- It feels like only yesterday that I was lugging my hardcover of 2666 around town, regularly having my mind blown on subway cars, buses, park benches, et cetera. Imagine how much easier it would’ve been to have that experience in one prolonged five-hour session at the theater! Robert Falls and Seth Bockley are bringing Bolaño’s opus to the stage next month, at the Goodman Theatre: “The play is being presented with three intermissions. To keep things moving, Mr. Falls and Mr. Bockley boiled the novel down to essential characters and story lines, though they would periodically restore some of the stories-within-stories-within-stories, like the tale of a painter who attaches his mummified hand to a self-portrait … The directors and the design team worked to create a distinct style for each of the five parts, keyed to the radically different literary genres Mr. Bolaño drew on: fairy tale, hard-boiled crime novel, academic satire, lyrical short story, Don Quixote–style picaresque.”
- Meanwhile, in Chile: Ariel Lewiton is on the hunt for Neruda’s ghost. “Isla Negra was the home Neruda loved best, the one for which he’d written: The house … I don’t know when it was born in me … For the first time I felt the prick of the scent of the winter sea—a mixture of laurel and salty sand, seaweed and thistle, struck me. It was here I believed I would finally find Neruda … I had not thought to bring flowers. I walked past the grave to where the hill gave way to the sea. At the shore, waves thrashed the rocks. I took off my shoes and waded out from the land. The water was so cold it burned and I stood there for a while with the ocean biting at my ankles.”
- And while we’re focusing on the Spanish language, Janet Hendrickson has translated entries from the letter a in a seventeenth-century Spanish dictionary. Among the words: apio (celery), “the symbol of sadness and weeping”; alba (dawn), “What is that? Nothing but the dawn as it walks among the cabbages”; and andrógeno (hermaphrodite), “Some say that women have three wombs on the right and three on the left and one in the middle; some wombs create males, the others females, and the one in the middle hermaphrodites. And others attribute even more wombs to women, and many allow for none of this.”
- Did you know? Between long bouts of poverty, disease, and malnutrition, people in the Middle Ages occasionally had fun. They did this by playing cards, mainly. And you should see these cards, on display now at the Cloisters Museum here in New York: “The decks on view are often beautiful, and sometimes poetic; a number are humorous and a few downright bawdy. For instance, on one card (pictured above) a woman with long blonde braids sits on a stool milking a grumpy cow—which on inspection proves to be a bull. Another portrays a woman passing a phallic-looking tree on her way to market. One hand balances the basket of geese on her head, the other lifts her long skirt above her knee. Geese are not all that is for sale.”
- There’s been plenty of attention paid to Nabokov’s recently collected letters to his wife, Véra—but why hasn’t anyone told me before now that he used those letters to chronicle everything he’d eaten for the day? The Nabokov diet, writes Nina Martyris, was hardly gourmet: “Nabokov kept his promise of sending her a daily bulletin, which included a scrupulous itemization of his meals. Listing every meal he ate was clearly a drudgery, but he hurried on with it by squashing the menu between parentheses: ‘(A couple of meatballs—cold-cuts, sausage, radishes)’; ‘(cold-cuts, fried eggs, a cold meatball)’; or ‘(liver and gooseberry jelly—a sort of frog caviar).’ Occasionally, there was a dry barb: ‘incomprehensible meat,’ and more rarely, a stab of praise, ‘magnificent blueberry soup.’ But mostly it was a boring plod of cold cuts and compotes.”
Decorated with numerous awards in his native Spain—including the same Premio Rómulo Gallegos that catapulted his friend Roberto Bolaño to international renown—Enrique Vila-Matas has pioneered one of contemporary literature’s most interesting responses to the great Modernist writers. Taking the Modernists as towering giants that will never be equaled, Vila-Matas works to inscribe himself—at times literally—in the margins of their works. His tools are irony, parody, paradox, and futility, and his goal is to mix fact, fiction, and autobiography in order to depict not reality but truth. I asked him about his newly translated novel Never Any End to Paris—his third in English—based on the time he spent in Paris as a young writer attempting (and gloriously failing) to triumph as Hemingway did.
Never Any End to Paris uses your youth in Paris to explore ideas of creativity, influence, and identity. The narrator is a writer whose facts and dates are similar to yours, though—I think—he both is and isn’t you. Do you think art requires certain compromises with reality?
Which reality? If you mean the conventional “consumerist reality” that rules the book market and has become the preferred milieu for fiction, this doesn’t interest me at all. What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures. There remains to be written a great book, a book that would be the missing chapter in the development of the epic. This chapter would include all of those—from Cervantes through Kafka and Musil—who struggle with a colossal strength against all forms of fakery and pretense. Their struggle has always had an obvious touch of paradox, since those who so struggled were writers that were up to their ears in fiction. They searched for truth through fiction. And out of this stylistic tension have emerged marvelous semblances of the truth, as well as the best pages of modern literature.
This sentiment is very similar to something you say in Paris—“where there is a mirage there is life”—and it reminds me of something I heard you say in an interview: that for the modernists the quest is rectilinear, in contrast to that of Ulysses, whose quest was a circle. In your books, what inspires this search?
In a movie by Wim Wenders, Nicholas Ray says “you can’t go home again.” Sometimes I think about this phrase, and in order to calm down I imagine myself as a Chinese who came home. “I’m just a Chinese who returned home,” wrote Kafka in a letter. Sometimes I wish I were this Chinese, but only sometimes. Because the truth is that what I write frequently brings me to a descent, a fall, a journey within, an excursion to the end of the night, the complete opposite of a return to Ithaca. In short, I long to journey endlessly, always in search of something new. Always alert.
Each year, the Center for the Art of Translation publishes an anthology series called Two Lines that focuses on literary translation. This year’s anthology is titled Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, and it was edited by the translator Natasha Wimmer and the poet Jeffrey Yang. If you’re like me, you’re probably familiar with Wimmer’s work on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and The Savage Detectives, though Wimmer has also garnered praise for her translations of the novels by Mario Vargas Llosa. Last week, Wimmer was part of a collective response to Lydia Davis’s musings on translating Madame Bovary. But this week, Wimmer has been blogging on the Center for the Art of Translation’s Web site, where she describes discovering the writing of Bioy Casares and his novel The Invention of Morel:
Not only had I not read it, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even heard of it. As anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Argentinian literature will tell you, this was a travesty. Once you’ve read Borges, you read his great friend and collaborator, Bioy. The cult classic The Invention of Morel is perhaps the defining work of fantastic literature in Spanish, and as Rodrigo would say, fantastic literature may be the Argentinian literature par excellence.
Scott Esposito: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about the piece you translated for this volume, Roberto Bolaño’s essay “La traduccion en un yunque,” which you translated as “Translation Is a Testing Ground.” It’s an interesting piece about the limits of translation, which it illustrates by talking about those authors who will and can be translated versus those who can’t or won’t. What was the thought-process that got you from “yunque” to “testing ground”? And did your own extensive experience with translation inform your decision to go for this interpretation of “yunque”? Read More
For the last three weeks, Lydia Davis has shared her thoughts and experiences in translating Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. She writes, “I did not study the other translations during my first draft because I had to establish my own style and my own understanding of what I was reading before I could risk the rhythms and eccentricities of the others striking my ear and possibly creeping into my prose.” We asked others to weigh in on the matter from their own work in the field. Here is what they had to say.
Edith Grossman, translator:
I admire Lydia Davis’s writing, and it is always extremely interesting to learn how another translator works, especially one as eloquent as Davis. I don’t often have the opportunity to read about another translator’s methods and attitudes toward the work, and I was intrigued by her essay.
The one point on which I disagree with her absolutely concerns reading other people’s translations. Although most of my translations, like hers, have been of texts not previously brought over into English, in the past few years I’ve had occasion to translate classic Spanish works, each of which has had countless versions in English. But it always seemed crucially important to me not to consult them or study them—to what end, I asked myself, when the point of a new translation is to be a new translation, with a fresh voice and a different point of view.
On the other hand, I agree with her absolutely regarding the importance of the translator’s ability to write the second language. Hearing the first text, and finding appropriate phrasing that recreates its tonalities and intention in the second, is the fundamental translating skill. Nothing else compares.
I’m curious about her not reading the entire text before beginning the translation. Even though she states her reasons, I still don’t quite understand why she doesn’t. We are the translators, after all, not ordinary readers, and we have a different kind of obligation to the text.
I assume there are seven translating sins to match the seven mortal ones. I’ve never thought about this in terms of sins, deadly or otherwise, but I imagine the first—right up there with pride—is having a tin ear in English.
Wyatt Mason, translator and critic:
Every translation is an interpretation. As with all acts of literary criticism of which translation is only the most thoroughgoing, there are richer and poorer specimens. Not unreasonably, when a translation doesn’t seem to cohere, when its parts do not quite cleave together, we look at its string of choices and worry its beads one by one. This is not heavy work. Any state trooper with a bilingual dictionary can ticket any translation for the betrayal of its original. A more complicated undertaking is to divine why, when a translation does cohere, it does cohere. The same trooper with the same bilingual dictionary will, as often as not, discover that the coherent translation is no less a word by word betrayal of its original than its incoherent demon twin. To succeed, then, a translation depends as much upon deliberate choices as upon indiscriminate magic. A steady accretion of dutiful particulars cannot alone compound into something finer than the merely finely wrought: Fine writing is not made by magic, only industry. The magic of the achieved work of literary art, whether borrowed or made, is always nested deeper than its visible pieces. The magic of the achieved translation, like its maker, and no less inexplicably, is that it is a thing that possesses a living soul, or does not.