All Booked: Talking Translation with Jessica Powell
An Existential Expedition of a Book That Takes the Reader on Unexpected Journeys
This edition of All Booked was originally emailed to subscribers on April 19, 2022. To receive our literary newsletter in your inbox, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
The Transentients by Sergio Missana, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell, is an existential expedition of a book that takes the reader on unexpected journeys. It begins in Santiago, Chile where Tomás Ugarte, an average and well-to-do fellow, is having a midlife crisis: He quit his job, he’s getting a divorce, he’s got a new apartment, and he’s planning on doing some world traveling. Early in the story however, Tomás begins having metaphysical episodes that shoot his reality into the point of view of others, including a woman who is living on the streets of Santiago, a mountain climber on a harrowing adventure, and a screenwriter in the Atacama Desert. Tomás is forced onto a mysterious path that connects strangers to his ultimate destiny. While exploring themes of class and the bounds of human empathy, Missana has written a thought-provoking, magical-realist, page-turner, that some have even compared to Murakami! (Although, this is a wholly unique novel and comparisons don’t quite do it justice.)
Missana is a Chilean author who has written seven novels, The Transentients, originally published in Spanish in 2010, is the first English-language translation of his works. Santa Babara-based translator Jessica Powell had this challenging-yet-rewarding task, and the translation was published in November 2021. I exchanged emails with her about the experience and her answers shine light on both the process of translation and on the uniqueness of translating The Transentients.
Can you give a little background on yourself and how you began translating?
I was born in Philadelphia, and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and San Francisco. I started studying Spanish in High School and, through an exchange program, got to spend the summer after my junior year in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That was really the experience that launched me on my path to becoming a translator. I came back determined to become truly fluent in Spanish, something I went about both formally in college and graduate school, as well as through traveling, studying and living in various Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, Spain and Costa Rica. I came to Santa Barbara in 1999 for graduate school and, after meeting my husband, Abe, ended up settling here. I discovered translation when I was a graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UCSB. I signed up for a literary translation course and it was a sort of epiphany moment: oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing! The course was taught by renowned translator, Suzanne Jill Levine, and I ended up collaborating with her on a co-translation of a work by Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (Melville House, 2013). After that, I dove into translating one of the novels I wrote my dissertation about: Cuban writer Antonio Benítez Rojo’s Woman in Battle Dress (City Lights Books, 2015) It’s a five-hundred page novel, and it took me over two years to translate, but after that, I was hooked.
You’ve translated a lot of works, from poetry to novels, is your process the same for any form you are working with? Are there any projects that you have particularly enjoyed or loved (or hated!)?
Every work is different but my translation process is essentially the same. Do some research to be sure I have the necessary context — about the author and where the book fits in with their other work; about the setting and the specific historical, cultural, geographical and linguistic aspects of the work. Then I translate a draft, though I try to make my first draft as polished as possible because I have found that, once something is down on the page, it tends toward wanting to stay there, as though simply by virtue of being written down, it becomes somehow codified, concrete. So, if there’s a sentence, a paragraph I’m struggling with, I’ll often stick with it (sometimes for hours!) until I find a solution rather than just hastily putting something down to come back to later. I do make revisions, obviously, but I like to take the time to get as close as possible the first time around also because I feel the style, the tone and voice get established early on and then unfold as the book progresses, and so it’s important to take the time to get that right from the beginning rather than trying to go back and make those kinds of fundamental changes later. If the author of the book I’m translating is living, I will send them my first draft with questions, and that back-and-forth with the author is often one of my favorite parts of the process. If the author is not living, I have to rely on my instinct to resolve uncertainties. I remember this being a particularly delicious and maddening challenge when I was translating Pablo Neruda’s 1926 book-length poem, venture of the infinite man (City Lights Books, 2017). That book was Neruda’s surrealist experiment and when I first began working on the book, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, and understood suddenly why no one had ever translated it into English before. With its dreamlike, stream of consciousness style, its disparate and, at times, bizarre combinations of words and images, and with no capital letters or punctuation to guide me, I found myself in what felt like a free fall through somebody else’s subconscious, and I couldn’t ask him: “Pablo, what on Earth do you mean here? Am I getting this right?”. Ultimately, what I hope I got right was how he meant the poem to feel.
Your most recent work of translation, The Transentients by Sergio Missana is pretty complex. The novel blurs reality and fantasy into an existential mystery. Is there anything about this particular translation that was challenging or different from others that you’ve worked on?
One of the particular challenges and delights of translating this novel came from the constant shifting of perspectives as Tomás moves in and out of others’ bodies, experiences and consciousnesses, as well as from one physical landscape to another. I worked hard to capture the individual manner, tone and attitude of each of Tomás’s incarnations, rendering each as distinct and yet still linked in some fundamental way to Tomás’s own subjectivity. The abrupt shifts in scene provided an interesting challenge as well – to flip in an instant from the urbanity of Tomás’s life in Santiago to a howling blizzard on the side of a mountain to the sere desolation of the Atacama Desert required not only employing vocabulary specific to each of these settings but also rendering the visceral feeling, the mood of each of these specific places. In the end, the title proved to be one of the biggest translation challenges I faced. The book was published in Spanish as Las muertes paralelas, literally “The Parallel Deaths.” Missana told me that he was never satisfied with the title in Spanish and we were in agreement that a literal translation of the title didn’t work particularly well in English either. This is a unique book and one that’s difficult to categorize, and this made it difficult to land on a title that could adequately encapsulate it. After considering and discarding a multitude of suggestions, we hit upon the idea of The Transentients – a neologism that captures the mystery of human interconnectedness that lies at the heart of the novel.
How did this project come across your desk? Have you read any of Missana’s other works?
Bruce McPherson, the publisher of The Transentients, contacted me a few years back. He had learned of Missana’s work and was aware that, although his work is well known in Chile and, more broadly in Latin America, none of his books had yet appeared in English translation. He sent me several of Missana’s books and asked me to read them and offer my opinion as to which one to move forward with. The Transentients immediately intrigued me, as it’s a page-tuner with a deeply layered metaphysical mystery at its core and was unlike any other book I’ve read. When you first start reading it, you think you’re reading one kind of book, and then suddenly the novel takes a turn, and you realize you’re reading an entirely different, and far more interesting kind of book than you’d initially believed.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon that we can look forward to?
I have just finished translating a second book, Reinbou, by Puerto Rican author Pedro Cabiya. My translation of his novel, Wicked Weeds (a work of Caribbean noir and speculative fiction about a smart and successful executive in a pharmaceutical company in the Dominican Republic who is also a self-professed zombie, desperately searching for the formula that would reverse his zombie-hood and turn him into a “real person”) was published in 2016, and he has been one of my favorite writers to translate. I am excited to find the right publisher for Reinbou and to dive into translating Cabiya’s latest novel, Tercer Mundo.
The Tansentients is available at Chaucers, directly from the publisher, McPherson & Co., on bookshop.org, or anywhere else you might choose to buy books. But try to support local businesses and small presses, please!
To learn more about Jessica Powell’s other translations, including her translation of venture of the infinite man by Pablo Neruda, visit her website jessicapowelltranslation.com.
LOCAL BOOK SPOTLIGHT
We at the Independent get many books sent to us by local authors, sometimes too many! It’s practically impossible for us to read and review them all, but just because we are busy bees does not mean that they aren’t worth the attention. In an attempt to not completely drop the ball, we have compiled a list of books here that have a local spin. They are all either written by a local author, feature someone in our community, or have another tie to Santa Barbara. I urge you to look through this list. Perhaps you will find your new favorite read!
The Ghost and the Greyhound by Bryan Snyder | At Heaven’s Door: What Shared Journeys to the Afterlife Teach Us About Dying Well and Living Better by William Peters | Off-Script: a mom’s journey through adoption, a husband’s alcoholism and special needs parenting by Valerie Cantella | Werewolf by David Alton Hedges | The Whisper of a Distant God by David L. Gersh | The Premonition by Michael Lewis | Santa Barbara and Beyond: The Photography of Mike Eliason by Mike Eliason | A Parable of Lies by Lawrence Spann | The Fig District by Jeff Shelton | Cinema in Flux by Roger Durling | The Transentients by Sergio Missana, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell | Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfts: Americans Against the Grain by Arthur Hoyle | Bedtrick by Jinny Webber
If you are a local author and would like us to feature your book in this section, please email email@example.com with the subject line Local Author Spotlight.
INDY BOOK CLUB
Indy Book Club is a monthly community book club hosted by the Santa Barbara Independent and the Santa Barbara Public Library, where we read and discuss books on a wide range of themes and genres. Join in on the literary fun!
April’s Indy Book Club Selection:
The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner
Publisher’s Synopsis: Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of 1997. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting “lost boys” to open up. They both work at the Foundation, a well-known psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is also one of the seniors who brings the loner Darren Eberheart–who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient–into the social scene, with disastrous effects.
Get Your Copy: Borrow a physical copy from the Santa Barbara Public Library, listen to the audiobook on Hoopla or Libby, or read the ebook on Libby.
If you are a local author, host book events in the Santa Barbara area, or have any other fun bookish tips for us, please send your recommendations for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support the Santa Barbara Independent through a long-term or a single contribution.
You must be logged in to post a comment.