Bella Adey & Charlie Coombe
Bella Adey and Charlie Coombe are co-translators of Project Plume’s October fiction spotlight, the short story Self-criticism by Marvel Moreno. In this interview, they talk to us about their collaborative process, why they decided to translate the late Colombian author into English for the first time, and the importance of bringing writers who were overlooked during their lifetime into the limelight.
Why did you decide to take on Marvel Moreno’s short stories as a common project?
CC: I first heard about Marvel Moreno through an author I have translated (and am currently translating) called Margarita Garcia Robayo. She posted on social media about this wonderful author who was a major influence on her own writing, and who did not gain the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. Trusting Margarita’s taste in literature, I immediately set about trying to get hold of some of Marvel Moreno’s books, which isn’t easy as they are out of print and not widely distributed outside of her native Colombia. Once I’d managed to read some of her short stories online, I knew I couldn’t translate her work alone. Her writing is fairly complex and challenging, and without the author to ask questions, I felt I needed someone else to bounce ideas off and make sure that her texts get the best possible translation.
How did you two meet and decide to collaborate?
CC: I met Bella at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2018, amid a gaggle of translators (we tend to gather, like moss). We instantly hit it off [and] quickly realised that our literary interests, sense of humour, and the way we approach translation problems are very aligned. So when I heard about Marvel Moreno and felt a desire to translate her work, Bella immediately came to mind. Luckily she was as excited as I am to discover that this amazing author has never been translated into or published in English, and we embarked on this project with the aim of changing that. This is our first co-translation. In fact, it’s the first time I have ever co-translated anything, with anyone, although I’d like to do more of it.
BA: [After we] quickly realised we have an eerily long list of things in common, we talked about how much we had enjoyed working with other translators in the past – at the BCLT summer school as well as other literary translation workshops – and agreed that it would be great to pool our resources and work on something together in the future. Although I come from a literary background and have been translating professionally for years, I have struggled to be quick off the mark when it comes to ‘discovering’ and pitching authors to publishers. I mentioned this to Charlie, who I know is much better at the industry side of things than I am, so I was really excited when she got in touch to ask me if I would be interested in collaborating on Marvel Moreno’s short stories.
“We decided the best approach would be to divide the story into sections, translate a page each, then edit each other’s work until we have polished it to something cohesive that we are happy with. The idea is then to do the final editing together in person.” — Charlie Coombe
What does the process of collaborative translation look like for you?
CC: This is really a learning curve for us, but as we are working with short stories, we decided the best approach would be to divide the story into sections, translate a page each, then edit each other’s work until we have polished it to something cohesive that we are happy with. The idea is then to do the final editing together in person, but as Bella lives in Edinburgh and I am based down south and am kind of nomadic, this isn’t always possible. We use Google Docs for collaborative editing, plus many long phone calls and Whatsapp audio messages.
BA: I’d say the process of collaborative translation looks a lot like two busy freelancers trying to find mutually agreeable windows in their schedules! We initially talked about trying to find a time to physically be in the same place to work our way through one of the stories together, but we soon realised that it was going to take too long that way. We also toyed with the idea of each translating our own short story or splitting the stories in half, but then we finally settled on alternating between sections so that the final translation would read as a coherent whole rather than risking there being any noticeable shifts in style or phrasing.
For “Self-criticism”, we edited each other’s versions before nitpicking our way through the whole text in a series of ridiculously long WhatsApp calls (while I was surrounded by boxes and moving out of my flat, if I recall correctly). I think we both work in quite similar ways, but I really benefit from working with Charlie as I can be a bit like a dog with a bone sometimes and she is very good at keeping things moving so that we actually get to the end of the page! Thankfully, we’re similar enough to agree on lots of things but different enough to bring the best out of each other.
“I find it easier to gain more distance from the original in my first draft when translating from German into English, whereas with Spanish I spend more time trying to move away from the original and find the right voice in later drafts of the translation.” — Bella Adey
You both work from more than one language (Charlie from Spanish and French, and Bella from Spanish and German). What are the differences to your approach to each language if any?
CC: My approach to translation is fairly similar in both languages. I find that French can tend to be more convoluted and ‘flowery’ at times, and I do find Spanish easier and more of a ‘direct’ process, in a way. But it all depends on the writer’s style, of course.
BA: I guess the only real difference for me lies in the grammatical differences between my three main working languages. I find it easier to gain more distance from the original in my first draft when translating from German into English, whereas with Spanish I spend more time trying to move away from the original and find the right voice in later drafts of the translation.
Self-criticism, the short story featured in the Fiction Spotlight [last week], features a lot of religious symbolism and deals with the topic of religion from a distinctly oppressive angle. Is this a common theme in Moreno’s work?
CC: Yes, and one that occurs in a great deal of writing from Latin America. Religion, and the way in which it controls and oppresses women in particular, with all the ramifications in terms of sexuality and identity, is an overriding theme in books, film, art and culture in general throughout Latin America.
BA: The interesting thing about these short stories is that there are a number of recurring themes throughout, without any one theme ever dominating the narrative. Religious symbolism, oppression, sexuality, autonomy, liberty… Moreno’s treatment of these themes changes as she matures as a woman and as a writer, which is something we definitely noticed when we compared the style and sense of perspective between the three self-contained collections in the Complete Short Stories (Cuentos Completos – Alfaguara, 2018).
“The reason [Marvel Moreno] is such an important writer and has influenced many other writers in Colombia is that her themes spoke to the very heart of what it means to be a woman in Latin America: the constraints placed on women by society and by religion at that particular time, above all.”— Charlie Coombe
Moreno herself was educated by her maternal grandmother as a child and was very close to her, unlike the ‘evil’ grandma in this story. And yet there are parallels with her own early disillusionment with religion and subsequent expulsion from Catholic school. Do you see any autobiographical elements in her work?
BA: Moreno’s personal experiences of society, religion, education and being a woman definitely seem to have fed into her writing. Rather than there being a strictly autobiographical leaning to her work, I would say that she draws on these experiences and views in order to create something that speaks truly to her as a writer. Cuentos Completos, the complete collection of Moreno’s short stories published by Alfaguara, is divided into smaller collections, starting with her earlier work through to her later writing. There is definitely a noticeable shift in terms of the personal aspect to the work as she matures as a writer and starts to create more distance between her own identity and the subject matter or tone of her stories.
CC: Her work draws on her life experiences, as does any writer’s, but it is not directly autobiographical. The reason she is such an important writer and has influenced many other writers in Colombia is that her themes spoke to the very heart of what it means to be a woman in Latin America: the constraints placed on women by society and by religion at that particular time, above all.
Is the title (Self-criticism) a direct translation? If yes, what do you make of it? If not, can you walk me through the steps you took in choosing this to be the title?
CC: Yes, it is a direct translation of the Spanish word ‘Autocrítica’ and although we considered some other titles related to other elements of the story, we thought it worked best to keep it direct.
BA: I think there was probably a very good reason behind Moreno’s decision to use this term for the title: the short story deals with the kinds of outside influences (religion, family, relationships, death) that can make a person question or critique their own existence and instincts. In psychology, self-criticism is commonly associated with depression, stemming from disruptive forces that affect self-definition or the formation of identity. In this story, we have a young girl who is exposed to the oppressive ideals of religion and her controlling grandmother, as well as being witness to the actions of her rebellious sister. Despite the deceptively flowing element to the writing, there is this looming sense of darkness from the very opening paragraph. We agreed that ‘self-criticism’ was an intriguing and fitting title that didn’t really require any rewriting.
Are there any ongoing collaborations or co-translation projects in the pipeline?
CC: For the moment, just this project! We are continuing to translate Moreno’s complete collection of stories, one by one, fitting this in around our full-time work as freelance translators. We are hoping to acquire funding, and also submitting our translations to journals. The end goal is to try and find a publisher who’d like to publish her stories as a collection in English, so this is an ongoing process.
BA: I think collaborative translation produces great results, so I would definitely love to do more of it! But like Charlie says, this is our main passion project for the time being as we’re hoping to attract a publisher and secure funding soon so that we can translate as much of Moreno’s work as possible. I would definitely be open to collaborating with other translators in the future though.
What projects are you individually working on at the moment?
CC: I am translating a novel entitled Holiday Heart, by the Colombian author Margarita Garcia Robayo, for Charco Press. It’s due out next year (2020), and I was awarded a PEN Translates grant for the translation.
BA: I’m currently knee-deep in a series of translations for Art in Translation, so I’ve been focussing on academic translation for the last few months. Before I started collaborating with Charlie last year, I had been working on various extracts by cult writer Mario Levrero (not realising that Levrero’s work had already been picked up by a publisher!) and Spanish writer Eugenia Rico. I should really get back onto that when I get the time.
“I’m interested first and foremost in good writing, and there are some incredible women writers out there whose work is begging to be translated into English. I do think it is important that women writers are given the same opportunities as male writers, and I’m always disappointed when I see prize lists being dominated by white male authors.” — Bella Adey
Charlie, you have said that you are interested in translating more texts by women writers in particular — what is your motivation behind that? Bella, what about you?
CC: Mainly because the publishing industry and literary canons of so many countries have historically been dominated by men; many female writers – like Moreno – have been overlooked, oppressed and silenced, remaining unpublished and uncelebrated. As a woman and as a translator, I do feel a certain duty to bring more excellent female voices into the limelight. Of course I have translated both men and women, but I do tend to read more stuff by women writers, and so inevitably the books I mostly love and want to translate and champion are written by women.
BA: I’m interested first and foremost in good writing, and there are some incredible women writers out there whose work is begging to be translated into English. I do think it is important that women writers are given the same opportunities as male writers, and I’m always disappointed when I see prize lists being dominated by white male authors. I’d really like to see more books by (international) women writers on my male friends’ bookshelves!
Although Latin American literature is becoming very popular among English-language readerships, are there any regions you see as being distinctly underrepresented?
CC: I think that a lot of books from francophone African countries are not making it into English translation, probably due to lack of funding for translations, and also the poor distribution of books in Africa itself. I lived in Marrakesh for a few years and so I am interested in female Moroccan writers in particular – Morocco is extremely culturally interesting, as it is a Muslim country, yet so geographically close to Europe and heavily influenced by its French colonial history.
BA: It does seem that literature from certain regions or countries has more pulling power when it comes to attracting an international readership. Personally, I would like to see more variety in terms of the kinds of voices being translated into English – not only in a geographical sense but also in terms of background and socioeconomic status.
I think that a lot of books from francophone African countries are not making it into English translation, probably due to lack of funding for translations, and also the poor distribution of books in Africa itself. — Charlie Coombe
Which women writers have you read that you want to see in English translation someday?
CC: One writer who comes to mind is Lucía Baskaran, who is a novelist and activist from the Basque country. I recently translated a sample of her novel Cuerpos Malditos [Cursed Bodies] from Spanish, and I am trying to help find an English-language publisher for it.