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A Bit of Imagination: Jethro Soutar on Translating Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

Equatorial Guinean Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is one of the most exciting African writers working today, and with Jethro Soutar‘s translation into English of By Night The Mountain Burns (And Other Stories, £10 / $15.95 (print), £5 / $8 (ebook)) he’s poised to reach a much wider audience than ever before. Working across genres and often under threat of political harassment by Equatorial Guinea’s notorious Obiang regime, Ávila Laurel’s work is deeply rooted in his homeland, and specifically in the 6.75-sq.-mile island of Annobón, a Guinean territory 220 miles west of Gabon and 110 miles south of São Tomé, which has, considering its small size, produced several notable Guinean writers. Ávila Laurel grew up speaking Fá d’Ambô, Annobón’s Portuguese Creole, and has written some poetry in the language. Translator Soutar’s recent translations include Brazilian Frei Betto’s Hotel Brasil, and several soccer crónicas from The Football Crónicas, which he co-edited with Tim Gervin. Originally introduced by email by Ávila Laurel, Soutar and I later met in London, but returned to our electronic correspondence to bridge the transatlantic gap—DS

By-Night-the-M-B-front-cover-CMYK-300x460First things first. It’s not every day that one comes across an Equatorial Guinean novelist. How did you discover Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s work? 

I’d been talking to one of the editors at Words Without Borders about Spanish-speaking countries they’d never featured. Equatorial Guinea was on the list and piqued my curiosity – I was only even half-aware it was Spanish-speaking. I vaguely recalled reading something in El País about writers in Equatorial Guinea, so I looked the article up online. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel got a mention and I googled him and found he had a blog. I had a read, liked what I saw (political stuff mostly) and sent him a message. I asked him for some short stories that Words Without Borders might consider, and he eventually sent me a PDF of By Night The Mountain Burns. I read it and loved it.

As a translator myself, there are often poems or even books that I immediately feel I must translate, sometimes even before I finish them, rights and potential publishers be damned. Is that how you felt upon first reading By Night?

Yes and no. All translators imagine translating books, good or bad, while they read them, so of course there was a lot of ‘ooh, tricky, how would I deal with that?’ when I read By Night The Mountain Burns. And then there’s the potential publishers issue, but even sidestepping that, although I immediately loved the book, immediately knew I’d like to translate it, I wasn’t sure I was equipped to do so: it was a country I knew so little about, and a remote island at that, distant from the rest of the country; it almost seemed like too big a leap. But all creative writing requires a bit of imagination, and translation is no different. Plus I realised I was as well-placed as anyone to translate it, and that I could make up for my lack of local knowledge through research, which is basically what I did, reading a lot of West African literature.

Did you notice any peculiarities in Ávila Laurel’s Guinean Spanish? Did any of the cultural practices described strike you as strange or unusual?

One of the hardest things to convey was the fact that the book’s narrator is speaking Spanish, but another language is commonly used on the island. In the original, this is straightforward: a Spanish reader reads the book in Spanish and any non-Spanish words are assumed to be Fá d’Ambô, the island’s language. But the English reader probably doesn’t know Spanish from Fá d’Ambô, so you have to signpost things a little more, or provide a few ticks, reminders that there are a number of linguistic textures involved. So Juan Tomás’ Spanish is sprinkled with local, non-Spanish words, but it’s not like Amos Tutuola (a Nigerian writer whose 1952 novel The Palm-Wine Drinkard was written in non-standard English) or Junot Díaz. What you mostly notice is a certain old-fashioned, colonial quality, which put me in mind of Indian English. As for the cultural practices described in the novel, I’m not sure I can think of a single one that didn’t strike me as being somehow strange or unusual. But there’s also something oddly familiar about it all: the narrator is remembering events as he saw them as a child, so there is that universal child’s sense of discovering the world, when everything’s new and nothing’s necessarily stranger than anything else.

The book’s publisher And Other Stories calls the novel Whitmanesque. Do you think that that’s the influence of Ávila Laurel’s work as a poet? What other writers do you think his work converses with?

I’m sure his work as a poet is an influence, but perhaps more significantly, his poetry and his prose-writing are influenced by the same thing: the oral storytelling tradition. I worked very hard on rhythm with the translation, and the rhythm of the narrative has a strong sense of verse. When we tell a story out loud, we use rhythm to pause for breath, and to keep the listeners’ attention. As for other writers, one of the reasons I so liked the book in the first place was that it struck me as being very original, that Juan Tomás wasn’t trying to write like anyone else. But inevitably author books spring to mind, and on a personal level, because I also translate Portuguese and have read a fair bit of Brazilian literature, I was reminded of Barren Lives by Graciliano Ramos. They are very different books, but the repetition in By Night The Mountain Burns, the slight obsessing over certain events or ideas you get in people and places of limited horizons, reminded me of Ramos’ book about life in Brazil’s Northeast.

You recently edited a selection of soccer crónicas, timed to come out just before the World Cup. Do you think soccer has a greater hold on the literary imagination than other sports? Why do you really think Borges claimed to hate it so much? Was he a bad player?

Your question makes me think of Costa Rica at the World Cup, with Borges and Bolaños playing in the same team – the Costa Rican Borges was no bad player! But Jorge Luís Borges essentially thought soccer was bread and circuses, and of course he was right, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. I don’t think soccer is more dramatic or poetic than other sports, but it’s the most popular sport in the world and therefore, in literary terms, it’s the best sport for exploring society and the human condition. That’s essentially what The Football Crónicas does: the fifteen short pieces in the book revolve around soccer, but all are really social portraits: a transvestite team in Colombia, a Quechua women’s team in the Andes, a Latino immigrants league in New York…

What projects are you working on now? Any other African writers?

Right now I’m finishing off translations for a short story and poetry initiative in Brazil called Rio: Passagens, which is an exciting multimedia, multi-lingual project. Then I’ll be translating some short pieces by Kalaf Epalanga, an Angolan writer based in Portugal. I also recently translated a story by Ondjaki, another Angolan, for Africa39. I live in Lisbon and it’s a great place to discover Luso-African writers.

Somewhere between Los Angeles and Lisbon, November 2014

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  1. ‘Natives’ Is A Startling Novel About Sex, Migration And Stereotypes Of African Virility | Inongo vi Makomè - March 20, 2016

    […] followed by Justo Bolekia Bolekå’s book of poetry, Löbëla, and byJethro Soutar’s 2014 translation of Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night The Mountain Burns. They’re remarkable books, but after […]

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