“Translating sends me into rabbit holes of meaning and semantics and the magic of language and the way it can create worlds” — An interview with Juana Adcock, by Silvia Rothlisberger

Juana Adcock is a Mexican poet and literary translator based in Glasgow working in English and Spanish. She is the author of the poetry books Manca (Argonautica 2016), Split (Blue Diode 2019), This Body of a woman I inhabit illustrated by Nicky Arscott (Mother Mary Press). Her poems are part of the anthology Un Nuevo Sol (Flipped Eye 2019). She has translated poetry, fiction and non-fiction from Elena Poniatowska, Giuseppe Caputo, Alexander Hutchison, among others. She plays the bass in the all-female punk band The Raptors.  

Let’s begin by talking about the book Un nuevo Sol, the anthology with other ten British Latinx writers launched in November here in London.

Tell me about this book and your contribution in it.

This is an anthology of, I believe, 10 British Latinx writers. The reason why Nathalie Teitler wanted to put this anthology together was that she felt that after working for 30 years in the literary world and focusing a lot on diversity, there was one thing that she noticed was always ignored and that was Latinx writers in Britain. When I was contacted by Leo Boix and Nathalie Teitler, I actually had no idea that there were other British Latinx writers, I didn’t know that any of them existed. And I think most of us didn’t really even know of each other. So, it’s really quite extraordinary that they’ve brought us all together in this anthology. And yes, it’s a beautiful book, it’s published by Flipped Eye. The launch at Southbank Centre was really great. I really enjoyed everyone’s readings. I was actually blown away by their work. And yeah, I’m really happy that I’m part of this group of writers.

How do you incorporate your poetry into your work as a translator or your work as a translator into your poetry?

Working as a translator makes me reflect deeply about language every single day. I’m always kind of playing around with words and trying to make them fit and also just reflecting on all the different kind of nuances and possibilities of saying the same thing. And actually how what we say isn’t actually contained only in the words. It’s not just the words, it’s actually the whole context surrounding the words and they contain so much more than what is just written on the page. So, translating literary fiction is always very inspiring for me because it allows me to get close and really look deeply into another author’s work. And you get the feeling that you’re getting to know that person’s mind and the way that they think and that is always very formative for me.

And then in terms of my own work I often write between English and Spanish, actually the most natural way for me to write is to write in Spanglish. If I am writing just in my journal or something just for myself it’s always going to be in Spanglish because that’s the easiest way, you know. I’m just reaching for words and I just grab whatever comes the easiest. But obviously when trying to then move that into English or into Spanish I have to kind of do some work of self-translation. That kind of sends me into all these different rabbit holes of meaning and semantics and just the magic of language and the way that language can create worlds. And often I find myself translating into English and then going back into Spanish, often for practical reasons as well, because if I had a request from Spanish language magazine, you know, “Oh, could you please send us a couple of poems because we’d like to publish your work”. And then suddenly I don’t have anything in Spanish, I need to translate my own work quickly and do it as kind of efficiently and artfully as possible. Sometimes it feels a bit rushed but that’s how my days transpire basically.

I wrote a poem called The task of the translator. This poem is published in my collection Split which was awarded the Poetry Book Society Choice for the winter of 2019. And it takes its title from an essay by Walter Benjamin about the art of translation. This poem came to me one day when I was translating.

That’s beautiful actually to work exploring language. I read that your book Manca was first published in Spanish and then in English. Who did the translation of this book?

Manca was translated into English by the amazing Mexico City-based poet and translator Robin Myers. I have long been an admirer of her work so I was absolutely delighted that she was willing and able to take on this project.

And how did you get into translation?

My father is actually a translator himself. He’s been working in that profession since the ‘70s on and off and he runs a translation agency. He gave me my first job when I graduated from university. And that’s where I learned the trade. We translated all sorts of commercial documents.

It’s a family business then

Yes, pretty much.

And then I went on to do my own freelance work and I was able to focus a little bit on literary translation as well. And to do that I attended the summer school from the British literary translation Centre at the University of East Anglia. And this was a very informative time for me because I got to meet all these amazing translators and have all these conversations that until then were mostly only going on in my own head because when you’re a translator you work alone most of the time.

So, it’s always really wonderful to get together with other translators because they obviously have the same feelings and so when we come together we’re just really happy and really chatty and it’s just always really fun to hang out with translators.

Tell me about translating An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo. How was the process of this translation?

Translating An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo was actually a co-translation between myself and Sophie Hughes who is a translator I really admire. She’s won awards, one of the most recent translations was shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize and it’s The remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán. That’s a fantastic, fantastic book. And we’re also friends. So the process was really beautiful because we got to share each other’s reading of Giuseppe’s work and it really is a luxury to be able to work as a co-translator because you kind of get to bounce ideas off each other as I said you’re sharing the reading. Each person’s reading of a text will always be quite different because you’re bringing in your own background, your own style your own readings as well, everything.

Two people do not read the same book, basically.

Exactly! So it was just really wonderful to be able to work in this way. What we did was we divided up the chapters and we each worked to finish a polished draft and then exchanged it only once with the other person and did a quite heavy edit. In this way we were able to unify the style and just discuss lots of the translation problems. And that’s another really good advantage because sometimes what to you might seem like an unresolvable problem, something that’s kind of untranslatable and you can’t find the way, to the other person might be just really simple and the answer might be just there, right before your eyes but you just weren’t seeing it before. And this way it kind of speeds up the process but then it also becomes slower and that’s also really good because I think with translation the slower you go the better quality it has, you can just really get deeper into the text and really bring out more things than you normally would if you’re just rushing through it.

Maybe your Latin American background helps in the translation to not miss out on the Latin American part of the book?

I’d like to think so. I grew up in Mexico and so my life experiences are really different from Sophie’s, but we both have really different ways of approaching the text. And because you’re bringing a book into the English language tradition you need to be able to situate that within that tradition, and so in a way you need both. For me this is a dream team.

Oh, yeah totally I can see that. Perfect team. She brings her British background and you bring the Latin American background. When I was reading An Orphan World  what I thought was ‘this could be anywhere’ in no way you can think it is Latin America. Well, it’s a poor neighborhood with no electricity so in that sense it is quite Latin American.

It’s true, it’s true but it could be on a different continent. I think it could be anywhere in the global South or even kind of post-apocalyptic Europe or from a post-Brexit Britain. We don’t know. But, yeah, I think that that’s one thing that we were really clear on from the beginning but because it’s a nameless city that was part of the reason why we translated the names of the characters. For example there is one of the characters was called Garbanzos and we just decided to translate it like chickpeas, you know, because it’s funny it carries that sense of humor through and it allows you to expand on that feeling that the story could be taking in any place.

And Ramon Ramona?

Ramon Ramona, yes! Oh, this was a really interesting character to translate! There were two trans characters in the book one was Ramon Ramona and the other one was Luna. And so we were struggling with the pronouns because in Spanish you can get away with being gender neutral in terms of the pronouns because you’re just saying “su” and “sus” for example. But in English you can’t do that, you have to choose. But with Ramon Ramona we really wanted to keep the ambiguity of the gender. And we didn’t want to modernize it and use “they” which would be the modern queer, non-binary choice of pronouns to use. We wanted to go even further from there and just articulate every sentence that had to do with Ramon Ramona in such a way that we wouldn’t need pronouns at all. And that was quite a challenge. But it was actually possible in the end and we were both really happy with the results.

Why did you come to Glasgow from Mexico?

Well, I came to do a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. There are a few reasons why I chose the city: one was the amazing music scene and another was the linguistic variety of Scotland and the nature and I was always kind of fascinated by Scottish culture even from when I was a child but also the director of the course at the time was Michael Schmidt who is the director and founder of Carcanet Press. And he was actually born in Mexico and can read and speak Spanish and his partner is Mexican. So, when I found out about this I thought it was just meant to be. It was a sign from the universe. From day one I always felt really at home in Glasgow.

Silvia Rothlisberger is a writer and journalist based in London. She hosts a radio show on Resonance 104.4 called Literary South. Silvia curates the literary events of The Festival of Latin American Women is Arts (FLAWA Festival). She is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s], with a focus on Latin American literature and culture. @silviarothlis