The Translator Relay: Andrea G. Labinger

By Andrea Labinger

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I began studying Spanish formally in seventh grade as part of an experimental project for junior high students who were selected on some basis that I no longer remember. But my exposure to the Spanish language and to Spanish speakers predates that experience. My earliest, sweetest memories are of my grandparents’ apartment on West 135th Street in Manhattan and of their little candy store just a few blocks away on Upper Broadway, in a vibrant neighborhood populated then – and now – by Caribbean people. The staccato, rhythmic Spanish I heard there will forever be associated in my mind with the sensual pleasures of the salsa music and enticing food aromas emanating from their apartments. Everything that came from those apartments and from those busy streets became emblematic of something entirely alien to my own middle-European roots and thus far more seductive.  The lure of the Spanish language and all it connoted for me was imprinted long ago, at a very susceptible time of my life.

My connection with the countries where my translations take place – so far Mexico, Cuba, Chile, and Argentina – but mostly Argentina – developed much later. By happenstance, several of my college and grad school Spanish professors were Argentine. In graduate school I fell in love with Argentine literature: not just the canonical authors like Borges, Cortázar, and Puig, but with more obscure writers, as well. I enjoy Gaucho literature, for example, despite its unabashedly macho bias. I realize now that nearly all the writers I read and enjoyed back then were male. What does that tell us about the canon in the 1970s? But fortunately that’s all changed.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslateable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

One example comes to mind from my current project, a terrific thriller by Alicia Plante called Una mancha más.  On the surface, it’s a murder mystery set in the Tigre Delta just outside Buenos Aires, However, there’s an even more insidious back story revealing certain characters’ ties to the military dictatorship of the 1970s, specifically the babies that were stolen from pregnant political prisoners at birth and given to families friendly to the regime. The title comes from a popular expression: “¿Qué le importa una mancha más al tigre?” (lit. What does the tiger – or jaguar, in South America – care about one more stripe – or spot?).The idea is that those engaged in immoral or illegal activities can’t be concerned about adding one more infraction to their already long list. A major problem here is the aforementioned absence of striped tigers in Argentina. However, I felt that I needed to retain stripes in the title, not only because of the correlation with the Tigre region, but also because of the association with the military stripes worn by the human rights violators described in the novel. So, by taking more than a few liberties, I came up with Murder of a Different Stripe as my working title. While it’s more of an adaptation than a direct translation, I think it captures the essence of the book, i.e., that behind an apparent crime of passion (a murder-suicide) lies a complex tangle of crimes of a different “stripe” altogether.

Do you have any translating rituals?

Not really. No lucky pencils or talismans. Like many other translators, I confess that I often  act out passages by declaiming them aloud, sometimes gesticulating in peculiar ways, in order to hear them outside the confines of my mind and assess their cadences, euphony, or lack thereof.  And it helps. Since the room where I work has lots of windows, I have to be careful, though, lest these private “performances” be witnessed by anyone with access to the back yard.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Like many others, I’ve experimented with various metaphors to describe what translation is all about. Like those others, I’ve found most of them wanting. The palimpsest model comes to mind because a palimpsest involves “over-writing” or, more accurately, “writing over,” as well as the idea of accessing a text through the intervening layer of another text, but it also implies destruction of an original text, which certainly isn’t what we set out to do! I’ve also thought about comparing the translation process to transposing a musical composition from one key to another in order to adapt it to a different instrument with a different range. But that metaphor is inadequate as well, because musical transposition is much more exact – more like what the lay person sometimes imagines we translators do, i.e., substitute one word (or one note) for another. It’s also a poor metaphor because it fails to take into account the cultural overlay that’s always a consideration in translating a text. So, in a word: no. I haven’t stumbled upon any single metaphor that does the trick.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about

In addition to Murder of a Different Stripe (see question #2), with Alicia Plante I’m concurrently co-translating a long, complicated novel by Argentine author Guillermo Saccomanno called Cámara Gesell (Gesell Dome), which won the Dashiell Hammett Prize (awarded at Semana Negra de Gijón, Spain) in 2012.  The collective protagonist of this dark portrayal of the erosion of a town’s soul is Villa Gesell, an actual coastal community in Buenos Aires Province and the place where the author has lived for several decades.  Although the incidents depicted in Saccomanno’s work – allegations of widespread childhood sexual abuse; a Nazi past; the burning of a Bolivian immigrant baby; the construction of massive “twin towers” that threaten the healthful environment that draws tourists to Villa Gesell in the first place; rampant violence; a thoroughly corrupt local government – are ascribed specifically to this community of about 40,000, the author insists that this is not a story about Gesell, but rather about Argentina in general. 

Aron's Q: How do you know when a translation project is finished?

At the risk of sounding flippant, I’d say you know it’s done when the final galley proofs have been submitted and the publisher declares that no more changes are possible. In fact, the same question might be posed of any creative process: How do you know when a poem is complete? Or a painting? Or a sonata? One might argue that a translation is never complete, that years later, in the insomniac hours of early morning, you frequently think of a perfect solution to some linguistic conundrum that you imperfectly addressed years ago, but guess what? It’s too late, at least until the next edition is released. A more upbeat response would be to say that sometimes, rarely, perhaps, a phrase will sound even better in translation than it did in the original. And then you know it’s done.


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