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The Iliac Crest: Q&A with Sarah Booker

The translator of Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest lets us in on the inner workings of this haunting, brilliant novel.

Sarah Coolidge: Cristina Rivera Garza is a big name in Mexican literature, though I’m constantly surprised how many of her books still have yet to be translated into English. What was your prior knowledge of her and how do you see The Iliac Crest fitting into the rest of her work?

Sarah Booker: I absolutely agree! She has been hugely influential throughout the Spanish-speaking world, yet has barely appeared in the English-speaking world. Andrew Hurley’s stunning translation of No One Will See Me Cry came out back in 2003 and some of her short stories (available here, here, and here) and poetry (available here) have been published in translation, but that has been it, until now. I actually first came to Cristina Rivera Garza’s writing in a class several years ago and instantly fell in love with the weirdness of her narrative. The Iliac Crest is both her second novel and the second book I read. In many ways, it marks a point of departure from writing that has a stronger historical focus—like No One Will See Me Cry or her non-fiction—to the more experimental, kaleidoscopic approach that defines her later works, such as El mal de la taiga or Lo anterior. I think I was drawn to this particular novel precisely because of that intersection of a recreation of literary history and a constant pushing at the boundaries of narrative possibilities. I will also say that I think we are about to see a lot more of her work in English in the near future!

SC: The real life Mexican writer Amparo Dávila appears in The Iliac Crest as more than one major character. Did you read Dávila in preparation for this translation? Was it important to you to find all the allusions to Dávila’s writings in the novel prior to translating it?

SB: Yes, I certainly read quite a bit of Amparo Dávila’s work before and during the translation process. I am actually quite thankful to this project for also bringing me a renewed appreciation for Dávila’s stories, which are so haunting and innovative. I get quite a lot of joy out of finding intertextual references—conversations across time, genre, and space—when I read, and it was an extra pleasure to do so while translating The Iliac Crest. To me, that intertextuality makes the reading experience so much richer, as it allows the reader to begin to understand the network within which a particular text exists. With that in mind, then, yes, I did think it was important to find all the allusions to Dávila’s writings, though I did not necessarily do so prior to beginning the translation process; a lot of the reference emerged as I was translating. I certainly am not the first person to say this, but translation requires—or perhaps is—a particular kind of reading, one in which you take the time to explore all the levels and significance of each particular phrase.

While on the topic of Amparo Dávila, I wanted to mention a challenge that arose in the translation process surrounding her name. Amparo’s name itself becomes a linguistic game in the Spanish, as the term “amparo” can be translated as “protection,” “refuge,” or “shelter.” Her complicated relationship with the narrator originates in her conflicting search for shelter and her effective exiling of the narrator. Later in the narrative, though, the narrator describes the photo of the older writer as having an “actitud desamparada”—a “vulnerable attitude”—clearly making a play on her name between amparo/desamparo. This play, however, does not exist in English. In translation, the absence of corresponding terms that would function both syntactically and semantically in conjunction with the author’s name posed a problem. The solution I chose was to use multiple terms in translation—shelter, refuge, protection, vulnerable, etc.—to approach the Spanish.

Cristina Rivera Garza

SC: I like something that Elena Poniatowska says in the book’s afterward: “Cristina Rivera Garza runs; there is no way to catch her.” I often felt this way reading The Iliac Crest. Just as soon as I started to put some pieces together and think I understood the logic she was using, there’d be some new strange twist, and clarity eluded me yet again. Did you feel this way translating the book—as if you were in pursuit of the author but unable to catch her?

SB: Yes, I did actually feel that way, and I think that is one of the things that makes me continue to return to Cristina’s work. Translating the book certainly meant that I became familiar with all the little nooks and crannies of the novel, but I still found myself without an answer for some of the biggest mysteries, even as I approached the end of the project. On a linguistic level, too, I found this to be true, that Cristina would find new ways to use language to describe a feeling or image.

SC: Did you have a lot of back and forth with Cristina while working on the translation?

SB: Yes, we were in touch as I was working on the translation and I was incredibly grateful for Cristina’s support and encouragement. Having done some of it herself, she is quite appreciative of the process of translation and sees it as a sort of co-creation. The majority of our communication took place after I completed an initial draft of the translation; I had some clarification questions and then she read the draft and offered many helpful suggestions. I think returning to her work fifteen years later gave her the opportunity to re-think some of her ideas and she ended up adding a couple paragraphs throughout the novel to strengthen certain aspects. I very much enjoyed going back and forth with her as we thought about what to call the hospital in English and how best to capture the various layers of retroceder, for example.

SC: In your opinion, is this novel primarily a book about language? And what is your take on the secret language invented by the narrator’s two houseguests? Did you look for any hidden logic to this language?

SB: The book is so elusive in so many ways that it is difficult to identify one thing or idea around which the novel revolves, such as language. I absolutely agree that the book is particularly concerned with language and the way it operates to divide and exclude people as well as to bring them together. I did look for a hidden logic to the language, but I have to admit I did not find one. I’m not entirely sure the content of the language—the things being said—really matters, as the emphasis is more on the fact that the language functions to marginalize the narrator. The sound of the language is important as it introduces yet another liquid element into this already water-heavy book, and this is another way that it pushes for a greater sense of fluidity when it comes to the borders that divide us and to our understandings of the world.

SC: One thing that struck me about this book is how it flits between a concrete world and complete abstraction. And sometimes it’s difficult to tell what should be taken as fact and what should be taken with poetic license. Did you think about this when translating—how concrete to make the language versus striving for abstraction?

SB: I absolutely agree that the narrative is difficult to grasp and that it is never totally clear in what world we are moving. The narrative in Spanish can be almost ethereal at times, what with persistent imagery of the sea, the silently flying birds, and the uninhabited town at what seems to be the end of the land. The ever-present question of death, too, contributes to that sense of abstraction, as the dying patients exist in an ambiguous, in-between place. This is an element that I very much tried to keep in mind as I was translating, so as to be able to replicate that quality of the language that brings the reader into that strange place between the concrete world and complete abstraction. Perhaps a good example of this might be the moment when the narrator goes to the Director’s office for the first time and, instead of paying attention to the Director’s accusations, the narrator savors a sip of whiskey, allowing the sensation to transport him to another world: “I held the first sip on my tongue for a few seconds that seemed to multiply from a single point in time to occupy ever-lengthening minutes. A cancer in expansion. I let it slide slowly down my esophagus, feeling with incomparable pleasure the way it clung to my organs before falling, intermittently, drop by drop, into the very center of my stomach.” Here the narrative and the sensations move the narrator and reader in and out of reality at a critical moment in the evolution of the story.

Amparo Dávila

SC: The Spanish language is such a gender-heavy language, compared with English. You talk about this a little in the translator’s note at the end of the book. I wonder if you couldn’t elaborate a bit more on some of the choices you had to make in order to get the same effect in English.

SB: Absolutely, the Spanish language is certainly a gender-heavy language in which the grammar often betrays the gender of the subject. In a book that is so invested in exploring the fluidity of gender, the linguistic question is of utmost importance. The narrator’s gender is quite carefully made ambiguous throughout the novel; while it is not frequently acknowledged on a grammatical level, both masculine and feminine adjectives are used on several occasions. Self-references are made using the masculine (“Soy un hombre” or “Estoy seguro”) while all the women in the novel use feminine markers to refer to the narrator (“querida” or “¿Qué la trae por acá?”). It was important to me to maintain this ambiguity throughout the narrative by obscuring and revealing gender following the guidance of the Spanish original. I will note that English is not entirely free of gendered language; first-person narratives can be written without a reference to gender, but as soon as a speaker must make reference to a third-person subject, a gender identification must be made to refer to the third-person as “she” or “he.” While these choices did not necessarily come up in The Iliac Crest, they do arise in other writing by Cristina in which the Spanish obscures gender where English must reveal it. Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (tr. Emma Ramadan) is a great example of the complexities of removing gender indicators from the narrative. Emma has a great discussion of the different narrative consequences of removing gender in French and English in her translator’s note.

SC: As you mention in your translator’s note, Juan Escutia was in fact one of the Niños Héroes who died defending the Chapultepec Castle from the invading US military in 1847. And yet the Juan Escutia in the novel was a supposedly “mad” patient at the hospital where the narrator works. What do you make of the appearance of Escutia in the novel? Were you worried about allusions to Mexican history being lost on American readers?

SB: The appearance of Juan Escutia in the novel is perhaps overshadowed by that of Amparo Dávila, but I do think it is important to the novel and I did indeed want to make sure that the English reader would understand the reference. I did not think footnotes would be appropriate for the novel, in large part because so many of the references for both the Spanish and English reader are somewhat obscure and unmarked, but I did think that the translator’s note would be a way to mention this history. That space to give the reader extra guidance to the novel in its original language and to its construction in translation is the beauty of the translator’s note.

The historical reference marks Cristina’s interest in history and the ways it continuously creeps into the present. Furthermore, this particular reference mirrors the recreation of Amparo Dávila while also signaling cross-border tensions, questions of sanity, and state power. There is an underlying discussion of the role of state power in this novel as the homeless are rounded up in the North City, Amparo’s work is obstructed, disappearances have become an epidemic, and Juan Escutia is moved from one institution to another to keep him quiet. In a time when violence against women has become an epidemic in Mexico, both in the private and public sphere in a variety of contexts, a book that focuses on the social constructs of gender, the role of the state, and the marginalization of literary figures is of particular importance.

SC: Do you have any other projects you’re working on?

SB: Yes, but nothing official at the moment, so I’d rather not give any specifics. I am, however, always reading and thinking about both well-established writers and those I hope will soon receive more attention. I am currently focusing a lot of my time and energy on my graduate studies and teaching; I am a PhD student in the Romance Studies department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where I am focusing on contemporary Latin American literature and writers (working in both Spanish and Portuguese) that engage with questions of translation. I am also currently living in Seville, Spain, where I have a one-year post as a visiting lecturer in the British and North American Literature department at the University of Seville. This has meant that I get to teach literary theory, Joyce, and Poe, among others! The change in material—I generally teach Spanish language and culture—has been a lot of fun so far and has given me the opportunity to think about literature and teaching in new ways.