5 Questions with Jessica Powell, Translator of Woman in Battle Dress

Aug 2, 2022

Jessica Powell has published dozens of translations of literary works by a wide variety of Latin American writers. She was the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship in support of her translation of Antonio Benítez Rojo’s novel, Woman in Battle Dress (City Lights, 2015), which was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Translation. Her translation of Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016), was named a finalist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award and made the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award. Her translation of Pablo Neruda’s book-length poem, venture of the infinite man, was published by City Lights Books in October 2017. Her most recent book published by City Lights was The Promise, by Silvina Ocampo. Other recent translations include Nine Moons by Gabriela Wiener (Restless Books, 2020) and The Transentients by Sergio Missana (McPherson & Co., 2021).

What is the particular joy of reading translated works?

Works in translation open windows onto diverse geographies, cultures and literary traditions and innovations, inviting the reader into lives and worlds they may not otherwise have access to, and I think this fosters curiosity and empathy in a really powerful and increasingly necessary way.

But another particular joy of reading works in translation, maybe especially as a translator myself, is the way it allows the reader to appreciate a work on a whole new level. When reading any book, we’re attuned to the plot, the characters, the author’s particular literary voice and style, but when we read a work in translation, we get to appreciate not only the author’s artistry, but also the translator’s. When we’re moved to tears, or shudder in horror, or burst out laughing, or are brought up short by an image or a turn of phrase while reading a work in translation, we’re reacting not just to what the author wrote but also, very specifically, to the way in which the translator has carried those elements forward to create a new work, one that is contoured around the source text and yet also an original literary accomplishment.

What brought you to translation? What was it like translating your first work?

I discovered translation back when I was a graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Santa Barbara. 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, who, I think, recognized a kindred translator’s spirit in me. She encouraged me to pursue my interest in translation and the first book-length translation I published was a co-translation I did with her 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, which, in 2015, became the first translation I published with City Lights Books. The odyssey of translating that book (it’s a five-hundred page novel that took me over two years to translate, during which time I traveled twice from California to Amherst, MA to meet with the author’s widow to secure the translation rights and to solidify the contract) and then navigating the process of finding the right publisher for it (translators often end up serving as de facto agents for the writers they work with), was a true initiation into what would be required of me as a translator.

We wear many hats as translators, and, honestly, much of that work is woefully uncompensated, but there really is nothing like seeing a book you’ve translated and championed actually come into existence.

How do you decide which books you want to translate?

I’ve had projects come to me in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s a book that I come across on my own that I feel really excited about; sometimes a publisher reaches out to me with a book they’ve acquired for translation; other times, authors contact me directly about translating their work.

I don’t have any specific restrictions or parameters for the books I take on – I’ve translated all sorts of books by authors from all over the Spanish-speaking world and representing multiple genres: literary fiction, speculative fiction, poetry, essay, children’s literature, etc. – but each of them has had some quality that grabs me, that makes it feel urgent and exciting and important to share it with English-language readers.

Maybe it’s the author’s unique voice or perspective or literary approach, or maybe it’s a gripping plot or compelling human story that unfolds in a geographical and sociopolitical setting that we perhaps don’t see enough of in literature published in the U.S.

In translation, in your experience, has gender played any role at all in publishers’ choices? Are barriers coming down or do they remain persistent?

I remember some years ago, I was at the American Literary Translators Association Conference, and I was talking with an editor with a major U.S. publishing house, and I asked if he might be interested in taking a look at a book I was translating. The book was written by a male author and the editor swiftly declined, saying he had made the decision to focus on acquiring works by women writers. While, of course, I had hoped he’d want to consider the book I was proposing, in the grander scheme of things, I really appreciated his stance and admired his commitment to promoting women writers, especially in translation.

Another example from my own experience was my most recent project with City Lights, in 2019. Jill Levine, Katie Lateef-Jan and I decided we wanted to collaborate on the translation of two books by Silvina Ocampo: Forgotten Journey, her first published book, and The Promise, her last, neither of which had yet appeared in English translation. We approached Elaine Katzenberger at City Lights and she was quickly on board, and Katie and Jill translated Forgotten Journey while Jill and I translated The Promise. I think it felt important to all four of us to help bring Ocampo’s work out from under the shadow of her husband, the writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, and their close friend, Jorge Luis Borges. Ocampo’s work has been described as resolutely feminist and subversive, and both of these books, as with her other writing, examine, in a particularly intimate way, the oftentimes dark interior lives of girls and women. This is perhaps why it took so long for her work to begin receiving the attention it deserves, and also why it’s so important to remedy that, and not just with Ocampo but with so many other women writers who are telling stories as women and about women (though not exclusively, of course) and in arresting, innovative ways.

And I do think we’re seeing other indications of this sort of conscientious corrective, not just in terms of the numbers of books by contemporary women writers being published in translation (many of them by women translators), but also in the breadth of those works, coming from women writers all over the world telling stories we very much want and need to hear.

What are some works in translation that you would recommend?

I’ve always loved stories with a gothic, uncanny bent (there are images from certain Horacio Quiroga stories that are permanently lodged in my mind), so I’ve been really enjoying the “Latin American Gothic” wave over the past several years, books mostly by women writers and translated into English by women translators.

Books like Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes); Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire and Dangers of Smoking in Bed and Samantha Schweblin’s Fever Dream (all translated by Megan McDowell); Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest and Monica Ojeda’s Jawbone (both translated by Sara Booker) are all creepily wonderful from a storytelling perspective and have a lot to say about the impact of violence and poverty and femicide and ecological destruction and the resurgence of authoritarianism across much of Latin America over the past several decades.

On a different, though not unrelated note, for readers who like poetry, I would recommend the anthology Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution (Tin House, 2020). I was thrilled to contribute translations of several poems to this anthology, which includes poets representing every Latin American country and translated from multiple languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, Maya Kaqchikel, Miskito and Mapudungun. Taken together, Resistencia represents not only the power of poetry, but also the power, and the poetry, of translation.

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