Stephen Henighan’s translations have twice been longlist finalists for the Best Translated Book Award and once for the International Dublin Literary Award. Henighan is the author of ten books of fiction, most recently the short story collection Blue River and Red Earth (2018) and the novel The World of After (2021). His most recent translation is The Country of Toó by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (published by Biblioasis).

The Country of Toó
Published by Biblioasis

Stephen Henighan

My goal as a translator was to deliver this complex vision to the reader with the concision and elegance of the original, without lapsing into cumbersome explanations; therefore, it was to suggest, rather than to overtly interpret.  

Can you describe what first attracted you to literary translation?

Translation is writing, and I’m driven by all forms of prose writing. I came to literary translation late, when I had already published nine or ten books of my own. My writing and my study of other languages both began in adolescence, yet for about three decades they ran along parallel tracks that failed to cross.  I suppose that at a subliminal level I was often thinking about how sentences in the books I read in other languages might sound in English, but only after I started working with the Biblioasis International Translation Series did I get a chance to put that into practice.

How much interaction do you have with the author whose work you are translating?

I had more interaction with Rodrigo Rey Rosa than I’ve had with other authors.  Some writers like to just come in at the end and comment on points that may strike them as incorrect. Others stay out of it completely.  Being a translator into English presents very particular dilemmas because these days everyone knows (or thinks they know) English.  Translators into Polish or Japanese don’t have to deal with this problem.  Also, the English edition is very important to writers because it’s the one that Polish or Swedish or Japanese editors will read to decide whether to translate the book into their own languages; a weak English translation can sink a book’s prospects internationally. In Rodrigo’s case, his English—particularly his written English—is phenomenally acute and sensitive to nuance.  As a young man he worked as the private secretary of Paul Bowles, an American avant-garde writer who lived in Morocco. This gave him a superb training in the sound and feel of English prose.  When I sent Rodrigo my translation of The Country of Toó, he suggested we have a Zoom conference.  We ended up having two Zoom conferences of about two hours each in which we reviewed many scenes line by line.

When working on The Country of Toó what was your ultimate goal?

The Country of Toó combines the concern for a clean, polished style of Rodrigo’s earliest works with his more recent preoccupation with the decay of Guatemalan society, and his view of Indigenous Mayan culture as one of the solutions to Guatemalan inauthenticity and corruption. The “Toó” of the title is a short form for Totonicapán, the most heavily Indigenous region of Guatemala.  The story is cast in a thriller form, but there’s much more than that going on.  My goal as a translator was to deliver this complex vision to the reader with the concision and elegance of the original, without lapsing into cumbersome explanations; therefore, it was to suggest, rather than to overtly interpret.   I’ve written a novel about Guatemala myself—The Path of the Jaguar (2016), which I read from at the 2017 Eden Mills Writers’ Festival—and, serendipitously, my Guatemalan novel appeared in Central America in a Spanish translation by Mónica Santizo only a few weeks before Rodrigo’s novel was published in my English translation in North America.  It felt like the best sort of cultural exchange.

What were the most interesting and challenging aspects of translating The Country of Toó?

One lesson that was reinforced by my experience in translating Rey Rosa is that it is difficult to achieve simplicity.  Sentences that look simple in Spanish have to be worked on and reworked to achieve an equivalent simplicity in English. The vocabulary used to describe race in Guatemalan culture is also very particular. Whereas Mexicans are taught in school that they are nearly all “mestizos” –people of mixed Indigenous and southern European ancestry—in Guatemala the word “mestizo” is used only sparingly.  For most Guatemalans, the population is divided between Indigenous people and “ladinos.”   This word, which means a European, can refer to anyone who does not speak an Indigenous language. Thus people who are ethnically 100% Indigenous may refer to themselves as Europeans as long as they prefer to speak Spanish rather than Quiché-Maya or Kaqchiquel-Maya.  The mixed, intermediate term that prevails in many other Latin American countries is missing. Negotiating this, and other anomalies of the Guatemalan vocabulary for racial and cultural identity, required both inventiveness and a lot of consultation with the author concerning the impressions he wished to convey in English. 

How does your creative and/or planning process differ when switching between your own writing, and translating someone else’s work?

With a translation, you know how the book ends!  My latest novel, The World of After, which is 465 pages long and took me nine years and six or seven full-length drafts to complete, and which I think is my most significant literary achievement, was a process of discovery. The more I got to know the characters, the more it became evident that certain subplots were trivial or extraneous.  The direction of the novel grew clearer over time, in the way that a sculpted head emerges from a block of stone as the sculptor works on it. With a translation, the whole head is there for you to see; your task as translator is to make the head visible to people who are unable to see through the screen of the original language. It can be linguistically challenging, but it’s not usually as emotionally exhausting as writing a novel. 

What are you working on next?

I recently finished a new novel, a sort of highbrow psychosexual thriller set in Egypt during the run-up to the Arab Spring. I’m currently translating the University of Bucharest’s new history of Romanian literature from 1542 to the present from Romanian into English. It’s over 600 pages long and I probably won’t finish it for another year. Finally, I’m answering these questions from Luanda, Angola because I’ve translated three novels by the Angolan writer Ondjaki into English for the Biblioasis International Translation Series, and I’ve also spent about fifteen years trying to write a non-fiction book about the relationship between history and the novel in Angola. This is a book that I’m really hoping to finish soon! 

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