English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series we talk again to Frank Wynne, whose translation of Matías Néspolo‘s 7 Ways to Kill a Cat received an award in 2011
“Chueco arches one eyebrow likes he’s the lead actor in some soap. And it’s true, I do owe him. I owe him for keeping his mouth shut. And I’ve been paying him back for years now. There’s no way to keep score with this shit, but recently I’m thinking that maybe I’ve paid my debt. I can’t be expected to put up with Chueco’s crap forever just because once upon a time he kept shtum. Sooner or later, the debt’s got to be paid.”
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
Interview by Polly Roberts
In England, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat received mixed reviews; as a translator do you get offended if you read a bad review of the book you translated?
What most offends me is when a book I have translated gets no reviews. Earlier this year my translation of The Blue Hour a wonderful novel by Alonso Cueto, disappeared without a trace as so many books do. But it is certainly true that reading a bad review can ruin an otherwise good today. I rarely feel offended – unless, as sometimes happens, the reviewer takes a casual sideswipe at the translation itself when it seems clear that he or she has not read the original – but I often feel an urge to write, to try and communicate precisely what it is about the book that I loved or admired or felt passionate about. It’s an urge I am quick to suppress: reviewing is a subjective reaction, it is foolish and unrealistic to expect that everyone will share my taste.
The reaction to 7 Ways To Kill A Cat was largely positive (I clearly missed the bad reviews) and several reviewers were extremely kind about the translation – something that heartened me enormously, as it was a tricky, difficult voice to pull off since the book is largely written in a street slang that’s impenetrable even to many Spanish speaking people. In the end, the best advice is not to read your own press (or if you do, take it with a grain of salt)
How do you choose whether you are going to accept to translate a book? Do you have to believe it is credible or that it is likely to do well?
As a translator, I choose in much the same way as I do as a reader. The book has to be entertaining or gripping, it has to move me or make me laugh, I have to want to spend weeks, perhaps months with this voice, this text. This does not mean I have to believe every book that I agreed to translate is necessarily a masterpiece, any more then I need to believe that all those books that I enjoy reading are necessarily great works of literature.
There is sometimes a snobbery about translation in English, as though we feel we have to hold books in translation to a higher standard than those written in English. While it is one of the great joys in life to come upon a Bolaño, a Kourouma, a Krasznahorkai, I also take great pleasure in a taut thriller, a barbed satire, a book that makes me laugh or think or lie awake at night.
What matters, in the end, is whether I believe that the author has a voice, a story to tell, a worldview that adds something. As to whether the book will do well, thankfully that is not my decision to make. I frequently lobby in favour of books I believe deserve to be translated – but not all are. I think the decisions made by editors and publishers are difficult, because it is not enough to translate a book, it must find an audience. At any time – more especially in the current climate – that is difficult, but it makes the difference between what my wonderful agent calls ‘publishing’ and ‘privishing’.
7 Ways to Kill a Cat has been described as a ‘modern, poppy, almost-thriller’ of a novel set in a Buenos Aires slum. Do you have a favourite genre of literature to translate? If yes, does this usually chime with the genre you most enjoy reading?
No – I have no particular genre that I prefer to translate, nor any particular genre I like to read. I suppose if I’m honest there are genres (romance, chick lit) that do not particularly appeal, but even there I could happily cite exceptions.
7 Ways has little in common with the child soldier narrating Allah is not Obliged, which in turn is utterly unlike Kamchatka or The Patagonian Hare or the still, laconic dreamlike prose of Purgatory. One of the great joys for me in being a translator is precisely the freedom it gives me to inhabit writers who are very different, to work on novels that stretch my imagination, my voice, my ability to create voice.
Frank Wynne is a writer and award-winning literary translator. Born in Ireland, Frank Wynne began working as a translator of graphic novels. He discovered languages not in school but in Paris; starting as a book seller he began his translation work with graphic novels. He has now translated more than a thirty novels, among them works by Michel Houellebecq, Boualem Claude Lanzmann and Ahmadou Kourouma In 2002, his translation of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised won the IMPAC Prize, and he decided to dedicate himself full-time to writing and translating. For several years he lived in Central and South America, and in 2010 was persuaded to begin translating from Spanish. Since then he has translated a number of Hispanic authors including Tómas Eloy Martínez, Marcelo Figueras and Alonso Cueto and Almudena Grandes. In addition he has contributed translations to The Paris Review, Index on Censorship. He is currently based in London.