Thursday, July 6, 2017

An Evening with Yuri Herrera

Last month was a reading revelation for me, as I discovered the works of Yuri Herrera. As you know from my June wrap-up, I devoured all three of his English-translated works and absolutely loved them! I truly couldn't put down the novels, with their masterful translations by Lisa Dillman, and read each of them in quick succession. I was so blown away by the prose, characterization, allegory, musicality, and complexity of the works that I wanted to make a point to go to one of his events, if I ever got the chance.

As his most recent novel, Kingdom Cons, was published on June 13th, and I hoped that there might be a possibility he would go on some amount of book tourage to promote it. I checked the publisher's website, and  low and behold Yuri WAS doing a tour...but there were only 6 stops - New Orleans, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Portland OR.  Luckily, I live within a reasonable driving distance to DC, so I made plans to attend the event, hosted at one of my favorite bookstores - Politics and Prose

Roy Kesey on the left, and Yuri Herrera on the right
For the event, Yuri was in conversation with Roy Kesey, an author of novels, short fiction, non-fiction, as well as being a noted Spanish-English translator. There was a natural ease between the two men, and they started off with a dialogue, then Yuri read some pages from Kingdom Cons.  When they were discussing a chapter that take place inside one of the character's heads, the two men did a really interesting thing - Yuri read the passage in Spanish, and then Roy read the English translation.  It was a moment where I desperately wished I understood Spanish, so that I could fully appreciate the differences and similarities between the two texts. 

Yuri gave a bit of the origin story for Kingdom Cons, which was actually his first published novel in Mexico, back in 2004.  The publishing rights were bought by a Large UK Publisher in 2010, and Lisa Dillman was selected as the English translator. Once the translation was in progress, however, said Large UK Publisher deemed the text not to be commercially viable, so they gave up the rights, allowing another publisher to buy the book.  Eventually, the press that released all three of his works - And Other Stories - bought the rights, and the novel's journey had a happy ending. 

When it comes to translation, Yuri Herrera has played on both sides.  He has had three novels translated from Spanish to English by Lisa Dillman, and his adult novels have been translated into 9 languages so far.  He has also translated works from English into Spanish.  From these experiences, he had some thoughtful observations about what the process is like. Because Yuri also speaks English fluently, he and Lisa were able to have quite a collaborative relationship during her translation work, often sending each other daily emails with questions and sample passages.  It was this deep collaboration that influenced him most, he said.  Lisa's questions made him think about the decisions he made while writing the novel.  This kind of consideration, he felt, made him a more nuanced and thoughtful writer. 

He believes that translation is not just moving words and phrases from one language to another, it's a total reimagining of the work.  Sometimes, that linguistic movement can create tension, because those words don't necessarily belong in the same place and in the same way for every language.  It's successfully navigating that tension which is the true art of a translator.  He also mentioned that it's not only the words and phrases, but the ways that some meanings get altered as a necessary sacrifice of the process, to preserve something else in the text. 

When asked what he is working on, since he is also now a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, Yuri mentioned that he has written two children's books that may be translated sometime in the near future.  One, a book he was requested to write, is called Leah's Eyes.  It is about a young, Mexican girl who witnesses an act of horrific violence, and tries make sense of it. The notion that such a topic is in demand for a kid's book is itself a statement about the nature of childhood in modern day Mexico. 

Yuri discussed these weighty and important topics with such intelligence, clarity, and (at times) humor.  It was easy to see how his narrative voice was present in the works.  As someone who does not speak or read Spanish, I'm so grateful to Yuri, Lisa Dillman, and And Other Stories for making these works available to a me.  And a very special "thank you" to Politics and Prose Bookstore for hosting this amazing event.  It was such a thrill to be able to meet such a captivating and fascinating author.

Librorum annis,