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Interviews

The National Book Award Interviews: Mónica Ojeda & Sarah Booker

"I always say to myself that Jawbone came to me as a nightmare, a vision full of fear and desire, but I really can’t remember how it started."
Portraits of Mónica Ojeda and Sarah Booker

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Jawbone came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Mónica Ojeda (MO): It is difficult to determine the origin of a book. I always say to myself that Jawbone came to me as a nightmare, a vision full of fear and desire, but I really can’t remember how it started. I remember that even before I got the story I knew this was going to be a novel about love, fear and violence, about best friends, mothers and daughters and teachers. I just knew I wanted to write about how violent passions can be, and I knew I wanted it to be about passions between women.

Sarah Booker (SB): I started reading Mónica’s work back in 2017, starting with Nefando and then reading Mandíbula when it was published in early 2018. I was fortunate to be living in Seville that year so was able to meet Mónica when she came through the city to give a reading of Mandíbula. I was enthralled by the complex and dark relationships she portrays, the fear she examines and creates, and the poetic density of her language. I just knew right away that this was an important book and that I really wanted to work on it.

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

MO: Working with Sarah was amazing, we had very interesting conversations that made me rethink my writing and the novel itself, not in a bad way, but in a very illuminating one. I told her that Jawbone is both hers and mine, and it’s completely true. Translating is a creative act where you’ve got to use your musical ear and your poetic intelligence. My English is not very good, but I read some parts of Sarah’s work and immediately knew she was doing an amazing job.

SB: Mónica’s language is so beautiful and intense and poetic. I suppose one challenge was untangling the Spanish and the word play enough to get it into English and then to try to recreate that linguistic complexity. The images she uses are so strikingly unexpected that I wanted to be sure they came through in the translation. Coffee House Press Senior Editor Lizzie Davis was really good at helping with this, making sure things were as sharp as possible, throughout the editorial process. Another challenge was differentiating the voices that make up the novel. I really love the way Mónica weaves different character’s voices throughout her novels, and this distinction was important to maintain in the translation.

WWB: Mónica: Among the influences on this novel enumerated by your publisher are Melville, Lovecraft, and contemporary pop culture. Whether with this novel or more generally, what are your cultural touchstones? One must assume the horror genre—potentially horror films—must be longstanding influences. You have at least three other novels yet to be published in English. Can you tell us a bit more about the universes that guide those works?

MO: Desire and fear, desire and violence, love and cruelty, beauty and horror…I think my writing is full of these tensions and also full of symbols that come from my childhood landscapes in Ecuador (crocodiles and volcanoes mostly) and what they represent: the primal, the divine and the destruction. I feel that I have been influenced more by poetry than by narrative, mainly because is what I read the most, but also because is what I always end up searching in my writing: a poetic experience, something untamed.

WWB: Sarah, bringing an author into English for the first time is a responsibility that will be familiar to many translators. Could you speak to your own experience in doing so with Mónica’s book? Were this novel’s pop culture (and even literary) references touchstones for you, as well?

SB: As I’ve mentioned above, Mónica has such a powerful, unique approach to writing, so I did feel a big responsibility to convey this in English. I also knew that the topics addressed in Jawbone, as well as the ones in Nefando, which I’m currently working on, were quite difficult and complex, so I wanted to be really sensitive to this. A lot of the novel’s references were quite familiar to me. I started working on the very early stage of this translation while I was in Seville, where I was serving as a Visiting Lecturer in the English literature department at the Universidad de Sevilla. That semester I taught a course on Gothic literature, which meant I was reading and teaching a lot of the authors referenced in the novel. I was less familiar with creepypasta culture before working on this book, but did learn quite a bit about it as I did research for the translation. This was an intense translation process, but one that taught me quite a lot. I’m so grateful for Mónica’s trust and support as well as the work the Coffee House Press team put into the book.

Mónica Ojeda and Sarah Booker’s Jawbone is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

English

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Jawbone came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?

Mónica Ojeda (MO): It is difficult to determine the origin of a book. I always say to myself that Jawbone came to me as a nightmare, a vision full of fear and desire, but I really can’t remember how it started. I remember that even before I got the story I knew this was going to be a novel about love, fear and violence, about best friends, mothers and daughters and teachers. I just knew I wanted to write about how violent passions can be, and I knew I wanted it to be about passions between women.

Sarah Booker (SB): I started reading Mónica’s work back in 2017, starting with Nefando and then reading Mandíbula when it was published in early 2018. I was fortunate to be living in Seville that year so was able to meet Mónica when she came through the city to give a reading of Mandíbula. I was enthralled by the complex and dark relationships she portrays, the fear she examines and creates, and the poetic density of her language. I just knew right away that this was an important book and that I really wanted to work on it.

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?

MO: Working with Sarah was amazing, we had very interesting conversations that made me rethink my writing and the novel itself, not in a bad way, but in a very illuminating one. I told her that Jawbone is both hers and mine, and it’s completely true. Translating is a creative act where you’ve got to use your musical ear and your poetic intelligence. My English is not very good, but I read some parts of Sarah’s work and immediately knew she was doing an amazing job.

SB: Mónica’s language is so beautiful and intense and poetic. I suppose one challenge was untangling the Spanish and the word play enough to get it into English and then to try to recreate that linguistic complexity. The images she uses are so strikingly unexpected that I wanted to be sure they came through in the translation. Coffee House Press Senior Editor Lizzie Davis was really good at helping with this, making sure things were as sharp as possible, throughout the editorial process. Another challenge was differentiating the voices that make up the novel. I really love the way Mónica weaves different character’s voices throughout her novels, and this distinction was important to maintain in the translation.

WWB: Mónica: Among the influences on this novel enumerated by your publisher are Melville, Lovecraft, and contemporary pop culture. Whether with this novel or more generally, what are your cultural touchstones? One must assume the horror genre—potentially horror films—must be longstanding influences. You have at least three other novels yet to be published in English. Can you tell us a bit more about the universes that guide those works?

MO: Desire and fear, desire and violence, love and cruelty, beauty and horror…I think my writing is full of these tensions and also full of symbols that come from my childhood landscapes in Ecuador (crocodiles and volcanoes mostly) and what they represent: the primal, the divine and the destruction. I feel that I have been influenced more by poetry than by narrative, mainly because is what I read the most, but also because is what I always end up searching in my writing: a poetic experience, something untamed.

WWB: Sarah, bringing an author into English for the first time is a responsibility that will be familiar to many translators. Could you speak to your own experience in doing so with Mónica’s book? Were this novel’s pop culture (and even literary) references touchstones for you, as well?

SB: As I’ve mentioned above, Mónica has such a powerful, unique approach to writing, so I did feel a big responsibility to convey this in English. I also knew that the topics addressed in Jawbone, as well as the ones in Nefando, which I’m currently working on, were quite difficult and complex, so I wanted to be really sensitive to this. A lot of the novel’s references were quite familiar to me. I started working on the very early stage of this translation while I was in Seville, where I was serving as a Visiting Lecturer in the English literature department at the Universidad de Sevilla. That semester I taught a course on Gothic literature, which meant I was reading and teaching a lot of the authors referenced in the novel. I was less familiar with creepypasta culture before working on this book, but did learn quite a bit about it as I did research for the translation. This was an intense translation process, but one that taught me quite a lot. I’m so grateful for Mónica’s trust and support as well as the work the Coffee House Press team put into the book.

Mónica Ojeda and Sarah Booker’s Jawbone is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.

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