Ahead of the International Booker Prize winner announcement tomorrow, BLOT Magazine sat down with Julia Sanches, translator of the shortlisted book Boulder, to talk about all things translation.
Julia Sanches is a literary translator working from Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan into English. Born in São Paulo, Brazil, she has spent extended periods of time in the United States, Mexico, Switzerland, Scotland, and Catalonia, giving her an intimate knowledge of the languages, cultures, and types of literature she works in.
Boulder by Eva Baltasar was released in 2020 and Sanches translated it from Catalan to English. It was Sanches’ dream book to translate: “I really like poetic language. I love novels by poets. I love novels wit protagonists who haven’t usually been part of literature or aren’t in canonical literature.
“I also love books by those kinds of authors because I think they have a more interesting perspective and use of language.”
The book follows a relationship between two women, Samsa and Boulder, as they navigate motherhood, relationships and everything that comes with it.
Working as a cook on a merchant ship, a woman comes to know and love Samsa, a woman who she gives the nickname “Boulder.”
When Samsa gets a job in Reykjavik and the couple move there together, Samsa decides she wants to have a child. She is already forty and can’t bear to let the opportunity pass her by.
Boulder is less enthused, but doesn’t know how to say no—and so finds herself dragged along on a journey that feels as thankless as it is alien.
With motherhood changing Samsa into a stranger, Boulder must decide where her priorities lie, and whether her yearning for freedom can truly trump her yearning for love.
When asked how she feels about the shortlist, Sanches said: “Completely surreal. I have this habit of playing good things down, But I’m pretty happy.”
Praising Boulder, she said: “ Eva always has such a surprising turn of phrase, and comes at you, with these really surprising metaphors. Splashing around in her language is really fun.
“I truly believe we need more books about queer motherhood and about ambivalent motherhood, because I just don’t think that we get told that story often enough. And when you’re not told a story very often, it’s hard to find your place in the world if you are someone who’s ambivalent about motherhood, like I am.”
Baltasar was a poet before she wrote books, which you can tell by her beautifully poetic way of writing prose.
Sanches explained: “I loved translating that whole book, but it was very, very slow going. I don’t think you can rush through a translation of Eva’s work because she spends so long working through the language. She’s a poet. So every sentence, every single word is perfectly weighted and you have to pay so much attention Not only to the natural rhythm of a sentence but to what the rhythm of her what her sentences are doing
“I don’t know exactly how long it took. But it was a while. It was very, very, very slow, even though the book is extremely short.”
To research and get the tone right, Sanches reads books that feel like “companions” to what she is translating.
“I tried to track down novels by poets. Even though none of them that I found so far, seemed to bring as many elements of poetry into their prose as Eva does. Because her texts are so rich with metaphor and other elements that we think are almost in the exclusive domain of poetry – therefore I was reading a lot of poetry.
“In terms of research, I would go on Google Maps a lot to try to figure out where in Reykjavik they were, where the port was and where the ocean was when they were staying in Chile.
“The beginning took me a while – in part because I was trying to find the right voice for it. The beginning of the book feels quite important. It’s so atmospheric, a really powerful start I feel.
“There’s also a section later on where Boulder describes their yellow house in a very interesting way. And another section where she talks about the sofa being a place for conversation and sovereign. She’s talking about how after Samsa decides to have a child, this piece of furniture in their apartment suddenly serves a different function because they have to sit and have long, deep, important conversations on it. I’m pretty sure I could find you a section in every paragraph that I struggled a little bit with.”
Sanches first discovered Baltasar by reading her first book, Permafrost, after it won an award from the Booksellers Association: “I really trust booksellers so I tracked it down, read the opening and loved it. I blew through the book so quickly.
“At the same time, the publisher And Other Stories who knew I read Catalan had seen that there was some hype around Permafrost and asked me to have a look at it.
“I shared a report with them and said that I loved it and will they, please, please, please hire me to translate her. Then I did a sample of the opening and they hired me. It was my first book translated from Catalan. I’d mostly translated from Portuguese and Spanish before then.”
Sanches says Baltasar was very “gracious” to work with and meeting her was a fan girl moment.
“I sent her more questions for the first book than I did for the second because in the first book, I was still getting used to her as a writer, and her ticks and etc.
Permafrost by Eva Baltasar
“We actually met in person in Barcelona and had lunch and I probably embarrassed myself and fangirled a bit too hard.
“I don’t like asking too many questions and annoying my authors with too many queries, so I tend to collect everything and wait until the last draft. I send it as a word document that they can read and respond to.
“Eva is very, very gracious and I think she would have answered more questions if I had sent them. I just I’m always just worried of being overbearing as a translator – but she’s wonderful.”
Sanches lived in Barcelona for three years where she took Catalan classes; “I understand it pretty well, but my vocabulary isn’t as well developed as it is in the other languages. And I feel like the older I get the harder I find it to retain new vocabulary, so I just had to do more research.
“Also, translating Eva is like jumping into the deep end of translating. But with her, thankfully, she’s still living, right? So that makes things a lot easier because if there’s something that’s not quite clicking for me, then I can ask her.”
Julia finds it helpful to read the books she has translated in other languages too.
“It feels like you’re less alone in the process when you get to have this sort of experience or dialogue with other translators who have been as meticulous and read the book as intimately as you have. It’s also really important to understand the culture of the place you’re translating from.
“One thing that you definitely see in all of Eva’s books, which feels very Spanish to me, is this relationship that her characters have with work.
“I wish it was possible for more characters in the US or in Brazil where I’m from to have that relationship with work, but we don’t have a social safety net. We don’t have welfare systems so we can’t feel that way or approach work that way because there’s so much more tied to our survival in terrifying ways.”
When asked what winning the International Booker Prize would mean to Sanches, she said she’s already seeing more people read Boulder and that’s what makes her happiest.
“Books have such a short shelf life now because we publish so much and so it can be a little bit disheartening to see a book you worked so hard on suddenly fade away after a week, just because we churn out so many books. I like how the International Booker Prize just stops time for a little bit and lets these books get to more readers.”
The winning title will be announced at a ceremony at Sky Garden in London tomorrow, Tuesday 23 May.
Julia is a literary translator working from Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan into English. After working as an assistant and agent for several years, representing authors from around the world, she is focusing her energies on translation and advocating for the authors and books she is passionate about.
Maddy is a journalism student who enjoys writing about culture, entertainment and the arts. If she’s not reading a book, you’ll find her listening to Taylor Swift. She’s passionate about books that reflect what’s going on in society and lead us to ask important questions about the world around us.
Favourite genres: Contemporary Fiction and Romance.