Layla Benitez-James is a 2022 NEA fellow in translation and the author of God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode but He Had to Make Sure, selected by Major Jackson for Cave Canem’s 2017 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. As Director of Literary Outreach for the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid, she edited its poetry festival anthology, Desperate Literature. Poems and essays are published in Black Femme Collective, Virginia Quarterly Review, Latino Book Review, and Poetry London. Layla received an MFA in poetry from the University of Houston and writes for Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books.
In your opinion, what would it take for there to be more available Spanish translations in the US?
My mind always goes to funding and thinking about multiple levels of diversity. For more Spanish translations to be available, there needs to be more support for translators (and, with any luck, more and more diversity among translators) and that also means support for publishers. For my own taste, I’m especially fond of independent publishers like Deep Vellum and Nightboat Books who tend to be more interested in unique or experimental work which might inspire a wider audience outside the mainstream. As an independent, freelance translator, I can say it makes a huge difference when the application process is accessible (without the financial barrier of fees) and as simple as possible. Getting the word out about opportunities is also key! Now a few grants are on my yearly radar, but it’s great when organizations have strong outreach so that publishers and translators can work together to find support for projects.
Awards, festivals, and conferences can also help introduce readers to writing in translation. The Lambda Literary Awards have been on my mind because the 2022 finalist list recently came out, and I think encouraging a separate Literature in Translation category or having a yearly spotlight on a different country could be a great way to tap into the diversity of Spanish literature and celebrate younger voices or LGBTQ voices. I noticed three titles in translation this year: Writing with Caca / Escribir con Caca by Luis Felipe Fabre (translated by JD Pluecker for Green Lantern Press), Phototaxis by Olivia Tapiero (translated by Kit Schluter for Nightboat Books), and Brickmakers by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott for Graywolf Press), and I think it would be really exciting for organizations who are not necessarily focused on translation to take more of an interest in celebrating global voices.
Is there demand for Spanish literature in the American market?
I’m still learning about publishing and the US market, but I was certainly hungry for more Spanish literature as a young reader in university. Now I’m better at navigating online journals in Spanish, but back then I didn’t necessarily have the knowhow to find writing outside the cannon. Thinking about how Nordic crime thrillers (Scandi noir?) had this huge boom when I was graduating high school and going to university between 2007 and 2011, I wonder if some specific genre is still yet to pop off for Spain. I think there is certainly a demand for Spanish poetry (left from the legacy of Lorca) and the traditional novel, and Spain definitely holds a special place in the American imagination. Thinking back to that first question, I also think we must create the demand. I love the super ambitious goal of the O, Miami Festival which aims to make sure that each person in the city has an encounter with poetry during National Poetry Month in April. That means they’re putting poems in grocery stores and billboards and taking poetry outside its usual haunts. Something like this for Spanish literature could create that demand.
Who are some of your favorite Spanish authors?
Cervantes, Machado, and Lorca first pulled me towards Spain, and I think I’ll always return to their work. This month I also got Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists which came out last year, and I’m excited to read some new voices, but I moved to Spain in 2014 to translate the work of Madrid poet Óscar Curieses who was the first modern poet whose wild work I really became obsessed with. He’s since written novels as well, and I’ve translated the first which is a wonderfully experimental manifesto in the voice of Francis Bacon called Man in Blue which we are hoping to publish soon. My favorite contemporary Spanish authors have evolved somewhat organically after moving first to Murcia where I met Cristina Morano, a poet I absolutely love, and Beatriz Miralles (I’ve just finished a draft of her debut poetry collection, Oscura deja la piel su sombra). In Murcia I also met Miguel Ángel Hernández Navarro and really liked his novel Intento de escapada (Anagrama, 2013) which was translated by Rhett McNeil (a fellow Texan who I have never met) for Hispabooks which was a Madrid-based publishing house.
I also really like the hybrid work of Rubén H. Bermúdez who has a book of photo essays called Y tú, ¿por qué eres negro? in which I found a lot of overlap with the images from my own childhood in Texas. Currently, my favorite novelist is Lucía Mbomío Rubio whose debut novel, Hija del camino, I’m co-translating with Lawrence Schimel with support from an NEA translation grant.
Is it necessary for a literary translator to also be a writer?
Absolutely! I think all good literary translators are writers, even if they don’t think of themselves in this way, and I think many of them do. Even if they don’t write their own independent creative work, they are composing and using the same writing skills, even if they work from an original text. There is also always something to be said for brilliant editors!
What are the creative requirements of literary translation?
Each text surely has its own particular requirements, but attention to the elements of composition and an understanding of the original text are both key, and I consider reading to be the first creative requirement of literary translation. To know what you need to create, you’ve got to have a good understanding of what’s already there. Being deeply inquisitive is also a common trait among translators I admire, and I love reading about the different obsessions sparked by their texts. It’s also an absolute gift to be able to work with a living author and communicate with them about their text, not that you’ll always get straight answers to your questions . . . as a poet, it’s helpful to know/remember that I absolutely don’t know where some of my poems and lines come from either.
Is there fair recognition of literary translators?
I feel really lucky to be entering the translation field at this time, as I can witness some big shifts happening already and feel hopeful that we have fair recognition in sight. Fair pay and being credited for work are the two biggest elements that come to mind for fair recognition, and many translators have been working towards more equity with movements like #NametheTranslator, and I know Jennifer Croft’s “Why translators should be named on book covers” had a big impact on brining these issues to the forefront. I also truly believe fair recognition is as good for publishers and readers as it is for the translators themselves. As a reader, I want to see the translator’s name on the cover because I’m also buying their work. When I was studying, I sometimes had a heck of a time knowing whose translation I was reading, especially with work excerpted online, and I don’t think erasing translators helps academia as critics and scholars often need to talk about an author’s style which they can get closest to in the original language but often access through a translator.
What is the state of translation in the US?
Things can always get better, but I feel like there are some really important conversations being had and publishers and editors are interested in translation and how to market it in smarter and smarter ways. I’ve seen more and more conversations about how the lack of translations is a negative thing, and I’ve seen more and more publishers talking about how they can provide readers with more.
I’m also grateful to the Society of Authors & Translators in the UK and the Editorial Freelancers Association in the US for publishing minimum starting rates for negotiation and general acceptable rates. Many translators start out self-funding “passion projects” and doing a lot of work on spec which means there is a system of people with generational wealth or other means of support who get to do this work. Inspired by John Keene’s “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” I began to reach out to other translators of color, and I’m now part of a collective organizing an online space which will be called The Patchwork Project. I really appreciated Aaron Robertson’s “Publishers Need More Black Translator Friends” from last year, and I’m hoping the state of translation in the US (and globally) is about to get a lot more diverse.
What is the state of translating Spanish literary works into English?
I need to read a lot more to get an accurate survey of what’s coming into English from Spain, but what I can say is that I always feel I don’t have enough time to read all the wonderful things available just now. My impression is that there are a lot of Spanish authors worthy of translation and not enough time, but I’d say I’d love to see a winder range of voices and forms coming into English. I was recently recommended the Movidas Varias podcast by fellow translator Jeffrey Coleman, and now the graphic novels of the host, Quan Zhou Wu, who is from the very south of Andalucía are high on my list for new Spanish reading!
What are you working on at the moment?
Lucía Mbomío Rubio’s novel Hija del camino and the poetry collection Oscura deja la piel su sombra by Beatriz Miralle
How do you deal with a Spanish word that has several meanings?
I’m a great lover of footnotes and endnotes, and I’ve never really understood when people say they are “taken out” of a text because of notes. I do think some things are untranslatable and that’s ok, and a note might really open up a reader’s world and lead them down a new rabbit hole or two. I’m also still learning how to get comfortable moving away from being too literal-minded with a text and massaging in an elegant gloss of a word, where a few extra words allow multiple meanings to come through if the Spanish is able to convey this with one word. When I’m thinking about translation as an abstract concept, I fully understand you’ve got to completely (re)write the text. However, in practice, I’m slow and still have the student of Spanish mindset which makes for really stiff word for word translations. More practice has meant loosening up. I especially love sayings to do with food and really like how a religious curse like hostia, referencing the host, becomes ostras when you try to tame it and make it sound less blasphemous, just as cheese and rice can stand in for Jesus Christ.
How does literary translation stand in comparison with creative writing?
The two have always been linked for me. Before I tried translation formally in a graduate workshop at the University of Houston while I was in the creative writing program for poetry, I loved the abstract idea of translation and knew much of the literature I loved was translated. I also took a creative writing class in Spanish when I studied abroad in Madrid in 2009, and writing in a second language freed me from many of my English poetic ticks and forced me far outside my comfort zone. Literary translation forces a diversity of style whereas a writer might find their “voice” and stick to it, but I’m also interested in where the line blurs between creative writing and literary translation and was excited by a favorite poet, Tracy K. Smith, working in collaboration with Changtai Bi to translate the work of Yi Lei (伊蕾). With the writer’s permission and collaboration, they took a lot of liberties with her book, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree, to the point where I’ve seen some other translators say, but that’s not translation! I love all experimental work, so perhaps what most excites me is not how literary translation and creative writing stand in comparison, but how they overlap and are/were always already connected and in conversation.
Douglas Suttle is a writer, translator and editor based in Catalonia. As well as writing for several newspapers and magazines throughout Europe, he ...