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Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Charlotte Whittle, Editor and Literary Translator

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Charlotte Whittle is a literary translator, editor at Cardboard House Press, and—per her Twitter bio—an “occasional scribbler” with bylines at Words Without Borders, Electric Literature, and the Paris Review.

Currently based in New York, she’s originally from England and Utah and has lived in Mexico, Peru, and Chile—and her back catalogue of literary translations reflect this multicultural background.

Alongside Mexican writer Jorge Comensal’s The Mutations (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019), she’s also translated cult Argentine writer Norah Lange’s People in the Room (And Other Stories, 2018) and Notes from Childhood (And Other Stores, 2021). Current projects include Spaniard Elisa Victoria’s Oldladyvoice (And Other Stories, 2021) and Irene Vallejo’s forthcoming Infinity in a Reed.

Here, we discuss cross-cultural life, figuring out the English-language voice of Norah Lange, swearing like the Spaniards, and fleeing from academia into the lucrative arms of literary translation.

★★★★★

Lauren Cocking: You’re currently based in New York, but you grew up between England and the US. Do you have any lingering British idiosyncrasies?

Charlotte Whittle: There are things that people consider eccentricities. I once freaked out because we only had 13 teabags left in the house. My ex-husband thought this was the most extraordinary thing and I was like, you have no idea what it’s like to be English. My mum worries about how much and what kind of tea I have access to, so sometimes I’ll get an envelope with no message and just a handful of teabags. More seriously, though, I feel shaped by both countries but don’t feel like I fully belong in either.

LC: Does this trans-continental life (and upbringing) affect your translation at all?

CW: The language of your childhood never goes away; it plays a huge role in shaping your subjectivity. Despite not having had a bilingual upbringing, I was constantly mediating between two very different cultures—I was traveling alone between England and Utah from a young age, I was the link between them, no one in either place really knew what my life was like in the other, which gave me an early training in trying to decode things for people, an experience that I’ve increasingly come to think shaped my approach to work and the way I feel drawn to in-between spaces.

[And] I’m always doing a sort of transatlantic dance when putting the finishing touches to a manuscript. Am I doing British? Am I doing American? I would say that my translations tend to lean toward more American idiom when I’m translating contemporary works, but in the case of Norah Lange I spent a lot of time thinking about the English writers she was reading and her engagement with the 19th century English novel. The way that she breaks that tradition down into shards and puts them together as something completely new and different. When I translate her, I’m drawing more heavily on the British side of my background, which corresponds to an earlier part of my life.

LC: How did you end up becoming a literary translator?

CW: I began to translate because I would be taken with a poem or a story and I really wanted to feel it in my own language.

The first translations I ever did were of poems by César Vallejo, a notoriously difficult, challenging modernist. It became a very loving act of deep reading, so I think that’s where my urge to translate came from. Fortunately for me, the notebook with all of my Vallejo translations disappeared years ago, so I don’t need to think about the terrible things I did to those amazing poems.

LC: After that initial formative period, what made you switch to doing it professionally?

CW: I was fleeing from academia. (Laughs.) I’m being hyperbolic, but in a way it’s a fair assessment of the situation. I started sending some poems out for publication when I was a graduate student, and I was disenchanted with academia. I felt that the constraints of the career path and the kind of sacrifices you’re expected to make for a set of rewards that are by no means guaranteed just weren’t in line with how I wanted to live. You know, the fact that you’re supposed to be willing to give up everything and move to rural Nebraska for a job. Among other things, the freedom to choose where I lived was too important to me.

My route into translation was pretty circuitous if you look at it on paper, but it sort of all makes sense in my mind. I was studying literature in Spanish, and translation felt like a different, maybe more intimate way of engaging with texts I loved.

LC: I also read that you did a diploma in translation studies which both closed and opened doors. I was interested as to what you meant by that?

CW: When I was doing that diploma, the idea that literary translation was something you could do as a career was completely shut down by the lecturer, someone I gave a lot of authority to in my mind. [He said] oh no, you can’t do that. Unless you’re willing to work for pennies, but nobody does that. And I was young and impressionable, and didn’t immediately pursue translation as a career even though I was loving it. A lot of my life in recent years has been about unlearning things that male authority figures told me when I was young.

LC: Thinking now about your career as a translator…*Charlotte puts air quotes around career*. Why do you put air quotes on ‘career’?

CW: I suppose a career is something you either jump through hoops in order to achieve or you invent your own. Maybe I should be more willing to take ownership of the idea of having a career. Unlike many lines of work that we tend to think of as professions, there’s no structured progression in literary translation and there isn’t really any upward mobility either. You have to invent your own path and set your own goals, and figure out how realistic it is for you to live from translation alone. Some people make it work, and some combine it with other sources of income.

LC: Have you ever gone back to a published text and wished you could change things?

CW: I mean, all the time. (Laughs.) I think it’s inevitable because there are so many choices that you can make and—to challenge the commonly held notion of the invisibility of the translator and this disappearing act that we’re supposed to do—we are human beings with subjectivity and a physical existence.

A translation might be affected by the place you’re in when you’re translating and the state of mind that you’re in and what you’ve been reading and the kind of research you’ve been doing. So many factors influence the eventual choices you make, and every choice in a translation is a choice not to use an alternative. The idea that you’re ever going to feel completely satisfied is a fantasy. Mireille Gansel, in her gorgeous book Translation as Transhumance, talks about shifting translations of the same line over the years, calling translation “a delicate seismograph at the heart of time”. That phrase, in Ros Schwartz’s translation, is one I think about a lot.

So, I’ve absolutely had the experience of picking up a book that I translated and flipping to a random page and thinking oh fuck, I could have done that differently. 

I also think that it’s time to retire the notion of untranslatability and the cliche of things being lost in translation, because it’s an impoverished way of looking at translation, rooted in the hierarchical notion of the superiority of the original. It’s much more interesting to look at the relationship between the original and translation in a way that’s more horizontal. What is gained? What potential can the text fulfil in a new language?

LC: Absolutely. You’ve translated various regional versions of Spanish, different types of variations of Spanish. I wonder if there’s any difference between translating each version, beyond the obvious of vocabulary?

CW: That’s a great question. In the case of Spanish, I’ve heard some translators say that they will only work with the regional variant that they know most intimately, and I think that’s a totally legitimate choice but it’s not really something I can commit to in practical terms. Partly because my tastes span different regions and partly just because, a lot of the time, the reality of the working translator is that you have to accept the work you’re offered.

Mexican Spanish was my first love and since then I’ve lived in Peru and Chile, so those are also regional variants that I’m pretty comfortable with, but part of the pleasure and challenge of working with Spanish is precisely that: it’s a language so rich and diverse in its regional expressions. You never stop learning.

LC: What do you look for in your translation projects?

CW: Good question but for some reason, I don’t find it that easy to answer. Wanting to get my hands dirty with language is the reason I’m in this line of work and so I tend to look for really compelling sentences. I’ve got to fall in love with the sentences and want to make them mine. (Laughs.)

LC: Have you ever had a sentence that has really stuck with you, whether it’s in the translation you did on the original?

CW: Absolutely. Many of Norah Lange’s sentences are long and meandering and continue to resonate in my head long after I’m done with the project. The ultimate pleasure of translation for me is grappling with the sentence. Turning it upside down, doing all the things that you can do to a sentence to make it sing. Norah Lange’s prose—in addition to being a kind of prose that you might compare to, say, Virginia Woolf or Henry James in its complexity—is also haunted and haunting in a way I find very unique. Lately I think a lot about the line, “I became familiar with the strange voluptuousness of farewells”. It’s characteristic of Lange’s dark turn of mind, the way she loves to probe the sadness and strangeness of existence, making sources of sorrow into objects of desire.

LC: Another translator I interviewed brought up the overrepresentation of Argentine literature in translation and tied it to the whiteness of Argentina in comparison to other Latin American regions. As Norah Lange’s translator, do you have a view on that?

CW: That’s a really sharp observation and Argentina obviously has a difficult history when it comes to race, from its foundation up to the present. Just the other day the president made a comment that played up the country’s European heritage and denied its mestizo roots. Argentina is a literary powerhouse and home to one of the biggest publishing markets in Latin America, so it makes sense that it would come to be overrepresented. And that overrepresentation, both in Spanish and English, can be mapped onto racial hierarchies.

In terms of Norah Lange’s particular case, she was the child of an Irish-Norwegian mother and a Norwegian father. She was born into a relatively privileged family that later fell on hard times, and was known in her circles as a Norwegian beauty with flame red hair and pale skin. She was fetishised for her whiteness, a kind of whiteness her contemporaries seemed to find exotic, but her mythification as muse contributed to her own work coming to be overlooked to a certain degree, so it’s a complex dynamic.

In general, the issue of who gets translated and from where is something we need to be doing a better job of interrogating. There’s a lot of good work being done to raise awareness about the relatively low numbers of women translated into English, but we should also be thinking about which women. The approach needs to be intersectional, and that means asking ourselves all the time: how we’re doing this work, why we’re doing it, and for whom. And of course, who is getting to do the work, too.

LC: Yeah, and I feel like you’ve hinted at mentorship playing a big part in who gets to do the work. Do you think mentorship is the (or one of the) keys to diversifying the field?

CW: Literary translation as a field has a whiteness problem, and mentorship schemes have the potential to address that, though they’re not going to solve it alone. The BCLT has a mentorship scheme, ALTA has a mentorship scheme, and there are some smaller institutions that also run mentorship schemes—YIVO in New York, for instance.

I’ve experienced translators to be very generous with their time and there’s quite a bit of informal mentoring that goes on, but that depends completely on who you know. So, we need to create more formal opportunities that address this specific issue and make people aware that they’re available because, again, if it just depends on happening to meet someone who volunteers their time then how is that different from any of the usual structures where success basically depends on your privilege?

Beyond mentoring, I think it’s really good for the field when translation can be introduced in a variety of educational settings. There are a couple of initiatives that I think are really awesome, amongst them Shadow Heroes in the UK, founded by Gitanjali Patel and Sophie Lewis. Another programme that’s really brilliant is run by the Centre for the Art of Translation in California, called Poetry Inside Out. They promote the translation of poetry as an approach to literacy that embraces today’s multilingual classrooms.

As translators accustomed to a lot of solitary work, I think it’s helpful for us to think about what translation can do off the page as well as on it. At Cardboard House Press we teach bookmaking workshops, talk about what the cartonera movement can do as a grassroots publishing initiative, and share the work of the poets and translators we publish. It’s a totally informal, non-academic way of approaching texts that we love, and ideally it helps translation come alive for new audiences.

LC: For sure. What are you working on at the moment?

CW: I thought of myself as a Latin Americanist for a long time, but right now I’m working on two Spanish books. The first is a debut novel by Elisa Victoria, Vozdevieja or Oldladyvoice in English. It’s narrated by a precocious, eloquent nine-year-old growing up in a working-class neighbourhood in Seville, who has an absent father and a mother who swears like a sailor, which, incidentally, are two things I relate to a lot.

I love that Elisa Victoria allows this girl to be chaotic and contradictory. She still has a lot of fears and vulnerabilities and is highly sensitive but, on the other hand, feels like she has to perform toughness, and she has an awareness of herself as a sexual being.

And no one curses like the Spaniards. There’s an incredible line where the mother gets good news, and her celebratory exclamation translates literally to something like: God bless my doctor and all his dead ancestors and his fucking mother’s cunt. How do you convey that kind of exuberance while turning it into something someone would actually say in English? Translating obscene language is always a great creative challenge.

The other Spanish project that I’m working on is Infinity in a Reed by Spanish classicist Irene Vallejo. It’s a history of the book in the ancient world, beginning with the creation of the Library of Alexandria. It’s lyrical, erudite, and compulsive. I’ve gone down some amazing rabbit holes working on the research—right now I’m deep in the parchment phase.

LC: What are you reading right now?

CW: I’m reading the wonderful Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton, a Japanese to English literary translator. It’s an account of her experience of moving to a remote Japanese island to teach English at a time when she knew very little Japanese, and her later journey to becoming a translator. The essays are structured around instances of Japanese mimetic language. It’s the ultimate translator nerd book, but also much more than that. It delves deeply into questions of how the self is shaped by language. And it’s also very funny. 

Also, Katabasis by Lucia Estrada, translated by Olivia Lott. I think it’s the first full-length book of poetry by a Colombian woman to have been translated into English. This is why raising awareness about the dearth of women in translation is important: there are these gaping omissions in the Anglo-American publishing landscape.

And then there’s Isabel Zapata’s translation into Spanish of Terry Tempest Williams’ When Women Were Birds. It’s one of my libros de cabecera, I dip into it all the time and Isabel is such a phenomenal poet and essayist that I’m really excited to see what she did with the translation.

LC: And finally, what translators working within Latin American literature should we know about?

CW: Heather Cleary has a great radar for experimental prose and Julia Sanches is a really impressive, multilingual innovator. Jennifer Shyue is translating Asian Peruvian writers and I’m excited to see her work forthcoming from Ugly Duckling. Robin Myers is a prolific translator of Latin American poetry with phenomenal taste. And someone else firmly rooted in the poetry world is Jeannine Marie Pitas. She’s one of the major translators of the sublime Uruguayan prose poet Marosa di Giorgio. There are strains of surrealism in Marosa’s work but she’s not really a surrealist. She’s a visionary, and Jeannine has worked with extraordinary dedication over the course of a decade to bring her work into English.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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