Narratives of Mistranslation: Elena Schafer In Conversation with Denise Kripper

Denise Kripper

I first met Denise Kripper at the Seminary Co-op bookstore after she and Alba Girons Masot discussed her book, Narratives of Mistranslation: Fictional Translators in Latin American Literature. While listening to their conversation, I became fascinated by the notion of mistranslating, and the study of translator characters in fiction, specifically Latin American fiction.  In Narratives of Mistranslation, Denise writes about Latin American literature that features translators and interpreters as protagonists. The volume showcases the potential for Latin American novels and short stories in Spanish to inquire into, and in many cases subvert, the complex dynamics and conditions under which the translator performs their task. With chapters on subjects such as gender politics and interpretation, the history of mistranslation in Latin American fiction, and more, the book weaves literary analysis of literary texts by authors such as Roberto Bolaño and Maria Sonia Cristoff with translation theory. 

Elena Schafer

The pedagogical value of the book is clearly supported by Denise’s experience as an Associate Professor of Spanish at Lake Forest College. She is co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Latin American Literary Translation and her editorial experience also extends to Latin American Literature Today, where she is the translation editor. She has translated into Spanish Melissa Febos’ Girlhood as Nena (Chai Editora) and her translation in English of Salt by Adriana Riva is forthcoming from Veliz Books. 

In our conversation, Denise shared her experiences in writing and researching translation, from Argentina to Chicago. Her considerable expertise is quite visible in her contributions to the field, but most striking to me was her love for these stories, these fictional translators, who seem to capture something important about the experience of translation that is not often perceived but vital all the same. 

Elena Schafer

Elena Schafer: This book reveals such deep knowledge, both of translation theory and Latin American literature, though perhaps they’re a bit inseparable. How did you begin to conceive of the project? What has been your journey to writing about translation?

Denise Kripper: In many ways, I feel like I started writing this book long before I even realized I was starting to write this book. Latin America has a long tradition of translator training programs. I studied translation back in Argentina, where I’m from. I was trained professionally at the Instituto de Enseñanza Superior en Lenguas Vivas “Juan Ramón Fernández.” For a number of years, I worked as an audiovisual translator, doing subtitles and dubbing, and as an interpreter too, both simultaneous and consecutive. I was really interested in literary translation but found it hard to make my way into it at the time, and I also wanted to continue studying, so I moved to the US to do a PhD in literature and cultural studies at Georgetown University. In my first year, I read El viajero del siglo by Andrés Neuman (which actually now makes part of one of the chapters in my book). It was the first novel that I ever read featuring a translator as a character. The book initiated somewhat of a (still ongoing) obsession with collecting literary works about translators and interpreters; I was curious about how my profession was depicted. While “translation fictions” are not exclusive to Latin American literature, I did find their publication to be very consistent and prominent in its contemporary production in Spanish, and I believe their portrayal of translation relates very much to this locus of enunciation. Fictional translators would tamper with meanings, deviate conversations, and produce miscommunication on purpose. Translators are thought to be unbiased, faithful, a bridge between languages and cultures, right? But that’s not what I was finding in these books. I was very intrigued by their treacherous depiction of translation because it defied expectations. It would have been easy to dismiss them as entertaining, imaginary ruminations for literary effect, but most if not all of the authors in my corpus had experience translating, so they were being very purposeful in their representations of the translator’s task. Studying these novels gave me new insights into translation theory and new critical tools to reevaluate my translation practice.

ES: It’s interesting to know that the process of collecting these books about translators has been ongoing because I kept a list of all the books that are mentioned in your book. I also find myself having this translator’s dilemma. Do I read them in Spanish or do I read them in English? Would you recommend that somebody read these novels in Spanish or in English or in both? Do you ever have that dilemma yourself?

DK: Each chapter of my book focuses on a few primary case studies, but I also engage with a lot of other translation novels and short stories throughout. Many of these works have not been translated into English, so I was very intentional about bringing them up in the discussion. In creating this sort of “syllabus,” I wanted readers to be aware of all these amazing translation resources that are still un- or under-translated. In the case of books with published English translations, I understand your dilemma. It’s an interesting one. In the US context, I’d say it’s important to support translators and show publishers that there is a market for translated literature, so I’d encourage you to read them in translation. I engage with their English versions when available in my book as well.

ES: In your introduction, you said that the process of writing in your second language, or translating yourself, is a central tenet of the book. When you cite from untranslated sources, these quotes appear embedded into the body of the text in the original language (rather than in the footnotes, for example), and are followed by your own English translations. What was it like to define the structural representation of translation in the book?

DK: This book builds on a lot of my past research, which I had done in Spanish. Writing in English was a challenging process at times, but I think it made me a much more aware, thoughtful writer in the end. My aim was to construct an accessible text that would hopefully be engaging for readers regardless of their expertise level in translation studies and/or Latin American literature. Because I use so much of this material in my classes (and I’m hoping other educators will too), I especially had undergraduate and graduate students in the US in mind when writing. Modeling ways to discuss and engage with translation theory and translated literature was important for me. Making sure that Spanish was present and visible was key too. It highlights the need for more translations and inscribes the process of translation on the page. 

ES: Yes, it definitely served a pedagogical purpose for me too. At times, when I didn’t know what something meant, having the translation there was helpful. Not only did I learn about the intended topic of the book, translation, but also I learned Spanish actively in the process, which says a lot about its applicability to a classroom setting, but is also related to this other question: how do you see the role of ontology in translation, especially fictional translation? 

DK: That’s a very interesting question because the idea that good translations are those that sound like authors themselves wrote them in the new language (i.e. as if in fact they are not translations) is commonplace. And this of course contributes to the translator’s invisibility, with its subsequent, unfortunate consequences for translation’s regard and translators’ working conditions. In the novels and short stories I analyze in my book, translation is a foundational component of their narrative structures. Translator characters reflect intentionally and explicitly on their task, roles, and responsibilities. Some of the most metaliterary works come up perhaps in chapter five, with novels by Roberto Bolaño and Andrés Neuman (and a survey of others) that take the form of pseudotranslations and draw attention to the fact that they were written in translation, conceived originally as translations. It’s fascinating how they reveal the ontological status of translation while posing translation as creative writing. Even though the works I engage with are literary, and the translators, fictional, I think literature has a lot of potential for bridging the gap there often is between the theory and the practice of translation.

ES: Following each chapter, you have a section on the pedagogical applications of the covered materials, including discussion questions. In the third chapter on publishing and the marketplace of translation, you ask about considering various ways of representing Spanish linguistic diversity in translation. How might you see possible answers to that question? 

DK: The questions I include at the end of each chapter are genuinely meant to trigger discussion. I ask the questions because I don’t have the answers, haha! But it is an important issue Spanish translators need to consider because Latin American Spanish(es) usually get grouped versus the hegemonic linguistic tradition of Castilian Spanish, and I see traces of colonialism in this. The industry plays a fundamental role here too because there is no local market big enough that would justify different national translations for each country in the Spanish speaking regions of Latin America. Nevertheless, I think we still need to question invisibility practices that call for the use of a “neutral” “standardized” Spanish in translation (and even challenge those very terms), and inquire about the motivations behind resisting situated translations that might reveal translator’s positionality and place of enunciation. 

ES: Your book is a part of a larger series with Routledge on literary translation. How do you see it fitting in conversation with the other academic books in the series?

DK: The Routledge Series in Literary Translation is fairly new and I’m so grateful to series editors Jacob Blakesley and Duncan Large for selecting my book to be a part of it. I think it’s such a good fit because my project is just as much about translation as it is about literature. What’s more, I don’t think I can separate the two when talking about Latin America, as you very well said before. The series is also very diverse and interdisciplinary and illustrates well how enriching a literary translation viewpoint can be in those conversations. I look forward to seeing the catalog develop and grow with time. 

ES: What kind of advice would you give to somebody getting started in translating, specifically with Latin American fiction? 

DK: I would say read a lot, and also read a lot in translation. There’s so much that one can learn from seeing how others translate. Social media can also be a great place to stay in the know about translation debates, resources, and opportunities. There is a growing number of academic programs on translation, and there are also summer workshops, lecture series, and events on the regular. These can be great places to get to know other people interested in translation and start building community. I have two groups of translator colleagues and friends with whom I workshop consistently, and they have been fundamental in my understanding and practice of translation (shoutout to the Third Coast Translators Collective and The Mate Mates!). 

ES: What’s next for you? What’s an area of translation studies you would like to see more of?

DK: I have recently published The Routledge Handbook of Latin American Literary Translation, which I co-edited with Delfina Cabrera. It’s the first handbook of its kind in English devoted to systematically thinking about the connection between Latin American literature and the practice of translation in the region. It features articles by many amazing scholars I deeply admire. As translation continues gaining traction academically, I would like to see more done around translation pedagogy, and I hope both this volume and my book contribute to that goal, becoming good resources for educators and students interested in these fields. 

As translators start earning more visibility too, I’d love to read more craft essays and reflections on their practice. I’d also love to publish these essays, and I hope translators will consider submitting them to Latin American Literature Today, where I’m translation editor. I’m always looking for good essays on translation!

Finally, I’m excited to have just finished translating my first full length novel into English, Salt by Argentine author Adriana Riva. It’s a wonderful exploration of daughterhood and complex family dynamics. It comes out later this year with Veliz Books. Can’t wait for people to read it! Lastly, I will be spending some time in Spain next year, working on new research project. I want to dig deeper in what it means to be a Latin American writer and translator living in a language that is and isn’t your mother tongue. To be continued!

Elena Schafer received her B.A. in English and Spanish from Michigan State University and worked in academic publishing in New York City for two years before returning to the Midwest to complete an M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. While completing her M.A., she wrote a thesis on the role of authorship and translation in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. She is currently a writing advisor at the University of Chicago and a Spanish-English translator.

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