WWB: Can the two of you talk about how The Devil of the Provinces came into the world—first, the germ of the original language, and then the translation.
Juan Cárdenas (JC): I find it curious and surprisingly accurate that the word “germ” is used in this question to describe the original text. I interpret it as an allusion to a certain infection or biological contamination process that was present in my mind from the very beginning, since the earliest notes I started taking around 2013–2014. I wanted to work with a very simple plot: a guy who returns to his small, conservative hometown, where he becomes involved in some bizarre conspiracy. Nevertheless, this is a book that reflects on how stories, and, more specifically, political stories, are fabricated, which implies the introduction of a considerable amount of distortion and formal subversion into the classic structures of conventional plots.
Lizzie Davis (LD): I first read El diablo de las provincias in 2017. I had attended a book fair in Medellín, on behalf of Coffee House Press, where I was an editor at the time, and I happened to meet Juan there. We talked about books and music we loved and found that we had an uncommon aesthetic kinship. He had barely mentioned his own work, but at the fair the next day, I found a copy of his novel Los estratos, and I was blown away. Back at my desk in Minneapolis, I asked Juan to send Ornamento and El diablo de las provincias so I could consider them for the press. At that point, Coffee House had been building its translation list for several years, with a particular focus on writing from Latin America. I knew almost instantly that I wanted to publish Juan’s work: it was rigorous yet playful, formally surprising, often polyvocal, and engaged in the world of ideas on so many different planes—artistic, political, biological, even astral. I was fascinated by its construction, both on the level of the sentence and as a whole: his prose was astonishing, musical, evocative (the tail end of a joint is “the last leg of a smoking insect, a jot of almost ash that died in the wet grass without a fight,” the sounds of hummingbirds are “an imperceptible sonic mille-feuille”), and its development was guided more by the interlocking of images than any narrative linearity. I wanted to throw my hat into the ring as a translator, so I sent Juan a sample, and, happily for me, he agreed to let me translate his novels: first Ornamental, then The Devil of the Provinces.
WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as The Devil of the Provinces 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?
JC: Literature is a communal practice, so I think translation is not a marginal aspect but one of the most important ones. After all, isn’t literature about feeling uncannily familiar in the company of strangers? In that sense, I see translators as smugglers who move goods and services across the border, and Lizzie is a particularly brilliant smuggler. I love to receive her versions and discover how she managed to stay loyal to the original text or betrayed it whenever it was necessary for the cadence to keep flowing.
LD: One thing I love about Juan’s prose is the way it shifts seamlessly between registers, with those registers sometimes even gradually altering (or “contaminating,” as he puts it) one another. Rebuilding each of these voices in a way that feels equally effortless in English is an endlessly fascinating puzzle, especially when it requires recasting particular social or geographic markers. In The Devil of the Provinces, for example, the two primary characters are a biologist who has returned home after fifteen years abroad, and his only friend left there: his dealer. To recreate the dealer’s speech, I ended up inventing a few words and colloquialisms, and also working in some of the Spanish diction particular to Colombia—I wanted to avoid the clumsiness of transposing that character onto any one social group in the United States. There were also some of translation’s more standard challenges—song lyrics; a letter written by an uncle who’s losing his mind, in which words run together and create double meanings; and attempts to understand a senseless act of violence through various linguistic lenses (e.g. the language of journalism, of a government official, of a police report).
WWB: The two of you have collaborated before. What did you find different from previous collaborations?
JC: I don’t like to interfere much in a colleague’s work, especially if I trust them the way I trust Lizzie. I wrote a novel, Lizzie translated, and all I had to do in the end was enjoy her version.
Listen to Lizzie Davis discuss her approach to translating The Devil of the Provinces
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