Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Multilingual Translator Julia Sanches

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Born in São Paulo, Brazil, Julia Sanches grew up in the US and has also lived in Switzerland, Mexico City, Scotland, and Catalonia. Which both explains my envy and her ability to translate from Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, and French into English. I know! (If you read my interview with Robin Myers, you’ll know that I experienced an unfiltered wave of envy when she told me about her multilingual friend and fellow translator.)

In 2020 alone, Julia’s had three book-length literary translations published: Twenty After Midnight by Daniel Galera (Penguin Books), Eartheater by Dolores Reyes (HarperVia), and Amora by Natalia Borges Polesso (Amazon Crossing). Meanwhile, Slash and Burn by Claudia D. Hernandez (And Other Stories) is due for publication in 2021. She’s also a founding member of translation collective Çedilla & Co. And she makes pots.

Here, we discuss taste-based insecurity, what people need to understand about translation, and (literal) scaredy cats.


Lauren Cocking: You’ve translated so many books! How did you break into literary translation?

Julia Sanches: The first book I did was for a small publisher called And Other Stories, and it was a book of lyrical non-fiction by a Portuguese writer [Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques]. I got that project sort of by attending a literary translation workshop in the UK. I was living in Spain at the time and I had really wanted to meet Margaret Jull Costa, [one] of my translation heroes. I went to the workshop and they had a little competition at the end, and they had all of us translate the sample of this book. Everyone in the group really loved this book and they decided to publish it. And they hired me to translate it, which was very nice since I’d not translated really anything before.

LC: And then did your career go gathering steam?

JS: No, not really! After that I moved to the States and got a job in publishing. At the time I was trying to still translate which was a terrible idea because I was working 50-60 hours at the agency. I didn’t really have much time or energy to be dedicating to translation, but I was still trying. I translated one more book [What Are The Blind Men Dreaming? by Brazilian author Noemi Jaffe] for Deep Vellum. They approached me about that one, which was very kind of them, and then I eventually quit Wylie to try to translate more.

I managed to secure, like, one project before quitting. And then I just did a bunch of samples and did a lot of reading for publishers and tried to pitch projects. And I still feel very, very unestablished. Right now, I have a single book [Boulder by Eva Baltasar] due in March, and that’s it, so I’m kind of in the process of trying to find work…which is a lot of work.

Related: Eartheater (Cometierra) Book Review

LC:  I totally get that. When you’re looking for books or texts to translate, what do you look for?

JS: I mean, it’s hard to tell at the moment. There’s been a lot of success with women writers from Latin America. But a couple of years ago, I translated this book [The Sun on my Head by Geovani Martins, which is about growing up in favelas] that did enormously well in Brazil, in part because Brazil needed a book like that, and just flopped here [in the US]. When I’m looking for a project. I find it especially stressful because I’m not…I don’t a thousand percent trust my taste.

LC: What’s wrong with your taste?!

JS: It’s nothing that’s wrong with my taste in particular. It’s just I’m an extremely insecure person, so I’m insecure about everything, even the books I like. Because, I mean, translators are expected to not only translate the books, but have exquisite taste and find the books. And I honestly, wish I don’t have to go through the process of like reading and reading, for the sake of finding something a publisher may or may not want to publish.

At the moment, I’m pitching around this book of short stories by a Basque writer [Eider Rodríguez] who self-translated into Spanish. I think the collection of short stories is brilliant, but short stories are hard to place, and the amount of work I’ve already had to put in to just like translate two short stories and write a submission letter and think of who to send it to. It’s just like…weeks [of] completely unpaid work.

LC: I read something you said in a previous interview about not wanting to uncomplicate your identity as a Brazilian-born translator who translates into English. I’m curious as to how, if at all, that ‘complication’ has affected people’s responses to you or your work?

JS: I think there’s an inherent distrust when you present yourself as someone who wasn’t born in an English-speaking country. I’ve learnt this second hand – no one has said the following to me directly – but [a friend told me that a publisher turned a project down and] said that the sample was really good “considering English isn’t her first language”, which, you know, hurts, considering I feel like English is my dominant language. And then another publisher who wouldn’t work with me because English wasn’t my first language. I’ve had people often do those sort of backhanded compliments, completely unintentionally, where they’re like, “oh, I can’t believe what an amazing job you did considering English was not your first language.”

[That’s] only happened a couple of times with editors that I found out about, so I don’t know how many times it’s happened behind the scenes. The hyphenation of my identity has made me protective in the past. For a while I didn’t put that I was Brazilian born, so hopefully people would trust me rather than jumping to conclusions.

It’s something that people have learnt passively in translation courses. It’s shared as a piece of irrefutable knowledge, you know? You should always only translate into your mother tongue. And when they say this, they assume that a mother tongue is something very uncomplicated. And that’s not the case for an enormous amount of humans on this planet. [There are a lot of us] trying to have conversations that move people away from that very binary understanding of language learning and who gets to translate or not.

LC: Does speaking multiple languages – French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English – work as a blessing or a curse when it comes to translation?

JS: There’s this one [word] that affected me for the longest time. In French, you can just say ‘c’est formidable’, meaning that’s a good thing, but ‘formidable’ in English means something completely different. And for years I didn’t know this other meaning of the word ‘formidable’ in English because I had encountered the word first in French.

But other than that, it can be very helpful. Right now I’m translating this short story by a woman who is from the Canary Islands and she uses the word coruja [a specific piece of Spanish dialect meaning ‘owl’] which happens to be the same word as owl in Portuguese. The fact that I speak Portuguese and have spoken Portuguese my whole life meant that when I learnt Catalan, it was much easier for me to pronounce it phonetically. So, pros and cons, like anything.

LC: I remembered when I started learning Catalan, I always used to describe it as like as if French and Portuguese had a child that lived in Spain.

JS: Yeah. It’s a wonderful language. It’s so funny because there are so many words [in Catalan] that you can trace roots back to French or Spanish or Italian or Portuguese, but then there are these words where you’re like: “where the fuck did this come from?” Like the word for carrot. I think in French it’s carotte, in Portuguese it’s cenoura, then there’s zanahoria in Spanish. Then in Catalan it’s pastanaga. Where did that come from?!

LC: To shift focus a little bit, I know that you make pots and mugs as well as translate. I’m interested in what similarities, if any, you would draw between the shaping of a pot and the shaping of a translation?

JS: Interesting. I do think about this a lot. Because it’s inevitable, I spend a lot of time doing both things. When you’re making a pot, there are several stages. At first you have to wedge the clay to get all of the air bubbles out. And then you slice off a piece and you go to the wheel and you start throwing. And [with] that first throw, what you’re mostly doing is trying to control the shape on the inside, because you can always adapt the shape on the outside. And then you leave it aside – it has to harden – and you bring it back to the wheel and then you trim it to get the shape that you want.

I guess you can draw a comparison of the various stages of translation. You can do a first draft, where you’re trying to get the inside shape and then you do a second draft where you start trimming off the excess and then – I mean, I’m off the cuff now – you can follow it throughout the entire publishing process, where the final piece is the piece that is fired once, then glazed, then fired another time, like the process of editing and copy editing, and proofreading and typesetting until you have the final product. So, you can see how the sausage is made, both with pots and translation.

There’s this book called Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation by Johannes Göransson and he talks about how when you put translations into the world, you’re disrupting the idea of a national literature which is why people are so uncomfortable with it. And I think, in part, there is this responsibility as a translator when you’re making translation of being very conscious of the fact that you’re putting a whole new interpretation of a text into the world.

And I think when I make pots, I’m also trying to be very aware of the fact that I’m putting out a new [thing] that won’t necessarily ever be destroyed, and that might exist on this planet and be found a hundred years from now, if there is still a planet (Lauren laughs nervously in the background). There’s a responsibility with adding to the world in this way and there’s a permanence to both things. Once you make a translation and it’s out in the world, it’s not very easy to get rid of it.

LC: Have you wished you could get rid of a translation you did?

JS: I think it’s more that I’ve wished I could get rid of parts of a translation or redo them. There’s no pot I’ve made that I’ve completely wanted to destroy. Because there’s always someone out there who will love it. I just put it in a box on the street and people will take it.

LC:  Are you saying you’re a more successful potter than translator?

JS:  Oh, God, no!

LC: What are some of the things you wish non-literary translators talked about when it comes to translation?

JS: That’s a really good question. My favourite [book critic] is Parul Sehgalbecause she actually makes an effort to look at what the translation is doing and the words the translator has chosen. She did a review of Javier Cercas’ The Imposter in translation and she picked up on a word that [translator Frank Wynne] decided to use and sort of zoomed in on that.

I would love for people who aren’t translators to remember the sheer amount of choices we’re making when we’re translating something. And the constraints that translators are also working under – not like financial or labour constraints, though there are plenty of those –but in terms of [how] sentences in Spanish or Catalan or Portuguese pack so much information that I have to transfer to English and it’s so hard to do it elegantly.

I think people are talking about it with more knowledge now but a lot of the time you see very lazy adjectives used to talk about people’s work, like ‘expertly’ translated. Like, you’d hope it was expertly translated, wouldn’t you?! That should just be par for the course. Then again, I don’t envy someone who is writing a review of a book in a certain amount of space and also having to figure out how to fit in something about translation because it’s a lot to take on.

There also isn’t a very good tradition [of translation]. I listen to this Catalan radio show called Ciutat Maragda. It’s a show about books and they often have translators on, and they speak of translation with such intimacy because it’s something that has a very rooted presence in the publishing world there. So, I guess it’ll become easier once we do less erasing of translators and more of, not celebrating them, but at least being aware of the work that goes into [translation].

LC: When I spoke to Robin, she mentioned something you about the issues with the word ‘translation’ in and of itself. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

JS: It doesn’t capture entirely what’s happening. The root [of the word] is of carrying something across but what we’re doing is something much more complex than carrying across; we’re versioning it or againing it, in the sense of remaking it rather than just translating.

I think translation might be more accurate to say about things that are technical or medical, where the information is much, much more important than the way the information is conveyed. And I think we’re only talking about the problems with words like translation because of how much suspicion exists around it in the Anglophone world. I’ve spoken to extremely well-read, erudite people who are like: “I just don’t know if I wanna read the translation. I really would like to read the source language.” And it’s like: “well, are you ever going to learn Russian and read that in Russian? No? Then maybe you should trust the translator and just read the version of the book that they are bringing to you.” I’m not sure if the same amount of suspicion exists [around] translations into other languages.

Related: In Conversation with Poet and Translator Robin Myers

LC: You’re also a founding member of a translation collective called Çedilla & Co. What do you feel you’ve achieved since that began?

JS: Interesting. What have we achieved? (Laughs.) I mean, we’ve established a very, very welcoming, supportive space for one another, which is something I’ve never had before. At least two of us, since the collective formed, have quit our day jobs and decided to become a full time translators, so maybe one advantage of the collective is making us feel that, though extremely difficult and precarious, it is possible as a career move.

There are nine of us now and every week I hear like something amazing that one of them has done, and it just warms my heart. Like Lissie (Elisabeth) Jaquette, who’s also the executive director of ALTA (American Literary Translators Association), had one of her translations shortlisted for the National Book Award.

Jeremy Tiang was the highlighted translator at the London Book Fair a couple of years ago. Heather Cleary was judging the National Book Award this year, and Jeffrey Zuckerman just published some really great translations of Hervé Guibert that have been getting so much excellent attention. Allison Markin Powell, with help, organised this amazing translation series called Translating the Future. They’re just doing such amazing things.

LC: Are there any writers you’d like to see in translation or even any writers that you’d like to translate?

JS: There’s this Brazilian author I’ve been hoping to translate more of for a while, called Sérgio Sant’Anna. He passed away this year and he’s one of Brazil’s most renowned short story writers. There are a lot of Brazilian writers who are great that don’t get so much attention in part because, my theory is, no one really knows what to make of Brazil. They sort of don’t [conceptualise it as Latin America]. They don’t know what to make of it, because it’s not a Spanish-speaking country and it’s a country with a very different literary tradition.

But there are so many authors that I’m trying to pitch. It’s too much to keep track of, I feel. You know when you tell people ‘I can juggle’ and then they say ‘juggle’ and you start juggling and it just doesn’t work.

LC: On that note, how have things been going for you this year?

JS: This year has just been too much. I’m a part-time bookseller at Riffraff, but they closed for the winter, and then my ceramics studio closed. I was like, this is just too much. I just can’t. I need to be able to at least see humans at ceramics or something or I think I might lose my mind. But we are in conversation about starting a cooperative studio, because apparently I like collective and cooperatives.

LC: (wrangling cats into the conversation) And you also have a cat, right?

JS: I have two cats but this week I’m taking care of my friend’s two cats, so I have four cats…and even so, we had a mouse sighting today.

LC: They’re not pulling their weight. You should start a sideline as a pet sitter!

JS: I mean, I’d be really into it. I find it quite funny to see animals interacting with one another because the pecking order of these cats is not what I expected. The biggest, furriest cat is at the very bottom because he’s also the scarediest cat. It’s entertaining, even though there is a lot hissing and growling. It’s really funny, so I’m having a great time.

LC: Well, I’m glad. I think we need small joys in the form of cats!

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Header image of Julia Sanches is © Dagan Farancz.

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