Light Verse

On Lighthouses By Jazmina Barrera, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney. San Francisco: Two Lines Press. 174 pages. $16.
Interior view in lantern of lighthouse of Fresnel lens - Split Rock Lighthouse, Off Highway 61, 38 miles northeast of Duluth, Two Harbors, Lake County, MN. Photo: Lowe, Jet/Library of Congress

A longtime translator, Christina MacSweeney is responsible for bringing the writing of authors like Valeria Luiselli, Daniel Saldaña París, Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and Eduardo Rabasa to English-language readers. She is drawn to works that exists outside the confines of a single genre, especially those that merge the visual and literary. The latest addition to this impressive ensemble is Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses, a delightful, pocket-sized book chronicling Barrera’s obsession with the coastal structures of the title—from detailed descriptions of their architecture to their representations in literature and art. Like many of the works MacSweeney translates, this book is in dialogue with classic literary texts, such as Ulysses and To the Lighthouse.

I talked with MacSweeney back before the pandemic hit, in a very different world. We spoke about literary obsessions, her collaborative process, how critics cover translated literature, and finding the music in a work of text.

In On Lighthouses, Barrera writes that obsession “is a form of mental collecting.” What obsessions do you have, literary or otherwise?

I’ve got a ton of interests of the “otherwise” variety, but literary-wise, anthologies are a real obsession of mine. They’re such a lovely way of getting a snapshot of what’s going on in one particular place or genre at a time. Art books are another—I’m incapable of going to exhibitions without buying the catalog. And, of course, I keep all the books and all the translations of authors I’ve worked with.

Are there any common themes that unite the books you’ve translated?

They all require an active reader. They are not classic narratives where you sit back and wait to be told what’s going on. But other than that, they’re all very different.

What kind of research did you do when translating Barrera’s book? Did you visit any lighthouses?

I didn’t go to any lighthouses, but I thought about lighthouses I had visited. They have a magical quality—they provide comfort and solace for people and yet are so isolated. Most of my research focused on how they work, because I had to be sure to get the vocabulary right. Before I started working on this project, I didn’t know anything about, for example, Fresnel lenses, or other lighthouse technology.

I also looked closely at the works Barrera referenced throughout the book. You’ve got to check the quotations and all that, but you’ve also got to read around a little bit and put the quotation in context so you can get a feel for how it should read in English. A beautiful, unexpected part of my research was Sir Walter Scott’s book, Northern Lights: Or, a Voyage in the Lighthouse Yacht to Nova Zembla and the Lord Knows Where in the Summer of 1814, which Barrera quotes from quite extensively. I got totally wrapped up in it—was like taking a time machine back to what seemed like thousands of years ago but in fact was only two hundred.

Is there an ideal arrangement or relationship you have with writers you're translating?

It really depends on the author and how much they want—or can be—involved. My usual process is to do a first draft, read it through, make lots of changes, and then I start to feel I’m bringing the piece together as a whole and capturing all the different nuances within it. When I’ve got that done, I’ll mark up places I want to ask questions of the author. Then I start a dialogue with them.

Any time I feel a passage is not flowing or making sense, I ask, “Have I missed something here?” Maybe I’m not quite understanding a situation or how a particular phrase or sentence relates to other bits of the text. Maybe a metaphor I’ve missed means I’m not really seeing the connection between things.

In a different language, a work carries new associations, and has a new texture. How do you balance the features of the original text with the changes that come from translation?

It is a transformation. And you’re correct that as the translator, I’ve also got a responsibility to balance conflicting needs. You want to stay as true as possible to the original. But we are working not only in a linguistic context but in a cultural context as well, and cultural differences can be stark. For example, phrases or words that might be read as culturally insensitive in the United States or the UK are not necessarily taken that way in their country of origin. So, you have to decide how to handle that.

How do you feel about the way critics cover works in translation?

If there’s one thing that annoys me, it’s when I see a review of a book quote widely from the translation, and yet the only actual mention that the book is translated, if there even is one, is the translator’s name below the author’s and the title. Good criticism should engage with the translation as a work that exists in English and review it as such. You don’t necessarily need to know the original language to decide if something is working as a novel. I think a lot of translators feel the critical world needs to come to terms with what we do.

In past interviews, you’ve talked about trying to capture the rhythm and music of a text. How do you go about that?

The first thing is being aware that something different is happening in one little bit of the text. That comes with repeated readings. Certain stylistic differences become more apparent. You notice how things are working as a whole, and then when and where the elements shift.

Reading aloud helps, but I also print out my text and I revise by hand with a pencil. Reading this way seems to help me discover this sense of flow, much more so than reading aloud. It’s like the act of writing becomes part of finding the poetry.

Connor Goodwin is a writer in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, BOMB, the Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications. He is currently working on a novel.