Category Archives: Interviews

Translator Daniel Hahn on Winning the International Dublin Literary Award and Endowing a New Translation Award

Earlier this week, author José Eduardo Agualusa received the International Dublin Literary Award for his novel A General Theory of Oblivion. As translator of this book, Daniel Hahn received the award as well, and they split the €100,000 prize money €75,000/€25,000.

Daniel promptly pledged to donate half of his award prize to help endow a new translation prize, the TA First Translation Prize, which awards £2,000 to a first-time translator and their editor.

I reached out to Daniel to find out more about this new award, why he donated his winnings, and what translators can do to break into the business. Below is our conversation.


Scott Esposito: In your remarks after declaring your intention to donate half of your winnings from the International Dublin Literary Award to a new award to honor debut translators, you noted that translation “remains a difficult [field] for newcomers to break into.” What are some of the difficulties of breaking in, and how does this award address them?

Daniel Hahn: At the moment, there are more people who want to translate than there is work to keep us all as busy as we’d like (a problem I’ll come back to later). This means there’s competition for the work (not a bad thing), but also that it’s relatively easier for understandably risk-averse publishers to stick with a handful of translators they already know, rather than expanding the field except in unusual cases. Of course that suits me well enough personally, but it’s problematic, not least because it’s often through new translators that we find new writers, that we manage to diversify to new languages, and so forth.

I was on the Dublin shortlist with another translator who like me was accompanying the author with whom she originally made her debut (Agualusa was my first), and two brilliant translators at the very start of their own careers. So I’m hoping the award will be a little reminder to editors of the possibilities that can come from working with newcomers; and of course help the translators themselves with recognition that will make it easier not just to get into the profession but to stay here – a prize-winning debut translator might find that second or third contract a little more readily.

SE: Do you feel like more awards will help strengthen the place of translations in the UK literary field? What other things beyond awards are needed to give translated literature a stronger presence and to make it a more vital force in the UK literary world?

Strangely perhaps, I don’t think a lack of awards is the problem. We have so, so many of them. For published and unpublished work, for poetry and prose and children’s books, for work originating in a whole range of particular languages, etc. Too many prizes can be as problematic as too few. (Most prizes depend for their functioning on publicity, on recognition, and there’s only so much oxygen to go around.) But prizes that are targeted quite strategically, to help to fix a particular problem or rectify a particular imbalance, can undoubtedly help – albeit often in a time-limited way. I think translated literature in the UK is significantly more vital these days already, and yes, there are some prizes that have helped that; but some of the prizes I think do us the greatest service are those (like the Dublin) that don’t in fact single out a book’s “translatedness” as a criterion. On the one hand, yes, we’ve benefited from translation itself – the practice of it – being more visible, more discussed, more understood, but we benefit from being in the mainstream, too.

SE: You also noted that you’re “as broke as the next translator,” a characterization of the monetary realities of the profession that probably won’t receive too many rebuttals. But you’re also one of the most in-demand, hardest working translators out there, so I’m curious to hear your insight on how translators can make translation a workable profession (or at least a non-bankrupting passion project). What advice would you give to newcomers out there?

DH: I really don’t think literary translation has to doom you to a life of penury. My rates vary but on average I’d say I’m paid about £95 / $140 per thousand words. And as an average I think that’s fine. Needless to say, some books are much harder than others, and the rates don’t vary to reflect that, which means I have to make sure I translate some easy (ie. quick) books to offset the harder, slower ones. I have no problem with that, either. (If you’re on £95 per thousand words and you stubbornly only ever translate the kind of book that requires crawling through at a pace of four words a day, then yes, you’re in trouble.) I’d like to see rates vary more depending on a book’s challenges (which is unlikely to happen), but otherwise I don’t think our average by-the-yard rate is generally so terrible. I do lots of other kinds of work, too, and it’s the translating that I depend on to pay my rent. (And yes, I know not everybody commands the same rates as I do, but plenty – including newcomers – do.)

The main difficulty is – as I mentioned earlier – that there just isn’t enough work for those who want it. If you can translate, say, four or five decent-length books a year, you can make a living – not riches unimaginable, but something reasonable; only there aren’t enough books for everyone who wants to be a translator to get that much work, hence the trouble making ends meet without other sources of income.

The good news, of course, is that translation is perfectly compatible with other work – if you’re a newcomer who wants to be a translator (hooray!), don’t expect there to be a steady stream of work from the moment you start, four or five books a year forever; eventually you’ll get that thrilling first contract, then there’ll be a wait for the second and third, then maybe a looong wait till the fourth, so you need to fill those gaps with other paid work. Which is fine, too. It’s hard to think of any line of work where you get to do only the best bits of the job from your very first entry-level moment…

SE: As someone who’s been remarkably successful in this field, you’re definitely a leader of the profession in many ways, and so I think it’s important that you’ve chosen to visibly give back to the field that has nourished your career. Is there a responsibility on people in our line of work—the translators, the publishers, the editors, the writers, the journalists, the critics, etc—to give back to the field?

DH: Hmm, I wouldn’t presume to say that people should give back, and particularly not that there should be any expectation to do so with money. (One thing I did worry about with this new prize was whether it would make other translators uncomfortably pressured if they won things and chose not to give any away…) We’re all blessed with different circumstances: I’m not rolling in money, but I’m confident that I can make a living from one year to the next, and I don’t have dependents, and so parting with a bit of unexpected money really isn’t a big deal or a great sacrifice. If others are in a position to give back, then great; if not, that’s none of my business.

But while I don’t want to pronounce on whether people should give back to the community, I do want to celebrate just how often they do. The world of people who translate books and publish translations and champion international writing is the most extraordinarily collegial, optimistic, generous tribe I’ve been a part of; every person I know does much more than they’re paid for, everyone is driven by a sense of mission, or a feeling of community, or a drive towards a common good. Every experienced translator I’ve ever met puts a lot of work into helping out those following after them. (When I set up our mentoring programme six years ago, it was prompted in part by the fact that translator mentoring was actually happening every day of the week already, only rather informal, and unpredictable, and unpaid…) Many of my closest friends are translators or workers in the translation world, and we’ve become friends not by translating together but because we met on the board of one charity or another, on someone’s grant committee, when plotting an event for the community, setting up a scheme, throwing around ideas for a new project – unpaid, “for the general good”, if you like – giving time or expertise or solidarity or whatever we can. My contribution to this new prize will also depend on other people being prepared to promote it, and to be on my judging panel, and to organise a celebratory event, and to help recruit other sponsors… – I know it will be a team effort, as all such things are; I just fired the starting-gun.

SE: Notably, this prize goes both to translators and their editor, the latter being an often overlooked part of the world of publishing. Why include editors? What is the editor’s role and responsibility in bringing outstanding new works in translation to the market?

DH: Editors are crucial for bringing work to market, in the most obvious ways; translators can advise or recommend or help to assemble a case for a book, but it’s the editor who has to make the decision, and/or to persuade their sales teams, and get the book past whatever hurdles their particular publishing house requires to reach the point where they’re commissioning it for translation at all. For a new writer, the hurdles are higher still, of course. And then it takes a certain nerve to commission a translator with no track record (even if they are, perhaps, the person who helped you to discover/acquire the book in the first place); and it takes work to magic a good manuscript into a great one. Even the most confident new translators need nurturing, even the best get better with good editing, and learn from it – just as we all do, however experienced and arrogant we’ve become… – but the editor’s critical role is almost always invisible (far more than ours, complain though we do), noticed only when there’s something wrong. I hope the TA prize will help to remind people – not least us translators ourselves – what the benefits of this vital collaboration can be.

SE: What do you see as the prospects for translation in the UK? I mean with rising xenophobia, the looming Brexit, not to mention ongoing budget cuts and slow economic growth in the UK, how has this (largely) esoteric literature by foreigners been doing on the market, and what do you expect in the next few years?

I mostly think we’re heading towards catastrophe of various kinds – political and social – of which Brexit is both a symptom and a cause. I think it’s a disaster. The whole thing appals me and makes me feel ashamed and frightens me by turns.

One thing it doesn’t do, however, is make me fear for the fate of translated literature. Yes, I think publishing in general will be hit (exports are good as our currency collapses, but a slow economy is a problem more generally – retail will struggle, cultural funding and sponsorship will shrink…), and other ancillary areas will suffer, too (reduced critical coverage in a shrinking print media, etc.), but I don’t think the foreign stuff is going to fare any worse than anything else. Mostly I don’t think translated literature is “esoteric”, to use your word – which I think is good. And the split in our country, as in yours, is such that, well, those who were going to read international literary fiction or poetry will be disproportionately “remain-voting” / anti-Trump anyway. I don’t think there are millions of people who had been going to read Krasnahorkai before and now because of Brexit are suddenly going to change their diet to nothing but British novelists and the Daily Mail; but I do worry about Brexit as a symptom – is it telling us something about a culturally protectionist, ungenerous, uncurious strand in my society that I haven’t had to think about before? Is there something those of us who deal daily in enabling cultural transit should be doing about that?

SE: Why are you a translator? What does this world bring to your life, and why should people read translations?

DH: At the Dublin Award dinner last night I described the process of my becoming a translator, when Daniela de Groote and Gary Pulsifer commissioned me to translate my first Agualusa novel; I’d had no intention of being a translator before that debut was thrust upon me, but it turned out to be fun, and something I could do, more or less. I became a translator because of them.

But I also said something about the extraordinary community you and I are a part of – that collegial, generous, energetic group I mentioned before; if Daniela and Gary and Agualusa are why I became a translator, this community is why I’ve stayed. I do enjoy the work itself, and I do think I’m basically pretty good at it (if not as consistent as I’d like), and – yes – I absolutely unashamedly do it for the money, too; but most of all because of all these people around me, who share this slightly odd but totally compelling mission.

But I’m slightly nervous about that last question – “why should people read translations?” For the most part, I think the answer is no different to “why should people read?”. The translatedness of a book doesn’t endow it with special powers.

SE: What projects do you have upcoming?

DH: I’ve just finished translating the first book in a huge French YA sci-fi trilogy by Victor Dixen, so I’m embarking next on book two, and thereafter on book three. When those are done – 1100 pages from now – I have my third Eduardo Halfon book (co-translating with Lisa Dillman) to deliver in October, and I’ve just signed for Agualusa Six for the winter. Those are the next books on the conveyor belt. Then there are all those things that are recently done but not yet out in the world, in various stages of cooking: a Michel Laub novel for Harvill Secker, a José Luís Peixoto novel (co-translated with Robin Patterson) for a Portuguese publisher, a Portuguese novel for Oneworld, Carola Saavedra for Riverhead, and three children’s picture-books. Have I forgotten something? Then there’s the non-translating work, as my translating is only very part-time, and there’s so much else I want to do. Between translations and other things I’m about fifty books into my career, but I feel like I’m only just getting started myself…

Seven Questions for Lisa Dillman on Yuri Herrera and Andrés Barba

Lisa Dillman is the translator of one of the more celebrated authors to come along in English translation in recent years. I speak of course of Yuri Herrera, the author of the best-selling Signs Preceding the End of the World, as well as the two other books in a loose “trilogy” with Signs, The Transmigration of Bodies and Kingdom Cons. All three are published by And Other Stories, with Kingdom Cons just appearing earlier this month.

Lisa has been very greatly (and rightly) acclaimed for her translations of these books, which require a great degree of inventiveness on the part of a translator—Herrera’s Spanish is highly idiosyncratic, often coining new words and finding very creative uses for old ones. In addition, Herrera’s sentence structure, imagery, and means of storytelling very distinctive and original, all things that make his books challenging to bring into English.

In addition to her work with Herrera, Lisa’s work with the Spanish novelist Andrés Barba has received much acclaim lately. Although Barba is a very different writer from Herrera, his prose is also very challenging to accurately render in English. Again, Lisa has proven herself a wonderful translator with her English-language renditions of short novels like August, October (Hispabooks), of which I myself wrote “one is tempted to call August, October flawless,” and the much-praised, recently released Such Small Hands (Transit Books). Lisa will also release her translation of Barba’s The Right Intention in 2018, again with Transit Books, and Death of a Horse in August of this year with Hispabooks.

Lisa teaches in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Emory University, and she received the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for for her translation of Signs Preceding the End of the World.

I recently corresponded with Lisa on her translations of these writers to find out more about her work with them, as well as what is upcoming for these and other writers she translates. Below is our conversation.


Scott Esposito: Can you tell us a bit about your first experiences with Herrera’s work and how you came to translate it?

Lisa Dillman: I discovered Herrera purely by chance, and thanks entirely to a good friend, translator Katie Silver. She translates Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Horacio had recommended Yuri while he was at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. Katie didn’t have time to do a sample and asked if I’d be interested. I will be forever grateful.

SE: You’ve previously written about the great amount of density present in Herrera’s novels, going so far as to say that he can even pack very much into individual words. Did you feel that Herrera was significantly more challenging to translate than other authors you’ve worked with? Did you approach change in any particular way to deal with his kind of writing?

LD: In a word: yes. Next question? (“lordy,” she’s hilarious, this woman!). However, I genuinely feel that every translation is (really freaking) hard it its own way, even if it’s non-fiction, an instruction manual. Lots of texts require huge amounts of background research. Lots require amassing knowledge in a certain field. Every text presents its own series of challenges, but Herrera’s are usually far more nuanced. I am trying to think about whether I feel my approach changed per se. Translators have a bag of tricks (i.e. a collection of strategies) to employ in projects, and the salient characteristics of each text determine which ones you rely on more. So with Herrera, for instance, I don’t do much background reading, which I do do for historical fiction. Nor do I try to read as much as I can that involves characters who speak with a particular accent or type of argot, because his speak in a range of registers. There is no single grounded “event” (e.g. the Spanish Civil War) or time period or even locale in which I try to imbue myself. More of my time is dedicated to trying to track down terms and etymologies and come up with ways to make small incursions into the English language that will communicate a tone. For example, Yuri tends to spell the word for “bones” (“huesos”) as “güesos.. This is a phonetic “misspelling” that I see as a sign of affection. It’s noticeable but doesn’t shout “look at me!” If I were to use “bonz” as its translation, it would ring false, corny, too attention-seeking. So much of the hard part is thinking about compensations. What can I do to produce a similar effect? In a nutshell, I suppose what I’m saying is that translating Herrera requires a lot more literary creativity.

SE: I wanted to ask if you could talk about a particular translation choice you made; namely in Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, you rendered “jarchar” into “to verse,” which has always struck me as a beautiful bit of literary translation. Could you explain how Herrera got to “jarchar” and how you got it to “verse” (and any reaction to your decision on Herrera’s part)?

LD: What Herrera does in his writing is apply a kind of linguistic inclusivity that embraces not only popular language but also archaism, neologism, and more. What makes it so wonderful is that there’s no hierarchy: slang, innovation, classical, all thrown together in a way that comes off as natural. And the verb jarchar is definitely a much-discussed neologism. Jarchar comes from jarchas (or kharjas), the word used to describe the ending of certain 13th-century poems, which were written in a woman’s voice, melancholic, and in Mozarabic, a language in transition that would eventually become Spanish. In a sense they were kind of a bridge from Arabic to Spanish, something in transition. “Jarchar” in the context of Signs means “to leave” but it simultaneously nods to all of these other things.

For me, getting to “verse” as the English translation of “jarchar” was a long process, a question of many many months of brainstorming. I just opened up a document from a talk I gave with Yuri after having completed the translation and at that point I was debating “twained,” “ported,” and “versed.” I’d been trying to decide between the first two when “versed” suddenly occurred to me. No matter what the word was, there were multiple critical things that had to be taken into account. One big one is that there wasn’t any logical way to signal Arabic, since it has nothing to do with the evolution of English. So even if I could have come up with a word with an Arabic root, it wouldn’t have served the same function; i.e., acting as a bridge between English and its prior articulations. That being the case, I felt that there definitely had to be an additional element of polysemy not necessarily included in the original, some way in which the English signaled multiple things. So “twain,” for instance, comes from middle English (i.e., the origins of our language), is hardly used anymore, means “two” (which could signal being between two things (or more than one thing at a time)), is a noun that I’d be morphing into a verb, and also calls to mind Mark Twain, an iconic storyteller. There was another connection, too, but I can’t recall what it was. (You end up doing endless research as part of the process of translation, and it’s impossible to remember it all). At any rate, when I finally thought of “verse” it seemed more fitting, more just. I like the fact that it is a noun referring directly to poetry, since jarchas were poetic refrains, that it’s used as a verb which forms part of things involving motion (traverse, something Makina does on her journey) as well as change (inverse) and unity (universe). I also like that it doesn’t call to mind the Anglo world, as do even oblique references to middle English and Mark Twain. As far as Herrera’s reaction goes, I’ve only ever heard him say positive things about it. He has, from day one, been remarkably generous, willing to discuss anything at all, open and supportive.

SE: Having lived in Mexico for a little over a year and learned my Spanish there, I’m aware that Mexico has its own very elaborate, colorful version of Spanish, and some of these words cut very deep to the heart of Mexican identity. Could you tell us about some of the particularly Mexican Spanish that Herrera makes use of?

LD: As far as Mexican Spanish goes, there are words that are readily identifiable, things like “bato” (which Herrera spells with a “b” rather than a “v”), “gabacho,” “cuate,” and “chambear,” and then there is also more nuanced and subtly infused language, which I suppose is only natural. Things like “le,” the third-person indirect object pronoun, being used on the end of verbs. We stereotypically think of “ándele” as an example but it gets used a lot more than that. To me, to my ear, Herrera shows a lot of real affection for both language itself and its users in his Mexicanisms. Even in tough-guy dialogue, there’s an affection for the language present. For instance at the start of Kingdom Cons, Lobo meets the Jeweler, who tells him who’s who and then says: “—No diga que se lo dije, colega, no hay que hacer chismes. Aquí la cosa es llevarse bien con todos y le va bien. Como ahorita, usté y yo ya nos hicimos amigos, qué no.” (“But don’t say I said so, amigo,” the Jeweler went on, “no gossip allowed. Way it works here is, you make nice with the pack, you’ll do fine. Like you and me right now, we just made friends, right?”) With the exception of “qué no,” there’s not much here that screams “Mexican Spanish!” and yet the whole thing is suffused with this linguistic warmth that derives, as I see it, from an accumulation of little things: calling Lobo “colega,” using “chismes,” in the plural, “ahorita” in the diminutive, and most definitely the phonetic spelling of “usted.” I hope that makes sense. So what I’d say is that the use of explicit Mexicanisms coupled with less explicit things yields the genuine-ness of expression. I hope that makes sense.

SE: It absolutely makes sense—I can definitely see how these little things are coded as “Mexican,” and I can even picture them being used in conversation. I wanted to also ask you what’s coming up with Herrera. With the release of Kingdom Cons this month, Herrera’s loose “trilogy” of the border regions between Mexico and the U.S. is now complete in English. But given the amazing reception of these titles in both the Spanish- and English-speaking worlds, I can’t imagine that this is the end for Herrera. What is next for you and him?

LD: It’s been so wonderful, how well Herrera has been received. Gives me more hope for the world, quite honestly, since he’s such an empathic writer. No, this is certainly not the end for Herrera. I presume he’ll continue to write novels, although I don’t tend to ask anyone this, as it seems like the writer’s equivalent of my least favorite grad school question (“So, how’s the thesis going?”). I do know he’s written several stories and that he is interested in science fiction. I’ve translated a few of them thus far. One came out in World Literature Today and one in the Chattahoochee Review. I’ll work with him forever if I can, because it’s the most rewarding experience. As far as what’s next for me, this summer I’m co-translating another Eduardo Halfon book with Danny Hahn, and after that I’ve got nothing in the pipeline so if anyone wants to offer me an amazing project, I’m available!

SE: I also wanted to ask about another writer of much renown that you’ve translated, the Spaniard Andrés Barba. Barba is quite a masterful writer in his own right, although his prose is so different from Herrera’s: it’s much more naturalistic, akin to what sometimes goes by the name of “realism,” and without the pyrotechnics of Herrera, even if the writing is utterly exquisite, leading to an impact that can be just as profound as Herrera’s, or even more so. What are some of the challenges of translating Barba, and how do they differ from Herrera?

LD: With Barba the challenges tend to be very concrete. One is that he rarely uses subject pronouns, and has long, flowing, multi-clause sentences. So, for instance, in Death of a Horse, you have the main character (who is nameless), a kid and a horse. In one section, I remember, each of them does multiple things, but of course you can’t say, “He looked and him and then glanced over at him, although he was turned toward him, and he wondered why he didn’t say what he was thinking, or why he didn’t move.” I often have to write to him and say, “On page 74, when it says ‘he looked at him,’ is the main character looking at the horse, or is the horse looking at the main character?” Additionally, syntax and sentence structure are really intricate in Barba’s writing, and it’s hard to find the right balance. I don’t like to divide long sentences, so there is a lot of tinkering to find ways to keep them and yet still try to achieve what sounds like a natural flow from clause to clause.

SE: Your most recent translation of Barba is the short novel Such Small Hands, which I believe is the first book from the new translation press, Transit Books. I understand that you first read this book 10 years ago, and felt a very strong desire to translate it. Can you tell us a little about why this story so compelled you and how you ultimately came to publish it with Transit?

LD: Such Small Hands is the first book from Transit, and I’m so so grateful that Ashley [Nelson levy] and Adam [Levy] saw in it what I did because Barba is an amazing author. I discovered his work by chance. I was browsing in a bookstore in Madrid over a decade ago and saw a book by this incredibly young writer—I think he was 28 at the time—about three women: a girl with developmental problems, her sister, who is a stripper, and her mother, who is a prostitute. And I thought, “Right. As if this ‘dude’ is going to be able to write three convincing female voices.” But he did. I was blown away. Then I read Such Small Hands and realized he was no one-trick pony. And Such Small Hands was so compelling that I couldn’t not translate it. So despite having no contract and no interest, I just did it. And sent it to everyone I could think of. People kept saying it was too dark, but it’s not. As Andrés himself says, in many senses, it’s a love story. At any rate, the translation sat around unpublished until Transit came along. And now they’re bringing out another of his books in the fall! Happy ending.

Six Questions for Will Vanderhyden on Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part

In addition to being one of the great up-and-coming translators of Spanish literature, Will Vanderhyden is also a good friend of mine. Going back to 2015, he had been telling me about an enormous translation of his from a very well-regarded Argentine, an author whose work I’ve wanted to read for some time.

The author is Rodrigo Fresán, and the book is his massive opus The Invented Part. This book (which is actually only part 1 of an even more massive trilogy) has won comparisons to such major American postmodernists as David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo.

Although Fresán is a major writer in Spanish, this is only the second of his books to be translated. Fortunately Will will be changing all that, as he is working on even more of Fresán’s novels, to appear in upcoming years.

Will received fellowships from the NEA and Lannan Foundation to work on The Invented Part. He has also translated fiction by Carlos Labbé, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Juan Marsé, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, and Elvio Gandolfo. Will and I conducted this exchange over email.


Scott Esposito: Rodrigo Fresán may not be exactly what people imagine when they think of “Argentine fiction.” The Invented Part is a sort of cerebral sci-fi novel, with reference points along the lines of authors David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gaddis. The story itself includes elements like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, James Franco, the Beatles, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, and William Burroughs—that’s a whole lot of Anglo-American stuff. Can you tell us a little about Fresán and some of the influences that brought him to this territory?

Will Vanderhyden: The Invented Part is a funhouse of Fresán’s influences. That’s sort of his calling card. Writing all of his literary and pop culture obsessions into his fiction. An “ecstasy of influence” run wild. What he calls “referential mania.” Diagnosis of a style.

And that’s what The Invented Part is all about: possible ways a polymathic writer—who is but isn’t Rodrigo Fresán, an alternate Fresán in a parallel universe, maybe—might read and rewrite his own life through and with and against an expansive constellation of favorite writers, books, bands, songs, films, etc. that have shaped it.

So, there are many influences to talk about and many ways to talk about them. Like, for instance, how Fresán takes some of his most-revered writers like Fitzgerald, Burroughs, and Nabokov and turns them into characters. How he does the same thing with Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, and the members of Pink Floyd. About the perpetual emanations of Cheever, Vonnegut, and Proust. Or about how the unconventional structures of Fresán’s books stem from formative childhood exposure to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Beatles’ “A Day In the Life.” About the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as prefiguring his referential mania. Or about all the ways his fiction references and draws influence from the aesthetics and ideas of postmodern writers like the ones you mention above.

But since you bring up Argentine fiction and point out the heavily Anglo-American nature of Fresán’s references, I think it makes sense to talk about the indelible influence of Borges.

When I interviewed Fresán recently, I asked him where he thought he fit in Argentine literary tradition. He responded by saying that there’s nothing more Argentine than to consider oneself not Argentine; in that sense, he considered himself very Argentine. He traced this idea back to Borges, pulling a quote from his famous essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” the main thrust of which is that Argentine tradition is “the whole of Western culture” and Argentine writers have as much right as anybody to read, write themselves into, and rewrite that tradition, indeed that—being on the geographical and cultural periphery, both a part of and apart from that tradition—they are in a unique position to do so. The quote ends with a kind of winking edict:

Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

Fresán positioning himself vis-à-vis Borges is telling. He grew up in the literary milieu of Buenos Aires in the 1960s (his father was a graphic designer for a publishing house) where Borges was a constant and celebrated figure. He says that he likes to think that he read Borges “as if he were a children’s book writer, in the noblest sense of the term, as a formative and foundational writer, as a spinner of perfect yarns, as one of those storytellers who open the door for us to go play in other books . . .” To my mind, Fresán is a Borgesian through and through and so—though such labels may be “mere affectation, a mask”—very much part of Argentine tradition. An Argentine tradition—both Argentine and not—of readers who write. A tradition of writers who, following the above Borgesian edict “try out every subject.” A tradition of literature as metaphysics and as a game.

SE: I feel like “Borgesian” is such a loaded term these days, seemingly being used by everybody to refer to anybody. And I know that when you use it, this is definitely not the case, as you have a very particular meaning in mind and wouldn’t apply it to just any author. So could you elaborate a little more on in what sense you see Fresán as “Borgesian”?

WV: But when I say Fresán is a Borgesian, I don’t mean that his fiction is similar in form to Borges’ (Borges is known for short, concise stories, Fresán for gargantuan, maximalist novels). What I mean is that he embraces the Borgesian zeitgeist. Like Borges, Fresán is interested in the porousness of the reality-fiction border, in the infinite possibilities of story, language, and perspective. Like Borges, Fresán likes to play formal games, mixing metafictional hijinks, literary criticism, elements of genre fiction, and a flare for the fantastic and the philosophical. Like Borges, Fresán writes fiction that springs from his library, from an impulse to turn reading into writing, to emulate, impersonate, satirize, sample, and rewrite other writers.

In an essay titled “Borges and Me, and Me” (published in Granta in 2010 and translated by Natasha Wimmer), Fresán describes Borges’s formative influence:

Borges, for me, always is and will be the Great Writer who understands writers as great characters and as great readers. Borges as the Reader-Writer, who, in my view, with his manner of being, defines a hypothetical and elusive Argentinian literary tradition. This is a tradition that passes for the idea of the betrayal of tradition—roots that don’t burrow into soil but into the wall against which the books are shelved. The wall that throbs with the cosmic virus of the silent and slow but constant invasion from Tlön. The wall that houses the genius of a librarian, blind and polymorphic and perverse, who recommends so many things all at once and who’s convinced that salvation and paradise will always live inside a book. Inside a book that contains the whole universe.

SE: The book’s main thread involves a character who wants to break in to the Large Hadron Collider so that he can merge with the so-called “god particle.” Although, when talking about a book like The Invented Part, such summaries are of only so much value, as this book is so maximalist, so varied and enormous that it beggars any kind of short summary. So could you tell us a little more about what’s in here, and how this overarching narrative relates?

WV: This overarching storyline functions as a framing device, a way to position the narrative voice. The sci-fi premise—that the narrator (known variously as The Boy, The Writer, The Lonely Man, and X) has managed to transcend space and time by breaking into the Large Hadron Collider and merging with the “God Particle”—occasions a kind of über-narrator, “transformed into particles . . . floating here and there and everywhere . . . incorporeal yet omnipresent.” A voice that narrates in “the most first of third persons,” as if The Writer “were reading his own mind” in the process of coming up with the book.

The book is structured in three acts, with the long middle act itself divided into five parts. All seven sections sit in different temporal relation to the overarching premise, narrating different parts of The Writer’s story both before and after his disappearance at the particle accelerator. The disjointed, non-linear structure, and the free-floating narrative perspective give Fresán leeway to unleash his coruscating, referentially maniacal style. To move around outside of time, to comment on and deconstruct his own process of narrative building. To turn that into the story, or multiple possible stories, variations on the theme of literary creation.

SE: This book is quite long—almost 600 pages—and it includes a lot of detailed information of the sort mentioned in the first question. What are the challenges of translating a book this long and with this much real-world detail?

WV: Well, luckily, I’m pretty familiar with a lot of Fresán’s references. The writers who come up most in The Invented Part—Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Burroughs, Cheever, the Brontë sisters, etc.—are writers I’ve read quite a bit. I grew up listening to The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Bob Dylan. So I didn’t have to translate an entire culture of references like some translators have to. That made navigating the overload simpler.

I’m also familiar with writers writing in English who Fresán is stylistically and formally in conversation with (writers like Wallace, Gaddis, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Dennis Johnson). And I think that can be really helpful for a translator in terms of finding the right register in a translation.

That’s not to say it was easy. I still had to do a lot of research and I developed a knack for tracking down quotes that were originally written in English but that Fresán had translated into Spanish. A search engine well utilized is an incredible tool for a translator.

It also helps that Fresán provides an extensive acknowledgments section at the end of the book, listing many of the references that enter the book and/or informed his own research.

Still, some quotes and details were tricky to pin down. For example, there was one Nabokov quote I was never able to find. Something that he had supposedly translated from a Paris Review interview. In the end, I couldn’t track it down, and Fresán told me to just make it Nabokovian, remarking that Nabokov might appreciate such a forgery, and reminding me that, when it comes down to it, it’s all fiction.

SE: I want to go back for a second to the prior question, where I mentioned the “main thread” of The Invented Part, and how with a book this wide-ranging the idea of the main plotline is almost beside the point. Throughout this novel, Fresán is relentlessly playful and digressive, playing games with typography, form, structure, and seemingly finding a way to talk about whatever he wants regardless of where the book should be going. What were some of your favorite moments or interludes in the book?

WV: One of Fresán’s formal tics that I find really fun and memorable is his list-making. Lists feature big in all of the book’s seven novella-length parts. They’re an essential part of the book’s architecture and they evoke a notion at its heart: the idea of fiction as a diffusion of “marvelous moments,” as variations on a theme, as infinite possibilities.

In the opening part we get a list of the preoccupations of The Boy (the first iteration of The Writer). Curiosities that foreshadow the hyperactive imagination of a referential maniac in the making. Things like: “Why does Superman appear to exert himself equally—the same muscle tension, the same knit brow—when he picks up a car or alters the orbit of an entire planet?” Or: “Why do the digits on the hand have specific names and those on the foot do not.” Or, when he’s a little older: “Why is the Miss Universe contest always won by a woman from planet Earth?”

Later, we get a playful list of character sketches—from the mind of The Young Man, an aspiring writer, obsessed with The Writer—with hilarious, over-the-top, Pynchonian (one of them, no coincidence, is a DJ named Tomás Pincho) names like: Apollo Dionisio, Constancio Tiempos, MacTypo, Cash Krugerrand, and Bienvenido “Come Together” Tequiero.

One of the most poignant uses of this list device comes in the part titled “A Few Things You Happen To Think About When All You Want Is To Think About Nothing,” which is a portrait of The Lonely Man—another iteration of The Writer—in the emergency room, in serious pain, waiting for a diagnosis. With his future uncertain, The Lonely Man, who has been suffering writer’s block, experiences a sudden torrent of story ideas. Ironic little set pieces bound up in ideas of mortality, loss, regret, and how parents inevitably mess up their kids. A taste:

In “What Will Be,” and regarding the impossibility of giving children a good education and making all the right decisions for their future, a father at a party, holding and held up by a glass full to the brim with whiskey, says: “My little Leo never walked in on me and his mother making love . . . I wonder if that will be a good or a bad thing for the development of his personality. What do you think, gorgeous?”

In “Will Be,” a man, in the exact instant of the orgasm that kicks off the story of his paternity (there goes that spermatozoid to dance inside that ovum), experiences the petit mort of being able to, in a matter of seconds, contemplate his entire future as a parent. The joy and sadness and confusion that await him along the way and the death of his condition as the last of his bloodline. Then, right away, he forgets all of it. Better that way. Otherwise it might be like one of those stories that, before long, night after night, he’ll tell to his future son (a story his son will memorize, down to the last word and inflection, delighted by knowing everything that’s coming, down to the last detail) who’s already there, on this side, forever.

In the final part, a farewell gesture, The Writer makes a list of metaphors for the book he’s trying to write—the same book we’ve been reading. Some samples:

A book like antimatter, like the antimaterial that—it’s energy so dark—will turn into another book, in another dimension.

A book that would sound like an album of greatest hits composed of rarities or like disrespectful or distorted but sincere covers of itself.

A book not of nonfiction but of yes-fiction.

A book that’s like a book of ghosts but where the ghost is the book itself, the dead life of the work.

A book whose seven sections would be written simultaneously, quickly changing the place of things, like cards in a game of solitaire or a Tarot reading in which The Writer card always comes out face down and too close too the Madman, The Wheel of Fortune, The Hangman, and Death.

A book like one of Edward Hopper’s clean and well-lit rooms, but with a Jackson Pollock waiting to come out of the closet.

SE: The Invented Part is the first part of a projected trilogy, with The Dreamed Part, the second book, finished in Spanish. What can you tell us about the trilogy? Will all of the books be this long?

WV: I can tell you that Fresán didn’t set out to write a trilogy, but he had a hard time letting go of the voice and perspective he’d created in The Invented Part. He says he got addicted to that “alter ego/Mr. Hyde” version of himself. And once he decided to keep going, the writing came easy.

I can tell you that The Dreamed Part is slightly longer than The Invented Part. That it’s even crazier. That Fresán’s referential mania is in full force, his imagination even more unleashed. That it explores similar thematic territory but through the lens of dreams. That there are more sci-fi plotlines. That there is a lot of Nabokov, a lot of the Brontë sisters, and a lot of Bob Dylan in it.

As far as part three, The Remembered Part, I can’t offer any specifics, because it’s still being written. Here’s what Fresán had to say about the trilogy, which sums it all up far better than I could:

The idea is that the trilogy ends up creating a portrait, between figurative and abstract, of how a writer thinks . . . A memoir not of a life but of a method. When you remember something, at the same time, you decide to forget something, because you never remember the totality of events. That, in itself, is already a form of editing and narrative building. The same thing happens when you dream and when you invent. That is, if you will, the formal center of the trilogy. To invent and to dream and to remember. Those are the three motors of the narration of a life that together make a work of art.

6 Questions for Laura Raicovich on At the Lightning Field

photo credit: Michael Angelo

A couple of weeks ago I recommended the book-length essay At the Lightning Field by Laura Raicovich, recently published by Coffee House Press. It is a beautiful example of a long essay that responds to a work of art in a uniquely linguistic manner, the sort of thing that I myself enjoy writing, and which I feel we should see more of from creative nonfiction writers. In addition to deploying various ideas around memory, mathematics, and aesthetics, the book combines quotations from authors like Vladimir Nabokov, as well as Raicovich’s own descriptions and thoughts, often made in enjambed free verse.

Since I made that recommendation, I was able to interview Raicovich to find out a little more about her lengthy fascination with The Lightning Field, how her book came together, and some further reflections on some of the ideas found therein.

In addition to being the author of At the Lightning Field, Raicovich works as the president and executive director of the Queens Museum. She is also the author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties (Publication Studio), a book based on Viagra and Cialis spam, and an editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books).


Scott Esposito: Your book revolves around your experiences with The Lightning Field, a work of art left in the New Mexico wilderness by sculptor Walter De Maria. How many times have you visited The Lightning Field? (if you could, please elaborate a little here as to the time frame you’ve made these visits over, how long it takes to get out there from where you live, etc)

Laura Raicovich: I made at least 7 trips to The Lightning Field over a ten year period. At the time, I worked for Dia Art Foundation, the entity that maintains the Field, and part of my work involved ensuring the continuing isolation of the Field. At the time, there was interest in development of the high dessert throughout this area of central, western New Mexico. Many of the old school cattle ranchers were retiring or moving to ranch in areas that were literally greener and less challenging to ranch. During this period I learned a great deal about what it takes run a cattle ranch in the high desert, and eventually we were able to create some long term protections for the land surrounding the Field by partnering with the State of New Mexico and a third generation ranching family to purchase a conservation easement on their land that would ensure they could ranch for at least another generation, and that a major piece of land just south of the Field would be protected from development in perpetuity.

From where I live in Manhattan, it takes a fair amount of time to arrive at The Lightning Field, and this became, for me, a part of the process of shifting from NYC tempo to something altogether different. There were no direct flights to Albuquerque so I usually switched in Atlanta. From Albuquerque, I would arrive, stay overnight, and depart the following day by car. Getting to the Dia office in Quemado was a few hours’ drive, and from there another hour to get out to the cabin in the truck with Robert, the main caretaker. Each leg of the trip had a different texture and vibe, ending (or beginning?) in the austerity of the high desert and its unexpectedness.

SE: Why were you continually drawn back to The Lightning Field, and when did you know that you wanted to write about it?

LR: My first visit to the Field changed the way I experienced the world around me. I loved being there, recalibrating the relationships between sky, earth, poles, landscape, weather, and all of the ideas and thoughts this process evokes for me. Of course, I was lucky that some of my trips were necessary for my work at Dia.

I began to think seriously about writing about my experiences in graduate school. I tried to write some straight-up art history, and in the process located some compelling coincidences of history. I then took a class with Wayne Koestenbaum, and as we wrote homages, or parallel texts, to some of the works of literature we were reading, I began to wonder what writing something similar in relationship to The Lightning Field would look like. It seemed like the coincidences and my experiences out there could combine in compelling ways.

SE: The Lightning Field has been identified as a work of Land Art, an artistic movement based in interacting with the landscape, and of which perhaps Spiral Jetty is the best known example. Could you tell us a little about this movement and how The Lightning Field fits in?

LR: There were a number of artists who came to prominence in the 60s and 70s who decided to leave the confines of big cities to experiment in the landscape of the Western United States. Among them, Donald Judd went to Marfa, Texas where he created a complex of architectural and art installations. Michael Heizer made drawings with his motorcycle on dry lake beds, and started a monumental project in Nevada called “City”. Nancy Holt created her miraculous “Sun Tunnels” in Utah’s desert. And Robert Smithson envisioned and built “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. De Maria had been making artworks in the desert for some time, including his Mile Long Drawing from 1968, before searching for the location for The Lightning Field.

SE: In the book you talk about the poles being “a device for seeing something larger, infinite.” This comes in the context of a discussion of certain irrational, or maybe disorderly, systems that The Lightning Field made visible to you. For your text, did you want to mimic this effect at all, in terms of making your writings a gateway toward the perception of things adjacent to the text?

LR: Yes, I wanted to do this both literally and lyrically. In fact, it happens formally with some of the line break choices. If you look at some pages (like 14, or 42, or 82) and turn the book on its left side, the lines of text mimic the poles in the desert. Sometimes the lines appear in an almost-pattern like the work does when meandering off the orthogonal within the grid of poles. And of course, there is a lot that is left out, not recorded, omitted, and left to another imagination.

SE: In a discussion of memory and your engaging idea of “the curve of memory,” you remark that “There is great pleasure in looking at the infinitesimally / small aspects of an experience / as well as the infinitesimally large.” I think I have some idea of what the infinitesimally small aspects of an experience might be, but I wonderful if you could elaborate on the idea of the “infinitesimally large” and how they might relate to your experiences at The Lightning Field.

LR: Infinitesimally large means to me connection to the cosmos, to the expanding universe, to really, really big things that are difficult to comprehend in our day to day frame of reference. Maybe it is because I have just finished Cixin Liu’s Three Body trilogy, these things include the unknown space of black holes, and space in more or fewer than 3 dimensions. Being at the Field decidedly connected my thoughts to the heavens and where this particular artwork sits on the surface of the Earth, and its relationship to the universe.

SE: Much of At the Lightning Field consists of beautiful poetic renditions of your phenomenological experiences of The Lightning Field. Did recounting these memories as poetry revise your experience of them? Did they lead to certain discoveries?

LR: Recounting them certainly changed them. Particularly as I left things out, inadvertently or intentionally, and as I edited the text over time. I realize now that there emerged very specific rhythms that I kept returning to in the text, as well as my desire to make connections that felt important to me, like to calculus, chaos theory. But I also wanted to make an invitation to anyone reading it to make their own associations. My discoveries, and the coincidences of history that drove me to write about The Lightning Field are really just a small gesture or homage to a work of art that has changed the ways in which I experience the world.

7 Questions for Charlotte Mandell on Compass by Mathias Enard

Scott Esposito: Before Compass, Enard’s best-known work in the States was Zone (which you also translated), famously a one-sentence novel of about 500 pages in length, delving very deeply into the life, culture, and history of the “Mediterranean zone,” more or less North Africa and Southern Europe. Could you talk a little about what this new book is, and how it compares to Zone?

Charlotte Mandell: Zone was narrated in a stream-of-consciousness narrative while the narrator was in an enclosed space (on a train from Milan to Rome); Compass has a similar constraint in that the narrator is also in the enclosed space of his bedroom, and the entire book is narrated during one night of insomnia while the narrator, Franz Ritter, looks back over his life and travels and pines for his lost love, Sarah. The scene of Ritter’s travels centers not on the Mediterranean basin this time but on the East — on Syria, Iran, and Turkey mostly. It’s a kind of melancholy ode to the Orient, to an East that exists only in the narrator’s mind now that most of the places he has visited have been ripped apart by war and revolution.

SE: What are some of the challenges and pleasures of translating this book?

CM: Since Ritter is a very well-read Viennese musicologist focusing on the influence of the East on the West, he refers often to Arabic-language and Persian books and poems with which I am unfamiliar; it was a challenge tracking down all the references to books and musical pieces Ritter makes. The challenges were curiously like the pleasures, since I love classical music and grew up listening to it, but many of the pieces Ritter mentions (Félicien David’s symphonic ode Le Désert, for instance) were unfamiliar to me, so I grew to know them — fortunately YouTube was a huge help. Fitzcarraldo has posted a playlist to most (but not all!) of the musical pieces mentioned in Compass:

http://blog.fitzcarraldoeditions.com/compass-playlist/

SE: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the geographies of Zone vis a vis Compass. These are places that will exist very differently in the mind of a Frenchman versus an American. Could you tell us a little about why Enard chose to center a major novel around nations like Syria, Iran, and Turkey, and what the reception was like from the French reading public and the critics?

CM: Énard teaches Arabic at the University of Barcelona and has lived for long periods of time in both Syria and Iran. Compass is dedicated to the people of Syria; just as Europe looked on while Yugoslavia burned in the 1990s, a similar thing is happening now with Syria. While the narrator of Zone was half-Croatian and fought in that Yugoslav war, the narrator of Compass is half-French, and speaks both German and French fluently. One of the themes of Compass is the importance of the Other and the danger of over-identifying with one particular nationality; the only way we as humans can grow, spiritually and emotionally, is to be open to ‘foreign’ cultures and to realize that nationalism is a construct — there is no such thing as a fixed identity. I think this message resonated with the French reading public, since Compass received glowing reviews and won the Prix Goncourt in 2015, France’s highest literary honor.

SE: Could you talk a little more in-depth about the relationship of the musicology to the concerns of the novel at large? Reading your response, I’m instantly reminded of Mann’s great Doctor Faustus, where of course the ideas behind twelve-tone music become enmeshed with the long history of the Germanic people and their fall into Nazism. I’m quite intrigued to know more . . .

CM: Franz Ritter is interested in the influence of Eastern composers on Western music; we tend generally to think of the two traditions as being completely separate and as developing independently of each other, but his argument is that throughout the nineteenth century, and even before that, Western composers like Liszt, Félicien David, and Rimsky-Korsakov incorporated Eastern themes and musical tropes into their work. Some examples: Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, which incorporates a Turkish march into it; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, based on The Thousand and One Nights; Schubert, who set to music some poems of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, itself based on the poems of Hafez. And then in the other direction there’s Giuseppe Donizetti, brother of the famous opera composer Gaetano; in the Levant he was called Giuseppe Donizetti Pasha and became the music teacher to the Sultan of Constantinople Mahmud II from 1828 on.

​Thomas Mann is an important figure in Compass as well, since Ritter holds a long conversation with him in his head at one point; he comes up with a very funny division of all European artists into two kinds: the tubercular, or the public, the social; and the syphilitic, or the private, the shameful. He also inveighs against Wagner for his racism and isolationism, and for his poor treatment of the great Jewish composer Meyerbeer — whom he imitated in his early works.

SE: One aspect of Zone that was fascinating was all of the little- known historical episodes that Enard weaves in. What are some of the episodes here from Eastern history that might surprise people?

CM: This isn’t Eastern history, but at one point Ritter quotes from a text written by Sarah (another great Orientalist scholar, with whom he is in love) about Balzac’s friendship with the Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, which led to a text in Arabic being included in the second, 1837, edition of La Peau de chagrin; this text was not present in the first, 1831 edition.

Another surprising historical tidbit is that the Germans and Austrians launched an appeal for global jihad in 1914 — they wanted Muslim troops to rise up against their enemies, the English, French and Russians. The Germans actually created a camp for Muslim prisoners of war outside Berlin; it was called the Camp of the Crescent, or the Halbmondlager — you can see the Wiki entry for it here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halbmondlager

SE: This book starts in the deeps of night and ends just before daybreak. Would you call it a hopeful book?

CM: ​The book ends with the “sunlight of hope” filtering through. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that against the hopelessness of death and war there is the profession of love, which is always a hopeful (and timeless) thing.

SE: What do you make of the titular metaphor, a compass that points not North but East, and which was owned by Beethoven?

CM: One of the themes of the book is the importance of learning that one’s identity is not fixed but fluid; a person is not defined by his or her nation or genes but by their openness to the other, to the seemingly foreign, to the new and strange. Beethoven broke new ground in his music, as in his Opus 111 which Franz points out has only two movements instead of the usual three, and features an incredible syncopated section in the second movement that heralds the rhythms of jazz. By owning a compass that points east instead of north, Franz (and Beethoven) show us that everything is relative: nothing is absolute, since everything is filtered through the subjectivity of each individual consciousness. In a Tibetan mandala, for instance, the main gate of the palace always faces east, not north. The important thing is not to take anything for granted, to keep one’s mind open to other realities and not to posit one’s own reality as the only one, since that way madness (or terrorism) lies.

Nine Questions for Emma Ramadan on Anne Garréta, Sphinx, and Not One Day

In addition to being one of the most impressive new translators to come onto the scene in recent years, Emma Ramadan is a good friend. I was very pleased to see her translation of Anne Garréta’s Sphinx become a huge success, and I was excited to see that Emma then began work on a second translation of Garréta’s. That book is now with us, Not One Day, a sort of catalogue/journey-through-memory of Garréta’s experiences with women. That book is now published.

When Emma is not translating, she is preparing to open a new independent bookstore called Riffraff with Tom Roberge, formerly of New Directions and the prestigious French bookstore, Albertine, on New York’s Upper East Side.

I reached out to Emma via email to learn a little more about Not One Day, as well as her experiences with Sphinx and Garréta.

Scott Esposito: Most people reading this interview will know of Anne Garréta through her first novel, Sphinx, which you also translated. That novel has been very often described as a “genderless love story,” and, indeed, never revealing the gender of the two lovers at the center of the novel is that book’s foremost constraint. Sphinx granted Garréta entry into the Oulipo, where she would continue to write books employing various constraints. So, can you tell us a little about what the premise of this book is, and some of the constraints employed therein?

Emma Ramadan: Not One Day begins “Why not write something different, differently than you usually do? Once more, but with a new twist, rid yourself of your self…Since you can no longer conceive of writing except in long and intricate constructions, isn’t it time to go against the grain?” But unable to resist her self, Garréta proceeds to set up a series of constraints that have come to feel characteristic to her writing. “If you aim to thwart your habits and inclinations, you might as well go about it systematically.” And so we get the constraints. Garréta vows to write every day, for 5 hours straight, for a month, teasing out the memory of one story of desire each day, a woman she has desired, a woman who has desired her, (hence the idea not one day without a woman), or a different kind of desire altogether. Written in the order they come to mind. Arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically. No pen, “nothing but the keyboard,” no draft, no notes, writing only from memory. Not writing things as they happened, or might have happened, or as she wished they had happened, but as they appear to her in memory in that moment. No erasing, no rewriting, “syntax matching composition.” The ultimate aim being to dissipate herself through this process, “in order to dispel the desires that you still feel.” These constraints are clearly laid out in the Ante Scriptum at the beginning of the book, but Garréta hints in the Post Scriptum that some of these rules may have been broken in the process.

SE: To talk about Sphinx for a moment, this book has been very successful in your translation, and you’ve had the opportunity to do events in support of that book and to represent it in various capacities. Can you tell us about some of the reactions to this book by readers you encountered?

ER: I was blown away by the incredible response to Sphinx. People really seemed to connect with the book, which I think speaks to the power of Garréta’s fictional world to embody precisely what it is people seek out in their own realities, but are often unable to inhabit because of the nature of the society they live in. Ultimately Sphinx is the demonstration that gender is just one more false binary that has been imposed on us by outside forces. Many of us feel a disconnect between our lived experience and the ways we are told and expected to live in the world. By creating the possibility for a new way of talking about love and relationships that doesn’t have to subscribe to typical constructions of gender, Sphinx has carved out a space where people can project themselves onto these genderless characters in a way that they can’t always with characters in other books, providing a different experience for each reader. It was pretty fucking special to meet and talk with other people who found this opportunity in Sphinx to be as necessary and effective as I did.

SE: Do you feel that Not One Day provides some of the same opportunities for the reader to project him or herself into the text?

ER: Yes, but maybe not in such a straightforward way as in Sphinx. Not One Day is, essentially, one woman’s memories, experiences. And while many of those experiences may be relatable for some, many of them won’t be. But the conclusions Garréta draws from her memories, about desire and the way we talk or write about desire, the way desire is expected to play out versus the ways it manifests in reality, those conclusions can certainly be adapted to anyone’s experience, and are meant to provoke thought in everyone who reads the book about their own relationships. So in a lot of ways, the take-aways do resemble those of Sphinx, but they’re grounded in one person’s reality rather than taking form in a fictional space.

SE: What were some of the challenges of translating this book? Some of the pleasures?

ER: The biggest challenge for me in translating this book was the same I faced in translating Sphinx: Anne Garréta is a genius who puts her genius ideas into writing in a way that can be difficult for the average human to understand, let alone rewrite in English. The Ante Scriptum and the Post Scriptum are pure thought, and Anne and I Skyped and went over almost every line of those chapters so I could better get in her head to translate them. Another challenge was that I strongly believe in the idea of translating constrained writing by applying that same constraint to yourself, as I did with Sphinx, but for this book it just wasn’t possible. Translating each chapter in five hours without any editing just wasn’t going to be feasible, particularly not for a book like this.

The biggest pleasure of translating this book was how personal it is. It was a new experience for me to delve so deep into the life and mind of an author, especially someone like Anne whose writing I think of generally as deeply intellectually driven. There’s a lot of vulnerability and humanity in this book, and it’s a nice change to translate someone’s life as opposed to someone’s words.

SE: It’s clear that Garréta’s writing has touched you really deeply. It I’m not mistaken, Sphinx was the first book of hers that you read. Could you talk briefly about how you discovered Sphinx and why you wanted to translate it?

ER: I read about Sphinx in Daniel Levin-Becker’s book Many Subtle Channels, which is about the members of the Oulipo and their work. I was curious to see how it had been translated in English, since gender works so differently in the French language than it does in the English language. And when I realized that no one had translated it yet, I wanted to see if I was up to the challenge.

SE: Which episodes from Not One Day did you like the best?

ER: I loved translating B*. It felt very real, this idea of pacing the room, replaying your encounters with a given person, debating whether or not to make a move. I could imagine the scene very clearly in my mind, could feel Anne’s anxiety. I also liked translating K* because as I was translating it, I felt as though I was discovering along with Anne her true feelings for K*. The process of realizing things as you flesh them out in writing is on full display here.

SE: I like that idea, using the same time constraint to translation the book that Garréta used to write it. You mentioned that she wrote this book in a month. How long did the translation take?

ER: To be fair, in the Post Scriptum at the end of the book, Anne reveals: “As for writing every day or even every night, that was rather optimistic… Did you really bank on so easily curing yourself of your cardinal vice—procrastination?…What should have been a month’s work was disseminated over more than a year.” It probably took me, also, just over a year, editing time included.

SE: Which constraint of Garréta’s (from any book, story, etc, translated or not) do you find most fascinating?

ER: Anne’s novel La Décomposition has as its protagonist a serial killer who systematically assassinates the characters of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Anne once showed me an enormous binder full of the notes she used to write that book. She has called it “a strategy for reversing the censorship, for opening the potentiality of the Proustian text.” Which is pretty great. But Sphinx‘s constraint is still really exciting to me, it has so much explosive potential to it, I’d like to see everything from Greek myths to nursery rhymes to the literary canon rewritten without any indication of sex or gender.


SE: What’s next for you and Garréta? Another book? Other projects?

ER: Honestly, I’m not sure! I heard a rumor that she’s been producing a lot of new writing recently, so who knows…

Four Questions for Deepak Unnikrishnan on Temporary People

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan is a book (variously described as a novel, short stories, and something in between) based around the lives of people who come to the United Arab Emirates and, in the author’s words “are eventually required to leave.” Indeed, the UAE has become infamous for importing foreign-born people in order to build the massive infrastructure of a booming nation, only then to be told to go when their work is complete.

For this book, Unnikrishnan won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, as Unnikrishnan himself is a immigrant to the United States. This is his first novel, and it has been getting rave reviews, in venues like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Unnikrishnan has also recently been on a book tour throughout the United States for Temporary People, and of course this is a strange time for a book that so deeply deals with the immigrant experience, particularly when it occurs Middle Eastern context. Below, we talk about the book, what it’s like to be releasing a book like this at this political moment, and about home, migration, and related subjects.


Scott Esposito: Temporary People is based around transitional workers who come to the United Arab Emirates to do the work necessary to build up the country and are then forced to leave. As you mention at the beginning of the book, “Temporary People is a work of fiction set in the UAE, where I was raised and where foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave.” Do you have any particular sources or experiences that underlie the lives depicted in these pages?

Deepak Unnikrishnan: I am the child of Indian parents who have lived in the UAE for over four decades. I am the nephew of uncles who have lived, or continue to live in the Khaleej (Arabic for Gulf). My family has a warm and complex relationship with the Emirates, so in that sense, yes I understand what it’s like to live in a city that hosts you for a while, not forever. I also have friends from high school who have either left or stayed. And some of those who stayed are raising their own children in the place my mates and I were raised. So you could also say, yes, I’m aware of certain states bodies occupy when their documents buy them a fixed amount of time. I’m also hyper aware of the privileges my sibling and I have enjoyed, proximity to parents sitting pretty on top of that list. None of my first cousins grew up with both parents by their side. Their fathers sent money from the Khaleej. Their mothers looked after them. And if you’re from here, if you’ve paid attention, you see men and women who have come from elsewhere; people who’ve left much behind and you can read such sorrow on their faces. But then if you wait a little bit longer, you can also spot the drive and the joy and the craziness of what being a temporary resident means to these people. The hopes they carry in their heads, the stories they’re itching to tell. When I tell people Abu Dhabi raised me, I’m not just talking about the city. I’m also talking about its people, those who’ve been here a while, those from here, and especially those who may not last long, but help the city run. And it’s interesting you call these people who populate my book transnational. I am not sure that’s what they are. I’m not sure what they are, but transnational feels like a stretch, or some form of happy lie. What I’d say instead is that these men and women who reside within the pages of Temporary People are people who are conscious of time, all the time. And that state, where they are always thinking of their futures, does something to them, something visceral. Because you see, they are not forced to leave. They just have to leave. There’s a difference between those two scenarios. I suppose when you know you have to leave, often you’re just wondering about how to leave. And that can break some people. Others thrive.

SE: Temporary People is publishing in the United States at an interesting time, when we are having our own debates over the degree to which this country welcomes outsiders, and how we see their contributions to this country. You yourself were raised in the UAE and immigrated to the U.S., and this book won the first Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. So two questions: what do you feel that these stories of the UAE bring to an American context, and will this book be published in the UAE?

DU: I am the son, nephew, and grandson of migrants. My parents raised my sister and I in a city they didn’t fully understand at first. Yet they expected us to prove ourselves worthy to live in a place they were afraid to claim, but went to anyway. We were always expected to behave and be respectful, not embarrass them or ourselves. And with my folks having aged in the Khaleej, the place represents something else now to my family, part history and memory, something sacred, joyful, and sad. They care about the Khaleej, my parents. It’s home, you understand. But they care about India too. Americans may understand this basic need to acknowledge/accommodate two nations, one that raised you, and the other that adopted you. But what they may not get is what it means to return to a nation after you’ve left it for a while, what it means to return to the place where you were born, so that you may die. And it’s perfectly fine to not understand the significance of this voluntary act, without veering towards pity, or professing rage. But in an age where attachments are questioned, people corralled, questioned and bullied over nationality and paperwork, certainly in the States, there’s something instructive in contemplating why/how people cherish a place even when they aren’t required/expected to do so. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to romanticize any of this, the leaving part especially. It’s hard to leave a place, man. It sucks to be a creature perpetually wedded to paperwork, but my hope is when people read my work, they are not only ingesting the language of temporary people, they are also thinking about vulnerability, why living elsewhere is often an act of sacrifice (especially if you are a parent), with the expectation of hope; and if you’re lucky, good fortune. I hope some people in the States (and elsewhere too), the ones who rage against foreigners – especially the most vulnerable, children, refugees, and the undocumented – come across the book, maybe skim through it, then contemplate over what it must be like to explain yourself all the time to people who assume they know what you are, people who wonder whether you’re harmless, that you’ve hopefully got something to give. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are migrants or temporary residents the world over just fed up with explaining themselves. I’d wager some of them don’t know what to say anymore and that they are tired. And you bet I hope readers in the UAE will get to read the book.

SE: You’ve been on a book tour, doing events for this book in New York City and San Francisco, and elsewhere throughout the country. What have been the responses to this book? Have these events veered toward the political context here in the U.S.?

DU: Let me be frank. I didn’t think many people were going to come to the readings. Don’t know why, but I didn’t buy that folks wanted to hear some stranger they’ve barely heard about talk about the Khaleej, or hear me recite myths and tales mined from the place, but I’ve been surprised and humbled by the response. I’ve bumped into people I’ve gone to high school with. I’ve had people come up to me saying, Man, that happened to me too! I’ve seen brown and black and white people in the audience. I’ve had questions that covered multiple topics: home, language, and yeah, cities. And sure: politics, too. That comes up a lot, and I find myself wanting to talk about the state of the States. It’s home too, you know. I mean some of us are frightened. I have friends who are angry, who’ve turned soothsayers. And we don’t know why we’re all behaving this way, and then we know why. I ‘d like to think people want to talk about the current state of affairs, but a part of me believes most folks have also made up their minds. It’s as though we’ve got to pick this camp or that camp, and that scenario frightens me. I’ve also had little old ladies come up to me in the Midwest to apologize, to state that the current administration doesn’t speak for them. And I remember being moved by that. They didn’t have to do that, walk over to the brown man and try to calm him down, but they did. So there’s hope. At the same time, there are people who voted for Trump. And a part of me wants to know why. And a part of me is afraid to know why. But it’s important to know what’s going on with the country. It’s important to talk. I’m not saying we should all hold hands and pretend everything’s okay. Everything’s not okay, more reason to have difficult conversations. Something broke. What?

SE: I’ve seen this book variously described as 28 stories and as a novel. How do you see it, and why? Are genre conventions like these something that may hold more weight here in the States than in the literary culture of the Middle East?

DU: I identify as a short story writer. Writing a collection, that’s what I thought I was doing when I began the work. But gradually I realized I was also toying with things, language most certainly, and to an extent, form. So the work began to morph. I started calling it “the book,” because that made more sense. As more time passed, it became clear the chapters, as I call the tales, needed each other to speak to one another, as well as to speak over one another, to create something almost animal-like and city-like. Because I wanted my book to sound a certain way, you see. I wanted readers to hear these people, temporary inhabitants with accents and myths, and I wanted them to appear and disappear, maybe reappear. That meant I had to break certain conventions, explore what a book was supposed to do, then burn certain rules. But some of these breakthroughs were unintentional. I’d like to claim that everything was thought out. But no, I hadn’t really given architecture of the book much thought until I started studying at the Art Institute. And all of a sudden, I was like, wait a minute, I want the languages in the book to mimic streetlights and road signs, take the reader somewhere familiar yet unexpected, wild. And I suppose it helped that I didn’t have much of a literature background. I was a bit of a novice, and slightly stupid, plus arrogant, useful qualities if you’re trying something new, and you don’t know you’re trying something new. But yeah, genre holds a lot of weight in the States. I’m in fact super pleased the book has not only been described as a collection or a novel, but also been reviewed as either a fragmented collection or a novel held up by some-short-some-long stories. There’s been no universal consensus on what the work is or what it’s become and that’s pretty wonderful! But to be fair, I think genre matters in other nations too. And I’ve been guilty of wandering over to certain sections at bookstores, seduced by genre. And that’s a shame, because at the end of the day I identify as a user of words, someone who deploys language to express his thoughts about imaginary and realist realms. Shouldn’t that be enough? At the risk of sounding pompous, it might be helpful to ditch categories from time to time and relearn how to read, especially if the work stems from someone’s imagination, especially if we want our minds blown.

Four Questions with Philip Boehm and a Short Review on Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall

Although little-known in the United States, Polish author Hanna Krall is famous in her native country as one of the grand masters of the uniquely Polish genre of literary reportage. A colleague of the great Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski (she inspired his Eighth Dekalog) Krall worked as a journalist for much of the 1950s and ’60s before publishing her first book in 1972.

A Polish Jew, Krall was a young child during the Second World War, and she narrowly escaped deportation to the Nazi death camps during the Holocaust, though many of her relatives perished. The Holocaust has accordingly been one of the major themes of her literary work, and American readers now have a chance to see it for themselves in a short, intense work of hers, Chasing the King of Hearts, recently published by Feminist Press in Philip Boehm’s translation.

The book follows the life of the Izolda, whose recent husband Shayek has been deported to Auschwitz. (By the time Krall caught up with her in the early 2000s, Izolda was a Holocaust survivor, and a grandmother, who had long since moved to Israel.) Much of Chasing the King of Hearts deals with the day-to-day things Izolda must do to simply survive as a Jew in occupied Poland, to say nothing of the efforts she makes to secure items to send to her husband in Auschwitz and to remain in contact with him. As a portrait of lives suffering under the weight of the Holocaust, Chasing the King of Hearts is a remarkably affecting, often tear-inducing work.

It is also a stirring, complex portrait of a remarkable woman. Krall’s style here is cinematic, telegraphic, working in intense bursts of narration that drive the story forward at supersonic speed. Though the book is less than 200 pages, this material might have made for an epic of 500 in the hands of another writer. I like Krall’s method for how it gives a sense of the chaos that Izolda faced, the way that all of her life could change at any moment during the War, and the unceasing array of obstacles that battered her as she sought to merely survive and attend to her husband’s survival. It makes the book into less of a philosophical or meditative work than a tactile one, a kind of whirlwind of sensory impression, tautly narrated incidents, interpersonal conflicts, hustling, quick-witted decisions, pure chance, and the battlefield reflections that come to mind amid the ongoing assault of historical forces. Which is not to say that Chasing the King of Hearts doesn’t have discernable ideas and a philosophy about Izolda’s life (it does), only that the book is primarily an immersive, accelerated, imagistic experience.

One of the most interesting things about Chasing the King of Hearts—and one thing that sets it apart from most other Holocaust literature—is that it does not end with the end of the Holocaust. Izolda’s life continues, and there are some surprises that put the events of her wartime relationship with Shayek into interesting perspective. Ultimately the book becomes something not just about the horrors of the Holocaust and survival in wartime Poland; it also delves into the nature of love and identity and what the major events from our life become as we age.

Below you will find four questions with the book’s translator to give a greater sense of this remarkable title and some of the challenges of bringing it into English. In addition to being a translator, Philip Boehm is an American playwright and theater director. He has translated over thirty novels and plays by German and Polish writers, including Herta Müller, Franz Kafka, Gregor von Rezzori, and Ingeborg Bachmann. For these translations he has received fellowships from the NEA and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as awards including the Schlegel-Tieck Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize.

Scott Esposito: I’d like to start with a little information about the author, Hanna Krall, as she’s someone who may not be so well known among readers of this website. When I was in Krakow in 2015, she was spoken of in the highest terms, a true legend of the literary reportage genre that is so important to Polish literature. Could you give some sense of Krall’s career as an author and where she stands among the writers of Polish literary nonfiction?

Philip Boehm: Polish reportage is often associated with the three “Ks” — Ryszard Kapuściński, Krzysztof Kąkolewski and Hanna Krall. The website culture.pl has a nice overview: http://culture.pl/en/article/a-foreigners-guide-to-polish-reportage.

Hanna Krall contributed enormously to this school with her book on Marek Edelman, the last living leader of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance, who stayed in Poland and became a renowned cardiologist. She has always considered herself a journalist, but has devised her own style to convey meanings lurking under the surface of the events themselves—the memory and motivations of the protagonists. She was a noted dissident in the Communist era and she remains outspoken on social issues in the face of the demagoguery now besetting Poland and elsewhere.

SE: Whatever else it is, Chasing the King of Hearts is a part of Holocaust literature, as it details the life of a Polish-Jewish woman named Izolda, who was ghettoized by the Nazis and survived Auschwitz. The book deals with her devotion to her husband, who is taken by the Nazis early on, and whom she desperately fights to help survive the war. Can you explain a little about who Izolda was and how Krall came to write her story?

PB: Izolda Regensberg believed her story ought to be told, ought to be made into a film. Hanna Krall’s first attempt to retell Izolda’s story didn’t satisfy either of them. Only many years later—and after Izolda had approached other writers who did not take on the assignment—did she return to Hanna Krall. And in the meantime Hanna Krall had figured out how to tell the story, paring it down and compressing it into the form we now have. It’s important to remember that this is also a love-story: it’s her love for her husband that drives her to save him, that enables her to survive all the ordeals described in the book. And in the end–well, it’s important not to give away the ending.

SE: You’ve mentioned the compressed nature of the prose in Chasing the King of Hearts, which is really one of the most distinctive things about this book. It is a very lean, very energetic kind of writing, incredibly lapidary (which, I would imagine, suits both Krall and Regensberg). Yet, as you pointed out, this is also a love story, one that is at times deeply affecting. I found it rather impressive, how Krall’s prose can at once feel so hard-boiled, yet also modulate to those other tones that this story requires. So two questions for you about the prose: first of all, you’ve pointed out that this was how Krall felt the story had to be told (and she followed this directive even to the extent of going against the subject’s own wishes). Can you offer any insight as to why Krall would choose this method? And secondly, what was the experience of translating this prose for you? Were there certain challenges to such an exacting, compressed style?

PB: I think that Hanna Krall wants to invite her readers on a journey. Instead of presenting them with more facts than they can handle, she intrigues them with just enough to lure them ahead. Incidentally my guess is that the lapidary style is far more hers than Regensberg’s. A reoccurring them is that Izolda felt her story should be a film, and what Hanna Krall gives us is very cinematic, partly because the editing is like a classic shooting ratio. The taut prose and tight pacing keep the movie running, but the scenes show a remarkable variety of emotional tone.

Various challenges do arise—for one thing, Polish sentences don’t always require the subject to be spelled out—it can often be inferred from the verb inflection. In English I had to use more nouns or pronouns—which I tried to counterbalance by paying careful attention to the rhythm of the prose.

SE: Among other things, Chasing the King of Hearts offers some very precise descriptions of World War II–era Europe: Polish ghettos, concentration camps, SS prisons, SS officers, hiding places, Viennese restaurants . . . even dentistry (Regensberg’s teeth are a surprisingly recurrent leitmotif in this book). As a translator, how did you get all of these details correct? Were there particular resources you used?

PB: As it happens I’ve had a lot of experience working with similar material: for instance Words to Outlive Us: Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto, which took a very long time to research and translate. Since I also work in German I could corroborate details. And the details are essential: for me it’s important to visualize a scene as concretely as possible. That’s also what I have to do when I’m directing a play—I’m constantly surprised how much these two professions overlap.

Six Questions for Katherine Silver on The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira

Katherine Silver is one of the most talented, interesting, and dedicated translators working from Spanish today. She recently translated Cesar Aira’s novel(la) The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, her second Aira translation (it joins The Literary Conference) though definitely not her last (read on).

I asked her six questions about the particular challenges of translating Aira, her own interpretations of his oeuvre-in-progress, her discovery of Aira, and what lies ahead for Aira-fans in the English language. In addition to Aira, Silver has translated Almost Never by Daniel Sada (with two more Sada novels to come), three novels by Horacio Castellanos Moya, Battles in the Desert by Jose Emilio Pacheco, My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel, and numerous others. She also codirects the Banff Centre’s translation program, which is a fantastic program that all translators (not just of books into English) should apply for. Lastly, her translation of Martin Adan’s The Cardboard House has just been published by New Directions.


Scott Esposito: Like all Aira books I’ve read, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira will sound a bit strange in summation. It seems there’s Dr. Aira, whose archnemisis, Dr. Actyn, keeps trying to trick into performing one of his “miracle cures,” through the use of actors pretending to be doctors attending to dying patients. For some reason, it’s very important to Actyn to record this, and just as import to Aira not to be recorded. This may all be an elaborate metaphor for Aira’s method of writing novels.

One thing that stuck out at me as I read the book was the attention paid to acting vs being “natural” and the different ways Aira would distinguish between the two in the book. There are all sorts of things here about writing vs living vs acting vs performing one’s identity vs memory . . . the concept of the “blunder” is very important to the book; on page 22, Aira writes “blunders were a tributary of spontaneity.” I think this perhaps bears some relevance for Aira’s “constant flight forward,” his perpetually improvisational method of writing books. I’d like to ask you if and where “blunders” come into your practice as a translator, particularly with regard to your translations of Aira.

Katherine Silver: Your question points to an important “theme” in the book, perhaps in all of Aira’s work, as well as one principal difference between translating and composition. Nor is the fact that Aira made his living for many years as a translator, often of genre fiction, irrelevant to these considerations. The answer to your question is, simply put, that they don’t, that blunders, improvisation, and spontaneity have little to do with the method or the madness that is literary translation, which is, at least how I do it, picky, detailed, fussy, and painstaking. There are times, many, when I feel I am channelling the text, translating as fast as I can read and type. But what spills onto the page during those sessions is not what you, or any other reader, finds in a published book, which has subsequently been read, reviewed, and corrected at least five more times. Unfortunately, as a translator, my mistakes are much less whimsical, fanciful, or even excusable than blunders, as Aira defines such things. And having done lots of both kinds of writing, he knows of what he speaks.

SE: You’ve clearly read a lot of Aira and enjoy him very much. Can you talk a little about your introduction to Aira–how you first started reading him, and what about the books appealed to you so much as to make you want to begin reading deeply into his work?

KS: Aira was a gift, a precious and deeply appreciated gift, to me from New Directions. His translator, Chris Andrews, was busy translating something else, probably Bolaño, and they asked me to do one. I was thrilled, and suspect I will continue to be so, as long as there is more Aira to read and as long as I get to keep translating him. I think to read Aira is to gain a fresh awareness of what narrative is and can be. With all his supposed gimmicks and nods to genre, he brings the reader very close to the raw material, the original text, so to speak, that is, the primary experience of being human. He seems to write directly from that liminal state, half-dream, half-awake, that is precisely (see prior question) uncensored and so difficult for us mere mortals–who don’t make clones or work miracle cures or follow the walking dead–to hold onto. One feels one is tagging along behind his mind as it weaves and ducks and cross-punches. As a translator, and as a reader, one must trust him and not try to make “sense,” whatever that might mean, of it all. I appreciate that practice.

SE: At numerous points throughout The Miracle Cures of Dr Aira, Aira strikes a contrast between the “partiality” of writing and the “totality” of the present, as though writing is an act of cutting out parts of a “total” reality. This is reflected later in his “miracle cure,” which entails closing off possible realities in favor of the one preferred reality (in which the “cure” is successful), which Aira at one point directly compares to the act of writing a novel. Do you feel like something analogous happens when you translate?

KS: Here, I would answer quite differently, and give a qualified yes. Every word, every phrase, every syntactic construction, every lilt or pause or tone or twist of a translation is the result of a million decisions of exclusion and inclusion. This becomes evident when one compares various translations of the same, even simple, passage, which are never identical, suggesting that there are infinite ways to solve any particular puzzle and that the puzzles are endlessly multiple and overlapping. Sometimes, indeed, I feel language cascading into my office in the same way reality intrudes on the sickroom where Dr. Aira is working his miracle, and though I probably don’t actually do the dance of a madman while trying to hang screens that stretch and bend and slice through any onrush of parts of speech and possible lexical combinations, there’s a lot of picking and choosing going on behind the scenes . . . or is that screens?

SE: Was there anything in particular in this translation where you felt a sense of closing off options particularly strongly, or where you agonized over choosing just one of the many ways you might have translated a span of text?

KS: As you pointed out, certain concepts, expressed by specific words, are pivotal and recurrent in the book. I knew I would have to repeat whatever word I chose as often as he repeated its counterpart, hence they had to be words with a broad enough range without being too vague. Alternatives offered other nuances, but since Aira is, in a sense, defining the words as he uses them, I sensed that I had a little wiggle room. For example, “Blunder” may not have been the most natural choice, but it was the best available, in my mind, and I think it works quite well, in part because it is currently underused hence open to being swayed.

This does bring up another issue that comes up in any translation, but with a particular lilt in Aira. And a method I use for dealing with it. Aira’s prose is just barely off kilter, to my ear, slightly out of tune or off the beat. This is inseparable from the work’s sensibility, not some kind of imposed style. That same oddness comes through in my English, I hope. Upon each re-reading, I must resist making minor, mostly syntactic corrections that would tune it up, so to speak. Whenever tempted, I go back to the original and translate back, that is, check to make sure that Aira did not choose that other wording, or its close equivalent, in Spanish, that would have made me translate that passage in the first place in the way I am now tempted to correct it.

SE: Early in the book, during the first scene where Dr. Actyn’s agents are trying to trick Dr. Aira into performing his “miracle cure,” Aira reflects that “The trap consisted of making him think until he’d convinced himself that it wasn’t a trap.” I think this, obviously, can be read as pointing toward the act of writing a novel, as Aira implies at many points throughout the book. But I felt that one of this book’s strengths was that Aira leaves things schematic enough that you don’t need to reduce this to a book about writing novels. What was your own read of what this book was about, or trying to do?

KS: I’m always reluctant to say what a book is about because if a book can be “about” something that can be summarized briefly, why write or read it. And I usually only think about what a book is trying to do when it doesn’t quite manage to do it. This book, in itself and as part of Aira’s oeuvre, has changed the way I feel the world, being alive, reading and writing. Oddly enough, I felt the same way many years ago about his compatriot, Jorge Luis Borges, someone with whom I feel Aira is always in some kind of concrete or highly abstract dialogue. Borges, however, at least in his stories, isn’t half as funny, at least not to my bone.

But to answer your question more directly: Dr. Aira is a character who undoubtedly undergoes trials, tribulations, doubts, inspirations, persecutions, and tragedies that are, in some form, familiar to the author. I do not think I reduce the book at all by saying that I intuit in more detail something about how the author Aira writes and thinks about his writings by reflecting on the good doctor and his struggle with theory, practice, and humiliation. Also, I like to read his books as installments, parts of a large whole that is, under it all, a slow and stealthy plot for world literary domination. We already knew that outlandish scientific experiments were not beneath his dignity, and now we have miracles on top of it. All I can say is, beware!

SE: Have you read much Aira beyond what has been translated into English? Can you give us some idea of the treasures that still have yet to reach us in English translation?

KS: I have read some, but relative to what is out there, still very few. I picked up around ten slight tomes last time I was in Mexico. Several were brilliant (and some of those will be coming to your local bookstores within the next year or so), some less so, and some were downright awful. That is part of the charm and wonder that is his oeuvre: the treasures in the sand. According to Borges, G.K. Chesterton wanted to compile an anthology of the very worst poems in the world, as long as they were by the very best poets. If Shakespeare, he said, wanted to write a ridiculous page, he would have no qualms about doing so, but a mediocre poet would have no really bad poems because he would be too cautious, would watch over himself too closely.

Six Questions for Margaret B. Carson on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting new books I read last year was My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec. The book raises quite legitimate comparisons to authors like Sebald and Walser, and its brief 100 pages are made expansive by intricate, precise prose. The book concerns the reflections made by its unnamed narrator over the course of a short walk through a park in some unnamed Brazilian city. What is perhaps most striking about this walk is the haze of thought that Chejfec creates within it. Reading, we sense some sort of meaning at the core of this thought, but that meaning stays elusive. It is from this movement between meaning and absence that the book derives its power.

For some insight into both this remarkable translation and the book itself, I corresponded with My Two World’s translator, Margaret B. Carson.


Scott Esposito: In our correspondence prior to this interview, you mentioned working closely with Chejfec on this translation. What sorts of things did you consult him on?

Margaret B. Carson: Yes, we worked closely together while I was doing the translation. Sergio lives in New York and we would often meet to go over words, phrases, and whole passages in the novel, and I also emailed him questions.

One interesting exchange was about a phrase used in the scene where the narrator stands at the park’s lake and talks to the fish and the turtles that have assembled there. He meditates on the sort of controlled, artificial life led by these animals, describing it as “la vida aplicada.” We went back and forth on possible equivalents in English that would best capture that phrase. “The applied life”? A direct translation, but it sounded too strange. I tried other adjectives: The obedient life? docile? planned? Not quite, he said. We finally hit upon “the regulated life,” later fine-tuning it to “the well-regulated life.” It’s not an exact equivalent to the Spanish, but it suggests the odd lives of these captive animals. Of course I didn’t run every word choice by Sergio, but at key moments I often checked. I didn’t want to simplify or misrepresent something that had obviously been well-considered in the Spanish.

Another great help was seeing the actual vintage cigarette lighter that inspired the one described so meticulously in the novel. Sergio brought it to one of our meetings and I took some photos of it. The mechanism was truly amazing. Seeing it in action helped me work out the details of the description, once I’d acquired the vocabulary for its precise parts (the Wikipedia entry for cigarette lighters also came in handy).

SE: We were also emailing about the art of William Kentridge, which plays an important role in Chejfec’s book because it concretizes one of the book’s most important concepts: the gaze. What originally drew you into Kentridge’s art, and how did you apply it to the translation of My Two Worlds?

MC: When I read the book in manuscript, the passages about William Kentridge’s art really stood out for me. I first saw Kentridge’s early animated films in the 1990s at MoMA, the ones that feature the characters Soho and Felix, and I recognized many of the images described in the novel, such as the “visible gaze” and the “intermittent dashes.” The narrator’s meditation on Kentridge’s art was, I think, one of the subliminal hooks that made me want to translate the novel. But though I was already familiar with Kentridge’s work, I found these paragraphs some of the most difficult to translate. Thankfully, I could refresh my memory through YouTube clips, and there was also a big retrospective of Kentridge’s work at MoMA last year. What’s also fascinating is that the narrator describes Kentridge’s art-making process, which is to layer images on top of earlier, partially erased ones—“a work that displays itself being made”—art gazing at itself, so to speak, which I think is also an important theme in Sergio’s work.

SE: That’s interesting that you were taking on specialized vocabulary and knowledge to help the translation of this book. In my opinion, that strengthens the Sebald connection that I and others have established to Chejfec’s work, since a mastery of various minor forms of 20th-century knowledge was so essential to his project. Relative to other things you’ve translated, did you feel that Chejfec’s language placed more demands on your English?

MC: Yes, language and its nuances are extremely important to Sergio, and part of the challenge of translating My Two Worlds was exploring equivalent words and phrases for the English version. Many of the descriptive passages take delight in visual minutiae, as for instance the appearance and texture of the path the narrator follows into the park, or the workings of the large fountain whose spray of water gives him the first inkling of Kentridge’s dotted lines. It was tricky to keep these and other passages moving in the English; what feels effortless in the original breaks down as soon as you begin to translate it. Often sentences would flash back to life again after a few key words were in place; it’s a joy to run wild in English and find such a wealth of possibilities.

In the midst of working on this translation I became won over by words that on previous projects I would probably have rejected as too obscure. For instance, a word that appears a few times at the end of the novel, “disyuntiva,” could be translated more commonly as “crossroads” or “dilemma”; but in choosing “disyuntiva” Sergio chose a word that strongly implies a choice between two options, and so “disjunctive” was really the best equivalent in English. Similarly, the adjective “lacustre,” which occurs twice in the novel, gave me pause; should I use the almost unheard-of cognate “lacustrine”—“of or pertaining to a lake or lakes”—or should I try something more familiar, such as “lakelike”? In the end I decided to keep the stranger word, “lacustrine,” completely justifiable, I thought, since “lacustre” is fairly strange in Spanish as well.

On the whole, I tried to stick quite close to the original, not just in word choice but also in preserving the length and density of the sentences. I had to search for models in English to give me an idea of how to structure and balance the clauses and sub-clauses that, as Enrique Vila-Matas points out in his introduction to My Two Worlds, seem to test the elasticity of the sentence itself. I was happy to discover that the long literary sentence en English is not a relic from 19th-century, and that many contemporary writers—among them Lynne Tillman, William Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace—provided excellent models that helped me carry over this essential part of Chejfec’s style.

SE: Since you mention the subliminal hooks that ignited your interest for the book, can you talk a little about how it came to be translated? Did you pick it out for Open Letter, or did they have a list of titles they were interested in getting translations of? Something else entirely . . . ?

MC: I met Sergio after he moved to New York City and sometime later began to translate a short story of his to submit to Bomb magazine, which at that time published an annual Américas issue featuring new Latin American authors. We met through a mutual friend, the Argentine poet Mercedes Roffé, whom I’ve also translated. I’d never heard of Sergio’s work before we met.

When I was midway into this translation, Sergio sent me the manuscript of the novel he’d just finished, Mis dos mundos. I read it quickly and realized that an excerpt from it might work better as a submission. Sergio agreed, and I translated the opening pages of My Two Worlds and submitted it to Bomb. They loved it, and ran the excerpt in their Winter 2009 issue. At around the same time, Chad Post on his Three Percent blog was wondering who Sergio Chejfec was, since Enrique Vila-Matas had just named Mis dos mundos as one of his favorite novels that year. I wrote to Chad and attached the translation . . . a short time later Sergio and I met Chad in New York City, and within a few months Open Letter offered me a contract to translate the novel. It’s been great working with Open Letter, and Sergio is also pleased to be part of a list that includes two Argentine writers he holds in very high esteem—Macedonio Fernández and Juan José Saer.

SE: With the layering and “work that displays itself being made” aspect of My Two Worlds, did you feel that this is a book that benefits from the kind of extremely close, slow reading required for translation?

MC: When I first began to translate the book, I inched my way through it so slowly and microscopically that I couldn’t see beyond the paragraph I was working on. The shifts in time and place in the novel often caught me by surprise and I had to check with Sergio—is this scene happening in Brazil or elsewhere? The uncertainties of the narrator as he finds his way to the park and wanders around it seemed to mirror my own as the book’s translator. But with each draft (there were maybe six or seven) the confusions began to clear up and I could step back a bit more to appreciate how one scene leads to the next and how it all flows together as a single narrative.

I think it’s a novel that benefits from a slow reading. The images and reflections that drift into the narrator’s mind seem to trigger memories and thoughts in the reader’s mind as well. A few people have told me about passages or phrases they identified with so strongly that they repeated them out loud to others. Sergio mentioned there was a similar response when the novel first came out in Spanish. It’s been exhilarating to see tweets quoting little snippets of the translation, or whole passages posted to blogs.

SE: It’s exciting to hear that authors like Gaddis, Tillman, and Wallace are finding new life in translations such as this one. It points to a very palpable way that their work enriches the English language. What are some of your literary touchstones, either as important books or as books that inform your prose style as a translator?

MC: The most essential books are the ones that let you see great prose in action, live on the page. When you go back and forth repeatedly between the original and the translation it’s easy to stop hearing English. You need to be reminded how sentences flow in English, and even how quirky they can be at times. Any kind of adventurous, ambitious literary fiction is a touchstone for me when I translate contemporary novels.

As to the process of translation itself, some of the best accounts that I’ve ever read are by Lydia Davis, especially her recent piece on translating Madame Bovary in the Fall 2011 The Paris Review.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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