The Forest of Letters: An Interview with Valerie Miles


On Translation


The Latin etymology of the word translate derives from trans (“across”) and lātiō (“carrying”), which makes the translator a sort of linguistic smuggler, carrying gems from one language, one culture into another. Valerie Miles has worked as a translator, in all senses of the word, for Spanish-language culture for more than twenty years: as a journalist, editor, writer, and professor—and, of course, as a literary translator. In the early nineties, she wrote about British and American writers for the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, and then entered the world of Spanish publishing, where she introduced English-language writers such as Lydia Davis, John Cheever, and Richard Yates to Spanish-speaking audiences. In 2003, together with Aurelio Major, she founded Granta en Español, which has served as a major platform for launching the careers of emerging writers. Most recently, she translated Milena Busquets’s novel This Too Shall Pass.

Last fall, Open Letter published A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, Miles’s anthology of twenty-eight Spanish-language writers from Central and South America and Spain. The name of the anthology comes from an Emerson essay about the whole of history folding into a single individual experience. The book features excerpts of each writer’s work, brief discussions of their literary influences, and explanations of why each writer chose a particular excerpt as being exemplary of their work as a whole.

Valerie spoke with me late last year from Spain, her adopted home (she grew up in Pennsylvania), and gave me a guided tour through the forest of Spanish letters.

Where did the idea for this anthology come from?

I came across an anthology from 1942 called This Is My Best. I was really taken with the literary value of the book as well as its historical significance. It had all these marvelous writers—Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Pearl S. Buck, John Dewey, Lillian Hellman—talking about what they consider their best pages. Gertrude Stein and T. S. Eliot wanted to contribute, but it was 1942 and the breakout of war made communication very difficult. So the anthology becomes a multifaceted literary portrait of an era in American history and an incredibly vital way of fighting one of the most horrific moments of the twentieth century. In a time of such widespread destruction, the anthology serves as a testimony to the fact that humans also create things of beauty—they don’t simply wreak bloodthirsty havoc on one another. This book is like a shout for humanity in the midst of horror, and storytelling, poetry, and philosophy in the face of slaughter and genocide. As though saying, We are that, but we are this, too, and I want to remember that we are this. It was really an unusual way of being introduced to a moment in time.

When I saw the book, I wanted to do the same thing in Spanish. The twentieth century was a pretty busy time for the Spanish language—in the 1960s and seventies, for example, there was the Latin American Boom Generation, and there are only a few of those writers left to ask the question, What are your best pages? Beyond a reading list, I wanted to find an intimate history that only the writers themselves could tell.

Was it difficult to cede power to the writers by allowing them to choose their best pages, which may or may not have coincided with what you yourself would have chosen?

Asking a writer like Mario Vargas Llosa, who’s published fifty books, to choose his fifteen best pages is asking a lot of a writer. But I wanted that kernel, that one overriding obsession, personal milestone, or technical device that they consider a trademark. I didn’t want their prettiest pages, I wanted something incisive and carefully considered—like a secret passage through the forest of letters. No one understands the creative process as well as the writer does. The critic can take the object, describe it, analyze it, and place value on it but can’t tell you what the process was and how far away the final product is from the original intent.

For example, one of the things I wouldn’t have known about Javier Marías is how fundamental poetry is to his work. He has a way of describing the moon—“luna pulposa.” He’s used it a couple of times in different pieces, so I asked him about the origin of his luna pulposa. He pulled a book of poems by Nabokov off a shelf and said luna pulposa comes from Nabokov, from one of the poems that were originally written in English that he, Marías, translated. He showed me the poem, but I read it and it said “mellow moon,” whereas “luna pulposa” is more like “pulpy moon.” By pure coincidence I had recently translated the word mellow a couple weeks before this conversation. It’s a difficult word to translate. In the dictionary, for the word mellow they talk about “mellow yellow,” when the hippies used to smoke the pulp on the inside of the banana peels. So I told Javier, I wonder if it had to do with that, the “pulp” came from mellow yellow and he said, You know, it’s very likely where I got the idea for the luna pulposa.

Those kind of little anecdotes wouldn’t come out of anything else except a conversation about his language. Marías has two points of view that he identifies in his writing—one’s called the hypothetical and the other is the ghostly point of view—they’re devices that are quite important to him, and you see him talking about it through this anthology and then demonstrating it in one of the fragments. When you go back and read Marías after that, you don’t read him the same way.

What are some of the other things this anthology reveals?

It’s arranged chronologically, so you get a feeling for the extra-literary events that moved many of the writers from one place to another. Exile’s a big word here. This transatlantic traffic back and forth between the countries—from Argentina to Paris, from Spain to Mexico. Often you see that the lesser-known writers suffered exile at one point or another and experienced a break with their own traditions and their own natural readership. That’s the case, for example, with Aurora Venturini, who was exiled from Argentina because she had been very close to the Peróns. Or Juan Goytisolo, one of the great moral writers in the Spanish language during the Franco and post-Franco period, who went to Paris and then Morocco. And then you have a writer like José de la Colina who’s a Mexican writer but he’s not really Mexican, he’s Spanish. Octavio Paz called him one of the best prose stylists in the Spanish language, but he’s a writer who hasn’t courted fame.

And then there’s Paris. Paris is an absolutely fundamental center of literary tradition for the Latin American writers. As Americans, we have this idea of Paris as being a literary mecca during that period. I was surprised to see how much this was the case for Spanish-language writers as well, before and after our Lost Generation.

Delayed critical and/or popular reception is also a recurrent theme in this anthology. How much does Francoist censorship play a role?

Ana María Matute speaks very succinctly and clearly about this. “When I was growing up under Franco, good girls didn’t go to the university, they got married and they had children.” People ask why there aren’t more women in this anthology. Look at history and what it’s telling us about the conditions for women when authoritarian governments—dictatorships—are active. Women in the creative and artistic world had it much harder during those periods since they didn’t have access to education. It was a “soft” form of censorship. Women were allowed to write, but at great sacrifice to their reputations and their family’s. Women were treated like children. The “good” ones did what they were told, first by their parents and then by their husbands—always by their priests. Even into the seventies, women weren’t allowed to have bank accounts without a father or a husband signing for them. It’s harder to manipulate someone who is educated. They start having ideas, saying no, wanting to achieve things. They become dangerous and subversive elements.

There were a few women doing really interesting things, though. Carmen Laforet, Esther Tusquets, Carmen Martín Gaite—they read Marguerite Duras and Nadine Gordimer, Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing. Tusquets Editores published an erotica series called La Sonrisa Vertical, which was intended to give women back their own sexuality and take it out of the realm of the infantile. Las edades de Lulú was part of that series, and it’s where Almudena Grandes’s career was established. But the series no longer exists, because women don’t need to assert their sexuality in a separate erotica collection anymore. So something has been accomplished over the years!

To what extent do you think the Spanish publishing establishment has made efforts since the transition to democracy to dig up some of those lost texts or revive some of the authors who didn’t have the regime’s approval?

When you’re told you can’t read something, what is the reaction? You want to read it. Reading was a right that had been denied, so after Franco died, there was an explosion. Amazing publishing projects, like Anagrama and Tusquets, were founded and made an effort to recuperate work that had been censored or forbidden.

A number of young Spanish female writers are coming to the fore now. I was happy to be able to include Cristina Fernández Cubas, for example, a writer who lived through Franco and the Transition. She writes gothic horror stories. Esther Tusquets is also one of the writers in the anthology who talks specifically about Franco and censorship—about what it was like coming from a family who benefited from Franco and the guilt she felt afterward.

Let’s talk about the North American influences on these Spanish-language writers—it’s amazing to me how often Faulkner comes up.

It’s happened on more than one occasion with American writers—for some reason they don’t appeal to the American public, and it isn’t until they strike a chord in another country and become so important in that other country that they’re brought back to their own tradition in a different way. Faulkner was definitely one of those. He was translated into French, and Latin Americans came into contact with him in Paris through the French. He has been the single most important influence, outside of the Latin American tradition, on the Boom Generation and beyond. The fictional universes of Onetti’s Santa María, for example, or García Márquez’s Macondo were named very much in the vein of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. The Death of Artemio Cruz wouldn’t exist if not for As I Lay Dying.

For Faulkner, Hemingway, and that generation of American writers, together with the modernists and their whole idea of the interior monologue, nature is so huge that you start to look inside yourself. All of that was fundamental for the Latin American Boom. There is also something that goes on between North America and Latin America for both being New Worlds. The types of things that are of interest to North American narrative also tend to fuse into the Latin American narrative. They share this idea of a new tradition and of confronting things from a new place. But the North American novel came before the Latin American novel, although Latin America has a poetic history that goes all the way back to the Conquista in the late sixteenth century, which North America doesn’t have. Spain follows a different pathway. It’s a European, old-world tradition.

In the beginning, the Latin American novel was called a “regional novel”—talking about the natural environment, very descriptive, linear and parochial. And what’s interesting is that for a lot of the Boom Generation, Paris was the place where the Latin Americans actually got to meet and read each other. Mario Vargas Llosa talks about this when discussing the history of the Latin American novel. As a Peruvian, he didn’t know or read other Latin American writers before he went to Paris, not even Borges, who hadn’t been published at all in Spain until after Vargas Llosa. And that’s really where the Boom happened because a reading public happened. They had been building social and educational infrastructures in Latin America, the countries were starting to know each other and realize they had a lot in common, and the writers were starting to read each other for the first time.

Agustín Sciammarella's caricature of Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Ana María Matute, Javier Marías, and Ricardo Piglia.

Agustín Sciammarella’s caricature of Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Ana María Matute, Javier Marías, and Ricardo Piglia.

Are there other American forms that made a significant impact on Latin American writing?

I was surprised by how much the American Gothic tradition comes through, too. Edgar Allen Poe. Emerson called him the “jingle man” and yet Baudelaire falls in love with Poe, translates everything, and if it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t have Baudelaire, we wouldn’t have Baudelaire back to us again and the whole maudit literary tradition. This traffic back and forth between translations is fascinating. Who knows why in one place they take to something? But thank goodness they do, because that’s what renews the conversation. I think that’s what editors in the U.S. aren’t realizing—it behooves them to be renovating their own catalogues for their own writers because what young writers today can write without having read Bolaño? It’s impossible. You really can’t or shouldn’t. He’s enriched our tradition by suggesting, as other writers have, that we skip back to the truncated conversation with the early twentieth-century avant-garde—Russian Futurism, Cubism, and Pataphysics, and later French movements like the Situationists and Oulipo. Bolaño believed Latin American literature could have taken a different route in drawing further on those various influences. There are many authors influenced by work from traditions other than their own. We need that, otherwise we’d be writing the same thing over and over again, boring ourselves to tears.

In your interview with Fuentes, he says, “Neruda told me that we all have an obligation to our peoples, we go around with the Mexican or the Chilean people on our backs and we must write for them because they have no other voice.” It’s the idea that one should feel a sense of responsibility about writing a national novel—because I write in Chile, I have to represent Chile. But then Fuentes goes on to say that today’s younger Latin American writers are free of those nationalist pressures. They don’t feel them anymore. Do you agree with that?

I’ve had this conversation with a couple of writers recently, and it’s true that most of them don’t feel that anymore. Among the Boom writers, Gabriel García Márquez is Colombia, Fuentes is Mexico, Vargas Llosa is Peru, by which I mean they were intimately identified with the national traditions they came from. That was a time when Latin America was creating itself, building an infrastructure during a sort of utopian moment. Younger writers are now rejecting that generation because they feel that those writers let them down somehow by failing to create the utopias they set out to build, and got into cahoots with the governments instead of the people. And then came the decades of dictatorships and violence. To a greater or lesser degree, there’s more stability in the region now—maybe not always economic, but there is more social stability. Some younger writers have the opportunity to study abroad, so they have a more cosmopolitan perspective on the world and are eschewing some of that older national rhetoric.

In some ways, that’s the trend you see with writers from the former Yugoslavia or especially in the EU—this mixing of cultures and the return of the flaneur. Everybody’s a flaneur now.

Yes, definitely the idea of walking and seeing and experiencing and then chronicling and witnessing.

While also letting go of the fantasy of a fixed self—a fixed national self, a fixed regional self. It makes me wonder if we may begin to transcend language and nationality as categories.

There’s an interesting new generation of writers coming from Africa who write in English— Taiye Selasi and Teju Cole and a number of Nigerians like Chimamanda Adichie or NoViolet Bulawayo—and their English comes from a different place. They’re using the language in new ways. It’s a form of renewal. Sometimes when you’re using a language that’s your everyday language, you don’t even notice when you’re using a cliché, whereas when you come to one language from another, you’re much more careful about the things you say, you are sensitive to how empty certain words and expressions are. All the migration and the movement that’s happening is enriching language in ways that are very good for literature.

Has Spanish-language publishing been affected by economic and/or existential crises the way the U.S. publishing industry has?

It’s much worse. Publishing crises are cyclical. But this is a huge paradigm shift—our time and attention are under attack by technology, but at least in the U.S. and elsewhere, as book sales have been going down, digital book sales have been going up, creating a nice equilibrium. That’s not the case here in Spain. The problem here is piracy. There’s no legislation, no sense that when you’re downloading something you’re stealing it. So digital has not taken over the loss in sales—book sales have dropped something like 54 percent over the past five years. The mid-size houses that were legendary are being bought by and incorporated into the bigger ones and there’s nothing in between to offset that. If there isn’t a strong agent pillar, then the writers aren’t paid correctly and they can’t produce.

It does seem that the industry is beginning to transfer over to Latin America. It’s traditionally been this way—a lot of publishing went over to Latin America, Mexico and Buenos Aires in particular. Spanish exiles who were publishing professionals started important projects in those countries, and then re-situated themselves back in Spain after Franco. But now it seems that Spain’s kind of losing its grip and there’s a burgeoning culture again in Latin America, which is positive because there’s a lot going on there, you can feel the energy. In Spain there’s no leadership right now and that needs to happen in order for them to defend their territory, to find proper legislation, because otherwise they’re doing a disservice to their own talent.

But it’s nice to hear that a robust readership still exists in Spain.

Things have been dire here, desperate. But it’s picking up, young people are starting to come back from abroad. You can already tell the climate’s changing and when it gets bustling, Spain is an exciting place to be. Publishing is a very important industry for this country, so hopefully things will coagulate. Spain had famously been one of the highest countries for translated fiction, and now there’s a lot more attention being placed on emerging Spanish-language writers.

Interestingly, there aren’t that many creative-writing classes, certainly not at the university level, which is one of the great differences with the U.S. Everyone wonders whether you can create a writer through creative-writing workshops. Generally speaking, I think you can create a lot of people writing better than they would have had they not taken creative-writing classes, and I think it also engenders a reading public so that you have better readers who expect more. But in Spain, we saw with Granta en Español, there is such a wide variety of literary voices because they weren’t told, for example, not to write about dreams. Can you imagine somebody telling Bolaño not to write about his dreams?

I know you’ve been working on an exhibition of Roberto Bolaño’s archive. Is that project over?

It’s actually ongoing. The estate is taking their time, not wanting to flood the market. What people don’t realize is that Bolaño had been writing obsessively for twenty some years before he published. That’s why there’s such a rich amount of unpublished work. He kept certain things and threw others away. You can tell he wanted them to be gone through and read and taken care of. He kept many papers, would work on them, revise them over the course of many years and during an itinerant lifestyle. It’s always difficult to be the person at the helm of a writer’s archive—you’re always open to the scrutiny of the public and to people who have no idea and yet are belligerently opinionated. For real readers of Bolaño, who wouldn’t want more Bolaño?

Elianna Kan lives in New York and teaches literary translation at Columbia University.