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Jennifer Shyue is a multilingual literary translator and writer who’s lived in half a dozen countries and works predominantly with poetry and prose from Cuba and Peru. (Perhaps you read her fantastic essay ‘Mother’s Tongue’ in The Common? If not, please go and do so. This interview isn’t going anywhere.)
While she’s translated work by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, Ahmel Echevarría, Augusto Higa Oshiro, and Sui-Yun, Shyue most regularly works with the words of the prolific Chinese-Peruvian writer Julia Wong Kcomt—look out for her forthcoming translation of Bi-Rey-Nato from Ugly Duckling Presse.
Here, we discuss the high that comes from translating, Chinese and Japanese influences on Peruvian Spanish, and how we can move past the default of what literary translators look like.
Lauren Cocking: How did you get started in literary translation? I understand you took a class with [Roberto Bolaño’s translator] Natasha Wimmer, is that right?
Jennifer Shyue: Yeah, a series of happy accidents—like that workshop with Natasha Wimmer—made me realise how much fun translation is and how much I love it.
In my senior year of college, I applied for fellowships that would have allowed me to spend a year in Peru translating, but none of those worked out. Then the opportunity to go to the MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa fell into my lap thanks to an email that a professor forwarded. That program locked in [the fact] that this was something I was going to dedicate a lot of my life to.
LC: What’s the specific appeal of translation for you?
JS: I love that it’s a lot of the fun parts of writing—but less stressful because I don’t have to do all the pieces myself. It’s puzzle-like in a way that I enjoy, and when it’s really going well, there’s a high—sometimes I feel like I’m buzzing.
I also appreciate the opportunity to facilitate the entry of a writer into the Anglophone world, which often opens up doors, not least of which can be financial benefit. That’s an important part of it for me, too, because obviously everybody should be able to be paid for their work, and art is labour.
That said, I don’t know if I plan to be a full-time translator. Translation doesn’t pay very much. It’s obviously possible to make a living as a translator, but I personally struggle with the idea of that level of instability. Ideally, I would preserve translation as purely a space of joy.
LC: Can you give me an example of a recent ‘translation high’?
JS: The last time I distinctly remember feeling this way—and sometimes having a deadline facilitates this feeling—was when I was working on translating some of Julia Wong Kcomt’s poems. It was going really smoothly, and I was digging deeper into the poems than I had when I was initially reading them. It’s like the excitement that comes with having a good conversation with someone whose obsessions I share.
LC: You note that the concept of home for Asian Peruvian writers, whether Nikkei or Tusán, is often complicated. You’ve lived in lots of cities and countries. Where is home for you and how does that impact your work as a translator, if at all?
JS: That’s an interesting question. The first part of the answer is that I definitely feel very rooted in New York City, and that’s never been in doubt for me [perhaps because] there’s such a strong Chinese diaspora community. It was possible to move entirely between Chinese-speaking places for a lot of my life. I think that influences what I’m interested in translating, yeah.
That feeling of hyphenation or hybrid identity is one I’m interested in, across the spectrum. Code-switching and multilingual lives, those are themes I seek out.
LC: You’ve worked with Peruvian and Cuban writers to date. Do you have any favourite regionalisms from those Spanish variants?
JS: I don’t know if I personally incorporate that many regionalisms into my own speech, but I was thinking about the word ‘bamba’ the other day, which in Peruvian Spanish means counterfeit or poorly made. It’s such a fun word to say, and the lopsidedness of its two syllables somehow reflects its meaning.
It’s also interesting to think about all the ways in which the other languages of a place contribute to the Spanish that’s spoken; for example, Quechua borrowings in Peruvian Spanish.
LC: Have Chinese and Japanese filtered through into Peruvian Spanish too?
JS: There are definitely Peruvian Spanish words that come from various dialects of Chinese, mostly in the food realm, unsurprisingly. Ginger is jengibre but also kión, which I think comes from the Hakka word for ginger. Soy sauce is sillao, which comes from the Cantonese, I believe, and then fried rice is chaufa.
LC: How do you navigate translating texts from writers who work in influences from various languages?
JS: I’m working on a novella, La iluminación de Katzuo Nakamatsu by Augusto Higa Oshiro, that has the occasional word in Japanese. The words are glossed in the original itself because the writer doesn’t expect his reader to know what these words mean. I’m not sure how much Japanese Augusto actually speaks, but when you’re raised by parents who immigrated from Okinawa, words will naturally make their way into your home language.
I’m of course keeping the Japanese, but the big question is whether I will italicise. In the original Spanish, the Japanese words are italicised. But there’s a trend here [in the US] toward not italicising foreign words, especially because the line between what’s ‘foreign’ and what’s English is so unclear. And especially in a text that’s interested in diasporic experiences…I don’t know if it makes sense for me to italicise the Japanese.
LC: How did you develop an interest in Asian-Peruvian writing?
JS: I first got a hint of the existence of Asian-Peruvian communities during Natasha Wimmer’s class. I went to the university library in search of something to translate and picked up an anthology of Peruvian writers of the 80s. There was this one writer, Siu Kam Wen, where I was like, this looks like a Chinese name. This glimpse made me want to learn more about that branch of the diaspora because I was just completely ignorant of the fact that there was migration to other parts of the Americas from Asia.
LC: I want to talk about your essay ‘Mother’s Tongue’, which is brilliant. In it, you write that there’s still an implicit default for what practitioners of translation look like. How can we—and by we, I mean white translators—move past that default?
JS: The question of representation [in translation] has even been in non-translation news outlets recently [because of the controversy over Amanda Gorman’s translators]. I think that recognising the specific obstacles different people of colour might face in entering literary translation is important. A big one is obviously money. It can be hard to establish yourself to the point where you’re actually getting enough work to pay bills. For me, I don’t know if I’ve made enough as a translator to even counterbalance all the books I buy. (Laughs.)
I also think the idea of mastery is often really rooted in academia, and your relationship to your language is going to be different if you’ve never studied it. My vocabulary as a Mandarin speaker is minuscule. I’m sure I sound like a kindergartener when I speak. On the other hand, I learnt what the Spanish subjunctive was in school. Who knows what the subjunctive is if you haven’t been taught it in a classroom setting?
One thing I’d love to see is people who teach workshops explicitly welcoming people who speak a heritage language or are non-native—quote unquote—English speakers. Even including one line to that effect in the course description has the potential to make a huge difference.
Once people have crossed the barrier of oh, I do want to be a translator, established translators applying their mentorship energy in thoughtful ways can make a difference too. So much of being able to place a book is about who you know.
LC: Absolutely. In that same essay, you write that your mother ‘just’ speaks English and two-and-a-half-dialects of Chinese, emphasis on the ‘just’. I found that snippet such an interesting nod to how we code languages by importance and worth. Why did you choose to drive home that point particularly?
JS: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve articulated the reason to myself before. There’s that little quip that goes ‘a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy’. In the way we think about things here, we’ve codified it: the Romance languages are different languages, not just dialects of, say, Italian. The hierarchy is very clear, even in what is offered as a foreign language at school. At my high school, my options were French or Spanish or Latin; meanwhile, Stanford recently cut its Cantonese language program. There are more native speakers of Cantonese in the world than there are native Italian speakers, but it’s hard to imagine Stanford cutting its Italian program.
LC: Yeah, definitely. You also noted the proprietary attitude another Spanish to English translator displayed over the language. Do you think this is an attitude that extends to ‘ownership’ of certain writers, for example?
JS: Definitely. It can be subtle, but it’s there, and I think it’s rooted in insecurity—at least it was for me. I’ve definitely had moments where I felt like, ah! Someone else is touching a writer whose work I love. But I’ve tried to rationalise myself out of those instinctive feelings of possessiveness, because I think having multiple translations of one work can be a gift.
I like to think I am over that kind of insecurity now. As one person who’s working on multiple writers, I’m not going to be able to translate all of a given writer’s work. Although I have translated a bunch of Julia’s work because I love it so much…maybe more than is wise, given how hard it is to place poetry books.
LC: For sure. I also, personally, think that translators should have some level of connection with the work they’re translating too.
JS: Yeah, for sure. One thing I’ve been thinking about is this truism that your abilities in the target languages are more important than your connection to the source language. That doesn’t feel quite right to me. Every time I sit down to work on this Higa Oshiro novella, I’m like: Wow, there are so many Lima-specific references, and I’m catching some, but who knows how much I’m not catching. Obviously, there are ways to do research, but not everyone has time to dive that deep. For me, deep familiarity with the source context is being undersold in the ways we talk about translation.
[That’s why] I don’t anticipate expanding beyond the literatures of the places where I’ve spent good chunks of time. I can’t imagine trying to [translate] this novella without having been in Lima. There’s so much that I can see more clearly now that I’ve spent some time here.
It’s easy to think about Spanish as just one language, but the reality is more complex than that. Of course, not everyone can travel and spend chunks of time in other places; maybe that’s when having heritage speaker translators who’ve been immersed in a given culture their whole lives, even if they weren’t in a particular geographical space, makes more sense.
I also think it’s important not to approach works in isolation in a literary sense. Every text comes from a context. The more I can read around a work, the richer my understanding of the text is, and the stronger my translation will be.
LC: Absolutely. You’ve mentioned mentorship a few times, so I’m interested as to what form mentorship takes for you. Have you had a mentor?
JS: I’ve definitely been lucky to have structures in place where access to mentorship is built in. Generally, I think sharing information is really important. Recently, I’ve been trying to find out more about what rates are offered for poetry translation by talking to different people, which has led to a very small pool of data that I’m trying to make sure people around me have access to.
ALTA launched the BIPOC Literary Translators’ Caucus at the last conference, and I’ve been in that Slack space since, which has been wonderful, because everyone is so generous with their knowledge.
LC: Do you ever get frustrated that you’re asked to talk so much about representation of race in translation?
JS: That’s a great question. I’ve been having this conversation with a friend [who gets these requests more often], and I think this is a frustration for them—like, when do they get to just talk about the ‘art’? I personally have not felt the frustration yet, but I’ve heard that frustration from other people, and I do believe that this work can’t be done just by people of colour. White people also have a role to play. We all are raced; there’s no neutral.
I also worry about relying too heavily on labels that lack precision. Even just from ALTA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion survey data, it’s clear that there are groups that are less underrepresented and groups that are more underrepresented. As an East Asian American, I’m already more represented in a lot of Asian American spaces than Southeast Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander people. There are a lot of nuances, and when we only say ‘people of colour’ or ‘Latinx’, sometimes important granularity is lost. I want to be conscious of that as someone who benefits from privilege within the spaces of certain labels.
LC: What else are you working on at the moment?
JS: I’m trying to place a fascinating and funny novel-in-verse by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, a Cuban writer who lives in Miami. For whatever reason, I’ve gravitated toward things that are less commercially easy to place. Like a novel-in-verse, that’s kind of hard!
And then there’s a short story collection by the Cuban writer Anna Lidia Vega Serova that I’m also trying to get out there, and I’m always working on Julia Wong Kcomt’s poetry—it’s always a treat to turn to her words.
LC: What are you reading right now?
JS: I just finished Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi, which was very striking. I’ve also been reading Blinding by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated by Sean Cotter. The sentences are really long, and are almost like unlineated poetry, so I’m reading it like, how did Sean Cotter do this for 450 pages?! This is incredible, I’m in awe. It’s been an inspiration as I work with the winding sentences of La iluminación.
I also got a copy of the Yi Lei collection that was co-translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi. It’s a bilingual edition, and I’m slowly deciphering the Chinese. I’ve read very little Chinese language poetry, so this seemed like a good way to do it.
LC: And is there a book or writer from Latin America that you think everyone should read?
JS: Blanca Varela, the Peruvian poet! She’s an icon who hadn’t been published in a book-length translation in English until last year, with her collection Rough Song (Canto villano) translated by Carlos Lara. There’s actually another beautifully translated collection with poems from a number of her books coming out this year from Tolsun Books, translated by Sara Rivera and Lisa Allen Ortiz—The Blinding Star. I had the chance to look at it, and their translations are truly gorgeous. It’s bilingual, too, which is always a bonus. I think Blanca Varela is the only female poet from Peru who’s been published in a book-length translation in the US for at least 13 years, which is kind of wild.
LC: And any translators working within Latin American literature that you want to shout-out?
JS: There are so many, but three translators I deeply admire as people, in addition to loving their translation work, are Bruna Dantas Lobato, whose translations of short stories by the Brazilian writer Caio Fernando Abreu are forthcoming this year. She’s a generous mentor and sharer of information and resources in the way we were discussing.
Another translator is Michelle Har Kim, whose translation of the Peruvian poet José Watanabe’s Historia natural is also forthcoming. I’ve learned so much about Asian diasporic Latin American writers from her.
The third is Katrina Dodson, whose translation of Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma is likewise forthcoming, as well as a nonfiction work that draws on her notebooks from when she was translating Clarice Lispector’s stories, which I am very excited for because I adored her essay in The Believer about translating Clarice.
All three inspire me not just with their work on the page, but also in the ways they share their knowledge and time and boost up other translators. I guess we could call that mentorship? But it feels less hierarchical than that, more like generous care.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Header photo © Ricardo Barros.