“The translator's job is to find the best version of a writer's style in another language”

Elvira Navarro.
Elvira Navarro. / Elba Fernández
  • Elvira Navarro, Author

  • The author of A Working Woman explains how the translator of the English version traced the steps of her character in Madrid herself as part of the translation process

Andalusian writer Elvira Navarro is under no illusions about the stylistic influence possessed by translators. “A translated book,” she tells me by email in Spanish, “has a co-author: the translator. Their job is to find the best version of [the writer's] style in a foreign language, so necessarily your style changes.”

We are discussing her powerful and disturbing 2014 novel La Trabajadora, translated into English as A Working Woman by Christina Macsweeney and released earlier this year by the US publisher Two Lines Press. Navarro is a pleasure to correspond with: always prompt in her replies - a gift for a journalist with a deadline - she is open and friendly, soon signing off with “hugs” instead of “regards”.

The Huelva-born novelist couldn't have found a better “co-author” for A Working Woman, the book with which SUR in English concluded its Found in Translation series last week.

Macsweeney is a celebrated translator of Latin American authors and last year won a prize for her English version of a book by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli. Her translation of La Trabajadora is marked by a directness that challenges and, at times, shocks the reader. In this sense, it reflects the uncompromising narrative voice of the original Spanish version. As Macsweeney told the San Francisco-based Centre for the Art of Translation last month, “What really drew me into this novel was the way it posited me as an active reader. There was no way I could, or wanted to, sit back passively and wait for the narrator to explain what was going on.”

Just how closely, I wonder, did Macsweeney and Navarro collaborate on A Working Woman? Navarro, 39, claims that her English is “very bad” and that she was therefore of “little use” to Macsweeney during the translation process. But interestingly, she reveals that there is far more to translating a book than just converting sentences from one language into another: “[Christina] took the trouble to come to Madrid to explore the neighbourhoods through which the protagonist of the novel moves, which demonstrates her commitment and her enormous generosity and enthusiasm. We had a very nice meeting and I made her a map showing the journeys of Elisa, the novel's main character.”

Elisa's “journeys” take the form of nocturnal walks through Madrid's gritty suburbs, during which she contemplates her own life and that of her mentally unstable flatmate Susana. In these crucial passages - which reveal Navarro's virtuosic descriptive talent - Madrid becomes a character itself, contributing as much to the novel's unsettling atmosphere as the complex relationship between Elisa and Susana. Making a city live on the page in this way is no small feat - one that, in this case, was the result of a joint effort by novelist and translator. Although Navarro says she can't fully assess La Trabajadora's English version, she is sure that Macsweeney's three-dimensional approach to translating has resulted in a “fabulous” book.

Navarro's own experiences of living in the Spanish capital - indeed in the same suburb in which Elisa rents her tiny flat - were a major part of her inspiration for A Working Woman.

“The story is based on a text that I wrote in 2003,” she explains, “when I shared a flat in the Carabanchel neighbourhood of Madrid and was looking for work. At that time I saw the horizon of my middle class expectations fade away [and] the difficulty of finding work when...president Aznar [José María Aznar, conservative prime minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004] was cackling that 'Spain is doing well'.” Like her narrator, Navarro also worked as an external proof-reader for a publishing company, an insecure position that paid badly when it paid at all: she once went for six months without receiving a cent, “and it was then that the idea of a novel about precariousness became strong. The character of Elisa is based on this biographical substratum”.

Navarro's mention of Aznar - who in 2003 selected Mariano Rajoy to succeed him as leader of the Popular Party - prompts me to ask her what she thinks about the current situation in Catalonia. Is it damaging Spain's international reputation? Her scathing reply suggests that to do so would be difficult: “Spain's reputation has been damaged for centuries, ever since it stopped being an empire and developed an inferiority complex that it still hasn't left behind. The Catalonia problem is an old one; whoever knows a little Spanish history will not be seeing anything new.”

We shouldn't be fooled, warns Navarro, by the secessionists' argument that Catalonia's wings are being clipped by a repressive government in Madrid: “[The independence movement] is not the liberation movement of an oppressed country, but one of the Catalan élites, who don't want their money going to the poor regions of Spain. It's also a smokescreen to divert attention away from the serious corruption cases of the Catalan élite.”

Although her thought-provoking novels are now reaching an international audience, Navarro says she never thinks about a non-Spanish public when working: “It would be useless, because there is not one reader but many types of readers. A book shouldn't think about readers but, once written, find its own.” Now, thanks to her “co-author” Macsweeney, A Working Woman will bring “amazement and other universes” to non-Spanish readers - exactly the things that Navarro was discovering in books at the age of eleven, when she decided to become a writer.