We’re pleased to welcome Susannah Greenblatt as WWB’s digital marketing and communications coordinator. Susannah is a writer, filmmaker, and translator from the Spanish, and she has been a contributing WWB Daily writer for the past year. She recently cowrote and codirected a short film, La Ciega (2018), based on the visions of a blind mystic whose Inquisition trial she came across while doing research in Madrid. In addition to Words without Borders, her work has appeared in Literary Hub and Ramona: revista de artes visuales.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to Words Without Borders/literature in translation? What is your personal relationship to language and/or translation?
Susannah Greenblatt (SG): I first learned about WWB from my translation theory professor in college. I remember going on the site and thinking, “Whoa, so this is what’s on the cutting edge of literature in Thailand right now.” I was at a liberal arts school with brilliant faculty and some really talented student writers, but it was small and steeped in particular aesthetics and subject matter. WWB burst that open for me—it reminded me of how much is out there. The more involved I became, the more I realized how much the magazine means to writers all over the world as a way to reach new readers, and for readers to reach new writers, and for translators to get some love and recognition. It’s a bold project based on a very simple idea: there is so much imaginative writing in the world, and we have so much to gain by exploring it.
I love language because it’s a necessity, a plaything, and an art form that you try on and walk around in—everyone wears it differently. And we’re all still there underneath it, dealing with its snags and holes as we move through the world. It’s a love-hate relationship, so ripe for comedy and for terrible frustration. And then to wear two languages at once, as a translator does, compounds all that. I studied Spanish in school from a young age and spent time in Buenos Aires. While living there, I worked down the street from a fabulous bookstore, Eterna Cadencia, where I spent lots of time pestering the booksellers for recommendations. I began translating from a very earnest itch to share what I was reading with friends and with my mom—who I knew would love it, but who didn’t read Spanish. But then I kind of fell in love with it.
WWB: What are your favorite reads or who are some of your favorite writers? What do you look for in a great book?
SG: I’m drawn to writing that has a certain darkness to it—writing about the parts of the human imagination that we don’t like talking about. I’m particularly interested in how writers put words to obsession and anxiety and other sensations that seem to spin out from language’s grasp.
I always panic slightly when asked about favorites, but here are few things I’ve been reading and rereading in the past few months: After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel (tr. Rosalind Harvey, Coffee House Press), The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam (Flat Iron Books), Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill (Simon & Schuster), some Tamiki Hara stories, and The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (tr. Sophie Hughes, Coffee House Press). And I’ve just started Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Transit Books) and The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump, Archipelago Books). Always on my nightstand is Teresa of Ávila, which doesn’t really make for good bedtime reading, but I just love her.
WWB: As a translator, what are some of the most gratifying projects that you’ve worked on? Are there particular types of work—aesthetic or otherwise—that you’re drawn to?
The most gratifying translation projects I’ve embarked on are the ones where the author really gets into the weeds with me. To talk about a piece of writing you love with its author and from within the words themselves is pretty electrifying. I’ve loved working with Tamara Tenenbaum. It’s just so much fun to puzzle through meaning and words and how they collide in her work. There’s plenty about translating that’s not exactly gratifying, but those moments certainly are.
WWB: Are there languages, themes, or genres that you’re eager to see more of in English translation?
SG: I would love to see more really, really good books in translation. It’s kind of an obvious statement, but it’s sometimes lost when we talk about translation: if we’re not translating writers from other places and languages, then we’re missing out on a ton of really, really good books. When we focus too heavily on an author’s “marketability” or on how well their writing meets readers’ expectations of literature from a given place, we overlook excellent writing, and most often it’s the excellent writing by people of color, women, queer folks. I’m eager for English-language publishers, publications, and readers to broaden their horizons on the quest for really, really good books. (There are so many great publishers and readers doing this, but I’d love to see more, please!)
WWB: In addition to being a writer and translator, you’ve also worked in film. Has your work with international literature influenced your work as a filmmaker in recent years? And, conversely, has your work in film influenced your work as a translator?
SG: Great question! Both translators and filmmakers spend a lot of time imagining how their audience might experience the work. As a translator, you’re just as much reader as writer, and as a filmmaker you’re certainly a kind of translator—from world to page to screen to viewer. Working in international literature has bolstered my confidence in a reader’s ability and desire to look beyond themselves, and that’s led me to trust the audience as a filmmaker, too.
Something I hated about filmmaking at the start is that you really can’t lean on ambiguity. You have to have a clear vision of every detail, even if only part of that vision is revealed to the audience on screen. It’s forced me to own up to when I’m just using ambiguity in a translation or a piece of writing to avoid making decisions or, perhaps, to make something seem more interesting than it actually is. Now I push myself to imagine every texture and contour in my head, and I try to put it all in motion on the page.