Interview: John Washington

Dear John,


Thank you so much for agreeing to do this email interview.  

I’ve attached an edited copy of Felipe’s interview for your reference.

I’ll start broadly.

You’ve recently spent some time in Mexico working on some translations I believe.  Can you tell me a little about your translation projects and how you came across them?





Dear Saehee,


In short, in sum, I recently finished a co-translation with Daniela Ugaz of Óscar Martinez’s non-fiction book ‘Los Migrantes que No Importan’ which is forthcoming (and as of yet untitled) from Verso. Daniela and I have also been putting together an anthology of short fiction that has to do with migration, collecting stories from the US, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. As most of the stories are in Spanish, we’ve been translating (as a team and singularly) these into English as well. The anthology will be published by SurPlus in Mexico, and we’re just starting to look for American publishers. I’ve also worked as a freelance translator for an Argentinian art magazine, which was an enormous bore, but good practice, though eventually Daniela and I were basically fired for trying to improve on the original. I know it probably would get us kicked out of the translators guild, but sometimes the original was cringingly bad, and translating took on a new meaning for us: putting sense in where there is none. 

The idea for the translation of Óscar’s book came before I had ever really translated anything. Like Felipe, it was a particular book that inspired me to want to translate. I, however, didn’t face the daunting and beautiful hurdle of having to learn a language to start, as I already knew Spanish, but certainly I had to learn a lot of words from Salvadoran and Mexican slang (Óscar is a Salvadoran journalist). Besides the beauty of the book, my desire to translate it was also very political. It opens up a facet of migration that is largely unknown and wildly misunderstood both in the US and Mexico. The book basically follows Óscar as he walks and rides the migrant trails Central American use to cross Mexico and enter the US. Óscar jumps trains, meets coyotes and assassins, interviews corrupt cops, freed kidnappees, sex-trafficking victims, priests, and a host of other characters. It’s pretty incredible. I can’t wait to see it on the shelves, as I hope it will add a new voice to the immigration debate in this country. When I decided I wanted to translate it I chased down Óscar’s contact and told him the plan. He was into it, but he’s such a busy young journalist (he’s probably in the backwoods of Honduras right now, interviewing rural gang members… check out his newest project La Sala Negra, on, that Daniela and I were pretty much on our own. We consulted other Central Americans and we followed a lot of the same paths that Óscar took, staying at migrant shelters, getting to know some of the areas and small towns he describes in the book, which helped our translation enormously. Okay, I could go on with this, but I’ll leave room for questions.

As for the other project, the anthology, as a fiction writer myself I’ve enjoyed immensely translating some undiscovered gems of (especially Central American) writers. I recently finished translating a great, sad and hilarious short story by Nicaraguan writer (and ex-Vice President, from ’85-’90, during the first Ortega presidency) Sergio Ramírez, about a poor Nicaraguan boy’s love for the pop singer Shakira. Ramírez and I went through four drafts together (on a four page story) before we settled on a final version.  

So, so, so… that’s to give you an idea of where my translation story is… 
Likewise, I hope LA is treating you well,
and I wish you a very pleasant Saturday.




Dear John, 


It’s so great hear that you are actively in the middle of so many projects.  I have so many questions it’s a little difficult to start.


The anthology of short stories seems so intimidating!  I imagine it’s hard to switch from voice to voice in translating several short pieces by several different authors rather than growing with a singular voice, the way you are with Oscar Martinez’ novel.  Are you & Daniela translating several stories at the same time or just working through them, one by one? And how are you selecting the stories?  


I also wonder about the process of filtering so many various voices through only 2 translators.  Is this a consideration?   Felipe Martinez has a highly mediated process of translation where he sets up very rigorous perimeters for himself.  Is there a pre-meditated process you and Daniela use.


I’m thrilled by the idea of you and Daniela translating not only Oscar Martinez’ work but also the experience of generating the work.  How did these experiences inform your translation? 


And also I’m curious about the collaborative process you are engaged with.  Writing can be such a solitary experience.  How does collaborating change the process of translating? Do you and Daniela ever disagree on how a certain thing should be translated? If so, how is this negotiated?




Indeed (as per your question of filtering so many voices) in our anthology, through only two translators, there is some inevitable (and probably unfortunate) middling towards our personal styles.


Some of the stories, however, are so stylistically distinct, like Alberto Guerra’s (Cuba) vs. Arturto Arias’ (Guatemala) that it seems more obvious (and frankly easier) to move ourselves (as translators) towards the writer’s style than pull the style of the writer towards us. We are working with a few other translators to translate our English language stories into Spanish, hoping to have some of the writers in the anthology translate each other. We like the in-houseness of mutual translation. I think of McSweeney’s recent project with re-re-re-translating stories back and across languages, and I think that untranslating can have real potential benefits for a piece. By untranslating I mean the work returning to its original language, and here I wonder if language needs to leave in the first place to find its way back. I guess the question might be: can you cross a bridge in a piece without having to cross a river or a divide? Can we just build bridges for their own sake? The idea might sound a little babblingly-artsy, but I think a work can be served by dragging it across its own language. I also find fascinating the concept (previously mentioned) that each generation of readers needs its own retranslation of a classic work. I wonder if works will need to be retranslated now even more frequently, or for the different gadgets we are reading on. It’s like putting pop music into the soundtrack of a period movie, which can be interesting, but I worry about forgetting the vernacular of a certain age. Even if translated across a distant language divide, is there not still some verisimilitude that can be achieved about an age’s vernacular style, sentence length, quippiness, use of epithet, terms of endearment or respect, or metaphor banks? Languages (or micro-languages) are dying all the time. Most of them are probably unrecoverable. 

I guess I just answered myself into a dark corner there. This should be read as a call for translation in general. We need more translation, retranslation, untranslation, intranslation, all of it, every direction, all the time, in every work and piece. John McPhee wrote a recent piece in The New Yorker about using definitions to replace the words they define. The cross-language dictionary for the translator is vinyl siding. It’s better to first go into the definition of a word you don’t know, before jumping languages with it.

As for discrepancy between Daniela and me. It honestly doesn’t happen very much. We’ve of course had some long discussions about tone, and it took us a number of chapters to find a tone we were happy with for Óscar’s book (and we had to go back and start from scratch, a couple times, on those first few chapters) but then we just got it. We also got to know Óscar a bit, and, like I said, we were more and more familiarizing ourselves with the places and people he was writing about. Our method, now somewhat tried and working toward true, is to work alone on translating a small segment, switch, and then switch again. Sometimes we hash out individual sentences with each other, but not even that much. And as for the solitariness of writing and the party of translating with a partner, you’re so right, and it’s simply a delight to work with another translator (and Daniela specifically). The work goes much more quickly (we finished Óscar’s book in just under a year) and the sentences that seem like brick walls we can help hoist each other over. Etc., etc., etc….
Off to work now.

I wish you a very pleasant Monday,

and peace,



John Washington grew up in Ohio and has lived in California, Arizona, and most recently in Mexico City on a Fulbright Fellowship, where he wrote about migration and finished his latest novel, Dustmarch. His writing has been published by, among others, Upside Down World, The Smart Set, Pulse Media, Voices of Mexico, 3 Quarks Daily, Culture/Strike, and Global Graffiti. He is the co-translator, along with Daniela Ugaz, of Óscar Martinez’ Migrants Don’t Matter and is co-editing an anthology of short fiction about Migration, Todos somos migrantes, forthcoming from Sur + in Mexico.


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