What it All Means: Reflections on a George Saunders Q & A

Layla Benitez-James

Jan 28, 2014

Gulf Coast's interview with George Saunders was made possible by literary nonprofit Inprint, who brought Mr. Saunders to Houston as part of the 2013-14 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. More information about the reading series can be found here.

I was first introduced to the work of George Saunders in high school. My senior year, first period was English with Ms. McDonald. It was AP Topics Magnet etc. English, English for kids who liked English. Ms. McDonald was the kind of teacher who would decide that we were being too apathetic and send us outside to read A Midsummer Night's Dream to each other on the grass or make us act out Donne's "The Flea (NSFW)," telling us we were getting it wrong until a pair of boys acted out an especially explicitly inappropriate rendition that made her laugh. She told us stories about rugby in Pittsburgh, about stolen cadaver heads and vodka. She understood us. She wanted us to care.

One morning she decided we did not care enough about whatever we were doing and she made us stop and told us she was going to read us a story. Mark had just come in late, as he did every morning, but with a giant and resplendent I'm Sorry balloon from CVS. I realized I was running late again so I stopped and got this for you. Ms. McDonald loved it. According to her, if you had a real job in high school you were allowed to get to school late. Mark worked at Luby's. As long as he told the class stories from Luby's every now and then he was allowed to set his own morning class schedule. The gesture of the balloon was absurd and beautiful. It reminded her of Saunders. She got out Pastoralia and read "The End of FIRPO in the World." It broke me. It made me care.

I had never heard anything like it or read an author quite like Saunders. How there could be a mix of elements so humorous with elements so tragic that rushed in the way his prose rushes in that story was a revelation. I quickly read the rest of the collection and am broken open each time I reread the stories. It is prose that I do not become immune to.

As I have become increasingly obsessed with literary translation, I was surprised a few months ago to realize I had never tried to read a Saunders story in Spanish. Saunders was coming to Houston and reading for Inprint and I suddenly thought that although he would be an infinitely difficult author to translate, he would probably work really well in Spanish. The humor and definitely some of the more dystopian elements, especially when they seem to verge into magical realism, could translate beautifully.

To practice my Spanish I have taken to reading favorite works from English in translation: Alicia en el país de las maravillas, Naturaleza muerta con pájaro carpintero, Jeeves Y el Espiritu Feudal, etc. Works which are both humorous and poignant have been the best in motivating me to push past my linguistic limitations. Though my Spanish is far from fluent, I loved experiencing some of the Saunders stories in a new way and started with some articles touching on how aptly his stories universally speak to some current financial climates. I was curious to learn about the author's own reaction to his translated works and how involved he was in the process and fortunate enough to be able to ask him some questions during his visit via email. Here are his thoughtful and, inevitably, humorous answers to my questions:

George Saunders is a New York Times bestselling American writer, National Book Award finalist, and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, McSweeney's, and GQ. He currently teaches at Syracuse University. His most recent collection of stories, Tenth of December, is a New York Times Book Review "Best Top Ten Books of 2013" selection.

Layla Benitez-James: How would you describe your apparent bent for universality and thematics—one that proves so retainable across translations?

George Saunders: Well, first I'd have to credit my excellent Spanish translator. I can say from experience that my stories don't always translate well. It seems to have something to do with the translator's understanding of style--that is, the idea that how you say something is at least as important as what is being said. But beyond that--I really try to write about things that feel like they might be true, or somewhat true, for everybody in the world. Another way of saying this is that, while writing, I am trying to create a unity between me and my reader, and part of this involves imagining that she is just as nice and smart and worldly as I am--no condescension. My stories tend to be about, on occasion, the challenges of paucity--not having enough, or having to work very hard to get enough, or slightly less than enough, both materially and emotionally. So I think that's a theme that would resonate (if done properly) in any time or culture, until that day when everyone has more than enough and no one is unloved or dissatisfied and has no memory of ever having been.

LBJ: Consequently, how do you feel about your translated works?

GS: Well, because I am one of those unilingual Americans, I've never had the experience of reading one of my books in another language. You can sort of tell how good a translation is by the reaction of foreign readers. But you can also tell by the way the translator proceeds. In this case, my translator, Ben Clark, asked all sorts of great questions, especially about the different class-related stylistic nuances. In English there are lots of intentional imprecisions and mis-speaks and different cues that tell an American reader a little something extra about the character's class and education and so on. When a foreign edition comes out and I've never even heard from the translator--then I start to worry. I have a really wonderful Italian translator, for example, and my books do well there--her questions are all about the sound of the language and about how to get that sort of strange compression effect that I try to get in English.

LBJ: Have you had any involvement with projects in translating your work?

GS: My main role is to be available to explain different weird phrases and slang and so on. I try to give the translator some cultural context for different registers of speech and so on. Usually they are very good and will pose the question with the answer pretty much already figured out--they are looking for confirmation of a hunch. I did have one really fun experience in Italy. The women doing the on-the-fly Italian translation was very famous, had translated for Clinton and Obama--very powerful women, beautifully dressed. I proposed that, instead of the usual approach, which is that I would read a chunk of text in English and then she would translate that whole chunk (which, in Italian, can take, like, nine hours) I would read one sentence and she would translate that. We did a story called "In Persuasion Nation," which has lots of crazy commercials in it and at least one decapitated penis. So it was fun to watch her face as these things came her way. But she nailed it--lots of laughs and I think she had a good time. I know I did.

LBJ: This also makes me curious about German or eastern European language translations; how have translations to these languages (if any) been received?

GS: I heard a story, possibly mythical, that one translator in a former-Soviet bloc country I won't name had attempted a translation of my story "Sea Oak," and whenever he got to some slang or colloquialism with which he wasn't familiar, he would just put in a bunch of swearing. I asked a friend who speaks Russia how the translation was and he just did this sad smile, and blushed.