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Kingdom Cons: A Q&A with Lisa Dillman

Lisa Dillman on translating Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons, teaching translation, and more.

Yuri Herrera took the U.S. by storm in 2015 with his English debut, Signs Preceding the End of the World. The book detailed a girl’s migration across the U.S.-Mexican border using a unique blend of realism and mythological allusion. We celebrated the book’s release back in 2015 by hosting a conversation between Yuri Herrera and Daniel Alarcón, which you can listen to here. Translated by Lisa Dillman, the book won the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. The Transmigration of Bodies followed the next year to much acclaim.

This past week marked the publication of Herrera’s third book in English translation, Kingdom Cons, another hybrid work, part surreal fable and part narco-lit romance: In the court of the King, everyone knows their place. But as the Artist wins hearts and egos with his ballads, uncomfortable truths emerge that shake the Kingdom to its core.

Yuri Herrera will join us in San Francisco on July 1 to celebrate the book’s release. I reached out to Herrera’s translator, Lisa Dillman, to get an inside look at the book and to hear more about her work as one of today’s leading Spanish-language translators.

Sarah Coolidge: How did you first discover Yuri Herrera’s writing? What made you want to translate his work?

Lisa Dillman: Very fortuitously. I came to Yuri through my friend, Katie Silver. She’s the translator of Horacio Castellanos Moya (and many other great writers), and he had recommended Yuri’s prose while at Sampsonia Way years ago. Katie was overbooked and didn’t have time to do a sample, so she asked me if I was interested. Incredibly lucky for me.

SC: Kingdom Cons is the third of Herrera’s novels to be published in English, but it was his first novel published in Spanish. How would you compare it to his other books? Do you consider it part of a trilogy or not?

LD: This is fascinating to me—the idea of whether or not it’s a trilogy. Kingdom Cons has a lot in common with Signs and Transmigration. All three are very tightly woven novellas just over a hundred pages. All have central characters who are, in one way or another, badasses and who consciously and self-reflectively rely on their linguistic skills to get by. All blend a variety of registers including slang, archaism, regionalism, neologism, and lyrical and mythical tones. All offer, in my view, optimistic views on humanity, despite being surrounded by violence and inhumanity; all deal with literal and metaphorical border crossings; all take place in unspecified places at unspecified times that often seem like here and now and seem to harken to other times and unreal places. And yet plotwise they share almost nothing—none of the same characters or settings. So I have to say, make of that what you will.

SC: Yuri mentioned in an interview a while back that you and he were in touch quite a bit during the translation process. What kinds of things did you two discuss? What were some of the major challenges you faced translating Kingdom Cons specifically?

LD: Yes, we’ve been in touch a lot through the translation of all of his books, and the stories as well. He’s jaw-droppingly generous with the time and consideration he puts into replies, and I draft up emails to him containing anywhere from one to ten questions that he replies to, often on the same day. When possible, I do this in person, too, but email has been more frequent. Sometimes things I ask are open, philosophical questions, in an attempt to get behind the thought process of a character or a passage; often they are far more specific, about a particular word or phrase. One of the major challenges in Kingdom Cons was striking the right tone in dialogue. When characters are speaking Mexican slang, it’s a real challenge to transmit the sense of it—the orality, the flow and rhythm, the connotations—without making it sound stilted and yet also without making it sound like something it’s not, i.e. too markedly U.S.-slang, for instance.

SC: Herrera is one author you’ve translated a lot of. Andrés Barba is another; your most recent Barba translation, Such Small Hands, just came out this past April. In the case of Herrera and Barba, what is it like working so intensely with a single author’s work? Does the translation process become easier as you master a writer’s style, or does maintaining that style present a whole new challenge to the translation process?

LD: This is a great question! To me, working intensely with a writer is deeply satisfying. I’ve always felt like translating is akin to acting—you are in character for it. And although in the case of both Barba and Herrera each of their books is (plotwise) totally distinct, they have a lot in common stylistically. Ironically (or not), this does not make the process any easier in my experience. What it does do, however, is make more predictable the kinds of problems you’re going to be up against. That doesn’t make them easier to solve, but it does make it easier to welcome them back, like an old friend.

SC: Finally, I want to ask you about your experience as a professor, specifically your experience teaching translation. Without making your syllabus available to us (thought I’m sure many readers would love that), what is your general approach to teaching translation? Does teaching impact your own translation work and vice versa?

LD: Well, first of all, let me say that my syllabus is nothing extraordinary, but thanks for the implicit compliment. The class I teach, as the only translation course in our department, is a one-semester, all-singing, all-dancing introduction that touches on (but certainly does not cover) the history, theory, and practice of literary translation. I’ve been hankering for a while to create an introductory course, but I haven’t found the time yet to do so. For this course, I use Susan Bassnett’s Translation Studies, plus the only decent methodology book with activities that exists (if anyone can prove me wrong, please send suggestions; I’d love one slightly less advanced), which is Thinking Spanish Translation. And then I supplement with a bunch of theoretical articles that I change each time I teach the course, depending on a variety of things. What I try to do is alternate days, so we’re not reading incredibly complex theory for three classes in a row, nor are we workshopping for three classes in a row. And I throw in five- to ten-minute pre-class activities whenever I can. And yes, teaching absolutely impacts my translation work and vice versa—hugely. Students, for instance, are walking dictionaries of current slang, they keep me current on language, which I love; and passages from texts I’m translating often work their way into activities.