Craft Capsule: On Google Maps

Julia Sanches

This is no. 116 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

An editor friend of mine once reported that an editor friend of hers coveted my life as a literary translator. This came as a shock: From where I stand, the life of a literary translator hardly seems glamorous. If anything, I’ve always thought of interpreters as the rockstars, maybe because of the adrenaline required in translating live, not to mention the fact that they actually have to leave the house. But in her thought-provoking memoir Translation as Transhumance, author and literary translator Mireille Gansel does venture outdoors, both far and wide: She goes to live with the mountain people of Vietnam so that she can experience their day-to-day lives and better translate their poetry. She travels to Greiz, Germany, where the poet Reiner Kunz helps her understand the meaning of the word sensibel. Now that, I thought when I first read it, was glamour.

I’ve thought of this book a lot throughout the still-long months of the pandemic, as I’ve translated books set in places thousands of miles from my Providence apartment. Working on these translations hasn’t exactly given me wings, as the cliché goes, though it has forced me to navigate the geographical makeup of real places I’d never laid eyes on before, whose streets I’d never felt beneath my feet. Unfortunately, borders aren’t as porous today as they were fifty years ago, and we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s also not easy to brush off the environmental consequences of air travel. But at least I have a time-and-space-bending digital resource right at my fingertips: Google Maps.

This Providence summer I spent most of my workdays translating a punchy debut novel by Canarian author Andrea Abreu that takes places during a Canarian summer in the outskirts of a small town on the island of Tenerife. The book follows two best friends who spend most of their time wandering a particular street in the neighborhood that is their entire world. The author never names the town, but based on a few clues I worked out that the novel was probably set near or even in Icod de los Vinos. When I struggled to visualize this place at the center of the narrator’s world, I turned to Google Maps, dragging the little canary-yellow Street View icon onto one of the veiny white roads and going for a wander. Suddenly the plants and flowers that are peppered throughout the book and give it such a strong sense of place came to life—the verode bushes, the bright-yellow sourgrass, the cactuses and their prickly pears, the pine trees whose light-brown needles blanket the sides of the road. Before me I saw the fields that the characters run or walk or stomp through, as well as the houses they sleep in. I had known that the architecture was probably working-class Spanish colonial—I leaned on my memories of small, modest abodes I’d seen across various parts of Latin America—but now I could actually see the “pink, yellow, even yellower, and fried-yolk yellow” houses the author had written about.

Sure, the effect isn’t the same as flying to Tenerife to meet the author and, who knows, eat at her grandma’s house—something home-cooked like gofio amasado and coditos with mojo—or feeling the island’s summer clouds press down on my body in real life. At least I’m familiar with the latter sensation from all my time in Brazil, where I’m from, and where my mother has always warned me about the mormaço, which Google translates as “haze” and as “sultry weather, sultriness, flirt.” I’d say it’s more like a damp heat trapped beneath a bell jar of clouds behind which the sun continues to smolder.


Julia Sanches is the author of more than a dozen translations from Spanish, Portuguese, and Catalan into English. Her translations and writing have appeared in Granta, Literary Hub, the Paris Review Daily, and the Common, among other publications. Her recent translations are Mariana Oliver’s Migratory Birds (Transit Books, 2021) and Eva Baltasar’s Permafrost (And Other Stories, 2021). Born in São Paulo, she lives in Providence. 

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