Literary Translator, Professor of Pedagogy at Emory University
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a translator?
I spent my junior year of college at University of Barcelona on a study abroad program, and it changed my life. I fell in love with Spanish, and with Catalan. During that year I had a course with an amazing linguistics professor named Ernesto Carratalá, qepd. It was a class where, among other things, we learned endless idiomatic expressions (vete a partir panteras, vete a freír espárragos, vete al quinto pino…) as well as etymology (mayonnaise = salsa mahonesa, from Mahón). He was an amazing man, and a lovely human being, and gave us lots of advice on where to travel, what to eat while we were there, when to go to a calçotada, etc. This was in the late 80s so well before all of this was on the internet. And he was so enthusiastic about language. And my love of idioms, slang, and different registers and ways of expressing things has never waned. After that year, I began dabbling in the translation of postwar short stories, by Carmen Martín Gaite, and by one of my favorite professors at undergrad (UCSD), Carlos Blanco Aguinaga. And then I was hooked, and that eventually led me to study translation at Middlesex in the UK, under Peter Bush.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Despite how cliché this will sound, there’s so much I love about it that I can’t pick one thing as “the” favorite. But one of many things I love is the preparation. I always think of this stage as being akin to acting, getting into character. So, you start by reading around the subject. For instance, if a novel is written in a certain style – hardboiled, say – I love reading other detective fiction to get into the mood, to try to get used to turns of phrase or vocabulary that isn’t normally part of my personal lexicon. If a book is set in a particular epoch, I’ll read things from the same period. Reading nonfiction about the country or region or topic most central to the book also helps. Often with nonfiction what you glean is nothing that will come to bear directly in your word choices, but it filters through indirectly, it lays a foundation, gives you context. It submerges you in the world you’re about to enter.
What is your advice for Spanish publishing companies interested in selling translation rights in the US?
That’s a great question. There are probably many folks in the industry who could speak to this better than I, but one thing I think is really important is the sample. Sometimes I feel like publishers and agents are not in conversation with each other enough, and this seems like an easy thing to remedy. Publishers need to pay translators to do samples, and pay folks to write good reader’s reports. Many editors have as their reading languages French or German, so they’re reliant on a combination of word-of-mouth, buzz, samples and reader’s reports – and word-of-mouth and buzz are shaky things to rely on. Editors sometimes buy rights to a book that turns out to be not what they were expecting, which can create problems. So my simple suggestion would be to pay professional translators to do good samples, and to get good readers reports. AC/E, as I’m sure most people reading this website know, offers funding for samples, so when agents approach me to do them, funded, I am thrilled. And it’s an enjoyable way for me to learn about titles I might not otherwise know, and talk them up if I find them interesting. But I’m still very often asked to do them for free, and as a rush job.
Is there demand for Spanish literature in the American market?
There’s an increasing demand for translation writ large, which is of course fantastic. And I think Spanish, specifically, is the language that benefits most from that. So many Americans find Spanish a familiar language, whether or not they speak it, and that adds to the appeal. For instance, just a few days ago I spoke to a man in a café who told me he had studied Spanish for a couple of years and therefore decided to read Borges in the original. He was surprised to find that he was in no way prepared to read in the original, and therefore went out and bought the translation! And I’m convinced that, yes, there is a demand for Spanish literature.
What are the creative requirements of literary translation?
I think you need to love literature, read voraciously, and be a good writer. Personally, I did an M.A. in literary translation, because I love school and wanted the theoretical and historical framework and background in addition to the hands-on practice, but many truly excellent translators whom I respect inordinately have not studied translation formally. They are, however, all great readers and writers.
How does literary translation stand in comparison with creative writing?
To me personally, very favorably! Clearly there’s plenty of overlap. Translators do a lot of research, which I think many people don’t consider. And obviously there’s a lot of creativity involved in the linguistic side of things: finding an appropriate tone, developing a register for characters, grammatical restructuring, stylistics and so on. But I never have to develop the plot. So I find that ideal.
Is there fair recognition of literary translators?
This is a great time for literary translation. There has been such an uptick in recognition in the past five or so years. Several years ago #NameTheTranslator, I think, did a lot not only in terms of perhaps “shaming” a few negligent publishers, newspapers and reviewers to be more open in their recognition, but also in making the reading public at large more aware of translation and the import of translators as agents. And there are translators like Jennifer Croft, whose open letter and statements about not signing contracts that won’t put her name on the cover, have really shifted the needle. I feel like indie presses in particular are already pretty good not only at recognizing translators on book jackets but in other ways: requesting translators’ notes or introductions, interviews, bilingual readings. But even bigger publishers are doing much better.
What is the state of translating Spanish literary works into English?
This year I am one of the judges for the SUFTA, the Spain-USA Foundation Translator’s Award, and it’s been an amazing experience. I read twenty translations from Spain published in the US alone in 2022, so not even including those published by the many UK presses. And the quality was staggering. Some were by writers whose names I knew but had never read, others were from the 19th century, some translated from Catalan, Galician and Basque. The styles and stories were hugely varied, but the quality was not. Selecting those on the shortlist was incredibly difficult, there were so many we felt deserved to be on it. So I’d say that, although of course there could always be more, the state of Spanish fiction in English is exciting.
Who has been the most challenging author to translate?
Whoever I am working on currently. So right now, it’s Andrés Barba! He has a way of bending syntax in Spanish that is totally agrammatical and yet reads 100% naturally, beautifully and fluidly. Finding analogous ways to do the same thing in English is simultaneously very challenging and also fun.
What are your future projects?
Easy question! Although there are a few things in the hopper, the writer I am most interested in finding a home for is Cristina Cerrada. She’s written nine novels and none of them has been translated into English. I want to translate her trilogy (Europa, Hindenburg, Stalin’s Teacher), which is achingly, heartbreakingly amazing. The books are all about women refugees from unnamed countries in Eastern Europe, and her prose is incredibly lean and spare, just stripped down to the bare essentials. So if any publishers are reading this and would like a sample, just let me know!
Douglas Suttle is a writer, translator and editor based in Catalonia. As well as writing for several newspapers and magazines throughout Europe, he ...