Translating Strange Science Fiction: An Interview with Marian and James Womack

womackMarian Womack is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop (2014), and of the Creative Writing Master’s at the University of Cambridge (2016). She was born in Andalusia and writes in English and Spanish. Her fiction in English can be read in Apex, SuperSonic Mag, Weird Fiction Review, and the anthologies Spanish Women of Wonder and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction (vol. 3). She tweets as @beekeepermadrid and her website is marianwomack.com.

James Womack studied Russian, English and translation in St. Petersburg, Reykjavík and Oxford. Amongst others, he has translated works by Alexander Pushkin, Chéjov, the Strugatski Brothers, Ivan Turgenev, and Sergio del Molino. His first collection of poems, MISPRINT, was published by Carcanet in 2012. He was recently selected for the prestigious PEN-Presents European Translation Project. His versions of Vladímir Mayakovsky, Vladímir Maiakovski and other poems, will be published by Carcanet in October.

Together, the Womacks run Ediciones Nevsky/NevskyBooks, a Madrid-based small press specialising in European & Spanish slipstream in translation.

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The translation team of Marian Womack and James Womack recently embarked on several translations for The Big Book of Science Fiction, out from Vintage this summer. Continuing our exploration of “strange SF,” we’re happy to bring you this exclusive interview with the Womacks—about translation and about science fiction. We’ll also be posting their translation of “The Ruins of Granada,” an early classic of weird SF, which could not be included in the Big Book of SF for space reasons as well as their new translation of Sever Gansovsky’s classic “The Day of Wrath,” which brilliantly updates Island of Dr. Moreau themes.

What has been the hardest translation job for either or both of you—into English?

Silvina Ocampo

Silvina Ocampo

James Womack: I find translating SF/F particularly difficult in general. At its best—and I would say that a lot of the stories we have translated for this book are among the best—it is a genre that is constantly wrong-footing the reader, and so your work as a translator is initially affected by your being wrong-footed as a reader. If you are translating stories set in worlds that are either fascinatingly different from or interestingly oblique to the ‘real’ world, then a lot of the handholds that you have with straight-down-the-line realist fiction just don’t exist. That said, within the stories we translated for the Big Book, I found Dmitri Bilenkin’s ‘Where Two Paths Cross’ tough because of the different perspectives within the story and the deliberately ‘alien’ vocabulary.

Marian Womack: TBBOSF has given me the chance to reencounter the Argentinian author Silvina Ocampo in a new way. She’s not only an author I am in awe of, but, together with Leonora Carrington and Angela Carter, she is a part of my personal corpus of imaginative and frighteningly clever writing. She excels at surrealism, which is such a difficult type of writing, so easy to do badly. Her language is endlessly inventive, her metaphors thought-provoking. She’s not the easiest of authors to translate, but the enjoyment inherent the challenge—the possibility of achieving results above the norm—makes the process that much more enjoyable.

Do you have a philosophy or central thought about what translation should be that guides you?

James: Nothing very interesting: pragmatic faithfulness, I suppose, in a very broad sense, and depending on what I consider ‘being faithful’ to mean in any particular context. Sometimes you need to reproduce certain formal aspects of a work; sometimes the literal meaning of a passage is absolutely paramount, no matter how clunky the translation sounds in English. And to try if possible not to be led too far by convention: sometimes things that are standard speech or standard literary locutions are just what you don’t want, and you have to fight against them.

Marian: I don’t want to sound too mystical here, but translation for me implies embodying an author’s voice, appropriating it for a short period of time, and so I can see an almost mediumistic quality to it. I certainly spend a great deal of time before starting a translation studying the author’s style and idiosyncrasies, her/his use of language, and rehearsing her/his voice. The transmutation process has to be faulty, that’s the nature of the act, but one can only hope to be as faithful as possible. And feeling that you are finally ‘embodying’ an author’s voice is rewarding.

At what times do you work together and when alone on translations? For example, do you, Marian, contribute to the Russian translations, too?

James: It’s a fairly collaborative process. We both read everything we translate, and edit together, no matter who does the first draft.

Marian: We are very old-fashioned in this. I like to think about us like a wife-and-husband team. When we started collaborating in these projects, around 2008, I had ‘some’ Russian, and James had ‘some’ Spanish. We have both grown on the way, as translators, both separately and as a team. But I find that the way our brains work mean that we can almost ‘side-read’ the other person. It’s like playing a duet; we inhabit the same space when we are working on these projects.

When you’re re-translating a famous work, like Casares’s “Squid in Its Own Ink”, is your process any different?

James: The advantage of there being a history of translations of a particular work is that you can do research before starting your own version: seeing how other people have dealt with problems is a good way of giving you ideas of how to deal with them yourself. Obviously, without plagiarizing or copying previous work, but there are times when previous translators have got something right in a way that seems to you both neat and unalterable, or at least gives you a roadmap to help you find something neat and unalterable of your own.

Marian: I’m the opposite; I prefer not to look at anything! It’s the same with writing: I have to read poetry if I’m working on a short story, non-fiction if I’m writing a novel. I am very easily contaminated. To me, approaching an author of that stature does not change my normal work process. But I’m very shy by nature, and have to try hard not be overwhelmed by an individual’s literary stature.

On the Russian side, what special barriers are there when translating Soviet-era work? I know you translated Bulgakov into Spanish, and some translators of Bulgakov into English have left out the Soviet-era referents.

James: I think I’ll answer this one. There is a strain in Soviet-era work which revels in localia, in specific particularly satirical details, but the best stuff overcomes this, and may even make a virtue of the obscurity and obfuscation out of which it was forced to grow. I’m thinking of scenes like for example the theatre show in The Master and Margarita, where the fairy gold conjured up by the devil transforms into illegal foreign currency. But Soviet debates about currency speculation are a background to this scene rather than its main point, and Bulgakov can be read with great pleasure even by people with no knowledge of the context. Or else, knowing just how virulent anti-religious propaganda was in the Soviet Union helps you see how transgressive as well as original Bulgakov was being in his retelling of the story of the Crucifixion, but it’s not something you absolutely need to know. There is a great deal of what the critic Lev Losev called ‘Aesopian language’ in Soviet literature, but it is a common element to Russian literature in general: writing which tries to speak between the lines, past the censor, to a public better-skilled at exegesis. Lots of this is, yes, untranslatable, but also a lot of it is of minor importance, reinforcing the already-visible main thrust of the work. One writer whom I would be scared to translate is Andrei Platonov, for whom absolute ambiguity is a fundamental creative principle, but luckily the translations into English, largely by Robert Chandler, are amazingly good.

When faced with a choice between fidelity and sense for a modern reader, which way do you go?

James: Sense. There is a lot to be said for interpretative translation. On a basic level, when a character says ‘On a clear day, you can see for twenty versts’, I find it generally makes more sense to me to have him say ‘On a clear day, you can see for a dozen miles [or even just ‘miles’]’ rather than give a footnote to explain what a verst is or else say ‘On a clear day, you can see for 13.2 miles’.

Marian: Sense, absolutely. Although verst is an interesting example to have chosen: Spaniards are used to the term, and it is even accepted by the Real Academia, the Spanish institution concerned with the ‘purity’ of the language, so for translations into Spanish we can actually leave it as it is.

Did you have a personal connection or commitment to any story or stories in particular that you translated for the Big Book of SF?

James: As publishers in Spain, we have brought out a book by the Strugatsky brothers, and are going to publish another hopefully next year, so it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to do some of their work into English.

Marian: I am personally very fond of Silvina Ocampo’s work, and would love to see more of her stories translated.

Were there any surprises during the translation process for Big Book of SF?

6170775James: I didn’t know anything about Sever Gansovsky before translating his story ‘Day of Wrath’, and he is a major discovery. The story itself is wonderful: astonishingly nihilistic for a Soviet-era writer, and very visual in its description of a Winter’s Bone-style backwoods Russian countryside that hasn’t had enough focus in Russian literature in general. And I’ve gone on to read a lot more by him, and he holds up very well. Worth translating more of; worth telling the world about.

Marian: I have to agree with James. And from the perspective of a small press publisher which started specializing in Russian, I have become aware of some amazing Russian SF authors I hadn’t previously read. Russian SF, and Russian literature in general, never ceases to amaze me; you are discovering new things every day.

Are there any personal favorites not yet translated into English that you would love to see in some future anthology?

James: On the Russian side of things, there are a number of contemporary writers whom I think are worth anthologizing. To name just one, Dmitri Kolodan is a fantastic young author: his novella Time of the Jabberwock is an inspired retelling of the tropes of Carroll’s Alice in a very different context.

Marian: I will give a Spanish example, if I may. Perhaps I’m being biased, because she’s one of our authors (and, full disclosure, a good friend), but I certainly think there is no one writing as well and with such variety nowadays as Sofía Rhei. Her output is breathtaking, from poetry to children’s writing, to speculative fiction and fantasy stories which explore her interests in linguistics and meta-literature, to adult fantasy novels, and the breath of her creativity is immense. I am quietly sitting in a corner waiting for the explosion to come, when everyone realizes that she is a genius.

In your role as publishers, writers, and translators, can you explore for me what you think the future of science fiction holds? How will SF be different in ten years?

James: Very briefly: publishers are getting more interested in writing from outside a straightforward Anglophone market; more books originally written in languages other than English are being noticed; translators are stepping up to the plate in what has been seen as their secondary job—but which might in the long run turn out to be the more vital side of their work—of suggesting to publishers authors who might be interesting. The difference will come from globalization, books that are reports from the frontline rather than armchair tourism.

Marian: From a Spanish perspective, the major change that we are seeing is that women are started to be more visible than before. It is still a struggle to get women in this cultural space—the recent nominations for the Ignotus Awards, a major Spanish SFF and horror prize, didn’t have a great number of women; but the general consensus was that there were ‘a few more’ than the previous year, so we are progressing, but it’s still a very steep mountain to climb. It is still difficult to convince a Spanish reader to pick a book by a woman, even if she’s had twenty five-star reviews. I can see that the tide is slowly turning, and I’m sure than in a decade female voices will be ‘mainstreamed’, but I’m not sure it’s happened yet. Not talking now in particular about female voices, but picking up on James’s answer, SF will change dramatically when new practitioners are exposed to diverse voices in general as a normal thing, and can count them as members of their own influential ‘canon’. It will be wonderful to see.

One reply to “Translating Strange Science Fiction: An Interview with Marian and James Womack

  1. Pingback: "Day of Wrath" by Sever Gansovsky | Weird Fiction Review