Borderless Book Club: ‘Holiday Heart’

Last week’s book club saw a discussion of Margarita García Robayo’s Holiday Heart, translated by Charlotte Coombe and published by Charco Press. Joining us for the evening was the translator, Charlotte Coombe, editor, Fionn Petch, and co-founder of the press, Carolina Orloff.

Holiday Heart follows the breakdown of a marriage between two Colombian immigrants to the United States, Lucía and Pablo, and explores how each of them experiences displacement, belonging, and identity differently, perhaps one reason for the slow decay of their relationship. However, whilst this story is the driving force for the narrative, more importantly, Robayo sharply and uncomfortably introduces observations on ideas such as class, racism, and motherhood. Her precise and distinct prose follows Lucía as she leaves Pablo alone at home to wallow in his bitter self-pity and takes herself and their two children away to Miami in order to gain some perspective on her dying relationship.

Carolina opened the conversation by offering some words from Robayo, in which she discussed the idea of ‘middleness’, something that is seen throughout her works, and a theme that is very apparent in Holiday Heart. Carolina explained to the group that when she came across Robayo’s work, she was immediately blown away. Robayo’s prose is indeed quite unique with her use of dark humour and awkwardness often leaving the reader feeling slightly uncomfortable or uneasy. Carolina said she couldn’t put her books down, taking this as a sign that she had to be translated into English. Enter Charlotte Coombe, a translator from Spanish and French into English who came work on Holiday Heart after having translated a compilation of two novellas and a short story collection from Robayo, Fish Soup, also published by Charco Press. Beginning her discussion on the translation of each of the texts, Charlotte stated that she found Robayo’s voice really resonated with her own as she identified with her use of sarcasm and humour. Perhaps this had a positive impact on the translation experience, with Charlotte not having to ‘mould’ her voice into one that resembled Robayo’s. However, whilst the book explored similar themes to Fish Soup, for example, the idea of ‘middleness’, Charlotte said that the translation experience was quite different. She explained that working with these ‘awful’ characters was often very hard, and at the start of the translation process, she decided to highlight each of the controversial and shocking extracts that appear throughout the text so that she could later discuss them with her editor, Fionn Petch, and also with Carolina. The group said that they spent a very long time working on these sections (right up until publication in fact) with the aim to get it just right, a difficult task, particularly as Robayo didn’t want them to ‘tone anything down’. Fionn spoke about how political correctness is not so embedded into the Spanish language, unlike in English, meaning that certain words would have different effects in each. However, Robayo’s use of severe words were greatly emphasised in this text, and it was challenging to render this into English without becoming offensive, thus, there were points at which they had to stop and adapt Robayo’s words in order to be culturally sensitive. Whilst reading a text such as this, one has to remember that it is the characters that are doing or saying these things, and it should be taken into consideration that Robayo has chosen to write like this for a reason, potentially offering a form of social commentary and forcing people who act this way in real life to confront their actions. These characters are unfortunately very real depictions of certain people in today’s society. As Carolina stated: it has to be hard, it has to be uncomfortable, and we have to see and confront these sad realities.

Charlotte shared with the group that another difficulty in translation was choosing how to represent the two languages that appear within the text. In the Spanish language original the characters also often speak in English, something that is particularly tricky to represent in translation. In order to tackle this, Charlotte decided to add a gloss, for example, adding ‘she said in English’ in order to indicate a language change and the presence of two languages. Charlotte also chose to leave some Spanish words in the target text in order to retain the bilingual feeling that the source text had.

There was also a very interesting insight into how the title of the book came about. In Spanish, it appears as ‘Tiempo Muerto’, however, Robayo was adamant that in English translation, the title became ‘Holiday Heart’. Robayo actually wanted this to be the title for her Spanish edition, however, it was rejected by publishers. Charlotte talked more about the meaning behind the term holiday heart, explaining that when she researched the definition, she found one that offered two examples: heart flutters caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, for example, binge drinking, eating fatty foods, using recreational drugs, or, heart flutters caused by loud noise, for example, Fourth of July fireworks. This is significant because the opening pages of the novella see Lucía watching the Fourth of July Fireworks at the beach with her young children, this proves just how much thought goes into each of Robayo’s words – nothing is an accident, and each of her sentences are incredibly well thought out. This deceptively simple style of writing caused challenges in translation, and Charlotte explained that she spent a lot of time perfecting her rewriting of Robayo’s style.

After a wonderfully insightful discussion on the ins and outs of translating this book, we split off into smaller groups to discuss the themes explored within Holiday Heart in a little more detail. For myself, one of the main themes I found in my reading was displacement, and the attempt to find a sense of belonging or home, or, in fact, an attempt to avoid feelings of belonging or home. This idea of displacement ties into Robayo’s idea of ‘middleness’ that opened the session, neither Lucía nor Pablo seem to have a sense of belonging, each of them stuck in between countries, homes and nationalities. This sense of middleness seems to be something that bothers Pablo, and he is constantly yearning for some sort of connection to a place, specifically his home country, for example, he writes a novel based there, and persistently reflects on parts of Colombian life. On the other hand, Lucía seems to work for a sense of disconnect, of ‘middleness’. She scoffs at the idea of ‘home’, ‘origin’ etc., and actively unties herself from notions of the place in which she was born and grew up. However, despite not defining herself by where she is from, Lucía appears to be massively preoccupied with where other people are from, this being one of her many flaws. In our group, someone came up with the idea that perhaps these notions come from the fact that she is too individualistic to ‘belong’ to a group or nation, that she sees belonging to a collective as meaning she has to lose her individual identity.

Another main theme within the novel is the idea of dissatisfaction. This theme is presented most notably through the breakdown of Pablo and Lucía’s long term relationship, but also with motherhood, and perhaps with life in general. The breakdown of Lucía and Pablo’s relationship is the driving force of the narrative, with the reader expecting to find out what the catalyst was for this disastrous downward spiral that the pair seem to constantly feed with numerous selfish and destructive actions. However, we don’t receive an ‘answer’, the conclusion being that there wasn’t one big event that caused the breakdown of this relationship, instead, perhaps more realistically, after years of living with the same person, seeing the same face, and hearing the same stories, each of them grew slowly sick of one another, neither of them hiding their true feelings, and each accepting defeat. Pablo and Lucía come to the seemingly mutual, yet silent agreement to remain bitter and distant for the rest of their lives.

Our group also discussed the use of controversial language within the novel and the effects of this on the reader. I felt that in the majority of instances, this use of shocking and controversial language offered, as Carolina earlier stated, a sadly realistic view of certain people’s opinions, opinions that within Holiday Heart are portrayed as coming from extremely flawed, bitter and sad characters. Robayo highlights the flaws in these deeply embedded prejudices and holds a mirror up to people holding similar opinions. However, there was some discussion on whether Robayo’s portrayal of black characters such as David could have been more profound, or whether she could have given him a stronger voice in order to offer a more well-rounded narrative concerning racism, a narrative that subverts from the stereotypes of black men that are all too often seen in the media.

I loved reading Holiday Heart, and whilst the controversial themes Robayo explores within the novella were extremely jarring, their delivery, through Robayo’s concise, seemingly sparse, but well-thought-out style offered room for reflection, provoking thoughts and discussions that need to be had. The evening’s in-depth discussion on the translation of this very challenging novel was wonderful, and offered a real insight into the trickier and more weighty parts of translation, that despite being agonised over for months on end, may often be overlooked in the discussion of the English text.

Borderless Book Club returns in two weeks, with a somewhat different text, Summer of Reckoning, a crime thriller published by Bitter Lemon Press, written by Marion Brunet and translated by Katherine Gregor.

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