“Super Extra Grande” by Yoss [Why This Book Should Win]
Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
The entry below is by George Henson, a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, contributing editor for World Literature Today and Latin American Literature Today, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.
Super Extra Grande by Yoss, translated from the Spanish by David Frye (Cuba, Restless Books)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 42%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 9%
A SUPER EXTRA GRANDE WINNER
In a review of SUPER EXTRA GRANDE, forthcoming in Latin American Literature Today, Mexican author Alberto Chimal writes:
[SUPER EXTRA GRANDE] is space opera in the purest sense of the term: it not only offers exciting episodes, humor and even romance, in a rich extraterrestrial environment, but it also proposes, without cynicism, a future that English science fiction finds harder and harder to conceive: one in which human beings have effectively overcome their self-destructive tendencies and are able to enjoy a greater and fuller life in the cosmos, coexisting, although not always without problems, with countless other intelligent species.
I quote Alberto, not only because he’s a talented writer, critic, and devotee of genre fiction, but also because I couldn’t have summarized the novel as succinctly and persuasively myself. As a translator, I am much more comfortable trading in other writers’ words than my own. If after reading my article, you’re not convinced that Super Extra Grande deserves to win this year’s BTBA, the fault lies in my inadequacy as a writer rather than in the author or translator.
I’ve put SUPER EXTRA GRANDE in all caps because in all my correspondence with YOss, he has done the same; I write YOss, with a capital YO, because this is how he signs his name, followed by his signature closing “cambio y fuera” (over and out).
Everything about YOss seems to be a signature, from his name (his birth name is José Miguel Sánchez Gómez) to his heavy-metal appearance. But after spending time with him in his native Havana, I realized that nothing about this Cuban author is superficial or cliché. More importantly, he is not a dilettante. He can speak as intelligently and passionately about Proust as he can Philip K. Dick. One day, during the Havana Book Fair, as he chatted with a Cuban rapper, whose Spanish I struggled to understand, he interrupted his compatriot’s animated harangue on the politics of Cuban rap, to gesture to me that Margaret Atwood was walking by, after which the conversation switched to The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s novel of speculative fiction, which led to a thoughtful discussion about the obsolescence of generic boundaries.
All of this to say that YOss is more than his rocker façade, and that SUPER EXTRA GRANDE, which many categorize as “genre literature,” should not be dismissed so quickly or out of hand. Fortunately, there are readers who have long fought to tear down the wall erected by the academy and publishing between “literary” and “genre” fiction.
Still, that SUPER EXTRA GRANDE has made it this far surprises even me, its primary cheerleader. In a January blog post, I wrote about the “obstacle-laden path” that SUPER EXTRA GRANDE traveled to be considered for the BTBA, “as much for [its] genre, science fiction, as for [its] publishing provenance.” In fact, the deck seems to have been stacked against it from the start.
According to YOss, the first version of SUPER EXTRA GRANDE was lost in 2004 when his hard drive was stolen. Undaunted, he rewrote the novel from scratch. It was this second version that he submitted to, and subsequently won, the UPC (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya) Science Fiction Award in 2011. Unfortunately, the win coincided with the UPC’s decision to cease print publication of the winning book, which relegated SUPER EXTRA GRANDE to digital publishing. Following the contest win, the novel was eventually published in Cuba by Editorial Gente Nueva with a print run of a mere 2,000 copies, a sizeable number, however, by Cuban publishing standards. However, due to the nature of Cuban publishing, this meant that no matter how well the book sold—it sold out almost immediately—subsequent printings were unlikely, all but guaranteeing that it would never fall into the hands of an American translator.
Enter Cuban-American anthropologist Ruth Behar and her husband, anthropologist-cum-translator-cum-scifi fan David Frye. After translating and finding a home at Restless Books for YOss’s first novel, Planet for Rent, Frye went to work on SUPER EXTRA GRANDE. YOss’s luck was beginning to change. Next came a book tour in the United States, followed by a glowing review by Juan Vidal at NPR, “YOss’s latest novel Super Extra Grande is a work of welcome imagination, steeped in science and imbued with satire and philosophy,” which was followed by equally favorable reviews, among others, in the Washington Post and National Review. In January, YOss learned that, against all odds, his novel had been nominated for the 2017 Philip K. Dick Award. And, now, here we are: the long list for the 2017 BTBA. The writer with the rock-star look had become a rock-star writer, thanks in no small part to his translator.
In preparation to write this article, I emailed David to ask a couple of questions about his experience translating the book. His response was at once refreshing and familiar:
SUPER EXTRA GRANDE (the caps are mine) is such an exuberantly fun book, it would be hard to describe anything about the translation as a challenge (the word sounds so grueling!). But there were plenty of interesting puzzles to solve. One, of course, was the Spanglish; another was how to render the names of extraterrestrial worlds and creatures in English. But I felt that the scifi format gave me lots of leeway with both those sets of decisions, in that scifi readers expect to be plunged into radically different worlds where they will not immediately recognize every object, every name, every word.
As evidence of Frye’s linguistic athleticism, consider:
“Perdón,” I say, because I can’t say anything else. I say it with all my heart, though, I swear. “She was una asistente magnífica and an even better secretaria. Pero you have to entender, given our anatomical differences . . .”
“I do entiendo.” Gardf-Mhaly gives me another one of those stone-cold looks. “Though in el pasado that hasn’t stopped otros hombres from at least trying to consumar their amor imposible . . .”
Although Frye’s Spanglish, or code-switching, reads effortlessly, Frye, in fact, only makes it look easy. Spanglish, as Ilan Stavans has written, follows its own rules of grammar and syntax, which Frye appears to have mastered.
In the same email, Frye touched on what is one of the hurdles that “any decent translator,” to borrow a phrase from New Yorker critic James Woods, must surmount:
Now that I think of it, the closest thing to a challenge for me was having to mentally inhabit the persona of the narrator, whose expansive, self-confident, out-going personality is pretty much the opposite in every way of my own. (And as you will know, as a translator, you have to think through the mind of the narrator if you want to get the words right.) But I think it worked out.
It did indeed.
As I read the novel, comparing the translation to the original, I was marveled by Frye’s choices—after all, translation is about making choices. Effortless, agile, nimble, natural . . . This is not to say, as many might suggest, that Frye was invisible. On the contrary, when Frye writes, “Shit and double shit . . . How could I be so stupid?” where YOss writes, “Mierda y más mierda . . . ¿Cómo pude ser tan idiota? [Shit and more shit . . . How could I be such an idiot?],” he leaves behind his fingerprints, which implicate him in a masterful translation of a masterful novel that deserves to win . . . even if it’s an underdog.
But who doesn’t love an underdog?