Interview: Dr. Steven J. Stewart on Literary Translation

Dr. Steven J. Stewart teaches English at Brigham Young University–Idaho. He has published numerous translations in journals and anthologies. His book of translations of Spanish poet Rafael Pérez Estrada, Devoured by the Moon (Hanging Loose Press, 2004), was a finalist for the 2005 PEN-USA translation award. He has published two books of the short fiction of Argentinian Ana María Shua: Microfictions (University of Nebraska Press, 2009) and Without a Net (Hanging Loose Press, 2012). He has also published a book of translations of horror stories of Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki (Blood Bound Books, 2014). He has been awarded NEA translation fellowships for 2005 and now 2015. ~ Biography and photo taken from The National Endowment for the Arts website

What is your name and where do you work? What do you teach? Does any aspect of your translating work intersect with what you teach?

My name is Steven J. Stewart, and I teach in the English Department at Brigham Young University–Idaho. It seems like most translators in the academy are located in foreign languages or comparative literature departments, but I come to translation through creative writing. I teach a lot of poetry in translation, so my experience with and knowledge of translation is directly relevant there. But I think it’s also relevant to all aspects of my writing and scholarship. I don’t know of any activity that combines writing and scholarship, art and research, and expression and reading better than literary translation.

How did you become interested in literary translation in the first place? 

I first became interested in translation while living in Spain as a missionary. For me, curiosity about and a deep interest in translation were fundamental parts of the experience of learning another language. I would regularly find myself seeking out and looking closely at different translations of a text (including of the Bible, which I assume is the world’s most translated text) and considering the choices that the translators had made. When I returned to the U.S. and resumed my university studies, I would translate poems of masters of twentieth-century Spanish-language literature like Pablo Neruda and Antonio Machado and then try to find published translations of the poems that I could compare my work to. I took some Spanish classes but didn’t even minor in it. I’m essentially self taught in translation, as I suspect many translators are.

After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I took a trip back to Spain. While there, I found a book by the Andalusian poet Rafael Pérez Estrada. I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of such an incredible poet and that his work had not been translated into English yet. I started translating pieces from the book for my own enjoyment, and, a few years later, I was actually able to track down the rights holder of the book and get permission to translate and publish Pérez Estrada’s work. Devoured by the Moon by Rafael Pérez Estrada became the first book of translations that I published.

Suppose someone wanted to become a literary translator. What advice would you offer them as they start out?

Only do it if you’re incredibly passionate about the work you would like to translate. There’s little money or recognition in translation, so it has to be a labor of love.

You’ve done a lot of work with Ana María Shua. How did you come to her work in the first place? Describe the dynamics of the author/translator relationship. Do you collaborate and what is that like?

I first came across Shua’s work in an anthology of Latin American microfictions that I bought in the Spanish-language section of a bookstore in the Houston airport. It was an extraordinary anthology, not your typical airport fare. I liked Shua’s work the best out of all of the pieces in the book and contacted her through the Internet. She already had other translators, but she was willing to let me work on her short-short fiction.

Shua is fantastic to work with. Her English is really good, and she looks over all of my translations carefully. When she gives me suggestions or points out how something I’ve done doesn’t give the right effect, she is invariably spot on. My translations are always better for the attention she gives them, and I feel very confident in my translations of her work, knowing she has looked closely at them, understood them, and approved of them.

How do you negotiate linguistic challenges or translate the “untranslatable”? Do you ever finish a particularly difficult phrase or passage and think, “Nice! I think I nailed that one!”?

There are certainly things that are very challenging to translate. For me, it’s often simple words that have a shading or a clarity in the original language that just seems to get all twisted up or sapped of effect in the target language. An example of this would be the word “nada” in the work of Spanish poet Ángel Crespo. It’s a simple word, with a relatively simple and direct translation (“nothing” in English), but Crespo often uses it in ways and contexts that challenge me.

I will say that the idea of something being untranslatable is essentially a myth. There was a book published a few years back that contained “untranslatable” phrases from languages from around the world, but the book contained discussions of all of the phrases that, of course, translated them just fine. By “untranslatable,” I think that we usually mean “not easily translatable” or “not translatable in a comparably concise way.”

As far as feeling good after I’ve “nailed” a difficult passage, I absolutely do! That’s one of the payoffs of translating. For me at least, there’s nothing like getting into the zone, experiencing a flow state when translating a poem or a story. You never read something as closely as when you translate it, and you (or I at least) feel a powerful and thrilling emotional connection to the work. When you find the right solution and come up with the right words for something you’ve been struggling with, it’s very satisfying.

Do you reflect on the work of other translators as you work? Do you have a favorite translator?

I do have favorite translators, people whose work I respect and admire. Gregory Rabassa and W.S. Merwin come to mind. But, while I pay close attention to their work when I encounter it and am almost certainly influenced by their approaches, I’m not at all conscious of them when I’m translating. The same is true with translation theory. I read a lot of it, I find it interesting, and I’m sure it affects the way I approach translating. But I don’t consciously consider it when translating, nor do I think I should.

Are there organizations or conferences for literary translators? 

The American Literary Translators Association holds an annual conference. They have numerous panels and readings, and there’s a great vibe there, a real feeling of support and camaraderie. You can find meaningful and helpful discussions of translation theory, hear from knowledgeable and accomplished translators, and also get very practical advice on issues like contracts and copyright. They also provide a lot of support for beginning translators. The American Translators Association also holds an annual conference. While it’s a bigger, less personal conference and they are not dedicated exclusively to literary translation, they also have a lot of really good panels.

While I really enjoy attending both these conferences, lately I’ve been more interested in travel to places like Spain and Argentina to meet with writers I translate and other people there.

What is the role of audience in your work?

That’s a tricky one. I don’t actually think of an audience when I’m translating, of someone, anyone, reading the translation, so in that way I don’t feel like I make choices when translating with an audience in mind. I feel like I’m just trying to make the text sound right to me and my sense of how the author’s voice and work should sound in English.

That said, the question of audience can sometimes be very significant. Shua, for example, is adamant that her stories not be made to sound strange or exotic in English; she wants the translations to work for an English-language reader as smoothly and clearly as the originals do for a Spanish-language reader. In one of her books she has a story that references an ombu tree and another that references a surubí fish.

Now the poet in me would want to keep these words intact because of how wild and strange and exotic they sound to a North American ear, of how rich they are. But when I was working on the book, Shua pointed out to me that an ombu tree and a surubí fish were just normal, everyday things for Argentine readers, and, since the type of tree or fish wasn’t especially critical to either piece, she wanted me to use English equivalents that would be specific, more concrete than just “tree” or “fish,” but would have a more equivalent feel in the translations. So, I went with “oak” and “catfish” to try to create a comparable effect and texture.

With translation, fidelity to the effect that a text will have on an audience is often more important than fidelity to the words’ denotative meanings.

Do you have a favorite translated passage, perhaps one that you are particularly proud of or fascinated by? Do you mind sharing? 

The passage that comes to mind is from a very short horror story by the Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki that I translated. In the story, there’s a séance gone wrong where a grandmotherly medium ends up being permanently possessed by the spirit of a deceased little boy. The narrator is the little boy’s brother, and after the incident he is forced to share a bedroom with his “brother,” the possessed medium. At the end of the story, he complains about the way that the medium-brother smells, and in Spanish that’s very naturally done without using a gendered pronoun. So, to preserve the effect of the piece, I needed to come up with a solution that sounded right and natural and didn’t use “him” or “her” or “his” or “hers” in English. The solution I came up with is nothing that really stands out in the piece, but I feel great about the way I was able to preserve and render what needed to be preserved and rendered.

Here’s the piece in its entirety:

“I Don’t Love My Brother Anymore”

Written by Fernando Iwasaki

Translated by Steven J. Stewart

“Carlos is here,” said the medium with her vampire voice, and suddenly she transformed and gave a big smile. So Mom asked a lot of questions, and the spirit answered through the woman. It was definitely Carlos. He knew how much money was in his piggy bank, his favorite dessert, the names of his friends, and where his robot was.

When the medium looked at us the same way Carlos always did, Dad started crying and Mom said please, please don’t go. The lights flickered, the pictures fell off the walls, and the glasses on the table started shaking. The woman fainted and a light shone through to Mom, just like in the movies. “Carlos is here,” she said, her face radiating happiness.

Since then, we’ve started sharing our room again—our toys, the computer, and the PlayStation—but not our bike. Mom wants me to be nice to Carlos even though it scares me. I don’t like the vampire voice. Or the old-lady smell.

~ Read by Jeff Howard

As a translator, do you see yourself as a linguistic or cultural broker or would you characterize it in some other way?

I don’t know what term or metaphor I would use for myself, but I think translators can definitely play an important role along the lines you describe. Translators indeed make literary exchanges possible between languages and cultures, and I think all of us benefit from those exchanges.

Having work translated into English is particularly important for an author. English can and often does serve as an intermediary language between other languages. Imagine a publisher in Hong Kong who’s very interested in translating work from around the world into Cantonese. It’s unlikely that this publisher would ever discover or translate work that was originally written and only existed in Turkish or Polish or even Spanish. But if a work has been translated into English then people from around the world will be able to discover it.

One of Shua’s books was actually translated into Mandarin and published in Taiwan a few years ago, but the very thing I’m describing happened: what actually got translated was my English translation of the book, not the Spanish original. Shua’s work has also gotten attention in places including mainland China and the Philippines through my translations. One time I googled my name to see if a book I had translated had gotten any mentions or reviews, and I came across a website where someone had taken some prose poems I had done of Rafael Pérez Estrada and translated my English translations into Vietnamese. Whoever had done this was violating both my and Pérez Estrada’s copyright, but did I care? I was just thrilled to see Pérez Estrada’s work being made accessible to Vietnamese speakers and to think that I had played a role in making that happen.

~ Interviewed by Dr. Jeff Howard


“Devoured by the Moon Cover Image.”, Amazon20 Feb. 2019,

“Microfictions Cover Image.” Goodreads, Goodreads20 Feb. 2019,

“Surubi (Amazon Catfish Image).” BoliviaBella, Bolivia Bella, 20 Feb. 2019,