What drew you to Words Without Borders (and literature in translation more generally)? What is your personal relationship to language and translation?
I was lucky enough to grow up bilingual: I was born in Guatemala City and have always spoken Spanish with my family and friends, but went to an American school where most of my classes were taught in English. This meant almost everyone around me spoke both languages and we could move back and forth between them almost unconsciously, which is why I often say that my real first language is Spanglish.
Even so, I didn’t consciously become interested in translation until later. I took an Italian class for fun my first year of college, thinking I might want to study abroad in Italy, and what began as a casual interest quickly led to me falling in love with not only the language but also the process of learning it. I later took Portuguese too, and learning both these languages gave me a new appreciation for and understanding of the two I grew up with.
In my Italian classes, I was introduced to writers like Igiaba Scego, who often engage with more than one language in their work, and quickly realized that thinking about language fascinated me. Although I’ve always been bilingual, I had almost exclusively read in English until then, at first because it allowed me to engage with the language outside of an academic context growing up and later because it’s what I was used to. It was probably around that time that I first came across WWB.
After graduating, I began working in publishing and soon found myself on the international side of the industry. I was lucky enough to have the chance early on to work with scouts and agents interested in reading from multiple languages and to learn how translation rights are bought and sold around the world. By then I had grown curious about doing my own translations. Whether here in the US, back home, or in Italy, I feel like I’ve always lived between more than one language or culture. I’ve always loved reading and writing, and translation feels like the perfect way to combine that love with this movement between languages and cultures that I’ve always experienced.
I rediscovered WWB once I began actively seeking out and working with international literature, and it quickly became one of my main points of reference for reading work from around the world. I’ve always been especially drawn to the pieces and features from lesser-known languages and facets of literature from any given country, many of which highlight this back-and-forth between languages that I find so fascinating.
Could you share some of your favorite books and/or writers? What do you look for in a great book?
I feel like this changes often; it’s always such a difficult question to answer. While I enjoy a wide range of books, authors, and genres, I’m often—probably unsurprisingly—drawn to authors and books that grapple with topics like immigration and language and how the two can shape and inform someone’s identity. An author whose work I’ve loved for a while now is Jhumpa Lahiri—I enjoyed her fiction at first, and I’ve especially enjoyed her writing about the process of falling in love with and writing both in and about a language she didn’t grow up with in books like In altre parole / In Other Words and Translating Myself and Others, which I’m working through now (the fact that the language happens to be Italian just makes it all the more enjoyable). I’ve mostly been reading in Spanish and Italian lately, but other books in English I’ve loved recently include Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth (tr. Margaret Mitsutani) and Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies.
You’ve published translations in several literary magazines, including the Cincinnati Review and Latin American Literature Today, and recently received a PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature. How do you choose the authors and texts you translate? Is there a particular kind of work you’re drawn to?
I’ve come across the authors and texts I’ve translated in different ways. For the most part, I’ve stumbled upon their work when either reading through literary magazines or browsing publishers’ catalogs, but I’ve also had texts sent to me by agents who represent other authors I’ve worked with. The main thing I look for when deciding on a text to translate is that I enjoy it as a reader, of course, but beyond that I’m especially interested in work that transforms the way I look at the world around me—it makes the act of translation, of transforming the text from one language into another, all the more exciting and challenging. This can happen many different ways: the story itself might make me reconsider something about my worldview or relationships, the text might play with speculative elements to make me reexamine things I might have otherwise overlooked, or the author might use language in a particularly inventive way that stretches my capabilities as a writer and causes me to rethink what I know about English and the language(s) I’m translating from.
Are there languages, themes, or genres that you’re eager to see more of in English translation?
There’s so much more I’d love to see in translation, from more groundbreaking, important works that have been overlooked to weird, fun, or experimental books that defy the constraints of genre we’re used to in English, to everything in between. More specifically, I’d love to see more translations from and even into hybrid languages or of multilingual pieces—these pieces are always so fun to read and think about, and this adds an extra layer of complexity to the translation. While I think Spanish is one of the most represented languages in translation at the moment here in the US, I’d love to see more translations of work by Central American writers, or by writers who come from other countries that are so rarely represented abroad.
Beyond literature and translation, what are your passions and interests?
A lot of the things I love doing tend to overlap with my work, like reading and writing, and I eventually would love to learn another language if I ever have the time. Lately, I’ve been enjoying trying to cook a lot more, and I’ve also always loved traveling and exploring new places—after the past few years of very little to no travel, I’m hoping to get the chance to do it a lot more in the coming months.
Isabella Corletto is the 2022–23 Words Without Borders Editorial Fellow, and a literary translator from Spanish and Italian. Born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, she holds a literary translation MA from the University of Rochester and a BA from Wesleyan University, where she studied English and Italian studies. She has translated Amalia Andrade’s Things You Think About When You Bite Your Nails (Penguin Books, 2020) and has published work in the Cincinnati Review, Latin American Literature Today, and the Arkansas International, among other publications.
Copyright © 2023 by Isabella Corletto.