In addition to translating The Savage Detectives, Natasha Wimmer has translated numerous books by Mario Vargas Llosa, as well as books by Laura Restrepo and Pedro Juan Gutierrez. Her work has also appeared in The Believer, where she discussed translating Don Quixote, and, most recently, The Savage Detectives. Currently Wimmer is at work on translating 2666, Bolaño’s final and longest novel.
Scott Esposito: How did you first become familiar with Bolaño’s work, and how did you become the translator of The Savage Detectives?
Natasha Wimmer: I first read The Savage Detectives around the time that Farrar, Straus and Giroux was considering it for publication. I thought it was one of the most exciting books I had read in years, but I didn’t think there was any chance I would get to translate it, because Bolaño already had a great translator—Chris Andrews. But as it happened, Andrews wasn’t able to take on the project, and I was the very fortunate runner-up.
SE: Did you have any particular reasons for wanting to translate Bolaño?
NW: It was clear from the beginning that translating Bolaño was the chance of a lifetime. I felt the way Gregory Rabassa must have felt when One Hundred Years of Solitude fell into his lap. The Savage Detectives wasn’t just an amazing novel—there was also something clearly consequential and new about it. I hadn’t really heard much about Bolaño before I read The Savage Detectives, so the way I felt about it wasn’t shaped by the consensus that was already emerging in the Spanish literary world that Bolaño was the writer of his generation. It was the novel itself that bowled me over.
SE: Bolaño wrote numerous short novels and two very big ones. You’re translating both of the latter. Was it daunting to jump right into a massive work like The Savage Detectives without first translating one of Bolaño’s shorter works?
NW: Not really. Each work is different, and in terms of language, The Savage Detectives and 2666 are quite far removed from By Night in Chile and Distant Star. Some of the short stories are closer in tone, but The Savage Detectives in particular is probably the loosest and most colloquial of Bolaño’s novels; it would have proved a challenge even if I had worked on some of the shorter things first.
SE: What’s your opinion of the novels translated by Bolaño’s other major English-language translator, Chris Andrews? Have you and him had any contact?
NW: I greatly admire Chris Andrews’s work and envy his friendship with Bolaño. He and I have never met—translators tend to work without much interaction with other translators—but who knows? I’d say there’s a good chance we’ll cross paths at some point.
SE: When translating, are there any pitfalls you particularly try to avoid; for instance, putting too much of your own voice in the translation or letting too much of the original language creep into the translation?
NW: There are lots of things I try to avoid, but I mostly try not to slavishly adhere to general rules—translation is all about exceptions. Often, though, I try to avoid automatically using cognates when there might be a better translation of a particular word. I’m not generally too worried about putting too much of my own voice into the translation—I don’t think there’s really much space for that, except possibly in dialogue, which tends to require a freer translation than expository prose. When it comes to words and phrases in the original language, I certainly try to avoid the Spanglish effect, but I think a few carefully chosen expressions left in Spanish (and most place names, too) are inevitable and even desirable.
SE: One of the most impressive parts of The Savage Detectives is the middle section (also called “The Savage Detectives”) which takes up 400 pages, involves over 50 distinct narrators, and occurs over the course 20 years. Did you have trouble keeping all the details straight?
NW: It wasn’t hard to keep the details straight—I always had the Spanish text in front of me. And the voices essentially took care of themselves, too. Some voices were more difficult than others to capture, but I never worried too much about consistency. It was written into the text. Character is communicated by language and word choice, but also by larger-scale things like rhythm and even plot.
SE: The Savage Detectives exhibits a very firm grasp of details. For instance, although they range all over the world, Bolaño’s characters often discuss their exact routes through cities. There’s similarly detailed cultural information, like when Bolaño references the popular Mexican department store Sanborns or a school run by Opus Dei. Did you do anything in particular to get a sense of these landscapes and cultures that Bolaño seems to have known so well?
NW: By far the most helpful thing I did was spend two months in Mexico City while I was translating the novel. I lived in an apartment on Calle Abraham Gonzalez, which is parallel to Calle Bucareli and only a few blocks from Café La Habana, which is the real-life version of The Savage Detectives’s Café Quito. In fact, I spent quite a few afternoons there having coffee with Mexican friends and asking questions about Mexico City slang. I was always passing some building or walking down some street that appears in The Savage Detectives, and all kinds of cultural references became clearer to me.
SE: One of the distinguishing things about Bolaño’s oeuvre is that his novels are all linked via common characters, locales, themes, and/or events. The Savage Detectives occupies a very central place since it’s such a wide-ranging book and there’s a lot of crossover between it and other Bolaño books. When translating Detectives did you find any use in Bolaño’s other novels?
NW: I don’t think I used the other books as references, per se, but I definitely had a good time picking up correspondences and making connections. The short stories, especially, were interesting for the different angles they provided on characters and situations. And of course the essays in the non-fiction collection Entre parentesis (which has yet to be translated into English) were fascinating for the autobiographical light they shed on the novel.
SE: Others have noted that Bolaño represents a challenge to translators because he uses a lot of idiomatic language. Did you find this difficult?
NW: Yes, it was difficult. Idiomatic language is always one of the translator’s biggest challenges. Bolaño draws on slang spanning continents and decades, from Mexico in the 1970s to Spain in the 1990s. Some of the nuances of this are inevitably lost in English. It would be futile—and worse—to try to translate Mexican slang from the ’70s into American slang from the ’70s, say. And anyway, there’s nothing “period” about Bolaño’s usage—he isn’t trying to recreate some particular era in language. What he does instead is create a heterodox style of his own, and I tried to capture that as best I could, with a mixture of timeless expressions and more eccentric word choices that weren’t (hopefully) in danger of sounding hackneyed.
SE: What other challenges did you encounter while translating Bolaño? Was there anything you particularly enjoyed about translating this book?
NW: One of the main challenges of the translation was getting the rhythm of Bolaño’s sentences right. He is never predictable and can be intentionally awkward, and sometimes it was hard to strike the right balance in English—I often felt an urge to smooth over ungainly constructions, but restrained myself, then realized in reading them over that they were perfectly calibrated. Ultimately, this was probably one of the most satisfying parts of working on the translation, too. Otherwise, I loved the humor. It’s always more fun to translate something funny.
SE: Right now you’re translating 2666, which is an immense work of well over 1,000 pages. How do you tackle something that big? Do you just start at page 1 and go straight through?
NW: Yes, precisely. You move through as steadily as you can (or at least that’s my approach). Though I am completing it in five separate chunks (corresponding to the five sections), which means a slightly different editing process than usual. For my editor’s sake and mine, I’m trying to avoid plopping twelve hundred pages on his desk all at once.
And lastly, which of Bolaño’s novels is your favorite?
That’s easy—The Savage Detectives. The others all have their own appeal, but The Savage Detectives is just the easiest one to fall for. And I’m not the only one who feels that way. There’s a reason that it made Bolaño a cult figure, and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s also the most autobiographical.
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