On the Pleasures of Reading and Translating Women Writers: An Interview with Dorothy Potter Snyder

Dorothy Potter Snyder (Photo Credit: Paul Brauns)

A regular contributor to Reading in Translation, Dorothy Potter Snyder is a writer, translator, and reviewer who is also a teacher of Spanish and former singer-songwriter. She is a passionate champion of women’s writing and has translated from Spanish authors Mónica Lavín, Karla Suarez, Greta Alonso, and Almudena Sánchez, among others. She writes short stories and essays in both English and Spanish. And she is a pleasure to talk to! In our interview we discuss the qualities of a good review of translated literature, translating stories about the body, book titles as sites of subversion, and dream translations she has already completed in her head.

Stiliana Milkova

Stiliana Milkova: What was your path to literary translation? 

Dorothy Potter Snyder: Circuitous! I studied French in grade school and Mandarin at Yale, but, for whatever reason, neither language stuck. I also grew up in my mother’s store, The Title Page in Bryn Mawr PA, books used and rare. That magic place and my bookish mother are the origin story of my devotion to literature. In my twenties, I fell in love in Quintana Roo, Mexico and that was a turning point that I have written about in an (as yet unpublished) essay entitled My Two Tongues. It fascinates me how an amorous relationship was my doorway not only into the Spanish language but also into a new voice, logic and perspective on the world. I should note that I am a bilingual writer like you, not only a translator, so I tend to think through whatever I write in both languages. I spent much of the quarter century I lived in New York City partnered with an Argentinian poet-teacher-musician, teaching Spanish and I consulted with artists, some quite famous ones, who were doing international media projects with Hispanic creators. I translated scripts, songs, liner notes, interviews and so on a regular basis while also teaching Spanish at hospitals in the Bronx where I became hyper-aware of the sometimes fatal consequences of bad translation. I discovered that most Americans were utterly unaware of even basic Hispanic culture and that pitifully few Hispanic women writers ever made it into English. The gap was so huge! But I didn’t fully dedicate myself to my writing and literary translation until about six years ago, which is to say, relatively late in life. In 2019, I was awarded an MFA in Creative Writing at the Sewanee School of Letters where I was instrumental in bringing a Latin American Literature course to the program. I still teach Spanish for a living and use literature in my classes; if my students love a book or story, I figure other readers will love it in translation, too. 

SM: You are an active reviewer of literary translation. What do you think is important to address in a review of a translated work? 

DPS:The question for me is: does the translation read like literature? Does it render the voice and music of the author in a way that matches the literary level of the original? Last, and not least by any means, does the translation respect the author’s silences, ambiguities, and, for lack of a better term, foreignness? It is not for us as translators to smooth the way, to explain, or to make things easier for the English language reader. Translators have to trust that good readers will prefer to work a bit harder rather than be denied the chance to experience the writer’s voice as directly as possible. In my first translations, when I was terribly insecure about what I was producing, I worked with editors who added text to “explain” a setting or who insisted on cutting long sentences, this sort of thing, and later I bitterly regretted giving in to them. So, I know this happens all the time and I believe, rightly or wrongly, that I can “smell” it in other people’s work. But a review is not just a critique, nor simply a chance to rip apart or praise a fellow translator’s work. Reviewers do the crucial work of offering context by drawing the public’s eye to literary, cultural, linguistic connections they might otherwise overlook. Finally, if you have the original available for comparison, it’s interesting to locate thorny problems the translator had to face and to discuss how they solved them. Good reviews of books in translation offer a translator’s perspective on aspects that the non-translator can’t see and I think they enhance the respect of general readers and people in the publishing industry for the complicated choices translators have to make.

SM: Your most recent translation, Mónica Lavín’s Meaty Pleasures, introduces this important and prolific Mexican woman writer to an Anglophone audience through a collection of her short stories. How did you encounter her work? 

DPS: It was quite simple, really: when my Spanish students travel, I give them fifty dollars cash and ask them to bring me back some books. Even in a world of Kindle and eBooks, it is still really hard to find foreign language books in the United States, especially if you don’t live in a city. Also I just love the randomness of this approach to building a library! So, my student Dick Taylor went to Mexico and brought back Manual para enamorarse by Mónica Lavín. I was quickly hooked by the elegant physicality of the stories, which became the organizing theme of Meaty Pleasures. I spent ten days composing the email I wrote to her asking permission to try to translate some stories! That’s how important it was to me.

SM: What was your approach to selecting the stories to be included in Meaty Pleasures

DPS: Mónica, who is a trained biologist, frequently writes about the soul’s fraught dance with the demands, foibles, and desires of the physical body and I wanted this first book in English to reflect that focus. Then in my last year in the MFA program at Sewanee, Adam Ross agreed to publish three of my translations in his first issue as editor of the Sewanee Review. So, I decided to organize the collection thematically around that trio, drawing stories from several of her twelve collections. It would have been easier and safer to simply translate an already-published collection as is. But I wanted to smash the wall that had kept her invisible to English language readers, so I chose twelve stories that I judged to be among her most impactful, starting with sixteen and then, with Mónica’s help, narrowing it down to twelve. My intention was to show her literary power and range; I designed the collection as a calling card, an enticement, because I also want to find a home for one of her nine novels. 

SM: Given this process of selecting the texts for Meaty Pleasures, what was your approach to translating the individual stories? Did you attempt to give them a unified tone and register, or did you tackle each story separately, to reflect its individual provenance, style, and thematic scope? 

DPS: What a great question! No, I didn’t seek to endow the collection with a unified tone and register–and I was aware I was taking a risk in doing so. But the stories are not only from different collections published at different points in her career, but they also had different aims. Roberto’s Mouth, for example, was originally conceived as a script for television, so it has a more contemporary, edgy, and dialogue-oriented tone that goes with the full-on sexuality of the story. More classic tales like Señora Lara and Bolero were written in softer, pastel tones and portray the subtler experience of desire denied, so I treated those in a more painterly way. I let each story speak for itself because, as I mentioned before, I wanted to portray the author’s range and furthermore the stories themselves didn’t permit me to do otherwise.

SM: Meaty Pleasures seems to me to be about raw, carnal experiences and their quotidian incarnations and implications. Were you thinking of other writers, and women writers in particular, as you were selecting and translating the stories? 

DPS: Well, when I was selecting the stories, I was thinking only of my own taste, the theme, and how the stories talked to each other. But there was definitely a chorus of literary forebears in my head while I was translating: Carson McCullers, a writer Mónica admires a lot, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras were among them. De Beauvoir in particular was my first introduction to writing that posited the body’s reality differently. The sentences from The Second Sex tattooed on my mind are: “The body is not a thing, it is a situation. It is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.” Yes! Meaty Pleasures is not an erotic collection. Rather, it is a series of stories about body-situations.

SM: I really like the way you translated the title as “Meaty Pleasures” (the source title is “Placeres Carnicos”) and the way it links pleasure to both flesh and to the figurative meaning of “meaty” as “full of substance or interest,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. The title also reminds me of Clifford Geertz’s seminal notion of “thick description” as a way of describing, contextualizing, and analyzing complex human behaviors. I am curious whether you considered “Carnal Pleasures” as an alternative translation (where “carnicos” evokes “carnales”) or would that have been an oversimplification of the book’s complex metaphorics related to the body? 

DPS: You know, every week I speak with a friend in Madrid who is a really elegant man, a philosopher. I told him the title of the book and he gently corrected me: Dorothy, lo que quieres decir es placeres carnales, as if this were a collection of erotic fiction—which, as I’ve said, it is not! –, as if my Spanish were in error, which it sometimes is. No, I told him, the story is about meat, like chuletones and that sort of thing. He was intrigued! So, yes, I was very conscious of exploiting the double meaning of meaty—fleshy and full of substance or interest–”thick description” is the most precise term. Also, the title of a book is the most important place to be disruptive and to avoid being boring or quotidian, don’t you think? The title and the cover art, ours being the lovely creation of Mexican illustrator Karla Cuéllar, are a storefront and their role is to make you buy the book. The oddness and anti-literary quality of the word “meaty” also made it the right choice. Of course, the title story “Meaty Pleasures” is also the synthesis story of the collection, illustrating a couple’s lifelong passion for each other through the extended metaphor of their shared passion for butchery.

SM: Is there an author you think must be translated in English? And I am curious, who would be your dream writer to translate? 

DPS: One of my dearest dreams is about genres rather than specific authors: I would love to engage more with the translation of literary essays and criticism, an area that is really overlooked by publishers. Mexican writers Margot Glantz, Angelina Muñiz-Huberman, and Bárbara Jacobs come quickly to mind as authors who merit much more attention. I am apt to say that fiction conveys truth more accurately than nonfiction, but we are missing a lot of truly elegant thinking and writing if we don’t pay attention to these genres. Specific writers I’d love to get my fingers on include Angélica Gorodischer from Argentina. She already has an excellent translator in Amalia Gladhart, but I would give a toe off my foot to translate Las nenas, a deliciously subversive collection about the dark interior worlds of little girls. I would love to be given a shot at the wickedly smart short stories of Cuban writer Karla Suárez, one of which I published recently in World Literature Today. And in the category of rescuing women’s books mistreated in the past, a collection of historical injustices that preoccupies me, I dream of resurrecting Chilean writer María Luisa Bombal’s La última niebla, a classic that was “readapted” out of existence by her American publisher who told her it wasn’t “long” enough. I love that book so much that I think I’ve already finished the translation in my head.

SM: Thank you!

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