I was initially drawn to the work of Sergio Chejfec by the enthusiasm of The Quarterly Conversation’s editor Scott Esposito. My Two Worlds, the first of Chejfec’s longer works to be translated into English, reveals an intriguing writer who inhabits a liminal space on the borders of fiction, memoir, and philosophical meditation. Like the similarly unclassifiable W.G. Sebald, Chejfec is a stylist whose prose is informed by and embodies the act of walking: as a reader, there were moments during which I felt I was struggling across rough terrain; at others, I found my way unimpeded; and I often found myself led around the long way, so to speak, to a point I hadn’t foreseen.
The meandering quality of Chejfec’s prose in My Two Worlds is perhaps even more evident in The Planets, published in June by Open Letter. As I read the latter work, I became curious about Chejfec’s ability to so precisely mirror—and heighten—a physical act. To satisfy my curiosity, I asked Heather Cleary, who rendered this remarkably subtle novel into English, a few questions about Chejfec’s nuances and strategies, as well as the what the process of translating the work of a writer whose circumlocutions seem designed to throw the reader off his trail.
Stephen Sparks: How did you come to translate Chejfec?
Heather Cleary: A while back—maybe six or seven years—Sergio contacted me about translating something he had written for a collection Palgrave was putting out. Once that was done, we started talking about the novels.
SS: You’ve written elsewhere that Chejfec’s prose “both deflects and draws the reader in,” which I’ve found to be a very apt characterization of his work. That indeterminacy or wavering—as if Chejfec is inviting the reader in while keeping his foot against the door—is one of the more compelling (if occasionally frustrating) aspects of his writing. How, then, do you as a translator find your way into the text?
HC: Yes, and I think this simultaneous invitation and deflection plays a really important role in The Planets. Sergio wrote a beautiful essay a few years ago called “Simple Language, Name,” in which he talks about his development as a writer and the way his father’s difficulty learning Spanish late in life affected his own use of the language. Essentially, he says that his early tendency toward the baroque was a kind of compensation for his father’s pared down, sometimes coarse, Spanish. Then there’s the fact that so much of what’s going on in The Planets has to do with navigating the space between oneself and another, particularly when that other person exists in an entirely internalized form, that is, only as a memory. This is explored in the prose itself, through unusual constructions and ways of conveying reported speech, which often gives the language an uncanny, borrowed quality. In spite of this, or because of it, depending on how you feel about prose that doesn’t always give itself over so readily, The Planets is a beautiful book, and an important one in that it approaches friendship, loss, and memory in an innovative, often startling way.
So, it was never really a question of whether I would try to make my way in… the how of it, I suppose, was through certain passages I found particularly moving, and which offered insight into the more abstract sections. For example, during one of the disjointed conversations M and the narrator have as boys, the latter repeats something M has said as though it were his own thought, despite the fact he doesn’t even fully believe it. It’s such a simple detail, but one that seemed so true when I first read it, and which really crystallized the dynamic between the two boys for me. It also anticipates what comes later, as the narrator struggles to preserve M’s memory by keeping his voice alive in a very surprising way, which I won’t spoil here. There are many moments like this—the image of the narrator running around an entire city block so he can have a second chance to acknowledge M’s mother when their paths unexpectedly cross; the guilt he feels at not having fully invoked M’s memory in conversation with a mutual friend. Those anchored the story for me, and made the narrator’s ruminations more accessible, more immediate.
SS: The Planets is a personal book, one full of a restrained anguish over the loss of M., the narrator’s childhood friend, to political violence. The ambiguity of M.’s disappearance tempers the narrator’s mourning, yet somehow make it that much more concrete. As such, it’s a very affecting book. Does how a work affect you as a reader play into your work as a translator? In other words, how much distance, if any, exists between reader and translator?
HC: There are many ways to be affected by a book. I was originally drawn to Sergio’s work by the intricacy of his prose, though as I read through The Planets it became clear that there was much more going on: the restrained anguish you mention, and also a beautiful, somber expression of what it means to really connect with another human being. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I got kind of choked up every time I went over the last two pages of the novel in revisions.
To answer the second part of that question: I tend to think there’s very little distance between reading and translation. Gaytri Spivak has called translation “the most intimate act of reading.” It’s the closest reading you can do, and there’s almost an affective, if not sensual, quality to the practice of lingering over individual words in a way that the average reader typically does not. Of course, getting too entrenched at the level of the word can skew the perception of the work as a whole, something along the lines of missing the forest for the trees. As Natasha Wimmer, quoting the Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid, has said, reading a book too slowly is like getting a slug’s-eye-view of a mural. So, while translation is a detail-oriented kind of reading, it seems to be in constant negotiation with a broader, more story-oriented kind.
SS: My Two Worlds, the first of Chejfec’s “novels” to be translated into English, focuses explicitly on a walk and the physical and mental corollaries of walking. The Planets is also a peripatetic work. The form of the novel matches its content in this regard, meandering across a broad landscape. It’s full of digressions, deflections, cul-de-sacs, stories-within-stories. Do you find that this meandering works as far down as on the level of the sentence? If so, what sort of decisions did you make in retaining that narrative strategy? (If not on the level of the sentence, can you speak more broadly about how form might dictate linguistic choices?)
HC: I like that you put “novel” in scare quotes—that meandering quality of Sergio’s prose does tend to frustrate certain expectations of the form. Walks appear in the much of his work, both literally and in the broader sense of the peripatetic quality of the narrators’ reflections. And the walk is certainly central to The Planets, not only because of the role it plays in the friendship between M and the narrator, but also in the sense that I don’t think the story of the novel is one that could be told much more directly. Or, it could, but we’d lose the resonance between the narrator’s struggle not to let M’s increasingly faint memory slip away from him and the reader’s struggle to hold on to the individual threads of the narrative as the digressions within the text work to pull them away. He builds these deflections into the way the voices and stories that make up the narrative are woven together, but also in the way he nests clauses within one another—here, the influence of Juan José Saer is unmistakable—which presents an interesting problem in terms of translation. Spanish accommodates these structurally complex sentences more easily, which means that they sound less marked than they would in English. This is not to say that Sergio’s writing flows lightly in Spanish, but just that certain features of the language (the agreement between nouns and adjectives, for example) allow for more elaborate grammatical maneuvers. Ultimately, I tried to preserve the density and the rhythm of the Spanish in a way that was true to Sergio’s style without being unintelligible.
SS: What is your translation process like? Do you have a particular passage that proved tricky, etc. that you’d like to discuss? I’m interested in some of the nitty-gritty of the act of translation here. How many dictionaries do you consult? How many drafts do you go through?
HC: It’s a little different with each project. I usually start with a period of pre-reading—going through the text to be translated once or twice, as well as other works by the writer, interviews when possible, sometimes criticism. Whatever might help me find my way into the narrative voice. Then there’s the actual translation part. I use the RAE (dictionary of the Real Academia Española) and the OED, and often ask search engines or kindly friends about how a word is used colloquially. This has been key with Sergio’s work, since he tends to slip in phrases that are just a shade off from typical constructions. I end up with a chaotic draft full of notes, and then revise. And revise, and revise. There’s generally a lot of snacking involved at this stage.
I can’t recall any one passage that proved particularly tricky (they all were, each in its own way), but I had to pay very close attention throughout to the tension between the narrator’s philosophical reflections and his reminiscences about his lost friend. Beyond their thematic relevance, it felt as though the narrator was using them as a way to withdraw from the experience of remembering M and feeling that memory fade. The challenge was to get this tension across, balancing the concrete and the abstract in a way that suggested a deeper connection between the two, without letting them bleed together or pull the narrative apart at the seams. The process was similar with the other voices at work in the novel. In addition to the first-person narrative, M and his father tell a series of elliptical, grotesque stories about nomads and eyeballs and a wedding gone awry, and then there’s the meta-commentary that appears in italics, contesting the first-person narrative at times, corroborating it at others.
SS: Chance plays a large role in the narrative, both on its surface and, one gets the sense, in its composition. For the uninitiated, translating seems to be on the contrary a prescribed act. Is it? Does chance play a role in translating?
HC: That’s a really interesting question. In a sense, translation might seem like a prescribed act because there’s an endpoint you know you’ll eventually reach, which of course is comforting. And largely misleading. There’s a great image of translation in Saer’s Scars—Ernesto López Garay, a judge and amateur translator, is looking over his version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, revising a sentence that appears fairly straightforward in the English: “Three o’clock struck, and then four, and the half hour rang its double chime, but Dorian Gray did not stir.” But appearances can be deceiving, and our hero finds himself falling down a linguistic rabbit hole. “In red, I mark the word chime. The dictionary says, armonía; clave; juego de campanas; repique; sonar con armonía; repicar; concordar. Then I look up stir. It says, removerse; agitar; revolver; incitar; moverse; bullir; tumulto; turbulencia.” Which is to say that even phrases that seem fairly concrete can present an infinite array of variations; the hardest part about translating is often knowing when to stop messing around with synonyms—it’s so tempting to obsess over nuances, connotations. Does chance play a role in all this? For me, at least, when I’m working on a translation, everything seems to refer back to it. Turns of phrase and snippets of conversations all go in to a sort of linguistic scrapbook arranged according to the piece I’m working on at the moment. Sometimes a few of those work their way to the top to hone all those options down to a more manageable range of choices. If I’m lucky.
SS: Did you work with Chejfec at all during the translation? If so, to what extent did you consult him?
HC: Yes, we talked quite a bit about the translation. Sergio’s a saint. I waited until I had a full draft together before sending any questions, but I must have sent him dozens (hundreds) during the revisions. Every now and then he’d answer a question about a complex passage with an equally complex paraphrase, and we’d go back and forth a bit about the idea at its core. Those exchanges were particularly interesting to me because they gave me a sense of how his prose builds from a concept. Sergio seems to have found it interesting, too, (or maybe just disconcerting) to revisit a text he wrote almost twenty years ago and reconstruct his thought process from that time.
SS: At the beginning of the third chapter, Chejfec writes (in your translation): “Identity is gradual, cumulative; because there is no need for it to manifest itself, it shows itself intermittently, the way a star hints at the pulse of its being by means of its flickering light. But at what moment in this oscillation is our true self manifested? In the darkness or the twinkle?” Can you speak at all about the identity of a translator and how it manifests or sublimates itself in the process of translation?
HC: There are, of course, all sorts of translators. Some actively intervene in the texts they work with, changing or cutting things they don’t like; others cleave to the original in a way that occasionally ends up disfiguring it. I think most try to fall somewhere in the middle, but no matter where they fall on the spectrum, some part of the translator is bound to come through. Seeing the act of reading and that of translation as being closely related means acknowledging the role of the translator’s personality/aesthetic/agenda along the line, from the selection of the work to be translated, to the interpretation that determines lexical and stylistic choices. And hoping that those are well suited to the personality/aesthetic/agenda of the translated author or source text.
SS: In addition to Sergio Chejfec, you’ve translated the under-appreciated (in English, at least) Oliverio Girondo—a very dissimilar writer to Chejfec. What draws you to a writer? Are you working on anything now?
HC: Choose an author as you would choose a friend, or so the saying goes. This ties in a bit with your last question about the role of the translator’s identity, or personality, in the transmission of a work. I find that I have something of a literary “type”—I tend to be drawn to texts that are maybe a little challenging, and laced with a dry or dark sense of humor (these qualities are, of course, highly subjective). In this, Chejfec and Girondo are not so dissimilar, though in other ways they differ enormously. My latest obsession is Alan Pauls’ Wasabi, which is about a young writer who goes on a retreat at his editor’s house in the south of France and promptly develops a perplexing constellation of physical maladies (including, but not limited to, a brutal case of narcolepsy and an addiction to a homeopathic salve that he uses as a recreational drug), as well as a chronic aversion to writing. In the most inspired bit of procrastination I’ve ever seen, he decides he absolutely must go to Paris to assassinate Pierre Klossowski (writer, translator, brother of Balthus). And then things start to get weird.
SS: What Latin or South American writers are English-language readers missing out on?
HC: Well, there’s Antonio di Benedetto, whose Zama (1956) and El silenciero (1964) are incredible. But there are so many great things already out in English translation, which means there’s NO excuse not to read them. On the dystopian end of the Argentine literary spectrum, there’s Roberto Arlt’s classic The Seven Madmen (though I don’t think its sequel, The Flamethrower, has been translated yet). And, seriously: Saer Saer Saer (of what’s out in English, I’d suggest Scars and The Witness). I also really like Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, a young Chilean writer whose background in poetry comes through in the crisp beauty of his prose (in Carolina De Robertis’ translation, too). And these are from the Portuguese, but Chico Buarque wrote a smart, charming novel called Budapest, and Fernando Verissimo’s Borges and the Eternal Orangutans totally lives up to the outrageousness of its title.
Stephen Sparks is a buyer at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. He blogs at Invisible Stories and co-curates Writers No One Reads. Heather Cleary translates, writes about, and generally obsesses over books for publications like Words Without Borders, Two Lines, Big Other, New York Tyrant, and Habitus. Her translation of Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets (Open Letter Books) was published this past summer; The Dark will hit the shelves in 2013.
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