Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Heather Cleary, Literary Translator and Writer

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Heather Cleary is a writer and translator who splits her time between New York City – where she’s a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College – and Mexico City.

As well as being a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review and a co-founder of the translation collective Cedilla & Co (alongside Julia Sanches), she’s also a prolific literary translator behind titles like Comemadre by Roque Larraquy and multiple Sergio Chejfec titles.

In 2021, she’s got two translations coming out: American Delirium by Betina González (Henry Holt) and Variations on the Body by María Ospina (Coffee House Press), followed by Witches by Brenda Lozano in early 2022 (Catapult/MacLehose).

And she rounded out 2020 with the publications of Mrs. Murakami’s Garden by Mario Bellatin (Phoneme Media/ Deep Vellum) and her book The Translator’s Visibility (Bloomsbury). As I tweeted at the time, “it’s like someone looked at my intersection of interests and wrote me a book lol!!!!” I have no chill with punctuation on social media.

Here, we discuss un-turn-off-able translation brain, fangirling Cristina Rivera Garza and translation as a way of unseating power.


Lauren Cocking: I’ve read that your path into literary translation was accidental. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Heather Cleary: So, I started translating at the end of my undergraduate career. I was working on my senior honours thesis, which was supposed to be about detective fiction, and it just wasn’t turning into anything interesting. I was in the department of comparative literature at NYU I worked at the front desk there, and I mentioned it to one of the professors who was walking by –  Richard Sieburth, an extraordinary translator from German and French. I was kind of complaining at him and he was like: “well, why don’t you try a translation? I’ll advise your thesis if you want.” And that was how it happened.

And with all the hubris of youth, I chose the Mariana Pineda, a play by Federico García Lorca written in verse, as my first translation project. Mercifully, all record has been lost of that project. I’m glad I won’t have to face that. But it was a wonderful introduction to the constellation of different problems that present themselves with translations. I remember the first week—I was staying up until three, four o’clock in the morning just because I didn’t want to stop. I just completely fell in love.

LC: What was your first ‘proper’ literary translation?

HC: My master’s thesis was a collection of poems by Oliverio Girondo. I actually got one of the early PEN grants to work on that, and that was wonderful. But it took about ten years for that to actually show up as a book. Poetry can be very hard to sell. And so, that was technically my first literary translation project, even though it wasn’t published until after the first novels I did with Sergio Chejfec.

I don’t know if you know Girondo’s work, but he goes through many different phases [and] toward the end, it’s very neologistic and very playful. It was such a joy to work on. By then, I was completely hooked. [After that,] I decided to do a doctorate in literature, rather than translation, because I wanted to better understand the traditions I was working with, rather than just purely practical and theoretical thinking around translation.

LC: Do you find that the job of the translator is often more marketing than translation?

HC: I wouldn’t say more, but I would say [that] a huge part of the way I understand my work as a translator is advocating for the writers. At this point, more than half the projects I do come to me from publishers who have already acquired the books. But the projects I’m pitching…that’s a labour of love. You don’t get paid for any of the materials you produce or the dozens of emails you send. Translators often do the work of agents, but without the commission.

LC: When you choose a project that you haven’t been approached to do, what are you looking for? Are you working on anything right now?

HC: I love challenging prose. That’s the thing I’m really drawn to, and I think those early translations were pretty formative, in the sense that I love books that invite you to play and to really push what English can do.

So, when I choose projects to pitch, I guess I tend to be very formally oriented. One of the projects that I’m sending around right now is Luis Felipe Fabre’s Declaración de las canciones oscuras (Recital of the Dark Verses). It’s a novel that centres on the theft of the corpse of San Juan de la Cruz and its clandestine and mishap-riddled journey to Segovia, where it’s meant to be kept as a relic. It’s amazing, this book. It’s insane. Fabre’s a poet first and foremost—I’m obsessed with novels written by poets. If I could make the entire rest of my career that, I would happily do so. And it’s very darkly funny. That’s another thing that I look for in projects, I guess; a dark humour.

LC: You’ve said before that “language can be used to unseat power”. Obviously, you were talking about translation, but how do you relate that concept to your own work?

HC: That’s a fantastic question. That quote actually comes from a scholarly book I wrote [called The Translator’s Visibility]. In that context, it’s about the way that translation makes the idea of private property and intellectual property much fuzzier, much harder to nail down. Whose book is a translation? Is it the author’s or is it the translator’s? Where does ownership lie? Where does creativity lie, when you have an object that is inherently a collaboration?

So that’s where that comes from, but I’ve actually never been asked how that feels in my own practice. The first thing that comes to mind is the horizontality of how translation is always a collaboration and an effort to find harmony between voices. When I translate, I spend a lot of time listening to the way the prose sounds, the inflexions, the sharper moments, the places that seem to bear more weight. I spend a lot of time listening as I read, and then I try to sort of harmonise with that – sing along kind of – because the idea of reproducing the text word by word…we’ve come to understand that that’s an impossibility. Or if you do it, what you create ends up bearing very little resemblance to the original.

In terms of the practice of translation as a way of unseating power, I think it comes back to what I was saying earlier about advocacy and the projects that we choose. Right now, I’m working with Gabriela Jauregui on finding a publisher for an English edition of Tsunami, which gathers an extraordinary range of perspectives on feminism and the power of language and racism and the patriarchy and neocolonialism and many other things. I’m hoping to use the project as an opportunity to support and mentor emerging translators, as well.

But it’s a delicate question, because there’s the ideal of advocating and opening up space for voices that are underrepresented in the canon and in the market, but where does that become appropriation? How do we avoid a cultural colonialism in our work as translators, particularly if we are working in a hegemonic (colonial) language, or working from a place of privilege? These are questions I’m still thinking through. I don’t have the answer.

LC: I think that must tie in with the concept of translation as negotiation. Do you prefer working with the words of living writers?

HC: I love working with living writers. I find the conversations that happen so beautiful because translators are big nerds in general, and we get very hung up on a single word or the way a comma might change the breath of a sentence. Not many people are willing to sit through that. Just the level of detail and the close conversations that you can have with a writer, I adore. And I’ve been very, very lucky to have worked with writers who are generous and fun and who are really, truly a joy to speak with.

LC: Have you ever come across something that you couldn’t translate, or you didn’t ever feel comfortable with in the end?

HC: Oh, I mean, every time (laughs). The ‘not feeling comfortable in the end’ is like…everything. I try to avoid looking back at my translations [and] I often have the experience where I’ll open up a book, like: “god damn it, why did I leave that ‘that’ there. Why is that comma still there?”

I mean, it’s not quite as bad as all that, but I think it speaks to the way the process of revision is never over. That’s the thing I love most about translation – there’s never a definitive translation, you know? Because the interpretation of the text is always a moving object. The way we read is always changing and the way any given idea could be expressed is always multiple. I love that sort of prismatic aspect of translation. But then when my own work is fixed in print, it somehow feels… less liberating. And don’t get me started on my neuroses about online publications.

LC: Is that about the constant potential for editing afterwards?

HC: (Laughs and nods.) I’ve gone back into my own blog posts like two years after the fact to change one word.

LC: Uff, yeah, I understand that feeling! Do you think that there are barriers to getting into translation? And do you think there’s a problem of representation amongst translators themselves?

HC: Yes, I think there’s a significant problem. I mean, across publishing in general, but amongst translators, absolutely. One of the main barriers to entry is very concrete and straightforward: we don’t get paid very much. So, unless you’re someone who has another job, or unless you’re someone who’s able to [operate] with little income, literary translation is not really an option. And that excludes many, many people.

Organisations like ALTA, the wonderful American Literary Translators Association, have mentorship programmes and things like that, so there are efforts being made. But, structurally, there are still significant barriers to entry that need to be addressed.

LC: Absolutely. You’ve said before that all translators are writers. And I think that’s true, but do you think this is something that people unfamiliar with translation as a practice realise or even accept?

HC: That’s a great question. The first layer of that answer is: I think some people do, but they’re usually those who are closer to the world of translators. Going another layer out, I think the average reader – quote unquote, there is no such thing – is actually kind of instructed or indoctrinated by the publishing industry not to think of translators as writers. Because I think the publishing industry still, for the most part, has a hard time understanding how to package cowritten books.

I’m not talking about independent presses who work very hard to make translation visible, but in many cases – and there are notable exceptions – publicity departments in larger houses will try to downplay the fact that it’s a work of translation because they think it will become confusing, or they think the book will become less appealing. And I think that that sort of perpetuates the idea that the translator does not have an active and creative role in producing the book.

LC: You used a term there: cowritten. Is that how you conceptualise a translated work? Do you prefer the term ‘cowritten literature’ to ‘translated literature’?

HC: I don’t, actually… While I do conceive of translation as (asynchronous) collaborative writing, I’m still very much working with the plot, structures, characters, tone, and the rhythm that someone else decided they wanted to have for their book. It is very much my interpretation of what those inflections and those rhythms are in the first place, but I don’t know that I would go so far as to say it’s a co-written book. What I would prefer is for more people to think about translation as a creative act.

I mean, I realize I’m contradicting myself, but while I do believe that [translation] is a collaborative act of writing, for some reason I feel resistant to changing the terminology. I think I prefer to keep the word ‘translation’ and amplify the understanding of what it is.

LC: I just want to talk a little bit about Cedilla and Co, which is the collective that you co-founded, is that correct? How important has it been to be part of a collective?

HC: The real brains behind the operation are Julia Sanches and Sean Gasper Bye. We began with the idea that we could help each other pitch work, that we could help each other by sharing contacts and reading submissions and that kind of thing. But it’s become much more than that. It’s an amazing support network and that’s been so important psychologically, professionally, creatively for the past few years. Especially this year. And we’re thinking more and more about ways we can contribute to the translation community. We’re in the process of organising a series of talks with the Centre for Fiction that deal with translation, specifically around topics and translators and communities that have long been underrepresented.

Related: In Conversation with Multilingual Translator, Julia Sanches

LC: Do you have a favourite place to translate, or a translation ritual of any kind?

HC: I really prefer to be in a quiet space with not very many stimuli. If it’s a literary text, the first draft is always in absolute silence. I don’t listen to music when I translate or anything like that.

LC: Are there any books from Latin America that you wish more people knew about, perhaps?

HC: I’m a super-ultra-giant fan of Cristina Rivera Garza. Autobiografía del algodón is on my ‘to read’ pile and I can’t wait.

LC: I’ve (shamefully) never read anything by Rivera Garza. Where would you start if you were new to her work?

HC: I loved The Iliac Crest. But I also loved The Taiga Syndrome. I don’t know, it’s hard. I mean, I don’t want to choose! If you feel like something a little bit more concrete, Grieving just came out, in Sarah Booker’s translation. I’d say that’s more direct and emotionally accessible [whereas] The Iliac Crest is more abstract and cerebral. And I think it’s masterful.

LC: Do you read in Spanish for pleasure or only for work?

HC: Both. Neither. When I read a translation in English, it’s impossible to turn off my translator brain and it’s impossible for me not to be like: “I wonder…I bet that this is like this in English because it was like that in Spanish.” I do automatic back translation. And when I’m reading in Spanish, I can’t turn off the part of my brain that’s like: “how would I translate that? What would this be?” So basically, I never read for pleasure. (Laughs.) I’m kidding. But the question of translation and the mechanisms of translation are always present, and they give me tremendous pleasure as I read.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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