María Cristina Hall is a Mexico City based Mexican American poet, translator, and writer, as well as my friend and former Catalan teacher (I was not a good student). As well as teaching the Catalan basics to terrible British women, Hall is the author of Sueños de la Malaria and co-editor of Asymptote 25: Barings // Bearings, a collection of contemporary writing by Catalan women in translation, and Topografías del sueño, a zine about pandemic dreams.
She’s also translated poetry by Bel Olid, Blai Bonet, and Martha Mega, a collection of essays by Melina Balcázar for Editorial Argonáutica – Aquí no mueren los muertos/ The Dead Won’t Die Here – and is currently co-translating El parèntesi esquerre by Muriel Villanueva for Open Letter Press alongside Megan Berkobien.
Here, we discuss graceful translations, birote vs. telera bread, freaky pandemic dreams about people from high school, and working with indie editorials.
Lauren Cocking: You’ve done so much! How did you get into poetry and translation, etc.?
María Cristina Hall: I guess it’s sort of an identity thing because I was born in a bilingual context. In that sense, it all kind of came naturally. Like, I speak English, I speak Spanish; I started translating probably in high school. And I always loved poetry, so whenever I was interested in something in another language, I would translate it. [What I do is] kind of a mix between political science, translating, and writing and I see translation as kind of political work. English dominates the publishing industry so much and translations balance that out a little bit.
LC: You’ve just translated Aquí no mueren los muertos/ The Dead Won’t Die Here for Argonáutica. Can you tell me a bit about this essay collection?
MCH: I don’t know if it’s a collection; maybe it’s just like one long essay with different parts. The access [point] would be the death of the mother. So, how do you communicate with a mother who’s dead? There’s a lot of spiritism [involved], which is kind of a religion — it was like a big thing in Mexico, I think there were like 8 million followers of this religion — where you kind of talk with dead people through noises. Like, you hit the wall and then the wall will make a noise back at you. And they have these major sessions in Mexico and they have mediums to speak with the dead. I found out that my suegra was almost recruited as a medium for that! There’s a lot about post-mortem photography too, like how that’s kind of a memento and you see the dead through their eyes, but they’re dead and they don’t see you.
LC: Do you find translating essays different to translating poetry?
MCH: With poetry I think you can be a lot more creative and put your voice in more, just because you have to. Because the rhymes won’t be the same in English, you’re going to have change a few things like puns…you have to make it kind of your own. Whereas in essays I feel like I have to hold back a little bit. Sometimes there’ll be a part where I’m like: “Hmm, I don’t love this.” But in this one for Argonáutica, I just didn’t change anything. It was very solid to begin with.
LC: Did you pitch the editorial or did they approach you to translate this book?
MCH: The reason I got that [this project] was because of Robin Myers. She translates a lot for Argonáutica and I think they just asked her, like, who else could translate? I think she’d done two already and they wanted a bit of a variety, so she recommended me. And then I’m co-translating El parèntesi esquerre by Muriel Villanueva [a Catalan writer] for Open Letter right now. I’m actually doing that as a co-translation with another friend, Megan Berkobien, who was once an intern there, so she called me in. I think it’s definitely a lot about like making friends who also translate and who recommend you.
LC: How do co-translations work? You know, it’s two people, two different voices, processes. So how does that come together?
MCH: I think you do have to know each other very well and be comfortable with editing each other and suggesting things. But also liking the other person’s style! What we’re doing is: I do 10 pages, she does 10 pages and then we read each other’s against the original, make comments and then edit for style. And we write comments like: “Oh, this translation idea seems totally fucked up, these two lines suck, help me!”
MCH: But it’s fun! It’s cool to have a relationship with the other translator. Just coworking in general is so much more fun than working on super individual, alone-in-your-house projects all the time. We’re translators. If we didn’t like being alone, we wouldn’t be translators…but it’s nice to have contact.
LC: Do you ever find there’s much crossover between Catalan literature and Latin American literature in terms of themes or concerns?
MCH: Hmm, I think maybe like if you look back to Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda, that to me seems very magical realism. Martha Tennent’s translation is just out of this world. Super good, I loved it! I don’t know who she read, but that seems to me a lot more related to Juan Rulfo, whereas I don’t know how to describe Catalan literature! I feel like I’m really good at the language, but I don’t read enough at all. The last few years I’ve only been reading Chicano literature.
LC: How can you tell what’s a good translation?
MCH: Well, I guess it is hard because… did you hear about that Korean book, The Vegetarian by Han Kang? It sold really well. People were all about this translation. They loved it, but it wasn’t like a faithful translation. So, I guess there are two sides of the coin.
One is like how it reads, and that’s super important. To me, that’s the main thing, because I don’t want to be reading something that says “the sister of the brother of the father”. You know like those kinds of very literal translations? Like, just use a fucking apostrophe! Change the order of the sentence! You’re killing me.
I like to see like some grace in it and I think what matters most to the reader is if it’s graceful or not. I would say that the Mercè Rodoreda translation by Martha Tennent is super graceful and very beautiful, but I haven’t read it against the original.
Susan Bernofsky teaches translation, and she has this concept called ‘turn up the volume.’ So, if a poem is playing with this specific style, make it more obvious in your translation. Make it big, loud, noticeable. Make it your own a little bit.
LC: In Sueños de la Malaria, which is kind of a travelogue-fiction-poetry hybrid, I really appreciate the way you address privilege. Why are you so open about your privileges in your writing?
MCH: I’ve lived in both contexts [Mexico and America] so deeply. I mean, I lived in Mexico until I was 18, but when I go to the US I don’t have an accent, so people think I’m white until they see my last name or whatever. In some parts I’m white and in some parts I’m not.
And when I went to Spain, I was definitely very…I don’t know if ‘edited’ is the word? But I had a job there and I said: “OK, aquí está el reporte.” And my boss guy was like: “No, forgive her, she’s from Mexico. It’s an informe.” And I was like, wow, that was very imperial.
I had lots of experiences like that in Spain and they made me rediscover this other power relationship and where I stand in it. And I never think that it’s right to have these relationships, so I try to subvert them a little bit when I can. But I also can’t ignore my privileges. I mean, I went to like private school, then I went to Columbia. I’ve never had impediments and all the stuff I’ve had or done isn’t always my merit.
LC: You’ve worked with Open Letter, Argonáutica and Sueños was published by Herring Publishers as well. What do you enjoy about working with smaller editorials?
MCH: I definitely like it because they’re very open, friendly people. There’s a solidarity involved. Like, I think I actually have translated for Porrúa and stuff, but my name wasn’t even on the cover! It’s just through an agency, they find me and pay me well, but there’s no kind of interaction beyond that.
LC: In Topografías del sueño, which you co-edited with Julia Piastro, Mónica Palafox and Melissa Elizondo, you collate people’s weird pandemic dreams. What was the weirdest dream you came across in choosing which to include?
MCH: I don’t know about weirdest, but one that comes to mind right now is one where some people were eating birote [a crunchy type of bread from Guadalajara] with hair, like pubic hair.
LC: Oh god, that sounds traumatizing. I love birotes as well, I really miss those from Guadalajara! And lonches [sandwiches made with birote] as well.
MCH: Lonches are so much better than the tortas here [in Mexico City] too.
LC: Yes, they totally are! So much better than teleras [bread used to make tortas].
MCH: [Teleras] taste like hamburger bread.
LC: Right! Um…where were we? Oh yeah, a dream about pubic hair. Cool. My dreams have been super strange too. They’re usually about people from high school that I’ve not seen in decades, which is really freaky. Like, why am I thinking about you? Are you still having pandemic dreams?
MCH: Yeah. High school people all the time. And it’s weird. I’m like, is it because of Facebook or are they really like in my brain?
LC: OK, let me pull this back around to translation! Are there any upcoming authors or translators that we should be looking out for?
Here in Mexico, Andrea Alzati was involved in publishing this anthology of poets. Man, I’ll send you a picture of where it’s from, it’s like some Nordic place. That was a really cool anthology. [Editor’s note: the anthology is 6 poetas mexicanas y 6 poetas noruegas and it was published by TUR Forlag.] There’s also Kira Josefsson [a Swedish <> English translator] who edits Anomaly. And then there’s Jacqui Cornetta, who’s also like really, really good. Also, she just translated my story so I’m very, very happy about that! And obviously Meg Berkobien. She’s an amazing theorizer of translation and the one I co-edited Barings // Bearings with. She’s always doing really cool poetry translation and always picks kind of political stuff.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.