Jacob Rogers, translator of Galician and Spanish literature
We would like to introduce you to Jacob Rogers. He is a translator of Galician and Spanish literature, and he has beautifully translated from Galician our new upcoming title THE DEAR ONES, by Berta Dávila. He has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts and the PEN/Heim Translation fund. He has also co-edited features of Galician literature for Words Without Borders, Asymptote, and The Riveter.
His translation of Manuel Rivas' The Last Days of Terranova was published by Archipelago Books in 2022.
This article is Jacob's journey into the world of Galician literature. Beginning with chance encounters at university, he developed a passion for translating great literature, eventually focusing on Galician works. He highlights the unique qualities of the language and his admiration for the writer Berta Dávila. Jacob talks about his efforts to capture the essence of Berta's writing in English, seeking a delicate balance between his own voice and that of the author.
He invites readers to discover the deep layers of meaning and beauty in the translated work.
My interest in literary translation, and in becoming a literary translator of Galician in particular, began in university in North Carolina, through a lucky confluence of fortuitous events and circumstances. These include signing up for Spanish classes to fill some course hours (I’d studied it from age 7-18 and given it up after that), learning about a Works in Translation book club at the local bookstore, which was a truly formative experience in many ways, and my later place of employment—if you want to get a job at a bookstore, I guess my advice would be to attend a book club run by one of the manager’s for a year—and learning about Galician literature via Google pointing me to the Portico of Galician Literature, a website in English run by the pre-eminent translator Jonathan Dunne, during a class where, to begin with, I was only assigned to research Galicia because I’d told my professor I didn’t care what region I was assigned, but please just put me in a good group!
In other words, largely due to the flexibility and support of various people in my life around that time I had the time, space, freedom, and obsessive interest (I do love to go down a rabbit hole) to explore literary translation as a theory and academic interest, but also as a practice. After two summers studying Galician in the capital, Santiago de Compostela, and a year living in its biggest city (nominally, but they do like to claim to be the “Brooklyn” of Galicia—hah) as well as other brief stays there, I can say unequivocally that I love Galician; it’s a beautiful language, with a lot of the features that make Iberian Spanish lovely, too, but tempered by long, hovering diphthongs and X’s that make shh sounds, wrapped up in a grammar more similar to Portuguese (they used to be the same language, but then came borders, Spanish as a colonialist, nationalist project, you know how it goes…) But in the reality, as much as I love the language in and of itself, that’s not why I translate from Galician.
I sometimes suffer from a certain lack of sentimentalism, maybe a bit of opportunism, a pinch of ego here and there, and anyway, my point is, I think that particularly earlier on in my career what I was really interested in was translating great writing, whatever the language, it just happened that the language I knew was Spanish. But as I started learning about Galician, first as an assignment and later as a growing curiosity, I realized that there was great work being produced in the language, even if I couldn’t yet read it quite as well as I thought I could (I know this now…), and that it might be a better place to start anyway, at a remove from the madness and competition of the Spanish translation market. If this sounds cynical, it is a bit, to be honest. But I shouldn’t leave out mention that by this point, I’d started to reach out to some authors whose work I loved and wanted to translate, and felt very warmly welcomed despite my lack of experience (learning on the job, as they say), and over time my cynical opportunism melted into a genuine sense of belonging, like I was doing the thing I wanted to be doing and was invested in translating Galician literature for its own sake.
But ultimately, I’m still motivated by finding great literature to work with (the basis for some of my forays into Spanish translation, but mostly Galicians, I promise!), and if there’s one thing about Galician literature, it has no lack of committed writers who push their own boundaries and experiment with new forms and voices. Berta Dávila is a perfect example of that. Though she first gained major recognition as a poet, her debut novel, published about a decade ago, Emma Olsen’s Final Book, was a fake translation of an end-of-life-memoir by an invented Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist from South Dakota, and believe me when I tell you, the writing is simply spectacular, formal games aside. Her esteem in the public and critical eye has only increased since the more recent publication of her loose autofictional triptych (The Dear Ones is the last). Each one of these books has been written in her characteristically devastating, beautiful, spare prose, but each has had a radically different structural conceit at its heart, which isn’t necessary to think too hard about to enjoy the books in and of themselves (again, the writing is great on its own), but being the obsessive type that I am, it’s what I’m particularly drawn to about her writing because there’s nothing better to me than a work of literature where I can continue to find something new, some new reading, interpretation, or layer after god knows how many read-throughs of the original and my translation of it.
It seems almost impossible that Berta Dávila manages to achieve this depth this over and over in such short books, which look so simple on their face but teem with and understrata of recurring images, metaphors, and meaning. I’m sure you can tell from this word salad that I’m not a succinct writer; brevity isn’t my strong suit and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to end a sentence without like forty clauses in it (case in point: why is there a semi-colon after “writer,” just use a period!), which couldn’t be farther from the case with Berta’s writing. It’s not that her every sentence is a short, terse utterance, it’s more that even when she indulges a few extra clauses, her writing is compact and dense, and part of her brilliance, I think, is in this prose that is paradoxically spare and pared-down yet diaphanous and open-hearted, capacious enough to allow for some moments of dark humor or irony (my one true love in writing). It’s been a real education to learn how to translate her work well, given my verbose tendencies, not erasing myself per se, but learning how to meet her halfway, engaging with her work on its own terms at the same time as I try to assure that it has the same vitality in English.
There’s no one way to do literary translation, but for me this is the closest I’ve come to an overriding idea of what I need to be aiming for in the work that I do: finding that elusive middle-ground between the author’s voice and my own, figuring out where and how our sensibilities overlap, even if only a sliver, and amplifying it so that we complement each other (it helps that Berta is a pleasure to work with, and is very tolerant of my annoying, nitpicky questions and clarifications!). This middle-ground reminds me a lot of one of my favorite things when I’m reading in another language: sometimes, I find myself stopping and translating in my head, entering an inexpressible, boundless realm between the meaning of what’s written in the original and the English I’m mentally composing. I love that moment of side-by-side, simultaneous contemplation, but so often, if I try to write down what I’ve envisioned in English, the magic disappears; it was neither the original nor the mental translation that was beautiful, but the interplay, the access to that slippery world that I assume writers access too, where you try to take something that lives in your head, beyond language, and put it to paper, to recreate the magic of that personal vision.
Maybe this is a romanticized view of translation, and maybe I’m more sentimental than I’m giving myself credit for, but it’s what I’d like to believe I’ve achieved even a small part of in this book, and it’s what I’ll be chasing in every book down to come. Now, it’s in readers’ hands, and more than hoping you love it, I hope that if you, too, read it a million times, you’ll find yourself lost in the same endless layers of meaning and beauty that Berta planted in the original Galician.