Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Clare Sullivan, Translator and Spanish Professor

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Clare Sullivan is an Illinois-born literary translator and associate professor at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. I was putting together my round-up of contemporary Mexican poets when I first came across her name; unsurprising, really, as she’s a prolific translator of indigenous poetry from Mexico, having worked on anthologies such as The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo (Phoneme, 2015) and New Moon by Enriqueta Lunez (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019).

Beyond indigenous poetry, Sullivan has also dealt with tricksy translations from cerebral poet Alejandro Tarrab, Mexican novelist Cecilia Urbina, and Argentine writer Alicia Kozameh. And if you were still questioning her translation credentials, keep in mind that she also authored a chapter on poetry translation in the Routledge Handbook of Literary Translation.

Here, we discuss the logistics of translating poetry from indigenous languages, translation as community, and novels-as-popcorn. (We also talked tea, but that didn’t make the cut unfortunately.)


Lauren Cocking: You predominantly translate poetry. How and why did you come to specialise in poetry translation?

Clare Sullivan: I love poetry as a teacher and as a translator and as a reader but it’s very hard to publish poetry. [So] I started with novels because that’s what I’d be able to publish [and] so that I could earn the right to do what I wanted to do. But poetry is really what I love, and it’s very closely related to translation because sound and image and all those things that the tools of poetry allow you to share and experience…that’s sort of what translation does, too. So, I think it’s a natural connection.

LC: How do you balance working as a translator and as a professor?

CS: It’s very hard. This past year during the pandemic I’ve been not doing many translations. But, in general, I divide it by days. So, I teach Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but then I usually leave Tuesday and Thursday only for translation or scholarship. The other thing that helps is that the [teaching and translating] are connected and weave together in one way or another. The thinking and reading are going along parallel.

LC: Do you have any translations in the works?

CS: I’ve been working with Natalia Toledo’s latest book El dorso del cangrejo. I actually have a draft of that and a publisher and this past spring and summer I worked with Irma Pineda [another Oaxacan poet working in Zapotec] to work through the manuscript pretty much word by word, if not line by line. I’ve done a few poems here and there for other anthologies, but I’m trying to work with some other translators on a project about community, translation as community [which is] related to our practise as translators, how that connects us and connects different parts of the world.

Related: 31 Contemporary Mexican Poets to Read Right Now

LC: How are you defining community? Is it the connection between translators or connecting readers with translation?

CS: Actually, there’s a lot of levels and this is something I really think about in terms of Mexico. One thing that I’ve really been concerned about, I guess since I started working in Mexico or working with literature from Mexico, is the divide between those who write in indigenous languages and those who write in Spanish, and especially in poetry. So, I guess I’ve always thought that there has to be more community and that’s what translation should achieve. But I think it’s all those things: it’s connection to readers, it’s connection across cultures. A lot of translators I know are really open to community, more so than other academics.

LC: Yeah, definitely. I know that you work a lot with poets who write in indigenous languages. Do you have a working knowledge of those indigenous languages or do you work purely with their Spanish translations?

CS: I work almost exclusively with the Spanish and that’s something that’s been a conundrum for me because I really feel some responsibility to learn those languages. And I would like to! But I also know it’s not very realistic for me right now, in terms of time, and also just in terms of expertise and lack of immersion.

I have always pondered this dilemma but my attitude has changed over the years. I used to feel terrible about it, frankly. Since then, I’ve come to see that no literary translator really works alone. That’s another aspect of translation as community, one that I try to stress to my students. As translators, we must rely on others — the author (if living) or her notes or other works but also other writers and language experts and so on. Working with poets (and friends of poets) has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of translating for me.

LC: Often you’ll hear people scoff at a translation of a translation. Do you think that’s fair or valid in the context of works from indigenous languages?

CS: Yes, I guess so. That’s a good question. I don’t want to say you always lose something, but I guess poetry is like that anyway. It’s always an echo of an experience or of an image. So, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; I think things are lost, but things are also gained, and things are created.

It’s just that translation is not ownership, right? You have to be faithful – faithful’s a loaded word – but you have to be very aware of the original and not just be too free. But something happens when you translate; kind of like writing, there’s a creative process, there’s a responsibility.

I guess that’s really interesting in light of indigenous cultures as well, because writing is often – not exclusively – seen as something community oriented or owned. Authorship is a fairly recent phenomenon but it’s something that I’m trying to share, trying to preserve.

LC: I’m talking in a Mexican context, but I’ve noticed that much of the writing happening in indigenous languages is poetry. Why do you think that is?

CS: One thing that occurs to me – and this may be naive, not true – is sound. Poetry is connected so much to sound [and] indigenous languages have such rich sound patterns, and the writing is connected to orality a lot of times, to song and other public acts. So, I think it comes naturally. Although if you look in Colombia –with the limited research I’ve done – there are novels. In Guatemala as well! So, I think it may just be regional. I’m not sure.

LC: Thinking about your specific context of somebody who works with translations of indigenous writers, how do you see your responsibility as a translator?

CS: Very good question. Something I’ve learnt along the way is to always give credit to the original writer as a translator, because people often think that I translated directly from the indigenous language. So that’s one thing.

And also, it’s a delicate balance because I want to honour what’s different in their tradition because I think one of the main reasons [the writers I work with] write is to preserve something in that given language. It’s so tough, because I want to translate and bring this richness to the world, but I also don’t want to blot it out with Spanish, much less English. So, I think prefaces and writing about your translation are very important and that’s something I really try to do, in addition to translation.

LC: I’ve noticed that translators are often poets too. Do you write poetry?

CS: I do at a hobby level, yes. But that’s also an interesting question that always comes up when I’m working in seminars or talking to translators: do you need to be a writer to be a translator? And I’m not sure we do, but I think it helps.

LC: Oh, really? I think a translator does have to be a writer in some way, because I think you need that eye for how the language works.

CS: And also a reader. Very much so.

LC: Definitely. You’ve written in the past, in relation to your Urbina translation, that translators are “fastidious, exacting and fussy”. Do you think that applies to you?

CS: It’s sort of combination. Especially in my reading phase, I’m really trying to understand and really trying to connect to the original author and to the context. But then there’s also a fair amount of play – fun! – in it, or it wouldn’t be so engaging. In the end, I think [this connects to] your point about being a writer or a poet, and I’ve learnt this from really good translators, like Forrest Gander or Elliot Weinberger – they have a way with the language that is their own. I guess that’s what being a writer means, right? I think about how writers have their own language within the language. Their own, not just vocabulary, but their own way of using language and how hard that is to discern from outside the language. And I guess that’s what we have to do as translators, right? Not just understand what happened, but to actually understand how it’s being conveyed. It’s quite mysterious.

LC: Do you find that people who aren’t involved in the industry take translations seriously?

CS: Oh, not at all. Especially not in the United States. I think [they do a] bit more in Europe, perhaps, because it’s actually more a part of everyday life. [But] no, I mean, in academia, in the general world, in business. No, no: all of the above.

And one of my biggest missions as a teacher is to show my students that [translation] is something that you don’t just do, being bilingual. You have to learn and train and practice. I don’t think people understand the difference between translation and interpreting, number one. And then beyond that, they don’t understand that translation is a skill and an art rather than just an accident or a Google tool. 

LC: Other translators I’ve spoken to have suggested that the word ‘translation’ itself perhaps contributes to that confusion. Do you agree?

CS: I’m not sure, now that you say that. I never thought about it in terms of the word, but [rather] the metaphors. I taught a seminar this fall and one of the first things I had them read was a book by Jean Boase-Beier, who writes about stylistics. It’s really interesting how she takes apart the metaphors of translation [and questions] how wrong most metaphors are for translation. I never quite came to a conclusion about that, but I think the way we see translation is problematic, whether we see it as a mirror or as a screen. They’re not complete ways to see it.

LC: What would you say to people who come out with the classic line about “oh, I’m going to learn French and read Proust in French”?

CS: I think it’s a great idea, really, as long as you know that it’s a learning experience. I mean, another translator who I admire a lot is actually a professor of cognitive science at the University of Indiana, and he translated Pushkin to learn Russian or learnt Russian to translate Pushkin – I’’m not sure which came first. I thought: “what an amazing endeavour and what a huge learning experience!” I just think most people wouldn’t have the patience to actually follow through.

LC: Yeah, I think that’s true. That reminds me of Deborah Smith, who founded Tilted Axis Press. I think she was still learning Korean as she began translating and now, she does very prolific translations and has a whole publishing press! To change tack slightly, I read about your process of translating Alejandro Tarrab. It sounded like a nightmare! Do you think that there are some poets whose work is untranslatable?

CS: I guess off the top of my head, I’d say no, because I think everything is…but some things are harder than others. For example, in his case, it’s very intellectual and very full of references and very playful almost to the point of being absurd, so it took me a lot of research to understand the different philosophical concepts he was using…and then a lot of talking to him. Luckily, I could talk to him to figure out where all of this was going, and I still think I could probably scrap the whole project and start all over again.

LC: Do you think it’s always important to translate the work of living writers where possible?

CS: No, I think you can learn an awful lot [but] it sometimes can even get in the way. Working with somebody like Alejandro, I would ask him something like “what did this mean?” and he said: “well, I don’t really remember when I wrote it what it meant.” And in some ways, it doesn’t matter because all we have, and all his readers are going to have, is the words on the page.

So, not necessarily, but it has been a real privilege to actually get to ask people questions. And it’s also very fun to do.

LC: Just to move away from translation slightly, what are some of the books coming out of Latin America that you wish more people knew about?

CS: Oh, gosh, I’d have to think about that. Nothing’s coming to mind! Frankly, I don’t consider myself all that well read because there’s so much [to read]. I never know where to start. Is it going to be research? Is it going to be poetry? Is it going to be English? Is it going to be Spanish? Is it going to be something else?

LC: How does your reading divide between pleasure and work and research? How much of each do you get done?

CS: Very little, since I have two teenagers. But these [past] couple of weeks, I just started a novel and to me, a novel is just like popcorn and I can’t stop reading. For Christmas every year my husband gives me the Wall Street Journal best books of the year and usually I don’t get through them, but they’re always so well-written and in a way it is sort of like a guilty pleasure because it’s like: “oh, I should be reading something else”, but it’s so fun to read things [where] I don’t have to worry about taking notes.

LC: I don’t buy into the concept of guilty pleasure reads. I don’t think any read is a guilty pleasure if you enjoy it!

CS: That’s a good point. And you learn from it too. It does nourish you and give you ideas.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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