Q&A: Katherine Silver (Translator), Tyrant Memory

Welcome back to Q&A, my occasional series of short interviews with writers I like. Today we’re shaking things up a little, and turning not to an author, but a translator.

In the past few months I’ve devoured three books translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver: César Aira’s The Literary Conference, and two novels by the Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya—including the just-released Tyrant Memory.

Silver is a multiple award-winning translator who, in addition to wonderfully loopy Latin American novels, has worked on screenplays, plays, and a variety of non-fiction. She’s also a program director at the Banff Centre’s literary translation program, which—fun fact—is located just a few short hours’ drive from Edmonton.

Here’s our conversation. At my request, we talked a lot about the hidden business side of life as a translator.

* * * * *

One thing I find fascinating about translation is that it exists in a kind of liminal state—you’re both creating your own text and helping refine someone else’s. Do you consider the process to be more fundamentally creative (writing), or more technical (editing)?

Katherine Silver: Translation, like any art or craft, is a combination of art and craft, to put your question in other terms. It is only recently in human history that the distinction has even been made, and it is one that also creates a duality between what is useful and what is beautiful. But that’s a different subject altogether. Categories help our brains create associations and connections and remember things. Translation is most closely akin to the performing and interpretative arts, of which acting and musical performance are the two most obvious. Is Yo-Yo Ma’s playing fundamentally creative or technical? I believe that question could be answered in many different ways, all equally interesting.

In basic terms, how long does it take to translate, say, a 200-page novel? Do you take on work according to your own internal pages-per-hour system, or is more amorphous, tailored to each project? Are you ever working on more than one project at once?

KS: A full-time professional literary translator translates approximately one thousand pages a year. However, the number of hours one may need to spend translating some literary works can be incalculable. I am usually working on more than one project, though I prefer to focus all my energy and attention on one book while doing the initial stage of the translation e.g. preparing the draft to be submitted to the publisher. I often have to keep to a strict schedule of, say, five or ten pages a day, this depending on the difficulty of the text and how “finished” a first draft I am aiming for. Then there’s at least two revisions. But these are “method” issues, and all translators work differently.

Tyrant Memory marks the third time you’ve worked with Horacio Castellanos Moya. What kind of working relationship do you have with him?

KS: Working with Horacio has been entirely positive. He is an extremely careful, masterly writer, which makes it easy to “trust” his text. In other words, I can be pretty sure that when he uses a particular word, there’s no other word that would have been better. He has been living in the States since I began to translate Senselessness [published in 2008], so his English has improved over the course of the three books. Even so, and still, he mainly restricts himself to pointing out what he thinks might be inaccuracies, and if ever he comments on the sound of a sentence, its musicality or tone, he does so with a good dose of respect and humility. I consider it a privilege to translate his books, to work with him, and to know him.

Let’s say you’re working on a book, and you come across a paragraph that, for some reason, doesn’t work—the rhythms aren’t right, it’s too wordy, etc. What is your responsibility here? Is there ever a point where you try to not just recapture, but actually fix, something in the original Spanish?

KS: This is a good segue from what I said above about trusting Horacio, for the corollary is that there are writers whom one does not trust, or who are not careful writers. It would be misleading to answer your question with any kind of general principle, as one must approach these things on a case by case basis. More recently, publishers and writers alike are more than willing for the translator to edit and improve as she goes, as long as this gives the book a better chance of selling in English. But here we are slipping away from “serious literature,” whatever that might be, and into a realm touched by marketing departments.

I would never “improve” the work of an author without his or her approval. That said, the range of what can be ethically considered a “translation” can be stretched. As they would say in my day: “only her hairdresser knows for sure.”

Tell me a little about how a translator’s job works, in business terms. Do you have formal agreements with certain publishers, or are you essentially a freelancer? Are you ever bidding on upcoming translation jobs? Or—at this point, based on your reputation and resumé—do you get to cherry pick the books you’re most excited about?

KS: Both, either, all. At this point in my career, I am offered books, I can recommend books, which are sometimes published, and sometimes I am given the opportunity to “bid” on a project, which as a literary translator means to present a sample translation while others are doing the same, and hope they like it!

Want to read more? Sure you do. Here’s where you can buy Tyrant Memory: Amazon (Canada)Amazon (U.S.).

And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!

Previously on Q&A:

Rob Taylor, The Other Side of Ourselves

Alison Espach, The Adults

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?

DC Pierson, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To

Patrick deWitt, Ablutions

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Tao Lin, Shoplifting from American Apparel

Justin Taylor, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever

Molly Young, Troubleshooting

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