Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Ilana Luna, Award-Nominated Poetry Translator

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Ilana Luna is a professor of Latin American film, literature, and cultural studies at Arizona State University. As well as having an excellent name – and an even better back catalogue of anecdotes about her time as a nerdy teen in Argentina and a pot brownie-making student in Mexico City – she’s also an excellent poetry translator.

Her translations include Juan José Rodinás’s Koan: Underwater (Cardboard House Press, 2018), Giancarlo Huapaya’s Sub Verse Workshop (Dialogos/ Lavender Ink, 2020), and Mexican poet Judith Santopietro’s debut collection Tiawanaku (Orca Libros, 2019), the latter of which has recently been shortlisted for the inaugural Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation.

She’s also the director of programming for Femme Revolution Film Fest in Mexico City and author of Adapting Gender: Mexican Feminism from Literature to Film (SUNY Press, 2018).

Here, we discuss public scholarship, poetry translation as joy, and the experience of translating Tiawanaku in the Oaxacan mountains.


Lauren Cocking: Is Ilana Luna your birth name? It’s so lyrical. It’s like the antithesis of my name!

Ilana Luna: Well, it’s not my birth name. I was married young and it was my married name. But the funny story is that my mom used to call me that before I ever met my ex-husband. And I always said that I would never change my name unless it was an upgrade, but you can’t really beat Ilana Luna.

LC: And how did you come to learn Spanish?

IL: Well, my household was not a monolingual household. [My parents are American but] had lived in Spain, and they spoke Spanish as an exclusionary technique, that is, to communicate with each other when they wanted to keep a secret.

LC: It’s interesting that Spanish was an exclusionary technique in your household and you’ve kind of flipped that on its head by becoming a translator.

IL: Yes, exactly. I was like: “fuck you, I’m going to understand what you’re talking about!” (Laughs. “Sorry mom and dad, you know I love you!”) And I think from a very young age, my desire to study Spanish – and to speak it well – really derived from a desire to communicate with a large portion of the world. It was like, I don’t want to be excluded from this conversation. So that’s how it started and then when I was 16, I got a scholarship to go to live in Argentina.

One of the things that I love about translation – and just language awareness in general – is that there are definitely words that I know exactly when they entered my vocabulary. I remember when I learnt the word, what it meant, how I felt, you know? I remember when I understood the use of the present perfect subjunctive because I was walking home with some boy after an all-night party and he was like, “aunque no haya pasado nada” and I was like CLICK. It finally made sense.

LC: So how did your interest in languages develop into an interest in translation? Because from what I’ve read, you’re first and foremost an academic, right?

IL: I think that some people pick a path, and they do one thing and that’s awesome. I’m not that kind of person.

I did my undergraduate work in Spanish literature, but when you study Spanish literature in an English-speaking country, translation’s a really natural offshoot, [but] I didn’t get really more focused on it until I did a Ph.D. in Hispanic literature. I studied at the University of California at Santa Barbara and I was fortunate to have one of the foremost translators of Latin America as a professor, Suzanne Jill Levine. She was creating a translation studies concentration and I was the first person at UCSB to graduate with [that] concentration.

And then I worked on translation studies journal as an editor, and I had friends who were poets in the department that were like: “hey, I have a reading, could you translate some of my poems so we can do them bilingually?” And I was like: “alright!”

I mean, it’s driven – as most things are in my life – by some sort of social impetus, somebody going: “hey, there’s this thing I want you to do.” In general, I have a very collaborative nature and I get excited about other peoples’ projects, too. I really enjoy, personally, translating living authors, particularly because of that joyousness and that connection that you can have.

The flip side of that is something that’s a little bit depressing. Within academia, there’s this notion that [translation is] a lesser form of study or intellectual endeavour. The hubris to think that it’s not an intellectual endeavour to translate! Like, we wouldn’t have the Western canon. We wouldn’t have any canons if we didn’t have translation.

LC: That’s really interesting that you have an academic perspective on attitudes to translation.

IL: Well, it’s interesting because [it’s] like ‘this counts’ and ‘this doesn’t count’ towards your progress as a scholar. Personally, my interest lies more towards public scholarship because it seems to me every day more relevant that we need communication with a larger body of people.

LC: What do you mean when you say public scholarship?

IL: I mean a lot of different things. Some of it is like: “how do we communicate academic discoveries, whether they’re scientific or humanities, to a much wider audience?” So, you might have somebody who writes a column in a newspaper or you might have somebody who does public speaking engagements.

I’m certainly not getting invited all over the world for speaking engagements (laughs), nor would it necessarily suit my personality, but there are [other] ways to engage the public and I really believe the translation is actually a form of public scholarship. That’s because you’re taking your intimate knowledge of a language and its context and its people and its culture and you are making that rich and available to a much wider audience.

So that to me is really exciting, that’s really what translation is about. “Hey, this thing’s really cool, folks, come check it out!” I want to share things that matter to me with the world.

LC: Absolutely. I’m also quite interested in the idea of what gets translated and who’s in charge of choosing what is translated. How do we avoid imputing automatic prestige onto works translated into English, or considering them as more worthy than untranslated works?

IL: I think it’s a real issue. You have the international publishing houses that can say: “OK, we we’re going to put money into having this book translated into X number of languages.” And they have all of their books and they can make that happen almost simultaneously. You see authors like Isabel Allende who, at this point in her career, has books coming out simultaneously in English and Spanish. I would say the vast majority of writers don’t make it into that sort of bestseller-ness. Then the question becomes the importance and the value of small presses. To me, what’s most exciting is the work that small presses are doing, but it’s like who makes the canon? The people who are getting excited and are putting in the elbow grease to publish small authors without agents.

And the same thing goes for small publishing houses that are doing poetry translation because, generally, poetry is published in a bilingual or multilingual presentation. [That] allows people to have this proximity to a language [and] this aesthetic object, but they don’t need to be as proficient. There’s something just especially intimate about poetry and that relationship between the author and the translator that I find kind of exhilarating.

LC: Is that part of the driving force behind your decision to translate poetry, specifically poetry by living authors? The idea of the joyousness and having both the English and Spanish working in tandem in the final product?

IL: I would love to say that it’s a by design thing, but that would be specious at best. (Laughs.) I do it because I like it. I mean, honestly, I think that we don’t give enough space for joy in our lives. I’m one person, but I would like to live a joyous life and I like to give time and energy to things that bring me joy.

So, it’s not just because it’s important, which it also may be, and doing something important maybe brings people joy, too. But for me, it has to hit multiple needs in my life. For me, poetry is really beautiful because it encapsulates moments. It’s a small, discrete amount of information.

But I really think that women don’t get translated enough. Much of the translation I’ve done has been of men because they’re people who have approached me and said: “hey, Ilana, would you be interested in doing this?”

LC: That’s interesting. Do you think men feel more able to just turn up to somebody and say, ‘hey, translate my work’ than women?

IL: Not to make rash generalisations, but anecdotally I can say that when there’s a book announcement or a talk, I get this onslaught of people who want to add me on social media. And invariably at least one or two of them says: “hey, I have this book that needs translating.” I generally respond: “that’s nice, I recommend x, y, or z. Do you have a budget?”.

But I think there’s this entitlement to our labour that’s built into the system, [so] they’re maybe not even aware that they’re asking something unreasonable. I don’t think that it’s exclusively a gendered dynamic, but I’ve never had a woman write to me out of the blue and say, would you do this thing for me for free? I suppose it could happen…

LC: Yeah, definitely. Do you think that your more scholarly approach to literature and film impacts the way you translate or approach translation?

IL: That’s a great question. I definitely feel the fact that I studied literary analysis is the only reason that I’m able to translate in the way that I do, because translation is the closest reading you’ll ever do. And close reading is one of the main methods that I use in my scholarly writing.

Over the last couple of years, [one of my driving questions has been]: “how do I take all of this privilege that I have and all of this knowledge that I have and put it to the service of other people?” And I think translation is one of the ways in which I do that, right? And I think programming a film festival [Femme Revolution Film Fest] is another way that I do that. To me, those are examples of the public scholarship I mentioned before, because the training I have means that it’s almost like muscle memory. And you know if it works or if it doesn’t work, you know if it’s in balance or if it’s not in balance because you’ve been seeing these things for many, many years.

LC: Thinking more about translation, you recently translated Judith Santopietro’s poetry collection Tiawanaku. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

IL: It’s a really cool project. When I was approached, it was by the director of Orca Libros [who said], here’s what we’re working on, we’re focusing on women and this is why.

The poetry collection has been shortlisted amongst five other books for the Sarah Maguire Prize for Poetry in Translation. The prize is split between the translator and the author equally and it’s from an institution that is doing the work to [draw] attention to the value of translation and poetry. It’s actually, from what I understand, the first edition of this prize, so I’m super excited and honoured. And it really sort of encapsulates the relationship, right? Because it’s both the author and the translators’ creative work that’s made this possible and is what’s attracting this interest. A true and deep collaboration.

LC: I read that you actually all went to Oaxaca to work on the translation. Is that right?

IL: So, I had a year to go on sabbatical and I thought: “of course, I’m going to Mexico City.” I had read the book and I liked it. And I had worked on one or two poems; I’d probably done the first 10 or 15 pages of the book, but had gotten caught up in the production of the inaugural film fest, and we were talking about how we wanted to finish it, like where it would fit in the queue of work.

Judith was living in Oaxaca at the time and I said, I’m going to fly to Oaxaca. We’re going to lock ourselves up together and we’re going to work on this for a week and we’ll see where we are. And that was it. And then the editor Lina Aguirre joined us. We spent a couple of days just getting some rapport and then we went up to this beautiful little cabin in the Sierra de Juárez and we just worked.

There was no internet, there was no nothing except for our company, so we just locked ourselves up and worked, and shared stories, and walked in the woods, and cackled, and cried, and sipped mezcal by the fire. That is pretty much the way I work; I need social motivation and undivided attention to do something. There are always so many competing activities, that I have to create blocks of space and time for myself to feel less scattered.

LC: Was that difficult at all?

IL: It could have gone really horribly if we didn’t like each other. (Laughs.) I think the most challenging thing was not having online dictionaries. [Judith speaks English though], so we could read back and forth. I would work solidly for an hour and finish two or three poems, and then we would read through, and Lina would also weigh in with her opinion as editor.

Honestly, I can’t translate without the read through out loud. Like, I can’t call something finished without that read through together, even if the author’s English is [not fluent], it’s good for them to hear it, because this is their work. This is my rendering of their work, it’s our “transcreation” and I want them to hear the rhythm and I want to hear it myself. Working out loud helps me tremendously because when something isn’t working, you stumble. If something doesn’t flow, you hear it right away.

LC: Absolutely. Have you been reading any good books from Latin America recently?

IL: Right now, I’m reading a book from Argentina, Las aventuras de China Iron. I read Conjunto vacío recently and also Casas vacías. Maybe I’m into contemplating the void? I also loved Antígona González and I really think JD Pluecker did a phenomenal job of translation. My students connected so deeply to the text.

As a personal recommendation to you, Cristina Rivera Garza is awesome; here’s what you need to read from her because she’s hard. You’ll enjoy, I think, Nadie me verá llorar – my gateway drug! I really loved it because it’s funny and it builds on her doctoral research which was on La Castañeda.

LC: And any translators working with Latin American literature you’d like to shout out?

IL: I mean, Robin Myers is doing great stuff, Rosalind Harvey, David Shook, and JD Pluecker. Charlotte Whittle is doing some really cool stuff too.

I’d also like to mention (because I have intimate knowledge of the incredible work they’re doing) Cardboard House Press, directed by Giancarlo Huapaya. The press is dedicated specifically to Latin American and Spanish poetry in bilingual format and in 5 short years they’ve produced a catalogue of over 30 titles, with some also really wonderful translators represented.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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