Mark Interviews Sophie Hughes, translator of the Booker Shortlisted THE REMAINDER!

Back in 2015 I traveled to Mexico City for the first time, a city I had longed dreamed of visiting, mostly, I admit, for literary reasons. I was one of thousands of anglo readers that had been swept up in the frenzy of Roberto Bolaño and his incredible books that had begun getting translated and published in the early 2000’s. My introduction to Bolaño was, also like many, THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES, a colossal book about Bolaño’s youth amidst the poetry, politics and friendships of the 1970’s. It was also a book about place, and that place was Mexico City.

Mexico City didn’t disappoint. It was more exciting, vibrant and mystifying than I could’ve imagined. This was also the first time I met Sophie Hughes, an English translator who had been living in Mexico City for some time. We had coffee in Coyoacán and like all the translators I’ve ever met Sophie was intelligent, charming and exuded warmth. Before I left, she gave me a copy of her most recent translation, at the time the forthcoming novel by Spanish writer Iván Replia, THE BOY WHO STOLE ATILA’S HORSE. Sitting in the Benito Juárez airport I became completely immersed in this short, intense novel as well as the beauty and clarity of the translation.   

Sophie has gone on to translate some of my favorite books from the Spanish: AFFECTIONS by Rodrigo Hasbún, UMAMI by Laia Jufresa, THE HOLE by José Revueltas and THE REMAINDER by Alia Trabucco Zerán, forthcoming from Coffee House Press and a shortlisted nominee for the 2019 Man Booker Award.

I won’t give away too much about this contemporary novel, except to say that it wrestles with youth, family, the violent dictatorship of Chile and the implacable way that history has of following people for generations. Like all of Sophie’s works, the translation is superb. In fact, despite the variety of works Sophie has translated, the common thread in all of these books might be the translations themselves, true to the author’s voice, but lucidly rendered into English. Her translations feel essential but not labored over. Passionate readers of translated works know the confidence that comes with seeing a familiar name as the translator; Sophie is one of those.

Once again living in England, I was able to interview Sophie over email about her process, quirks and especially her work on THE REMAINDER. 

MARK HABER: Did you work with Alia Trabucco Zerán during the translation of THE REMAINDER?

SOPHIE HUGHES: You know me, Mark, if they’re alive, and don’t show, I don’t know, outright contempt for translation, I will find a way to work with my authors. Alia and I have become firm friends throughout the long process of turning La resta into The Remainder. This included reading large chunks of the book aloud to one another. On the whole, translation is a private, contemplative, reflective activity. The vast majority of the decision-making happens in my head, but when you want to know the intention behind a particularly ambiguous word, action, situation, exclamation, etc., there is usually no better way to get closer to that intention than by asking the author. The fact that Alia has a wonderful ear for English was a gift. She talks a lot about the music of prose, and my job was to recreate her “song”: obviously it can never be the same song, because Spanish and English are such different sounding languages, but, to put it one way: I wanted Anglophone readers to nod their heads along to a similar beat. Reading aloud with Alia helped this. 

MH: How do you approach each book you translate? Do you have a set process or does it depend on the book and the author?

SH: No set process. The only thing I always do (now, learning from past mistakes) is to read the whole book through first. My process doesn’t depend on the author (if I’m lucky enough to work with them, that always comes after I’ve done a full first draft, when I send a set of questions, or the manuscript, depending on what we’ve agreed). I try not to redraft and “perfect” any passages before I’ve finished the first draft, but in reality this doesn’t always happen, because after weeks and sometimes months of the slightly more cheerless work (the nitty gritty get-it-all-down-on-the-page work), sometimes you long to mould and whittle and to turn beautiful Spanish into beautiful English. It’s lovely when you come across those passages as you do draft two!

MH: What were some of the challenges in translating THE REMAINDER?

SH: Translating half a book with no full stops presented quite a unique challenge because usually, whenever I come across a comma splice in the original (which is totally acceptable in Spanish), unless I think it’s a stylistic choice or should be maintainedfor some other reason , I usually introduce either semicolons, dashes, or new sentences. Comma splicing is a bit of a bugbear of mine in English; we have such wonderful tools at our disposal to avoid them! But with the chapters in this book being told in one sentence, I had to really embrace them, and to use heavier punctuation pauses with real restraint. It sounds silly, but it has taught me a lot and probably changed my default response to eradicate them at all costs.

MH: The voice of Felipe is very singular and incredibly powerful, sort of a stream-of-conscious voice, desperate and forceful. Felipe is basically haunting the streets of Santiago counting bodies (or corpses) with the weight of hisroy on his shoulders. Was this difficult to achieve?

SH: I mean, he is there so clearly in the Spanish thanks to Alia’s wonderful characterisation (his tics, his turns of phrase, his dizzying and ingenious thought processes) that it wasn’t difficult, really. I find more mundane and ‘normal’ characters, scenes and settings much harder to translate than idiosyncratic or extreme ones. For example, often the most difficult thing to translate is a space: a simple house and a character moving through it can make me lose the will to live.

MH: Are you working on anything exciting we should know about?

SH: Yes! My luck hasn’t run out quite yet, it seems. In 2019-2020 I’m working on some world class fiction and non-fiction, including Alia’s latest book, about women who kill, which is really about female disobedience, a cleverly oblique entry point and a fiercely intelligent feminist work (Las homicidas, forthcoming with Coffee House Press and And Other Stories).  And I’m a translator, meaning a big part of my job is to shout from the rooftops about “my” books on behalf of their authors, so if I may, I’ll mention two other novel translations that are coming out soon: Giuseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World (October 2019, co-translated with Juana Adcock, Charco Press), and Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (Spring 2020, Fitzcarraldo Press; New Directions). In my view, both are must-reads.

MH: What’s the last book you read that blew you away?

SH: Happening by Annie Ernaux. It’s about a young woman’s (the author’s) decision and struggle to abort an unwanted pregnancy in the 60’s in France. The events described are made all the more devastating thanks to Ernaux’s trademark composure and exquisite restraint when it comes to writing about the conservative politics, the male law makers, the social and religious stigma surrounding women’s reproductive rights. She doesn’t finger-point, preach or polemicize; she simply tells her story about her body as it happened. Her logic is impregnable: her body, like her story, is hers to do with as she will.



The Remainder By Alia Trabucco Zerán, Sophie Hughes (Translator) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566895507
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Coffee House Press - August 6th, 2019

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