Interview with translator, editor and transfeminist Arrate Hidalgo

1) What are your approaches and challenges you face as a translator? Do you see translation as being more tied to literal interpretation, or do you see the translator as a partner with the original author to realize their vision?

I know some would disagree, but I’m pretty certain that translation is both an art and a matter of subjective interpretation. It still must aspire to transmit the author’s original vision. Sometimes that’s complicated, of course. Take, for example, Emily Wilson’s recent translation of Homer’s “Odyssey”—where past translations have used the term “whores” or “creatures” for female slaves, Wilson has chosen to use “girls”, which she argues is closest to the meaning of Homer’s use of the feminine article.

Take, on the other hand, Jamaican-born Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson’s observations about translations of her work that have overlooked markers of race and class in her use of language. While it’s not always up to translators to decide what to do with a text (editors are also involved), choosing to translate some of Hopkinson’s characters in a way that makes them sound white and middle class is far from a literal “interpretation”. That’s why I think having access to the author’s willing feedback is a privilege that must be cherished.

Aside from that, translators in Spain (especially young translators) face the same challenges as many other independent creatives: the work is precarious, isolating and badly paid, and we are far from eradicating the practice of working “for exposure”. Us aspiring and emerging literary translators are so eager to promote the authors we love that it’s easy to fall into a spiral of underpayment that affects our colleagues’ ability to negotiate fairer fees in the industry, and so on. This means, of course, that literary translation is one of the many activities still only available to those who can afford to do it.

2) What about your upbringing and cultural ties have driven your professional and creative focus?

I don’t know if this is a pattern among language nerds, but I was pretty young and reading Tolkien (especially the technical bits, like the appendixes to The Lord of the Rings) when I realized that it was all about the words for me. Years later I studied Old English and Old Norse, which gave me much joy, and learned a bunch of modern languages as well. I suppose having been brought up in a bilingual environment helped with absorbing structures easily? I don’t know. (Hardly an extraordinary thing in a world were most people outside of Europe speak several languages as a matter of course.) For those readers who might not know, the region in Spain I’m from —the Basque Country— has two co-official languages: Spanish and Basque, which is non-Indo-European and extra old and yet has survived to this day, against all odds. I like saying that Hindi is closer to English than Spanish is to Basque (I’m sure a linguist would point out the many inaccuracies of that statement).

And so, eventually I realized phonetics was well fun, but stories were necessary. That’s how little by little I convinced myself to try and become an editor and translator of books. I just had to start knocking on doors. The thing is that back when I discovered feminist science fiction, there was basically one door I wanted to knock on: Aqueduct Press. Incredibly enough, they answered, and took me in. That was pretty great.

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3) What is the environment like for LGBTQ writers in Spain?

I’ll be boring and say that it depends. Spain is a catholic country still haunted by the long shadow of a fascist dictatorship. The country is currently ploughing through a deep economic recession that has pushed thousands of people out elsewhere in the world or forced them to live in the family home indefinitely. As we know, this enables the policing of behaviours and identities that go against the norm. That said, it’s looking hopeful. New LGBTQ publishing ventures have popped up in these past few years, such as Baphala Ediciones (focusing on queer postcolonial literature), Dos Bigotes (who publish national and international fiction), and Madrid-based LGBTQ bookseller Mili Hernández’s Flores Raras imprint.

I guess Madrid and Barcelona are still the epicenter of LGBTQ art and activism in Spain, with trans and queer artists such as Madrid-based poet Álex Portero making quite the splash, both online and in meatspace. But I’m happy to be in Bilbao, a peripheral city, after having lived in huge places such as London or Seattle. It’s exciting to live the changes unfolding in your home, and sometimes in areas you wouldn’t expect, such as bertsolaritza —improvised Basque oral poetry—. In the last competition, a couple of months back, bertsolari champion Maialen Lujanbio won the semifinals partly thanks to a beautifully-crafted poem with a trans protagonist. (I have tweeted about it in English, if you’re interested.) It’s incredibly exciting to see the LGBTQ experience taking space all over. I often worry about the thriving of out-in-the-open fascism in Spain and the effect it has on the basic wellbeing of LGBTQ folk. In the meantime, though, writing and translating and publishing queer fiction is just another way of fighting back.

4) What drew you to speculative and science fiction? Who are you heroes and inspirations in the genre?

It was reading science fiction that I found feminism and queerness—not the other way around. So reading stories by authors such as Joanna Russ, Pamela Zoline, Octavia E. Butler, and Samuel R. Delany unveiled an entire world to me; they taught me about being human and relating to others, about how to exist in the face of pain, and they taught me to look beyond the binary, that is, to look inward and find who I really was. That’s how I discovered the possibility of inhabiting an identity that nothing in the world around me had ever suggested possible until then.

As for inspiration, I have to name editors Timmi Duchamp and Kath Wilham at Aqueduct Press, who have done and still do so much of the invisible labour that goes into making a book happen. Their thoughtfulness and head-on generosity are beyond measure. I’ll keep this section to a minimum because otherwise I’d never stop, but I want to mention at least queer authors Hiromi Goto and, again, Nalo Hopkinson, because I have learned so much from them just by reading their fiction and essays. Not just about the craft of writing —their command of the language blows my mind in very different ways—, but also about how to exist in the world with awareness, kindness, accountability, and joy.

5) What styles and themes appeal to you and why?

If it’s about Mars I’ll probably read it. I blame Bradbury, León Arsenal’s “En las fraguas marcianas” [“In the Martian Forges”], Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría’s novella “Memoria” [“Memory”], and more recently, Liliana Colanzi’s “Nuestro mundo muerto” [“Our Dead World”]. Mars seems to have endless potential for twilights and melancholia (my faves).

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Recently I’ve become very interested in masculinity. I think some of my favorite SF/F stories are not so much “about gender” as they are about characters breaking down masculinity, embodying it, twisting it, dissecting it, not necessarily in an unloving way. S.M. Wheeler’s Sea Change, Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey, and Gabrielle Squailia’s Viscera spring to mind, especially because they really appeal to me in terms of style—they’re all playful and not always straightforward in their writing, which to some friends is jarring but I find just delightful. Lisa Shapter’s novella A Day in Deep Freeze is another good example of this loving dissection I’m talking about. And JY Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven, which features excellent world-building in quick strokes on top of everything else.

Most of the time it really is about whether the style flows for me or not. I’m a very slow reader, which is terrible in this business. But I want to believe it has its benefits, such as the ability to really enjoy some books sometimes.

6) In what directions would you like to see international queer fiction develop?

I’d like to find fiction by queer Spanish and Basque writers of the diaspora and see what direction that’s taking. Such a huge chunk of my generation is gone elsewhere, and they must be writing. Otherwise, I’ve been looking outward, towards English-language queer fiction for so long now, that actually I really want to dig around the backyard, so to speak. I’d like to see an explosion of queer writing in Basque. One of my goals this year is to look for it or help make it happen.

Aside from that, last year I got in contact with part of the queer Palestinian community in Haifa, which is small but very active, and I look forward to hearing about what they’re up to next.

7) How does transfeminism translate into artistic expression and its role in breaking down binary cultural norms?

I’m not sure I can answer this fully. For me, transfeminism involves “being” and “doing” from an awareness of the very limited category of “woman” I’ve been brought up with. More importantly, it involves recognizing the violent enforcement of those binary cultural norms as a by-product of colonialism (which as a white Spaniard/Basque person I still hugely benefit from, of course). Colonialism was built on the destruction of indigenous gender non-conformity all around the world, and conversations about gender for me will need to incorporate a critique of the western system of gender. That is, for me, how transfeminism is showing me the way, and I still have a long way to go. Fiction and art are crucial in this journey.

8) Please tell us about your upcoming projects!

2018 is looking promising! Sadly, none of the translations I’m working on can yet be announced, but the time will come. What I can say is I’ve been commissioned by a leading feminist magazine in Spain to write a series of articles on speculative fiction and decolonial thought, which I’m terribly excited about. There’s also an essay on the history of queer women and comics in the works, in collaboration with Elisa McCausland, who is a brilliant mind and journalist.

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One of my main projects this year is an artist residency at BilbaoArte, a local art foundation. The project —which is inspired by Samuel R. Delany’s stunning 1966 novel Babel-17— will deploy book and print design to reclaim the presence of minority languages in a future space-faring society.

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Aside from that, I’ve been getting together with a bunch of excellent people, and new editorial and event ventures around feminist science fiction are in the horizon. So be sure to check in every now and then to find out more!

For more on Arrate, follow them on Twitter @ArrateHidalgo