Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne, Australia. He has translated contemporary authors including Daniel Sada, Hernán Ronsino and Matías Celedón, and his work has been recognised by English PEN. He is based in Nashville, TN, where he is an MFA Candidate in fiction at Vanderbilt University. Sam's most recent translation for Scribe is The Winterlings, by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade.
Scribe asked Sam a few questions about his work and creative process.
How did you get into translation?
I've always been interested in languages, starting with French and Latin at high school and then Spanish at university. After two years of law I changed degrees and went on exchange to Chile, where I began to study literature and hang about with writerly types. At the same time I was beginning to experiment with my own writing, and so my initial forays into translation came from a desire to share new authors with people who couldn't read Spanish and also to see how fiction works — when you translate, you really see the nuts and bolts of a piece of writing.
What is your process for translating?
There are many different methods out there, but translators seem to be split into two main camps, depending on whether you read the whole text first or translate blind, so to speak. I like to read the book first. Great novels have a way of seeming to be more than the sum of their parts, and I think this shines through when you have an idea of the book as a whole. It also gives you an idea of the structure of the novel, or a heightened sense of what's important when you come back and begin translating. That being said, I'm certainly guilty of reading at times as a translator, when I can't help but begin to translate and figure out sentences in English as I read along in Spanish.
For the translation itself, before I start, I look at my publisher's deadline and the amount of pages in the book and set myself a fairly strict weekly quota, as well as some spare time at the end for editing, to make sure the project is finished on time. It's different from book to book, but I have a fair idea of how much quality translating I can do per day and still attend to my other commitments. Rather than using a copy of the book, I'll have the galley printed and bound so I can lay it out and write all over it if necessary.
The act of translating is one of the deepest intellectual pleasures I have experienced. While it's important to be fluent in the original language of the text, I'm constantly invigorated by the demands translating makes of my English. There's a real sense of proximity to the text as well, because as a translator you give undivided attention to every single word in a manuscript, it's just not possible to skim through or sketch in the gist of a passage.
My first draft is what is usually called a gloss — the idea is to get the words down on the page in readable but unpolished English fairly quickly, so if there's a particularly thorny sentence I'll highlight it and come back once I have finished my allotted quota. This gives me a solid block of text to work with, which I then whittle down, reshape, and polish to get it closer and closer to the original.
I leave a lot of time for editing and refining, and I also find it's important to give myself time between drafts and edits so I have fresh eyes on the writing.
I work mostly with online dictionaries, as I find this to be the most effective way to work quickly in the initial "gloss" stage. When I return to edit the first draft, there are any number of resources I might use — from old thesauruses to dictionaries of etymology. Usage guides are important too, and for The Winterlings in particular I had to dig deep into encyclopaedias of Galician folklore and specialist linguistic resources.
At this point, if my author is both alive and amenable, I will consult them with any lingering queries if necessary, and then the text will be sent to the editor. From there, the manuscript goes back and forth, improving every time.
When you’re working on a translation are you able to also work on other projects or is it all-consuming?
Translation certainly has the potential to be all-consuming but the reality is that I have to fit it in alongside the rest of my life — in addition to translating, I'm in the final stages of a PhD, I teach Spanish to undergraduates at the University of Melbourne and I write my own fiction and poetry.
Translation by its very nature is inexact and never absolute — just think of how many different versions of Dante's Inferno there are out there — and there have been many instances where I've spent hours at a time on a single sentence, only to change it back at the last minute before sending it off to meet a deadline.
One of the advantages of translating as opposed to research or writing for me has been that I have never encountered such a thing as translator's block. Being a translator is vastly different to being a writer or even an editor, because you are liberated from making any structural decisions about what happens next in the story — all that work has been done by the author, your task is to render it effectively in another language. In that sense I approach it as a sort of language-based jigsaw puzzle.
I find that translation dovetails productively with both my creative writing and my academic interest in contemporary narrative, because it is a different yet related practice.
While translating The Winterlings, were you in contact with the author Cristina Sánchez-Andrade, or was it a separate process?
The great advantage to translating a living author is that you can ask them questions. The Winterlings is a novel that included local expressions in Galician as well as many stories that were told in Cristina's own family, so it's fair to say that she was uniquely qualified to answer queries that even the Internet couldn't resolve! Cristina herself has worked as a translator so she was able to bring that experience to the English translation of The Winterlings.
Being a writer yourself, is there an element of pressure to ensure you’re presenting the work authentically and getting the voice just right?
Whether you're a writer or not, I think it's always the task of the literary translator to authentically convey the author's voice. Every text is different, and I find that my approach to translation adapts to the text at hand. For me, it comes back to the idea of reading the text as a whole and understanding how it works. In many ways, this is a question of style, and I think it is essential to convey an author's style in translation. In the case of The Winterlings, the novel comes to life through the quirks of the characters and the stories they tell, so I knew it was important to focus on rendering those voices authentically to convey the experience of reading the novel in Spanish.
You’re currently writing a PhD thesis, can you tell us about that?
I'm about to submit my PhD in Spanish at the University of Melbourne, where I'm researching contemporary narrative systems from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. I'm interested in authors who have been active in the 21st century, and seeing how their writing works aesthetically — the "how" as opposed to the "what." There's a long tradition of avant-garde artistic practice in the region and this tradition is alive and well in the work of authors like Alejandro Zambra and Pola Oloixarac, who explore the boundaries of fiction, representation and technology.
I've been fortunate to have travelled widely during my candidature. I spent nearly a year in Argentina conducting research and connecting with some of the authors whose work I admire most, and I also spent time in Chile, Brazil and the USA. I have the feeling that there is a resurgence in interest in literature from Latin America, so it's been great to be able to combine research, writing and translation.
Where to from here? What projects do you have coming up?
It's been a busy year — in addition to The Winterlings and the PhD, my translation of Matías Celedón's novel The Subsidiary will be published in August in the USA, followed by Hernán Ronsino's Glaxo in December.
I'm now living in Nashville, Tennessee, where I've joined the Creative Writing MFA at Vanderbilt University. It's a fantastic program of small workshops with mentors like Tony Earley, Lorrie Moore and Kate Daniels, so I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to work on my own writing for a while.