Emory Report
April 7, 2008
Volume 60, Number 26


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April 7, 2008
Translator offers novel view of words

By Coleman Wood

Lisa Dillman’s work in literary translation can sometimes be a thankless task.

“Reviewing is a funny thing,” says the senior lecturer in Spanish. “When translations are reviewed, they tend to either not mention the translator... or they find things [about the translation] to complain about.”

The reviews have been mostly positive so far for her latest project, the English translation of Juan Eslava Galán’s novel “The Mule.” Set during the Spanish Civil War, the novel follows a poor Spanish farmer who is drafted into the Republican army during the war, but switches sides to fight with the Nationalists as a mule driver.

Dillman, who professes to have been “somewhat obsessed” with the Spanish Civil War for quite some time, was drawn to the book’s interesting perspective.

“[The book] was really interesting for me because I have been studying specifically Spanish Civil War history for many years, and I’ve never read a book about a Nationalist soldier, as opposed to a Republican soldier,” Dillman says.

With “The Mule” being the sixth novel that Dillman has translated, she is well-prepared for the intricacies involved in literary translation.

“Most people who are not in the field have a lot of misconceptions about translation, and I think most people tend to think of it as a mathematical equation, where ‘x’ in one language equals ‘y’ in another language,” she says. “And I think it’s probably fair to say that, essentially, that is never the case.”

She adds that many words are very difficult to translate into other languages and still hold on to the original context and connotations of the original language. For this particular novel, Dillman had to decide how to best explain to non-native readers about things such as detailed Spanish irrigation techniques and the minutiae of the country’s politics in the 1930s.

There are two ways to approach translating a text: domestication, where the translator tries to make the novel as familiar to the reader as possible, and foreignization, where the author makes no concessions to the reader. But it is not an either/or choice; the two methods exist on opposite ends of a continuum.

“The fun, in a way, resides in finding the balance between how I can make this an enjoyable experience for the reader, but also try to alter the reader’s mindset enough that they’re learning something about a foreign culture, foreign history and a foreign language,” Dillman says.

The novel — critically acclaimed in Spain — stands to gain even more notoriety, first with Dillman’s translation, and now with a movie. A film based on the novel is being directed by Michael Radford, best known for “Il Postino (The Postman).”

“I really think this is a beautiful book,” Dillman says. “It’s such a different take on the war.”