TRANSLATING SHORT STORIES FROM GUATEMALA. HOW CAN A LESS WELL-KNOWN REALITY REACH THE WORLD’S BOOKSHELVES?
An interview with Ellen Jones on her translation of Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Charco Press, 2019), our selected Translated Book of the Month in February.
Literature in translation can be our window on a foreign, often unknown, culture and society. Translators accompany us in our explorations, they make them possible by making stories accessible. But what does such a process entail? What difficulties, what responsibilities do translators face? How can translators help readers navigate distant places, histories and languages?
Ellen Jones, the translator of Rodrigo Fuentes’ Trout, Belly Up, published last month by Charco Press, answers our questions and tells us more about the process of translation, and, in particular, her experience of translating short stories from Guatemala. She helps us explore how a less well-known, culture-specific reality can reach an international public.
Translation is a challenging task. Translators need to make practical choices to introduce to their readers foreign terms, a particular style, a less well-known historical background and/or social context. How did you overcome these difficulties in your translation of Trout, Belly Up?
"Guatemala is not a country that has a lot of its literature translated into English, and British readers might be forgiven for not being familiar with some aspects of Guatemalan culture that permeate Trout, Belly Up. As a translator I had the peculiar task of deciding how much credit to give our readers – what needs to be explained, and what should remain oblique? What might be lost by making things too easy for them, or too hard? Is there a way of gently sketching out an unfamiliar concept while still encouraging readers to do a bit of lateral thinking, or even a bit of research?
A good example appears in the story titled ‘Out of the Blue, Perla’, which takes place in the countryside during a sugarcane harvest during which there is a significant amount of agricultural unrest. After a long period of strike action, the sugarcane cutters begin to suffer food shortages and are wavering in their resolve. Fuentes gives us the following sentence:
Cuando apareció la Antorcha Justiciera para hacerle frente a tanto agravio, la gente ya estaba hablando de dejar la huelga y regresar al trabajo.
In Guatemala and other parts of Latin America, an ‘Antorcha’ or ‘Torch’ – in this instance a Torch of Justice, although it might equally be a Torch of Freedom, Liberty, Peace, etc. – refers to a flaming torch that’s carried by a series of torchbearers as a form of protest or commemoration. It can also refer, however, to an organisation – to a group of people united by the symbol of the torch, rather than the torch itself, as is the case with Mexico’s Antorcha Campesina (‘Peasant Torch’), a political organisation whose principle objective is the eradication of poverty.
Given that British readers of Trout, Belly Up might not be familiar with this use of the word ‘torch’, I didn’t want to give a literal translation like: ‘By the time the Torch of Justice appeared to put right all their grievances…’, because this rendering doesn’t make it clear that the ‘Torch’ refers to a group of people. So I’ve made a tiny change that helps accommodate readers unfamiliar with the concept of the ‘Antorcha’:
By the time some guys formed a Torch of Justice to put right all their grievances, people were already talking about breaking the strike and going back to work.
All translators will likely have to make small accommodations like this at some point in a given project, subtly ushering readers in a general direction so they are better able to navigate a less well-known context."
What was the biggest challenge you faced as a translator?
"I think the hardest aspect of Fuentes’s style was his use of colloquial language. Translating idioms and slang is notoriously difficult, and getting the voices right in Trout, Belly Up proved to be one of its greatest challenges. The collection begins, like many of the other stories to come, in the middle of a conversation: ‘That family stuff’s complicated, I told Don Henrik’. The narrative voice here and elsewhere is relaxed and familiar in its response to a question we haven’t heard. This is common throughout the volume; ‘Dive’ and ‘Ubaldo’s Island’ in particular have narrative voices that bounce anecdotes off silent confidantes, so the tone is always casual and sometimes intimate, too. I needed to find a conversational rhythm and an informal vocabulary that would sound natural in English. One way of achieving the former was to omit a lot of pronouns at the beginnings of sentences, and to rely on comma splices – where independent clauses aren’t connected properly with conjunctions like ‘and’ – which writing in English doesn’t usually tolerate much. For example, in ‘Ubaldo’s Island’, Ubaldo describes some precautions he takes after being intimidated:
Didn’t let my wife and kids sleep at my place any more either, sent them away because I didn’t want them around with all this going on.
These strategies help to approximate spoken dialogue, and make sure the register of the prose doesn’t become too formal, even if I have to make vocabulary choices that are less slangy than they are in the Spanish."
What is your favourite short story from the collection and why?
"My favourite story in the collection is without a doubt ‘Out of the Blue, Perla’, which I’ve already mentioned. The story has an unlikely protagonist – a cow called Perla, who, after forming a close bond with a mongrel called Blue, grows up behaving more like a dog than a cow. Perla is beloved both of her owners and the local sugarcane cutters, and she ends up siding with the workers in their ongoing dispute with the mill owners. She later comes face to face with a group of hired gunmen who have murdered a number of key union leaders and continue to intimidate those participating in the strike. As Thomas Blake puts it in his insightful and generous review of the book:
The cow, Perla, takes on more human (and even divine) characteristics as the story progresses – she ‘dances’ on two legs, her gaze is knowing and coquettish, she shines ‘like a saint at Easter.’ As Perla grows more civilised and anthropomorphised, the criminals become increasingly bestial, finally committing an act of such transgressive barbarity that they effectively swap places with Perla in a kind of double-edged moral transmutation.
What might sound in summary like a gimmicky premise for a story – a cow who wants to be a dog – turns out to be a unique, sophisticated lens through which to examine an important period of rural upheaval. Guatemala is the world’s fourth largest exporter of sugarcane, but the industry has a history of serious violations of workers’ rights, including the violent repression of union leaders and sexual violence against female workers. In this story, Fuentes has the lightest of touches, balancing moments of whimsy and humour against a dark historical reality before delivering a devastating finale. For me, despite being a cow, Perla is one of the most enchanting, memorable characters in the collection – certainly the most compelling female character in a fictional world populated mainly by men and often stained with macho aggression. Her violation will oblige readers to recall the collection’s title story, ‘Trout, Belly Up’, which includes a disturbing sex-scene that teeters on the edge of violence. In both these stories Fuentes uses animals – dogs, cows, fish – to explore the toxic relationships humans maintain with one another and with the natural world."
The stories in the collection are set in Guatemala. What other – less evident – aspects of the stories can reveal their culture-specificity? How can translators highlight such specificity when translating for a broader audience? Was this something you focused on in your translation?
"We assume all the stories in Trout, Belly Up are set in Guatemala, yes, because of the author’s nationality, although readers are not always told that explicitly. Rather, their settings are revealed through myriad tiny details, such as the landscape (‘You’ve got the three volcanos on the other side of the lake, the shore skirting their flanks as it runs around the basin’), flora and fauna (swiss cheese plants, quetzals, pacas, and howler monkeys), or rural buildings (people live in ‘covachas’, ‘ranchitos’, and ‘cuartos de lámina’, huts, cabins, and metal shacks).
I mentioned earlier that translators have to make decisions about how easy or difficult they want it to be for readers to immerse themselves in a world that isn’t immediately familiar to them. I described one example where I made readers’ lives easier, gently incorporating an explanation of the ‘Torch of Justice’ into my prose. But there are of course occasions when a translator will want to do the opposite: to make readers feel a little out of their depth and highlight the fact that a book was written about a different place and in a different language. A small-scale example of this would be the decision to leave certain words in the original language. In Trout, for instance, my editors and I discussed whether to use a number of Spanish words describing buildings and landscapes: ‘hacienda’, ‘palapa’, and ‘altiplano’. These words, in an English translation, remind readers that the story is taking place in Central America. But will readers know what they mean, or be able to figure them out from the context? Should I leave them in roman font, or put them in italics to highlight the fact that they’re non-English words? My instinct is always to give readers the benefit of the doubt – to trust that their intelligence and curiosity will help them overcome these small challenges and hopefully learn something from them."
We kindly thank the translator Ellen Jones and Charco Press for their contribution to this blog.
Ellen Jones is a researcher and translator based in London. She has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and writes about multilingualism and translation in contemporary Latin American literature. Her reviews have appeared in publications including the Times Literary Supplement and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and her translations in publications including the Guardian and Latin American Literature Today. She has been Criticism Editor at Asymptote since 2014.
About Charco Press:
Charco means ‘puddle’ in Spanish and is also a colloquialism used in some Latin American countries to refer to the Atlantic Ocean. Arriving on the literary scene in July 2017, founded by Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell, and based in Edinburgh, Charco Press focuses on finding outstanding contemporary Latin American literature and bringing it to readers in the English-speaking world for the first time. It aims to act as a cultural bridge to enable access to a world of fiction that has, until now, been missing from reading lists. Their titles have been listed for the Man Booker International Award, Republic of Consciousness Award, and have won PEN Translates Awards. The company itself has won the Saltire Society’s Emerging Publisher of the Year 2018, Creative Edinburgh’s Start-Up Award of the Year 2018 Award and just recently British Book Awards Small Press of the Year Regional Award for Scotland. TROUT, BELLY UP is their eleventh book.
Their next publication, Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz, translated by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, is coming out in May 2019. Check their events page for more information.