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Interviews

Writing the Universal

A Conversation with Catalan Author Marta Orriols

By Samantha Schnee
Translated from Spanish by the author
Catalan writer Marta Orriols talks with WWB's Samantha Schnee about self-translation, writing grief, and the forthcoming film adaptation of her novel.
Portrait of writer Marta Orriols
Photo copyright © Ariana Arnes

Marta Orriols has been compared to Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Selected to represent Catalonia at the London Book Fair this year, she is the author of a collection of stories and two novels, one of which has been translated into English: Learning to Talk to Plants, which was published by Pushkin Press in Mara Faye Lethem’s translation in 2020. Translator Samantha Schnee met with her in London to discuss translation between languages and between media, as her novel begins to be adapted for the screen. This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by Samantha Schnee.


Samantha Schnee (SS): Marta, it’s so nice to meet you; let me tell you a little bit about my background. Before I began editing Words Without Borders, I worked for Francis Coppola’s short fiction magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story, which published stories that were optioned for film development. He often spoke about how he felt the short story was better suited to adaptation for film than the novel because it gives the director more room to for his vision (as opposed to cutting things out of a longer work). I love your short stories, both the one we recently published in WWB, “Princess” (translated by Mara Faye Lethem), and the one you published in Asymptote last year, “Fiction” (translated by Laura McGloughlin). You have also written for the screen and would like to do a little more of that. Do you see your career developing along both paths, writing for the page and for the screen, at the same time?

Marta Orriols (MO): At university I studied cinematography and did some internships, but I never dedicated myself to film, although I would very much like to get more involved. In fact, the film rights for Learning to Talk to Plants were recently optioned; they still don’t know if it will be a film or a series, but they asked me if I wanted to participate in writing the script, so I’m about to learn much more about writing for the screen.

I like your question because it is true that in all stories there is a subtext that cannot be seen. This is similar to cinematographic language, because in a script you can only write what the camera can show; the rest you have to imagine. For example, if you want to say that the protagonist is nervous, you can’t say it in words—you have to make him bite his nails or tap his foot. This actualization of feelings as actions is also employed in the short fiction genre, which requires a much more active reader to engage their imagination. In a novel, the writer gives the reader lots of details, but in a story, you present the reader with a character who has a handful of qualities, and the reader has to guess a little about the character and fill in the blanks. So, I’m really looking forward to exploring these similarities between writing stories and screenplays.

 

SS: When are you going to start working on the script for Learning to Talk to Plants?

MO: The production company has just optioned it, and they’re still reading the book; I gather these things move slowly, which is fine because publishing moves slowly, too. I’m used to the editorial world of Catalan publishing; it’s tiny and we all know each other. The film and TV production world is much bigger, there are many more players, and the contracts are completely different. For the time being, this production company has an exclusive option, so we’ll see what they do.

 

SS: Will you work with a screenwriter or are you going to work alone?

MO: It’s a team of screenwriters who asked if I wanted to participate in adapting the story for the screen. The adaptation of a literary work always ends up being a different product, right? I think they invited me to participate because they want the story to be quite similar to the novel, to what I intended to express in the novel, the evolution of grief.

 

SS: One of the authors whom I translate just told me last week, “When you translate one of my novels, I feel that my book is changed, it evolves into something else and becomes your book.” Which is a very strong way of putting it. I would never call one of my translations “my book” because although the words are mine, the content is not; in a way, a translated book is like a Frankenstein.

MO: It’s an interpretation.

 

SS: Yes! But isn’t it interesting that the relationship with the world of cinema is similar, because it is another form of art that inspires interpretation?

MO: There’s an author from Argentina, Pedro Mairal, who wrote a book called La Uruguaya, which was made into a film. When he was asked what he thought of the adaptation, he said it was as if he had undergone plastic surgery—as if he were looking in the mirror and it was him, but there was something new there, something different. Deep down it was the same—it was based on his text—but it had changed.

 

SS: I love that metaphor; in English we call it “going under the knife” because pieces are cut out and moved around, and that’s often what happens when a literary text is adapted for the screen.

You attended this year’s London Book Fair as one of the authors representing Catalonia, which was the Spotlight Focus country this year. What was your main impression of the fair?

MO: Above all, I think that the book fair and the Guest of Honor thing presented an opportunity to introduce authors of Catalan literature to a new audience. For those of us who don’t write in English, the Anglo-Saxon market is very difficult. Our work may be translated into many languages ​​but not English; and since it is a universal language, many doors to other languages remain closed without a translation into English. It’s a problem because the North American and British market is huge and then many readers from other countries can read English, too. But my novel exists beyond a national context, because deep down what I wanted to reflect was a very universal feeling—the complexity of grief—and that can be translated into so many languages ​​because it’s a universal human experience.

 

SS: So, have you worked with translators in several languages? ​​More closely with your translator for English and less with others?

MO: I have not been able to work closely with most of my translators because I don’t know their languages. I met the woman who translated me into Italian because Italian is very similar to Catalan and Spanish, which makes it easier to understand the nuances of language. But I worked very closely with my English translator, Mara. Mara has lived in Barcelona for many years, but we did not know each other personally; one day she wrote to me and told me, “I’m going to translate your novel.” She said that we had received a scholarship to attend a Translation Lab at Ledig House; there would be five authors with their five translators in residence for two weeks, so I got to spend those two weeks working hand in hand with Mara, and it was very, very interesting. She said it was a luxury to be able to have the author right there and ask them things like, “Can I change this sentence?” or “Can we look here for another image?” I play a lot with metaphors, and sometimes if you translate literally, the translation doesn’t make any sense or loses all the beauty it had in the original. So, we worked very closely, and we had a lot of fun.

 

SS: Do you also work as a journalist?

MO: I have written some opinion columns for El País and some Catalan newspapers, as well as a cultural magazine called Catorza, reviewing books. It’s cyclical work. Right now, I’m trying to finish another novel and focusing on that, but I have very little time because I am a single mother with two boys. I write in the mornings, and in the afternoons I dedicate myself to the family and the house.

 

SS: I know some authors don’t like to talk about their books before they finish writing them, but would you like to let readers know something about your new book?

MO: Well, it’s another novel, and it has a very strong female protagonist again, but this time the structure is different because it shifts a lot in time. It’s about someone who returns to their birthplace after having been away for many years.

 

SS: That also strikes me as quite a universal experience since people are moving more often due to globalization.

MO: The book will come out in the fall of 2022 in both Catalan and Spanish; I write in Catalan, but it takes some time to complete the translation into Spanish.

 

SS: Do you ever translate your own work?

MO: I did once, and I said that I would never do it again. I thought it would be easy because I’m bilingual—my mother tongue is Catalan, but I speak both languages. But when I had finished the translation, I realized that the protagonist, Paula, was not the same woman as the Catalan Paula. I don’t know if it’s because of the rhythm of the language, the musicality, or more informal expressions, but they weren’t identical twins. However, when I started reading the translation that Mara had done for Learning to Talk to Plants, into English, I realized that she had captured the exact same tone that I had in Catalan. And I thought to myself, you are not a translator, don’t translate anymore. That was when I truly appreciated the importance of a good translator; sometimes I write directly in Spanish, for example when I write an article for the Spanish press, but I had never written fiction in Spanish. And of course, when I was translating myself, I thought, who better than me? But when you study literary translation, they teach you how to capture that tone, even in the case of two languages that are quite similar, like Catalan and Spanish; my translation, though, was quite literal, and I quickly realized that there was something there that I didn’t know how to do, particularly in the dialogue and the more informal parts. So, I said no to translating the next novel from Catalan into Spanish; I prefer someone else to do it.

 

SS: Regardless, it must have been a valuable experience because you were able to learn firsthand what a translator has to do.

MO: You translators must go to such a deep level of language, turning words and phrases around and around in your heads to capture not only the meaning but also the tone. It’s a way of being, too.

 

SS: Last year I began teaching translation workshops for writers in English who want to improve their writing practice by gaining a deeper understanding of how language works. Writing is a demanding practice, and that’s why I think that every writer who can translate something should try, right? In Spain there are several well-known authors who have translated lots of English-language writers, like Javier Marías, who has translated dozens of English and American authors. Perhaps that’s one of the differences between literary culture in Spain and the Anglophone sphere. What do you think?

MO: The truth is that when it comes to literature, at least in our country, people read very little. I feel happy and fortunate to have publishers who want to put my books in readers’ hands. As long as people want to read my books, I’m going to continue writing.

I don’t remember where I read this, but in Spain the level of book sales has risen quite sharply during the pandemic, which is incredible, no? I think that people rediscovered reading in that period of calm when everything was standing still, and no one could go out or do anything. And here we celebrate the festival of Sant Jordi on April 23, which is like our national book day, and I think something like 80 or 90% of annual book sales are on that day, because it’s our tradition to buy a book and give it to someone as a gift. Last year bookstores made a very strong online sales campaign and it worked incredibly well; because of the pandemic, people turned to buying online, and book sales for the year were saved thanks to that campaign. We may not read much, but we still hold the book as an object of value, something nice to give away.

 

SS: Every country should have a Sant Jordi Day!

 

Marta Orriols (1975) lives in Barcelona. Her debut was the short story collection Anatomia de les distàncies curtes (2016). Her first novel, Aprendre a parlar amb les plantes (2018), won the Omnium Cultural Prize for the best Catalan novel and has been translated into more than fifteen languages; the English translation, How to Talk to Plants, appeared in 2020. Her latest novel is Dolça introducció al caos (Sweet Introduction to Chaos, 2020). She is also an occasional contributor to the newspaper El País and her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, both in Catalan and translated into other languages.


© 2022 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.

English

Marta Orriols has been compared to Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Selected to represent Catalonia at the London Book Fair this year, she is the author of a collection of stories and two novels, one of which has been translated into English: Learning to Talk to Plants, which was published by Pushkin Press in Mara Faye Lethem’s translation in 2020. Translator Samantha Schnee met with her in London to discuss translation between languages and between media, as her novel begins to be adapted for the screen. This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated by Samantha Schnee.


Samantha Schnee (SS): Marta, it’s so nice to meet you; let me tell you a little bit about my background. Before I began editing Words Without Borders, I worked for Francis Coppola’s short fiction magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story, which published stories that were optioned for film development. He often spoke about how he felt the short story was better suited to adaptation for film than the novel because it gives the director more room to for his vision (as opposed to cutting things out of a longer work). I love your short stories, both the one we recently published in WWB, “Princess” (translated by Mara Faye Lethem), and the one you published in Asymptote last year, “Fiction” (translated by Laura McGloughlin). You have also written for the screen and would like to do a little more of that. Do you see your career developing along both paths, writing for the page and for the screen, at the same time?

Marta Orriols (MO): At university I studied cinematography and did some internships, but I never dedicated myself to film, although I would very much like to get more involved. In fact, the film rights for Learning to Talk to Plants were recently optioned; they still don’t know if it will be a film or a series, but they asked me if I wanted to participate in writing the script, so I’m about to learn much more about writing for the screen.

I like your question because it is true that in all stories there is a subtext that cannot be seen. This is similar to cinematographic language, because in a script you can only write what the camera can show; the rest you have to imagine. For example, if you want to say that the protagonist is nervous, you can’t say it in words—you have to make him bite his nails or tap his foot. This actualization of feelings as actions is also employed in the short fiction genre, which requires a much more active reader to engage their imagination. In a novel, the writer gives the reader lots of details, but in a story, you present the reader with a character who has a handful of qualities, and the reader has to guess a little about the character and fill in the blanks. So, I’m really looking forward to exploring these similarities between writing stories and screenplays.

 

SS: When are you going to start working on the script for Learning to Talk to Plants?

MO: The production company has just optioned it, and they’re still reading the book; I gather these things move slowly, which is fine because publishing moves slowly, too. I’m used to the editorial world of Catalan publishing; it’s tiny and we all know each other. The film and TV production world is much bigger, there are many more players, and the contracts are completely different. For the time being, this production company has an exclusive option, so we’ll see what they do.

 

SS: Will you work with a screenwriter or are you going to work alone?

MO: It’s a team of screenwriters who asked if I wanted to participate in adapting the story for the screen. The adaptation of a literary work always ends up being a different product, right? I think they invited me to participate because they want the story to be quite similar to the novel, to what I intended to express in the novel, the evolution of grief.

 

SS: One of the authors whom I translate just told me last week, “When you translate one of my novels, I feel that my book is changed, it evolves into something else and becomes your book.” Which is a very strong way of putting it. I would never call one of my translations “my book” because although the words are mine, the content is not; in a way, a translated book is like a Frankenstein.

MO: It’s an interpretation.

 

SS: Yes! But isn’t it interesting that the relationship with the world of cinema is similar, because it is another form of art that inspires interpretation?

MO: There’s an author from Argentina, Pedro Mairal, who wrote a book called La Uruguaya, which was made into a film. When he was asked what he thought of the adaptation, he said it was as if he had undergone plastic surgery—as if he were looking in the mirror and it was him, but there was something new there, something different. Deep down it was the same—it was based on his text—but it had changed.

 

SS: I love that metaphor; in English we call it “going under the knife” because pieces are cut out and moved around, and that’s often what happens when a literary text is adapted for the screen.

You attended this year’s London Book Fair as one of the authors representing Catalonia, which was the Spotlight Focus country this year. What was your main impression of the fair?

MO: Above all, I think that the book fair and the Guest of Honor thing presented an opportunity to introduce authors of Catalan literature to a new audience. For those of us who don’t write in English, the Anglo-Saxon market is very difficult. Our work may be translated into many languages ​​but not English; and since it is a universal language, many doors to other languages remain closed without a translation into English. It’s a problem because the North American and British market is huge and then many readers from other countries can read English, too. But my novel exists beyond a national context, because deep down what I wanted to reflect was a very universal feeling—the complexity of grief—and that can be translated into so many languages ​​because it’s a universal human experience.

 

SS: So, have you worked with translators in several languages? ​​More closely with your translator for English and less with others?

MO: I have not been able to work closely with most of my translators because I don’t know their languages. I met the woman who translated me into Italian because Italian is very similar to Catalan and Spanish, which makes it easier to understand the nuances of language. But I worked very closely with my English translator, Mara. Mara has lived in Barcelona for many years, but we did not know each other personally; one day she wrote to me and told me, “I’m going to translate your novel.” She said that we had received a scholarship to attend a Translation Lab at Ledig House; there would be five authors with their five translators in residence for two weeks, so I got to spend those two weeks working hand in hand with Mara, and it was very, very interesting. She said it was a luxury to be able to have the author right there and ask them things like, “Can I change this sentence?” or “Can we look here for another image?” I play a lot with metaphors, and sometimes if you translate literally, the translation doesn’t make any sense or loses all the beauty it had in the original. So, we worked very closely, and we had a lot of fun.

 

SS: Do you also work as a journalist?

MO: I have written some opinion columns for El País and some Catalan newspapers, as well as a cultural magazine called Catorza, reviewing books. It’s cyclical work. Right now, I’m trying to finish another novel and focusing on that, but I have very little time because I am a single mother with two boys. I write in the mornings, and in the afternoons I dedicate myself to the family and the house.

 

SS: I know some authors don’t like to talk about their books before they finish writing them, but would you like to let readers know something about your new book?

MO: Well, it’s another novel, and it has a very strong female protagonist again, but this time the structure is different because it shifts a lot in time. It’s about someone who returns to their birthplace after having been away for many years.

 

SS: That also strikes me as quite a universal experience since people are moving more often due to globalization.

MO: The book will come out in the fall of 2022 in both Catalan and Spanish; I write in Catalan, but it takes some time to complete the translation into Spanish.

 

SS: Do you ever translate your own work?

MO: I did once, and I said that I would never do it again. I thought it would be easy because I’m bilingual—my mother tongue is Catalan, but I speak both languages. But when I had finished the translation, I realized that the protagonist, Paula, was not the same woman as the Catalan Paula. I don’t know if it’s because of the rhythm of the language, the musicality, or more informal expressions, but they weren’t identical twins. However, when I started reading the translation that Mara had done for Learning to Talk to Plants, into English, I realized that she had captured the exact same tone that I had in Catalan. And I thought to myself, you are not a translator, don’t translate anymore. That was when I truly appreciated the importance of a good translator; sometimes I write directly in Spanish, for example when I write an article for the Spanish press, but I had never written fiction in Spanish. And of course, when I was translating myself, I thought, who better than me? But when you study literary translation, they teach you how to capture that tone, even in the case of two languages that are quite similar, like Catalan and Spanish; my translation, though, was quite literal, and I quickly realized that there was something there that I didn’t know how to do, particularly in the dialogue and the more informal parts. So, I said no to translating the next novel from Catalan into Spanish; I prefer someone else to do it.

 

SS: Regardless, it must have been a valuable experience because you were able to learn firsthand what a translator has to do.

MO: You translators must go to such a deep level of language, turning words and phrases around and around in your heads to capture not only the meaning but also the tone. It’s a way of being, too.

 

SS: Last year I began teaching translation workshops for writers in English who want to improve their writing practice by gaining a deeper understanding of how language works. Writing is a demanding practice, and that’s why I think that every writer who can translate something should try, right? In Spain there are several well-known authors who have translated lots of English-language writers, like Javier Marías, who has translated dozens of English and American authors. Perhaps that’s one of the differences between literary culture in Spain and the Anglophone sphere. What do you think?

MO: The truth is that when it comes to literature, at least in our country, people read very little. I feel happy and fortunate to have publishers who want to put my books in readers’ hands. As long as people want to read my books, I’m going to continue writing.

I don’t remember where I read this, but in Spain the level of book sales has risen quite sharply during the pandemic, which is incredible, no? I think that people rediscovered reading in that period of calm when everything was standing still, and no one could go out or do anything. And here we celebrate the festival of Sant Jordi on April 23, which is like our national book day, and I think something like 80 or 90% of annual book sales are on that day, because it’s our tradition to buy a book and give it to someone as a gift. Last year bookstores made a very strong online sales campaign and it worked incredibly well; because of the pandemic, people turned to buying online, and book sales for the year were saved thanks to that campaign. We may not read much, but we still hold the book as an object of value, something nice to give away.

 

SS: Every country should have a Sant Jordi Day!

 

Marta Orriols (1975) lives in Barcelona. Her debut was the short story collection Anatomia de les distàncies curtes (2016). Her first novel, Aprendre a parlar amb les plantes (2018), won the Omnium Cultural Prize for the best Catalan novel and has been translated into more than fifteen languages; the English translation, How to Talk to Plants, appeared in 2020. Her latest novel is Dolça introducció al caos (Sweet Introduction to Chaos, 2020). She is also an occasional contributor to the newspaper El País and her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies, both in Catalan and translated into other languages.


© 2022 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.

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