lighthouses, our 2020 title from Mexican writer Jazmina Barrera.

Sarah Coolidge: I want to begin with your first impressions of A Working Woman. What made you want to take on the project?

Christina MacSweeney: What really drew me in to this novel from the first was the way it posited me as an active reader. There was no way I could, or wanted to, sit back passively and wait for the narrator to explain what was going on. With just a turn of the page I was being invited to reevaluate what had gone before, challenged to address my own reactions to aspects of the content. The complexity of the relationship between Elisa and Susana was another important draw, the way it emerged and developed following its own rules. I also had the sense that I was been offered a completely contemporary vision of Madrid, written by someone who loves the city, warts and all. And part of that contemporary vision has to do with the changes in the working lives of the inhabitants of that city.

SC: The novel has an unconventional structure and potentially unreliable narrator. Did these factors make translating the novel more challenging or did you find them liberating?

CM: That’s a very interesting question. In terms of structure, I’d say my task as a translator is to understand, appreciate, and accept it, not to try to mold it into something that might perhaps be judged more acceptable. In terms of the apparent unreliability of the narrators (the veracity of both Susana and Elisa’s stories are constantly questioned), during the translation, I tried as much as possible to forget that I had read the novel, knew what was going to happen next and how it ended. I think what I was doing was translating in the moment, because it would have destroyed the very unique aspects of this book if I had attempted to iron out any apparent contradictions or concretize what was enigmatic. Obviously that ‘in the present’ didn’t apply to all aspects of the translation; there are certain themes, modes of expression that feed into the narrative thread, and I needed to be aware of those to maintain that thread. Rather than either challenging or liberating I thought the translation process was deeply interesting, often exciting. Translation takes you to a much deeper understanding of a text than you can ever obtain on a first reading, so there was also a great deal of pleasure involved in appreciating the complexities of the narrative.

SC: Navarro takes on the taboo subjects of sexuality and mental illness in a pretty unapologetic way right off the bat. What was it like bringing those elements in particular into English?

CM: Yes, Spanish (both in Spain and Latin America) doesn’t really do euphemism or political correctness in a big way. It can sometimes appear very blunt. I found the frankness with which Susana’s sexual desire is presented, and the way it is mediated by her mental state and the medication she is taking to in some sense normalize that state, to be refreshing. I don’t feel I toned down the language, but I was perhaps equally aware of how far I could go without offending sensibilities that don’t deserve that offense. I don’t want to give specific details here, as it could be a spoiler, but there was nothing in the novel that made me personally feel uneasy about the approach Navarro takes.

SC: The word locura is used a lot in the Spanish original, and I couldn’t help but think about how many words we have in English to describe mental illness and the mentally ill, each with its own particular set of associations. You chose to translate locura as madness. Do you remember how you came to decide on that word? Were you conscious of other narratives of female so-called madness while translating the book?

CM: I think this question follows on from your previous one. Yes, the word locura occurs frequently, and my choice of translating it as madness follows the logic that this is how Elisa thinks about her own condition, and the way she perceives Susana’s behavior and words. It seems she is frightened by the simple idea of madness. There are occasional references to specific mental states and illnesses, but I feel Elisa’s fear is represented as something primal. I’m sure many of us have questioned our mental health at some time, and what we ask ourselves is not “Am I bipolar?” but “Am I going mad?” And of course there is the “mad woman in the attic” reference that runs through literature. And in that respect Jean Rhys’s reworking of the Jane Eyre story is perhaps one of the most stunning, and Doris Lessing explores the theme in some depth in The Children of Violence series. In Latin American literature, the first author who comes to mind is Silvina Ocampo, whose short stories often explore altered mental states. All of these authors also address the topic of female desire.

SC: In the past you’ve translated primarily Latin American writers. Were you at all hesitant to take on a Spanish writer?

CM: Yes, I was slightly. I have travelled fairly widely in Latin America and lived in Caracas for ten years, but I don’t have the same breadth or depth of cultural, historical, and literary knowledge about Spain. One of the areas that became challenging as I started to translate was the depiction of the city. I’m almost ashamed to say that I had never visited Madrid, and I felt there might be something unconvincing in my translation. So I got myself on a plane and made a short trip to the city. While I was there, Elvira met me for lunch; we chatted, got to know each other a little, and then I spread out my plans of the city and she mapped out the areas that Susana and Elisa inhabit, traced the routes of their walks. Those few short days in Madrid, following in the footsteps of the characters, fed in a positive way into the sense of the urban environment in my translation.

SC: What has your contact with Navarro been like? Has she been very involved in the translation process?

CM: As I just said, Elvira was very generous in making time to see me in Madrid, and we talked over a variety of issues in the novel during that long (and delicious) lunch. Although she made it clear from the start that she didn’t feel confident enough about her English to evaluate the translation as such, she was extremely helpful in answering specific questions and clearing up any doubts that arose during the translation and CJ Evans’s very sensitive edit. I remember, for example, asking at one point why Susana should be described as having pechos alemanes (German breasts), and we eventually decided that the best way to describe them in English was Wagnerian, which I think is quite evocative. We communicate by email, and occasionally on Facebook, in Spanish, and I am convinced that getting to know Elvira better led to a deeper understanding of the novel and so enhanced the translation.

SC: Did she give you any insight into what inspired her to write this particular novel?

CM: Elvira has never gone into that in any depth, but she did give me the impression that there are autobiographical elements to the novel, and that the Susana character is based on someone she once knew. As she herself lives on the outskirts of Madrid, and writes a blog that often addresses aspects of life there, the living conditions of those who are being progressively excluded from the urban center is clearly something that occupies her thoughts. In fact, in a recent article entitled “Lujo grotesco” (Grotesque Luxury) she describes her attempts to find a new apartment and a visit to one in central Madrid where the luxury in question was purely in the mind of the owner. Some of the places mentioned in the novel are real, others are invented. A further autobiographical element is the article that opens Part Two, which she did originally publish in a Spanish newspaper, but has to some extent fictionalized in the novel.

SC: What kind of research or other preparation did you do while translating this novel?

CM: I think I started by looking at other things Elvira has written about the city, and also reading up on its history, and recent changes. I spent quite a lot of time studying maps, looking at images, thinking about the architecture. There are also a number of Spanish painters mentioned in the novel (Antonio López, Ortega Muñoz), so looking at their work also gave me a feel for the urban and rural landscapes described. I had to check my understanding of the various mental conditions mentioned in the work and research the drugs used in their treatment, plus the side effects of the medication. Another important area had to do with the “gig economy” and its effects on the lives of those forced into it. This latter topic was quite tricky as there seem to be large gray areas in relation to the terminology used to describe specific employment statuses.

SC: Which books and/or authors initially sparked your love for Spanish-language literature?

CM: I suppose reading Don Quijote in translation as a teenager must have influenced my interest in literature in Spanish: it was such a stunning experience. Then came translations of works by Borges, Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Juan Rulfo, and of course, the Boom authors, plus Elena Poniatowska. I remember being very impressed by Luisa Valenzuela’s The Lizard’s Tail, wonderfully translated by Gregory Rabassa.

I think the first book I read in the Spanish original was the Nobel Prize winner Miguel Ángel Asturias’s amazing Leyendas de Guatemala, which accompanied me on an extended trip to Mexico and Guatemala in the 1980s. Once I moved to Caracas, I had greater access to original texts: I “discovered” Silvina Ocampo’s brilliant short stories, read Clarice Lispector in Spanish translation, Álvaro Mutis’s wonderful tales of Maqroll. I started reading works by Rubén Darío and somewhere along the line found Mario Bellatin…I could go on like this forever.

SC: As I’m sure you know, far more male writers are translated into English than female writers, something that some publishers and translators are working to change. As a translator on the front lines who has translated several female authors, are you optimistic? And what do you think it will take to see more English translations of works by female authors from Latin America and Spain?

CM: Yes, I am optimistic; if I compare those early interests with what I’m reading now, the difference is enormous. And from my own experience, I have an almost fifty-fifty balance between female and male authors whose books I have translated. In the USA, independent publishers like Two Lines, Coffee House Press, and Graywolf are taking risks on publishing female writers in translation, and hopefully that will have a kind of trickle-up effect on the larger publishing houses. Valeria Luiselli is an obvious example, but there is also Guadalupe Nettel, Laia Jufresa, Samanta Schweblin and many others, all producing wonderful work with the help of their wonderful translators. What seems to be still lacking is a reconsideration of earlier works by women writers who have tended to be neglected in their national literatures and so rarely reached English-language translation. One such author I feel very strongly about is Venezuela’s Victoria de Stefano: Ragpicker Press recently included my translation of an extract from her amazing novel Historias de la marcha a pie (Stories from the Foot March) in their anthology Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela, but it seems to me incomprehensible that, otherwise, the author’s work is absent from the catalogues of English-language publishers. This type of exclusion means that the history of writing by women is at best patchy, and so deprives young female writers of models to emulate or react against.

SC: Lastly I wanted to ask you about a forthcoming project of yours. Two Lines 27 features an excerpt from your translation of Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Empty Set, which comes out early 2018 from Coffee House Press. I’m really excited for the book and glad to have learned about the work Bicecci is doing combining literature and visual arts! How did you learn about her work? Did Bicecci’s incorporation of illustrations, charts, and Venn diagrams add any unique challenges to you as the translator?

CM: Thank you for asking about Empty Set! Working with Verónica on this and other projects has been inspiring. I first heard of her work from Daniel Saldaña París, who knew of my own interest in the interface between language and the visual arts, in my case in relation to translation. Verónica sent me a copy of the beautiful edition pubished by Almadía in Mexico (Conjunto vacío), and the experience of reading the novel was so different in very many ways, I was determined to get it into English-language publication. The drawings (as Verónica prefers to call them) are central to the reading experience, sometimes complementing the text, at others reflecting its disordered nature. Since I also had a PDF of the book, I was able to copy in the artwork as I translated, so that the translation was of both text and imagery. The main challenge they posed for the translation has to do with the way characters in the drawings are referred to in the written text; for example, B—the narrator’s brother—becomes Brother(B) in the text. The main issue was that the character I then becomes I(I). While it is possible to omit personal pronouns in Spanish, as they are indicated by the verb ending, this is less easy to achieve in English. And since this is a first-person narrative, I was concerned that readers might find the constant repetition of I(I) intrusive. We went through a long process of thinking through various options until we found one that seemed satisfactory, and this, in fact, led me to write an afterword to the book, for which Verónica made original drawings. But I will allow readers to discover for themselves what the solution was and decide if our strategy was successful.