Cover Versions: Talking Translation with Christina MacSweeney

by Gabriella Martin

If you’ve read any contemporary Spanish-language literature in English translation in the past decade, you’ve probably read a translation by Christina MacSweeney. An expert translator of writers including Valeria Luiselli, Julián Herbert, Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and Jazmina Berrera, MacSweeney has recently completed a translation of Spanish writer Elvira Navarro’s haunting, surrealist short story collection, Rabbit Island. In this conversation with Gabriella Martin, MacSweeney offers a glimpse of her theory and practice of translation; specifically, she discusses translating Navarro, the notion of translation as an embodied act, and how she works out textual knots.

Gabriella Martin: I absolutely loved Rabbit Island. It’s disturbing, it’s unhinged. What drew you to the project?

Christina MacSweeney: Thank you. I’m really pleased that you enjoyed Rabbit Island. It’s an amazing collection of stories. I knew and admired Elvira Navarro’s work before I was offered the translation of A Working Woman, and after that experience I was very keen to do more. When I read La isla de los conejos, I felt that the stories were so powerful that I immediately asked our brilliant editor at Two Lines, CJ Evans, to consider it for translation. It’s always more difficult to get short stories into publication, but the strength of this collection is impossible to ignore.

GM: I kept thinking about the metaphors for translation in these stories: the character in “The Top Floor Room” who dreams others people’s dreams, or the “non-inventor” in the titular story, who “considered it his true vocation: inventing things that had already been invented.” Did this sentiment resonate with you? How do you view the tension between creation and reinvention in translation?

CM: To be honest, I hadn’t thought of those particular metaphorical aspects of the stories. I suppose the practice of translation is in many ways so indefinable (I’m thinking here of Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator,” which is beautiful but also, in some ways, indecipherable) that we all find our own metaphors for it. I tend to think about translation in terms of singing or dancing, so that your whole body is involved in the process. Yes, to some extent we are reinventing texts in new cultural and linguistic contexts. So, in terms of creativity, I guess what I think I do is devise a new choreography or make a cover version of a text. But talking about what constitutes creativity, the creative act, is almost as impossible as talking about translation. It could even be said that an “original” text is, to some extent, a creative rewriting of others, so translation to another language is a continuation of that process.

GM: I love what you said about translation as an extension of a process already in motion. Roland Barthes comes to mind, and so does Karen Emmerich’s recent work on the instability of “originals.” How does translation theory influence your practice as a translator? I think translation students in particular might be keen to hear your thoughts on this.

CM: Yes, my comment definitely contained a nod to Barthes. I’m interested in areas of philosophy, literary, translation, and art theory; they are all so good for thinking and they often help me to understand the ideas explored by the authors I work with. The MA in literary translation that I did at the University of East Anglia had strong emphases on both theory and creativity, which I just loved. But it’s hard to pin down exactly how theory affects my translation practice. Possibly it’s mostly in the way I read in the first place and in the choice of the works I feel should be translated. When I was writing my master’s thesis, I read a great deal of Bakhtin and ended by producing an inter-semiotic translation (words and my own images) of two short biographical pieces by Elena Poniatowska; that was a beautiful experience, as it brought together so many of my passions.

GM: This is the second book of Elvira Navarro’s that you’ve translated. Do you find that you have a specific voice for Navarro in English, another voice for Valeria Luiselli, another for Julián Herbert, etc., that you tap into when translating different works by the same author? How do you “get into character,” so to speak?

CM: That’s quite a complex question because, if we think of novels or short stories, then there is the authorial voice, in terms of the themes addressed and how they are addressed, but also the voices of the characters within the fictional context. The authors I love, both in Spanish and English, don’t tend to reproduce the same narrative voices in successive texts. They take you to different places, approach their themes from different angles. So, as a translator, although you might be aware of an author’s particular “verbal tics,” each new text involves immersing oneself in the characters and their individual voices.

For example, when working on Julián Herbert’s stories Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino, I binged on Tarantino films to help find the voices for particular characters in the title story, but other stories in that collection took me to very different places. And although there may be a recognizable continuity in terms of the issues that preoccupy Elvira in her work, she approaches them in a wide variety of ways. Translating a whole novel or collection of short stories is a long process; you live with the characters for months and by the end of that time you feel you know them well, have a sense of how they express themselves.

GM: I’m always curious to know about the puzzles and knots in the making of a translation, which the reader has no idea even happened but that kept the translator up at night. You make it look so easy! What were some of the biggest challenges or questions that arose when translating these stories?

CM: Thinking about Elvira’s work in general, the greatest challenge probably comes in her use of metaphorical imagery. She produces these wonderful images, like the birds on the island, for example, but leaves it to the reader to interpret them. So as a translator, I have to keep in mind that I must trust my author and that my job is not to explain things to English-language readers but to reproduce the space where they can interact with the text. And that is harder than it sounds. The city and landscape are also extremely important characters in Elvira’s work. When I was translating A Working Woman, I visited Madrid to see the city through her eyes, and that was amazingly helpful. But when that isn’t possible (as in “Strychnine” or “Myotragus”), I attempt to somehow think myself into those environments, to visualize them. When it comes to tricky phrases, I believe in letting things rest, going for a walk, washing the dishes, anything that allows my unconscious mind to work things through without conscious help (or hindrance). I find that when I’m revising a first draft of a translation, I work much better with a printout and a pencil than on the computer; again, it feels as though my whole body is involved in this way.

GM: Finally, which of the stories in Rabbit Island do you find most compelling, and why?

CM: The truth is that I love them all in different ways. I personally felt a deep empathy with the main character of “The Top Floor Room.” The thought of being invaded by other people’s dreams is terrifying—sleep is such a personal space—but the way she finds to cope with the situation is somehow affirming. And the same is true of the protagonist in “Gerado’s Letters,” who finds a very individual means of ending a relationship. Or the way the woman in “Memorial” deals with her mother’s death. All these female characters have a very unusual form of strength that I admire.

Elvira Navarro’s Rabbit Island, translated by Christina MacSweeney, is out now from Two Lines Press.

Published on June 16, 2021