First, a Reader: a conversation with Fiona Mackintosh

Micaela Brinsley

Interviewer: When did you first encounter Spanish?

At secondary school, it was one of the languages offered to us. I was already taking French and I fancied trying another language and there was no other option apart from Spanish. So I took Spanish. I did have a family connection in that my paternal grandfather spoke Spanish because he grew up in Rosario, in Argentina—he had also lived a bit of time in Spain as well. When I started learning Spanish, he would say things to me in Spanish, when I saw him. Which was not that frequently—but that was another family connection, this link to Argentina. When I got into Argentinian literature in university, I went back to this family connection with renewed interest.

You mentioned Argentinian literature—what about it captured you when you started to read it?

It was one particular book, actually. It often is that way, isn’t it? As an undergraduate I started reading music and I changed tack halfway. Went back to languages and moved back to Spanish and French. I took a paper in contemporary Latin American fiction and one of the first things I read was Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela. That completely blew me out of the water. I’d never read anything like that before. I thought, wow this is amazing.

It’s funny to see how that book has changed for me over the years, as I’ve taught it and reread it. I’ve probably read it about five times now and it feels like a very different book now in 2023 from how I read it when I was a student. Books change with you, as the zeitgeist changes as well, you know.

What was it about that book that struck you at that time, when you first read it?

It was the playfulness of it. The hopping about from one side of the book to the other—I had not read much experimental fiction in that way before. It’s a kind of cliché to say, but I did like the character of La Maga and I found her intriguing. I liked that whole very literary, musical world. It was very evocative of Paris in a certain time and frame of mind.

I assume after Cortázar, you started to read people in his social milieu. How did you start building your own relationship with that literary scene?

I studied other writers on that course but I became quickly aware that I wasn’t studying any women writers at all. This struck me as a bit strange. The person who was teaching that course had in fact done his PhD on Luisa Valenzuela, amongst others. So I thought, I’ll explore her, and ended up doing a Master’s thesis on her fiction. It was really a case of quite deliberately seeking out women writers to complement who I’d read up until then—that was Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Luis Borges, all the male writers in the ‘canon’, as it were. Having the luck of studying in the Taylorian Library at Oxford, which has a huge collection—just exploring it for myself. Discovering Rosario Castellanos, who then became central to my teaching later on.

How did you arrive at Silvina Ocampo and Alejandra Pizarnik—and decide to write a book about them? Did you learn about them when you started intentionally trying to read women writers?

It was pretty much that. Also, I was getting more into poetry at that stage. Poetry was not something I’d studied that much, but I started reading Pizarnik particularly. I was fascinated by these very tiny, very polished poems. I later discovered the much more exuberant and extended prose poetry, but to begin with, it was Árbol de Diana and these tiny poems which really drew me in.

With Silvina Ocampo she’s so unpredictable and so quirky and so different from any of the other writers I read. I really like the idea of writers who are individual and send you off in a different way of thinking about what literature could be. She was one of those. A lot of her stories seem to trail off or you don’t know who the narrator is and suddenly it all turns upside down or it goes backwards in time. There’s so many things about Ocampo’s writing that subvert your expectations about what a short story should be… and as a poet! Not many people read her as a poet, but once I realised she’d written at least as much poetry as she had short fiction I thought, I need to have a look at those. I actually really like metrical poetry. She’s someone who was writing metrical poetry at a time when it’s really not fashionable anymore. Lots of free verse while she’s carrying on with her sonnets… I found her being out of time and out of step and doing her own thing very appealing.

As first books often are, it’s something that grew out of a PhD thesis. I was going to look at Women Writers of the Fantastic, that was going to be my PhD. And as they do, PhD topics narrow and change focus. Of the women I was going to write about, Silvina Ocampo was the only one that remained—but in parallel to that I was getting interested in reading Pizarnik.

I was struck by this obsession with childhood and lost innocence. It seemed like something that resonated between the two of them. I started reading them and thinking, if this is a thing that connects them, how would it look to put them together? I think we’re all a bit guilty of this, that once you have an idea, you start reading with that idea in your head.

In the book you wrote about them, you often include untranslated selections of their work. Did you, at that point in your career, consider whether or not you wanted to work in translation? Or was that not a thought at the time and you were focused entirely on the academic component of it?

I did start—quietly and without telling anybody—translating some of Silvina Ocampo’s poetry at that point. There was a series of poems—oh, can I remember the title?—something like Las horas de una estancia. It’s been set to music by Carlos Guastavino… certainly an Argentinian composer, anyway. I’m also a musician, so I was interested to see that some of her poetry had been set to music. There was no working translation with the music, it was just in the Spanish. I thought, it would be interesting to try to translate that in such a way that you could also use it as a song text.

I did that, but it stayed in a drawer. But it did set me thinking about translation and particularly translation of metrical poetry.

Speaking of metrical poetry, it’s a part of the book you co-translated with Iona Macintyre, The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara. As far as I know, this is the first full-length novel you’ve translated. Is that true?

It’s absolutely true, yes. And very much a co-translation. Half-novel, if you like.

How did you arrive at deciding to co-translate this book with Iona?

I might be repeating myself from other interviews, but there were circumstances that brought it all together. We have worked together in the same department for quite some years, we both teach on similar kinds of subjects—she works on 19th and 20th century Argentina, I work more on 20th and 21st century—but we have this core overlap. We’ve collaborated on putting a course together and talking about translation choices is something we had done on a week-to-week basis during the academic year.

But also, we had this reading group with Carolina Orloff, the director of Charco Press. It rose out of a conversation saying, ‘academic course syllabuses always lag behind in terms of contemporary material. Students are still asking to do dissertations on Cien años de soledad and we would really like there to be something a little more recent in what they’re exposed to and what they want to write about’, and that kind of thing. So we set up this book club to read Latin American fiction. We focused mainly on Argentina because that’s what we’re all interested in—and we were only going to read what’s been published since 2000.

This was one of the books we read! We were gobsmacked by the book—it was absolutely brilliant. It coincided with the centenary year for Hispanic Studies at Edinburgh [University]. Iona and I were collaborating on an exhibition at the university, pulling treasures out of the university library and its collections.

The coincidence is that we both had a semester of research leave coming up at the same time—which is a rare thing. Literary translation is being more recognised within the academy as a creative endeavour that can be counted as research. We’re all as academics subject to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). So we said, ‘it would be brilliant if we could do this creative project together and it also counts as our research’.

A lot of circumstances all together seemed to be pointing in this direction that ‘something is telling us that this is the moment’.

Once you decided with Iona that this was going to be the perfect project for you both to work on at that time, how did you structure your time spent with the book? Did you begin with a period of researching Martín Fierro? Did you have a period where you researched Cámara’s work? Or was your tactic to begin by translating the text and then building out the layers from there?

It was the latter. Having read the book and talked about it passionately in our book club, we then jumped straight in, more or less. We divided the book up by three chapters at a time, so you do the first three, I’ll do the next three, and so on. That was the first time through and we swapped. Then we divided the chapters another round. We kept what we called an ‘Archive’ as we went along. Every chapter of the book has its own corresponding archive with questions that were arising. Because obviously if there’s two of you doing the translating, you need to have a lot of conversations about consistency, about terms that you translate or don’t translate, like gaucho or pampa, all these kinds of things that come up all the time. On the first very rough draft where we were doing three chapters each in turn, we were annotating furiously and swapping these documents: this has cropped up and it comes again as a metaphor, what are you going to do about it? There was a dialogue behind the scenes. There’s a lot more words in the ‘Archive’ than there are in the actual translation, as you can imagine.  

You mentioned all the technical words that are very specific to Argentina and its landscape. Charco Press is of course based in the UK, so its readership might not necessarily be completely familiar with some of the references in the original text. Were there specific words that took you both a long time to decide how to translate or not translate, in the text?  

The trickier ones were the specific plant and animal names. When it gets technical, as to different sub species and things like that. It’s probably where English uses only one word for that whole group because we don’t have those particular animals in Britain. Whereas there are various different sub species in Argentina. That level of detail was where it got a bit tricky.

Also, at the level of having other languages in as well, the words in Guaraní, and so on, towards the final section of the book. That introduced another level of challenge. We were aware that people reading it in Spanish, the majority wouldn’t necessarily know the words in Guaraní. So they would have the experience of foreign words being in the text. We wanted to replicate that reading experience for English readers as well.

I assume, though I’m sorry if I’m wrong, that you don’t speak Guaraní. So how did you go about translating it?

I have a Paraguayan friend who is bilingual in Guaraní and Spanish. There were a lot of messages I exchanged with him, saying, ‘this is the word in context…’ and consulting with him. His name is José Samudio and he’s someone who’s worked a lot on literature and Paraguayan literature, particularly.

You mentioned how you approached translating the book by separating it into chunks of three chapters and then editing each others’ translation. How did you approach building a tonal shift over the course of the book, especially since each of its three sections are so radically different from each other?

It was relatively organic. We would say, ‘is it my place or yours today?’ and we’d sit there in the same room, reading things aloud. It quickly got to the point where we couldn’t remember who had originally done the translation of a particular chapter.

We had debates about different kinds of English. Iona spent some time living in the States and I’m from the Midlands in England. We discovered just in conversation that there are little words that we think are Standard UK English which are not at all—and that we don’t necessarily agree on. The classic example is, ‘as happy as’ and how you would finish that phrase in English. She said, ‘clearly it’s “as happy as a clam”’and I said, ‘oh, I’ve always said, “happy as a sandboy”’ and she’d never heard that before. We had debates about those sorts of things and then we’d Google it and see which expressions are more common.

We were also trying to think about Liz being Scottish, because that comes and goes in Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s original text. She is a Scottish character, but then later she’s described as English and then as British. You don’t get a sense of distinct identities within general Britishness—it’s a bit hazy in the original. But we felt it’s actually quite difficult to do that for a UK readership who will get confused if Liz is Scottish and then she’s suddenly English. So there was a little bit of massaging the original text in that particular way.

Did you have any trepidation about that? Making those kinds of changes that are essential for a UK readership but maybe shift the tone of the original. Or did you not necessarily think about needing to harken back to the way the original was written all the time?

That was an example of one of the small liberties that we did take. I think there were relatively few, but that was one where we had a reasoned discussion with Carolina about it.

In general, we were left with a free rein by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara. She didn’t particularly want to be very involved with it. She answered questions we put to her—there were certain bits where there was a certain amount of ambiguity and we would ask [for] clarification on that. But it was maybe six or seven questions, I think in total. For the rest of it, she just said, ‘¡confío en ustedes!’

The third part of the book of course has a lot of queer sex in it. I imagine translating that, especially given what you’ve said about the differences in English, might have given you pause.

We did have a lot of conversations about how to translate the sex scenes so that they came across in the way we felt Gaby’s original came across. I remember Iona saying at one point, ‘we just don’t wanna be getting a bad sex award for this book we’ve translated!’ Getting the tone right was really important.  

One of the discussions we subsequently had [once the book was published] was with Alicia Borinsky. She brought out the fact that in the book, the sex scenes show a marked power dynamic between the two women. With Liz as a kind of ‘representative of the British Empire’— being forceful and dominating. That’s obviously important to the plot of the book. So as well as trying to capture the intense eroticism of it and China’s total obsession with Liz, we also wanted to capture this power dynamic between the two women. As well as the words for what’s going on, we were sort of thinking, well this is uncharted territory for both of us, in terms of writing in this way in English. As well as of the level of appropriate vocabulary of the power play, to differentiate between the two women.

There were a lot of things going on in those scenes. I don’t know if it was successful or not, but it was certainly one of the bits that we spent a lot of time talking about and using a thesaurus and running things past other people, to friends of ours saying, ‘how does this read to you?’

I thought it was really fantastically done, there was such lushness to your choice in language.

That comes very strongly from the original. There is this effervescent joy coming out of it. It comes right from the beginning. I remember Iona commenting on it, because she translated the first chapter first. This image of the light—which is the opening sentence—suffusing everything to do with China comes through, despite the terrible circumstances she’s had and that she undergoes. That’s something Gaby's said herself about the text—that she wanted to write a good story for China. She felt she deserved to have that light and joy. Really dark, terrible stuff goes on, particularly in the second part. But she wanted to write a positive narrative in some way for the character of China. Which is the gesture of recuperating her from the original epic poem, where she gets a passing mention: ‘a mother of two at the age of fourteen’.

Has it surprised you, the level of interest and passion people feel for this book, especially given that this is such a specifically Argentinian story?

It really has. When a friend said that it had been featured in a particular LGBTQ magazine, I suddenly thought, there’s a dearth of stories, of lesbian love stories. I think that touched a chord as well. It was such a joyous narrative of two women and their relationship. There are lots of different things in it that you can respond to. There’s that story, there’s the clever rewriting of Martín Fierro, there’s this romp through Argentinian history, and there’s this love of the land and of plants and ecosystems and flora and fauna—and obviously, the indigenous politics in the last section. It’s something Gaby herself is very passionate about, she’s speaking about it a lot at the moment. I think it’s a many-faceted book that appeals to people on lots of different levels.

I agree, it was so lovely to read those components of the book. For a lot of queer people, there’s a hunger to read books where there is an acknowledgement of the difficulty of what it feels like to be alive, but the fact that they’re queer isn’t the issue at all—it’s the world that’s decided that it’s the problem. And also the indigenous component—it might not be as true in the UK, but there’s increasingly a movement for people to talk about indigenous history in the United States. To have a book that isn’t about the U.S. but explores something that I think people are grappling with, made so many folks able to understand it from a different perspective. People really resonated with that, because we just don’t have that many texts that explore it from a joyous perspective.

Absolutely. Some people have said about the last section that it’s very utopian and yes it is—it’s good not to be representing an indigenous community in a way that’s only [about] land loss and the loss of history, and so on. At the very end, there’s this sense that they’re having to move, to disappear and vanish—so there is that gesture as well. But in the third part, I do think she’s trying hard to portray this community as a loving, as an embracing, as a warm positive alternative to what’s come before, in the estancia of the colonel. Which was, you know—hideous.

Did translating the text alter in any way the sense of abandonment you felt when you first read the book?

On a technical level, one of the things that really impressed me most in the process of co-translating was looking at sentence structure. There’s one chapter that is entirely one sentence. The banquet scene where they’re getting very drunk and it ends with the colonel being sick on the table. That is all, if I’m not wrong, one sentence in the original book. We did eventually split it into two, but trying to preserve that completely overwhelming immersive experience… we found ourselves talking more than we expected, about punctuation.

There’s something breathless about the way Gaby narrates—we were thinking of ways to make this work in English. We had debates about semicolons. Iona used to laugh at me because I like semicolons a lot and she’d say ‘no, Gaby doesn’t use so many semicolons, take them out!’

I suppose some characters were easier than others, to get the tone of voice for. We both found it relatively easy to get the tone of voice for the colonel.


Maybe we’ve all had patriarchs, in our time. So [it was] an easier voice to imagine yourself into. Liz also, to some extent. We had more trouble with China’s voice as she develops and finds herself. The fact that she’s also retrospectively narrating and finding her voice as a writer… that was more difficult. We had to think harder about that.

Was there a part of the book that you loved translating the most? And was there a part that you found most difficult?

The same part—I most enjoyed translating the poetry and it also was truly one of the hardest bits. I absolutely loved doing that. I said to Iona when we started off, ‘can I have the chapter that has the poem in it?’ Before we’d even been given the go-ahead from Carolina to do this, I had already copied that chapter and was bashing out versions of it, just for my own pleasure. I really like translating metrical poetry. Respecting rhyme and metre and so on. I’m also a crossword, anagram person. All those things are in the same bit of my brain, I think.

That kind of—we’ve got this stanza, it’s got the following key ideas in it. What might be suitable English words for those ideas and are they strong words and where am I going to put them? Are they going to be at the end of the line, the beginning of the line? Mapping it out as if it were a bit like a crossword puzzle. You’ve got strong words that would make good rhymes and not, hopefully, trite ones. You’ve got to fit this many syllables before it—so what are you going to slot in?

Are you interested in translating more novels or are you more interested in translating poetry and short stories?

I’ve just finished translating, in collaboration with the author, a crime fiction novel Muerte en el Guaire, by a Venezuelan writer Raquel Rivas Rojas. Who, as it happens, lives in Scotland. That’s been great, because I’ve been able to work very closely with her on the translation.

It’s more that I’m responding to particular works, or particular moments, or particular people—rather than saying, ‘I’m translating poetry,' or 'I’m translating novels’. Having worked with Raquel over many years now, I’ve had a book club and poetry reading group, Poema de la semana. She’s been a founder member of that group. So we’ve built up a rapport and a trust, we know how we [each] think about literature, we’ve worked together very closely.

I taught her novel Muerte en el Guaire in one of my crime fiction courses. In the women’s writing course, she came and spoke to the students about her book when we were reading it. I said, ‘I’d love to translate that’ and she said, ‘well, why don’t you?’ so it came out of that closeness of sharing [in] literature.

I’m foremost a reader. More than a translator or an academic, I’m a reader—all the other things come out of that.

It seems to me so important for translation, for literature and for teaching literature, for being ethical in your approach to teaching literature—is to really read. Closely and intensely before either trying to translate something or saying anything about it.

I do think literature and culture has an important place in the world at the moment, if it can be something that’s collective and collaborative. I think the most exciting discussions and the most enlightening readings emerge from these groups. From the poetry reading group, from the book club, from the poetry translation group. All these things where people are on a level, there’s nobody teaching anybody else. People are coming together to share ideas in a very horizontal way. Interesting things emerge from that.

I often find that the most illuminating readings come out of a consensus from a group about how to read something. Readings that go back over weeks and months, and you’re referring back to something you read two or three years ago and you think, oh, this reminds us of that. The texture of different lives, woven through reading—together.

Public libraries and book groups and that kind of thing are so important. For this collective sense of—we’re all going through tough times, why are we here? Reading is something that can help us think about why we’re here and what it’s all about.

It sounds like what you’re saying is that books can create a shorthand between people. By reading in community and sharing space, there’s an opportunity to move beyond the pressures of the everyday.  

Also to remind us that things are not always straight forward. Ambiguity and not black and white views of things exist and that’s okay. One of the things students often worry about with language is, is it right to say this or is it wrong? The higher up you get in it, the more you realise it’s a very grey area—it’s the same with literature and interpretations of literature. It presents the messiness and the ambiguity in a very relatable way.

Translating this book seems to have offered an opening in your perspective about how you’re orienting yourself. What are you looking forward to exploring next?

Definitely excited to keep reading more poetry, translating. I am just beginning to translate short stories from Quién no by Claudia Piñeiro. I’ve also translated an essay by Claudia Piñeiro for a forthcoming book on feminisms from Latin America being put together by Charco Press.

But also—writing poetry myself. Not with any view to publish or particularly to sharing it, but as a creative outlet. Music is a creative outlet for me, but writing also gives you more insight into the creative process, which I think is really helpful—for the business of translating poetry. It’s also enjoyable, as a way of saying thank you, or for friends, to communicate something particularly difficult to communicate in any other way. I suppose I’m exploring that but not really talking about it to anybody—apart from you!

cc: Peter Dayan

Fiona Mackintosh is a Senior Lecturer in Latin American Literature at the University of Edinburgh with research interests in gender studies, comparative literature and literary translation. Fiona specialises in Argentinian fiction and poetry, and translated Luisa Valenzuela's 'The Other Book' for BOMB Magazine. She has also published extensively on Alejandra Pizarnik and Silvina Ocampo in particular, as well as on contemporary authors. Her co-translation with Iona Macintyre of The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2020. She is currently writing a book on the novels of Claudia Piñeiro.

Micaela Brinsley

Micaela Brinsley is one of the co-editors-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca and editor of interviews, as well as fiction and essays.

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