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The Remainder interview

The Remainder interview

“There is definitely a freedom in translating madness, but no safety whatsoever.” In this Man Booker International Prize interview with author Alia Trabucco Zerán & translator Sophie Hughes,  Alia tells us why it’s both a surprise and honour to make the longlist, while Sophie shares what she most liked about translating The Remainder.


Alia Trabucco Zerán, author of The Remainder

What has it been like to be longlisted?

Surprising. Seeing The Remainder on a list with extraordinary writers from such diverse places is an honour. The Remainder was in my mind for a long time even before I felt I could write it, so to see it travel and transform like this is unexpected and really beautiful. I am also especially pleased that this prize recognises the work of the translators. I read a lot in Spanish, but also a great deal in translation, and the opportunity to access other literary traditions is something I value enormously as both a reader and writer. I respect and admire Sophie Hughes, her professionalism, her talent, her work and passion. She took this novel and translated at many levels: the words, of course, but also the ideas, emotions, plot and above all the rhythm and language. And that task, the way she carried over the melody in her own language, is extraordinary. And so I am really very happy that her work is being recognised, as well as that of the whole team at And Other Stories. My novel is in excellent company in their catalogue.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book The Remainder?

The Remainder is a novel about what we inherit and what we cannot escape: a family and a collective history, an individual and a shared pain, a language old and new, one body to be buried and another that is reborn. It is a book about a trip made by three friends to the other side of the Andean mountains in order to look for and bury a body. That is, a delirious, sad, mad trip, but also a necessary one, which I wrote with both my personal history and that of my country in mind.

How does the Santiago of the book relate to your own experiences of Chile?

The Santiago of The Remainder is an oppressive city, a leaden landscape where even the expansive cordillera becomes something suffocating. My experience of the city is happier more colourful, but the allegory holds true. I’ve always had the feeling that Chile exists in a range of tenses: the remote past, the dictatorial past, the uncomfortable present. This makes Santiago an intense place: always complex, never boring. It’s my city, my country, and it’s where my own story and language originate. My imagination, too, lives there.


Sophie Hughes, translator of The Remainder

What has it been like to be longlisted?

Deeply humbling and very exciting! It’s also enormously gratifying to see the positive impact that the MBI longlist has had on the novel’s reception. If translated literature is still considered by some to be ‘niche’, and literary novels ‘difficult’, The Remainder ­— a compelling but circumambulating work, which bends over backwards not to deliver a history lesson on Chile’s dictatorship, whilst simultaneously offering unparalleled insight into that time and its aftermath — should by all accounts be confined to the fusty library stores… instead, it’s garnering a readership. It’s posing those readers questions. It’s alive!

What did you most like about translating The Remainder?

Reading the work aloud with Alia. Listening to her Chilean Spanish in her East London flat. Emulating her in hushed tones in the British Library. Tripping over our tongues in York to a room full of unnervingly rapt students. In countless private moments, alone at our own computers, but somehow together, listening to one another, as is the telekinetic nature of translation.

What were the challenges of translating this book?

I imagine there is both freedom and safety in being mad; Felipe, one of two voices in the novel, spends his chapters slowly unravelling towards some form of psychosis, and yet, his conviction is shatterproof. He doesn’t draw breath —quite literally, there are no full stops in his chapters! There is definitely a freedom in translating madness, but no safety whatsoever. Diving into a book-long sentence is like diving headfirst off a building with no safety net. I had countless false starts and then tumbled my way to the bottom. Luckily, the masterful editorial team at And Other Stories were there to catch me. And besides, Alia jumped first.