Art Talk with NEA Literature Translation Fellow Layla Benitez-James

By Carolyn Coons

Photo by Reggie James

When poet Layla Benitez-James began translating Daughter of the Road by Lucía Asué Mbomío Rubio, she couldn’t believe it would be the first novel by a Black Spanish woman writer to be translated into English. But the more she and her co-translator Lawrence Schimel researched, the more certain she became that was true.

Benitez-James was recently named a 2022 NEA Literature Fellow and will use the $10,000 award, split with her co-translator, to support her work translating the novel, which tells the story of a young mixed race Black woman, Sandra, born and raised in Madrid. The story follows Sandra as she struggles with not feeling white enough to be Spanish and develops a deeper sense of her AfroEuropean identity through travel – first to France, then to the United Kingdom, and finally, Equatorial Guinea.

Like its main character, the novel’s author Mbomío Rubio is of Spanish and Equatorial Guinean descent. Prior to writing Daughter of the Road, Mbomío Rubio published a book of short stories set during the final years of Spanish colonization of Equatorial Guinea. She is a notable journalist as well, and in 2020 was recognized for her reporting with an Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España’s (APDHE) Communication and Human Rights Prize.

Benitez-James said she was drawn to Daughter of the Road because of Mbomío Rubio’s excellent writing, but also because she felt a connection to Sandra, with whom she shares many similar experiences, like study abroad. From her home in Alicante, Spain, Benitez-James discussed what the novel means to her, how her poetry background informs her translation work, and what it’s like working with a co-translator.

NEA: What drew you to translation as a creative practice?

Layla Benitez-James: It’s a hard question. I started as a poet, and I realized even before I took my first translation workshop, I was interested in translation just as an abstract concept. In my undergraduate creative writing thesis, I remember in the introduction I wrote a lot about the tower of Babel. I love that story and just this idea that putting things into translation, sharing stories, is something that’s so powerful that God wanted to scatter all people so that they wouldn’t be so powerful. I had this idea that it was this really kind of transgressive act and something that was really exciting.

My love for literature and reading segued me to translation, before I ever thought of doing it on my own. I really loved Don Quixote, and I remember reading in it this really great description of translation – that it’s like seeing a tapestry from the other side. It’s a mess and people are always saying it’s impossible. There’s just something that’s really fun and almost punk about translation to me, that it’s this impossible thing and yet we do it anyway.

NEA: Do you think your background as a poet is an asset in your translation work?

Benitez-James: Absolutely. A lot of people with other writing backgrounds make for great translators, but I think there’s something about poetry and the idea that a poet will revise a ten-line poem over and over again for hours that makes you really attuned to the time that you need to spend with translation. Thinking about line breaks and the weight of each word is really helpful. That love of sound and language is helpful, especially when I’m working on prose.

NEA: As far as we know, Daughter of the Road would be the first book to be translated by a Black woman writer from Spain. What is the significance of that for you?

Benitez-James: Something that’s been really inspiring to me is just this idea of sharing more stories of the diaspora. The U.S. looms really large in a lot of these conversations about race, but there’s just so many threads and so many stories from the rest of the world. It struck me that through four years of undergrad and then three years of grad school I didn’t read a single Black author in translation. Never mind from Spain, but just anyone. I read so many amazing things and I just think about, with the important role that books have played in my life, “Man, what if I had gotten a novel like this at, you know, 19 or as an undergrad?” The idea of making it available to younger readers is really, really exciting to me.

I was helping organize a reading series for a few years in Madrid and a poet whom I just love, Phillip B. Williams, came. It was his first trip to Europe and his first trip to Spain. I remember walking around with him in Madrid and he said, “There are so many Black people here. I had no idea,” and I was, like, “Yeah, I didn’t either.” I feel like I had the same reaction the first time that I went to Paris, as well. I was just stunned by what a diverse place it was. I feel getting more novels like this into the English-speaking world, it will allow people to have a better concept and a better idea of what different cities are like and what different countries are like.

NEA: You mentioned Don Quixote being one of the books in translation you’ve read that’s been really impactful. Are there any other lesser known titles that you think are essential for English speakers to seek out?

Benitez-James: Ooh, yeah! Actually, one that comes to mind is also [my co-translator] Lawrence’s work. It’s called La Bastarda. They kept the title in Spanish just so that it still has that feminine register. That’s by Trifonia Melibea Obono who’s from Equatorial Guinea. I know that one was the first novel by a woman from Equatorial Guinea to be published in English. It’s also the story of a young girl, and it takes on all these themes of her growing up and understanding her queer identity.

Another one that I really loved from Italian is called Beyond Babylon, and it’s by Igiaba Scego. It was translated by another NEA Literature Fellow, Aaron Robertson. That one has some very dark themes, but it’s also really funny.

I’ve actually been in contact with Aaron Robertson and another [NEA Literature Fellow] Aaron Coleman about forming a collective of Black translators. We’ve had a meeting and, hopefully, we’ll meet again soon. We’re talking about what further support could be organized for that kind of collective. We’re thinking about something like Cave Canem but for translators. That’s been in the works, and I’m really excited about that, just thinking about [Daughter of the Road] being one of the first books of its kind and hoping that it opens the door for many more.

NEA: You mentioned your co-translator, Lawrence Schimel. How will your collaboration on this project work?

Benitez-James: The way we’re going to tackle the novel is to divide it up, so each of us have two chapters at a time. So, I’ll translate a rough draft of Chapters One and Two, give it to [Lawrence], and then he’ll give me back feedback and notes and make track changes. Then we have a Zoom call and hash out everything, because he lives in Madrid.

NEA: Oh, wow. That’s fascinating. With translation you obviously have to be faithful to the text, but there is some creativity involved – interpretation. How does that work with another translator in the mix?

Benitez-James: It’s just like having a creative writing workshop with two people. Because, on one layer, there’s like the literal what’s going on. And then there are layers of what literary devices they’re using or the tone. Like, is this character supposed to sound really formal? Or are they supposed to sound really informal? It’s really, really helpful to have a co-translator to bounce ideas off of. And especially thinking about, how would a young person say this? How would an older person say this? I remember we had a little bit of the back and forth about when Sandra is having a conversation with her father. Like, “Oh, no, that’s not how a dad would say it.”

It’s so helpful to bounce ideas off of somebody… because I have a very strong inner critic and a very strong inner editor. Sometimes when I’m trying to make a first draft of a translation alone, it takes a long time, because I’m not allowing it to be messy. And, really, a first translation pass should be really messy. The teamwork aspect of it is really helpful, because I can try to make a pass and put four different words, like synonyms, with dashes and then send it to Lawrence, and he can say, “Yeah, this one.”

NEA: Lucía Asué Mbomío Rubio is a living and working writer. Have you had the chance to meet her or discuss the project with her?

Benitez-James: I’ve not met her in person yet, but it’s such a gift to be working on a living author’s work, because we’ll be able to ask her questions. She’s very, very excited about the project going forward, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to meet her in person soon. Right now, we are in communication via email and text, but we haven’t actually asked her anything about the novel so far. We were going to wait until we get to the draft stage. I’m hoping that with some of the time and space the [NEA Literature Fellowship] is giving me, I’ll actually be able to book a week or so to get up to Madrid and be able to both do edits with Lawrence in-person and also meet with Lucia to go over any questions that we have with her.

It’s exciting, because the novel has also been picked up by Netflix in Spain. I’m sure she’s going to have a lot of interesting things to share about it. That’s almost like a different translation project. It’s being translated into film at the same time it’s being translated into English.

NEA: You just touched on this, but how will the NEA’s support help you in executing this project?

Benitez-James: Oh, man. So many ways. I’m a freelance translator and a freelance writer, and my husband’s been doing full-time childcare since the pandemic. I just can’t stress enough how much time is of the essence; so much time goes into planning my next work projects and organizing that and just the nuts and bolts of organizing a freelance life. Having the NEA’s support, I know that I can block off some months just for the novel and that I can get a momentum going and be working on the novel every day. It’s helpful with a translation project to be able to get in the world and really get into people’s voices and to have it just be a part of your everyday versus juggling back and forth between different projects.

There’s also just a really incredible confidence boost that comes with that kind of recognition. I know when it was announced, I was looking at all the other names and the other projects and then just the history of looking at who else has done interviews with the NEA. You see names [on the NEA blog] like Toni Morrison and Cornelius Eady, and to have my work among those works is an indescribable boost.

Part of it is a very literal, “This buys me time and the ability to travel.” Then part of it is just that spiritual level of, “Yes, this is what I’m meant to be doing.”