Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Literary Translator Rosalind Harvey

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Rosalind Harvey is a British translator of Latin American fiction, co-founder of the Emerging Translators Network, literary translation mentor, and former Spanish teacher at the University of Warwick. Most recently, she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She also has a very cute cat.

As well as being the long-standing translator of Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos (she’s brought all but one of his books into English), she’s also translated Guadalupe Nettel’s After the Winter (MacLehose Editions, 2018), as well as novels by Elvira Navarro and Alberto Barrera Tyszka.

And keep your eyes peeled for her forthcoming translations of Nettel’s La hija única and Katya Adaui’s short story collection Here Be Icebergs.

Here, we discuss her love of terrible jokes, the tedium of the ‘are translators writers?’ debate, translation’s invisibility problem, and her “bag lady” career.


Lauren Cocking: What does translation mean to you, whether that’s as a concept, a practice, or a career?

Rosalind Harvey: Ooh, that’s a good question. I suppose, as a concept – based on some of the things that I’ve tried to do over my career…I don’t like that word, but – I think it’s nice to look at it in a slightly broader way than just sitting with a book and moving it from one language to another.

I think some of the most interesting events and activities in the translation world have been about trying to broaden the definition of what translation is, to show that it’s something that most of us do on a daily basis, even if people don’t have another language. You’re always adapting the way that you speak so that it fits for your audience. It’s about being aware of how flexible language is and how flexible we can be when we use language.

LC: You mentioned you don’t like the word career. Why is that?

RH: I think I’m struggling with that word at the moment, because generally you have to combine literary translation with other stuff unless you’re independently wealthy or lucky in another way. I just think it’s not very helpful to talk about it in terms of [career].

[And] I personally can’t translate nine-to-five, five days a week. I just can’t. My brain can’t cope with that. I don’t think I’m alone in that. I’m sure there are probably more highbrow people who can do that. I also think there’s a lot of value in doing something different. I’ve got a colleague who teaches gymnastics alongside translation, and there’s a woman who runs a bike co-op part-time and who also translates. So, it’s quite far removed from translation and [yet] I feel like there must be some sort of cross-fertilisation that happens. I think that’s quite healthy.

LC: Absolutely. A lot of translators tend to be in it for a love of words. Is that the case for you?

RH: That’s definitely a large part of the drive, yeah. I’ve always loved language and reading, but I often don’t get as much as I sometimes feel I should from somebody reading their work out loud at an event, because it brings what for me is quite a private process out into the open. So, I like literary events, but not necessarily for the literary side of them. I like seeing friends and gossiping.

LC: Do you have a favorite word in Spanish?

RH: I like a lot of the ones that have Arabic roots, that start with ‘al’, because of how it sounds and of how the word reveals its history that way. It’s quite a sensual thing, I think, the enjoyment of language – maybe not for everyone – but I like how it feels in the mouth.  And I suppose that translation comes out of that enjoyment of Spanish. I love wordplay and I love making puns. I really enjoy terrible jokes. So, the more of that kind of stuff a book has in it, the more I enjoy it.

LC: Do you specifically seek out books like that or is that just incidental?

RH: I think it’s just incidental, but I did a great book a few years ago which was just about translating Spanish idioms. It involved a literal translation (so that readers could understand what exactly was going on in the original phrase), and then an English language equivalent. That was really, really fun.

I don’t think I’ve sought it out necessarily, but this Peruvian author who I’ve worked on, Katya Adaui, has got a lot of that kind of stuff in her work. It’s an enjoyment of wordplay, and it also feels like a way to write without being a writer, if that makes sense.

LC: Do you consider yourself a writer?

RH: I mean…there is that whole discussion: “are literary translators writers?” And, personally I think it’s not the most interesting conversation. I think it’s quite clear that we are writers. I mean, maybe it’s just the wrong wording [but] there’s no doubt that what literary translators do is creative and it’s a form of writing.

But I feel like translation can serve as an apprenticeship for being a writer because you get to feel what it’s like filling several blank pages a day. There’s no worry about creating the content, but you’re still grappling with putting a sentence together, or taking it apart and putting it back together again. So, a lot of the stuff that writers do, you also do as the translator, but with the safety net of always [having] a skeleton there. I also think that if you’re translating poetry, that’s enough to make you a poet.

LC: Sure. I’m a bit obsessed with your bone china mug tweet and it made me wonder whether you also have any translation rituals, to accompany your tea-drinking rituals?

RH: I’m not very good at creating rituals and I think that’s been extra noticeable this past year because we’ve all needed rituals more or been sort of forced into them.

My translation energy is most on in the morning and then the afternoon is more for teaching and mentoring, admin, playing with my cat. Other things that aren’t as mentally taxing. But it doesn’t always work that way. I mean, sometimes I’ll have a random spurt of energy at 7:00 p.m. and end up doing another 1000 words. I feel like I should have more rituals.

I heard recently of a translator who, before they start work on the next section, try and reread a page or paragraph that they translated the day before, just to get their mind back in the zone which I haven’t yet tried to do, but sounds like a great idea.

LC: I would consider you an established literary translator. Has that given you freedom regarding who and what you translate?

RH: That’s a really good question. I’ve been very lucky in that I don’t think I’ve pitched anything for more than a decade, because the first and only time I pitched was Juan Pablo Villalobos’ first book, Down the Rabbit Hole, to And Other Stories. When I took that book to them, they hadn’t published anything; it was very early days. And I was just lucky because I knew Stefan from UEA and he happened to like that book, and he just took a punt on my enthusiasm for the book.

Because [the book] got a lot of really nice attention, I ended up doing all of his subsequent books (apart from one which Daniel Hahn did). And I think on the back of that, I did end up getting approached by a lot of publishers.

I’m not trying to sound falsely modest. I think it was partly hard work, but it’s also timing and the people that I knew.

LC: Sure. You’re also the founder of the Emerging Translators Network, right?

RH: Yeah. I talked to somebody recently who was saying that they don’t like the term emerging translator.

LC: Why is that?

RH: I think this person’s idea was that there are no other careers where we do that… you don’t have an emerging lawyer. Possibly it’s a slightly infantilising term within a profession which already has a bit of a lack of self-esteem. I think their point was that ‘emerging translator’ is possibly a bit of, what’s it called? Nominative determinism. Like, technically, if you’ve studied and you are working, you’re just a translator. Why call us emerging?

I actually think it’s not that that term holds people back, it’s that there needs to be more of a focus on building confidence amongst translators, getting people at that stage where they feel able to ask for more money, feel entitled to ask for more and stand up for their rights and say: “I am a professional, my work is of value.”

LC: Yeah. As well as translating and founding the ETN, you’ve also taught, judged awards, and you’re a mentor [editor’s note: she’s also my mentor]. Why has getting involved with translation in all these different ways been important for you? Has it changed your perspective?

RH: It’s not necessarily been planned that way. I remember someone introduced me to the phrase ‘portfolio career’ several years ago and I just laughed and said: “I’ve got a bag lady career.”

It’s kind of stuff that’s just happened [and] I’m not ungrateful; I’m very lucky to have worked in all those different areas. It makes me think a lot more about where translation is embedded in society. I think there’s a lot of value in the academic discussion around translations, but I think that often doesn’t have a lot of bearing on what practitioners do, or on how we can get kids to engage with translation.

LC: I want to talk a bit about invisibility as a concept within translation. There’s an expectation that translation done well should be invisible, undetectable. What do you think?

RH: I think it really depends on the reader. I remember having a really interesting – initially quite frustrating, but ultimately illuminating – chat with a friend of an ex-boyfriend who was very erudite, but not in the literary world. He would just go into a bookshop and buy a lot of stuff and was interested in knowing that a book had been translated.

I think he read an old translation of Don Quixote and I didn’t rate [that translation] particularly highly but he really loved the fact that it was awkward, that it was clunky, that it was ‘of its time’. And I think another reader would not necessarily have been able to articulate why. They might have just thought ‘this is a terrible book’ and flung it across the room.

So, I think it depends on what kind of knowledge and view of reading and of literature you bring to the experience. I’ve read lots of translations and it’s really hard now, as a translator, to stop yourself thinking: “am I enjoying this or has the translator improved it? Am I not enjoying it because there’s something going on with the original? Are there errors?” It really brings up your own prejudices.

I think the idea of invisibility [has] rubbed up against a more recent view that actually, of course, we have agency as translators. We put our own mark on a book, right from the very fact of whether a book ends up being seen by a publisher and taken through to the English language market, to the choices that you make on a word and sentence level. They’re choices that you make, and they can be demonstrations of your political stance to a certain degree.

For an average reader – not that there is any such thing – in the U.K. who doesn’t have any other languages, they’re just choosing a book. They may not have any interest in whether or not it’s been translated. They may well really enjoy a book because it’s been translated well, but if they can’t articulate it within that framework, does that matter? What does it mean for the translation of the book? I don’t know.

LC: The other side of the invisibility spectrum is the invisiblisation of the translator themselves. Maybe this is skewed entirely by who I speak to, but I feel like literary translation is dominated by women. Do you think that it’s written off as woman’s work and invisibilised as a result?

RH: Definitely. I’ve got a lot to say about that. It’s hard to know which came first, but historically it was a bit of a gentlewoman’s profession. You’ve got people like Constance Garnett and people just lounging about on their beds…I mean, she was ill. (Laughs.) No disrespect to Constance!

The fees are really low, and that’s partly to do with the fact that it’s female dominated, like you say, but I think it’s also a feminised profession and it’s low status. I suppose that’s analogous to other traditionally female, low-status jobs, like nursing and caring, and translation, in a way, is a form of care. It’s not the same as looking after a sick person, but there’s an attention to detail, there’s a generosity, especially if the work you’re doing is trying to lift up voices that don’t get listened to, traditionally.

So, there’s a kind of sensitivity and attentiveness, which historically have been coded as female activities, which is not to say that men can’t do them, but they are associated in many people’s minds with the feminine.

You’re right; there aren’t as many men but, interestingly, a lot of the men who do engage in translation seem to be higher status. It’s like that in publishing; it’s also very female-dominated, but a lot of the directors at publishing companies tend to be men.

LC: You’ve written before about the triple erasure of Latin American women in literature, but most of your translations have been of men. Would you like to translate more women?

RH: I would definitely like to work on more women. Partly as a political gesture to help with rebalancing some of that imbalance, but also just because why not? There’s some great writing by women out there.

LC: In a similar vein, do you ever interrogate your position within translation, as a white British woman working with primarily Latin American literature?

RH: Yes, but I don’t think I did that at all, really, at the start of my career. And if I do it now, it’s only because of the work of other non-white translators – which in itself is quite telling – but I think it’s something that most translators now should be aware of.

There’s some really good work being done by Shadow Heroes. It was founded by Sophie Lewis but Gitanjali Patel runs it now. They do a lot of stuff in schools around using translation to help students engage critically with the text and they’ve just released the new program of events, which involves a lot of different translators of colour working in schools to look specifically at the concept of race within translated texts.

I think it’s odd, but maybe not that surprising, that a profession which in theory is about amplifying voices and thinking critically about diversity has only really started doing self-examination about that stuff relatively recently. It’s long overdue and I think as an individual translator, asking yourself those questions is really important.

LC: You co-translated some books early on with the Canadian translator Anne McLean. How did that work?

RH: Anne was my unofficial mentor, I guess. I learned more from drafting with Anne about the actual craft of translating than I did in any academic setting. Generally, I would do the first draft, she would do a second draft, and then it would go back and forth. And then ideally, at some point, we would meet.

[It was good because] that first draft stage is so boring. You’re churning out something that reads horribly and it’s not a nice thing to produce. So if you can get someone else to do that, they get the experience and you get a lump of granite that’s been semi-carved and you can do the detailed chiseling. (Laughs.)

LC: Do translators have favorites? What’s yours?

RH: I suppose mine is probably Juan Pablo Villalobos’ first just because that was the first sole translation I did. I’d done three books with Anne by that point but were her projects, I was just along for the ride.

And I’m obviously biased, but it’s just such a perfect book. It’s so short, it’s so perfect, it’s just lovely. It’s what got me started, so I’ll always have a real soft spot for that book. And it’s still shocking, it’s kind of like a little shiny bullet.

LC: Is there a writer from Latin America that you wish more people knew about?

RH: [Uruguayan author] Ida Vitale, definitely. She is semi-being discovered in English at the moment anyway, but she’s really, really interesting and not that well-known. My friend Sean Manning’s translating her book for Charco Press.

LC: And how about translators?

RH: Well, definitely Sophie Hughes, Annie McDermott – they’re both wonderful. In terms of Arabic, Sawad Hussain is doing amazing things and I’ve been mentoring a great woman called Kathy Van de Vate who also works on Arabic writing. She’s brilliant.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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