Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Ellen Jones, Translator of Contemporary Latin American Literature

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Ellen Jones is a British writer, researcher, editor, and literary translator based in Mexico City who also writes really brilliant book reviews. (I often have to studiously avoid reading them before writing my own to not melt with envy.) Her hair’s not bad either.

Most recently, she translated Chilean author Bruno Lloret’s debut novel Nancy (Two Lines Press, 2021), as well as Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Charco Press, 2019) and Suns by Enrique Winter (Cardboard House Press, 2017). Currently at work on a trifecta of incredible sounding titles—including The Forgery by Ave Barrera, Nudes in Art by Eli Bartra, and El rastro by Margo Glantz—she also has a book of her own coming out this year: Literature in Motion: Translating Multilingualism Across the Americas (Columbia University Press, 2021) about the link between multilingualism and translation in contemporary literature.

Here, we discuss discovering the existence of Margaret Jull Costa, deciding when you might not be the right fit for a project, and the trick to writing a good book review.


Lauren Cocking: What was your path into literary translation?

Ellen Jones: I wrote my thesis on the translation of multilingual literature, with a focus on Spanglish writing. I was doing bits and pieces of literary translation alongside my research and enjoying it more and more, but not really publishing anything. For a while I found this really nice balance between [translation and academia] and I ended up having a translation as part of my final thesis, so it felt like the two things were kind of mutually informing one another.

[But] I’ve always been really into literature, and that was the thing that I loved about translation—the very creative side of it, but god, I look back now at the first few things I tried to translate and how a) clueless but also b) kind of big headed I was. I thought oh, I’ve translated this. It’s great! It’s obviously going to get published.

Then you find out that this book that you loved and that you’ve been trying to figure out how to pitch is actually being translated by somebody called Margaret Jull Costa. Then you google Margaret Jull Costa and you’re like OH! (Laughs.) That happened to me a few times.

LC: Do you think you need that kind of bigheaded attitude about your own work at first to be a literary translator?

EJ: Yeah, maybe you need to have that confidence, because if you realised how stiff the competition was too soon, you’d never even bother.

LC: You had a seven-year gap between taking a translation seminar and getting Trout, Belly Up published with Charco Press. What came in between?

EJ: Good question. Lots of things got in the way. I think if I had decided at that moment that literary translation was going to be the thing that I wanted to do for the rest of my life then I probably would have got there a little bit quicker. Maybe not that much quicker.

But I also discovered that I loved teaching and that I loved research and so I spent a lot of time in a university environment doing things that weren’t quite translation but that were related to it.

At the beginning of your translation career, you have to put in a lot of hours before you get a huge amount of return, especially when you’re translating from Spanish.  On the one hand, it’s an advantage because it’s a European language, but on the other hand it’s hugely competitive.

We’re very lucky in some senses that translators seem to be just the best kind of people on the planet and do tend to be very welcoming and helpful and there’s a lot of solidarity between us, but nonetheless, we are in competition with each other.

LC: Does your background researching multilingual literature and the issues that brought up every bleed into your translations?

EJ: So, obviously it will depend on what I’m translating, but I have in certain instances been informed by all of this theory and research on methods of translation. Sometimes it’s quite hard to get away from it. My recent translation of Bruno Lloret’s Nancy has some characters who speak in this very marked Chilean variant of Spanish and, as a translator, rather than trying to make that language as accessible as possible I would rather remind readers that it is rooted in that geography.

So, sometimes I would leave certain terms in Spanish where other translators might not, and I guess that in itself is a form of incorporating bilingualism into your translation. Outside of my thesis, I’ve never translated [anything that’s] heavily bilingual and I also feel that I’m not necessarily the right translator for that kind of border writing anyway, because I’m British rather than from the US or Mexican. There are so many wonderful actually bilingual translators in this country and in the US who have much more cultural know-how, that could do better justice to that kind of work than I could.
That said, living in Mexico, I use [a form of Spanglish often] because it’s kind of the most convenient way to speak with certain people. Why do that awkward casting around for the word when you can just switch? But I’m also very aware that the sort of Spanglish that I use with friends is very, very different to the sort of Spanglish other people in this part of the world have grown up speaking and writing and using, which has histories of double colonisation that make it incredibly fraught.

LC: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you bring up your position as a British woman and how that ties into what you translate. Have you ever interrogated that further, beyond just concerns of bilingualism and Spanglish?

EJ: Yeah, I think it’s a constant conversation that we’re all having with ourselves, really. It’s not one that I have an easy answer to because, on the one hand, I feel like we should all have the right to experiment with translating things [we’re unconnected to]. That’s part of what’s exciting about translation—coming to something that’s different from your own experience and trying to create connections with it, no? That ‘no’ was very Mexican of me. (Laughs.)

But I’ve had a couple of projects recently that I’ve really fallen in love with and then have sat down and thought: If I were an editor, would I hire me to translate this book? Maybe I wouldn’t and maybe that would be the right decision.

LC: What was the thought process behind that?

EJ: Just insofar as they were projects that addressed important questions to do with cultural or sexual or gender or racial identity. As empathetic and thoughtful and careful as you can be as a translator, perhaps there are instances in which it’s just not the right choice for you.

LC: Yeah, definitely. That sort of leads me on to the various Spanish variants that you’ve worked with—Chilean, Guatemalan, and Mexican to date, I believe. Does your approach to each one differ?

EJ: I do struggle to feel confident in my translations of books from places I don’t know very well. Maybe that’s not necessarily a failing in a translator, because nobody can be familiar with every variety of a language, even one you’ve spoken since childhood, because there will always be aspects of it that you’ve not come across. But it does give me a certain degree of anxiety, I have to say.

LC: Is that an anxiety rooted in tangible feedback or is that an internal anxiety?

EJ: I guess a bit of both. When I was translating Trout, Belly Up [by Rodrigo Fuentes] for Charco Press, I didn’t have anyone Guatemalan who I could be in touch with, other than the author. And obviously going to the author is your final step.

I have a Chilean friend who gave me feedback on certain bits of vocabulary and phraseology that I was quite unsure about, and when she read through the translation, the things that she came up with as problematic were different from the things that I’d come up with, which were then, in turn, different from the things that the author came up with. Neither of us got it right.

LC: Why do you think translation skews more women dominated? If you think it does, that is.

EJ: That’s a really good question and I think it does. Although, if you know nothing about literary translation and you’re not really particularly interested in reading international literature, the handful of translators you can name are probably male.

Without wanting to fall into generalisations about what women tend to be like and what men tend to be like, it’s a profession that by definition involves taking a back seat to something supposedly more important.

That said, there has been a lot of activism on the part of literary translators, at least in the English-speaking world, in recent years, and I think that we are becoming more vocal, confident, and heard.

I do a lot of academic editing and part of my often quite dull job—alongside un-italicising commas and changing hyphens to em dashes—is checking that all the references are complete in a bibliography. And you have no idea how often people will cite, say, Marx without citing the translator. Almost every single article I edit, I have to ask who the translator was for some book or other. The most depressing thing is that often they’ll come back to me and they’ll say I can’t find it. I have the volume in front of me and there’s no name of the translator. It just says Marx.

Historically, that was the situation and thankfully, especially in the world of literary fiction and poetry, that’s no longer the case.

LC: You hit on something that I wanted to ask about, which is your love of em dashes. I also love them and use them often liberally, probably incorrectly. Why do you love them so much?

EJ: Why did I say that?! (Laughs.) They’re just so flexible—as a bit of punctuation, it can do so many things, it’s great. And they do different things in different languages as well, which I like. They often work as quotation marks in Spanish.

There are certain editors who will take them out consistently because they think, well, you could have used a semicolon. But a semi-colon is a very formal piece of punctuation, whereas the em dash allows you to convey this casualness, the fluidity of speech in a really nice way.

LC: You also do a lot of book reviews, specifically of works in translation. What’s the trick to a good book review?

EJ: Oh, god, I don’t know, I think I’m still figuring that out. It always feels intimidating, because the worry is that you commit yourself, right? You say I think this is a tour de force etcetera and then somebody else comes out and says actually, this is rubbish. Or viceversa.

There will always be differences of opinion and you will always feel challenged by other readers, but no reader’s experience is ever the same. While book reviewers do have this kind of gatekeeper function, to some degree [although it’s becoming more democratised], it’s still just one reader’s interpretation of a book.

It’s a combination of balancing a bit of telling them about what happens and a bit of putting it in context and a bit of your personal reaction to it. And I do like to have that bit of personal reaction—it’s important, but that’s what’s most exposing.

LC: As a translator and reviewer, how should reviewers be writing about work in translation?

EJ: It’s an important and difficult question, because often you get commissioned to write four hundred words on [the book]. And you’re like, OK, that leaves me how many words to actually say what I think of the translation? Like, ten?

There’s a huge amount of creative and intellectual labour that goes into a translation and it needs to be given its due. I think it also depends on your language skills as a reviewer, because, for instance, I tend to review a lot of things were written in Spanish, partly because I love reading Latin American literature, and partly because I love reading translations and then being able to, without looking at the Spanish, sometimes see what the translator has done and what solutions they’ve come up with. I find that really satisfying.

I think that you have to be a bit responsible about how you’re reviewing writers. Think about your own limitations, as a reviewer, and play to your strengths.  If I were to review a book that was translated from Hungarian, say, it’s more difficult to comment on specifics, but what I can comment on is the English. And without making any assumptions about the ‘faithfulness’ of the translation, I can talk about style in English. 

LC: When you come to read fiction for pleasure, review, or translation, do you look for different things?

EJ: Not really. The sort of thing that I want to translate is precisely the sort of thing I want to read. I’m largely interested in translating contemporary fiction written by women; I love reading young writers; I love reading really contemporary stuff. That’s what most excites me and that’s what I would love to translate as well.

If someone comes to me with a 19th century novel from Spain, I’m going to say that’s really not the project for me. I probably wouldn’t enjoy reading that book half as much, right?

LC: You mentioned you wanted to translate more work by women. Can you tell me more about your current projects?

EJ: It made me really cross that my first two published translations were by men! It was just a matter of chance rather than anything else. But I just started working with Robin Myers on Puertas demasiado pequeñas by [Mexican writer] Ave Barrera for Charco Press. We’re really excited by that project because she’s a writer that we both know and really, really admire and pitched, basically.

And I just finished an academic book by another Mexican writer called Eli Bartra, who is a feminist philosopher. It’s a big fat book about nudes in art. That was a co-translation too, with Jessie Méndez Sayer. I’m also excited to start on El rastro by Margo Glantz later this year.

LC: Do you have a preference between translating alone and co-translating?

EJ: I’m discovering that co-translation brings a special kind of joy. You think you’re going to get this huge satisfaction from a project that’s yours alone, but it never really is yours alone—there’s always other people who read it and other people that give you advice. And there’s your editor.

We’ve all been socialised to value our name on a piece of work, whether it’s on the inside cover or on the front page. We’ve been taught that that’s something we ought to be proud of, in a kind of proprietorial way. But of course, it’s a) never like that and b) I think that you get a lot more satisfaction often out of working with other people. You learn a lot more.

On the occasions that I’ve translated something myself, I’ve learnt a huge amount from my editors and now I’m learning an enormous amount from Robin.

LC: And what are you reading right now?

EJ: I just finished Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping and it’s completely beautiful. I feel very in awe of her every time I come to the end of one of her books. Even though she writes about very, very different life experiences from my own, I always find something to identify with.

I recently read this amazing book called Tender is the Flesh by an Argentine writer called Agustina Bazterrica—such a joy to get through in a weekend, very macabre. It’s really fucking dark and not particularly subtle sometimes, but also fun and clever.

And I also finally read, a little bit late in the day, The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara.  It’s so rich with ideas and the characters are incredibly beautifully drawn and complex. It went in a lot of different directions that I didn’t expect.

LC: Do you want to shout-out any fellow translators working with Latin American Literature?

EJ: My two co-translators! Robin Myers is probably one of the most generous people I think I’ve ever met and she’s a beautiful poet. She does this thing where she sends out a poem every morning [Editor’s note: you can tweet Robin and ask her to add you to the list]. It’s such a nice way to start the day. And what a lovely way of sharing your own creative explorations with the world, because so many of us are stuck at our computers or inside our own brains.

And Jessie Méndez Sayer who recently co-translated The Wind Traveler by Alonso Cueto with Frank Wynne for Texas University Press.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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