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Interviews

The National Book Award Interviews: Sophie Hughes and Fernanda Melchor

Translator Sophie Hughes and Anna Seghers Prize-winner Fernanda Melchor discuss This Is Not Miami, longlisted for the 2023 National Book Award for Translated Literature.
Photos of National Book Award semifinalists Sophie Hughes and Fernanda Melchor
Photo of Fernanda Melchor: Billy & Hells

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how This Is Not Miami came into the world—first, the germ of the original language, and then the translation.

 
 
Listen to Fernanda Melchor talk about the origins of This Is Not Miami

Fernanda Melchor (FM): Hi, my name is Fernanda Melchor. I am a Mexican writer, and I’m the author of This Is Not Miami. Well, the story of this book is quite the story of me becoming a writer. I was very young, in my mid-twenties. I had studied journalism and worked as a junior news editor briefly in a newspaper in Veracruz, my hometown. Veracruz is a medium city in the center of the Gulf of Mexico.

I don’t know. I had always wanted to be a writer, and I was obsessed at that time with writing my first novel. I will start to write two pages, and then quit, and then rewrite them again, and then quit. And then I went again, and try it again, and it wasn’t just working. I don’t know why. I guess I was too young, or maybe, as I thought later, I didn’t have a narrative muscle. I had the ambition of telling stories, but I didn’t know how to tell stories. I was surrounded by stories at that time in Veracruz. It was the early 2000s, and violence was increasingly becoming part of the quotidian experience in the life of Mexican inhabitants. There were lots of people writing about the violence in Mexico, like Diego Endocorzano and Alejandro Almazán.

I felt so envious at the time because I started working for the Universidad Veracruzana, the place where I got my degree in journalism, and I was working in the social communication departments, and I felt like my life was lacking something. I felt that the stories that surrounded me needed a way to be told. I quit writing a novel and I start writing these stories under the journal that’s called crónica. It’s sort of like a personal essay. It blends literature with journalism with storytelling and real life account. The crónicas were published separately between 2008 and 2013 in Mexican newspaper and local newspapers. But I always had the intention of putting them all together in a book, which I did in 2013. Then in 2018, there was another edition, this time in Random House Mexico where I included another crónica that I wrote later, “Life Is Not Worth a Thing,” and I re-edited others.

At that time, I was very inspired by American new journalism and authors such as David Foster Wallace, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Catherine Harrison, and Latin American crónistas like Leila Guerrero and Rodolfo Walsh.

I think the pieces from This Is Not Miami were made with a combination of literary and journalistic techniques. Either they are personal testimonies like “Lights in the Sky,” or they are the result of long interviews with witnesses and informants, all recorded and then transcripted. I also did bibliographical and newspaper research for some of the stories. As you see in Veracruz, there are not libraries with microfilms. You literally have to lift through kilos and kilos of old newspapers, even if you managed to get access to a newspaper archives. So for “Corrido del Quemado,” I think it’s “The Tale of the Burned Man” [in Engglish, I traveled twice to several small towns in the southeast region of Veracruz in order to gather information to tell the story of an horrific lynching. So almost all the crónicas were researched and written out of sheer curiosity, never as a commission, in the free time of my 9-to-5 job as a PR [public relations representative], and then published in Mexican newspapers and literary magazines, and now they are in the form of a book.

I think it’s a… I don’t know how to express it. I never imagined this book will be translated. Not even in my weirdest dreams I thought it will be translated to English. I thought that these were stories that only matter to people from Veracruz and Mexico, and for me to be able to share these stories with English-speaking people, it’s just an amazing opportunity, and I feel really grateful.

Sophie Hughes (SH): I think I’m right in saying I was originally commissioned to translate both Hurricane Season and This is Not Miami, and in that order. Then Fernanda produced the bomba of a novella that is Paradais, and the decision was made to publish it straight after Hurricane Season, I suspect because the two novels speak so clearly to one another, both intellectually and stylistically. Even though it’s not the order in which the books were written, I’m glad that This is Not Miami was published after them. Suddenly, Fernanda emerges with a voice of her own, having muffled it so terrifyingly and brilliantly well in her novels. Bar one or two of the pieces, they’re other people’s stories that she tells, but you can really feel in the detail, characterisation and voice that they’re also hers: stories about her tribe, her city, and life imperilled, degraded, or just constantly interrupted by corruption and violence. It’s shocking and involving, but also vulnerable and moving. As her English translator, I found these the perfect notes on which to close this particular trilogy of violence. 

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as This Is Not Miami 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?

FM: This is a very interesting question! This Is Not Miami is my third book translated into English, and the only one I consider nonfiction. It’s also the first book I ever published, exactly ten years ago, so I always thought it was the most at risk of being “outdated,” so to speak. Furthermore, it was a book that was written little by little, piece by piece, over more than ten years, and each time I reread it I can still realize the different stages and moments that my writing experienced in that long period of formation. “The House on El Estero” has a lot of Stephen King and Peter Straub, but also of Roland Barthes’s analysis of Balzac; another example is “Lights in the Sky,” inspired by John Jeremiah Sullivan’s personal essays. Or the most recent piece, “Life’s Not Worth a Thing,” has a style that clearly emanates from my novels, as it was written after the publication of Hurricane Season. It must also be remembered that many of these pieces were originally written to be published in magazines, and their length was constrained by the space that these publications gave me. They also went through many editors, some of whom demanded that I adhere more to the conventions of traditional journalism, who questioned my use of certain images as “too literary,” or who would have preferred my vocabulary to be more like that of the journalistic articles published by other media, although I was also fortunate to have editors who wanted to respect my original style. I tried to homogenize the stories at the end, when I felt that the collection was complete and that it could be published as a book. I tried to give them a less perishable, more “universal” style, if that is even possible. Of course, all these circumstances make This Is Not Miami a hybrid book, peculiar, very honest but also very ambitious, even grandiose (as debut works often are) and in short, a very complicated book to translate, due to this mixture of styles, and the incessant search for forms. Fortunately I was already feeling very detached from the material when Sophie started to translate it, and her questions were “painless,” but they often baffled me, because I no longer remembered what the original intention had been. I’ve always told Sophie that no one has ever made me feel as stupid as she makes me feel! But that’s actually a good thing! Feeling infallible and full of certainties is not good for a writer, or for any artist I think.

 
 
Listen to Sophie Hughes talk about the challenges of translating This Is Not Miami

SH: I’m a bit wary of sounding like a psychopath if I don’t reply to this question saying how hard it was to translate the unsparing violence. I don’t really know if I’ve developed a thick or thin skin over the last few years because here the greatest challenge was the poetry, or rather the song.

In the story titled “El Corrido del Quemado,” which in English is “Ballad of the Burned Man,” the text tells the story of Rodolfo Soler, who was a known rapist and murderer in the 1990s in a rural Mexican town who was brought to vigilante justice by the locals who took vengeance when the authorities basically failed to keep the man in prison, and he was a repeat offender.

Fernanda writes the piece from a journalist perspective, which is her own, but she dilutes the journalistic elements of the narration and totally eschews journalese by interweaving into her regular prose a popular Mexican song known as a corrido. Corrido is usually performed wherever people gather, and they’ve been really central to Mexican popular cultural expression for over 200 years. Corrido’s usually tell a story involving a topic of importance to the pueblo, and they often also include a moral in the parting lines.

The corrido that Fernanda uses that’s woven through “Ballad of the Burned Man” has an AB-AB-AB rhyme scheme in Spanish, and I really wanted to preserve that. I also knew I wanted to use a fairly strict meter to get across that it was meant to be sung for those readers who don’t know. And my translation of the corrido has six counts mostly, per line. I don’t translate poetry for public consumption, and if I did, I think I’d probably run a mile from poems that required me to preserve a strict fine pattern or meter. But this time, I had no choice. I had to as part of the book and in the end it was strangely satisfying and I’m quite pleased with the result, which I think manages to reflect the moralistic tone that’s meant to be there, and also tell the main crux of the corrido’s tale whilst also sounding like a song.

WWB: One thing that is common to several of the titles on this year’s NBA longlist is that writer and translator have collaborated on several previous works, and the two of you are an example of such a pair. What did you find different from previous collaborations?

SH: I completed the translations of both of Fernanda’s previous books, Hurricane Season and Paradais, at what felt like breakneck speed because of the breathless prose style, recognizable for its run-on sentences and unpunctuated dialogue. Everything just flowed, as if I were singing a song I already knew by heart. By contrast, I paused between each piece in the collection This is Not Miami to really savor watching Fernanda’s style develop and change over the ten-year period in which she wrote them. It came as no surprise that, when translating “Life’s Not Worth a Thing,” which shows the genesis of the prose style that made Hurricane Season such a phenomenon, I instinctively reverted back to that breakneck, compulsive process I mentioned before, almost churning out the speech as I heard it, setting it down in English as quickly as possible before too much doubt could set in. In later drafts I put my doubts to Fernanda. Trust is the lifeblood of successful author-translator collaborations, and by trusting me so unwaveringly, Fernanda has also shown me how to trust myself, which in theory makes for freer, by which I mean more animate translations. 

FM: The translation process for This Is Not Miami, from my limited perspective, was somewhat different from the translation process of my novels. Some stories from This is Not Miami were translated and published before the full collection came out in English, for example. Another difference is that the questions that Sophie asked me were much more technical in nature, since the book refers to characters, places, institutions, customs, laws and idioms that are “real” in a historical sense, and I often had to clarify the meaning of the words I had chosen to use. This sometimes got complicated, since the book was written ten years ago, but it talks about stories that occurred fifteen, twenty or even fifty years ago or more, in a particular region of the Gulf of Mexico, under very specific political and social circumstances, and so I had to be as clear as possible in my explanations about the use of a word or a concept. But I made reference to my “limited perspective” because, in the end, the greatest weight always falls on the translator. In the end, it is the translator who must make the most difficult decisions. I can lend a hand to Sophie when the meaning of a word is obscured by cultural usage, or by the limitations of my style or imagination, but I think the word “collaboration” is too generous for the limited role I had in this translation. I completely trust Sophie’s work, and I share many of the positions she holds regarding translation. As a translator myself, I have asked her for advice on several occasions, and I greatly respect her as a reader, and I have gone so far as to change things in my original texts after she pointed out some inconsistencies. And, at the end of the day, mi idioma es el español, my mother tongue is Spanish, and although I can express myself with moderate ease in English, I have no desire to write in this language, much less argue with Sophie about the use of a certain word, she definitely knows best. I greatly respect authors who feel competent enough to correct or amend translators, but I have been on the other side, and I have no problem realizing that the music that plays inside my head only has words in Spanish.

© 2023 by Words Without Borders. All rights reserved.

English

WWB: Can the two of you talk about how This Is Not Miami came into the world—first, the germ of the original language, and then the translation.

 
 
Listen to Fernanda Melchor talk about the origins of This Is Not Miami

Fernanda Melchor (FM): Hi, my name is Fernanda Melchor. I am a Mexican writer, and I’m the author of This Is Not Miami. Well, the story of this book is quite the story of me becoming a writer. I was very young, in my mid-twenties. I had studied journalism and worked as a junior news editor briefly in a newspaper in Veracruz, my hometown. Veracruz is a medium city in the center of the Gulf of Mexico.

I don’t know. I had always wanted to be a writer, and I was obsessed at that time with writing my first novel. I will start to write two pages, and then quit, and then rewrite them again, and then quit. And then I went again, and try it again, and it wasn’t just working. I don’t know why. I guess I was too young, or maybe, as I thought later, I didn’t have a narrative muscle. I had the ambition of telling stories, but I didn’t know how to tell stories. I was surrounded by stories at that time in Veracruz. It was the early 2000s, and violence was increasingly becoming part of the quotidian experience in the life of Mexican inhabitants. There were lots of people writing about the violence in Mexico, like Diego Endocorzano and Alejandro Almazán.

I felt so envious at the time because I started working for the Universidad Veracruzana, the place where I got my degree in journalism, and I was working in the social communication departments, and I felt like my life was lacking something. I felt that the stories that surrounded me needed a way to be told. I quit writing a novel and I start writing these stories under the journal that’s called crónica. It’s sort of like a personal essay. It blends literature with journalism with storytelling and real life account. The crónicas were published separately between 2008 and 2013 in Mexican newspaper and local newspapers. But I always had the intention of putting them all together in a book, which I did in 2013. Then in 2018, there was another edition, this time in Random House Mexico where I included another crónica that I wrote later, “Life Is Not Worth a Thing,” and I re-edited others.

At that time, I was very inspired by American new journalism and authors such as David Foster Wallace, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Catherine Harrison, and Latin American crónistas like Leila Guerrero and Rodolfo Walsh.

I think the pieces from This Is Not Miami were made with a combination of literary and journalistic techniques. Either they are personal testimonies like “Lights in the Sky,” or they are the result of long interviews with witnesses and informants, all recorded and then transcripted. I also did bibliographical and newspaper research for some of the stories. As you see in Veracruz, there are not libraries with microfilms. You literally have to lift through kilos and kilos of old newspapers, even if you managed to get access to a newspaper archives. So for “Corrido del Quemado,” I think it’s “The Tale of the Burned Man” [in Engglish, I traveled twice to several small towns in the southeast region of Veracruz in order to gather information to tell the story of an horrific lynching. So almost all the crónicas were researched and written out of sheer curiosity, never as a commission, in the free time of my 9-to-5 job as a PR [public relations representative], and then published in Mexican newspapers and literary magazines, and now they are in the form of a book.

I think it’s a… I don’t know how to express it. I never imagined this book will be translated. Not even in my weirdest dreams I thought it will be translated to English. I thought that these were stories that only matter to people from Veracruz and Mexico, and for me to be able to share these stories with English-speaking people, it’s just an amazing opportunity, and I feel really grateful.

Sophie Hughes (SH): I think I’m right in saying I was originally commissioned to translate both Hurricane Season and This is Not Miami, and in that order. Then Fernanda produced the bomba of a novella that is Paradais, and the decision was made to publish it straight after Hurricane Season, I suspect because the two novels speak so clearly to one another, both intellectually and stylistically. Even though it’s not the order in which the books were written, I’m glad that This is Not Miami was published after them. Suddenly, Fernanda emerges with a voice of her own, having muffled it so terrifyingly and brilliantly well in her novels. Bar one or two of the pieces, they’re other people’s stories that she tells, but you can really feel in the detail, characterisation and voice that they’re also hers: stories about her tribe, her city, and life imperilled, degraded, or just constantly interrupted by corruption and violence. It’s shocking and involving, but also vulnerable and moving. As her English translator, I found these the perfect notes on which to close this particular trilogy of violence. 

WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as This Is Not Miami 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?

FM: This is a very interesting question! This Is Not Miami is my third book translated into English, and the only one I consider nonfiction. It’s also the first book I ever published, exactly ten years ago, so I always thought it was the most at risk of being “outdated,” so to speak. Furthermore, it was a book that was written little by little, piece by piece, over more than ten years, and each time I reread it I can still realize the different stages and moments that my writing experienced in that long period of formation. “The House on El Estero” has a lot of Stephen King and Peter Straub, but also of Roland Barthes’s analysis of Balzac; another example is “Lights in the Sky,” inspired by John Jeremiah Sullivan’s personal essays. Or the most recent piece, “Life’s Not Worth a Thing,” has a style that clearly emanates from my novels, as it was written after the publication of Hurricane Season. It must also be remembered that many of these pieces were originally written to be published in magazines, and their length was constrained by the space that these publications gave me. They also went through many editors, some of whom demanded that I adhere more to the conventions of traditional journalism, who questioned my use of certain images as “too literary,” or who would have preferred my vocabulary to be more like that of the journalistic articles published by other media, although I was also fortunate to have editors who wanted to respect my original style. I tried to homogenize the stories at the end, when I felt that the collection was complete and that it could be published as a book. I tried to give them a less perishable, more “universal” style, if that is even possible. Of course, all these circumstances make This Is Not Miami a hybrid book, peculiar, very honest but also very ambitious, even grandiose (as debut works often are) and in short, a very complicated book to translate, due to this mixture of styles, and the incessant search for forms. Fortunately I was already feeling very detached from the material when Sophie started to translate it, and her questions were “painless,” but they often baffled me, because I no longer remembered what the original intention had been. I’ve always told Sophie that no one has ever made me feel as stupid as she makes me feel! But that’s actually a good thing! Feeling infallible and full of certainties is not good for a writer, or for any artist I think.

 
 
Listen to Sophie Hughes talk about the challenges of translating This Is Not Miami

SH: I’m a bit wary of sounding like a psychopath if I don’t reply to this question saying how hard it was to translate the unsparing violence. I don’t really know if I’ve developed a thick or thin skin over the last few years because here the greatest challenge was the poetry, or rather the song.

In the story titled “El Corrido del Quemado,” which in English is “Ballad of the Burned Man,” the text tells the story of Rodolfo Soler, who was a known rapist and murderer in the 1990s in a rural Mexican town who was brought to vigilante justice by the locals who took vengeance when the authorities basically failed to keep the man in prison, and he was a repeat offender.

Fernanda writes the piece from a journalist perspective, which is her own, but she dilutes the journalistic elements of the narration and totally eschews journalese by interweaving into her regular prose a popular Mexican song known as a corrido. Corrido is usually performed wherever people gather, and they’ve been really central to Mexican popular cultural expression for over 200 years. Corrido’s usually tell a story involving a topic of importance to the pueblo, and they often also include a moral in the parting lines.

The corrido that Fernanda uses that’s woven through “Ballad of the Burned Man” has an AB-AB-AB rhyme scheme in Spanish, and I really wanted to preserve that. I also knew I wanted to use a fairly strict meter to get across that it was meant to be sung for those readers who don’t know. And my translation of the corrido has six counts mostly, per line. I don’t translate poetry for public consumption, and if I did, I think I’d probably run a mile from poems that required me to preserve a strict fine pattern or meter. But this time, I had no choice. I had to as part of the book and in the end it was strangely satisfying and I’m quite pleased with the result, which I think manages to reflect the moralistic tone that’s meant to be there, and also tell the main crux of the corrido’s tale whilst also sounding like a song.

WWB: One thing that is common to several of the titles on this year’s NBA longlist is that writer and translator have collaborated on several previous works, and the two of you are an example of such a pair. What did you find different from previous collaborations?

SH: I completed the translations of both of Fernanda’s previous books, Hurricane Season and Paradais, at what felt like breakneck speed because of the breathless prose style, recognizable for its run-on sentences and unpunctuated dialogue. Everything just flowed, as if I were singing a song I already knew by heart. By contrast, I paused between each piece in the collection This is Not Miami to really savor watching Fernanda’s style develop and change over the ten-year period in which she wrote them. It came as no surprise that, when translating “Life’s Not Worth a Thing,” which shows the genesis of the prose style that made Hurricane Season such a phenomenon, I instinctively reverted back to that breakneck, compulsive process I mentioned before, almost churning out the speech as I heard it, setting it down in English as quickly as possible before too much doubt could set in. In later drafts I put my doubts to Fernanda. Trust is the lifeblood of successful author-translator collaborations, and by trusting me so unwaveringly, Fernanda has also shown me how to trust myself, which in theory makes for freer, by which I mean more animate translations. 

FM: The translation process for This Is Not Miami, from my limited perspective, was somewhat different from the translation process of my novels. Some stories from This is Not Miami were translated and published before the full collection came out in English, for example. Another difference is that the questions that Sophie asked me were much more technical in nature, since the book refers to characters, places, institutions, customs, laws and idioms that are “real” in a historical sense, and I often had to clarify the meaning of the words I had chosen to use. This sometimes got complicated, since the book was written ten years ago, but it talks about stories that occurred fifteen, twenty or even fifty years ago or more, in a particular region of the Gulf of Mexico, under very specific political and social circumstances, and so I had to be as clear as possible in my explanations about the use of a word or a concept. But I made reference to my “limited perspective” because, in the end, the greatest weight always falls on the translator. In the end, it is the translator who must make the most difficult decisions. I can lend a hand to Sophie when the meaning of a word is obscured by cultural usage, or by the limitations of my style or imagination, but I think the word “collaboration” is too generous for the limited role I had in this translation. I completely trust Sophie’s work, and I share many of the positions she holds regarding translation. As a translator myself, I have asked her for advice on several occasions, and I greatly respect her as a reader, and I have gone so far as to change things in my original texts after she pointed out some inconsistencies. And, at the end of the day, mi idioma es el español, my mother tongue is Spanish, and although I can express myself with moderate ease in English, I have no desire to write in this language, much less argue with Sophie about the use of a certain word, she definitely knows best. I greatly respect authors who feel competent enough to correct or amend translators, but I have been on the other side, and I have no problem realizing that the music that plays inside my head only has words in Spanish.

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