Lisa Dillman, an Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize winner, translates from Spanish and Catalan, and also teaches in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Emory University in Atlanta. Lisa talked to us about her beginnings in the translation field, the role of translation nowadays, her philosophy and next projects. Enjoy!
1. How did you get involved in the world of translation? Do you remember any books or authors who inspired you or led you to this field?
Yes, I can think of a few. As an undergraduate, I loved Carmen Martín Gaite. Her short stories in particular. I’d read some of her work while studying abroad in Barcelona, and decided that the best way to engage with her would be to translate her. I was at UCSD, and my advisor Jorge Mariscal was very supportive, so that’s what I did. Also, one of my favorite professors, Carlos Blanco Aguinaga, was a writer himself. He had a novel called Ojos de papel volando and the title was based on the protagonist mishearing the title of a song “Hojas de papel volando” as “Ojos”. The challenge of how to translate that pun plagued me (and remains unsolved in my mind). I also read Unamuno’s Niebla in a class with the same professor, and there are several puns and wordplays in the novel that I obsessed over how to render in English. So, I guess this is my paean to literary studies and UCSD.
2. You have translated mainly narrative, but what is your favorite type of text to translate?
I don’t think I have one favorite, but some of the things I love are books that require historical background reading (i.e. texts dealing with subjects I know little about) because I find diving into a new context to prepare really exciting; books that have a very particular “voice” for the protagonist; and dialogue in general. Maybe this is just a way to say that I like translating quality writing in general, more than any a type of text, if that makes sense.
3. In your words, what is translation?
That’s a difficult question! And I should start by saying that “my” words are by heavily influenced by others. But I see translation – in particular, literary translation – as one person’s rendition. It is an individual translator’s take on “the original”, which itself is also a version. So it’s a version of a version that exists in a strange space, a tension (and this is clearly indebted to Venuti), because it must simultaneously stand on its own, as an autonomous text, and stand in for another text. This is one reason why I find it maddening when reviews take issue with single words or phrases in a translation based on a decontextualized comparison with the original. Because just as a reviewer has no idea what factors led the author to select a specific word in a certain place, they also have no idea which strategic considerations influenced the translator in her selection.
4. In your opinion, what role does translation play in the modern world?
An almost unimaginably vital one! We rely on translation for everything, from the Bible to newsfeeds to peace treaties to literature. It’s something we take for granted, but also something we feel qualified to judge based on false notions of meaning and equivalence. It’s funny, because I do the majority of my translating in cafés, and you end up talking to people (or they end up talking to you) and frequently people will say to me, “You’re going to be out of a job soon! Sometimes I try to convince them that Google Translate not causing me to lose any sleep at night, but most of the time I don’t even bother.
5. You teach in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Emory University, what is the main philosophy you offer your students?
I want my students to understand that every translation is an interpretation, a set of strategic decisions that are never objective or innocent or a representation of what the author “meant”.
6. What do you think about culture and language being an inseparable whole? what is your point of view?
I agree entirely, in fact I think it’s undeniable. This is exactly why every translation is an interpretation. When you move a text into another language, you re-move it from its cultural context, so things that are familiar or taken for granted in the original become unusual or exotic in another language. I just finished translating a sentence about a boy receiving a Christmas present on “Reyes”, which is Twelfth Night, which is January 6 and not December 25. In Spain, this is when gifts are exchanged. Rather than being brought by Santa Claus, his gift was brought by Melchor’s page. That’s one of innumerable examples.
7. Finally, do you have any projects planned out for the near or far future?
I do! I am about to start a really fascinating work by Gabriela Mochkovsky about a community of Peruvian Jews, as well as a marvelous novel by Alejandra Costamagna called Sistema del tacto.