This week, on Behind the Book, we caught up with the brilliant Sophie Hughes, literary translator of The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse, by Iván Repila, and also Rodrigo Hásbun's Affections. Read on to learn about female guerrillas in Latin America, how translation can be less constraining than writing, and why you wouldn't want to be stuck in a lift with Donald Trump. Do you have a particular translating routine? Not really. I know when I’m translating something special because time flies: I skip meals; I won’t clock watch or get distracted by the Internet. But on the whole, every time I think I’ve struck upon a routine, I move house or office or country, or start a new book that demands a completely different rhythm. For Attila I worked in bursts, and painstakingly, with no first rough draft. Each sentence was a little sculpture I chipped away at then dotingly polished as I went. Repila’s novel required—at least I felt so—that kind of process. With Affections, it was more about trying to simultaneously understand the characters and preserve their enigma, never explaining them away or painting them in opaque colours through my choice of English words. Perhaps the point of that novel, if a novel can be said to have a point, is to slowly imbue the readers with a sense of who each character is, and how they came to be that way. I struggled with that, because as a translator you feel you ought to know each character in order to perform them, and the magic of Affections is how it continues to mature in your mind long after reading it; each new reading truly does offer something new (whether it’s a keener sense of who the characters are, or a better understanding of the politics underpinning the family story). I did a lot of drafts because it’s very short. And I fell for Monika Ertl, as a character and historical figure. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of her and wanted to know more about other female guerrillas (in both their clandestine and combatant functions), all largely absent from the history of Latin America that I’d received until then. I did my research as I translated the novel. Also, in Havana in early 2016 I was happy to find some photos and info on the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon in the Museo de la Revolución. I suppose part of my routine could be said to be spending as much time as possible in Latin America and Spain. Which person (living or dead) would you most like to be stuck in a lift with? I got stuck in a piss-ridden lift in NY a couple of years ago and I can’t say I was at my most charming. A fireman? I heard a story recently about a friend of a friend who was staying, for reasons unknown to me, in Trump Towers, and she was on her way out when Donald Trump stepped into the lift. Within a few floors he’d let her know she was a ‘very attractive woman’ (he knows a lot of words) and asked if he could do anything for her. She told him it’d be great if he could get someone to fix the broken boiler in Apartment X. Where are you at your happiest? That’s a hard question because there’s only one answer, and it’s one that has little place in an interview about translation. Do you remember the Borges interview from the Paris Review Art of Fiction series? Borges remarks that when he was a young man he was always looking for new metaphors, until he realized that the only metaphors worth using are always the same. “If you invent metaphors, they are apt to be surprising during the fraction of a second, but they strike no deep emotion whatever.” I think some questions have one answer worth giving. When am I happiest? With the man I love. What is the best thing about being a translator? Some people describe literary translation as a straightjacketed version of writing. It’s an apt description to get across the finicky constraints that really make translating literature a craft. I must say though, I find it far less constraining than writing. There is necessarily very little ego involved in translation: it’s not my exercise in imaginative empathy being judged; only my skill at picking up on and preserving someone else’s (and that’s on a good day –as we know, most translations don’t get mentioned in reviews). While I think that critics, publishers and others in the business should know better by now than not to #namethetranslator, I also think that I’ve done my job if a reader, having for whatever reason overlooked the translator credit, doesn’t then clock that they’re reading a translation. I suppose that’s what I mean about there being little ego and therefore fewer constraints involved in the act of translation as opposed to writing. To put it another way, I’ve never heard of a translator suffering from ‘second novel syndrome’. The very best thing, though, is having the world’s best readers for colleagues. What is your favourite word and why? (This can be in any language you like) Problems are the pleasure of translation, so unsurprisingly my favourites are the stubborn, hermetically sealed words that resist both intra- or inter-lingual translation. Possibly the worst (or best) recent example was Los afectos, the Spanish title for Affections. After going all around the houses, we ended up with a starkly literal translation in the plural, which in another instance might be a mistranslation, but in this case was purposeful. Affection risked coming across as more abstract, weighty and philosophical than Hasbún intended with his original title. Affections, on the other hand, describes what the book is about: the plurality of affections and disaffections that exist within one family. What I realized is that in English ‘affection’ has a series of unsatisfactory half-synonyms, but is really quite untranslatable within its own language: bonds, ties, warmth, attachment, tenderness, devotion, love (at a stretch) –none of them would do. I think ‘vaivén’ is a lovely word, too. And ‘libélula’. Which one book do you read over and over again? There are a few, but I’ll say Natalia Ginzburg’s essays, The Little Virtues. She thought herself a small writer, but she is a very big, fundamental one for more people than she probably ever knew. A writer after a translator’s heart, maybe.