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Interview with Margaret B. Carson

The work of translation is fascinating to me, and I know so little about what these people do who dedicate their time to bringing us important works of literature from around the world (without their efforts, I’d be missing out on my favorite books), so the opportunity to pose a few questions to translator Margaret B. Carson gives me great pleasure.  Last year Open Letter published Ms. Carson’s translation of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (my review here).  Currently My Two Worlds  is on the longlist of the Best Translated Book Award.  The finalists will be announced this Tuesday, and I wish Ms. Carson and Mr. Chejfec the best.  I’ve read ten of the twenty-five finalists, and I’d put My Two Worlds in the top-tier of those two handfuls.

A “walking” book, when I finished My Two Worlds I wrote, “It’s meandering (obviously), sometimes feels pointless (deliberately), and takes longer than one would expect to go a such a short distance (which works perfectly with the book’s plot).”  It’s a slow-burner, but in the time since I finished it has only grown in my esteem.  My Two Worlds is only just over 100 pages, but it took me some time to read because of the many layers and switch-backs not just in the global structure of the book but also in each sentence.  The translation is a marvel. 

Q: How long have you been translating, and what are some of your prior translating projects?

A: For about twenty years off and on, mostly short stories, poetry and plays from Latin America.  Before translating My Two Worlds, I translated a little-known novel by the 19th-century Mexican author José Tomás de Cuéllar for Oxford University Press (The Magic Lantern, 2000).  I’ve also translated poetry by the Argentine poet, Mercedes Roffé, which is mostly published on-line or in chapbooks.  For a few years I seemed to be only translating Cubans — Virgilio Piñera’s play Electra Garrigó, poetry by Nancy Morejón and Alberto Rodríguez Tosca, and essays by the theatre critic Vivian Martínez Tabares — but now I’m mostly centered in Argentina.

Q: What attracted you to the work of translating in the first place?  Was this planned, or did you just happen upon it?

A: While living in Madrid for a few years in the 1980s, I hung out with English-speaking artists whose Spanish was fairly rudimentary.  I wanted to share my readings with them, especially a story written by Ignacio Aldecoa, “Un buitre ha hecho su nido en el café,” which was set in a café almost identical to the one we used to frequent, El Café Comercial on the Glorieta de Bilbao, an archetypical Old World café with marble-topped tables and mirror-lined walls.  Looking back, I see that it’s a fairly conventional story, but one aspect really fascinated me — its description of the mise-en-abyme effect of the mirrors.  I really loved figuring out how to carry this over into English as my friends were trying to capture the same effect in their drawings.  Back in the United States, I became more serious about literary translation and took a few workshops while doing my master’s in English at the City College of New York.  Through people I met in the workshop, I became more connected to what seemed back then to be small world of literary translation, with few venues for publication.  Now, almost twenty years later, with the Internet and many new independent publishers and online journals, the landscape has changed completely.

Q: What led you to Chejfec’s work, and how did you come to translate it for Open Letter?

A: I met Sergio at a poetry event in New York a few years ago, not too long after he moved here from Venezuela, where he’d been living since the early 1990s, and we struck up a conversation.  That led to Sergio sending me some of his books, which I read and admired.  It took me a while to ponder the next move, but since I’d done some freelance translation for BOMB magazine, an arts and culture quarterly in New York, I decided to pitch the idea of translating something by Sergio for an upcoming issue.  The editor said sure, we’ll take a look.  My initial idea was to translate a short story, but Sergio had just sent me the manuscript for the as-yet-unpublished Mis dos mundos.  After reading it, I suggested that I translated an excerpt for BOMB, and Sergio agreed.  Open Letter Books came into the picture after the excerpt was published.  I happened to be reading Three Percent, Open Letter’s blog, and Chad Post, the editorial director, was wondering aloud who Sergio Chejfec was.  I emailed him right away and attached the translation, and a few months later we had a contract with Open Letter for My Two Worlds.

Q: This is the first work by Chejfec to be published in English, but he’s been publishing in Spanish to some acclaim for years.  Was there any pressure involved in bringing an established writing to a new audience?  If so, how did you overcome that pressure and move forward?

A: It’s true that Sergio is a well-regarded author in Argentina, but before My Two Worlds came out, I don’t think many English-speaking readers had heard of him, except for specialists in contemporary Latin American literature — something that’s changing, I hope.  The biggest pressure I felt was to do justice to this incredible novel and to deliver it to Open Letter Books in a reasonable amount of times.  It’s fairly short, only 103 pages, but instead of the four to five months I anticipated, the translation took almost a year of steady work.

Q: What were some of the particular challenges of translating Chejfec’s work?

A: What sets Chejfec’s work apart from other fiction I’ve translated is the density and complexity of his sentences.  There’s no coasting along; every sentence demands an intense scrutiny and a parsing through of meanings and possible translations.  When I was working on My Two Worlds, I had to ask Sergio a million questions, to the point where a gloss on the book could be made from the Q&As in the emails that went back and forth

At the same, I noticed how crucial the “little” words were in qualifying the narrator’s ruminations, such as “I can’t be sure” or “anyhow” or “whatever,” the whole panoply of verbal stutters in English that express doubt or hesitation.  Even these formulaic expressions needed to be sorted through and weighed in the English translation.

Q: Some of the pleasures?

A: The biggest one?  That was when I reached a certain moment in the revision and could read long stretches of the novel as a novel, I mean, I could step back and enjoy the scenes as if it were any book I’d just picked up.  You then flash back to an earlier stage when your draft was a mess, full of brackets around those phrases or sentences that resisted translation . . .  So it was utterly gratifying in the end to feel myself being gripped by the story as would any other reader.

And throughout the project, it was a real joy to work with Sergio Chejfec.  As I said, Sergio spent an enormous amount of time answering my questions, either in emails or in person.  I don’t think he ever imagined his novel would be subject to the kind of microscopic scrutiny it underwent.  I asked him once about what it was like to be translated and he said it was like a parable by Kafka; he had to offer his explanation to the Guardian of the Other Language so that the door would open.  If that was the case, I loved my Kafkaesque role in this endeavor!

The response to My Two Worlds has been amazing.  It’s the first translation I’ve done that’s made a perceptible ripple.  Chad Post and the staff at Open Letter Books have done an exceptional job at getting the novel out there to the right readers, and it’s a thrill for me to read reviews or commentaries that quote from the translation itself.

Q: And now, for translating in general, what are some of the particular challenges of translating?

A: When I start a new project I feel as uncertain and hesitant as the narrator in My Two Worlds.  And I never know when I’ve finished a translation.  You can tinker with them endlessly.

Q:  What are some of the pleasures?

A: Working intensively in the English language and discovering again and again that it has all the variety and nuance you need to catch any idiosyncrasy in the language you’re translating from.

Q: When you meet aspiring translators who have yet to begin their first project, what advice do you give?

A: My advice: only translate what you’re enthusiastic about.  Be willing to write an introduction or translator’s note about the author and the work.  You’re often the best person to do this and you’ll also gain visibility as a translator.  If the work isn’t in the public domain, be sure to obtain permission to publish your translation (by contacting the author or his or her publisher).  And send your translation around.

I’m an active member of the PEN Translation Committee at the PEN American Center in New York.  We meet often to discuss general issues concerning the business of translation.  A few resources for translators are available on our webpage at the PEN site, including a recently updated model contract that translators should look at (click here).

The American Literary Translators Association also has a helpful website (click here).

Q: What are some translator’s tools that you cannot work without?

A: On-line resources such as bilingual dictionaries, monolingual dictionaries (OED, el Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, wikipedia, google books) Roget’s thesaurus, Words into Type, Webster’s 3rd (Unabridged), my MacBook Air.

Q: How do you determine what project to work on next?

A: Since translation isn’t my main source of income, I can often decide what I’ll work on.  I’ve also been contacted directly for translation projects, and if I’m not too busy I usually accept them.

Q: And, if it’s not too much to ask, what are you working on next?

A: I have a few translation projects on hold right now, so they’re likely to be the next.  One is to complete the translation of a sequence of poems by Mercedes Roffé.  I’d also like to start writing reviews of books in translation.

More long-term, I’m hoping to do maybe one or two other novels by Sergio, but at present I’m only thinking of short-term projects.  Happily, Sergio’s fans can look forward to seeing two more of his novels, both from Open Letter, in translations by Heather Cleary: The Planets, which will be out in a few months, and The Dark, which will be published next year.

Q: What are some of your favorite authors who work has not yet been published into English?

A: I think my favorite authors have already been translated, at least in part, into English.  But even the most highly-regarded writers have important works yet to be translated.  Most of Virgilo Piñera’s plays, for example, are unknown in English.

I’d also like to see more essays, diaries, letters, and cross-genre works in translation.  The main focus among publishers seems to be fiction and poetry.

Q: Finally, what are three books you’d recommend we all read?

A: In keeping with the theme of translation:

Two books are by the German-born American poet Rosmarie Waldrop, who’s devoted a considerable part of her work to the translation of Edmond Jabès and to the translation and publication of many contemporary French and German innovative poets.  In Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès, Waldrop reminisces about her long friendship with Jabès and her experiences as his translator.  Her collection of essays Dissonance (if you are interested) also includes many superb pieces on the poetics of translation.

And I recommend Writing Beckett’s Letters by George Craig.  It’s a delightful account of Craig’s meticulous work on transcribing and translating into English the letters written by Samuel Beckett in French, which are published in Volume Two of Cambridge UP’s The Letters of Samuel Beckett.

5 thoughts on “Interview with Margaret B. Carson”

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Great stuff, Trevor. Good translators are crucial and this interview was extremely interesting.

  2. Trevor says:

    Thanks Lee. Did you manage to get a hold of this one? There are some superb translators out there, and by managing to follow Chejfec on his walk Margaret B. Carson shows she’s one of them.

  3. Lee Monks says:

    I didn’t, no, but I must rectify that in due course….

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