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Lily Meyer is a writer, translator, and critic. Her translations include Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s story collections Little Bird and Ice for Martians. Her first novel, Short War, is forthcoming from Deep Vellum/A Strange Object in Spring 2024.
On Translating Who Wants to Be a Mother
I read the Spanish novelist Silvia Nanclares’s debut Quien quiere ser madre, released in Spain in 2013, a year ago, in the summer of 2022. At the time, I was in the midst of moving from Ohio to Washington, D.C. while also planning my wedding. It wasn’t the ideal moment to start a new project. Unfortunately, within a chapter or so, I knew that I not only wanted but needed to translate Quien quiere ser madre. Its protagonist, Silvia, is about ten years older than me, but she and her friends in the novel are in the same position as me and many of mine, which is to say that they and we are writers who work in a terrifyingly precarious economy and who want kids. I related intensely to the fictional Silvia. I liked her feminism, her inquisitive intelligence, her refusal to countenance bullshit. Also, I loved her voice. In my initial notes on the book, I wrote about admiring its “blunt efficiency, how confessional it sounds without being thoroughly self-revelatory.” As if my audience were somebody other than myself, I added that my favorite aspect of the book was Nanclares’s tone, which is “clear, forceful, never ornamented or self-pitying (I hate ornamental prose!).”
Maybe I already knew I was going to want to write about translating Quien quiere ser madre, turning it into Who Wants to Be a Mother. I am both a translator and a critic; I write about translation often. Of course, I also read about it obsessively, and for years, what I have wanted to read most are craft essays that gets into the nitty-gritty of translating. With the exception of Daniel Hahn’s Catching Fire, a book-length diary of translating Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire, such writing is not easy to find. Inspired by Hahn, I decided I would keep a log of my thoughts while translating Who Wants to Be a Mother, which I started doing about three months after I read it. I wanted to capture my process in real time so I could write about it later—that is, write about it now.
Like any creative project, this one is partly selfish. I learn new techniques from each translation I take on. So far, Who Wants to Be a Mother has taught me one big one, which I will get to. It isn’t a method I totally understand yet, but I feel persuaded of its value. I want to both analyze and remember it, which means I need to write about it. Of course, I hope doing so will help other translators, too, but literary translation is idiosyncratic, like any form of writing. Each of us needs our own methods, our weird little ways.
What is not idiosyncratic is selling translations, a process at once fixed and opaque. I am hardly an authority on that front. (If you’re looking for one, I recommend Anton Hur’s Pitch Guide for Translators.) If Who Wants to Be a Mother gets bought soon, meaning sooner than the three other projects I am currently shopping around, it will be my third published book-length translation, though Nanclares is the seventh author whose work I have translated at some length. I am too superstitious to write about the pitching process while it’s happening, but I very much hope to write a second installment of this essay, one that discusses the lessons this project is teaching and will teach me about how to get a publisher to turn a translation sample into a book you, the reader, can hold in your hands.
In the meantime: the sample. Who Wants to Be a Mother has short chapters, which means that instead of the two or three I would ordinarily translate for submission, I translated thirteen chapters from the novel’s beginning, roughly a quarter of the book. (I should have done less, but I was enjoying myself. Besides, I like my samples to end on cliffhangers, and Ch. 13 gave me one.) I like to start with a rough but not literal translation, getting English words on the page as quickly as I can. Like is not quite the right word there; this part of translating is useful but painful for me. It takes great self-control not to play around with language until I have a good chunk of language to play with. But this time, the rough translation barely hurt. In my diary, I wrote, “I am shocked by how easy this is to render in English! I have to look up lots of Spanish slang and idioms, but am having no trouble at all hearing the voice or making the sentences flow.” I worried that I would pay for my ease later. Maybe refining the text would be awful, I thought. Maybe it would be a nightmare to create an English tone that matched the Spanish one that compelled me so completely.
It was not. Before long, I recognized that I had heard Who Wants to Be a Mother’s narrator clearly in part because I shared so many of her thoughts, dreams, and fears. While revising Ch. 1, I wrote in my diary that I thought “she sounds like me.” A chapter later, I noted, “In general, what’s working is being a little looser than I would with other authors, allowing more slippage between my voice and hers. Part of what I react to in the novel is the overlap between my life (or ways I imagine my life; ways I think about my life) and Silvia’s, so no surprise!” But I distrusted the looseness I was permitting myself. I couldn’t tell if it was a new technique—I’d never allowed so much slippage between myself and the narrator of a translation before—or a new temptation to exceed my role. Was I being confident, or overconfident?
Gradually, signs started pointing to the former. I found that, in order to remain in line with the book’s feminist and inclusive spirit, I sometimes needed to alter language so the book acknowledged that not everyone who wants to be a mother has a uterus, and not every birthing parent is a mother. (If your eyebrows are up, let me tell you: those changes were easy. Swap woman for person where it makes sense, and you’re done.) I also found that the best way to translate the chapters that deal with Silvia’s peripatetic life as a freelance journalist was to draw on my peripatetic life as a freelance critic. Such moments set me up for a surprisingly pivotal one in which I found myself tempted to sneak a minor Missy Elliott reference into a scene in which Silvia’s friends Mara and Nieves describe their plans to have children. In Spanish, the lines in question read, “Primero se embarazaría Mara con el óvulo de Nieves. Y pasados dos años, la operación se haría a la inversa.” Instead of translating the second sentence literally, as “And after two years, the operation would be done in reverse,” I wanted to translate it as, “Wait two years, then flip and reverse.” (For anyone unfamiliar, Elliott’s 2002 hit “Work It” instructs listeners to “flip it and reverse it.”) I let myself. Borrowing the lyric took nothing from the novel, and added a faint, inside-jokey note of levity that belonged in the book and the scene.
Something about the Missy Elliott moment freed me. It let me make the translation personal—just in time, since by that point, my day-to-day life had begun mirroring Silvia’s. She and her boyfriend Gabi set up house together midway through the novel; my now-husband and I were setting up our new home. She befriends her elderly neighbor; we befriended the bachelor next door. She buys a Calathea plant, which does poorly; my brother gave me a Calathea that died beside me as I translated. (RIP.) She races around Madrid, torn between work and family responsibilities; I wrote in my diary that I was “frustrated that I don’t have more time for this! I can rarely do more than a chapter, and rarely more than a chapter or two a week. Too much wedding planning, too many deadlines. I want to spend more hours and get into a better flow, and yet when I’m working, I feel like I am in a flow.” After the Missy Elliott moment, I decided to trust that sense of flow, which meant trusting my sense. While translating, I let myself be Silvia and Silvia be me. I had a truly great time.
Only one moment—one sentence—ruined my fun. For reasons I hope to get into in Part Two of this essay, I wound up translating a second sample from the novel’s end. In that sample, I had to address the line, “Parece que tenemos más claro el momento en que empieza una vida que el momento en que acaba.” My rough translation of that line was, “It seems like we’re clearer on the moment life begins than the moment it ends.” In the United States, that is simply not true. When I read Quien quiere ser madre in July 2022, Roe vs. Wade had just been overturned. By the time I translated my second sample in May 2023, laws that ban or heavily limit abortion had spread across the United States. Much of that legislation relies on religious ideas about the moment at which life starts—ideas that have no grounding in science, and no relevance to me as a Jew. (Judaism teaches that life begins at the point in childbirth when an infant breathes air for the first time.) Just writing the phrase the moment life begins brought all this into my mind. I wrestled and wrestled with how to handle it before realizing that my translation diary held the key. My
I’d had success and fun translating Who Wants to Be a Mother when I let myself get personal with it. In this case, the solution to my problem was simply to reinterpret the word personal. I switched the pronouns in the troubling sentence, writing, “I have a better sense of when life starts than when it ends these days.” Instantly, my worries fell away.
I never thought my translation diary would yield a technique as broad as this one. In fact, I’m tempted to call it a stance. I have long understood that translation is artistically personal. Who Wants to Be a Mother has taught me that it is emotionally personal, too. My translation came alive when I drew it close to me—and yet, mysteriously, my English-language Silvia does not sound like me at all. She sounds like herself. I don’t yet understand how that transformation works. Maybe more diary-keeping, and more writing about my translation diary, will help. For now, it feels like magic to me.
Douglas Suttle is a writer, translator and editor based in Catalonia. As well as writing for several newspapers and magazines throughout Europe, he ...