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 . . . READ MORE…
How did the co-translators of Pierre Jarawan’s The Storyteller work together to craft a polished final draft—while living in two different countries? In this interview, Rachel McNicholl and Sinéad Crowe, the translators of this month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, tell us about the ups and downs of their long-distance collaboration.
They also discuss how The Storyteller, a novel about a young man born in Germany to Lebanese parents, blends twenty-first century issues of migration and displacement with the ancient Arabic tradition of oral storytelling. Read on for more about the novel’s “central themes of rootlessness, the search for a sense of home and identity, family secrets, and the relationship between fathers and sons.”
Lindsay Semel (LS): Tell me about the experience of collaborating on the translation of a novel. You’ve said in a previous interview that you translated The Storyteller in alternating sections and then underwent an intensive revision process to come to a seamless final draft. Were there any passages that you interpreted differently?
Rachel McNicholl (RMcN): As with most translations, there were some details and nuances that we needed to check with the author. Occasionally, when reviewing each other’s chapters, Sinéad and I realised that we were visualising something slightly differently, even though we’d read the same German text. For example, how exactly the river Berdawni carves up the city of Zahle (in Part II, ch. 5). We consulted online maps and satellite images, of course, but being able to check with the author is even better!
Lee Yew Leong: First of all, how would you classify this new book from Tahar Ben Jelloun? The story opens with an autobiographical narrator (Ben Jelloun himself) talking about his ailing mother, but then changes mode with italicized passages, where we get stories about his mother’s past recreated from her perspective.
Ros Schwartz: Do we have to classify it? I think there’s a problem with trying to categorize books by non-Western writers which often don’t follow a linear narrative arc according to traditional European classifications. I appreciate that doing so makes life easier for publishers—and is essential when entering books for prizes and applying for subsidies—and for booksellers, but my experience of translating Francophone writers such as Ben Jelloun and Dominique Eddé (Lebanese author who writes in French) is that their books defy categorisation. So while this book is strongly autobiographical, recounting the demise of Ben Jelloun’s mother, it also has a strong fictional element where he imagines what might be going on in his mother’s Alzheimer’s-raddled mind.
Lulu Norman: Yes and also into the past, when he imagines her life as a girl and what it must have been like for her in the Fez of the 1940s; there’s a more obviously ‘fictional’ feel in those passages. The narrator, who is called Tahar, pieces together the story of her life, constructing a narrative out of what he knows and what he imagines. Ben Jelloun calls the book a novel, in order I suppose to give himself the fullest leeway and perhaps avoid any ruction in life, since everyone’s memory is so subjective.
LYL: Could you share with our readers what went on behind the scenes of this project? How both of you got attached to this translation, for example? How did English PEN play a part in the materialization of the book, and how long did you take to complete the manuscript?
RS: This project is very dear to my heart. I’ve wanted to translate Ben Jelloun ever since I read L’enfant de sable in 1985. A couple of years ago I’d just finished translating Escape by Dominique Manotti for Gary Pulsifer at Arcadia and he mentioned that he’d just acquired Sur ma mère. Gary, this one’s for me, please. It’s funny because as a translator you can get typecast. Gary had me down as doing crime fiction. Anyway, he immediately said yes, and wrote to Tahar to make sure he was OK with my doing the translation. In the meantime, there was a radical change of management and direction at Arcadia, and the project was dropped. I was devastated and wrote to Anne-Solange Noble, rights director at Gallimard, to ask if I could seek another publisher. I took the book to Lynn Gaspard at Saqi who snapped it up. Sadly Gary passed away before the book was published, which is why we have dedicated our translation to him. READ MORE…