English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Rosalind Harvey, whose translation of Juan Pablo Villabolos’s Quesadillas won an award in 2013
While his father preaches Hellenic virtues and practises the art of the insult, Orestes’ mother prepares hundreds of quesadillas for Orestes and the rest of their brood: Aristotle, Archilocus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor and Pollux. She insists they are middle class, but Orestes is not convinced. And after another fraudulent election and the disappearance of his younger brothers Castor and Pollux, he heads off on an adventure.
Orestes meets a procession of pilgrims, a stoner uncle called Pink Floyd and a beguiling politician who teaches him how to lie, and he learns some valuable lessons about families, truth and bovine artificial insemination.
With Quesadillas, Juan Pablo Villalobos serves up a wild banquet. Anything goes in this madcap Mexican satire about politics, big families, and what it means to be middle class.
Interview by Grace Hetherington
Quesadillas is a comic novel. How do you ensure that the humour is conveyed in the English translation? Do you run it by friends or colleagues to gage their reaction as you translate?
I think I did with a few of the jokes, yes. With some of them I laughed out loud so I wanted to make sure that transferred across in my translation, as that’s quite rare in a novel. It’s always good to ask other people for their reactions, especially people who don’t read the original or aren’t aware of some of the context.
You’ve previously translated Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole. How closely did you work with him when translating Quesadillas? How important do you see the relationship between author and translator, and how does this affect the English translation?
We Skyped and talked about both translations quite a bit. I now feel I know his voice and sense of humour pretty well, especially after having spent some time with him in person at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and other places. I think the most important thing is to have a good dialogue with an author; it’s obviously lovely when a stronger connection develops, but it’s not strictly necessary for a good translation! Clearly, however, the more time you spend with an author, the more you’re going to understand his or her points of view, social and literary interests, and ways of speaking, which can relate quite closely at times to how they write, although not always.
What did you find most tricky when translating Quesadillas?
The delicate balance between the cynical voice of the older Orestes as narrator, with all his graphic swearwords, and the parody of the tautological, at times almost meaningless language used by politicians. Tricky, but fun!
The novel tackles the question of what it means to be middle class. When translating into the language of a nation obsessed with class, did you do a lot of research about the Mexican middle classes? What are the differences and similarities between British and Mexican class systems, and how did you navigate these when translating?
I certainly talked to Juan Pablo quite a lot about the middle classes in Mexico, and I think one of the main differences is that ethnicity dictates a lot of class issues there; people with more of a European heritage are generally middle- or upper-class, while those with a more indigenous heritage tend to be working- or lower-class. But there’s quite a fluid concept of class, too, what with new money (including from drug-trafficking); the word ‘naco,’ which we left in the original, was chosen by Juan Pablo for the interesting way in which it can be used about both lower-class, poorer Mexicans but also about people who are by no means rich yet still have no class, ie style. I think it’s a more fluid word than ‘chav’, which is comparable in some ways.
You decided to leave some words in the original Spanish and include a glossary at the end of the novel. Many of these are terms for types of food. What led to this decision?
It should be clear from the context that the food is food, and I’m uneasy with an approach that renders local foodstuffs as things like ‘flour-based flat cakes filled with pork and cheese,’ for instance. You can tell someone’s eating something, and if you’re really interested, you can flip to the back to find out exactly what that something is or is stuffed with. I don’t think many readers are bothered by that. The word ‘naco’ is used by Paul Smith, who is a nasty character and the context of the conversation lets readers know it’s an insult, but translating it as ‘chav’ would locate the book erroneously in a very British English context, although I put it in the glossary so that readers had some kind of comparison.
Describe Quesadillas in three words.
Caustic, dark, filthy.
Rosalind Harvey has lived in Lima and Norwich, where she fell in love with Spanish and translation, respectively. She now lives in London, where she translates Hispanic fiction. Her recent translation Down the Rabbit Hole by Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award, and she is the co-translator with Anne McLean of Hector Abad’s prize-winning memoir Oblivion, and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas. She was one of Free Word Centre‘s first ever translators-in-residence.