Eva Baltasar interview: 'I wrote three versions of Boulder and deleted two'
Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, Eva Baltasar talks about the inspiration behind Boulder in an exclusive interview
With Boulder shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, its translator talks about growing up trilingual, working in a spiral – and finding the right translation for a sex toy
Read interviews with all of the International Booker Prize 2023 authors and translators here.
How does it feel to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023 – an award which recognises the art of translation in such a way that the translators and author share the prize money equally should they win – and what would winning the prize mean to you?
I imagine I feel the same as all the other longlistees: over the moon and honoured to be in such talented company. Also grateful – that this prize exists for the reason cited in the question. Because it recognises translation not only as an art but as a collaborative effort. Winning? Winning the prize would mean a million things, among them, practically speaking, security. For now, I’m just overjoyed that the longlisting has drawn attention to a novel and an author I love.
How long did it take to translate the book, and what does your working process look like? Do you read the book multiple times first? Do you translate it in the order it’s written?
I translated this book slowly, though I can’t remember how long the entire process took. Only that I spent a long while weighing each sentence, re-writing it, reading it aloud, as if the whole thing were a collection of poetry. Which it is, in a way.
My working process changes from project to project, though I usually start from the beginning and then work in something of a spiral that is less like a snail shell than it is the spiral binding on a notebook. I translate a couple of thousand words one day and edit those words the next before translating more. It helps keep the voice alive in my head. I often read the whole book at least once, but not always. Translation is the closest form of reading, so whether you read it before or not is just a matter of deciding whether you want to begin by reading the book less closely than you will while translating.
What was the experience of working with Eva Baltasar like? How closely did you work together? Was it a very collaborative process? Were there any surprising moments during your collaboration, or joyful moments, or challenges?
Every translation is a collaboration, regardless of how closely you work with the author. This is the second book I’ve translated by Eva Baltasar – I’m working on the third now – and my familiarity with her work informed the choices I made in Boulder. Of course, I also sent Eva some queries after finishing a draft. She has always been helpful, receptive and respectful of my work, and it’s a joy when that trust can flow in both directions.
I suppose one of the funniest moments in this translation was sending Eva an image of an arnès sense lligadures, a strapless strap-on, so she could confirm I had translated the right sex toy.
I can’t imagine doing anything else, or being qualified to do anything but translate literature. AI be damned
Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?
I always try to find companions for the books I’m translating, not only in subject matter but also in style. For Boulder, I read Motherhood by Sheila Heti and reread Bluets by Maggie Nelson. I also read some Carson McCullers, since she is cited in the epigraph. And a great deal of poetry: Safiya Sinclair, Mary Ruefle, Ada Limón.
What was your path to becoming a translator of literary fiction? What would you say to someone who is considering such a career for themselves?
I grew up bilingual and then trilingual, so translation has always been a part of my life, albeit informally; Catalan is the only language I translate from that I learned as an adult, though it’s in my family history (my great-grandmother was from a small town just outside Barcelona). I came to translating literature through publishing, having worked at a literary agency in New York City for three years. At this point, I can’t imagine doing anything else, or being qualified to do anything but translate literature. AI be damned.
To someone considering this career for themselves I would say this: first, that the mythical English reader is just that, a myth, as are notions of the nativeness or firstness of the language or languages you translate into. Second, find community; it’s a hinterland out there and your colleagues are your closest allies.
Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction?
Because, in the words of the brilliant Jeremy Tiang, my comrade on this longlist: ‘Perhaps if the dominant anglophone culture actually acknowledged itself to be part of the world, rather than treating “world literature” as a spice rack to save itself from total blandness, more than three per cent of books published in the United States would be in translation?’ I believe the figure in the UK is closer to 6%, but the point stands.
If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why?
I don’t know if these writers have inspired my career per se, but reading the work of two Jameses – Baldwin and Kelman – blew the top of my head off. Writing by Kate Briggs, Sawako Nakayasu, Don Mee Choi, Lina Mounzer and so many others on translation has provided steady, generative company. But most of all, closely reading and translating Eva Baltasar, Claudia Hernández, Susana Moreira Marques, Mariana Oliver and Geovani Martins, as well as all the other authors I’ve had the pleasure to work with, has informed and changed my practice; each experience taught me an invaluable lesson about how to engage with and write literature in translation.