In Other Words

The art of translation has its say

Finding the right voice: Award-winning literary translator Lisa Dillman says that starting a new book translation project is "almost like acting, getting into character."
Kay Hinton

Finally, and fittingly, a translator has achieved a measure of fame.

Last year, Lisa Dillman 93G, senior lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, won the Best Translated Book Award for her work on Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. The Best Translated Book Awards are sponsored by the literary site Three Percent— so named as a lament, since only about 3 percent of all works published in the US are translations.

Carrying a $5,000 prize for both author and translator, the award is the most prestigious of its kind in the US, and it had been within striking distance for Dillman twice before.

In high school, Dillman felt that she had no aptitude for languages. She was intrigued by them, though, having grown up with friends who spoke Spanish, Russian, and Hebrew with their parents. “I was envious,” says Dillman. “There was a richness there. I wanted access to that.”

That interest took root during a year in Barcelona, where Dillman fell in love with the city as well as with Spanish and Catalan. Back home, she felt a sense of loss for what she had experienced there; worse, her jokes were bombing. It was about then, she says, that “I realized that it’s not just language that is different; everything is embedded, including sense of humor. It’s not just words.”

After completing a master’s degree in Spanish literature at Emory, Dillmanwent on to pursue a master’s degree in literary translation from Middlesex University in London in the early days of that program.

Translation theory holds in tension the opposing ideas of domestication and foreignization. With domestication, the translator leaves the reader in peace and brings the text to the reader. Foreignization is the opposite. Dillman ascribes to the latter, saying, “I am far more in favor of bringing the reader to the text. When you read, you want to discover something new. You want to know how people live and breathe and speak.”

Herrera’s book, which she describes as a “prescient tale of immigration,” is the story of a girl from Mexico coming to the US to search for her brother. Herrera “mixes a lot of registers,” says Dillman. “There is a lot of rural language and shifts where it becomes incredibly lyrical and poetic.”

Dillman describes two themes as foremost in her field: the rights of translators and their fight for visibility. Ironically, the more fluidly a book is translated, the more the reader seems to be having an unmediated experience. “This issue gets talked about all the time,” says Dillman. “There are as many stances about it as there are translators.”

Dillman loves her work, although the financial rewards could stand to improve. She’s received one royalty check in her life—for a penny. She framed it rather than cash it.

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