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Anna Kushner: Literary Midwifery

April 14, 2014

The translator of The Man Who Loved Dogs talks with Keith Meatto about Cuba, Trotsky, and the chemistry necessary for translation.

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Image from Flickr via fundacionlacueva

Anna Kushner spent two years translating The Man Who Loved Dogs from Spanish into English, but didn’t meet the author, Leonardo Padura, until after the novel’s publication, when Padura left his native Cuba for a brief American book tour. After a week together in New York, the two seemed convivial and comfortable with each other as they shared a stage at Brooklyn’s 61 Local, where Padura read from and discussed his historical thriller about Leon Trotsky’s assassination, and Kushner translated for the non-Spanish speakers. After the event, I chatted via email with Kushner about working with one of Cuba’s most esteemed writers, learning multiple languages, the art of literary translation, and the rewards and challenges of inhabiting other people’s words—and worlds.

Keith Meatto for Guernica

Guernica: The Man Who Loves Dogs alternates among three points of view: Trotsky, his assassin Ramón Mercader, and Iván Cárdenas, a contemporary Cuban writer. While translating, with which of the three characters did you most sympathize and why?

Anna Kushner: Sympathize would not be the right word, but I was most drawn to Ramón Mercader. His inner world, as Padura created it, fascinated me. This is not only because his personal history is a bit of a mystery in the real world. To be honest, I assumed Padura had based much of the way the character thinks and speaks on the historical record the first time I read the book. It was only later that I discovered that existing documentation about Mercader is truly scarce. What drew me to him when I read the book was the way he was so passionate about a cause, passionate to the point of being unable to turn a critical eye on that same cause. He turned his whole life over to it and only questioned those who commanded him when it was too late. That is dangerous, but also compelling. I’ve always wondered what makes a fanatic tick. I do not relate to Mercader or his motivations at all, but I do see him as very human now. He had his loves and frustrations and emotional baggage just like anyone else. I was most moved by how the book narrates his later days on earth. It’s such a feat that Padura made me care so deeply about him.

I will admit that with some past projects, I get into a groove in which I can work the whole night through with enough coffee and when I read the text the following day, there are entire paragraphs that I can’t remember translating.

Guernica: Were there any significant differences between your experience working on The Man Who Love Dogs and previous books you have translated?

Anna Kushner: I don’t shy away from larger-than-life figures in my work. A previous novel I translated took Fidel Castro as its central figure, so why not Trotsky? However, I think the different voices really made this work stand out in comparison to my other projects. I had to take small breaks between the different chapters. I couldn’t go from translating a chapter centering on Iván Cárdenas to one centering on Trotsky in the same day. I think this focus made me hyper-aware of every word I was using, of every phrase I was creating in English. I will admit that with some past projects, I get into a groove in which I can work the whole night through with enough coffee and when I read the text the following day, there are entire paragraphs that I can’t remember translating. It’s like an out-of-body experience. In contrast, I can remember very specific things regarding the days on which I translated certain chapters from The Man Who Loved Dogs, like phone calls I took or things that were happening on the street outside my window.

I spent a fair amount of time wandering through Ramón Mercader’s Paris—the Montparnasse cemetery in winter, the bar at the Ritz, the street where his apartment supposedly was—and just soaking that in.

Guernica: Describe the overall process of translating The Man Who Loved Dogs.

Anna Kushner: I read the book [in Spanish] and immediately fell in love with it. I was already a fan of Padura’s previous work and considered him one of our great contemporary authors. But this book just felt like it had to be “mine” for some reason. I don’t know if it is because it brought together my personal interests in the Spanish Civil War, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and of course, my own history with Cuba, or if it was some other quality that would be harder to pinpoint. Regardless, after reading it, I didn’t get down to actually translating it, but spent a lot of time pitching it and myself as its future translator, thinking about what else I would need to know to successfully translate the book and doing additional reading about Trotsky, for example. From the time I actually translated the first full chapter until I had gone through all edits and revisions, two years or so elapsed. In my down time between handing in a first draft of the book and getting back editorial suggestions, I was living in Paris. I spent a fair amount of time wandering through Ramón Mercader’s Paris—the Montparnasse cemetery in winter, the bar at the Ritz, the street where his apartment supposedly was—and just soaking that in. That Paris phase of his life was so innocent in a way. He had moments in which he was still Ramón Mercader, thinking and reading about the events unfolding back in Spain, and not just a trained assassin. Perhaps I was in search of that lost innocence.

Guernica: What was the most challenging aspect of translating the book (besides its length)?

Anna Kushner: The length wasn’t the biggest challenge. It was the fact that there were three distinct voices in the book. Padura’s original Spanish makes it very easy to read a paragraph or two at random and quickly determine whether you are in one of the chapters about Trotsky, about Mercader, or about Iván Cárdenas. While good writing obviously facilitates my work as a translator, I had to be very careful about making sure that in my translation, the same distinction was true.

Guernica: What’s your favorite sentence in The Man Who Loved Dogs and why?

Anna Kushner:

Tras el mostrador del bar estaba el espejo más largo, impoluto y preciso que Ramón Mercader recordaría en su vida.

Behind the bar’s counter was the longest, cleanest, and most precise mirror Ramón Mercader would see in his whole life.

This is in chapter 17. Mercader has already served as a solder in the Spanish Civil War, been recruited by the Soviets for an unspecified task and had undergone rigorous physical and psychological training in the Soviet Union. He had also attended a Moscow show trial while there. In this chapter, he just arrived in Paris and is on the verge of meeting Sylvia Ageloff, who will be his connection to the Trotskyite circles he needs to get close to Trotsky himself. I like it because it goes back to that innocence and possibility in Mercader’s Parisian days. I like how visual it is. And, from a creative standpoint, I admire how Padura was able to take that image of the mirror to say so much about Mercader’s private thoughts and attitude.

Any act of translation is personal, for me, at least. You can feel whether there is chemistry or not when you start to work with a text.

Guernica: To what extent did you work with Padura on the translation?

Anna Kushner: My collaboration with Padura was limited to clarifying certain concepts and verifying things here and there over the phone and by email. We didn’t meet in person until he was in New York earlier this week. His writing is so clear and visual (he also writes screenplays) [that] there were rarely instances where I couldn’t make heads or tails of something. And, I had a great network of people whom I could ask specific questions about things like transliterating Cyrillic terms into English or the distinction between one kind of weapon and another, so I tried not to bother him with issues like these.

Guernica: Any thoughts on the recent profile of Padura in The New Yorker?

Anna Kushner: I would have loved to have written it. But, if someone else was going to write it, I am glad it was Jon Lee Anderson.

Guernica: Your family is Cuban and you’ve have translated other books by Cuban authors. Do you see your translation work as a way to preserve family legacy? A political statement?

Anna Kushner: Neither. I have travelled to Cuba with my daughter and taught her to speak Spanish to preserve family legacy, but I translate Cuban authors because I connect with them on some level. Any act of translation is personal, for me, at least. You can feel whether there is chemistry or not when you start to work with a text. For whatever reason, I’ve felt this chemistry with a larger number of Cuban authors than with authors from other countries. But I have translated non-Cuban authors and in fact, recently, have been trying to drum up interest in an Argentine author whose book I’d like to translate. Perhaps if I spoke Bulgarian, I’d have translated a large number of Bulgarian authors, who knows?

Guernica: What are your guiding principles when you’re translating?

Anna Kushner: I try to work with books I truly love. If I don’t feel passionate about something the first time I read it, chances are I will hate the text by the time I’ve read it 8 or 9 or 10 times. I feel fortunate to have been able to follow my own guiding principle thus far. A perfect example is the fact that I flew to Lisbon about a year & a half ago to do a reading with author Gonçalo Tavares. The only book I had brought with me was his novel Jerusalem, which I translated and was planning to use for our event. I arrived first thing in the morning for an evening program. I settled into an outdoor café on the Chiado for some pasteis de nata [Portuguese egg tart pastry] and coffee and proceeded to read his entire book, in my own translation, while I sat there. I could have easily stood up and walked to any of the many bookstores or newsstands in the area immediately surrounding the café to buy something else, but I was hooked by Jerusalem all over again.

It’s also a profession that lends itself to the judgment that all you have to be able to do to translate is speak another language. That would be like saying that anyone who speaks anything at all can sit down and write compelling prose.

Guernica: What languages did you grow up speaking? What languages have you studied? Do your husband and daughter speak languages besides English? Are there any other languages you’d still like to learn?

Anna Kushner: I grew up speaking Spanish and started learning French when I was about 10 years old. My parents signed me up for a class then and also made me watch a lot of “French in Action” at home. In high school, I continued studying French and had the good fortune of studying Spanish grammar with a teacher who had also taught Latin. He made us do verb drills and was amazing at explaining the reasons for verb tenses that I had only understood intuitively until then. Another high school Spanish teacher had me reading El Quijote. I learned Portuguese after college. My husband, who speaks Spanish quite well, and I signed up for a class together when we were living in Boston, where there’s a large Portuguese-speaking community. We both had always thought it was a beautiful-sounding language and had a great time renting telenovela videos imported straight from Brazil at specialized stores in Boston. “O Clone” was the big telenovela at the time, a very imaginative drama that would take longer than one interview to summarize. I later went to Brazil through a graduate school program and have since kept up the language in various ways. I’ve also formally studied German, Italian, and Russian at different points along the way. I can get by as a tourist in those languages, but that’s about it. There are many languages I would still like to learn, but life is short. My daughter speaks Spanish, English, and French, and as she reminded me last night, she knows how to say “strawberry” in Italian. She claims to understand Portuguese, but I don’t think she realizes that my Brazilian friends actually speak to her in Portuñol [mixture of Portuguese and Spanish]. Nonetheless, I am happy that she seems to have the same love of languages that I do.

Guernica: How did you become a translator of literary fiction?

Anna Kushner: It was somewhat accidental at the beginning. I was helping to sell the book of an author I knew personally and whom I wanted to see succeed in the English-language market. I thought that when a contract was signed, another translator would be hired. No, they wanted me! From there, I started pursuing other book projects and here I am, several translated novels later.

Guernica: What do you see as the essential qualities necessary to be a translator? What do you see as the greatest challenges of being a translator?

Anna Kushner: A translator needs to have a great deal of patience, both to read the same text over and over and to handle the intense editing process. Translators are mostly invisible, though this has been changing a bit lately due to some very vocal translators and organizations like Words Without Borders. Books are often reviewed or featured without a mention of the translator or even the fact that the book has been translated, as if every global author magically writes their books in English. It’s also a profession that lends itself to the judgment that all you have to be able to do to translate is speak another language. That would be like saying that anyone who speaks anything at all can sit down and write compelling prose.

Guernica: Who are some of your favorite translators and why?

Anna Kushner: Gregory Rabassa, who translated two books I’ve read over and over in both Spanish and English: One Hundred Years of Solitude and Hopscotch. His translations are so flawless that when I recall certain passages, my mind makes no distinction between whether I originally read the words in English or Spanish. I just remember Cortázar or García Márquez’s voices. I can’t say this about every translation I’ve read where I am familiar with the original as well. In addition to being a genius with words, cadence and reproducing an author’s voice, I also view Rabassa as the midwife, if you will, for so many authors who became well-known (and deservedly so) to an English-speaking audience. If one has never read a Latin American author, I would recommend beginning by pulling up a list of everything Rabassa has ever translated. I admire Ann Goldstein, who translates Elena Ferrante into English, although I don’t know much about her personally. I love her translations of Ferrante’s work and am grateful for them because it takes me a very long time to read even one page of text in Italian. Robert Fagles is another favorite. His translation of The Odyssey just sings. I looked at various translations of The Odyssey into Spanish, French, and English before I settled in with his because it immediately grabbed me. And finally, I am in awe of the dynamic translation duo Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky. The idea of collaborative translation is fascinating to me to begin with, but however it works on the technical side, they’re doing it right. I am finally reading Russian novels that I was never able to finish in prior translations thanks to Pevear and Volohonsky.

Guernica: What’s the last good book you read? Who are some of your favorite authors?

Anna Kushner: I’ve been on a French [author] kick lately. I spent the fall reading several books by Marguerite Duras. I just finished Justine Lévy’s “Rien de grave” recently after having devoured her novel Mauvaise Fille last year (both available in English translation, no thanks to me). Opinions on her are mixed in France, but there’s something about her voice that is so raw and honest to me. I find it refreshing. I read “Rien de grave” in a day and a half. I spent another day and half obsessively combing the Internet for news about the actual events she described in that book, which is a fictionalization of the end of her first marriage. Besides ones I have translated, some of my other favorite authors are Elena Ferrante (as I mentioned), Gioconda Belli, Gary Shteyngart, Francisco Goldman, Javier Marías, Antonio Tabucchi (read in translation), Stefan Zweig (also in translation), and always, to this day, Sylvia Plath.

Guernica: What’s the state of the marketplace for literary translators in today’s publishing environment?

Anna Kushner: Not that great, but I hear the same from writers. The American publishing industry is experiencing many challenges right now.

Guernica: What projects are you working on now? Any dream projects for the future?

Anna Kushner: I just translated a fabulous story by Jorge Enrique Lage for an upcoming issue of
McSweeney’s. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the reaction of U.S. readers will be to that piece. I’m trying to work on some of my own writing projects right now, but it would be a dream to translate another book of Padura’s. His latest novel is incredible. I’m also a great, great admirer of Europa Editions. Publishing anything with them would be dreamy.

Guernica: What do you see as the greatest reward of being a translator?

Anna Kushner: I read and think and read some more for a living. My 15-year-old self would be quite happy with the way my life turned out.

Anna Kushner translates from Spanish, French, and Portuguese. She is the translator of the books Leapfrog and The Halfway House (New Directions Paperbook)
by Guillermo Rosales (New Directions),
The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes (W.W. Norton), Jerusalem (Portuguese Literature Series) by Gonçalo Tavares (Dalkey Archive), and The Man Who Loved Dogs: A Novel by Leonardo Padura (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Her writing has appeared in Dzanc Books Best of the Web 2008, The Bucks County Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Ep;phany, and Wild River Review.

Keith Meatto is a writer, teacher, and editor living in Brooklyn. His previous pieces for Guernica are the essay Seven Ways of Looking at the Great Gatsby and an interview with poet Gina Myers; his other publications include The Millions, The Forward, and The New York Times. A Yale College graduate with an MFA from the New School, he teaches writing at LIM College and Marymount Manhattan College and is Editor in Chief of the arts journal Frontier Psychiatrist.

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