Obejas is the editor and translator of Havana Noir (2007), the novels Days of Awe (2001) and Ruins (2009) and the short-story collections We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? (1994) and The Tower of the Antilles (2017). [Her story The Tower of the Antilles appears here]. Obejas is the Director of the MFA in Translation program at Mills College in Oakland, California [. . .]
[. . .] You translated Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Can you talk about the process of translating it? It was pretty frustrating. Junot had had a very unpleasant experience with the first translation of Drown, which was rendered into a kind of peninsular Spanish — sort of like translating Toni Morrison into Cockney English. Eduardo del Lago was brought in to rescue the book with a second translation, and he did a fine job but it leaned more toward neutrality and so a lot of the richness of Dominican Spanish was absent. What all this means is that when we started working on Oscar, his first novel, Junot was defensive and already had a lot riding on this translation. He wanted it to sound Caribbean, Dominican. I did too. But though I read Dominican writers and have Dominican friends and am very familiar with Dominican Spanish, I’ve never been to the DR and I’m not Dominican. Cuban’s probably as close as you can get, but still. The work of Dominican writers Rita Indiana (who writes in Spanish) and Junot Díaz (who writes in English) deal with colonialism, queer life and alternative histories in the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean and the U.S. Translation work by Achy Obejas have made their artistic visions available to a wider public.
Anyway, Junot had his plan: he wanted to see every chapter as it was finished, and then he’d send it to his sixteen closest friends who’d send me back notes — notes that frequently contradicted each other and which Junot didn’t reconcile. On my end, I hired María Teresa Ortega, one of Cuba’s finest translators, to sort of back me up. And I bought every Dominican slang book I could find and listened to Dominican talk radio every morning while I was doing the translation. I just wanted to hear how people talked and to think about it critically. Toward the end, when there was a full draft, I was lucky that Moira Pujols, the Dominican-born editor of contratiempo, a Chicago-based Spanish language literary magazine, read the whole thing and checked our “Dominicanness.” For This is How You Lose Her, we were on firmer ground — the Spanish translation of Oscar had gotten terrific reviews all over Spain and Latin America and the translation itself was often the subject of much of the reviews. So we cut pretty much everybody out. I did, however, have my friend, the Dominican poet Keiselim Montás read it over, again to check my “Dominicanness.”
What female writers would you like to see translated into English and other languages? I’d love to see the very fab New York poet Elizabeth Acevedo translated into Spanish, and Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, a young Cuban poet, translated more widely into English.