Today and always, for you: Spanish translation!
“La pistolita” (Benjamin Percy’s “The Rubber-band Gun”), “Toc toc” (Brock Clarke’s “Knock knock”), “Avisos fúnebres” (Susan McCarty’s “Services Pending”), and “El pibe al que no invitamos a la orgía” (David Harris Ebenbach’s “The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy”)—come to us by way of two translation workshops in Buenos Aires, Argentina, headed by Argentine poet Santiago Llach and American translator Jennifer Croft. We published the English originals in TIR 40/2.
When Jenna proposed that I document the project, I read the original pieces (all excellent pieces o’ prose), tried to read the Argentine translations, and did a small panic. I write a little poetry, but not fiction not nonfiction and never ever translation. What little Spanish that’s still rattling around in me couldn’t get me a meal at Los Banditos. Besides, the other intern writes nonfiction and fiction and editor’s notes, he probably does translation I don’t know about, too, because he’s just that cool, and I am pretty sure he’s somehow ethnically more Spanish than I am because the surname Pérez, Wikipedia tells me, is usually Castilian Spanish, so he deserves this and he is capable. But none of these considerations matter because the other intern broke his foot.
But the crucial blog post was still salvageable: I’d email Russell in Japan and Jennifer Croft in Argentina, and then absolutely plaster the TIR blog in a cloud of quotes. Nobody would know that I know nothing.
Then Jennifer emailed me. Surprise, she was in Iowa City, would I like to get coffee? Well, yes, of course I would; I’m blown away by her niceness. But when I go to meet her I’m nervous anyway. Luckily, Jennifer is much calmer than I am, her voice is soft, and her eyes don’t skitter away when she talks. I like her very much. Because we meet in person, over lattes, and I want to appear casual, like I know things, and because I’ve never interviewed anyone since my grandmother in the seventh grade, I don’t record our conversation. All the same, here is my summation of all I learned from Jennifer.
Right now, Jennifer Croft is finishing her dissertation at Northwestern. She studied translation here in Iowa City, which is fortunate for us, otherwise an intern at some other school might be writing this. Jennifer has studied enough languages that when I ask her which she knows, she can’t make a precise count. She spent a Fulbright in Poland, and Slavic languages were her bread. Only recently, after too much Chicago chill prompted a cheap-seats flight to Buenos Aires, did Jennifer consider Spanish translation. She loved Buenos Aires, returned that summer to take classes, and met the poet Santiago Llach.
Because the Argentines are an excellent people, free-to-all literature courses take place every evening, on every block. “That’s something you don’t ever see here,” Jennifer says. “Argentine interests align more with mine; they love high art. For various reasons, I think our culture tends to shy away from it.” Argentines, Jennifer notes, also seem to have wholeheartedly embraced American literature, especially Cheever and Carver.
When Santiago wanted a co-teacher, Jennifer joined him in leading two intimate translation workshops. The classes met, respectively, in a respected bookshop and Santiago’s then sister-in-law’s house. By Argentine standards, ‘student of literature’ doesn’t designate a BA, MFA, or PhD—it’s anyone. So when the two workshops first met, ten strangers gathered: one was soon to be a psychologist, a few worked in business, one studied poetry, another was employed by a condom company. And everyone got along. This is to me a marvel. Jennifer agreed.
Before long, she asked Russell Valentino, our Editor-in-Chief and her once-teacher, for TIR pieces to translate. As Russell recalls, “The idea was that the regular distribution channels for American literature tend to favor big publishers of mostly genre fiction—it is by far the most widely available stuff from the U.S. around the world. Unfortunately, that means that many readers don't have much of a sense of the actual variety and quality of contemporary North American literature, and one of the places where that is most evident is in the world of lit mags, like TIR. Could I send her some pieces to use in their workshop? Of course, I could.”
Any piece passing through workshop becomes a group undertaking, but not quite to the extent that “El Pibe,” translated by seven folks at Llach’s sister-in-law’s, is.
“How?,” I ask. “Does everyone just shout out suggestions?”
“Yes.” Jennifer laughs. Interruption, it turns out, is a precise art in Argentina. At first, she’d wait for the discussion’s inevitable pauses. They never came. Later, her eager interjections offended the entire workshop. She’s since managed to find the line, she tells me.
So, Jennifer and Santi transcribed in the criss-cross pandemonium of voices. “The piece here is what we agreed upon.” She laughs again, pauses a moment. “Or it’s just what we managed to write down in time.”
The idiosyncrasies of this particular translation are several. First, Ebenbach’s orgy participants have been ousted by a new gang: “Santi,” “Jennifer,” “Guada,” “Pablo,” and so forth. As Jennifer notes, their sense of responsibility to a translation only grew once they threw their names into it. In an even cooler move, “El Pibe” is particular to Buenos Aires. “All in all, we wanted to honor Argentine Spanish. So we’d use vos instead of tú, and so forth, in all pieces,” says Jennifer. But “El Pibe” features straight-up local slang. For example, one of my favorite modifications: Ebenbach writes, “As a last-minute thing we invited that guy we met at the liquor store that night because he had a strange kind of authority, though we didn’t really know anything about him.” The Argentine team writes: “A último momento, le dijimos al flaco que nos cruzamos en el chino esa noche porque era… guau.” Roughly translated back to English, the line reads: “At the last moment, we asked the skinny guy we came across in the convenience store that night because he was… woof.” And so forth. A girl who incessantly hands out “Jesus pamphlets” now fervently recites the Ave María; the “complicated” planning of an orgy becomes, quite frankly, “un dolor de huevos” (a pain in the… eggs). The interplay between Ebenbach and his Argentine translators is by turns (and often at once) ridiculous and illuminating.
“So, you’re back home,” I remarked when Jennifer and I first met. Gently, she set me right. “Home is Argentina now.” Lucky for us, I am told that means we can expect further installments of TIR: Argentina.