As the translator of the first four books by Roberto Bolaño to appear in English, Australian Chris Andrews has played a key role in bringing one of the Spanish language’s major 20th-century voices to American readers. A member of the language department of the University of Melbourne, Andrews’s translation of Bolaño’s Distant Star won the Vallé-Inclan Prize in 2005. In addition to Bolaño, Andrews has translated novels by other Spanish-language writers, including César Aira. Andrews’s translation of Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño’s first major novel in Spanish, will be published by New Directions in 2008.
Scott Bryan Wilson: When I read Roberto Bolaño I never feel like or notice that I’m reading a translation. Same for writers like César Aira, Javier Marias, Thomas Bernhard, Raymond Queneau. Is it that these authors inspire enthusiastic translators or do their voices just burst through no matter what?
Chris Andrews: I think the second explanation is right. All the authors you mention have very strong and distinctive voices, and in the cases of Bolaño and Aira, they are also quite robust, which is not to say that they’re easy to translate, but that, as long as the translator doesn’t get in the way too much, the voices will come through loud and clear. I’m glad you feel that way about Queneau too; he’s one of my favorites!
SBW: What do you mean by the translator getting in the way too much?
CA: I mean producing a translation that is unduly distracting, which I guess can happen if it isn’t quite complete, so that the syntactic patterns of the source language creep into the target language a bit too much and make the translation more syntactically odd than the original, or if the translation goes over the top and becomes showy. But I don’t much like pronouncing on this sort of thing because I’m no doubt guilty of under- and over-translating myself, and the whole business of translation studies can be a distraction from the works themselves, which are way more interesting in the end.
SBW: Do you encounter problems or pleasures with translating Bolaño that you might not encounter with other writers or texts?
CA: One difficulty that crops up frequently in Bolaño is how to translate regional familiar language: Mexican or Chilean slang, for example. If you use regional terms in English it can be confusing for the reader, because they will hear the Chilean or Mexican character as an Australian, say. So you have to try to respect the level of informality, make the expression fit with the character as he or she has been constructed, and rely on other markers of locality in the context. Just occasionally, I think, the best solution is to leave the word in Spanish, but only very occasionally (as with chido in Amulet).
Another difficulty is the syntax of Bolaño’s long sentences with many subordinate clauses. Those sentences often require quite a lot of rearrangement in English.
The pleasures are many! There’s a paradoxical energy in Bolaño’s prose that I find stimulating even when I’m going back over a passage for the nth time. Paradoxical because he is often telling stories of failure, loss, and damaged lives. I can’t help feeling that some of the improvisatory energy that went into the composition is transmitted through the text to the reader.
Another pleasure is seeing the books go out and find the appreciative readers they deserve, in a new language.
SBW: You’ve also translated two novels by César Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and the recent How I Became a Nun. To me he’s just as exciting a writer as Bolaño, although they’re also quite different. Aira’s a little funnier, for one thing, maybe a little less autobiographical (though both authors show up in their books in various forms). What are the differences you find when translating the two of them?
CA: I agree. I think Aira is just as exciting, and quite different. Aira’s style, in most of his books (How I Became a Nun is exceptional) is limpid and simple. The sentences don’t have surprising shapes. But the stories take extremely surprising turns, sometimes jumping from one genre into another, leaving just about everyone wondering why. The most flabbergasting example is a novel called La Prueba (The Test), which begins as a realist, psychologically acute story about how a pair of lesbians in Buenos Aires try to pick up a shy high school girl, then swerves violently to become a kind of B-grade action movie full of graphic violence. Once you’re addicted to Aira, you can be disappointed by a swerve like that, but somehow you prefer being disappointed by him to being satisfied by many other writers.
You’re right too, that Aira is less autobiographical. Many of his books are perversely pseudo-autobiographical: he uses the first person and talks about his childhood in Coronel Pringles, for example, or his life in the Flores neighborhood of Buenos Aires, but if you compare what these books say about his background, his family, his marriage and so on, they are contradictory. He’s not just creating a fictional persona for himself but fictionalizing his life differently each time, and never signaling where fact ends and fiction begins. So the reader is always wondering how “seriously” to take what he says. The same goes for his speculations and theorizing: some of it seems serious to me (and fits with what he has written in his essays), but other speculative digressions seem to be fictive theory, a kind of irresponsible, joyous playing with concepts. Again this can leave you flummoxed. Reading Aira is great fun, but not always a comfortable experience.
Bolaño, on the other hand, with his alter ego Belano, and the B of the stories, creates a fairly coherent fictional self, and one of the pleasures of reading his work is coming across new pieces of information about the life of Bolaño-Belano-B and fitting them into the unfinished puzzle. For example, in the book of stories and fragments that was just published in Spain (El Secreto del mal), there’s an interesting piece about him soaking up the sun on a beach in Catalonia between doses of methadone.
SBW: I feel like in the past year or two there’s been a really wonderful onslaught of translated novels by Spanish-language writers. I picked up on Javier Marias first, which led to Bolaño and then Aira. Reading through all of their available books has been one of the most rewarding, exciting times for me as a reader–discovering three unbelievably talented writers who all have fairly large backlists of yet untranslated work. It makes me think of all the great writers that we’ve not even heard of in the English-speaking world. Who are the big ones we’re missing out on? What do we have to look forward to?
CA: Ah, I can only give very subjective opinions about that. There are two recent novels that I think are wonderful, and I would like to see them come across the translation barrier. First Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s La Orilla Africana (The African Shore), about a Colombian adrift in Marrakech. Rey Rosa is a Guatemalan writer, and some of his books have been published in English: the first books of stories were translated by Paul Bowles, and recently New Directions brought out The Good Cripple, translated by Esther Allen. He’s a master of ellipsis, and has found a form–the short novel in short chapters–that maximizes his power to disturb and intrigue. The other novel is El Testigo (The Witness) by Juan Villoro, an excellent Mexican writer. It’s a big, complex book about the state of the Mexican nation after the end of the PRI’s long reign. I recently translated a chapter of it for the journal Common Knowledge.
And there are lots and lots of others . . . a book I just read that impressed me was Antonio José Ponte’s La Fiesta Vigilada (Party Under Surveillance), which is a mixture of essay and autobiography, and meditates elegantly on surveillance, censorship and culture in Cuba.
Each country in Latin America has its literary culture and its interesting writers, but sometimes it seems there is a limit to the number that can come to be well known internationally, as if Mario Vargas Llosa had just about used up the quota for Peru, say.
It seems to me that interesting things are happening in Argentina: bitter polemics, but also lots of good writing, by novelists like Alan Pauls, Guillermo Martínez, Daniel Guebel and Pedro Mairal.
SBW: What are you working on now? Do you think the rest of Bolaño’s backlist will be translated? And César Aira has written over thirty novels, but only three have been translated into English. Is there hope for more of his work as well?
CA: At the moment I’m translating Nazi Literature in the Americas, Bolaño’s first major novel, and the matrix for a lot of his later fiction. It takes the form of a biographical dictionary of American authors who flirted with, or committed themselves to, fascist ideologies. Given the interest in Bolaño in the U.S. now, I think the rest of his books will be translated eventually. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux has the rights to the two supersize ones, The Savage Detectives and 2666, and New Directions has the rights to most of the shorter ones.
As for César Aira, New Directions is planning to bring out Ghosts and Varamo (neither of which is at all like the three published so far), and after that I dearly hope they’ll acquire the rights to other titles, like La Villa (Shantytown), El Tilo (The Lime Tree), Yo era una niña de siete años (I Was a Seven Year Old Girl), Ema, La Captive (Ema, the Captive), La Prueba (The Test) . . . the number and variety of them is bewildering.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Virgin of Flames by Chris Abani Chris Abani’s third novel, The Virgin of Flames, is set in the crumbling, beautiful parts of East L.A. where Hispanic and African Americans live. The City of Angels, “iridescent in its concrete sleeve,” has become a receptacle of wind and ash as brush fires sweep through the state. The atmosphere...
- The Christophe Claro Interview For a long time, many major American books were either not translated into French or poorly executed when done at all, due to the difficulty of the task. Since the early 1990s, things are changing thanks to a number of translators, among whom Christophe Claro stands out. A writer who...
- The Michael Emmerich Interview Elizabeth Wadell talks to the English-language translator of Banana Yoshimoto and Yasunari Kawabata....
- The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian I. E.M. Forster devotes a chapter of Aspects of the Novel to the quality of prophecy, telling us that very few authors write with it. The realm of prophecy, he writes “is not a veil, it is not an allegory. It is the ordinary world of fiction, but it reaches...
- The Edward Falco Interview I want to tell a good, engaging story, but a story is neither good nor engaging, to me at least, unless it is also meaningful, which is to say it both tells a story and through the action of the story, through the choices made by the characters and the...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Scott Bryan Wilson