Books Across Borders: Q&A With Acclaimed Translator Heather Cleary

We interviewed literary translator Heather Cleary about her work on ‘Comemadre’ and how to raise awareness for translated books in the U.S.
literary translator

Some of the greatest literature in print today was originally written in a language other than English. From Don Quixote to The Alchemist, books in translation have topped our lists of beloved literature in both the past and the present. But surprisingly, only about 3 percent of books in the United States are in translation. And this lack of books in translation is not for a lack of great literature being written in other languages.

Fortunately, there are people out there who are trying to grow that 3 percent. We spoke with Heather Cleary, acclaimed literary translator and founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review, about her work on the horrifically humorous Comemadre and what’s being done to give translated books the boost they deserve.

BABBEL: How did you get into the world of literary translation?

CLEARY: Actually, it’s kind of funny; it was completely by accident. When I was an undergraduate, I was working on an honors thesis, and it wasn’t really coming together. It was supposed to be on detective fiction, and it just wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. I studied at NYU, and there’s a professor there named Richard Sieburth, who’s a very accomplished translator, from French and German. I ran into him in the hallway and he said, “Well, why don’t you try your hand at translation?” So, I did, and I just completely fell in love with it.

I kind of re-organized the rest of my education around that, and here I am now. It was complete serendipity. What I love about translation is the way it’s so much like a puzzle. You’re writing, but with a set of constraints; I find it really fascinating.

BABBEL: How did you become the translator for Comemadre, and what was your initial reaction when you read the book?

CLEARY: This is one of those cases where the publisher brought the book to me — actually it arrived through a friend who has worked with the press before; she recommended me as a reader. They were trying to decide if they wanted to acquire the book. Because it’s from Argentina, this mutual acquaintance said they should send it to me for my opinion because I knew the landscape.

I read it and was floored by the language. I loved the way it was written, the tone and the voice of the two different narrators, and thought it would be fun to translate. I was interested in the challenge of making a distinction in the voices without having the language seem forced. I’m also definitely drawn to books that push the envelope a bit, or that are on the dark side.

BABBEL: Did Comemadre’s absurd subject matter make it enjoyable to work on?

CLEARY: Oh my God, it was so much fun to work on. I mean a translation goes through many, many drafts, right? You’ve got the rough draft, and then you do one or two before you send it to the publisher, and then you get edits back and you have to go through it again. And even by the sixth or seventh time I was reading the book, I was still laughing (at my own translation, which was really nerdy).

BABBEL: Were there certain things in the book that just didn’t translate into English well?

CLEARY: There’s a lot of bawdy language in the book that can’t be translated literally; if you want it to have the same effect, you have to find equivalent phrases or things that will create the same experience in the reader that reading a dirty pun would in Spanish.

One example would be the reference to the “muff” that’s in the back of the closet. In Spanish, basically it’s just “a furry thing” — una cosa peluda — and it’s clear that the joke is, when he says, “That furry thing could be my undoing,” he’s very clearly talking about Menéndez’s parts. But English has this fabulous word “muff,” which is both a plausible accessory for somebody to have in that period and also a euphemism that works. That was one place where I played a bit.

I was in dialogue with the author [Roque Larraquy]; we talked throughout the whole process. He’s a lovely human, and it was a fun conversation. Sometimes I would check and say, “Okay, I’m kind of pushing the envelope here. Is this okay with you?” He was very open to whatever needed to happen to make the translation work.

When books come from everywhere, so do perspectives.

BABBEL: As someone who really spent a lot of time with Comemadre in both Spanish and English, what does the novel mean to you?

CLEARY: It’s definitely a book about the lengths that people go to, to achieve immortality in one way or another, whether it’s an artistic legacy or some sort of transcendent experience.

But I was also really interested in how the book deals with violence, and more specifically, the idea that violence is an inherent part of romantic love. Period. From the beginning. Always. I appreciate the wide range of romantic and affective relationships that all, in their own way, demonstrate certain kinds of violence. It was sort of equal opportunity, I thought, in that way, which I liked. Whether it’s familial, queer, straight: it’s all treated with the same bleakness. That’s something people don’t talk about as much, but that I find very interesting in the book.

BABBEL: Let’s back up and talk a little more about book translation, in general. Do you think there’s been any shift in people, specifically in the United States, toward reading more books in translation?

CLEARY: There has been a slight increase in readership, and in the number of books published in translation, but we’re still pretty far behind.  A number of wonderful independent presses dedicated to literature in translation have been popping up, especially over the past decade; this push gained momentum with the founding of Archipelago Books and Open Letter; more recently there’s Two Lines Press, Transit Books, Deep Vellum…  And, of course, New Directions has been around since the 1930s. I’m also noticing a shift in the way translations are discussed, and how visible they are in book reviews in the mainstream media and digital media, which is great.

I actually just started writing for Book Marks, which is a subsidiary of Lit Hub, as their literature in translation columnist. Lit Hub also features translations quite a lot; they do a really good job of foregrounding that, and that’s a significant platform. I think initiatives like that — and you see them more and more nowadays — lay the groundwork for translation’s continued growth, even if the effect in publishing and readership hasn’t changed that much yet.

BABBEL: Is there anything else you can think of that can be done to introduce people to more diverse literature, specifically literature in translation? Where does it start: in schools, in publishing, in the media?

CLEARY: I think the answer is all of the above, right? There’s the “name the translator” movement: if a book review of a translation comes out that fails to acknowledge the fact that it’s a translation, there tends to be a social media outcry to correct the error. Also, Archipelago recently started a children’s book line, and I know they’re not alone in focusing on children’s books in translation, which is wonderful. You get young readers already acclimated to the idea that books come from everywhere. And when books come from everywhere, so do perspectives. I think that that’s really important. Raising awareness can happen in many different ways.

Want to join a community of translated book enthusiasts? Check out the Babbel Book Club! We choose a new book each month and discuss it in our Facebook group. This month’s pick: Comemadre.

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