Breathing Life into Language: The Collaborations of Christina MacSweeney




IN THE PAST SIX YEARS, Christina MacSweeney, who specializes in Spanish-language literature, has translated Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Empty Set, Julián Herbert’s Tomb Song, Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims, Eduardo Rabasa’s A Zero-Sum Game, and, most recently, Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman. She might be best known for her work with Valeria Luiselli — specifically Sidewalks, Faces in the Crowd, and The Story of My Teeth. These books all share certain aesthetic qualities, starting with their structural inventiveness. Gerber Bicecci is a visual artist, and in Empty Set, she uses drawings and diagrams to try to make sense of the recurrence of loss. Luiselli wrote The Story of My Teeth in segmented bursts of collaboration with workers from a juice factory in the industrial suburbs of Mexico City. Navarro begins A Working Woman as an almost-interview between two women forced into a shared living situation, but the story shifts methods as it progresses and pushes the reader to reevaluate the roller-coaster path. “When I write, I want to be the first person to be surprised by the drift the text takes,” Navarro said in a recent interview with MacSweeney: “I find the structure as I’m going along, and check that it is the one that will work best.”

Conceptually, MacSweeney’s writers often address the experience of migration. Luiselli was born in Mexico City but grew up in South Korea, South Africa, India, France, and Spain. As a child, Herbert moved around Mexico with his mother, who supported her family as a traveling prostitute. Gerber Bicecci was born in Mexico City, shortly after her parents fled the dictatorship Argentina in the 1970s. While each experience is rich with singularities, they share the quality of transience, of waking up in a place where the personal and familial history is being written for the first time.

In a collaborative project with Gerber Bicecci, MacSweeney wonders “if this unfixed migrant identity is somewhere at the root of the creative impulse involved in art, literature, and translation.” MacSweeney’s parents came from the southwest of Ireland. Her mother was born on a farm in County Clare and her dad in County Kerry. They moved to Rotherham, a once-steel mining town in the north of England, where MacSweeney’s father worked as a doctor in the National Health Service. MacSweeney says, “Not feeling a fixed national identity can free up many areas of life.”

MacSweeney went back to Ireland with her family during the summers; she tells me that for her, as someone who grew up between cultures, language was never quite so fixed or so certain. She would find one way of expressing herself in one country and another in another country: “You get used to that movement between languages. It allows you a sort of unfixed space, which is both liminal and central at the same time. You don’t take things for granted, and you don’t feel confined to express things in a particular way. There’s a lot of freedom in it. … The Irish are amazing migrants. I have relatives all over the world; I have a distant cousin who died building the railways in Argentina.”

MacSweeney’s translations find a charge in the heightened experience of impermanence. People are more alert when come up against the unfamiliar, and for many of MacSweeney’s protagonists, that feeling does not fade away. Luiselli returned to Mexico, the country where she was born, after 12 years abroad. “The Spanish I spoke belonged to slow, dispassionate conversations around the family breakfast table,” Luiselli writes in Sidewalks: “The Spanish spoken by people in the street was a living language, rapid and vibrant, and I found it impossible to get my teeth into it. I stuttered, I trembled when I spoke, suddenly went gravely silent in the middle of a sentence. My language was full of holes.”

A Working Woman, meanwhile, features the protagonist Elisa financially pushed into sharing her living space with a woman named Susana. Elisa paces the compact apartment and thinks about how it belongs to no one. She enters Susana’s bedroom: “Except for the neatly made bed and the wardrobe full of clothes, it looked like no one was ever going to sleep there, as if the room’s only purpose was to store things that had overflowed from somewhere else, which left me in a state close to paranoia.” Displacement can be an unnerving experience.

MacSweeney was in a transient state herself when she first started translating. She moved to Venezuela in 1993 with a little bit of money and the vague idea that if it did not work out, she would continue on to Buenos Aires. She ended up spending 10 years in Caracas, teaching English and doing plenty else. “It was a very creative period for me,” MacSweeney says: “I was doing a lot of artwork — collage, oils, charcoal — and also my own writing, so translation seemed like an extension of that creativity.” She started translating Silvina Ocampo stories, because Ocampo seemed like one of those women of Latin American writing who had been ignored. She says, “It seemed like a good place to start.”

When I asked if she was trying to publish those translations, MacSweeney answered that she was very ignorant at that stage: “Being in Venezuela, it wasn’t really easy to organize all of these things. The whole internet thing that you can do now wasn’t quite so simple in those days.” She was not serious about it until she came back to the United Kingdom on a more permanent basis: “Translating was just something I loved doing. I didn’t mind spending time on it because I loved it.”

MacSweeney returned to the UK and earned her master’s in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, a school famous for its writing program. She now teaches academic writing two days a week at the university. It took time and a great deal of effort for MacSweeney to break into the literary translation community. It was not clear how to contact publishers, and she did not know how to speak with them: “It seems to me it’s getting an awful lot better, but when I started it seemed like publishers were very cautious about taking on anyone new.” I ask her which writers she was trying to publish at that time and she says, “I was certainly sending around and still am with a Venezuelan writer called Victoria de Stefano, who has not yet been translated into English but she’s an absolutely brilliant writer. You get quite a lot of interest in her writing, but she’s an older woman in her late 70s now. She’s also a woman. It’s a glass ceiling — a double-glazed glass ceiling. Publishers are much more hesitant to take that on despite a brilliant body of work. She’s just a stunner.”

In 2012, MacSweeney broke into literary translation with her collaborative partner, Luiselli. According to an interview of MacSweeney in M-Dash, the UK press Granta first approached her with a request to report on Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd: “I was completely blown away by Valeria’s writing — it seems to break all the rules, and yet is absolutely clear — so I sent off a glowing report, offered to produce a sample translation; in fact, did everything short of getting down on my knees and begging them to let me translate the novel.” MacSweeney said each book has been slightly different, but she and Luiselli have had an intensely communicative exchange on each of their projects. Luiselli uses the translation to make revisions to the original. “If you compare the two, they often have quite a lot of changes,” MacSweeney says about the Spanish and English versions: “Some of those are changes Valeria has in mind already, and in other cases, it’s based on our conversations together.”

Although MacSweeney and Luiselli live on different continents, they find ways to work together both online and in person: “Sometimes we Skype and read passages aloud. This is so helpful, because it immediately highlights where the text loses its rhythm or words don’t feel natural. Just before The Story of My Teeth went in for editing, I was in New York, and we spent a few wonderful afternoons sitting in cafes, reading the entire novel aloud, and making revisions.” Luiselli has also sent MacSweeney music to communicate the rhythm and aesthetic of certain sections of text. A ballet production based on José Limón’s choreography for The Moor’s Pavane helped animate scenes in Faces in the Crowd.

I pointed out that Luiselli has become a major literary figure in the United States. “I’m so enormously lucky,” MacSweeney responded: “I’m sure plenty of other translators would have done a different job but a great job. Valeria is such a brilliant writer. I’m proud of the association. I’m proud of the friendship. It’s a wonderful thing for me.” I ask her if she and Luiselli will do more work together. “I love reading everything she does. I don’t care what language it is — as long as she keeps doing it so I can read it.” 

MacSweeney sometimes finds it difficult to talk about translation, because so much of her practice is intuitive — like a painter trying to tell you why she painted a line there or used a color in that space: “It’s very important to keep the sense of the initial reaction going — you have to keep that alive. You have to work with a double-mentality. You know that someone has to say this or use this word. At the same time, you’re trying to keep alive a vivid sense of the power of reading it for the first time.”

MacSweeney knows her Irish heritage comes into her work, largely through music: “Music is so much a part of Irish culture.” When she was growing up, there was nothing unusual about her family circling the piano and singing favorite songs: traditional Irish songs and show tunes. She claims she could sing to me half of West Side Story. “Music breathes life into language,” she says. “That’s something that happens without me even having to think about it.”

The music of MacSweeney’s language is one of the most powerful aspects of her work. She and her writers weave short, razor-sharp ideas with long, meandering ones, packing them with lush detail and crafting them with lyricism. Each page of A Working Woman, for example, is a transporting experience. “I had to support myself against the buildings,” Navarro writes about a panic attack on a Madrid street.

Then I sat down in the doorway and stayed there for I don’t know how long, until my sense of touch returned. It occurred to me that I was crazy. I formulated this thought ten, twenty times. I walked. Movement was painful. The lacerating rumble of traffic. The tense high-pitched voices of friends chatting in doorways. The people walking behind me. Their breathing, their bodies, were too close. I was intolerable even to myself.

It is this deft lyricism, this sensory experience fostered by the sound and rhythm of language that especially sets MacSweeney’s translations apart.

I asked MacSweeney what is ahead, and she said she has a lot of irons in the fire. She is translating two more of Julián Herbert’s books for Graywolf Press: The House of the Pain of Others is a chronicle of the massacre of a community of Chinese immigrants in Mexico in 1911; Bring Me The Head of Quentin Tarantino is a collection of short stories. Daniel Saldaña París has a novel coming in Spanish in September, and MacSweeney is looking forward to trying to find a publisher for the English version. This spring, she has translations of Luiselli’s, París’s, and Rabasa’s work forthcoming in the anthology Bogotá 39: New Voices from Latin America. She continues to send around samples of the work of Victoria de Stefano. After we spoke, a series of pieces on de Stefano was published by Latin American Literature Today including an extract of de Stefano’s novel Lluvia, translated by MacSweeney.

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Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes to Literary Hub, The Atlantic, The Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more.


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