WWB: Can the two of you talk about how Abyss came into the world—first, the germ of the original language, and then the translation.
Pilar Quintana talks about the origins of her novel Abyss
Lisa Dillman (LD): For me, this is a very straightforward question. I read La perra [The Bitch, the first of Quintana’s novels translated by Dillman] when it was first published and loved it. I contacted Pilar and told her I really wanted to translate the novel, at what turned out to be a very fortuitous time—it had just been bought by World Editions. And once I had, I knew I wanted to translate whatever she did next. Voilà.
WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as Abyss 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?
LD: For me, the biggest challenge resided in finding Claudia’s voice. She’s a young girl, inhabiting and intuiting a world beyond her years. She sees, surmises things, senses and intuits things that she likely could not express verbally. Initially, I started off attempting to have her voice represent her age more overtly, trying to make her sound more “eight.” And it just felt forced. So finding a more subtle, perhaps less marked, voice to convey her thoughts and emotions and mindframe and speech was the overarching struggle. Pilar and I talked about it once, hearing her articulate what was behind the voice, narratologically, really opened the door for me, psychologically and linguistically.
PQ: In Spain and countries other than Colombia, readers say that Abyss is written not in Spanish but in Colombian. It’s a joke, of course, but they want to note that the novel reproduces how we talk in Colombia. In Colombia, they say it’s written in caleño, meaning, the way we people from Cali talk. I think that was a great challenge for Lisa as there are many particularities in the way caleños talk. For example, we don’t use the proper pronoun “tú,” but we use “vos,” which is a form we only use in some areas of Colombia and some countries in the Americas. Another big challenge, I think, was that the novel is told from the point of view of a child of seven to nine years old, and the language needed to reflect that.
WWB: The two of you have collaborated before, on The Bitch. How was the process with Abyss different?
PQ: I really love working with Lisa. She’s thorough, and she always has many questions that make me rethink certain aspects of my writing and even realize when I wasn’t concrete, clear, or blunt enough. I’m grateful because she makes me a better writer.
LD: We got the chance to meet in person while I was working on The Bitch. So for this book, I was a bit less daunted about bombarding her with questions! But also the tenor of my questions, I think, was a bit different. As with The Bitch, landscape is critical in Abyss, and the literal topography of Cali and its surroundings reflect and communicate the characters’ mind frames. But there was a bit less “could you show me what this ravine looked like?” and more delving into the psychology of characters. What I did not find any different was the patience and generosity with which Pilar was always willing to reply.
© 2023 by Words Without Borders. All rights reserved.