Interview / Mexico / Translator

In Conversation with Essayist, Poet and Translator Isabel Zapata

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Isabel Zapata preferiría no hacerlo and yet she still does it all anyway – essays, translation, poetry, and co-founding an indie editorial, Ediciones Antílope. She’s also the first person I’ve interviewed for the blog who translates from English to Spanish, which makes the fact that I’m the one who’s translated our interview into English all the more nerve wracking.

You might have read her poetic essay collection Alberca vacía/ Empty Pool (Editorial Argonáutica, 2019; trans. Robin Myers), or perhaps you’ve got a copy of her most recent poetry anthology Una ballena no es un pais (Almadía, 2019)? Maybe you came across her name when she published a free translation of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and then became embroiled in a Twitter storm of inter-continental proportions? Maybe you landed on this interview by accident, in which case: hi!  

Here, we discuss the way translation is an act of love, why she considers herself the Marie Kondo of the Nápoles, and how having a kid has changed her reading habits. And, yes, Bluets


Lauren Cocking: How did you get into the translation world? 

Isabel Zapata: Well, not professionally. It was something that I liked to do, kind of for fun, because it gave me a reason to pay more attention to books. When I really liked a book that I read in English, I translated it. And then, little by little, I started to specialise, and it started becoming something I did more professionally. At first, I just did it because I liked it; I still do it because I like it! 

LC: You’re also a writer as well as a translator. I read an interview in which you called yourself the Marie Kondo of the Nápoles and said that writing is a form of organising. What did you mean by that? 

IZ: Yeah, I think that the act of writing forces us to organise certain memories, references, and sensations. And then, by putting them into words, it’s as if we start to tidy up the thoughts in some way, you know? And you have to position them in a way that makes sense, is interesting and moving, so that you create the effect you want to create. 

So, I think that forces you – or at least it forces me, because everyone writes in their own way and has their own motivations and processes – to say, OK, what is the most important element of this story? What about this experience is going to be of interest to other people, or has a universality to it, or links to other things, you know? Because not everything that happens to us is like that. And in that sense, it’s a labour of organising the writing in some way. That’s what I meant. 

And another thing that happens to me, which I think is interesting, is that when I write about something it really helps me to leave it behind. And I don’t mean I forget about it and never think about it ever again; it’s more like oh, OK, I get what happened, what I was thinking or what I was reading and I can move on. It’s really hard for me to be working on something and have to write something else at the same time, because I feel like I need to put an end to [the first thing I’m working on]. 

LC: Yeah, of course. I read your essay on Medium about Bluets [the book by Maggie Nelson that Zapata translated and published for free online] and in that essay you wrote that the least you can do when you love a book is translate it. Do you think of translation as an act of love? 

IZ: I think it’s an act of love and, above all, of attention. What happens to me – and I imagine to you too, given that you’ve translated as well – is that it demands my full attention, a carefulness, and a consideration of every word, as if you were weighing them on a set of scales. So, in that sense, it’s work that, yes, is loving because it’s considered and, at the end of the day, I think consideration is a form of love. That’s what I mean when I say it’s the least you can do. The only thing you can do is translate it. 

LC: I recently read something that the translator Carina del Valle Schorske wrote about translation: “translation troubles the capitalist logic of ownership.” Given what happened with Bluets [Zapata was threatened with legal action for publishing her translation for free, because she hadn’t acquired rights to the Spanish-language version of the text, despite trying for many years to do so], how do you feel about that? 

IZ: I feel like what happens when you translate something is that you develop a certain level of ownership over that thing that you’ve translated, for all the reasons we just talked about. 

So, I think that what happens with translators, or some translators, or what’s happened to me with certain books, is that you feel…how can I put it? I don’t like to talk in terms of ‘owning’ something, you know? I think we have to try and fight against that. But, yeah, you do feel like that book belongs to you in a way and that you claim it by choosing the words and working with such consideration on a text. It’s as if you have a right to it, and obviously not a right in the legal sense of the word, I’m not talking about that. I mean that you share a connection with the book. That’s how I understand it. 

Every translation is going to be unfaithful, right? Every translation is an unfaithful version in a way, and that upsets or threatens the capitalist system. So, yeah, I agree. It does problematise it. [But] putting the capitalist logic of ownership above all else, as if that were the last word and the most important issue…I mean, I’m not against it. It’s important to have certain basic agreements so the editorial world can function…but I think as translators it’s important to think and rethink on it. 

Related: In Conversation with Carina del Valle Schorske, Essayist and Puerto Rican Poetry Translator

LC: Do you still love Bluets? 

IZ: Yes, but this whole situation has dampened it a bit. (Laughs.) But yeah, it’s a book that was – or is – super important to me. It’s a book that’s been with me for years, that I translated really slowly and played around with for ages, that I spoke to tons of people about, that I tried to get the rights to loads of times, so we could publish it with Antílope [the editorial house that Zapata co-founded]. 

You know, [the translation] wasn’t something I did lightly. It was a really important book for me, but I was also a bit addicted to deliberating over the translation, even though we didn’t have the rights. I think it’s almost as if that rebelliousness [in publishing the translation without the rights], to put it one way, was a way to liberate me from myself too. That chapter had to come to an end. 

And that was what Maggie’s agent accused me of, being selfish. And in a way, that’s what it was, a selfish act. But it was time to say, enough, you know? It had been ten years, and in those ten years my mum died, my dad died, I had a kid. For me, it was also a bit about ending that cycle.  

LC: Which goes back to that idea of being Marie Kondo, right? 

IZ: Exactly. Like saying, right, enough. And there’s also the fact that that book doesn’t exist [in a Spanish language translation].* So the whole debate was pretty ridiculous, because at the end of the day, it didn’t exist. And if [the recently published Spanish-language version] does get to Mexico, there’ll be like three copies in El Péndulo in Roma and they’ll cost 600 pesos each, you know? 

*At the time Zapata published her version of Bluets, the recent Spanish-language edition hadn’t yet been released. 

LC: So, you’re actually the first translator I’m interviewing for the blog that translates from English to Spanish. Thinking about the context of translation as a profession, if it’s marginalised and erased in the English-speaking world, how is it perceived in Mexico? 

IZ: I’d say it’s more marginalised still. At least here [in Mexico], the translator is a super neglected figure in the sense that they don’t even include their name on the cover. I don’t know about the US, but I think it’s more common to see the translator’s name on the cover. I also feel like translation is a job that, when done well, is less noticeable. It’s like editing. When a book is well edited, it doesn’t even occur to you that there was an editor, because the work is invisible. 

Honestly, I think it’s a really invisibilised profession, above all because it’s not even seen as a creative job, you know? It’s as if it were something automatic, or more technical, when in reality it’s creative, it’s artistic. It’s an art, not in a mushy, sentimental kind of way, but it is an art. And to suddenly take it as a technical job seems to me to be a mistake…well, unless you’re doing technical translations. (Laughs.)

LC: Yes, totally. You said in an interview that it was important to have Robin Myers translating your essay collection Alberca vacía / Empty Pool, because she’s also a poet, like you. Do you think that a translator needs to be a poet or an essayist to translate those genres or forms?

IZ: Not necessarily. The relationship that me and Robin have formed is really cool, because Robin’s a great poet and a great friend and she also has an incredible literary awareness. In that sense, it’s been really delightful working with her. 

But I know great translators – some of the most prominent translators – who don’t write. They’re just translators. So, I don’t think it’s necessary but I think it’s really lovely when someone who also writes translates you because you can get into discussions about…I don’t know, the texture of the verse or the line, which it might be harder to do with someone else. 

What is important is that they read. I think being a reader is more important than being a writer. Personally, I identify much more as a reader than as a writer or an editor. It’s what I enjoy the most and if I had to choose, I’d prefer a thousand times over to stop translating or editing than stop reading. It’s indispensable. 

I typically can’t even read two books at the same time, because I get into different mindsets. Well, if they’re the same genre anyway. I can read a novel and also read a poem or an essay collection or a short story that I’ve found online. I can do that, but there’s usually a book that takes over. Right now, for example, I’m reading Mariana Enriquez’s new book, Nuestra parte de noche. It’s super good. It’s a doorstop of a novel, with a hefty plot and tons of characters, that jumps around in time. 

LC: I’m totally the same. I can’t read two similar books at the same time because it gets too confusing. What else have you been reading at the moment? What do you look for in a book?

IZ: My favourite books are the so-called hybrid texts. You know, those titles that defy the boundaries between genre, weird books, books that aren’t easily classified, books like, for example, 50 Estados by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg. Those are the books I enjoy reading the most. Basically, everything that falls into the essay category, although that’s a super broad field. Lately I’ve read a bunch of novels but in general I read more essay and poetry. I’m a bad novel reader! 

LC: You have an almost-one-year-old daughter. How has motherhood changed your relationship with literature, in terms of both what you read and how you find time to read?  

IZ: It’s massively changed how much I read, yeah. Last year, I read tons of books about motherhood, because I’ve been interested in reading about the experiences of other women. I think it’s a fascinating topic and I’m really pleased that there are more books being written about it. You know, it’s weird that [motherhood] isn’t considered a really literary topic, because it has all the elements of great literature – emotion, plot twists, adventure. 

Now I’m starting to read longer books again but during the first few months I couldn’t at all. If I’d tried to read Mariana’s book a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to. 

There’s also the question of what you can fit in one hand, right? Because you only have one hand to hold a book and that becomes, not an impediment, but it changes the reading logistics. (Laughs.) 

LC: Is there a book by a Latin American author that you wish more people knew about? 

IZ: An author that I really like and I don’t feel has as many readers as she ought to if Hebe Uhart. She wrote a lot of crónica [a genre that usually includes events narrated chronologically and often includes travel narratives], which is unusual because there were very few crónicas, travel narratives specifically, written by women. She wrote short stories and a novel. She has some incredible short stories and I really like them because they have an unusual characteristic, which is that they’re funny, really funny. And I feel like that’s not typical in literature, that something genuinely makes you laugh, you know? And not from slapstick comedy either, but really funny literature. And by a woman, no less. Because for ages, it’s been OK for men to be funny, but a funny woman is a bit crass. It’s as if women have to be serious.  

This interview was translated by me from the Spanish and has been edited for clarity and length. The header photo is © Manuel Sánchez Castro.

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