The Rumpus Book Club chats with author Mariana Oliver and translator Julia Sanches about Migratory Birds (Transit Books, June 2021), the process of translating its essays, how context defines us as human beings, why prepositions make or break a sentence, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Elizabeth Gonzalez James, Cai Emmons, Maggie Nelson, Wendy J. Fox, Gene Kwak, Christopher Gonzalez, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to our Book Club chat with author Mariana Oliver and translator Julia Sanches about Migratory Birds. I’m looking forward to discussing this book!
Mariana Oliver: Hello, and thank you very much for joining the chat.
Julia Sanches: Hi, everyone! Thank you for being here with us.
Marisa: Mariana, can you get us started by speaking a little about how Migratory Birds came together as an essay collection? How do you find your subject matter, as an essayist?
Mariana Oliver: I wrote Aves migratorias in the span of two years, from 2013 to 2015, thanks to a grant I received from the Fundación para las Letras Mexicanas. It was not conceived a full collection. I started writing about different subjects or questions which called my attention at the time. I had just came back from an academic stay in Germany, so I had been thinking about migration.
I am mostly interested in the inquiry about day-to-day experiences that in truth are more complex and have a lot to tell us about identity. I think that the idea of “travel” is an experience that questions what we consider “normal.” For example, the precise time for having meals, the place we occupy in the public arena…
Marisa: Yes! This interest in how we experience places (and stories, and cultures, perhaps, too) new to us is present in much of the writing in Migratory Birds. It was strange, in a sort of lovely way, to read and think about travel so much right now, when we are stuck in our same homes and towns and cities with the pandemic.
Reviews of of the book note its through-line of migration, borders, and movement. In writing these pieces, I wonder what was your most surprising discovery or epiphany about migration? Or, what do you hope readers take away from the book in thinking about migration, borders, and movement?
Mariana Oliver: Nothing is ever still; we live in continuous movement. In fact, what defines us as human beings depends on context. We may be “the one” or “the other” depending on the circumstances. For example, being a national citizen or a foreigner. Being a foreigner may always imply a certain level of misunderstanding language or other cultural cues.
Several of the essays in Migratory Birds are in fact a response to an actual travel: the title essay, which opens the book, occurred to me in a short family holiday to Washington, DC. Another one came about after rich experiences visiting La Habana and Turkey.
Marisa: Do you write while you’re traveling?
Mariana Oliver: Frequently, I do take a few notes, I take plenty of pictures; I come back home with books, maps, museum brochures, and other memorabilia.
Of course, beyond actual trips, I do reflect plenty about how language changes in the literary works of Özdamar and Christa Wolf.
Marisa: I was just going to ask: the essays in Migratory Birds definitely blend research and reportage with personal reflection. How you balance research and reporting with personal reflection? Do you enjoy research?
Mariana Oliver: My original training is as an academic researcher, so I do think like that to start with. I really enjoy reading old newspapers or magazines, listening to interviews, and exploring photographs or maps.
I find a particular pleasure in exploring the roots of words or expressions which I am thinking of using as the pillars of the essays. For example, in the essay about Koblenz, the one about the underground bombs. It was truly revealing to me that “bombus” means noise. The question that immediately emerged in my mind is what happens to that original “meaning” when there is no blast.
Marisa: I love that essay! I don’t know if I have a favorite, but maybe it’s that one. The juxtaposition of the reality and the language, and of what we name things, is really powerful—in that essay, but also in others.
The art of translation is always interesting—walking the tightrope of staying true to the original work within the constraints of, and for an audience reading in, a different language and culture. Can you each talk a little about the process of translating Migratory Birds? Mariana, how hands-on/involved were you in the translation? And Julia, what was your approach to translating Migratory Birds? Does each translation project require its own approach?
Julia Sanches: The process of translating Migratory Birds felt oddly natural. I had been reading the book for a few years, and had grown pretty familiar with Mariana’s voice by the time I began to translate the whole book. She writes in Spanish in a way I would love to be able to write in English, with so much light and empathy, and in perfectly spare, limpid prose.
Mariana Oliver: For the English edition, Julia and Adam [Levy, publisher at Transit Books] suggested a series of subtle but important changes to a couple of the essays; for example, eliminating statements that from a distance felt out of context. Throughout this process, I had to take a step back from the book, and ask myself what aspects of the text no longer spoke to my current thinking and how the context in which I’d written had changed. The experience is similar to when you look at an old photograph of yourself: you recognize certain traits and, at the same time, others seem foreign to you.
Julia Sanches: I think every book holds the key to its own translation, which means that every time I translate a book I have to figure it out before I get started. Mariana and I sent each other several WhatsApps throughout the process: some about translation, others with pictures of our cats.
Mariana Oliver: I always read out loud whatever I am writing. I remember vividly an afternoon when Julia was asking me questions about the text. I asked her to read her translation to decide which version I liked better.
Exchanging pictures of our cats was always cute.
Julia Sanches: Oh yes, was it the time you had written about Spanish words that were rooted in Arabic, and I had to find English terms with Arabic origins? There were a couple of occasions where the wording had to change for the sake of meaning.
Mariana Oliver: Yes, precisely. I do recall we also read out loud several parts in the last essay, the one about my house.
Julia Sanches: That’s also one of my favorite. And as a translator, it was interesting to be invited into your home as the book came to a close.
Mariana Oliver: Julia is a fantastic translator. She was able to preserve the rhythm of that last essay, the one closing the book.
Julia Sanches: That one involved quite a bit of rejigging, since prepositions don’t work the same way in English as they do in Spanish.
Mariana Oliver: In the last essay, the key for me was to join the words in such a way that we could “listen” a sort of cadence, a musical cadence. Prepositions are a key subject regarding translations, I have not thought about that so deeply until I read Julia’s translation.
Julia Sanches: Prepositions are the bane of every translator’s existence; they can really make or break a sentence.
Marisa: This is so fascinating to hear you two discuss. I’m always interested in translation but especially with poetic language, with language that experiments some with form, it seems even more complicated to, as Julia said, capture the “light and empathy” and the “perfectly spare, limpid prose” (which is so captivating for readers).
Mariana, the book published earlier this week. How does it feel to have it out in another language now—and also, so many years after doing the writing, in this very specific world moment of the pandemic?
Mariana Oliver: The book will be published on June 22, finally. I am beyond excited and joyous about having worked with Julia and of having the opportunity of being published by Transit Books, such a professional and ambitious publishing house.
Julia Sanches: Yes, I think the publication date got pushed back a couple of weeks, though my local independent bookstore already has a copy!
(Working with Mariana has been a joy, though I think that’s clear from how we talk about the process.)
Mariana Oliver: The pandemic has meant that I will not be able to tour bookstores and cities in the US to talk about the book. I do not have a copy of the English version just yet.
Marisa: Yes, it’s hard to connect with readers the same way online. Will you do some virtual events and readings?
Julia Sanches: We’ll be doing an event on June 22 with another excellent Mexican essayist, Jazmina Barrera.
Mariana Oliver: Transit Books is planning just this type of event! Thank you very much for bringing it up, Julia.
Marisa: Wonderful! I will make sure we share that with our readers, thank you!
Who are each of your literary influences? And, Mariana, are there particular works or writers that influenced Migratory Birds, or that you were reading while working on the essays?
Mariana Oliver: There are so many. I had been reading Christa Wolf very closely for a series of essays working toward my MA degree in comparative literature. I was very much impressed about the structure of her texts and by her use of verb tenses.
Julia Sanches: The thing with being a literary translator in the US is that your professional world is so small that some of the people who end up influencing your craft are your close friends…
I love the nerdiness of liking someone’s use of verbal tenses. I love, for example, how Shirley Hazzard uses semi-colons… And I love the way Mariana sets the scene in the opening of each essay. They’re all so pictorial and evocative.
Marisa: I adore a well-used semicolon, Julia! Maybe my favorite punctuation.
Mariana Oliver: I am a great admirer of the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg because she writes of deep and complex subjects with apparently the most simple language.
Julia Sanches: I love that about Natalia Ginzburg, too. She’s one of my favorites.
Marisa: Mariana, do you think there is another essay collection in the writing you are doing now?
Mariana Oliver: Yes! I have bits and pieces of a book; it is about diving. From very different perspectives and interpretations. However, nowadays, most of my time and energy are going into researching and writing my doctoral dissertation.
Julia Sanches: Diving! Oh, I can’t wait. Every translator is always desperately waiting for their author’s next book.
Mariana Oliver: I am fascinated by springboards.
Marisa: That sounds intriguing! I can imagine that your dissertation takes a lot of your time. You also teach, yes?
Mariana Oliver: Yes, I have taught German as a foreign language for many years now. I am very much involved in literary workshops nowadays, too.
Marisa: And Julia, are you working on any projects right now? (If you can share, of course.)
Julia Sanches: I am currently working on a novella set in the Canary Islands that follows the friendship between two gross, potty-mouthed ten-year-old girls with equally potty-mouthed grandmothers. It’s deeply embedded in the Canary Islands, culturally and linguistically, so the learning curve has been steep!
Mariana Oliver: That must be very challenging.
Julia Sanches: It is, but it’s also a very fun voice, and the rhythm has been a helpful guide. I had to listen to Aventura’s “Obsesión” this morning and it took me back twenty years or so.
Marisa: This also sounds very intriguing! I’m excited to read more from you both.
Mariana Oliver: Hopefully soon, Marisa!
Marisa: We’re nearly at the end of the hour, and I want to thank you both for your time this afternoon. Migratory Birds was such an enriching and transformative read for me, and it was lovely to hear your thoughts on the writing and the work you did together!
Mariana Oliver: Thank you very much, Marisa and Julia, for this delightful conversation. Thank you so much to the Rumpus Book Club for inviting us!
Julia Sanches: Thank you so much, Marisa! I am delighted that you enjoyed it. And thank you for hosting us in this Slack conversation, a first for me!
Marisa: We are honored to have you in the Book Club! I wish you both a restful upcoming weekend, and thanks again for this conversation.
Photograph of Mariana Oliver by Mariana Oliver. Photograph of Julia Sanches by Dagan Farancz.