Gabriela Cabezón Cámara and Ariana Harwicz are two leading figures in Argentinian and Latin American contemporary literature. I came across their work after their books were translated into English by the Edinburgh-based Charco Press: as for most authors writing in a different language than English, for both writers the translations of their work into English have been crucial in reaching a wider audience, accessing literary prizes – each has had one nomination for the International Booker Prize – and securing new translation deals in even more languages.
Born nine years apart – Cabezón Cámara in 1968 and Harwicz in 1977 – the pair met in 2014, and have since shared a continuous literary dialogue, of which this conversation forms a part. Cabezón Cámara, the author of SLUM VIRGIN (2018), translated by Frances Riddle, and two novellas and two graphic novels in Spanish, is shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize with THE ADVENTURES OF CHINA IRON (2019), translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, a book that rescued a barely-mentioned female character from the Argentinian 1872 epic poem MARTIN FIERRO and turned it into a fantastic feminist queer epic adventure. Harwicz was nominated for the same prize in 2018 with her debut novel DIE, MY LOVE (2017) translated by Carolina Orloff and Sarah Moses, which tells the story of a woman on the verge of madness living in rural France with her husband and unwanted baby. Harwicz is also the author of FEEBLEMINDED (2019) translated by Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott, which follows a woman in her late twenties living with her toxic and alcoholic mother. These two are part of what Harwicz calls an ‘involuntary trilogy’: her first three books explore motherhood, how it affects the characters psychically, and how it sways their desires.
Both Cabezón Cámara’s and Harwicz’s mastery lies in their distinctive prose. Harwicz’s is characterised by short, intense sentences and characters that challenge the impossible parameters that society imposes on women. Cabezón Cámara is playful with language, which in SLUM VIRGIN is a mix of different registers: the slang of a slum in Argentina, professional journalism, the Golden Age, gauchesco style, classic Greek literature, and English. She manages to absorb all these styles in Rio de la Plata Spanish without losing their timbre.
This conversation with the two authors gravitates around what translation means to them as writers. It took place online, in Spanish, with an audience as part of The Festival of Latin American Women Artists (FLAWA) this June. Ariana Harwicz lives in France, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara lives in Argentina, and I live in London: nonetheless, the digital medium allowed for the possibility of a talk unbounded by location.
THE WHITE REVIEW: When you were reading excerpts from your books I realised that the rhythms in which you conceived these stories are the same rhythms we perceive as readers – almost as if the sentences were musical scores that the readers can understand. How do you create this musicality in your books?
GABRIELA CABEZÓN CÁMARA: We both take into account the materiality of language; we don’t work it as a means, but as an end. To us language is something that has materiality. And part of that materiality is its sound. So a novel is a story, yes, but it can’t be that until it has its own music. It’s a story told in music. Until I find the music of the prose, I’m not able to get the novel going. If it doesn’t reverberate through my body, like a rhythm, the novel doesn’t work for me. Writing is something that happens in the body, the language is material and it has a sound. It’s interesting to write with this in mind: you create logic chains, but you can also create phonetic chains, and allow yourself to be surprised by the explosion of meaning. New meanings will appear, meanings that you never would have thought of before.
ARIANA HARWICZ: The other day I was listening to a masterclass where pianists teach the art of interpretation and performance. Barenboim was saying that in an ideal world, every pianist would know the language of the musician who composed the piece. Because only by understanding the original language – for example, knowing French or Polish if you’re playing Chopin – can you really understand the high notes, the bass notes, the intonation, and I think the same happens in writing.
When I’m writing it’s as if I have X-ray vision, as if in a cave pierced with light, I can see the roots of words: how they fall, with what kind of weight, what musicality they have, how they work with the musicality of the next word. I always feel like I’m in a music workshop.
THE WHITE REVIEW: When your novels are going to be translated, do you make a pact with the translators so that this musicality we’re talking about is not lost?
HARWICZ: I like the word pact because it reminds me of a pact with the devil. The most interesting thing for me about translation is that writing is a political battle; it’s a war. A war that becomes political and surpasses the writer faced with the shadows of the text. In the best of cases, you’re fighting alongside the translator. Because the one who betrays isn’t the translator, it’s the target language. When I say political battle, I mean that as a writer one has to be wary of betrayal in the target language. Piglia said that the ideal reader is a translator. I have a very close relationship with my translators, because translating is a collaborative work.
CABEZÓN CÁMARA: More than a pact, I see it as a surrender, like saying ‘take this’, because it’s out of my reach – to intervene in a translation to Turkish, for example, even to English, which I know, because what a translator does is very refined work. Something I do ask – beg for, even – is that the translated text has a rhythm. I ask that they acknowledge the music. Now, can that music that comes from Spanish be translated into another language? No! The work of a translator is a work of re-writing, it’s an enormous task, and translators are on our side in this political battle, they are very important allies. In fact, I celebrate that publishing houses like Charco Press place both the author and the translator on the cover of the book, because they are co-authors.
THE WHITE REVIEW: Ariana Harwicz wrote in an essay that there is a bond of dependency, a romantic relationship between the author, the text and the translator. Can you expand this idea a bit further, Ariana? And Gabriela, what do you think about this?
HARWICZ: There’s a whole field of tensions between the author and the translator. There’s surrender but there’s also resistance, like in any relationship. When I went to Warsaw I was really excited because I was going to present the Polish translation of my book. The market for contemporary Latin American literature is just opening there – except for a few authors from the Boom of the ‘60s, the big names, there aren’t many contemporary authors known there. I got all dressed up and did my hair as if I was going on a blind date, and then my editor told me in the lobby of the hotel: ‘Your translator doesn’t want to meet you.’ It felt as if she’d broken my heart, but she didn’t want to meet me because she has this theory – at least it’s original, as if there were a spell, an enchanted tale, a fable – that if the author and the translator meet in person, the translation is annihilated. So I never met her.
After that, I’ve always kept close relationships with my translators because otherwise the translations would be different books. It’s a joint work, regardless of whether or not you know the language of the translation. The first time I met a translator was in Frankfurt, in a debate about translations, she was a translator of contemporary Argentinian authors to German. It was love at first sight because we realised that we suffer for the same things: a comma, an adjective, the music, the cadence, not finding the right word. We shared the same suffering, the same obsession.
CABEZÓN CÁMARA: I think that translators are writers too. That’s why some translations are better than others. As Latin Americans we’ve been reading translations since we were born; even today a lot of what we read in Spanish we have to translate from European Spanish. We live in a continent that was brutally, cruelly translated from the beginning in a savage operation. During the conquest of America there was a genocide; America didn’t exist, the Indians didn’t exist – I mean, calling the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of America ‘Indians’ is an European invention – and during this time America was being written and described from the point of view of the invaders. That’s what I mean by the savage operation of translation. There was also a homogenisation where the original inhabitants were cruelly converted to Christianity and forced to adopt European ways. So translations have multiple dimensions: there’s the geopolitical dimension, where we have to translate Spanish from Spain because it’s a central economic power. There’s also the labour of love of thousands of translators around the world who translate books like ours, from authors who aren’t bestsellers, who aren’t going to make millions of dollars, not even thousands. Translators are writers who decide to make their work translating the work of others, but still they are writers. That’s why you can tell the difference between two different translations of the same book. We can’t think about translations from Latin America, where I am at the moment, without taking into account what was done to our languages after the Spanish Conquest. It’s no coincidence that Nebrija’s GRÁMATICA CASTELLANA is from 1492 (a book Antonio de Nebrija wrote about the Spanish language and grammar, which set out to impose this set of rules on the conquered indigenous peoples in Latin America). What I’m saying is that there are many facets to a translation.
HARWICZ: Nothing escapes translation. Everything is a translation. Even speaking is an act of translation. And in a more conscious way, myself, as I have been living in France for the past fourteen years, I’m what we call a foreigner, a migrant, and there’s this strange thing with identity. This also translates into my writing, because my writing arises from this feeling of foreignness. I didn’t write anything when I was in Argentina, I didn’t have my own language when I was living there. I don’t know why I had to be rooted in a foreign linguistic universe, with the music of this new language – that in this case is French, but could have been any other.
It’s a war, it’s a political dispute. I realised when my novel came out in French that, whether on purpose or not – and this has happened to other female writers and colleagues who have been translated into French – the French manipulates their Latin American identity in this clichéd, stigmatised way, working from what they assume about a Latin American, Argentinian feminist in their thirties or forties. And I tried to go against this censorship, I tried to stop my books from being transformed into what they expected me to write. So there’s also censorship in translation, when they try to manipulate certain expressions and change the titles. As a writer I have to be vigilant and If I can I will intervene. But it’s not always possible.
THE WHITE REVIEW: Gabriela, in THE ADVENTURES OF CHINA IRON there’s a third language that’s formed from Liz’s English and China Iron’s Spanish. There’s a simultaneous translation in their communication. In another book of yours, SLUM VIRGIN, two of the characters, Qüity and Cleo, create a language that they call ‘Cumbianchera’. It’s true that there is a third language in every relationship; codes of language are created through intimacy. Can you expand on this idea: the simultaneous translations that exist inside your books?
CABEZÓN CÁMARA: Yes, I think that in personal relationships or groups there is a particular language, there’s a certain encoding of emotions, or certain ways of conceiving small ceremonies. Words find new meanings in a group dynamic or a couple. On the other hand, what happens with the English language in these two books is that it’s the language of the empire, right? And I mean this in the sense that that’s where the money is, the power, the science; more concentrated than in the rest of the world. So, there’s a weird relationship, there’s a kind of appropriation, of grabbing that English and making it sound with the music of Rio de la Plata Spanish without it losing its timbre in SLUM VIRGIN. In THE ADVENTURES OF CHINA IRON it has to do with a magical encounter between the Spanish of China Iron and the English of Liz, which allows for them to understand each other despite the language barrier. Anyway, the prevalence of English in China Iron starts to wither, and it loses its place because it’s replaced by indigenous languages, Mapudungun and Guaraní.
I think, in these historic times we’re living in – and I’m not only talking about the pandemic, but before that, with climate change, mass extinction and the savage, brutal, poisonous, criminal, murderous genocide of resources – we’ve reached a point where we’ve exhausted this modernity project; all it has left to give is death and poison. Especially in the world’s peripheral regions, Africa and Latin America. And the use of indigenous languages like Guaraní and Mapudungun for me seems a way of trying to learn other ways of seeing the world. How can it be that indigenous peoples, who’ve managed to survive the most horrific genocide in history, in 100 years went from being 60 million to only five million people? They’ve managed to survive in spite of everything and with everything going against them, because they have a vision of the world that we need to learn. And I’m trying to do this. That’s why these languages appear at the end of the novel.
THE WHITE REVIEW: Gabriela, you included words in indigenous languages in the last part of THE ADVENTURES OF CHINA IRON, and I found it really interesting that in the English version these weren’t translated. Can you tell us about this decision to not translate the words in Guaraní and Mapudungun into English?
CABEZÓN CÁMARA: It was a political decision made by the translators and the editor, that of course I celebrate, applaud and agree with. Because these languages carry a different cosmovision, they need to generate a certain strangeness. I’m not able to explain this cosmovision in its entirety; I’m trying to study it at the moment. But these languages have to carry a strangeness because they are part of the utopia of the book, so to speak. I believe that if there’s some possibility of creating a disobedient narrative that’s not a narrative of the end, it will have to pay attention to and try to understand these other cosmovisions, these other philosophies and ways of living – which of course use other languages. And these languages are not strange. We’re conditioned to learn French and English, but no one thinks about learning Guaraní, Mapudungun, Quechua, Aymara, Qom and Latin America’s many other languages. But it’s about time; we need them; we have to learn them before it’s too late.
THE WHITE REVIEW: In the translation of each of your books it has taken two translators to do the job; a double force, two lives of vocabulary in English. FEEBLEMINDED was translated by Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott, and THE ADVENTURES OF CHINA IRON was translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre. How or why was this decision taken?
CABEZÓN CÁMARA: To be honest I never asked why two translators. I love my translators and I never asked why two… Maybe to reflect the polyphony of our texts. Writing creates music out of language but it also takes into account the materiality of language – not just its phonetics, but the fact that it’s composed of thousands and millions of voices. And so to give it an individual modulation, a particular subjectivity, perhaps it was easier to do it as a pair. I’m not sure.
HARWICZ: You’re trying to go backstage with translation, don’t go there!
It’s interesting, because when I first entered the literary world I was at this barbecue and an editor said to me: ‘Welcome to hell!’ I felt overwhelmed, it scared me, but you could probably say the same in film, theatre, or law, medicine, or architecture! I think the backstage, the kitchen, the behind-the-scenes of translation is like the aqueducts of Paris, the underground Paris. There’s a universe in miniature down there where everything happens. Now that I’ve written a more conversational rather than academic book on translation, I realise that it’s a whole world of political disputes, fights, tensions, disagreements and conflicting ideologies. Translating is an ideological act and there is something epochal about it. For example, Thomas Mann wrote THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN once, but then each epoch has updated and re-invented the translation of this book. And THE ADVENTURES OF CHINA IRON and DIE, MY LOVE are going to be re-translated with a different logic in twenty, thirty or 100 years and it is going to be a different DIE, MY LOVE, translated with the conception of language from that future time.
THE WHITE REVIEW: After working with a translator on one of your books, do you think about the translation of your work or how a certain word or sentence might be translated when you’re writing?
HARWICZ: Someone said that the perfect writer is someone who can contemplate all the possible translations of a word or phrase, like if I could think of how each sentence would sound translated into German, its metre in English, its musicality in French or Italian… It’s a delirium, right? It’s a fantasy.
I don’t think about any of that in a conscious way when I’m writing. When you’re writing all you think about is the writing, but it’s true that I have a supra-consciousness of language, which implies a translation, because writing is an act of translating. I’m always thinking of sentences in Buenos Aires Spanish and translating them into countryside French. Writing is an act of translating from the real language to the invented one.
CABEZÓN CÁMARA: I try not to think of anyone in particular when I’m writing, not the translator or the reader. If I do, it makes me feel a kind of tension. What I do is dialogue with other works, with different societal ideas of the time.
To me, the most spectacular and beautiful thing that happens during writing is when you become focused on what you’re doing, because when you focus, you hear the music – and that’s the most vital moment, where you feel you’ve been given something. I feel alive when I’m writing, and it’s not easy to feel alive, so to me writing and concentrating on the written word is one of the moments where I feel most alive, and I don’t want to lose that feeling by thinking of the future. That would make me lose vitality.
Harwicz: When I wrote DIE, MY LOVE I didn’t consider myself a writer. This might sound like a contradiction – how do you write a novel if you’re not a writer? But I really didn’t think of myself as one, and that’s the best state to be in, the ideal, blissful state. Returning to that moment would be the best thing that could happen to a writer: to write without thinking of yourself as a writer.
THE WHITE REVIEW: How important are the translations of your books to you as writers?
CABEZÓN CÁMARA: It’s something beautiful. You find yourself talking to people that have completely different geographical coordinates, that read your work and see things you never would have thought of and that evidently are there. It gives me joy. They are very important to me.
HARWICZ: One thing that’s obvious is the supremacy of the English language. My novel was translated into Hebrew, which is a marginal language in many senses: Israel’s a small country and it’s the only country where Hebrew’s widely spoken. But after it was translated into English, my novel was nominated for the Booker Prize – in my case the longlist, but still the nomination generated a lot of interest in my novel, which before this was described as untranslatable, marginal and avant-garde – very beautiful, very interesting, very subversive, but with no possibility of sales. Suddenly within a few months it had sixteen translation deals for countries as diverse as Iraq, Georgia, Romania and Turkey. This was all thanks to the English translation and the visibility of the International Booker Prize, which holds a political weight in the field of literature. It brought prestige and visibility. That’s why the task of a translator is so difficult and political, because it’s the English language that opens all the doors.
Translated by Silvia Rothlisberger and Rebecca Wilson