In Los Angeles in the early summer of 1966, literary translator Sam Hileman sums up the condition under which he is working in a letter to his friend Carlos Fuentes, the young Mexican novelist. Hileman is battling against time to complete a translation of Fuentes’ new novel, Cambio de piel, with a young family and in severe financial straits, lacking even the money to post the finished manuscript to the publisher. He is struggling to come to terms with a task that is overwhelming him:

You would never know it, but I hate translation more than I hate anything in this world. I am constantly afraid while doing it, afraid that I won’t get it good enough … either not close enough or not strong enough. Or either too close. It is a miserable business, at best always a failure, at worst a disaster. 1

This haunting fear, deriving from uncertainty and lack of confidence, almost paralyses Hileman, as he anguishes over the choices he must make in the text. Hileman, a highly creative translator, agonizes over ‘closeness’ and ‘strength’, which are conflicting, or at least distinct, objectives. The question revolves around what a ‘strong’ translation is meant to be and how much a translator may intervene in order to achieve it. Six months earlier, in a letter written before embarking on the project and in which he gives a very detailed and sensitive critique of the Spanish text, Hileman seems to perceive strength at least in part to be related to higher-level order features of structure and language in what is a complex and adventurous novel: ‘It seems to me that this book takes some big chances, that is one of the sources of its strength, but … you and I must be very sure that the English takes no chances you don’t want to risk.’ 2