Monday, February 8, 2021

Q & A: A Novelist and Her Translator

Annamaria on Monday

When I was writing City of Silver, my debut novel, I dreamed big.  Not only that it would be published.  But, because it was set in the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1650, it would one day be translated into Spanish. But...  That story took a loo-oo-oong time to get published, and when it did, it launched in 2009, into the teeth of the worldwide Great Recession.  For that, and undoubtedly other reasons, it was never sold to a Spanish publisher.


Over the years since it came out, I have gotten many pleas, mostly from South Americans living the US, wishing for an edition of the book that their Spanish-speaking friends and relatives could read.  That there was no such book needled me.  Those of you who know me well, know what a persistent dame I am.


By late 2019, I decided to find a translator and get the job done myself.  I had zero experience in choosing a person to fill such a role.  Though three of my nonfiction books had been translated, I had no involvement in those processes. The one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted someone who would not just put the words into clear Spanish. I wanted someone who would make the Spanish prose “sing.” That the cadence and the rhythms would convey the period and the exotic setting of the story. My agent helped me enormously.  She found three candidates who were willing to audition by translating two pages.


City of Silver begins, “Santiago Yana approached the mine by night.” I don’t read Spanish, but I can read Italian and French (sort of) and I studied Latin for six years, so I thought I would see the difference. It turned out to be easy to do so.


Two of the translations were almost identical. They began, “Santiago Yana se dirigió a la mina por la noche.” The thought is definitely clear.  It says that Santiago Yana went to the mine at night. Serviceable.  But..  You see what I mean, I am sure.


Angelica Ramirez, on the other hand, wrote poetically:


“Era de noche cuando Santiago Yana se acercó a la mina.” 


The sample pages proved the point.  No contest. I wanted Angelica to do this work.  Soon she began the project, which is now coming to a close.  Over the past couple of weeks, she has been putting the final touches on her version. In the process, she has been asking questions that prove she is the perfect translator for a history stickler like me. Her questions also caused me to put into words techniques for writing historical fiction that are really important to me. Here are some excepts from our email conversation, Angelica’s in blue and mine in green:

Dear Annamaria, I'm still making some corrections to the translation and I have a question about something I haven't been able to translate properly. It has to do with one of the herbs Sor Monica uses to prepare her remedies, the jalop.

Your text: She searched the jars on the shelf. Balsam of Tolu. Ipecac. Jalop. Guaiacum. Here it was—cinchona.

I’ve read that “jalop” comes from jalap: A twining eastern Mexican vine (Ipomoea purga) having tuberous roots that are dried, powdered, and used medicinally as a purgative. What makes me doubt is the fact that it is a Mexican plant.

Dear Angelica, I did this research decades ago. I think I got the word right.  What I do vividly remember is that there was a lot of contact between the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru and the Mexican viceroyalty.  Ships that took the Potosi silver to the isthmus of Panama brought back mail and European goods for the ultra-wealthy Spanish miners.  I believe it is quite possible there was such an herb in Potosi.  I know for certain that I never make up stuff like that.  We can just leave the reference as it is.   

What impresses me about this is the care Angelica took.  She thinks like a determined historical novelist.


Dear Patricia, I have new remark to make. It has to do with political correctness. As you surely know, Indios was the pejorative way Conquerors called the native inhabitants of Latin America. History says Columbus was looking for a shorter route to India, so when he "discovered" America, he initially thought he had arrived in India. That's why Spaniards called us Indios. But after conquering the Americas and subduing their inhabitants, they expressed their European superiority by calling the conquered people Indios. Nowadays, using that adjective can be very offensive (unfortunately, people still use it when criticizing someone for their lack of education or indigenous roots). In order to be politically correct, I decided to keep the word Indios when the characters of Spanish descent call their servants that way, but indígena when the narrator describes a character born in Potosí. Do you agree with this decision?


Dear Angelica, Regarding “Inidos,” your solution is perfect. I can’t remember what I did in City of Silver, but I have exactly the same issue when it comes to my books set in British East Africa and “natives.” To be true to the times but with a 21st century perspective, I use “native” when a white settler or administrator is speaking.  But as the Narrator, in the Africa books, I use the words “tribal people” or the names of the tribes, and I do the same when my “enlightened” characters are speaking.  One of the characters changes his way of thinking in the course of the series.  By the end of the first book, he calls the tribal people “natives” only some of the time.  By the second book, he uses it hardly at all.  Etc. I know that this is not absolutely historically correct.  But I am writing fiction!!


Dear Patricia, I'm really grateful for our communication. This reminds me that I recently attended a virtual session on translation and the speaker said something I liked a lot: "The translator must be like a ventriloquist: although characters speak through her voice, the audience can't see her move the lips." That's exactly what I try to do when I translate. In this case, I'll give a Spanish voice to your characters but the reader won't know they didn't speak Spanish originally.

You made me smile, Angélica, when you said my characters didn’t speak Spanish in the first place. Of course, you are right, but to me—in the weird imagination of the spinner of fiction—they were speaking Spanish. And whatever their native tongue, I try to make sure my characters don’t sound contemporary. I hate it when historical novelists have characters from olden times use modern slang. It spoils the illusion that the reader is time traveling. 


I hope I am improving at “keeping to the language of the past” when I write.  I have not read “City of Silver” all the way through since it was published. I am sure that if I did there would be things I would want to change.  I have heard my own mistakes in this regard in other books when I listened to the audio versions. I cringe over every imperfect word. But it is too late to change it. This feeling makes me understand the practice of actors, often great and lauded ones, who cannot watch their own movies. And why, on the stage, actors and musicians can enjoy repeating the same songs or play over and over. It gives them another chance.


Dear Patricia, I understand perfectly well what you mean by not distracting the reader from the plot with strange vocabulary, syntax, etc., I want to send you a translation as flawless as possible. That's why I'm being so careful with details, apart from the fact that I'm rather obsessive about grammar and spelling. Even capitalization… I also decided to write Inez as Inés, the way it is normally written in Spanish.

Dear Angelica, Thank you so much for your thoughtful message.  My response regarding grammar, spelling, and capitalization, I am afraid, is going to be philosophical. I may have said this before.  Forgive me if I repeat.  My greatest goal in writing is to tell the story in such a way that it engages the reader completely.  Nothing that I say, or nothing about the way I say it, can be allowed to interfere with this. The reader’s eyes have to be able to scan the words without seeing anything weird.  The reader’s brain has to be able to turn the words into sights and sounds without suddenly stopping to think about me. You know what I mean.  Here’s the simplest example.  We all know what happens when the book we are reading contains a mistake, say the author used “imply” when he should have said “infer.”  Suddenly, we are pulled out of the imagining part of our brains and into the critical thinking part.  The story disappears from the movie screen in our minds.  It is like watching a movie in the theater and having the projector stop working properly.

I try never to include any distraction that will make the reader think about something other than what my characters are living through.  Certain as I am that I can never achieve this one hundred percent, this is my most cherished goal.  I can see that you are trying to make the text move for the modern reader of Spanish without “stopping the projector.”  All your choices for punctuation and capitalization seem aimed at the same goal.  They will look “normal.” And keep the reader with the characters and their experiences.

I so respect and admire your desire to get these minute details right.  It was a chancy thing I did, choosing a person to put my book into a language I don’t know.  Your attention to these issues shows me what a great decision I made. I am grateful to you for helping my characters speak their “native language” at last. I so look forward to the publication of “Ciudad de la Plata.

For my blog today, I have used photos taken by my husband David Clark that illustrate the setting of City of Silver.


  1. Great blog! You are absolutely right that translators can make a huge difference. Only one of our translators so far has had any significant contact with us, the translator into German. She picked up an error in the last chapter of one book by recalling what happened 200 pages before. None of our English editors had picked it up! In the case of the other translations, friends who were native language speakers were unimpressed.
    The German translator also translates Deon Meyer's books directly from the Afrikaans original. I asked her if she'd spent some time in South Africa. No, she knew Dutch and translated Dutch books to German, then she was offered a book in Flemish so she learned that language, and Afrikaans wasn't very different so she learned that... A remarkable person.

    1. Thank you, Michael. What an amazing story about your German translator. Some people are just that precious to folk like us. Angelica and I had an exchange six months ago when i wrote a blog about this translation project. I included Angelica's name then and she was grateful to me. She said her association of translators had recently had a meeting in which they spoke about the translator being anonymous and the art of it generally ignored. I know that, like the recorders of audio books, some do a hack job with no sensitivity to the merit of what they are presenting. But those great ones, who join in with us and make our books shine in whole new way, they deserve our gratitude. They bring our stories to a whole new audience.

  2. Replies
    1. I did! I hope to have a copy of the Spanish edition in my hands before too long. It really will be a dream come true.

  3. What a wonderful blog, Annamaria! And how lovely to see the inner workings of the translation process. My translations have usually been done at a distance, as it were, with varying degrees of success.

    1. Thank you, Zoe. I so understand that "at a distance" issue. Publishers who buy rights sometimes, perhaps often, seem to choose translators (or for audio rights, narrators) who have no appreciation for what made the book a success in the first place. I never gave it a second thought with the nonfiction. But I have read many books translated into English, and sometimes I can see the poor choices the translator made. One called an offspring of a woman "the issue of her stomach" when it he should have said "her womb." I stopped reading.

      When an offer to buy foreign or audio rights comes along, we all say yes. I say yes and pray. At least this time, I got to make the choice. From now on, when it's a Spanish translation, I will insist on Angelica.