Art Talk with Translation Fellow Kathleen Heil

By Emily Perry
Headshot of a woman with curly hair
Kathleen Heil in Berlin, July 2015. Photo by Kathleen Heil

The NEA recently announced $275,000 in recommended grants to support translation projects in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Kathleen Heil is one of the 20 2016 NEA Literature Translation Fellows. Her grant will support the translation of a collection of Spanish short stories titled The World Without People Who Ruin It and Make It Ugly by Patricio Pron. A native of Argentina and current resident of Madrid, Spain, Pron was named one of the best young contemporary writers in Spanish by Granta in 2010. The story collection explores life in Germany through the eyes of a dynamic cast of characters. Heil is herself an accomplished author, having just completed her MFA in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville and has published numerous poems, stories, essays, and translations.

We spoke with Heil about the contract of trust that binds translators and living authors, the reasons why this story collection captivated her, and the importance of creating equivalent effect in translation.

NEA: How did you first become interested in the field of literary translation?

HEIL: I was living in Madrid, Spain and teaching English, and also doing a master's degree in creative writing that was taught in Spanish. One summer I took a class at an art space called La Casa Encendida. The author Patricio Pron was teaching a class there called “Formas y Reglas del Cuento,” which can be translated as “forms and norms of the short story,” and I met him and found out about his work. Then, I suppose it was maybe two years later, I made the decision to go back to the States and do an MFA there. I found out about the University of Arkansas' wonderful program which is unique in that, of the several hundred MFA programs in the U.S. in creative writing, [few] actually encompass literary translation as part of the creative writing practice. After returning to the States with [Spanish] language skills, I knew I wanted to gain a better understanding of what that was. Though I had done some commercial translation, I had never done any literary translation prior to beginning the MFA program at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville. So, I'm really indebted to the university and to that program for the instruction I received there. 

NEA: Why do you think it's important to support literary translation? 

HEIL: I think it's fundamental, especially in a country like the United States where literary translation is often misunderstood—and when it's not misunderstood, it's perhaps not considered at all. I don't think I'm unique in the regard that many of the authors I grew up reading and loving and continue to read and love are authors I read in translation. In 2015 in a globalized society, the opportunity to read languages that we don't have fluent access to is facilitated by literary translators. They're actual human beings doing this work, undertaking the craft and art of literary translation, and it is indeed an art. When we're creating, we're having to think about the same things that the authors are having to think about when they're creating the original text—rhythm, speed, elegance of syntax, and punctuation. These are all considerations that go into giving the reader an experience that's, depending on the text, a pleasurable one, or certainly one that provokes thought and engagement with the art form. 

NEA: Is there a particular piece of literature in translation that you couldn't live without and why? 

HEIL: That's difficult for a writer. I'll say this, there's an Israeli author who's living and has published maybe ten books in Hebrew, but she's only had two books translated into English. Her name is Gail Hareven and her translator is Dayla Bilu. I remember reading a short story of hers in The New Yorker and being completely stunned by it and then looking for her work in book form. Melville House did the first book of hers that was translated, and Open Letter did another book of hers last year. It's remarkable and wonderful to be able to have access to these works. Another author I think of is Sergei Dovlatov who is also very near and dear to me—apart from obviously many Italian and Spanish writers that I was reading before I acquired these languages, and colleagues and mentors-- whom I greatly admire and whose work I also am in utter awe of. So, those are two authors who aren't particularly well-known I think, to English-language readers.

NEA: What drew you to this translation project in particular? 

HEIL: It was strange in that I took a class with this author on a whim. I had actually finished my degree program in Spain and wanted to just be in some sort of environment that had to do with literature. At the time I didn't know Patricio Pron's work, although he was already quite well-known in Spanish language letters. I think it was about a year later or so that I read his story collection El mundo sin las personas que lo afean y lo arruinan, which this NEA grant will facilitate me translating stories from, and I was just stunned by it. It was something that I literally inhaled in three days. I think it's very rare for a book in any language, much less one which is not your mother tongue, like Spanish is for me, to have a book speak to you in a way, which feels like there's no mediation. It really felt like the text was communicating to me directly. I think even when we read English language books, that's a quite unusual experience. It's not every book that's going to touch us that deeply or speak to us that closely, and this book did that to me in Spanish. I felt like I could really hear the rhythms and understand the humor that the text was communicating, and the pathos, and the incredible compassion and anger and fear. All of this was done with incredible intelligence, but without condescension; with incredible humanity, despite the fact that a lot of the stories are dealing with very dark themes.

All of the stories are in some way related to or set in Germany, which is where the author resided for almost ten years. He took his PhD at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and it's not a country I had a terrible degree of familiarity with. I had maybe traveled in my early 20s as a backpacker and visited friends, but I didn't necessarily have a whole lot of context. Despite that, his stories really touched me and moved me. In a strange case of life imitating art, I'm actually now living in Germany. Just weeks before I found out about the NEA grant, I moved to Berlin, which is where I'm living now.

NEA: How do you think the experience of living in Madrid and now Germany will aid you in this translation project?

HEIL: I'll be able to have greater cultural understanding of the place and places that the author wrote about living here. I don't want to say that’s fundamental, in the sense that a translator who's translating an author from 150 years ago doesn't have a time machine, but I always want to try to understand as much as I can, and be as curious as possible. I think great writers give a translator everything she needs in the text, but if that translator doesn't have a sense of the cultural context it's coming out of, it's going to be really tricky to do a good job. In fact there have been one or two times when I've thought about doing some Portuguese translation projects. I read Brazilian Portuguese just fine, but I've never been to Brazil, so until I spend at least a little bit of time there, I don't feel so comfortable translating from the language. Even if I can read and understand it, for me that's different than being in a place and understanding the particularities of what's there. Living in Europe, I'm familiar with little things, that certainly internet searches can and do help with, and I've used them when I've needed them, but being able to have personal context with the author—I see Patricio regularly, usually about once a year—and being able to have a personal context with a culture allow me to more fully inhabit my role as artist and translator when I'm doing a work.

NEA: What responsibilities do you think a translator has when sharing an author's work in a different language particularly when the author is still alive? Is feedback from the original author more of an asset or a challenge to you as a translator? 

HEIL: I'm really lucky to work with Patricio because, not only is his English excellent, but he's also done translations. He's fluent in German, he wrote his PhD in German, and he speaks and reads multiple languages. He gives me a lot of room and freedom to make the decisions I need to make to represent his work well which is a sign, I think, of an author who's confident and who has endowed me with a lot of trust, for which I'm grateful. That's the thing about the relationship with a living author that's different than a dead author. With a dead author or an author who's not so much in contact, the question of trust is not really as important or possible. When you're working with someone whose work is alive, it does become a collaboration in the sense that there's a contract, an emotional contract that's built around trust. I think that takes time. Certainly when I did my first translation or two, Patricio was more involved and had some questions, either where there were gaps in my knowledge of the Spanish or gaps in his knowledge of the English. Then, as I did more work, he came to understand what I was doing, and I came to understand what he was doing, and we both [became] more confident and more trusting. Now, I can work from a place where I know I can make the decisions I need to represent the work well.

I'll give a concrete example. We just published a Vintage Short e-book with Knopf Doubleday in celebration of National Short Story Month of Patricio’s short stories from his collection called The Peculiar State. Curiously enough, [it was] published right before I moved to Berlin, and the bulk of the story takes place in Berlin. In one of the scenes, one of the characters walks into a Starbucks and orders something, and in the Spanish, there's this joke about everything ordered being “extra-large.” I debated about what to do about that, because I knew that, for a North American reader, irrespective of the location of the Starbucks, they would know about the absurd sizing Starbucks has. For American readers, maybe it would maybe pull them out of the story as they stopped to scratch their head and ask, "Are the sizes different there?” or, “Why is it not tall, grande, venti?” It would interrupt the flow of the story because suddenly the reader is asking questions about the culture rather than about the characters. So, what I wound up doing, was keeping the context the same, but making a joke around the Starbucks names. It became a joke, rather than being about American largess, more about the privatization of “corporatese” and size names. There's no such thing as literal translation, as any literary translator will tell you, but one also must bear in mind the cultural context of the readers receiving this story, in addition to the literal meaning of the words.  It's great of Patricio that he had enough confidence in me and trusted me with that decision. You do have to be careful because you never want to feel like you're dumbing things down or making things comfortable for your reader. I think of translation as always creating the equivalent effect. So, an equivalent effect in this case would not be pulling the reader out of the story to ask questions about sizes. The equivalent effect is keeping them inside the story, and that was what I was trying to do.

NEA: If you had to pitch this book of short stories to American readers, what would you say about it? 

HEIL: There's a tremendous compassion for the characters from these stories. They're dealing with the consequences of the historical realities of 20th century which of course have ramifications, not just for Germany but have ramifications for everyone worldwide. What's really exciting about this collection is, not only are they just great stories, in the way Chekov's stories are great—they’re tender, they're funny, they're sad, they're true, they're subtle, they're smart—but they're also an engagement with the form of the short story itself. There's a bit of a meta-investigation about the status of the short story—its meaning in contemporary society, its ability to communicate and touch readers, and its modalities and the limits of those. There is also this really interesting expansion of and engagement with the short story form itself. I think it's pretty rare to find authors who can do both of those things and do them well. You have John Barth, from the 70s doing the meta stuff really well, and you have writers like Alice Monroe who were Chekov's heirs without a doubt. Maybe Foster Wallace was the other writer who was able to do both. [He was] a writer who could really get at what it is to be human and not turn away from that in all its fullness and all its messiness and all its pain and all its glory, but also can really engage with and push at the limits of the form he's working within to communicate that at the same time. The story collection does both of those things, and I think that's awesome. A writer who can do both of those things is I think, pretty freakin' rare. So, if you want to see someone who's doing this and doing this well, and is an heir to that rarified tradition, pick up Patricio Pron's stories. Also the title is fantastic: The World Without People Who Ruin It and Make It Ugly.

NEA: How have your translation projects affected your work as a writer and vice-versa? 

HEIL: I think there is both consciously and not a lot of overlap in information that's being transmitted in [my] process. Writing translations makes me a better poet, and writing poetry makes me a better short story writer. Writing good short stories makes me a better translator, and certainly reading within the European tradition of fiction has helped me understand how to translate long, clause heavy phrases without doing a hatchet job on them and breaking them up into smaller sentences. It is true in the North American tradition to a certain degree, maybe more within the MFA culture, that there's a tendency to favor short sentences with periods. In Europe, you often have what would considered comma splices in English or nonstandard usage, parataxis and hypotaxis to use two technical terms. That richness of that tradition was used by Faulkner, Henry James and obviously Foster. So, I think being aware of that tradition for the way that Patricio writes, has been really useful for me. His own prose style favors that kind of clause-heavy unspooling. The challenge for me as translator of these stories has been and will continue to be to embody that grace, the grace with which he writes in Spanish and English and to carry that light over. 

NEA: Art Matters because … 

HEIL: Without it we wouldn't survive. I think art and art making is fundamental to human experience and how we make sense of our experience and make it worthwhile and worth living. It's both a commentary on and an embodiment of and a celebration of being alive and being human. I'm so grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts and to this fellowship to facilitate this work and to share Patricio's stories with American readers and Anglophone readers, so thank you. I'm just really, glad that the NEA recognizes the importance of literary translation. As I said, even in 2015, you'll still often see in nationally respected publications, book reviews of books in translation where the translator is never mentioned and the fact of translation is blurred and erased. I think the more that we translators can act as advocates for our art and craft and help educate audiences about the importance of literary translation, the less that will happen. I really appreciate the National Endowment for the Arts’ effort in contributing to that and solidifying that by facilitating translations, not only my own, but my other colleagues this year, and of course in past years as well.