Translator Elizabeth Bryer on The Palimpsests, and her work as a translator

As a part of our Women in Translation Month series, here we have intern Ethan Resek in conversation with Elizabeth Bryer, the translator of The Palimpsests. Together, they dive into Bryer’s work as a translator and writer, and the particular joys of translating Aleksandra Lun’s debut novel, which will be out from Godine on October 24th.


INTERVIEWER

You have become a prolific translator of Spanish-language novels within the last five years, including of a winner of the prestigious Premio Las Américas de Novela. How did you first become interested in translation and, specifically, Spanish translation?

BRYER

Well, it may look prolific going by publication dates, but there is behind-the-scenes work that goes into a translation project long before publication day arrives. I started work on some of these years before they were published and have other projects that are yet to find a home; such is the nature of translating novels that you believe in deeplyit takes time and dedication and perseverance.

And yes, Claudia Salazar Jiménez, whose novel Blood of the Dawn was the first book I translated, won the Premio Las Américas de Novela, an incredible achievement for any writer, but especially so for a few reasons: she was awarded it for a debut work; that work was experimental and radical and addressed a difficult topic; and it was published by a small independent publisher, Animal de Invierno, in Peru, a country that doesn’t have a robust publishing industry. We’d been working together for maybe a year when she won that prize, and while some English-language publishers had expressed interest, one of the practical eventualities to come out of her win was that it brought her work to the attention of Deep Vellum Publishing.

As for my interest in Spanish and translation, I learned Spanish as a happy accident of living for a year in Arequipa, Peru, as an eighteen-year-old in 2004. Since then I’ve gone back most years. I’ve always been an avid reader, and initially I studied translation and interpreting with the idea of support my creative writing through work in those fields. During my studies I was drawn to literary translation (as opposed to professional translation), but I resisted it, even though it was a perfect marriage of my interests, because I thought that financially speaking having two poorly paid vocations would be at the very least impractical, and probably impossible. But a few years later I read Blood of the Dawn and wanted to press it into the hands of everyone I knew. Once I’d translated that novel, I picked up Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests and, reading it, got the same tingles up and down my spine. That was when I realized that I was hookedso much so that I now rarely do professional translation, am still managing to feed myself, and couldn’t imagine life without both literary translation and creative writing in it.

INTERVIEWER

What was it, exactly, that attracted you to The Palimpsests?

BRYER

So much! The Palimpsests is an erudite, madcap romp of a book. The Barcelona bookseller who pressed it into my hands said, “If you want to read something that says this much”he opened his arms wide“then this is the book for you.” He was right. The Palimpsests’s slight dimensions belie how truly exceptional and ambitious it is.

And the humour! I’ve never laughed out loud so often while sitting alone at my desk. Much of that humour is thanks to the precision of Lun’s language and the bolero effect she so brilliantly creates, the crescendo of repetitions and near repetitions that, in every new context, adds further layers of absurdity. There is a special kind of joy when you find a dazzling work that fires your imagination and stretches you creatively and intellectually as a translator, especially when the author turns out to be so gracious and encouraging. I very much lucked out with this one.

INTERVIEWER

In the “Translator’s Note” section of The Palimpsests, you say that the translation put you in a “state of low-level paranoia.” One of the causes you mention was the process of finding and translating the variety of esoteric literary references scattered throughout the novel. Could you talk more about this process, what steps you took, and what that was like?

BRYER

That comment was a little bit tongue-in-cheek, given I was translating a work set in an asylum! But the proliferation of covert references throughout the novel meant that any time a famous author character spoke, I researched different possible translations in case the dialogue incorporated something that the flesh-and-blood author had written or said during his or her lifetime.

This was especially important for authors who wrote in English; I didn’t want to back-translate their words from Spanish, but to incorporate their words as they had written them so that the ring of familiarity would sound for readers. As for authors who wrote in other languages, translations can become fossilized in a language until they are thought of as “originals,” so I wanted to make sure I was using the word choice of their works’ previous translators into English.

The task was made more challenging by the fact that Lun had slightly reworked many of those quotes to fit the context. I would likewise massage the quotes to fit the context in English translation, but first needed to know what the quote was so that I was indeed massaging it, not changing it completely. So I pored over the authors’ books and interviews they had done. The internet was a help, but so was making several trips to the library. It was also a good excuse to buy books, including Ágota Kristóf’s The Illiterate, translated by Nina Bogin (I was already a huge fan of her Notebook trilogy, so it was just the excuse I needed. Needless to say I thought Przęśnicki’s prostrating himself in the form of a cross before her was the only thing to do. Bravo, Przęśnicki.). Finally, I asked Aleksandra about any lingering doubts, all of which turned out to be author-esque, i.e., her invention, based on the diction or preoccupations of the flesh-and-blood authors.

INTERVIEWER

Humor is such a critical element of The Palimpsests, and your “Translator’s Note,” for example, includes a detailed breakdown of the pun behind Kaskader, the main character Przęśnicki’s novel “about a Polish stunt double who leaps into the void by day and writes a novel in an astronomical observatory by night.” How difficult was it to maintain comedic timing while translating, especially with such an intricate translation? I know the Kaskader pun had to change slightly in the English translation, but there were many other moments where you had to change the timing or phrasing to preserve the overall effect?

BRYER

Hmmm, it is hard to remember specific instances of changing the timing or phrasing. But assonance and alliteration were a big consideration in achieving the overall the effect, so I tried to hit those notes where they worked (e.g. “limited likelihood” for “pocas probabilidades”, instead of “little chance”, “fat chance”, etc.). And I tried to think carefully about word choice and how it could add to the humour. So, for example, choosing “thinning on top” to me seemed more gently humorous than either “with little hair” or “balding” for “con escaso pelo.” Or, given that Przęśnicki is locked in an asylum, “unhinged” seemed the best translation for “desquiciado” (“deranged” and “crazy” are other options).

I also thought about what the English language had to offer this work, and one of the things I came up with was its verbs. So, for example, miserable immigrants set foot on the white continent “clutching” their newly-acquired passports (not just “con”/ “with” their newly-acquired passports), or the pope is “draped” in a white garment (rather than “llevando”/“wearing” one), or the cable car is “dangling” in the Swiss Alps (rather than “colgando”/“hanging”), all of which I thought set a slightly more humorous tone than the alternatives. And I often found myself reworking sentences with special attention to rhythm, to where the hard stresses fell. I spent a lot of time ensuring those hard stresses were arranged in the most comical configuration possible.

A final example, which I mentioned in my note. It combines alliteration, metaphor, and animalification, as well as a humorous rhythm: I translated “la rigidez capilar y mental de las dependientas” (the shop assistants’ capillary and mental rigidity – an allusion to their perms and authoritarian inflexibility) as “the shop assistants’ rigidity of mind and mane.”

INTERVIEWER

Przęśnicki gets beaten up constantly by native Antarctic writers who resent him for using their language. While this is a more absurd and humorous example of the physical ramifications of the politics of language, your new novel, From Here On, Monsters, delves into this concept in a different way. One of the two major narrative threads in your new book follows a character as he translates a text related to Spanish colonialism. What inspired this branch of your novel?

BRYER

Well, that narrative thread isn’t about Spanish colonialism per se, but about European colonialism generally and the colonization of Australia specifically. (More)

That part of the novel was inspired by the long, ingrained and ongoing history of denialism in Australia with regards to the violence and genocidal designs of colonialism. The government’s refusal to acknowledge the humanity of Australia’s First Nations (and I mean this literally: First Nations people had no right to vote until 1962, were not counted in the census until 1967, and several states managed Aboriginal affairs through departments that also handled flora, fauna and wildlife), or to acknowledge their sovereignty over the land that they cared and still care for (no treaties were ever signed), are compounded nowadays by the unwillingness to recognise and celebrate such strength and resilience in the face of the barbarity inflicted on them and the land stolen from them. More First Nations kids are removed from their families today than before the 1997 Bringing them Home report on the Stolen Generation (see Grandmothers Against Removals).

As for Jhon’s translating the codex [in From Here On, Monsters], it’s a text that has had quite the journey before coming into his hands. While the codex’s presence at the historic encounters between people from all parts of the globe is a little bit of fiction magic, the network of relations that make the encounters possible is not (e.g. the Arabic seafarers who inspired the story cycle of Sinbad the Sailor probably reaching Australia; the Translation Movement in Baghdad’s House of Wisdom; the vast libraries left by the Muslims in Spain and Alfonso the Wise’s royal scriptorium translators; Saramiento and Quirós’s being inspired by Inka histories; Bugis noblewomen writing the longest work of literature in the world in the Lontar script; the Yolngu, Makassarese and Chinese trade relations…). So that part of the thread was inspired by real encounters, and it charts a circulating of ideas across time and cultures that I find fascinating, and integral to our humanity, and a cause for celebration.

INTERVIEWER

As a Spanish translator, what is your responsibility in navigating a topic like colonization through the language of the colonizers?

BRYER

There are a lot of subtleties to unpack when translating from Spanish, a colonial tongue, into English, another colonial tongue. But while The Palimpsests at times gestures towards colonialism (the Māori Pioneer Battalion; the native Antarctic writers being put into reservations), its primary concerns lie elsewhere, with the immigrant experience generally and that of exophonic writers specifically. So it’s more to do with the chauvinism of native speakers when the language spoken is ascribed official status and is in service to ‘national’ literature. It wryly charts, for example, how ‘miserable immigrants’ should learn the host country’s language in order to ‘organize free concerts featuring folkloric songs from [their] respective countries’ never to write.

Yet thinking about how to navigate colonialism was at the forefront when translating Blood of the Dawn, which I mentioned earlier. One responsibility was to be very attuned to language use in the source text: Was the author messing with the coloniser’s tongue, in any way? (That got a resounding ‘yes’ because an Andean character, a Kechwa speaker, bends the Spanish language to reflect Kechwa syntax and sprinkles her recollections with Kechwa words and concepts shaped by an Andean worldview. I had to think of ways to echo this in English.)

And while both English and Spanish have unresolved and ongoing colonialism in common, it’s still worth thinking about the power dynamic not only in their own spheres, but in relation to each other. For example, if publishing a book in the United States, why assume the reader is monolingual? I generally think about which words might be worth maintaining in Spanish in the English translation, particularly if they are culturally bound. (Though it would also depend on the preferences of the publishing house, of course.) If it’s a cultural practice or a food that has a rough equivalent in English, I usually choose the Spanish word, because who am I to assume the reader is monolingual? I don’t think it’s elitistit’s inclusive. Plus, these days it’s so easy to look up a term on the internet, and my using an English equivalent might actually hinder curious readers’ endeavours to find out more about a cultural practice. And while again it will often depend on a publisher’s house style, I prefer to avoid italicising those words, too. I think it’s a bit of a problem that italics can be used either for emphasis or for foreign terms. It means it can be read in two ways: that you’re showing off by italicising the foreign term (“Look at this word I know and you don’t!”), or that you’re othering that term, that you’re saying, “This word doesn’t belong here.” That’s not about colonialism; it’s more about recognising that English is the dominant language in this globalised world. Anything to mess with English is a good thing, in my view.

Finally, this power dynamic is also something to think about when choosing books to translate. What are the intersectional power structures, among them colonialism, that make it harder for some writers to have their voices heard? I try to do extra legwork to expose myself to works that are not written from the centre of those power structures.

INTERVIEWER

Now that The Palimpsests is coming out in October and you’ve published your first novel, what’s the next project on the horizon?

BRYER

In terms of writing, I’m starting to feel the low-level itch that means I will probably need to get back to it soon, but for the moment, I’m recovering from the intense 4 years of writing that From Here On, Monsters demanded. When I’m working on a writing project, I wouldn’t want life to be any other way, but I emerge from the process shell-shocked. And, I don’t want to write the same book again, so I’m happy to be taking a break for the moment, even if there is the slight unease of something missing in my life.

As for translation projects, I’ve just finished translating José Luis de Juan’s Napoleon’s Beekeeper for Giramondo Publishing, which will be out in 2020, so I have that editorial process to look forward to. Otherwise, I’m currently between contracts. I am about to get back to Ecuadorian writer Mónica Ojeda’s first novel, The Silva Disfigurement, which I’m translating through a PhD that combines critical and creative translation practice. Ojeda is an incredible writer and, since she has published a second and third novel in Spain, a lot more people are sitting up and taking notice. Fingers crossed that this means The Silva Disfigurement will be picked up before long! I came across the novel in Cuba in March 2016 and couldn’t put it down, and I’ve been crazy about it ever since. I’m also hopeful that a few other translation projects, including works by Aniela Rodríguez and María José Ferrada, will find the right homes. And, finally, I’ve recently bought stacks of books in Peru and Spain, so am looking forward to slowly working my way through those.


Elizabeth Bryer is a translator and writer. In 2017 she was a recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to translate Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests. Other translations from Spanish include Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn, winner of the 2014 Americas Prize. Her debut novel, From Here On, Monsters, is out with Picador.