In 2011 I arrived at an undergraduate translation seminar to find that none of my other classmates had shown up. Well, I thought, resigning myself, this is going to be awkward. As it turned out, that hour and a half of personal supervision sparked something in me that continues to grow to this day. I still remember the poem we worked on together – Antonio Machado’s ‘El tren’:
The train huffs and puffs;
the machine hawks a harsh,
We go by in a flash.
When I arrived at those lines in English, I remember the tutor saying to me, “Ay, muy bien Ellen, you’re going to be a translator!” Seven years later, after countless hours spent translating things that would never see the light of day, or things that did get published but in exchange for no money, I signed a contract with Charco Press to translate a book of stories by a young Guatemalan writer named Rodrigo Fuentes. Finally.
Trout, Belly Up is a collection of interconnected tales loosely revolving around Don Henrik, a Guatemalan of Norwegian descent whose business ventures are dogged by bad luck. The stories range from an ill-fated experiment in trout farming, a hand-reared cow’s participation in a labour dispute, a lake dive gone horribly wrong, and a coastal community that takes security into its own hands when threatened by a group of hired gunmen. Throughout, Fuentes balances moments of whimsy and humour against the darker chapters of Guatemala’s recent history, in part by using animals to explore the toxic relationships humans maintain with one another and with the natural world. According to Three Percent, his book is one of only seven by Guatemalan writers published in English since 2008. Typically, only a small press like Charco will put their faith in a hundred-page book of short stories by an unknown foreign writer, or, indeed, in a first-time translator. Reviews of this one, at least, suggest that the gamble paid off.
"Typically, only a small press like Charco will put their faith in a hundred-page book of short stories by an unknown foreign writer, or, indeed, in a first-time translator."
Charco Press is special for many reasons, just one of which is the support it gives to emerging translators like myself. Particularly valuable is the close, language-specific editorial support they are able to offer. This is rare even among independent presses that publish a lot of international literature, made possible only through Charco’s exclusive focus on Latin America. All of their editors read Spanish, meaning they are able to refer back to the original text and give informed recommendations for possible changes. What’s more, most of their editors are themselves translators, making them especially attentive and incisive readers.
Both my main editor, Fionn Petch, and Charco’s commissioning editor, Carolina Orloff, sent me detailed, thoughtful comments that prompted significant textual changes to my version of Trout. The extent of this collaborative labour can be seen in the names of files saved on my laptop: ‘DIVE_Ellen_Jones_CO_fp_EJ_CO_EJ_fp_CO_EJ’, for instance. Our back and forth about each story was extensive. With Fionn, I got into a conversation about how easy it would be to cut through a wire fence with a machete; with Carolina, about whether or not watercress grows exclusively in streams of water. I was lucky enough, too, to have input from the author himself – Rodrigo speaks and writes excellent English so was able to discuss the translation in detail and offer helpful comments. For instance, I had written the following sentence:
“Then her gaze fixed on Mati, noting the bags under his eyes, his crossed arms, the cigarette packet poking out of his shirt pocket.”
Rodrigo’s fresh ears picked out the sound repetition and he suggested we find a way to avoid “packet-poking-pocket”.
Having experienced first-hand how much of a difference good editing can make, I’m especially grateful to Daniel Hahn and the British Council for launching the Translators Association First Translation Prize, for which Trout, Belly Up was shortlisted in 2019. The prize money is shared equally between the book’s translator and their editor in an effort not only to recognise “new talent in the translation profession, but also those editors who take a chance on a debut and then work with them to make them better – a role we all depend on, but don’t acknowledge often enough”, as Daniel Hahn explains.
But it wasn’t just those involved professionally with the publication of the book who gave helpful advice about Trout. My garden-enthusiast mother was able to explain the difference between a swiss-cheese plant and a philodendron. My New Yorker friend confirmed the usage of the words ‘truck’ and ‘lorry’ in the US. Three or four native Spanish speaking friends between them went through the manuscript with a fine toothcomb, comparing my English with the original. Another set of translator friends, although they don’t know Spanish, helped me polish sections of the English until it shined.
The WhatsApp group I share with this last group of translators, who hail from all over the world and translate a range of languages into English, is one of my favourites, full as it is of bizarre queries and nerdy puns. Some of our most entertaining recent conversations have been about onomatopoeia. For instance, when translating a sample from a novel about a furniture restorer, I canvassed opinions about the sound of a pair of scissors slicing through cloth on a hollow wooden desk (‘crukk crukk crukk’ or ‘thwick thwick thwick’? Too violent-sounding? Too quick? Too many consonants?). After one member of the group who is an amateur dressmaker sent photos of different kinds of scissors and recordings of the sounds they make when cutting on different surfaces, we finally decided on ‘thrrip, thrrip, thrrip’. Two days later, the conversation reignited:
“Alright, here’s another onomatopoeia question — and please, no audio! What sound do clumps of earth hitting the top of a coffin in an open grave make? In French, it’s ‘ploc ploc ploc’…”
In this instance we were helped by a six-page online resource listing different sounds produced by inanimate objects, which someone came across while trying to figure out the sound made by “a wolf gobbling down a lemming” for the translation of a children’s book. (Interestingly, apparently SHOOF is the sound of a loose shirt falling about one’s ears while one is standing on one’s head, SPLORP is the sound of a debit card being ejected from a cash machine, and SPROING THWAT is a penis on an anatomically correct doll springing suddenly up.)
"What sound do clumps of earth hitting the top of a coffin in an open grave make? In French, it’s ‘ploc ploc ploc’..."
I often wish that translators were allowed to include acknowledgements or dedications in the books they translate – I’d have an extensive list of people to thank in the front of every one of mine. Because it might be my name alongside Rodrigo’s on the jacket of Trout, Belly Up, but at no point was the work done in isolation. Aside from being laborious and research-intensive, literary translation is, above all, collaborative. The folks at Charco know there is nothing more valuable than a good editor, especially for a first-time translator. Luckily for me, I had about 12 of them.
Sublimated Activism | An Interview with Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press
Since its establishment in 1985, Peepal Tree Press has been committed to publishing major works of Caribbean and Black British writing. Abram Foley spoke to founder and director Jeremy Poynting about publishing, political hopes, and telling the truth.