George Henson on the Linguistic Puzzle of Translating Sergio Pitol's The Art of Flight

George Henson first heard rumors of a man interested in starting a translation publishing house in Dallas about two years ago. Henson was teaching Spanish at the University of Texas at Dallas and working toward a PhD in Humanities with an emphasis on literary and translation studies. He reached out to Open Letter Books, where this alleged language-maniac was apprenticing and he found an ambitious, mustachioed man by the name of Will Evans. Henson pitched Evans the idea to publish the long overdue translation of Mexican author Sergio Pitol's The Art of Flight. Evans said yes on the spot. Of course, Deep Vellum Publishing didn't launch until a year or so later and the book didn't hit shelves until, well, yesterday, March 17, 2015.

The Art of Flight (or El Arte de la Fuga), Pitol's first book to make it into English, is far from his freshman novel. A recipient of the prestigious Cervantes Prize in 2005, Pitol is one of the country's greatest living authors. This a series of essays that serves as a sort of experimental memoir. (It's the first in a trilogy, all of which Deep Vellum is committed to publishing with Henson as translator.) An author known for questioning the limitations of language, Pitol uses The Art of Flight to chronicle his young life, offering critical analysis along the way of the books that have affected his life. He swirls together memories with poetic reflection, in a way that feels at home in America's memoir culture, but without this obsession with nonfiction. Pitol seems far more interested in playing with language and metaphor, the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, which is where Henson's role becomes pivotal. We chatted with Henson about translation, language and Pitol.

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It seems to me that translation is its own art form. After all, you're not just translating word for word, right? There are different schools of thought. There is literal translation. There's this whole question of fidelity and faithfulness. What are you faithful to? Are you faithful to the ideas, the words. I kind of come down in the middle. Some would argue against literal translation and what I do is not literal. There is also a dichotomy in translation, it's called domestication and foreignization. Domesticated translation erases everything foreign from the text in varying degrees. There's extreme domestication, you would change the names to English names. No one really does that anymore, although ironically Mexico has a really long history of Hipanisizing author or characters' names. For example in the The Metamorphosis the protagonist's name is Gregor Samsa. They change it to Gregorio. That would be considered extreme domestication.

In foreignization, you try to leave as many foreign elements in the text as possible. You would certainly leave all the proper names, place names. But you might also leave a word in the original. If you come across a word in this text that's italicized, it means it's a Spanish word I've decided to leave in the text and you can either understand it in context or you can explicate it, which means the translator has to intervene in the text to explain it without making it look like it's being explained.

Obviously it can't be word for word, because obviously Spanish has a different word order. Not that different, but there are some things you have to change because you don't want to throw the reader out of the text. It's a balancing act. I really believe in being more faithful. I don't want to change any more than I have.

How does that show up in The Art of Flight? One of the things Pitol does is write in a very circuitous way. He puts lots of parentheticals, he uses lots of commas, which is all a little strange for Spanish too, so that strangeness needs to be able to come through in the English. That uniqueness needs to come through. A lot of publishers want translated books to read as though they were written in English. I think it's a backhanded compliment to say a translated book reads as though it were written in English. Pitol is known for his writing style, and if I intervene too much it doesn't retain his writing style.

Can you give us an example where you had to make a translating decision? We can start with the title. In Spanish it's El Arte de la Fuga. Fuga means at least two things, well a lot more, but what he's doing here is playing on the ambiguity of the word, because it means "Fugue" as in a musical fugue. The title in Spanish is actually a play on a composition by Bach; but it also means flight as in escape. He's intentionally playing on that ambiguity. That doesn't exist in English. So I had to make a decision, and that's what translation is about, it's constantly about making decisions. You're constantly confronted with options. I had to decide which is more important: fugue or flight? And because for the majority of his life he was really on a flight, he lived almost 30 years abroad. There's a portion in the book where he says his life has been a constant "art of flight" and there he uses the word "fuga" to mean flight. In that particular essay he's talking about running away. Which is why that became the more important meaning to me. And of course, people are already taking me to task.

Really? People are saying you picked the wrong meaning in the title? Oh, yeah. People love to take the translator to task. The translator gets blamed for everything and gets credit for nothing.

I think that's something you have in common with journalists.

When you're making decisions like that do you also consider the culture it's being translated into? After all, it seems like more than fugue, flight or this idea of escapism is something English speakers understand more easily. You certainly have to take culture into consideration, because you're not just translating language, you're translating culture. Like with idioms or metaphors. Certain idioms just aren't universal. This morning I was talking to one of my colleagues who's from Turkey and I used the expression "To kill two birds with one stone," and she said, "We say that in Turkish as well." And it means the same thing. When you're translating metaphors or idiomatic expressions, you have to stop and find out what work the metaphor is doing. You can try to find an equivalent. Or you can say that the metaphor has value in and of itself, and if you translate it literally will it still do the work that an English metaphor can do? Most people think figurative language can't be translating literally, but sometimes it can. We translate literature to enrich our culture with other experiences. If you find an English equivalent for everything, you're not enriching anything. You're not enriching the English language by translating everything literally, and you don't necessarily enrich the language or the culture if you find an equivalent for the metaphor.

Can you give us an example in this book? He uses a metaphor that I didn't even know in Spanish. It's a very old metaphor. It is, "To put a pike in Flanders." I had to do some research. I knew when I read it that it was a metaphor, so I did some research. It dates back to 16th century Spain. Flanders are the lowcountry, and it actually for a while belonged to Spain. And they were fighting for independence from Spain. Spain is trying to keep them from becoming independent; they eventually become independent. And the Spanish military campaign was very difficult, they had to travel the coast and they could never penetrate the mainland. So to put a pike -- a pike is a military pole, think of Flemish painting, these long spikes -- is that it was almost an impossible feat. I could've modernized it, "Climbing Mt. Everest." But I decided that was too cliché, and I didn't want to modernize it. I decided to translate it literally.

You mentioned earlier that people have reviewed translation. It doesn't seem fair to me to review a translated book unless you've read both. If you're reviewing a book that's been translated, they're always obligated to talk about the translation. And if they write they don't think the translation is good, they have nothing to base that on. If the writing is clunky in Spanish, then you can't complain when it's clunky in English. Which of course, Pitol is not at all. But he uses commas, language and parentheticals in ways that might read oddly in English, just like they do in Spanish.

Because Pitol is a living author, did you consult with him on any parts of the book? Different writers want to be involved to varying degrees. Some writers will say, it's your project; some writers are happy to let you email them. Everyone I've translated is living, so I've been able to email them with questions. I wasn't able to collaborate with Pitol at all. But I worked with some of my friends who are writers in Spanish and English, and they helped me work through some of the passages that were more difficult, usually because those same passages are strange and difficult in their native language. My job is not to explain him, because he wants the reader to do the work.

Do you still think in English? Not when I'm working in Spanish. Which is actually sometimes more difficult. It's important for fluency, but it can get in my way when I'm translating. As I'm reading something, it will make sense in my brain, but I, as a translator, have to make it make sense in English. You're really multitasking your brain.

What are the steps? The first thing I do is sight translation. I'm sitting and translating as I read, and that is necessarily going to be clunky. But once I get it down on paper, I go back and I have to decide what words need to be moved around. You have to work on the syntactical level, you have to work on the lexical level. And Pitol pushes the limits of syntax, and the limits of figurative language, and even just words in general.

For example? Sometimes he would use two words together that have never been used that way before. I would even Google search and find he's the only person in the world who's ever used certain words certain ways. And if he's doing something that novel in Spanish, I'm obligated to do something that novel in English.

Phew. Here's a final softball question. What's it been like to work with Deep Vellum? Will Evans is like the Energizer bunny, just going and going and going. And he has done far more than anyone expected him to.

Join translator George Henson for a celebration of Sergio Pitol's first English language book and the author's 82nd birthday at 7 p.m. Wednesday at The Wild Detectives (314 W. 8th St.); free.