I met Sarah Booker virtually in 2018 when she spoke with a graduate student reading group about translating Cristina Rivera Garza's The Iliac Crest. During her virtual visit, Booker was gracious enough to talk with us about her translation process, and I have kept an eye on her work ever since. In this interview, conducted over email, Booker tells WWB about what drew her to translation work, her praxis, and her vision for translation in public life.
Alex Aguayo (AA): Good morning, Sarah. To begin, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in literature and translation? What has your training been like?
Sarah Booker (SB): I grew up in a monolingual English household but was always drawn to the way that language expanded opportunities for reading, community engagement, and travel. I first became interested in translation through an undergraduate course and was immediately hooked. While I have always considered myself a creative person, I have never been interested in the process of telling stories; translation, however, gives me the opportunity to intimately engage with the literature and language that I love. Having been fortunate enough to spend time in Argentina, Ecuador, and Spain, I gained a deeper understanding of cultural differences and how literature can help bridge those divides. I believe the importance of translation stems from its ability to disrupt borders, conventional knowledge, and traditional approaches to intercultural understanding.
I consider translation an integral part of my career and work to develop my practice through intensive reading, engaging with other translators, and graduate studies. I am currently pursuing a PhD in Hispanic Literature to deepen my knowledge of the language and literary traditions I work with and to build teaching and research skills. While my translation projects parallel the rigorous academic requirements of graduate school, I enjoy the additional work as both a creative outlet and financial supplement. I also find that my research, teaching, and translation work all inform and enrich one another. Outside of graduate school, I continue my translation education by regularly attending the Bread Loaf Translators’ Workshop and ALTA conferences.
AA: Your recent translation, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza, published by the Feminist Press, received a nomination from the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. What was that like for you as a translator?
SB: I was thrilled to learn Grieving was included as a finalist for the NBCC Award for Criticism, especially to see the book alongside writers I admire, like Vivian Gornick and Namwali Serpell. What an honor! The Feminist Press was also recognized with a lifetime achievement award, which was equally exciting to see. Cristina Rivera Garza has had such an amazing year with some really important publications and awards—such as The Restless Dead, translated by Robin Myers; La Castañeda Insane Asylum, translated by Laura Kanost; Autobiografía del algodón; and the MacArthur Fellowship—and I’m honored to be a part of it. Grieving was the only NBCC finalist this year that was a translation, which was also exciting. The inclusion of translations in this kind of award is so important to making translated literature visible and making space for writing that originates beyond the English language.
AA: Prior to Grieving, you translated Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest. How did working on the novel impact or prepare you for Grieving, a work of criticism? Did you come across new or different challenges with Grieving?
SB: The decision to translate Dolerse (Grieving) was initiated by Rivera Garza. After publishing The Iliac Crest, we were discussing what could be our next project. We toyed with the idea of some of her earlier novels, but Rivera Garza suggested Dolerse with the idea that it would be the most relevant for the times. This was the early part of the Trump presidency, a painful time for many of us, and we decided the notion of collective grieving and writing with that pain—which was first imagined in response to state violence in Mexico—was particularly relevant and perhaps even necessary. In terms of genre, we also thought this would be a powerful way to share forms of her writing that go beyond the novel.
Rivera Garza has such a strong, distinctive voice that persists throughout her writing, regardless of genre. Working so closely with The Iliac Crest, one of her earlier novels, I was able to become attuned to her voice while also starting to think through some of the themes she returns to in Grieving, such as the intersection of violence, language, and gender. Moving from fiction to nonfiction—albeit a hybrid approach to nonfiction that reads quite intimately—did require a different kind of precision. Translating The Iliac Crest, I felt that I could really move within the voice, letting the narrative guide me. With Grieving, however, there was a specificity of language and historical contexts that was so particular and important to maintain. The essays in Grieving are quite varied—addressing different topics, varying in structure, and written over a fifteen-year period—and required a unique flexibility to move between them. I spent a lot of time researching the specific events, quotes, and sources to contextualize the history for a US-based reader.
AA: Literary translation as a field of study and a practice has emerged at various colleges and universities, and as a result there are canonical texts on the subject of translation. What texts on translation have influenced your translation practice? How so? Are there other texts that have influenced your approach to translation?
SB: There is a long tradition of translation scholarship that has been somewhat consolidated in the second half of the twentieth century into the field of translation studies. And there is an exciting surge of academic interest in the field that is starting to result in more opportunities for the study of translation at all levels. My translation practice and thinking is continually influenced by a mix of the more canonical essays and recent public writing on the topic.
Emma Ramadan recently wrote and published quarterly installments of a translator’s diary in which she shared insights into her day-to-day life as a translator. In one of her later entries, she addresses the corporeal experience of translation, which is often ignored, noting how her relationship with her body and her body’s experience in the world determine what she is and isn’t able to do. This idea has resonated with me as I contemplate my own translations, the way translators are represented in fiction, and the barriers that can be imposed based on gender, race, age, and ability.
Karen Emmerich’s Literary Translation and the Making of Originals has helped me to better understand translations not as a subset of an original text but rather as another version. This has been helpful for thinking through the evolution of Rivera Garza’s writing, especially the way it transforms through rewriting and translation. Emmerich’s work has also been integral to my own academic writing, in which I explore fictional representations of translation. This project has been inspired by the work of wonderful scholar-translators like Denise Kripper and Heather Cleary as well.
“The literary translator has the ability to make visible the collaborative construction of literature.”
From canonical translation theory, I appreciate Harry Zohn’s translation of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” because they imagine what translation can do and how both the historical context and audience matter. Don Mee Choi’s Translation Is a Mode=Translation Is an Anti-neocolonial Mode has helped me to better conceptualize the potential of translation to disrupt neocolonial structures. And Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil’s writing has helped me understand certain relationships between languages and state institutions.
Beyond more traditional theory, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, translated by Christina MacSweeney, raises fascinating questions of pseudotranslation and the relationship between texts across time. Juli Delgado Lopera’s work is an incredible resource for understanding language hierarchies and celebrating linguistic hybridity. I’ve also found that students at all levels of language learning have powerful responses to their writing. Finally, the way Olivia Lott writes about her translation choices and practice, especially in her preface to Lucía Estrada’s Katabasis, has helped me contextualize my own work.
AA: Foreign language dictionaries and online machine translation services are just a couple of the tools at our disposal to help translate. What tools help you translate?
SB: I loved reading Anton Hur’s essay on his translation methods and the tools he uses, and I look forward to seeing more discussions of this. My translation setup tends to be fairly simple. I work with two monitors: one for my translation project, and the other for efficient referencing. Regarding the dictionaries I most frequently use, I like www.wordreference.com and its forums, the RAE for a Spanish dictionary, and the OED for English. I also find Google Images and Wikipedia helpful, especially for visualizing certain terms and checking regional variations of vocabulary.
For thinking about translation more generally, I have found Twitter very useful, both as a tool for following literary trends in different parts of the world and for conversations about translation. The questions posed by translators like Julia Sanches, Corine Tachtiris, and Jeremy Tiang are particularly compelling and challenge me to continually explore the larger issues of race and identity and how they relate to translation. Though I’ll admit that I still tend to be shy about commenting.
AA: On that note, how much have authors and others been involved in your translation process? What has that been like for you as a translator?
SB: I feel extremely fortunate to work with Rivera Garza, as she is incredibly generous with her time and energy. We work quite closely throughout the translation process, from the initial proposal to the editing phase, with a productive back-and-forth discussion about intent and context. We have recently been working on a collection of her stories for Dorothy Press; some of these stories are over thirty years old, so there have been places where she has wanted to make changes and others where I have made some suggestions for changes. One story, for example, dialogues with Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, and we found ways to intensify this by adding a few more lines from Margaret Sayers Peden’s English translation of the novel. With Grieving, our fabulous editor, Lauren Hook, has also been wonderful to work with; she has a fantastic sense of the places that aren’t quite working and offers insightful suggestions. We spent a lot of time on the phone early in the pandemic talking about the organization of this book to create the strongest possible iteration of Rivera Garza’s intent. Rivera Garza has talked about collaborative translation as feminist praxis, which I find really compelling.
In addition to my professional resources, I have some close friends whom I work with. My good friend Alejandra Márquez Guajardo, who is from Mexico, graciously answers my questions about Mexican Spanish and cultural references. My sister, Emily Booker, has a similar love of puzzles and helps during the early stages of translation with brainstorming synonyms and descriptors. I’ve also really appreciated discussing Rivera Garza’s writing with Robin Myers and am happy to be collaborating with her on a project.
AA: What role do you envision for the literary translator in public life? What role do you see for yourself as someone who translates from Spanish to English?
SB: I am encouraged to see that translation is becoming much more accepted by readers in the United States, and I look forward to this momentum continuing. I think the literary translator has the ability to make visible the collaborative construction of literature, which has the potential to ultimately lead to a richer and more inclusive community. I’m heartened by recent conversations in publishing to address racial inequalities in the industry and have been working to examine my own position within the field: how I can amplify marginalized voices, and where I can step back. One way that I feel particularly well positioned to contribute to the field is through the teaching of language, literature, and translation. I try to work with younger generations to appreciate what is involved in translation and to envision themselves in that world. I’m about halfway through the semester of teaching a Spanish-English literary translation course at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I am so excited to see students talk about translation and the nuances of the practice.
“It is vital to build relationships and connections with authors, publishers, and translators.”
As the community of translators grows, the opportunities and exposure have generally increased. A lot of translation collectives have developed across the country, some of which are based in universities, while others connect translators with similar interests. I cocreated the Carolina Translation Collective with my colleague and friend Sarah Blanton this past year, and it has been an amazing way to cultivate a local community and to workshop translations, especially during this period of isolation. The group is loosely based at UNC but is open to anyone, regardless of languages, experiences, and university affiliation. We meet monthly to discuss theoretical readings, listen to invited speakers, and conduct translation workshops.
AA: What advice do you have for people interested in becoming literary translators?
SB: I don’t think this is particularly groundbreaking or new advice, but read as much as you can, and do so widely in both your source and target languages. You should get the best sense you possibly can of the literary landscape you are working out of, what people are doing, and what makes it unique. But you also need to be familiar with the landscape you are working into; read in your target language, both works originally written in that language and translations from any language, to get a sense of what the language can do as well as how your work might fit into it.
The translation community is incredibly generous and enthusiastic about discussing the practice, but it is vital to build relationships and connections with authors, publishers, and translators as well. A major aspect of translation is facilitating communication, and I think many of us are genuinely excited to speak about our work and offer guidance. I am definitely always happy to talk to folks at any stage, so please do feel free to reach out!
AA: What are some of your favorite works in translation?
SB: Oh goodness, too many! Some of my favorites include Four by Four by Sara Mesa, translated by Katie Whittemore; Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes; Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette; The Door by Magda Szabó, translated by Len Rix; Madame Victoria by Catherine Leroux, translated by Lazer Lederhendler; Tentacle by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas; Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan, translated by Janet Hong; Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman; The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre.
AA: If I am not mistaken, Jawbone, your translation of Mónica Ojeda’s novel Mandíbula, is scheduled for release in the fall. Could you tell us a little about the project and what to expect?
SB: Yes, and this novel is amazing! Ojeda delves into really profound questions of negotiating fear and female relationships. Her use of language is astonishing and challenging, able to simultaneously unsettle and dazzle the reader.
Sarah Booker is a literary translator and doctoral candidate in Hispanic Literature at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, where she studies contemporary Latin American narrative and translation studies. She has translated texts by Cristina Rivera Garza and Mónica Ojeda, among others.