“I think the act of translating makes you a better writer”: An Interview with Samantha Schnee

Author: | Posted in Interviews No comments

side by side series of the cover of The Book of Anna

Carmen Boullosa’s 2016 novel The Book of Anna (El libro de Ana), a sequel of sorts to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, is now available in a luminous translation by Samantha Schnee. Set mostly on Sunday, January 9, 1905, the novel imagines Anna Karenina’s grown children, Sergei and Anya, going about their lives in St. Petersburg on the same day that peaceful protesters approach the Winter Palace with a petition for the tsar, only to be mown down by gunfire—an event that will be known as Bloody Sunday. While the anarchist seamstress Clementine moves through the city attempting to prevent the coming bloodshed, Sergei frets over a request from the tsar to send an infamous portrait of his mother (mentioned in Tolstoy’s novel) to the Hermitage for inclusion in its permanent collection. Rummaging in the attic for the portrait, his wife, Claudia, discovers a manuscript written by Anna before her suicide, “an opium-infused fairy tale” that lends the novel its title.

In an interview at the Center for Fiction, Boullosa said that the inspiration for this surprising novel came from a passage in Anna Karenina, included as one of her book’s epigraphs, that mentions that Anna has written this children’s book. Boullosa produces the text—a surrealist tale that reads like a mash-up of Cinderella and Bluebeard’s Castle in which the young female protagonist discovers a magic key that fits between her legs. While readers of Tolstoy may think in picking up The Book of Anna that this story-within-a-story will provide them with a different perspective on the events in the original novel, Anna’s famous lover Vronsky is completely absent from the manuscript, which centers on the narrator’s discovery of masturbatory pleasure.

A prolific Mexican writer, Boullosa has demonstrated a consistent commitment to feminism in her work. Her first novel, Before (Antes, translated by Peter Bush), is a surrealist, coming-of-age story set in Mexico City that, like Pedro Páramo—the classic Mexican novel by Juan Rulfo—is narrated by a ghost. Yet in Before, this “death” is metaphorical; the narrator’s underwear is stained with menstrual blood at the end of the novel, signaling the death of girlhood. In her later work, Boullosa has turned a feminist lens toward historical fiction. Cleopatra Dismounts (De un salto descabalga la reina, translated by Geoff Hargreaves) is a fantastic retelling of the life of Cleopatra in which she finds herself living among the legendary Amazons. They’re Cows, We’re Pigs (Son vacas, somos puercos, translated by Leland H. Chambers) is set among a band of roving seventeenth-century Caribbean pirates who, in a womanless society, thrive on violence. Texas: The Great Theft (Tejas, also translated by Schnee) is set in 1859 and reimagines the border skirmish that preceded the Mexican invasion of Texas known as the Cortina Troubles. As in The Book of Anna, Texas employs a playfully omniscient narrative voice that moves easily from character to character and is recognizable across Boullosa’s fiction. In addition to being the author of seventeen novels (only five of which have been translated into English in their entirety), Boullosa is also a poet, playwright, and nonfiction writer; with her husband, the historian Mike Wallace, she wrote, in English, A Narco History, which emphasizes the U.S. role in the War on Drugs and its disastrous consequences for both countries.

After coming across The Book of Anna, I found myself curious about the intricacies of translating a work from Spanish that was itself based on a famous Russian novel. Schnee has worked extensively with Boullosa, translating, in addition to Texas and The Book of Anna, sections of several of her other novels, including El complot de los románticos; Las paredes hablan; and La novela perfecta, in which an author with writer’s block meets an inventor who promises to “record” the author’s novel directly from his imagination. Over the past few weeks, Schnee and I spoke about the relationship she has developed with Boullosa, as well as the considerations she makes in such complicated translation projects.


Kat Solomon: In addition to The Book of Anna, you also translated Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft. How did you come to work with her?

Samantha Schnee: In early 2006, I was connected to Carmen by the editor of Words Without Borders, the website for literature in translation that I helped launch in 2003. We were scheduled to publish an issue on contemporary fabulism in June, and the translator who had been commissioned to render an excerpt from Carmen’s 2005 novel, La otra mano de Lepanto, was unable to do so. The back flap copy calls Lepanto “a contemporary retelling of [Cervantes’] Novelas ejemplares” and the main character is a woman who dresses (and battles) like a man and befriends Quixote. In the copy Carmen gave me, she wrote, “Para Samantha: mi juego con Zaida y otras mujeres. Y con Cervantes y otros escritores. Para que le des lengua.” Regrettably I haven’t gotten around to giving those characters a voice beyond the pages I translated for the WWB site—yet. But I have worked with Carmen on lots of other projects in the interim.

KS: What are some of the advantages for a translator working with a single author over multiple projects?

SS: It’s a huge leap of faith for an author to entrust their work to a translator, and it takes time to build up a sense of mutual trust because two people’s literary sensibilities may overlap significantly, but they will never match perfectly. This becomes even more complicated when translating into a language that the author knows; it’s not a blind leap of faith anymore, because the author can assess the validity of the translator’s choices. Now, Carmen is fluent in English, and her ear knows when a word choice or a tonal choice strikes the wrong note. When I interviewed her recently and asked her how she feels about writing in English, she answered, “I walk among enemies.” That points to the complexity of language; how strong a command over any language can one person have? Even native speakers don’t know all the words in the dictionary, and word definitions don’t begin to address the issue of nuance—when a speaker would choose to use a specific word that might have subtle connotations, instead of a synonym. One can never know everything about any single language either, because colloquialisms and argot abound, and they’re particular to place and culture; it’s a Sisyphean task. So the best a translator can do is read widely in both the source language and the language they translate into; no translator wants to introduce inaccuracies into a text or strike the wrong tone, but it’s an inevitability because languages have personalities of their own.

The translator has to try to become like the author in their way of thinking, patterning their choices in the translation after the literary choices the author made in the source text. You could view that as being parasitic, like a blood-sucking vampire, but I prefer to think of it as a literary apprenticeship. Many excellent writers invested in their careers by translating the work of writers they admired. Haruki Murakami has an impressive resume, translating a wide range of authors from English into Japanese: [Truman] Capote, [Raymond] Chandler, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, [George] Orwell, [Grace] Paley, [J. D.] Salinger. The Spanish author Javier Marías has been even more prolific, giving Spanish voice to English language authors including [John] Ashbery, [W. H.] Auden, [Joseph] Conrad, [Thomas] Hardy, [William] Faulkner, [Vladimir] Nabokov, [Laurence] Sterne, [Robert Louis] Stevenson and [William Butler] Yeats. And there are many other great writers who translated other greats: [Samuel] Beckett, [Jorge Louis] Borges, [Italo] Calvino. I could go on; these literary pairings fascinate me because I believe you can see the reflection of some of these translated writers in the author’s own work. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to study an author’s stylistic evolution over the length of her career by looking at the timeline of her output and where translation fit into her artistic development.

In sum, I think the act of translating makes you a better writer. And when a translator has the opportunity to work with a single author over several projects, she can really speed up the pace of her translation because she begins to internalize the author’s style, or way of writing. But the greatest advantage is that on a personal level you gain a new colleague and friend. Which reminds me of something else Carmen said when I asked her what she appreciates most in her translators: “I suppose I’d say that the thing I value most in a translator is that we become friends and they don’t betray me, which is the least you can ask of your friends.”

KS: Turning to The Book of Anna, what were some of the specific challenges—cultural or linguistic—that you encountered with that text?

SS: The Book of Anna is really two very different texts: the story of the birth of the Russian revolution encapsulates “The Story of Anna,” the manuscript that Anna wrote for her son, Sergei. Like a matryoshka nesting doll, the actual book of Anna, which is a grown-up fairy tale about a girl’s coming of age that takes place in the no-man’s-land of “Once upon a time…” is hidden inside the “bigger” story of the birth of the Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg in 1905. These two stories have wildly different registers. The revolution story is written in a voice that has the distinctive Boullosa flavor, while the fairy tale is written in a more traditional mode, but has extremely un-fairy-tale-like content, touching on topics such as masturbation.

To complicate matters further, there is a third, invisible text: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which was written in 1877; Carmen uses a quote from his novel, about the fact that Anna Karenina wrote a book, as an epigraph for her own novel. There are many English translations of this classic novel, and there’s also a fair amount of debate about which is the “best” one. Constance Garnett’s translation was published in 1901, which is closest in time to the action of Carmen’s novel, but there is some controversy over its quality, so for reference I opted to use Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation, which was published by Oxford University Press in 1918. Revisiting that translation, which I had read in my twenties, helped me get into the mode of storytelling of the time—you could say the diction of the era—and informed my vocabulary selections as well as small details like the spellings of characters’ names.

Carmen’s work brims with historical references and often draws on historical characters, which is one of the reasons I enjoy translating her novels. In The Book of Anna we meet Father Gapon, an orthodox priest who was a leader of the proletariat, and Alexandra Kollontai, who was a Marxist revolutionary. When I begin translating one of Carmen’s novels it’s always an education, because I’m immersed in a specific time and place—a specific culture—but I don’t have access to her research. So I have to figure out on my own which characters belong to history and which belong to Carmen (sometimes she has to tell me). Tolstoy’s text is also instrumental because some of his fictional characters, particularly Sergei, appear in Carmen’s novel; Tolstoy himself even makes an appearance.

Linguistically, Carmen is especially creative. She invents words and enjoys wordplay. One of the most difficult passages to translate is from the chapter titled “In the Karenin Palace Kitchen,” in which the staff gossip about Anna and Vronsky “tangling legs”; you can imagine what that is a reference to and it’s such a delightful metaphor that I didn’t want to domesticate it, but I didn’t want to stop the reader in her tracks, either. At a translator’s retreat in 2016 I had an opportunity to workshop the passage and it passed muster, so I retained that literal translation from the Spanish.

KS: I remember that passage from the book; I wondered how literal that translation was. I think it’s a sign of your skill as a translator to be able to render those subtleties so effectively. I want to ask one very specific question as a way of getting at some of the difficulties of translation. In Spanish, the book is El libro de Ana. This translates literally as “The Book of Anna” but it could also be translated more informally as “Anna’s Book.” Was this something you considered, or was the title always “The Book of Anna”?

SS: Initially I thought of this novel as Anna’s Book, but I was speaking with Will Evans, who published Texas and has a masters in Russian literature, and he felt strongly that it had to be The Book of Anna for several reasons, including the biblical resonance; Tolstoy was deeply religious after all. Then there’s the fact that Carmen subtitles some of her novels: La novela perfecta: un cuento largo is one example. The subtitle of the Alfaguara edition of The Book of Anna is Novela Karenina, which I opted to translate as Karenina’s Novel. To me, Anna’s Book: Karenina’s Novel, just sounds odd in English, so that confirmed Will’s instinct for the more biblical rendering.

KS: In a similar vein, I noticed the original title of Texas: The Great Theft was simply Tejas in Spanish. How was that decision made and why did the subtitle seem necessary in the English version?

SS: If you look inside the Alfaguara edition of Tejas, the title page is subtitled La gran ladronería en el lejano norte. It must have been Alfaguara’s editorial decision to leave the subtitle off the cover for the Latin American market. There was some discussion with Will Evans (who launched Deep Vellum with this title) about the translation of the subtitle, but in the end we all agreed that The Great Theft was concise and to the point.

KS: I want to ask about Roberto Bolaño calling Carmen Boullosa “Mexico’s best woman writer.” It was clearly intended as a compliment, but it struck me that it also implies a strict separation between the work of men and women. Do you think sexism plays a role in which Latin American authors get translated and how much attention they receive? 

 SS: Knowing what I know about Bolaño, I imagine his addition of the qualifier “woman” to “writer” was due to the fact that there was a male Mexican author he admired in equal measure; I don’t believe that he intended to segregate female literary output from male literary output. That said, I do believe chauvinism is a significant issue for Latin American authors who are women. There’s no doubt they receive less attention than their male peers.

For example, Mexico’s Colegio Nacional, an academy of the country’s most significant artists and scientists, which was founded in 1943, has never admitted a female writer (to my knowledge); all their literary members have been male—the usual suspects—and only six women have been admitted since the Colegio’s founding, compared to scores of men. So the problem of discrimination starts at home; critically acclaimed female authors who have spoken out against this bias include Rosario Castellanos and Nellie Campobello. But Mexico is not alone in this regard; for example, the Cuban writer Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda and Spanish novelist Emilia Pardo Bazán have written about this, too.

There is also an “import” problem: some gatekeepers in the Anglophone sphere, such as scouts, agents, and editors (perhaps even some translators) are oriented toward male literary output. Even readers can be biased—look at readership in the US. Female readers are more willing to read broadly, including books authored by men, versus male readers, who—studies show—are less likely to pick up a title with a female author’s name on the cover. VIDA has done great work on compiling data on this bias. Whether or not it is conscious or unconscious, discrimination runs through the whole system.

KS: Aside from Carmen, what other Mexican writer would you most like to see receive more attention in the U.S.?

SS: I try to focus my translation work on women writers, to counter the bias that we’ve already talked about. If I had to pick just one, I think Jeannette Clariond writes beautiful poetry and she’s also a talented translator bringing the work of poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Alda Merini into Spanish and publishing them in her independent press Vaso Roto Ediciones. She makes beautiful books in every sense.