This Saturday, April 18, we will be welcoming Eleanor Stevens back to Grinnell to celebrate the publication of her translation Hard Tortillas: Too Broke for Beans by Enrique Romero Moreno. In anticipation of her visit we asked Eleanor to share some of her thoughts on Moreno’s novel and translation as a collaborative project.
Translation Collective: How did you originally come across Tortillas duras: ni pa’ frijoles alcanza? What compelled to you translate this novel?
Eleanor Stevens:In the Spring of 2013, Enrique Romero Moreno (who is the Mexican Consul in San Antonio) came to Grinnell to give a presentation on immigration reform. I went, and by the end of the presentation I’d answered, and asked, so many questions that he could tell I was passionate about Mexican immigration, so he gave me a copy of his novel. He had a whole stack of them. They were neon pink, the weirdest looking things I’d ever seen. That summer I opened the book up, not really expecting to like it. But the immediacy, the intimacy of the language hooked me instantly: my mouth kept dropping open in shock, and then I’d laugh out loud at the goofy, witty turns of phrase. I couldn’t put the thing down. In college I’d studied all about immigration; I’d even volunteered at an immigrant rights nonprofit. But I’d always been an outsider looking in. Romero pulled me right in with the immigrant, just swept me off my feet. While I read, I felt like I was an immigrant myself. All that hope, and heartache, and bitterness, and loneliness, and humor. That fall, when I had an opportunity to translate a text for a seminar, I decided that Romero’s novel had to be the one. Nothing I’d ever read in Spanish had ever felt so alive to me.
TC: Because your translation is an abridged version of Tortillas duras, how did you decide which sections to translate?
ES: [Luis] Enrique [Romero] and I selected what we felt were the novel’s most impactful scenes — the opening description of immigrants’ dreams, an immigrant family torn apart by CPS, Tururú’s car, Coras’ trial — and patch-worked them together into a coherent narrative arc. Although we can only include bits and pieces of the story, we try to give the reader a good sense of the novel’s three main protagonists: Coras, Yes-Yes, and Tururú. Each character is unique and offers a different perspective on the immigrant experience.
TC: What aspects of Enrique Romero Moreno’s writing did you find most difficult to carry over into your English translation?
ES: Easy: his humor! His humor his subtle, implied in his tone rather than explicit: it’s in the way he uses words, the way he’ll switch from formal to informal registers, the way he’ll throw around slang. It’s Mexican humor! Translated into English, it doesn’t sound the same.
And also, obvious as it may seem, the Mexican-ness of the novel, expressed in the Spanish language.Tortillas duras is so essentially a Spanish book: a book about people trapped by language, defined by language, struggling over language. Romero captures that linguistic struggle in the original by throwing in snippets of English, unitalicized, untranslated: bosses and immigrant workers yell back and forth at each other, completely confused; incarcerated immigrants stare blankly at the English documents their English-speaking lawyers want them to sign. The dignity of the immigrant’s Spanish is constantly threatened by English; it is, therefore, I think, in part a farce to translate this book at all. That’s the great irony of this project.
TC: You originally began this project in a translation seminar at Grinnell College. What made you continue? How did you see it evolve after leaving Grinnell?
ES: The leader of the seminar, Hai-Dang Phan, co-founder of Grinnell’s Translation Collective, encouraged me to continue and said the Translation Collective would publish it if I translated a long enough excerpt. It was a daunting idea, but the challenge excited me. And when I met Romero’s son, Enrique, and saw how passionate he was about his dad’s work, that made me all the more determined to take the project on. We had to share this amazing book with more people!
TC: When you began to translate the book, you worked alone and were not in contact with Moreno. How do you think the process changed after you were able to speak with him?
ES: When I spoke with Moreno, I realized that he was deeply touched by my interest in Tortillas duras. Apparently it is unusual for a random white person to identify so strongly with Mexican immigrants. I had never thought about it that way, but the more I talked with Romero and his son, Enrique, the more apparent it became: it meant a lot to them that I cared enough to translate their book. They felt seen, respected, in a way that Latino immigrants in the U.S. all too often don’t. The Romero family’s gratitude made me see translation in a whole new light: more than simply replacing one word for another, translation can be a step on the road toward social justice.
TC: In a similar vein, did the collaboration with the author’s son, Luis Enrique Romero, have an impact on your process of translation? How would you characterize the benefits of such a collaboration
ES: Enrique helped me in three ways. First of all, his passion strengthened my commitment to the work. Second, he helped me think through all the content and formatting decisions. Most importantly, though, he helped me understand the text better. Enrique is bilingual, bicultural, and more familiar than anyone with his dad’s narrative voice. We spent months working through snarls of Mexican slang: soccer terminology, insults, jokes… When I didn’t “get” something Yes-Yes, Coras, or Tururú said, Enrique usually did. We talked, too, about more straightforward language: we discussed exactly what the text meant, the precise way Romero used Spanish words, and the best way to recreate that same meaning in English. My text is richer and more accurate thanks to Enrique. He aspires someday to translate his father’s entire book (if I don’t beat him to it); I hope his writing will also be richer because of his collaboration with me.