An Interview with
by Stephen Page
(As first published in The Los Angeles Review)
Esther Cross was born in Buenos Aires in 1961. She is the author of four novels, The Chronic Winged Apprentices (Emecé, 1992), The Flood (Emecé 1993), Banquet of the Spider (Tusquets, 1999), and Radiana (Emecé 2007); and the author of two collections of short stories, Divine Proportion (Emecé, 1994) and Kavanagh (Tusquets, 2005). She co-authored along with Felix della Paolera two books of interviews, Bioy Casares at the time of Writing (Tusquets, 1987) and Conversations with Borges (Editorial Fuentetaja, 2007). In 2002 she released The Insulted and the Injured, a documentary film that she co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced with Alicia Martínez Pardíes. She has translated Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (Emecé, 2001) and William Goyen’s The Faces of Blood Kindred and Other Stories (Editorial La Compañía, 2008). She has been awarded a Fulbright and a Civitella Ranieri scholarship. She teaches writing in Casa de Letras, Buenos Aires, and for Fuentetaja, of Spain. She is published regularly in several culture magazines and supplements.
Sp: What started you translating?
EC: I read Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and was overwhelmed by it. I fell in love with the way he wrote, which is directly, sparingly—yet richly at the same time. Also, something Yates said in one of his stories, “Builders,” about using words honestly. That’s how Yates writes, he uses words honestly. I did some research and found that Eleven Kinds of Loneliness had not been translated into Spanish. I immediately decided I wanted to bring the book to the Spanish-reading world.
Sp: Who are some of your favorite Argentine translators?
EC: Enrique Pezzoni, who brought us Moby Dick. Borges, who made some great translations despite that quite often, his style is prominent. Félix della Paolera, who translated Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. Rodolfo Walsh, Cortázar—among others.
Sp: Do you enjoy translating?
EC: Oh, I love it. It has increased my understanding of how language works. Also, it has increased my understanding of the two languages I work with—first of all, it has made me realize that I know more English than I thought I did, and second, it has made me realize that I know less Spanish than I thought I did (she chuckles). When I come to a sentence and it takes me three or four days to translate it, and all of a sudden I get it right—find the right words and the right word order—it is a rush. Mostly, I just love bringing great texts to people that language would normally keep apart.
Sp: Tell me about your translation processes. How do you go from concept to completed product?
EC: When I decide which book I want to translate, I read it from beginning to end to capture a general sense of it. Then I read it again to capture the rhythm of the words, the voice of the narrator, the writer’s style. Then I sit down and do a first draft of the translation, not worrying about getting it right word-for-word, but trying to capture the rhythm, the voice, the style. Then I go through my first draft, polish the details, make sure word choice is correct, that phrases make sense, that I am getting all that is needed to make an honest translation.
Sp: About the “voice” of the narrator or writer. Is that difficult to translate sometimes, even if you hear it clearly in the original language?
EC: Yes. But it is also what I enjoy about being a translator. I think that is the key between a good translation and a great translation—capturing the voice.
Sp: Is it difficult to get the rhythm of the words?
EC: Of course, because Spanish and English are very different languages. English is more plastic than Spanish, more pliable. Spanish is more rigid. Often, In Spanish, you need two or three words for one word in English, so sometimes you will write a very long sentence, whereas the original writer wrote the sentence economically.
Sp: And what do you do when you come to sentence or phrase where you just cannot capture the proper rhythm?
EC: I never give up. With Goyen it was not easy, because he has a talking quality, derived from the oral tradition. In interviews he speaks about the breath of the sentence. His fiction reads like someone is sitting down and telling you the story. Once I was able to “hear” his voice, it was a lot easier.
Sp: Now that we are talking about Goyen, what attracted you to him and his writing?
EC: His uniqueness. His powerful story telling. He has a quality that is similar to Faulkner, but of course he is not Faulkner at all. Many people call Faulkner’s style Southern Gothic. I like to call Goyen’s style Texan Gothic. It may be related to Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers—but his landscape is Texas. What makes Goyen’s stories impressionable is their orality, their musicality, and their subject matter. He said that he was inspired by his mother’s voice, the way she talked, how she almost sang when she spoke. Goyen also loved music—which his father did not like because he thought it was effeminate, and he forbad Goyen from playing the piano—so Goyen’s mother bought him one of those mail-order music courses, and he made a cardboard keyboard and sat under his covers at night and played music silently. His music playing, and as was later, his writing, had to be done in secret from his father. He was literally an undercover musician and writer. Sometimes, at night, he would pretend he was asleep and play his cardboard piano while he listened to his family talk in the living room—stories about sawmill workers, woodsmen, farmers, ranchers, out-of-work small-town people, the Ku Klux Klan. When he was older and started to write, he wrote those voices he heard while he was playing music.
Sp: Which of the two was most challenging to translate—Goyen or Yates?
EC: Yates. Because he is grammatically precise. Goyen is poetic, freer, looser.
SP: The stories you selected for La Misma Sangre are not solely from Faces of Blood Kindred, but are from a number of Goyen’s books. What were the factors in your selection process?
EC: I found that most of his stories fell into two groups—urban and rural. I chose the rural stories.
Sp: Goyen has been described as being drawn to the grotesque. Do you agree?
EC: I do. He often said he worked with the grotesque. He compared himself to the photographer Diane Arbus. He said he was not fond of the abnormalities in people, but that they drew him, and made him want to write about them, write about people who lived on the peripheries of society—like the bearded woman in his story “Zamour, or a Tale of Inheritance.”
Sp: In Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, what does Richard Yates say about modern society?
EC: His stories can be read as bleak, but I think he was trying to show truth, the dark side of the Golden Era in the United States—the Cold War, the façade of the perfect job and the perfect family, the failure of the American Dream. Yates showed the loneliness of those Americans—mostly young married couples—who bought the American Dream and found themselves in dead-end jobs, in debt, and with an awareness of the phoniness of dressing-for-success. Jean Améry once said that our biographies are not only formed by what we did but also by what we would have wanted to do. I think that Yates explored that gap, between who people are and who they had once wished to be.
Sp: Was Yates misanthropic, or kind to people?
EC: He was kind. He understood people. Most great writers understand people. Though he was pessimistic about the way the world works, he was very tender in his portrayal of the people involved in the world.
Sp: When you translate, in general, do you feel you translate into Argentine Spanish, Latin-American Spanish, or Spaniard Spanish?
EC: If it comes down to a choice, I choose Argentine Spanish, especially if I am being published here in Argentina. If I am translating for a publisher is Spain, of course, I use Spaniard Spanish. Overall, though, I try to think I translate into the language of translation.
Sp: So, when you are translating, do you feel you are copying something, or re-creating something?
EC: Re-creating. I try to be loyal to the original work. I know I can never copy something exactly, especially with language. I try to capture the spirit of the book. You have to re-create and not copy in order to respect another person’s work. If I may draw a parallel, it is like restoring a painting. In restoration, when the restorer fills in an absent part of the painting, or re-creates a part that was damaged, he performs what is known as tratation. If you look at the painting from a normal viewing distance, you see it complete. If you move closer, put your face right up to the painting, you will notice the restoration because the restorer worked with very thin lines. The restorer did that on purpose. She is telling you, “I am restoring the original painting, but I am not the original painter.” As a translator, I know I will never be able to reproduce the writer’s writing. I will try to get as near to it as I can, but I will not copy the writing. That would be too difficult.
Sp: Does that mean you feel a translator’s presence should be somewhere in a translation?
EC: No. Those lines I spoke about are not the translator’s presence, but the translator’s respect. The lines are there, but not the translator.
SP: You chose to translate two North American authors. Is there any particular reason for that?
EC: I guess that it has to do with my admiration for North American writing. I believe that the 20th Century narrative was what it was because of North American writers—not only, but mostly. I also feel there is a wonderful lack of solemnity in North American English that makes it playful. North Americans use the English language with a freedom and familiarity that is wonderful.
Sp: Do you find translating language of one culture into language of another culture difficult?
EC: Yes. Without a doubt. Because language is derived from culture and culture from language.
SP: Do you think, then, that translations promote cultural understanding?
EC: Yes, for the reader and translator. Unfortunately, from a political point of view, “cultural understanding” is a misleading term. For the book industry, anyway, translation is a means of cultural appropriation.
Sp: What do you do when you come to a word or phrase or a scene that does not make sense in your culture?
EC: I always try to stay true to the original. There are some exceptions, especially in word-choice, but the scenes must remain in the same order for the reader to understand the situation.
Sp: What about metaphors, similes, and double meanings. How do you deal with them?
EC: You have to give up something sometimes when dealing with figurative language. It’s inevitable. You strive to make it best as possible. Changing a word is hard, but not impossible. Sometimes you can find a similar figure of speech—just as long as you don’t change meaning. Sometimes when you are meticulously reading a text you will find figurative language that the author did not intend. Usually that happens with the genius writers. Their unconscious minds at work. If you try to reproduce any of that, it is kind of like trying to show the submerged part of an iceberg. You can attempt to show as much of it as you are able, but you will never be able to show it all. That would be too ambitious. There is just too much mass there. Lifting the iceberg out of the water would change the aesthetics of the tip.
Sp: What about story titles? Do you often have to change them to make meaning?
EC: Quite often, but not always. This is because titles are an introduction to the story, or an overall interpretation of the text. If that introduction or interpretation does not make sense in the culture of the translated language, a change must be made—something representative.
Sp: Do you feel there are a lot of great books and authors that have not been translated into Spanish?
EC: Yes I do. The main reason is marketability. Another reason is fashion. Basically, books that are being translated today are successful books. For contemporary books, that means bestsellers. For an older text, someone must classify it as a classic—which doesn’t necessarily mean it was a best seller when it was first written. If a good book does not become a best seller, or a classic, then the likelihood of it being translated is slim. Some great writers and great books are never discovered in other cultures.
Sp: Do you take a long time getting to know the author you are translating?
EC: Yes. (She holds up a two-inch thick book that she has held in her lap during our conversation, a biography about John Fante). I would like to translate his letters and that is why I am reading his biography. I always research the author.
Sp: Why do you feel it is important to get to know the author?
EC: If I know the author, I know how his mind works. If I know how his mind works, I know how he uses language.
SP: When you are working on a translation, how do you work…do you focus solely on the translation, or are you able to juggle other things, like your own writing?
EC: I would prefer to work solely on the translation. Keep my mind focused only on that. Sometimes though, I have to work on two projects and it works out. It’s difficult, but it can be done if it is necessary. You have to have a lot of faith in yourself if you want to work on your own writing while you are translating a genius.
Sp: Then, do you feel that your own writings and your translations compliment one other, or contradict one other?
EC: I think they complement one another, like all your lifetime writings do. They are linked. They are united. From each translation I make, I learn something. When I go back to my own writing I feel I have changed, I feel I am a better writer.
Sp: What kind of advice would you give to writers about to embark on their first translation project?
EC: A translation will never be perfect; you just have to get it as close as possible. The closer you get it, the better the translation is. Have tenacity. Never give up, even if it feels like it is not working. Have a very good dual-language dictionary, and read all you can about the author.
Sp: As a final word, then, what is the major role of a translator?
EC: To introduce the reader to the writer, then step back, and disappear.