Co-Translation: Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn on Translating Juan José Millás’s From the Shadows

. . . Translation is a very curious combination of simultaneously being outside a text as an onlooker and deep within the guts of the thing.

For the month of August, Asymptote Book Club’s selection was From the Shadows, the English-language debut of acclaimed Spanish language writer, Juan José Millás. In the following interview, Asymptote’s Jacqueline Leung speaks to the novel’s translators, Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, on the pressures of translating a national literary hero, the various processes of co-translation, and how the novel’s pertinent themes of isolation and alienation relate to our current times.

Jacqueline Leung (JL): Juan José Millás is routinely recognized as one of the greatest writers in Spain today, and From the Shadows marks his long overdue debut into English. How (if at all) did these factors play into your process? I’m referring to critics’s inevitably high expectations regarding a literary master’s very first work in English translation, as well as the author’s own ability to potentially chip in on or judge the outcome. Was there an added sense of pressure or due deference on your end, or were you as free as ever to “play around”?

Daniel Hahn (DH): I don’t think it was a factor, actually—it’s certainly not something Tom and I ever discussed, whether between the two of us or with our publishers. You really just have to take each text as it comes, and simply commit to doing whatever it tells you to do, without fretting about expectations or reputations. Besides, while Millás is a big deal in Spain, I’m not sure the English-speaking world has been waiting on tenterhooks for a chance to read this translation—for all intents and purposes, he’s being presented to the Anglophones as a debut. Of course, this first book could turn out to be a stupendous runaway success, which would indeed put extra pressure and expectations on book two, but if that added pressure is the price we have to pay for insane bestseller sales, I’ll take it . . .

Thomas Bunstead (TB): Yes, bring on the pressure! Danny’s completely right, of course; there are obvious and notable exceptions, but I’d suggest that translators tend to be more embedded in the literary culture they’re translating into (for good or ill). That means the author’s status at home doesn’t really come into it. In any case, the classic idea of a translator as deferential has never made that much sense to me—there’s great brazenness and audacity in this thing we do, pretending not to be pretending to be another writer, and in a language we didn’t even write in to begin with!

JL: Other than From the Shadows, you have co-translated Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Victus and Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer (with Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, and Anne McLean). Could you take us through the process of co-translation in general and, more specifically, in the context of this project? How does it compare to solo translation work?

TB: In this case, Danny happened to have slightly “overbooked” himself, coincidentally at a time in which I had a huge project fall through. With the publisher’s consent—I think it helped that they could see we’d done this before—Danny very graciously let me come in on this exciting book. He’d just moved to the town I was then living in, into a flat right around the corner from my shared studio, and we came up with the idea of doing a final read-through in the same place. It’s always good to read something aloud, you catch so many infelicities and repetitions, so why not do it with another human actually there? Previous co-translations have been great—I did a couple when I was first starting out and basically got to learn at the feet of those far more experienced—but always, like so much of our work, virtual.

DH: Yes, so Tom did the first draft of the whole book, I did various rounds of edits thereafter and at the end we sat down together and read the entire thing aloud (conveniently it’s a short book, and happily a funny one), and we made our final small fixes to the manuscript upon hearing the other read. It’s rarely practicable to do this, but it was a useful and enjoyable variation on the process. Whatever the method, I’ve always found the experience of co-translating both fun and enriching—and the work really benefits, too.

JL: When Damián (the main character) was fashioning his ghost identity, he referred to online forums and a book on paranormal phenomena. What do you make of the way in which we often depend on verbal constructions to forge our identities?

DH: I suppose what’s unusual about the way this applies today, compared to most periods in the past, is how widely this is happening specifically through written verbal communication. (Damián has written conversations on the forums, whereas his spoken conversations are almost all conducted in his head with imaginary interlocutors.) So much of our social identity formation these days is conveyed via writing. For example, written language is the dominant underpinning of how we present ourselves on social media (for most people, our online personas are written ones, not spoken ones), and in all concomitant relationships, written texts are equivalent to the way spoken language and gestural language act as the basis of how we form our identities in the non-virtual world. (I’m also doing it now, of course, by making choices about how to write a response to your question and wondering whether I can do it without sounding like an idiot.)

TB: I can’t quite get my head around what this book is. It seems both one of social realism—Damián as the discontents—and pure surrealism. But it’s certainly true that the Internet, and its written-ness, has a lot to answer for.

JL: How do you interpret the insinuation that Damián has dissociative disorder, a psychological ailment that causes him to regard his body and actions from a depersonalized perspective? Are there comparisons to be drawn between this sense of detached clarity and translation itself? 

DH: That’s a useful way of thinking about him, especially if you consider the role of dissociative disorder as an essentially self-preserving function—avoiding stress or suffering by stepping away from it, and experiencing it as if from the outside. And it’s certainly true that translation is a very curious combination of simultaneously being outside a text as an onlooker and deep within the guts of the thing. You are a reader, but you’re also taking on the authorial role, and both of these personalities are sustained and held in delicate suspension together for a reasonably long stretch of time. That’s true in its way about a lot of writing, though, where an untethered writing impulse needs eventually to be checked by the rigorous editorial brain.

TB: There’s a moment in the book that speaks nicely to your question and Danny’s observations. Throughout, Damián is taking part in a televised interview inside his head, and at one point his “interviewer” turns the tables on him, truly ghost-in-the-machine-like, and makes a suggestion Damián finds shocking—all the more so because he’s simultaneously aware that the interviewer isn’t real:

“Listen here, O’Kane,” said Damián, “you’re a figment of my imagination.” . . . He was reminded of a show he had seen on television as a child. It had featured a run-of-the-mill ventriloquist with a dummy, also entirely run-of-the-mill. The amazing moment had been when they opened their mouths, and it became apparent that the dummy was the ventriloquist, and the ventriloquist his dummy.

Could there be something of this in the task of the translator?

JL: From the Shadows evokes a fantasy in the midst of the mundane, starting from the moment Damián crawls into the wardrobe. It’s difficult, for instance, not to think of The Chronicles of Narnia (for obvious reasons). Do you have book recommendations in Spanish that might run along a similar vein? 

TB: Fantasies in the midst of the mundane, hmm, that seems like quite a rich vein. A few (untranslated) books spring to mind: There’s Una puta mierda by Patricio Pron (fantasy as coping mechanism during the cinematic, mad mundanity of the Falklands war); Nuestra casa en el árbol by Lea Vélez (bereaved genius child among normal kids who generates, in his precociousness, an imaginary world of such complexity that it both saves him from and rubs up against the everyday); Los asquerosos by Santiago Lorenzo (sort of an inland Robinson Crusoe fantasy set in austerity-era Spain). All highly recommended of course!

DH: I’m not widely read enough in Spanish to offer suggestions for something this precise; curiously, though, a friend of mine and Tom’s recently drew our attention to another quirky story she has translated, which is also about a man hiding in a wardrobe—and also by Millás! (Interesting thing to be obsessed by . . . ) To loop back neatly to your previous question, that story is called “Personality Disorders.”

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor, and translator with sixty-something books to his name. Forthcoming translations include novels by José Eduardo Agualusa, Juan Pablo Villalobos, and Carola Saavedra.

Thomas Bunstead is a writer and translator living in East Sussex, England. He has translated some of the leading Spanish-language writers working today, including Agustín Fernández Mallo, Maria Gainza, and Enrique Vila-Matas, and his own writing has appeared in >kill author, The Times Literary Supplement, and The White Review. In 2018, his novel Semblance was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Novel Prize. @thom_bunn

Jacqueline Leung works in the arts and is an independent writer, translator, and editor. She is the Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong at Asymptote and a graduate of University College London and the University of Hong Kong in literary studies.


Read more from the Asymptote Book Club here: