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More than bedtime stories for the neurotic

An interview with Mexican author Amparo Dávila’s co-translators Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson

Amparo Davila photo

I could still recall fragments of Amparo Dávila’s stories waltzing through my subconscious days after finishing The Houseguest for the first time. Her novella sized collection of short stories had penetrated my senses. But these are more than bedtime stories for the neurotic. The Houseguest is a compendium of inescapable voices—ones which declare, rather than suggest, our author’s distinct devotion to the art of illustrating compassion, isolation, and trauma. Dávila introduces us to the unavoidable intruders of our minds, the darkness we don’t exactly want to address. Her stories are unsettling.

Although satisfied with my hours spent basking in these unsettling lamentations expressed by Dávila’s narrators, I had questions, so I reached out to the great Mexican author’s co-translators, Matthew Gleeson and Audrey Harris. I hadn’t anticipated the bountiful insights they in turn provided me with.

GINA JELINSKI: I was curious if you could share with us some stories concerning your translation experience prior to Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest?

MATTHEW GLEESON: Before The Houseguest came out, I was working on translating the Mexican author José Revueltas. New Directions published his El apando (The Hole) last year, in a translation by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes—a great favor for English speakers; I recommend it. My translation of his novel Los días terrenales (Earthly Days) is scheduled to appear later this year with a publisher called Archive 48. When I first came to Mexico five years ago, I became fascinated by Revueltas because he’s a very important figure here, yet he has this kind of unassimilably underground character; he was a lifelong Marxist militant, and his writing is dark, scabrous, grotesque, noirish, thorny, convoluted, and just plain weird. He was almost totally neglected in English until recently. I learned lots of street slang and highly baroque formal locutions from him. His mind can be a dark, suffocating place to be in though.  

AUDREY HARRIS: Prior to The Houseguest I did translation work (mainly contracts) for the Mexican tourist board, back before I began my PhD. Beyond that, I’ve translated my own work, academic essays.

GJ: What would you describe to be the joys, and the isolating aspects, of the craft of translation?

AH: It is very fine, detailed work, and it takes a lot of patience. Shortly before The Houseguest was published, one of my friends commented that I hadn’t been persuaded to leave my apartment for social events for months. It does take sacrifices, but it was all worth it when the book came out, and we did readings in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles and were connected with so many of Dávila’s admirers, such as Mexicans who loved her work when they were growing up and were excited to see her in translation, or new readers who had never been exposed to her work. 

MG: Translation is full of joys! It involves this very nerdy kind of pleasure in painstakingly finding the precise right words, and the rich experience of deeply communing with another author, immersing yourself in their text, and channeling it.

One of the very best joys of translating is a very social one: the knowledge that you’re helping an amazing writer get appreciated by a whole new set of readers. It’s immensely rewarding to know that Amparo Dávila, at the age of ninety, saw a book come out in English and receive good reviews—to be witness to her feeling known and read in this other language, to know that her work has borne fruit in this way. She deserves the attention and recognition. For the translator there’s a huge satisfaction in being a collaborator or helper, an auxiliary creative force, in this process. 

The isolating aspects are similar to those of writing: to get it done right, you have to retire into a solitary space and spend a lot of time thinking and putting down words. And then, when the communication is received by a reader, it’s also usually done in solitude and you’re not privy to the process in the moment. It’s all incredibly weird. Your whole purpose is to communicate and share, yet in the moment you viscerally feel that you’re utterly alone. One saving grace of translation is that if you know people already read this book in one language, it seems more likely there will be a public for it in another language.

GJ:  Let’s address Amparo Dávila directly. There is this unavoidable hysteria in her work. I have to confess that the story which struck me the most was “The Last Summer,” in which one woman’s longing for a miscarriage provokes an unforeseen and almost primal response. Does Dávila speak to “feminism” in this story? In other stories, she writes from the perspective of men: sometimes violent ones, and other times docile and submissive ones. How did these various characters speak to you as readers?

MG: “The Last Summer” is a tremendously powerful story. Audrey and I read it aloud at a book event at City Lights in San Francisco—I had suggested choosing it because I felt it was under-appreciated, but I hadn’t properly taken into account its effect on me. I was reading the second half, and as I got near the end, I unexpectedly discovered that I’m incapable of reading that story out loud in public without breaking down. A knot formed in my chest, I knew I was about to lose it—to start bawling, or choking, or I wasn’t sure what—and I had to stop and ask Audrey to finish the last paragraph. The story also seems to intensely shake up other male readers I know. And so I would say that it’s a piece that is about a very female experience of the body, of social roles, of yearning and guilt, but it successfully speaks to a range of readers far beyond women. I find it remarkable how the story gives us access to such uncomfortably intimate parts of the protagonist’s psyche, yet without ever feeling invasive.   

As you mention, another wonderful thing is Dávila’s ability to convincingly inhabit male characters as well. One example that comes to mind is “The Funeral,” which I think is an extraordinary story about masculinity; its central drama is that of a man who’s used to exerting patriarchal power and privilege, and who finds himself confronting the most ultimate and final impotence. It’s a deflation, with an ending that gently twists the knife. But others of her male characters aren’t typically “masculine”; they’re nervous wrecks who enact behavior our culture tends to label “hysterical,” or who are paralyzed by rather “unmanly” fear, like in the story we just translated as “The Tomb Garden” for Two Lines. José Kraus in “Moses and Gaspar” might be a great example of the submissiveness you mention; he’s a passive office worker with a gray life who submits to fate.

As far as I know, Dávila has always been quite firm about calling herself “universal” and avoiding labels having to do with feminism or gender. I think this shows a curiosity about many types of people and a resistance to elevating categories and dogmas over raw experience. Despite this, if you pay attention to her, she really does express over and over again certain forms of violence lived specifically by women, often related to control and domesticity. It shows up in “The Houseguest,” “The Cell,” “Oscar,” “Tina Reyes,” and many others. It’s just not the only thing that interests her. Feminism is a conscious political stance, and so I definitely can’t call Dávila feminist if she doesn’t call herself that. But the way she makes these forms of violence visible and makes readers feel them viscerally could be something that feminism finds valuable.

AH: I would agree that “The Last Summer” really goes beyond feminism, though it speaks to feminist concerns. Dávila says that all of her stories are inspired by lived experiences. But she does not consider herself a feminist. I see her more as a transmitter of her characters’ lives and thoughts. The fact that she’s a woman gives her stories a different and important perspective on Mexican life, however. I loved “The Last Summer” because it gets to the awful complexity and mixed emotions, even the hormonal imbalances, provoked during a miscarriage. It’s an utterly unique story for Mexican literature, and very daring for its time.

To give some background for how this collection came about, and even the impulse behind its translation, the Mexicanist professor Ignacio Sánchez Prado recommended Dávila’s stories to me, along with a few other writers from her period: Guadalupe Dueñas and Inés Arredondo. All of their work has been championed by a group of Mexican female academics who call themselves the Diana Morán scholars. Among other things, these women hold conferences and panels and publish books studying the writings of Mexican women writers who have been left out of the heavily male canon of Mexican literature. Although I read Dueñas and Arredondo with interest, it was Dávila’s stories that really compelled me, so much so that I felt they had to be translated into English so more people could enjoy them. One of the reasons I so enjoyed her Collected Stories is that, while many of her stories are unforgettable on an individual level, she has a strong personal style that provides a unifying thread through the collection. Reflecting on those common thematics the other day, I wrote down that I believe many of her characters suffer from a crisis of affect; they are unable to find love and meaning or sympathy in their lives, which feeds the hysteria and mental darkness that you mention. That’s what I find truly unsettling about her stories. But what makes them feel human and alive and relatable is the yearning her characters feel, their keen sense of lack, that something in the core of their lives is missing. Her stories are terrifying, but they’re also deeply human and alive. Also, no matter how strange or dramatic the events she depicts, they feel real on a psychological level. The monstrosity and the wild events of some of her stories mirror the vivid inner lives of her characters. There are other stories, like “Tina Reyes,” where nothing much happens; the story’s color and interest lie in the vivid fantasies of the protagonist.

GJ:  Do you know much about Amparo’s childhood, and perhaps what may have fueled her focus to write the stories she included in The Houseguest?

AH: We know that her brother died when she was very young, leaving her an only child, and that she was surrounded by death from a young age; her home town of Pinos, in Zacatecas, was home to the only cemetery in the region, and carts bearing bodies were constantly being wheeled past her house. We also know that she had a close relationship to animals from a young age, regarding them as her friends and companions after her brother’s death. One slightly later influence was her friendship with Alfonso Reyes. After she completed high school he took an interest in her poetry and invited her to work for him as his secretary in Mexico City. There he encouraged her to begin writing fiction and helped her publish her early stories in literary journals.

MG: Dávila has a great essay that talks about her childhood, one of the only openly autobiographical pieces she’s written. We’ve translated it but haven’t found a journal to publish it in yet. She grew up in a former mining town in Zacatecas state. She describes it as a creepy place, perpetually cold and foggy, and herself as a sickly child whose early years were full of night terrors and alchemical experiments. These influences show up all over the place in her stories, in particular images and in the whole psychological backdrop. 

GJ: Is there any particular reason why it took this long for Dávila’s work to be translated into English?

MG: It’s a good question. The obvious answer is that she was somewhat neglected in Spanish for a while and recently rediscovered. And as for why she was neglected, it could be because she produced very little new writing after the 1970s. And there is sexism, though Dávila herself has never advanced that explanation to my knowledge. But despite these rational explanations, it’s kind of a mystery to me. It doesn’t answer the question of why her work wasn’t translated in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was known and respected enough to gain mention in the New York Times at one point. I also want to recognize that other translators have done a story here or there in anthologies or journals over the years, but it never picked up momentum into a full book until now. What I can say for certain is that I think the U.S. literary world is currently in a perfect state to appreciate the gothic and fantastical elements of her stories, as well as their honed precision. Even if I don’t know why her time didn’t come before, the stage definitely seems to have been set for it to come now.

AH: Her stories have been translated, but only on an individual basis, in anthologies and Spanish literature textbooks. I think the reason she hasn’t been published in book form in English until now is that historically, women writers have not received as much attention in the Mexican literary world, and only now is there sufficient interest that they are being published in greater numbers.

GJ:  During your time with The Houseguest, I was curious if each of you had picked specific stories and worked on them individually, or if there were times that you would hand off your segments to get another perspective on the translation.

MG: We worked entirely as a team, and every story passed back and forth through the hands of both of us an embarrassing number of times. One of us would do the first rough draft of a given story; we traded off.

AH: We might include some notes in the margins such as “I’m not happy with this translation—do you have a better suggestion here?” or offer alternatives to a particular word or phrase for the other to choose from. As the other person edits, he/she writes notes to justify any changes that go beyond simple corrections. That way we understand each other’s reasoning as we go along. By the end we both worked so thoroughly on each story that they’re really all co-translations.

MG: The other would mark the text up, tear it apart, suggest changes, and send it back. We’d chew everything over until we both came to an agreement on every detail. From my point of view, I’d say that it’s a ton of work to do it this way, but it’s quite illuminating. If you work with another intelligent, thoughtful person, their perspective can open things up, and the discussion also forces you to articulate exactly why you want to phrase something a certain way or exactly what the difference in effect is between several choices of phrasing. A frequent effect of this level of attention was that if my first instinct was to use phrase x, and Audrey’s first instinct was to use phrase y, ultimately we’d discover that it was an entirely different phrase z that was necessary—and this wasn’t a compromise between translators’ egos with hardened positions, it was more a process of groping together toward what might best express Dávila’s effects in English. Sometimes we butted heads, sometimes we agreed easily. I felt that we always ended up with a text we’d labored over and polished in its subtleties, and which was “ours.”

GJ: What were your thoughts while in the midst of such horrific tales such as “End of a Struggle” and “Tina Reyes”?

AH: These stories blend social realism with almost surreal glimpses into the disordered interior lives of her characters. They explore the comfortable bourgeois yet lonely life of Durán—so dissatisfying that it provokes a psychic split—and the struggle of the single, working class and quickly maturing Tina: the paranoia provoked by her precarious position within Mexican society. As I translated I tried to capture the logic behind their madness, and follow the twists and turns of their distorted thinking, and to replicate Dávila’s depiction of the way they bumble along through their lives, carried along by the destructive waves of their emotions.

MG: I somehow didn’t feel asphyxiated by spending so long in either one of those stories, but poring over the language did illuminate all kinds of subtleties I might not have otherwise noticed. Amparo Dávila says she likes to leave it up to the reader to interpret her stories—but though the stories may be ambiguous, they’re never vague. She leaves lots of rich details and clues to be chewed over. We worked hard to leave the same openness to interpretation in our translations, and what follows are my own personal ways of reading these stories at the moment.

With “End of a Struggle,” the story came to seem remarkably complex, and the way I read it, it’s not about the protagonist’s encounter with the supernatural, it’s about his encounter with himself. This doppelgänger is in some sense a manifestation of Durán’s never-lived alternate life, and it leads to a resurgence of resentment and violence caused by his sense of failure, which he’d managed to bury for a while. Yet the “successful” Durán who got the girl turns out to be brutal too, violent to the point of femicide. Durán ends up enacting an internal battle between the protective and violent impulses that are disturbingly mixed together in his feelings toward the woman who rejected him—and maybe ultimately inseparable. The ambiguous ending is not the slightest bit reassuring.

With “Tina Reyes,” various drafts into the translation, I found myself suddenly wondering why her suitor, if he really was an innocent fellow, wasn’t more weirded out by her behavior. Then it struck me that her breathless, swooning, terrified passivity, though it’s the product of terrible emotional torment, in fact perfectly replicates the outward role that a woman is meant to play in “romantic” situations, and so he treats it as perfectly normal. In other words, in this schema, romance is a pursuit by the active male, which is creepily similar to the violence she’s terrified of… What Tina wants and what she fears are disturbingly related to each other. (The story was written in early-1960s Mexico, but it’s uncomfortably relevant still.) Similarly, as I got deep into that final paragraph, in which Dávila doesn’t use punctuation, and as I thought through its images and rhythms, I had the distinct sense that the breathless, accelerating rhythm ending in a collapse actually imitates a sexual climax. To me this is crucial for the resonance of the story: Tina may really be running down the street and fainting, but it’s described in an intensely (and menacingly) sexualized way. I personally read it as a twisted sexual experience, one had by this character who longs for intimacy but is running away from it in terror for understandable reasons.

There’s a lot of room for other readers to interpret these stories differently. I think it’s undeniable, though, that they stir up very powerful emotions.

GJ: Which story of Dávila’s stuck with you the longest? And did this change after your translation?

AH: “Moses and Gaspar” had a special effect on me. I thought it was a fantastic story, utterly original, unsettling, and interesting in the way it depicts the two brothers’ lives, their solitude and their social milieu. I must have liked it, because it’s the one I sent to Matt when we were first deciding to work together. After the translation, I still loved the story. It received a lot of careful editing. We worked on it with the then-Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, and we really polished it. Many of the questions we resolved, as well as the working routine we set up while translating “Moses and Gaspar” set the tone for our work on the rest of the collection. But I’d also say that my relationship with each of the stories has deepened and magnified after translating them. “Oscar,” “The Last Summer,” “The Burial”: so many of these stories have stuck with me and linger in my consciousness. And there are other, as yet untranslated stories by Dávila that have also affected me deeply and that are still buzzing around in my mind. I think they’re waiting to be translated, too.

MG: It’s hard to pick one. When I first read her, the stories with particularly vivid, weird, or impressive images stuck with me: “Moisés y Gaspar” or “Música concreta.” But translating the stories caused others, which I’d also loved but which seemed less like the alpha dogs of her collections at first, to swell with meaning and become more powerful and unforgettable. For example, among the stories in our collection, “The Last Summer” now seems like one of the most devastating and emotionally affecting stories I can imagine, and I’m not sure why it was only on second or third read that I fully appreciated its power and it began to shine as one of the main stars of the collection.

GJ: Audrey & Matt, I have to thank you—for your giving nature and for all of the work you have done thus far in bringing us these stories we need to pay more attention to. We might imagine that if some writers have disappeared between the cracks, it is the job of the translator to obscure their silence. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t stumbled over to the new arrivals shelf at my local bookstore and taken a chance on a collection of short stories from an author I had never heard of.

Harris’s and Gleeson’s translation of Amparo Dávila’s collection of stories The Houseguest was published in November 2018 by New Directions.

You can find the latest collaboration between Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, a translation of Dávila’s “The Tomb Garden,” available in English for the first time as an online exclusive for Two Lines 31: Hauntings.