Category Archives: Interviews

6 Questions for Stephen Henighan on Ondjaki and Transparent City

Ondjaki is one of the leading African writers, and one considered to be among the best in the Lusophone world. He has received many of the most prestigious prizes for Portuguese-language authors, as well as being included on the Africa39 list. Although his books are often described as working in the style of magical realism, Ondjaki tends to see his work not as powerfully imaginative but as reflective of the realities in his birth nation, Angola:

Fiction doesn’t happen to me, fiction happens in Angola and I happen to be there, and I happen to be born there. Among us, if you find another writer from Angola, you will not hear this comment, “oh that book of yours, what a powerful imagination,” no; the question is, where did you see that?!

His novel Transparent City, translated by Stephen Henighan and forthcoming from Biblioasis in April, has received the 2013 José Saramago Prize, the 2015 Prix Transfuge du Meilleur Roman Africain, and a Prix Littérature-Monde at the 2016 St. Malo literary festival.

Transparent City joins his previous works Good Morning Comrades and Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, also translated by Stephen for Biblioasis.

Stephen is among the most dedicated, discerning, and best-informed translators of Lusophone fiction that I know of (or just one of the best translators, period), so when he says that Ondjaki is among the best writers Africa has to offer, I take notice. I recently corresponded with him to learn more about Ondjaki and the process of translating Transparent City.

Veronica Scott Esposito: Ondjaki has been quite a prolific and successful writer. Since his debut in 2000, he’s published no fewer than 20 books and has won a number of prestigious awards—all at just 40 years old. Can you tell us a little about Ondjaki as a writer and what has made him so successful?

Stephen Henighan: For one thing, he hasn’t been distracted by alternate careers! Though he’s dabbled in film-making, and occasionally teaches a creative writing workshop or writes a newspaper article, basically he devotes all of his time to writing and promoting his fiction and poetry.  His fiction can be whimsical,  but his professional comportment is punctual and organized. He has an excellent eye for detail when it comes to marketing and promotional issues. He travels tirelessly through the Portuguese-speaking countries that are his main market, and the fact that he’s also fluent in English and Spanish has helped him to expand his market beyond the Lusophone world.

Aside from the quality and originality of his work, the other point I would make is that Ondjaki grew up in a literary culture.   We often take this for granted when we speak of writers from New York or London, but a writer from Luanda can also grow up in a literary culture.   Ondjaki’s mother was a teacher; his father, though trained as an engineer and later involved in politics, published a novel; his parents wrote a play together. When Ondjaki was growing up, the family’s circle of friends included the prolific, bestselling novelist Pepetela, the well-known writer Manuel Rui, and a number of others.  It was natural for him to become a writer, and to feel that this a normal profession to follow.

VSE: This is your third translation of Ondjaki, following Good Morning Comrades and Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret. What made you want to translate this author’s work?

SH: I read Good Morning Comrades in Portugal in 2005 and immediately felt a kinship with it.  The novel describes the relationship between Angolan schoolchildren of the 1980s and their Cuban teachers. When the Cubans leave in 1990, it’s clear that their childhood has ended.   Though I’m of an older generation, I also grew up with parents who participated in a left-wing culture: the fringes of the 1960s back-to-the-land movement, opening our farm to U.S. Vietnam War draft dodgers who had come to Canada, and so on.  There came a point in my early adolescence when the draft dodgers disappeared and I realized my childhood had ended, much as happened to Ondjaki and his friends with the Cubans.  As I was reading Good Morning Comrades, I felt an immediate identification with the story. I also had another reaction, which only happens once in a long while: reading the book in Portuguese, I began, involuntarily,  to imagine how it would sound in English. I  was mainly a short story writer and novelist at that stage–as I still am today. What I mean is, I wasn’t translating much –just occasional short pieces from French or Spanish–and this was my first intimation that my future might include some serious translating.

Later in 2005 I visited Angola and met Ondjaki and his family there. When I returned to Canada, Dan Wells of Biblioasis told me he was starting a translation series and asked me to edit it.  Dan had one book lined up–the collected poems of Ryszard Kapuściński–and asked me what I thought we should do second. I suggested Good Morning Comrades.  It took a while to convince Ondjaki and his agent that Biblioasis –at that stage a tiny one-man operation very different from the Biblioasis of today– deserved their confidence, but eventually we pulled it off. Translation opened up a new world for me, and also, I hope, for readers who discovered that book and all the others we’ve translated since. Translating Ondjaki was not only my entrée into the Biblioasis International Translation Series, it’s also probably my biggest contribution to the series, even more so than the editorial work I’ve done for them.

VSE: I’m curious to hear a little more about the literary culture that Ondjaki grew up in. I know that literary aesthetics in different parts of the world can be quite different from what we’re accustomed to here in North America—what is the tradition that Ondjaki writes in like—for instance, what parts of the world does it traffic with, what are the dominant modes of storytelling—and what do you see as his place in it? Is there anything you’d want a reader of his to know before they started the book?

SH: My view would be that a number of traditions dovetail in his work. The linguistic experimentation of José Luandino Vieira, an Angolan writer of dense monologues and prose that mingles Portuguese syntax with Kimbundu rhythms–very challenging,  almost untranslatable writing–was  important to Ondjaki at an early stage of his development.  Also, the early, more linguistically acrobatic, work of Mia Couto, which transposes the narrative prose of the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa and the terse  dialogue of the Mexican Juan Rulfo to Africa. Thanks to a highly literary uncle on his mother’s side, Ondjaki was given books like One Hundred Years of Solitude to read at an early age–and, as García Márquez himself noted when he visited Angola in the late 1970s, the African oral tradition–very important in Ondjaki’s fiction–is a  connecting tissue between coastal Colombian fiction and Angolan culture.

These aesthetic influences seem to have been complemented by the fact that most of the writers Ondjaki’s family knew had participated in the independence struggle and were members, at some level, of the governing party, the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola).   Writers like Pepetela and Arnoldo Santos were seeking the essence of  angolanidade— “Angolanness.”   Where we in the Global North often see (erroneously, in my view) a contradiction between committed writing and aesthetic experimentation, I think it’s fair to say that Ondjaki grew up in a literary community where both of these strands were present, and, in many ways, they were intertwined. For me, this is particularly clear in the novel that’s just coming out in English, Transparent City.

VSE: I’m fascinated by this kinship that you feel with Ondjaki, despite coming from such very different places. What do you feel that his work brings to the literatures of the U.S. and Canada?

SH: My reaction to Good Morning Comrades when I first read it was extremely personal and possibly not transferable in precisely the same way to other readers. On the other hand, everyone has a childhood, and everyone becomes aware at some point that it has ended.  These days most people live in cities, and many readers will find some shred of their own cities in the Luanda described in Transparent City–though they’ll also find things that are utterly unexpected and unusual!  More literary types can hardly help but be fascinated by how neo-Faulknerian Modernism, having mythologized Latin America in the work of García Márquez, the early Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, Guimarães Rosa, etc.,  later found a home in Lusophone Africa, and that some of its aesthetic quests, adapted to African realities,  have continued in Luandino Vieira, Mia Couto and Ondjaki, among others.

Finally, reading Ondjaki helps break down North American stereotypes about Africa. In Canada–and I believe it’s similar in the U.S..–we see Africa as speaking English and French, and being racially Black.  In other words,  our “Africa”  is Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone and maybe Kenya or Ethiopia, but not much else.   We overlook literatures written in Africa in Portuguese, Arabic, Swahili and other languages.  And we overlook the high degree of racial and cultural mixing in southern Africa, where Bantus, San people, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Arabian Peninsular Arabs, Lebanese, South Asians, Greeks and others have all blended their lineages.  I suspect that for many readers, reading Ondjaki is a wake-up call that Lusophone Africa–which now includes over 60 million people–even exists.  I was once at an event with Ondjaki where a very famous Black writer from the Global North refused to recognize him as African due to his mixed racial background and kept referring to him, rather aggressively,  as “Portuguese.”  The dissemination of Ondjaki’s writing, and that of other southern Africans, whatever their literary language, helps break down this sort of obtuseness.

VSE: What do you see as some of the challenges of translating Ondjaki’s prose? Is there anything particular about working on Transparent City that you can remark on?

SH: With the debatable exception of Luandino Vieira, Ondjaki is the most difficult Luso-African writer to translate. Pepetela, Mia Couto, Manuel Rui, Ana Paula Tavares, José Eduardo Agualusa and so on all grew up in colonies where the five per cent of the population that spoke Portuguese employed a standardized, literary version of the language. So even when there’s wordplay, as in Couto’s early works, it happens within familiar semantic parameters.  Ondjaki is writing a different language because he’s the first significant writer born after Angola (along with Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde) gained independence.  His literary idiom is the language of the 75% of the Angolan population that now uses Portuguese on a daily basis, but many of whose parents or grandparents did not speak Portuguese, or spoke it poorly.

Ondjaki’s own Portuguese is highly polished, of course, but the characters of Transparent City speak a portmanteau language that is often syntactically eccentric, containing vestiges of African languages, residues of socialist jargon, recycled phrasing from colonial administrative diction, riffs on Brazilian and Portuguese popular culture, and bursts of American English, Cuban Spanish and Russian, often distorted by the characters’  imperfect understanding of what these words and phrases actually mean. This conglomeration of influences is much more pronounced  in Transparent City than it was in Good Morning Comrades or Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret.

Since this is Ondjaki’s big urban novel,  and one that’s set in the near-present, the characters speak a real post-colonial Portuguese that takes on board every source of authority with which ordinary Angolans have come into contact.   In many scenes, characters with a moderate level of education are repeating, and often parodying or re-inventing,  phrasing they’ve heard from some official source.  In the original, these subversive little parodies provide the novel with a lot of its humour.  They were absolute hell to reproduce in English.  Some of my renderings came out stilted and others were too eccentric to get past my extremely attentive editors, Dan Wells and Emily Donaldson.  It took a mountain of work to devise ways to transmute this kind of fractured yet poetic urban post-colonial speech into an equivalent English, while maintaining a prose that sounded both particular to the city of Luanda, and to Angolan history,  and also came across as credible English rather than translatorese. I thought hard about how West Indians treat English in a mocking, playful, yet often elaborately formal way that resembles what Ondjaki’s characters do with Portuguese, and I worked from there. I think that by the third or fourth edit, we started to get it right.  The other challenges, such as ordinary punning, peculiarly Angolan references and bilingual Spanish-Portuguese or English-Portuguese conversations,  were relatively simple to deal with by comparison.

VSE: Where would you go next with Ondjaki, translation-wise?

SH: Right now, I’m just delighted that we’ve got a good English translation of Transparent City.  It’s a magnificent book.  In Portugal it won the Saramago Prize and ran through seven printings; the French translation won two more prizes.  This is a major work of fiction that’s been acclaimed internationally and I’m delighted to have it as part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series.   Looking forward, well, Ondjaki has many books ahead of him. In  addition, I’ve been looking at his four short story collections.  There’s also an earlier novel, Quantas Madrugadas Tem a Noite (“How Many Dawns Has the Night”),  that’s untranslated.  One way or another, there will certainly be more Ondjaki appearing in English.

7 Questions for Christina MacSweeney on Julian Herbert

Although Mexican author Julián Herbert is well into his forties, has won numerous awards, and has written well over a dozen books in various formats, he is only now making his long overdue debut in English with his 2011 “novel” Tomb Song, in Christina MacSweeney’s translation.

I give the word novel those scare quotes because, in Herbert’s hands, the novel transcends its usual confines of fiction to embrace forms like memoir and essay. He is a writer about whom nothing should be taken for granted, an inveterate and playful line-crosser who has crafted his own unique and variable style. I reached out to Christina, a colleague and friend, to learn more about Herbert and this book with which he is entering the Anglo literary sphere.

Christina’s name should be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to Spanish literature over the past half-dozen years. She has translated multiple works by Valeria Luiselli, as well as the recently released novel Empty Set by the lauded Mexican author Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and the excellent Among Strange Victims by the very talented Daniel Saldaña París, among many others.

Scott Esposito: This is the English-language debut for Herbert. Who is he, and why is he worthy of translation?

Christina MacSweeney: “Who is Julián Herbert?” sounds like it could be a title for one of his novels. He’s a Mexican poet, novelist, essayist, musician (he is indeed the lead singer for a band called Las Madrastras), he lectures, leads workshops in cultural programs… It would probably be easier to list the things he doesn’t do. He was born into poverty in Acapulco in 1971, and much of his early life was spent travelling around Mexico with his mother, who supported her family by the only relatively steady work open to her: prostitution. But she also seems to have inculcated her son with an intense love of literature, and a very edgy way of looking at life. He is worthy of translation because, in my view, he brings a very different perspective to Mexican writing, one that is both deeply inclusive, deeply generous, but also intensely disrespectful of accepted perceptions of his country, and of what literature and music are. But if that might simply sound anarchic, he is also a very disciplined writer whose work delves into the concept of the self and existence in a truly philosophical way.

SE: Herbert is known for blending genres in his writing, and the publicity materials for Tomb Song describe it as “break[ing] open the genres of fiction, essay, and memoir.” What genre would you describe this book as fitting into, and what was your experience of it like?

CM: The only way I can answer that question is to say that I wouldn’t even start to try to categorize Tomb Song: it would be an exercise doomed to failure. As a reader, you walk a slippery high wire above a chasm of constantly shifting scenes, unfixed realities. I loved that aspect of the work when I first read it, and also the absolute authenticity of the writing, the generosity with which Julián invites you to touch the raw nerves of his life, and then the mischievousness with which he then pulls down his sleeve and tells you none of that was true. Or maybe it was. I adored that sense of never being completely certain where the next sentence would take me. And the musicality that underlines the whole book, the beauty of the writing often dealing with very ugly situations, the disrespect for convention: these were all enormous draws for me.

SE: Toward the beginning of Tomb Song, Herbert remarks “in the majority of cases, a postmodern novel is nothing more than a costumbrismo cross-dressing as cool jazz and/or pedantic rhetoric a la Kenneth Goldsmith that spends a hundred pages saying what Baudelaire said in three words: spleen et ideal.” First of all, could you give us some idea of what a costumbrismo is. And secondly, this kind of writing that Herbert is railing against here, how does this assertion work itself out in Tomb Song?

CM: Wow, that is a question and a half, Scott. But I do love that sentence, and it gave me a great deal to think about on my first and subsequent readings of Tomb Song. Ummm. To start with, costumbrismo began as a style of painting in 19th century Spain. In terms of literature it could be described as realist, there is usually an omniscient narrator who tells us what is happening and what the characters are thinking, and it emphasizes the description of everyday life and customs. But it also has a moral element that I think favors a notion of social cohesion. In this sense, it is perhaps rather flat, two-dimensional, as readers we are offered a full-face view of the characters and their environment, with little attempt at perspective. A 20th century example of costumbrismo that I think exceeds some of the traditional boundaries of the genre is Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). So my understanding of Julián’s rant is that “the postmodern novel” is at times only laying a cloak (or any other item of clothing you might mention) of intellectualism and form over what ends by being descriptive: a description of postmodernity and its mores. So I think he is saying that there is at times no true search for identity or self-perception involved, or any real questioning of values, of modes of thought (philosophical, political), or apparent reality, none of the transformative impulse of modernity or any real “spleen”, no “ideal”. But it would be really interesting to know how your readers feel about my analysis, Scott, because I’m sure there are other ways of thinking about it.

SE: True, it’s a very open quote in terms of just how one can read it (and congrats to you on a beautiful translation of it). I think among other things Herbert is voicing a little frustration with how postmodernism can become a bit of a pose, particularly where he references Kenneth Goldsmith—whatever you think of Goldsmith’s work, he really does trade very heavily on the idea of postmodernism, as well as the kind of identity of a “postmodern writer.” Herbert by contrast seems much more down to earth, the kind of person who doesn’t want to say in 1,000 words what he could just as well say in a dozen. And I think that comes through in the plain-spoken tone of this book, despite dealing with some rather life-or-death issues, including the death of the narrator’s mother. What would you say is the status of postmodernism in Mexico right now?

CM: I think I’m a bit of a postmodernism agnostic. Rather than an actual phenomenon, it feels to me like a kind of way station from which the stagecoach has already pulled out: destination still uncertain. In Mexico there are other authors and artists who, like Julián, are exploding genre boundaries. One example that immediately comes to my mind is Verónica Gerber Bicecci, who describes herself as an artist who writes and uses imagery in her work as a form of bridging the chasms language often leaves in communication. Another boundary that is being eroded in Mexico is the marginalization of women in the creative world; some of the most exciting writing coming out of the country now is written by woman, and is finally being reviewed seriously instead of being thought of as a “nice hobby for the little woman.” And there are campaigns to address issues of sexual harassment and femininicide that precede MeToo by many years.

As to what Tomb Song can offer the U.S. at this moment, I’d say it could act as an antidote to the lack of authenticity in much public discourse: it’s certainly a lesson in not believing everything you hear/read! And the directness of the writing shatters any idea of euphemism to avoid talking about what really matters.

But there, I already feel pretentious talking about postmodernism, so I’ll stop before making a complete fool of myself.

SE: This is fascinating. Could you tell us a little about a point in the book when you began to feel that you couldn’t trust everything you were reading?

CM: I think that even the opening of the book casts some doubt on the trustworthiness of the content: the narrator/character/author tells us that he had difficulty in believing in the “roundness” of the world when he was nine. And that whole passage seemed to me, or seems to me, to be an invitation to speculate on the nature of the world we inhabit, on truth. In the paragraph that follows, he blames his mother for that inability to accept the explanation given in his textbook, says they lived in a “wickerwork polygon” of railroad tracks, and only then does he tell us that she is in hospital, dying of leukemia. All that, I think, is what Julián calls “technique,” and technique is a form of artifice.

SE: Herbert sounds like a very interesting author, and one that will appeal to a lot of readers of this website. I’m curious if you could tell us what other sorts of books Herbert has in his backlist, and which ones you’d particularly like to see in English translation one day.

CM: Julián has a long backlist that moves through different styles. My favorites among those I have managed to get my hands on are the short stories in Cocaina: Manual de usario (Cocaine: A User’s Guide); Ros Harvey translated an extract for Granta (available online), but otherwise it has not yet been published in English. I’d also recommend Álbum Iscariote (The Iscariot Album), which mixes poetry, poetic prose and images, and explores the situation of, among other things, no longer being a young poet. A treasure that I found on my last trip to Mexico is the small volume of poems Bisel (“Smell of ice in the lightning flash/of vodka on your breath.”), published by the Wonderful Guadalajara house, Impronta.

At the moment I’m working on the edit of The House of the Pain of Others for Graywolf. This is a crónica of the mass killing of the members of the Chinese community in the northern Mexican city of Torreón at the outbreak of the revolution in 1911. It has spine-chilling similarities to the xenophobia that seems to be stalking large parts of the world a hundred years later, and I think is a book everyone should read and reflect on. And last year Julián published another collection of short stories with the brilliant title of Tráiganme la cabeza de Quentin Tarantino (Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino), which brings together stunning pastiches of the work of some of his influences. I’m particularly love the story called “Caries”, which is a homage to Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth (as I translated that novel into English, translating the story will to some extent a “translator translate thyself” experience!).

SE: Your answer here highlights the fact that you’ve worked with a lot of the more interesting writers to emerge from the Spanish language in the past few years. I think of you as working with a lot of very voice-driven books, books where the narrative voice is very important, and which are largely structured around these peculiar narrators.

CM: Yes, it’s been amazing to work with these authors. But I’m not so sure that I would describe their work as “voice-driven.” For me it would be truer to say that they don’t write plot-bound works; plot, to the extent that it exists in these books, is a sort of framework for supporting ideas, for exploring the very notion of voice, of subjectivity. And that is something that greatly attracts me. What I’m interested in right now is seeing how all this will develop and diffuse into more mainstream literature (because I’m sure it will): I’m interested in what the authors I’ve worked with—and those I haven’t, but admire—will do next, where they will go from here. And all this has implications for translation, for our practices as translators, the type of involvement we have with authors when writing their works in another language. Which in turn will, hopefully, feed back into the literary system and spark its own developments there. Translation has, historically, been a carrier of ideas, of change, but that process was somehow cloaked within the emphasis on “originality” that came along with modernism. I’m meandering a bit here, but what I’m trying to say is that the works I want to see down the line will take these trends and run with them… do exciting things that change our experiences as readers.

6 Questions for Jessica Powell on venture of the infinite man by Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda is one of the best-known poets in the Americas—indeed he is a writer who is considered canonical and essential—but his third book, venture of the infinite man, is little-known in the English language. That should change now that City Lights publishes its first-ever English translation in Jessica Powell’s imaginative English, with an introduction by Mark Eisner.

To find out more about this strange and challenging short book, I corresponded with Powell. She very graciously answered my questions in great depth, providing a wealth of insight about this book. In addition to translating Neruda, Powell is the holder of an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara. Her translation of Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016), was named a finalist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award and made the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award, and she is the translator of (with Suzanne Jill Levine) Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo’s novel Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, as well as Antonio Benítez Rojo’s novel Woman in Battle Dress.

Scott Esposito: venture of the infinite man was Neruda’s third book of poetry, published in 1926 after Twenty Love Poems and A Desperate Song, which had won Neruda great critical acclaim and a strong reputation, and which eventually went on to be among best-selling Spanish-language poetry books of all time. But venture of the infinite man was not well-regarded when it was released, and it is generally considered neglected. Can you tell us some of the aspects of this book that made it so hard to absorb upon first publication?

Jessica Powell: Neruda was only twenty-one years old when he wrote venture of the infinite man and, despite the tremendous success of his previous book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, he was struggling emotionally, yearning for new perspectives, a new poetic voice. This inner call toward self-exploration led him to experiment with his style, breaking away from the lyrical realism of the love poems and from more traditional forms of poetry in general. What resulted was venture of the infinite man, in which he discarded rhyme, meter, punctuation and capital letters in order to attempt to capture the voice of the subconscious. The fifteen interrelated cantos that make up the book narrate the dream-like nocturnal voyage of a young, melancholic man on an epic quest through time and space to rediscover and redefine his voice and himself. Readers who were expecting more of what they had adored about the love poems found this experimental, semi-surrealist style disorienting and even incomprehensible. Even critics at the time weren’t sure what to do with it. Today though, readers and critics are in a better position to appreciate what venture does achieve, not the least of which is that it serves as a crucial step in Neruda’s growth as a poet, linking the lyricism of the love poems to the powerful and existential despair of his landmark Residence on Earth (which was Neruda’s next book of poetry after venture). Neruda himself considered venture crucial to his evolution as a poet: “I have always looked upon venture of the infinite man as one of the real nuclei of my poetry,” he said at the age of fifty, “because working on those poems, in those now distant years, I was acquiring a consciousness that I didn’t have before, and if my expressions, their clarity or mystery, are anywhere measured, it is in this extraordinarily personal little book…Within its smallness and minimal expression, more than most of my works…it claimed, it secured, the path that I had to follow.”

SE: Why did you and City Lights feel this was the right time to bring this book to the English-reading public?

JP: This project has been in the works for many years. Mark Eisner, who wrote the beautiful and very useful introduction to the book, began discussing the project with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of City Lights fame, over five years ago. Ferlinghetti and Elaine Katzenberger, Publisher and Executive Director of City Lights, were both enthusiastic about the project, in part, because it was an opportunity to publish the first-ever English translation of a Pablo Neruda work, and, in part, because our bi-lingual edition would also make the original Spanish available to readers in the form that Neruda intended. Since its publication in 1926, very few editions of the book have been made available, and those that have been published have not respected the original edition, failing to maintain its line and page breaks, and making changes that include “correcting” its lack of punctuation and capital letters as well as the errata that Neruda consciously decided to leave in the manuscript (because he felt it better captured the voice of the subconscious). In our edition, we have taken pains to respect the 1926 edition in every way possible—even our cover echoes the spare avant-garde aesthetic of the original. In short, City Lights, Mark and I all felt that our edition could fill in a gap for Neruda readers and scholars, making Neruda’s third book of poetry available to readers of Spanish in the way that Neruda intended it to be read, and to readers of English by providing the very first English translation of the entire work. While there was no particular reason that we felt this was the “right” time to bring the book out, we are hoping that readers today will be more open to the experimental, surrealist nature of the work than they were at the time of its initial publication. Also, it does seem that new Neruda is having a bit of a “moment,” as Copper Canyon has recently published two books of never-before translated Neruda as well: Book of Twilight, Neruda’s first book of poetry, translated by William O’Daly and Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, a collection of “lost” poems,” translated by Forrest Gander. Together with venture of the infinite man, readers now have access to three books of Neruda’s work that were previously unavailable in English.

SE: Can you tell us about your first experiences reading Neruda and if you have previously translated any of his poetry?

JP: I first read Neruda many years ago in high school when I was studying Spanish and then came across more of his work in college and graduate school literature courses. His love poems and odes are often used in language and college literature classes because they are considered so accessible, which is funny, given that my first book-length translation of a Neruda text is this one —venture of the infinite man— which is considered perhaps his least accessible text. I have translated several other Neruda poems recently, for Mark Eisner’s forthcoming Neruda biography, but venture of the infinite man is my first foray into a book-length Neruda translation. It has been, without a doubt, one of the most challenging and also rewarding experiences I’ve had as a translator. It is a great honor to get to translate one of the great poets of the twentieth century, and most especially to get to be the first to offer an English translation of this particular work.

SE: In his introduction to this work, Mark Eisner notes that “any attempt to analyze precisely what takes place in the poem will be complicated by the fact that . . . it is likely impossible to understand everything on a purely rational level.” I wonder if the stream of conscious and surrealist qualities of this poem led you to approach this book differently than you might approach other translations you’ve done.

JP: As the translator, when I first began working on venture of the infinite man, I had a few panicked moments when I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Setting aside the issue of the translatability of poetry in general, there was the more personally pressing issue of the translatability of this poem in particular. With its dreamlike, stream of consciousness style, its seemingly disparate and, at times, bizarre combinations of words and images, and with no capital letters or punctuation to guide me, I found myself in what felt like a free fall through another person’s subconscious process. Like I was trying to decipher and ascribe meaning to somebody else’s infinitely personal and exquisitely detailed dream. But the more I worked with the fifteen cantos that, together, make up venture of the infinite man, the more it became clear to me that the work absolutely does have an internal narrative, a cohesiveness, and it’s own logic, but it’s one that must be felt through rather than reasoned with, much like a dream or an intuition, or love. This meant that, at times, I had to sort of half close my eyes and allow words and images and meaning to float to the surface. But at other times it also meant having to be more literal in my translation than I otherwise might have been, because I had to constantly resist the temptation to normalize the text, to try to make it seem more logical, more readily intelligible. I knew that I needed to allow it to be as strange in English as it is in Spanish, even at the risk of disorienting my reader, because the strangeness is an essential part of the work’s aesthetic.

At the onset of this project, Mark, Elaine Katzenberger of City Lights and I had made the decision to respect the original 1926 edition inasmuch as possible, including its lack of punctuation and capi­tal letters, and the errata that Neruda consciously decided to leave in the manuscript (but didn’t mark, so we’re left guessing which things are actual errata and which are just part of the strange, and at times, agrammatical nature of the text). So, in addition to preserving the dream-like ambiguity of the work’s overall aesthetic, I also had to wrestle with myself to not correct what I felt sure must be those errata, to resist an impulse to “tidy it up” a bit to make it easier and more palatable for the reader. Because ease and palatability are not the point of venture of the infinite man. Its aim is something different, something at once tremendously personal to Neruda and yet also somehow universal. In my translation have I been “faithful” in each word, and each line to what Neruda meant? We have no way of knowing. What I hope is that I have been faithful to how he meant the poem to feel. I like to think that Neruda would have enjoyed watching my creative process and I hope he would be happy with the result—his poem, but also a new poem.

SE: Can you delve into a few of the particular aspects of this text that have made it such a difficult translation, and any particular translation questions that you had to resolve for yourself?

JP: In addition to the larger issues I mentioned above with respect to deciphering and adequately rendering the meaning of the original text in my translation, there were countless more “nuts and bolts” issues that vexed me throughout the translation process. As I have mentioned, Neruda discarded all punctuation in the Spanish original. This meant that I tried, whenever possible, to avoid using punctuation in the English translation as well, which was a particular challenge when it came to using (or not using) apostrophes in contractions or to indicate possession (while common in English, apostrophes don’t exist in Spanish). So, where in another translation, I might have translated a line like “el corazón del mundo se repliega y se estira” as “the world’s heart retracts and stretches,” I chose instead to translate it as “the heart of the world retracts and stretches” so as to avoid the possessive apostrophe.

Another challenge is that Neruda’s “infinite man” refers to himself throughout the poem in the first, second and third person—often switching mid-canto, or even mid-line, from one to the other. He also frequently addresses both the night and an unnamed woman in the second person, and, to complicate matters further, he often personifies the woman as “the night,” making it difficult, at times, to know whom he’s addressing when he uses the subject pronoun “tú” (you)—it could be the “infinite man” addressing himself in the second person, or the woman or the night, or the woman as the night. Usually, there are clues that help us to know to whom that “you” refers, such as gendered adjectival endings, but in this work, these sorts of clues are rarely straightforward as, frequently, an adjective in one line could either be describing the noun that precedes it or a noun that appears in the next line (the flexibility of Spanish syntax makes this possible and the lack of punctuation throughout the work makes it especially challenging for the translator to determine which adjective goes with which noun). Adding to the muddle is the presence of the many errata that Neruda decided to leave in the poem, making it difficult to trust an adjectival ending in the first place. At one point, for example, he writes: “al lado de mi fotografía como la palabra está enfermo” (“beside my photograph like the word ailing”). The problem here is that the adjective “enfermo” (ill) is in the masculine, whereas the two nouns it might describe (“fotografía” (photograph) and “palabra” (word)) are both feminine. So, what does “enfermo” describe? Is this one of the errata and it should actually be “enferma”? If so, does it describe “fotografía” or “palabra”? If not, to what or to whom is it referring? In cases like these when it was impossible to know the answer, I worked hard to come up with a solution that maintained the same level of ambiguity as in the Spanish; hence, I chose “ailing” in English, because it leaves it just as uncertain who or what is ailing in the English as it is in the Spanish.

A similar problem arises with the use of the possessive pronouns “su” and “sus” (his/her/their). At one point, for instance, Neruda writes: “era cuando la noche bailaba entre sus redes” (“that was when the night danced among its nets”). I chose to translate “sus redes” as “its nets,” (because I imagined the night’s nets to be the constellations and I liked the image of the night dancing among the stars), but it could just as easily have been “his nets,” because elsewhere in the poem the narrator refers to “my nets” (when referring to himself in the first person) and “his nets” (when referring to himself in the third person). These sorts of small, but crucial decisions came up over and over as I was translating this work, and I agonized over them. Ultimately though, they were gifts of a sort, because they forced me to listen very carefully to the cantos and to think very deeply about each word, each choice.

SE: I’m curious about the decision to publish the English and Spanish versions separately in this edition, instead of the en face / side-by-side presentation that is more typical of bilingual works published in the U.S. Can you tell us a little about why the decision was made to publish it this way?

JP: This was actually an issue we debated about at some length. As you say, the most usual way of presenting bilingual editions of poetry in the U.S. is en face, that is, with the poem in the original language on one page and the translation on the opposite, or facing, page. This allows the bilingual reader to move easily back and forth between the original and the translation, while also affording the English-only reader at least a sense of the original. Initially, this is how City Lights wanted to present venture of the infinite man as well. However, Mark and I both felt strongly that, in this particular case, an en face presentation would actually do a disservice to the work. As I mentioned before, one of the things that makes our book special is that we have gone to some length to replicate the original 1926 edition of the book, respecting page and line breaks as well as the spacing and location of the text of each canto on the page, which also means preserving the blank spaces that Neruda consciously left within the poems. Several of the cantos, for example, begin in the lower part of the left-hand page, with just a few lines at the bottom and a great deal of blank space above, and then continue in the upper part of the right-hand page, sometimes (depending on the length of the canto) with considerable blank space beneath. The opposing pages are bound together by their layout, meant to be seen in juxtaposition to one another, the open spaces perhaps serving to enhance the geography of the poetic dreamscape. So, if we had presented the English and Spanish en face, the reader would miss out completely on the way the lines and the blank spaces and the cantos actually fit together, how Neruda intended his work to look on the page, to feel, to be read.

Also, personally, I sometimes find the en face presentation distracting, like I flit back and forth between the original and the translation rather than immersing myself in the flow of the work, in either language. Because venture of the infinite man has such a dreamlike, stream of consciousness style and because the fifteen cantos are so clearly linked by an internal narrative and, as such, are meant to be read together rather than as individual poems, I really felt that I wanted the reader to experience the flow of the work as a whole (whether reading it in Spanish or in my English translation) without the constant interruption of one language into the other that happens with the en face presentation. I am so happy that the editors at City Lights ultimately agreed to the idea of presenting the entire work first in English and then in Spanish, sequentially, rather than breaking the work up by presenting each page side by side. We did, however, include two pages at the very end of the book with the first lines of each canto paired together in English and Spanish to aid the reader who might be interested in going back and comparing the original and the translation.

7 Questions for Katrine Øgaard Jensen on Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen

Recently I’ve been engrossed by the new translation of Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, a spectacular book of poetry that’s perhaps better experienced than described. If you want an attempt at a description, read my recent review with The Believer, which I’ll quote here.

The ecstatic, euphoric, helter-skelter, and self-contradictory movement that currently animates technological humanity at its most optimistic much resembles the churn found in Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen’s multi-award-winning book-length poem Third-Millennium Heart. It is a deceptively calm-looking work of brief poems whose lines feel more like energetic prose sentences than the recondite lyricism generally associated with “experimental poetry.” Yet Olsen makes from these modest implements a work of great compression, precision, ingenuity, force, and provocation—most of all, a work where definitions, bodies, meanings, images, and personalities are ever flowing into each other, striving toward a state of complete universality.

In order to find out a little more about this difficult (and very successful) feat of translation and the book that inspired it, I corresponded with Katrine Øgaard Jensen, who translated it from Danish to English. In addition to the translator of this book, Katrine is the editor of EuropeNow, a journal of political research, literature, and art at Columbia University, a 2017 poetry judge for the Best Translated Book Award, and a judge for the 2017 National Translation Award.

Scott Esposito: In your translator’s note you mention that “when offered to translate this 214-page collection—Olsen’s first book in English translation—I was both excited and terrified.” What is Olsen’s (or this book’s) reputation in Denmark that would elicit these feelings, and how did it come about that you became the translator of this book?

Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Eight years ago, at a café in the Danish city Aarhus, I heard Ursula’s poetry for the first time. A good friend of mine had already attended several of Ursula’s readings, and it was understood that I had no choice but to accompany her to yet another one. The night we went to see Ursula, she was visibly pregnant and had an oracle-like appearance: wild-haired yet elegant, with a gaze that demanded the undivided attention of her audience. She read from her fifth collection of poetry, Havet er en scene (The Sea Is a Stage), which later earned her a nomination for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, the biggest literary award of the Nordic countries.

It was the most captivating performance of poetry I had ever witnessed. Olsen’s tone of voice switched effortlessly between cuddly and fuming as she inhabited the many speakers of her unusually rhythmical poems. What intrigued me the most, however, was Olsen’s use of wordplay. Almost every line contained a pun, an invented word, a Danish cultural reference, or a twisted idiom. In other words: a true minefield for a literary translator. Ursula has largely been deemed untranslatable for these very reasons.

So yes, when Ida Bencke at Broken Dimanche Press contacted me about translating Third-Millennium Heart, I was at once excited and terrified. Excited because this particular collection of poetry is considered a major work in Danish literature; terrified because of the puns, the invented words, the many references to Danish idioms and songs, as well as Norse mythology, the Bible, philosophy, and science. I found, however, that the most difficult part of translating Ursula’s poetry has to do with her use of voice. As I wrote in the translator’s note you’re referring to, the speaker in Third-Millennium Heart is an ambiguous character: abusive, yet a victim; fiercely emotional, yet icy and cynical. I had to pick about ten poems from completely different parts, or should I say temperaments, of the collection, and try to find a sort of middle course in the tone. I went through at least fifteen drafts of those ten initial poems before I found a voice I was satisfied with.

I don’t know why Ida and Ursula decided to reach out to me about translating the book. A small amount of my translations had been published online, and I had had a bit of contact with Ursula via my function as editor-at-large at Asymptote, but I had never done a book-length translation before. Ursula and I recently half-joked about how some cosmic intervention must have brought us together. Apparently, when I heard her read eight years ago, Ursula was working on Third-Millennium Heart, inspired by her pregnancy.

SE: These poems are supported by a number of evocative neologisms that you’ve created to match what I assume are similar neologisms in the Danish. I really like them all, in particular the one “namedrunk,” which to me beautifully gets at this situation of having words for everything yet not being able to communicate effectively about so many crises of our age. Can you tell us about how you arrived at “namedrunk” and what it means for you?

KØJ: Oh man. I could write a twenty-page paper based on this question alone. I guess this also ties into the characterization of Ursula’s work and Third-Millennium Heart in particular: the layers of meaning are infinite.

Namedrunk is an example of one of the many near-words that Ursula likes to invent. The original word, navndrukken, doesn’t really mean anything, but it implies a few things, which opens up to multiple interpretations: that someone is drunk on names, or someone is possibly getting a euphoric power-trip out of naming things (victor), or someone is possibly drowning in the naming of all things (victim), to name a few options. I could also have translated the word as “namedrunken,” but I thought drunken was leaning a bit toward the victim narrative, whereas drunk to me sounded more ambiguous, potentially powerful. I also considered the fact that namedrunk usually appears in Third-Millennium Heart next to the word “nameless,” as its opposite. So I figured namedrunk would have to sound forceful in contrast to the anonymity of nameless. There’s generally a lot at stake in this collection in terms of who gets a name and who doesn’t, and who gets to name or unname things and humans. This operates on the very heartbreaking level of abortion, a child that is named yet never lives to be called by that name, and the naming of blood as RED in order to suppress certain memories of the body (the “distant interior”), but also on a societal level where Mother Market names every thing, names the rules of capitalism (which is ironically called “the feminine’s final victory”), and finally the nomenclature operates on a more universal/cosmic level where all vessels are connected, all genders are one, and everything is named everything.

SE: Let’s talk a little more about Olsen for a second. Could you tell us a little more about how her pregnancy inspired this work? And I’m curious, given how much meaning is packed into this poem and how finely you had to calibrate these words, what is Olsen’s English like, and to what extent did you work with her on fine-tuning the translation?

KØJ: Ursula wrote Third-Millennium Heart during her pregnancy and in the first couple of years after her son was born. The book is considered her most corporeal work in terms of her poetic voice–a voice, which, before Third-Millennium Heart, was more otherworldly, very much outside of the body. To Ursula, pregnancy and giving birth made her hyper-aware of the brutality and complexity of the body as well as the civilization in which the new body arrives. The entire book is built around this notion of things being inside and outside one another.

Despite the fact that Ursula’s English is good, she’s been extremely hands-off about the translation–and I mean that in the best of ways. There’s this running translator joke that goes “a good author is a dead author,” because many living writers don’t like to see their work changed too much in translation. However, I found that Ursula was constantly excited about, and even encouraging of, the changes I made to her poetry in order to make the wordplay and weirdness more apparent in English. It was a stimulating and liberating translation process. When Ursula and I performed together at a Danish poetry festival this summer, she told the audience that she didn’t even consider her own version of Third-Millennium Heart the original work, but rather a translation of an idea that was much bigger than her. According to Ursula, she’s simply the first translator of the work, and I’m the second.

SE: One of the key things about translation is its power to rejuvenate a language with new phrasings and coinages. The list is of course endless, to take just one example: the phrase “the unbearable x of y,” which Sean Cotter has documented came into the English language following Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What words or phrases might you hope that Third Millennium Heart gives to the English language?

KØJ: Earlier this year, Ursula received the Danish Arts Foundation’s Award of Distinction with this statement from the committee: “Few poets, if any, have renewed Danish poetry in the 21st century the way Ursula Andkjær Olsen has done it.” In my translator’s note for the book, I write that Ursula is a poets’ poet and a critics’ darling in Denmark, which means that her fan base mainly consists of other writers and literary scholars who see how genre-bending she truly is. This is to say: I don’t think anyone is expecting or even hoping for Third-Millennium Heart to coin any phrases the same way a novel could. What I can hope for, however, is that Third-Millennium Heart will inspire some English-language poets and writers the way it’s inspired Danish writers, and that teachers of international literature will want to share and discuss it with their students.

SE: As I was reading your responses and looking deeper into the poem, I was getting a Deleuze/Guattari Thousand Plateaus vibe. Not just in terms of the rhizomatic movement of the poem itself but also in terms of the feel of the language. Is this something you’re familiar with?

KØJ: Ursula did read Mille plateaux, although she can’t remember whether she read it before or after writing Third-Millennium Heart—but the part about a breast without beginning or end in the book is very Deleuze. In general, though, Ursula references philosophy and social theory a lot. One of her first writing catalysts was (the also French) Lyotard. Aside from him, Third-Millennium Heart invokes Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Hegel, Leibniz, Canetti, and—perhaps more than anyone—Marcel Mauss, who wrote the foundation for social theories of reciprocity and gift exchange.

SE: This book-length poem is broken up into several sections (or maybe you could call them “chapters”) with individual titles. I noticed that and the end of each of these sections is a poem that deconstructs a binary; for instance, “Luxury Is Culture and Nature,” or “Life Is Chaos and Order.” And, of course, this practice continues until the end of the work, which concludes with the heading “ALL AND NO VESSELS ARE CONNECTED” but leaves it (I presume?) to the reader to fill in the space below. I’m curious how you, as the translator—that is, as somebody who looks so closely at the exact meaning of words and who is sensitive to all of the webs of implication, sound, cultural construction, relationships, etc that flow through a word—felt about this work that was on the one hand so evocative and precise with language but also on the other hand so open-ended and flexible as to what particular words could mean.

KØJ: In the early stages of translating the book, I thought I had to somehow untangle these spiderwebs of meaning, afraid that readers and reviewers would otherwise accuse my translation of being awkward. English is my second language—I came to America from Denmark just six years ago—so I worried that someone would crack down on my intentional weirdness in translation and assume it was unintentional due to my background. Fortunately, when I started sharing these translations with some of my most trusted friends in poetry, they all told me how much they loved Ursula’s stranger moments. So I decided to preserve the ambiguous syntax, for instance, which is one of my favorite elements in Third-Millennium Heart: the fact that any reading of a line can be disproved with an equally well-documented interpretation of the exact opposite statement.

The sections or chapters that you mention are actually poetic suites. They kind of have their own ecosystems, but they all relate to one another. Everything relates to everything. The entire book is a poetic network, which is very Deleuze, actually, but also—first and foremost—very Bach and classical music in general, which Ursula is particularly inspired by.

SE: To you, what precisely is a “third-millennium heart”?

KØJ: I think the Third-Millennium Heart is, first and foremost, a network. The book is an organ—a heart—and it has this network-like structure which connects every suite, line, and word. Ursula once talked to me about the “six degrees of separation”-idea—the theory that any person on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries—and I think she’s getting at something in that vein when she writes that “all and no vessels are connected.” As if we have these exohearts, like exoplanets, that, while orbiting their own star, are still part of a network containing 3,693 planets in 2,768 systems. And that, to me, is both terrifying and comforting.

Six Questions for Adrian Nathan West on Insane by Rainald Goetz

The mental asylum is of course one of the major institutions explored by modern and postmodern literature, though I can’t say I’ve seen it done quite like Rainald Goetz does it in his debut novel Insane, originally published in German in 1983 and recently released by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Adrian Nathan West’s translation. I’m about 1/3 of the way through and the book is composed chiefly of brief (3 pages or less) pieces of stream of conscious narration or largely unattributed dialogue, hopping around among mental patients and their doctors. There is a definite punk feel to the text, elements of poststructuralism, bits of Thomas Bernhard. It is a very compelling exploration of the institution of the asylum and of the question of madness and modernity in general.

To find out more about this book and its author (who, indeed, is punk, see the video below (although maybe not if you’re squeamish)), I corresponded with its translator. Nate is a familiar person to readers of this blog and The Quarterly Conversation, who have seen interviews with him previously, as well as his excellent critical writings on world lit. What can I say other than that he has great taste, I’m finding Insane to be an excellent novel and translation, that his answers to my questions are illuminating and fascinating, and that I hope to see more Goetz appear in English before long. Below you’ll find the full Q&A.

Scott Esposito: This is Goetz’s debut novel, released over 30 years ago in 1983. It won a prize, and since then he has steadily racked up leading German prizes. Why has Goetz not established more of a reputation in English, and what do you think he offers us now that we can read him?

Adrian Nathan West: To begin with, it remains a stimulating piece of writing, funny, horrifying, and shocking by turns. It is also the cornerstone of an unusual body of work that I think should be viewed as of a piece: an attempt to realize the aesthetic principles of pop art, its collapsing of the distinctions between high and low art, its ambiguous relationship with artistic intention, through writings that approximate fiction, theater, or poetry without ever entirely submitting to the demands of genre. It also offers a portrait of a time when the passional nihilism of punk was beginning to crumble against the structures it had striven to oppose, when the hope that inspired various youth movements had gone adrift, when the idealism of ’68, as expressed here through anti-psychiatry, through the Black Panthers, and so on, had entered into terminal decline, so that the energies it once channeled would re-emerge in terrorism and in the mediatization of politics—two phenomena Goetz examines in-depth in later works.

SE: Reading through Goetz’s Wikipedia page, I found this anecdote, which, unfortunately, is sourced to a page on the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize website that no longer exists: “During a televised literary tournament in 1983, Goetz slit his own forehead with a razor blade and let the blood run down his face until he finished reading.” What can you tell us about this?

ANW: I recently spoke to a couple of authors who had participated in the Bachmann Prizes and they said it was sheer torture. You read in front of a panel of critics, and then you have to sit there in silence while they pick you apart. In one way, I think Goetz wanted to turn the tables. The piece he read, Subito, elements of which would make it into Insane, takes the prize ceremony as a theme: one of the judges falls asleep during the reading, another scratches his genitals under the table, a character announces: “That must be absolute shit, Klagenfurt, and if it is shit, then logically, you’ve got to go, all the way down into the shit.” Then again, the corporeality of the writer is important in Goetz. “The writer’s body must be capable of representing what he writes,” he says; “you cannot retreat into the safety of writing, in the position of observer.” Over and over there’s a stress in his work on being in the midst of things, on calling into question the possibility of critical distance. Finally, it was self-promotion: he knew it would make a splash, it did, and even after thirty-four years, it remains one of the most infamous episodes in German literary history.

Note: this video is graphic, if you don’t like blood and bodily incisions you may not want to watch.

SE: If you watch the video of Goetz during this infamous reading at the Bachmann Prize, there’s a definite punk vibe to him. He’s wearing a suit, but on his feet are athletic shoes, he’s got what looks to be a studded leather bracelet on, his hair is long and bleached blonde, and he just bobs and fidgets uncontrollably while he reads. What was the milieu that he came out of, and what kind of a presence has he been on the German scene in the years since Insane was released?

ANW: No one’s yet written a comprehensive biography, but the facts run something like this: born in 1953 in Munich, his mother was a photographer, his father a doctor. As a teenager, he spent a year in Flint, Michigan. He studied medicine and history, and briefly practiced psychiatry in a Munich hospital. He was involved in the punk scene in Munich in the late seventies and early eighties; the “subway action” he writes about before the F.S.K. concert actually took place, and you can read about it in contemporary sources. Even the bracelet you mention he writes about in Insane: he knees a punk who’s slashed his bicycle tires in the balls and says: “To celebrate my triumph, the next day I brought myself a big white studded leather band for my left wrist; looks supercool.” Even before Insane, he had published feuilleton-style pieces and reviews; there’s a good one from 1981 on Thomas Bernhard’s Frost that you can still find online. Since Insane came out, he’s been a continuous presence on the German cultural scene, with passionate admirers and detractors. He’s collaborated with DJs and artists—his sketches for Tannhäuser with Albert Oehlen are in the MOMA’s permanent collection—he has done a photograph book, CDs, an internet diary for Vanity Fair, and so on.

SE: Insane is regarded as the book that “made Goetz famous.” Why? What drew you into translating it?

ANW: Think of albums like Raw Power or The Velvet Underground and Nico, or more recently something like Ready to Die. For Germans of a certain generation, Insane is a classic in that sense. Goetz is a writer with very long antennae, and though there is a lot of shock and crassness and nose-tweaking in his writing, he’s thought long about the allurements and frustrations of youth culture, consumerism, drugs, and art. In the third section of the novel, any pretense to straight narrative falls apart and this protean figure emerges who is sometimes Raspe, sometimes Goetz the character, sometimes Goetz the author, and you have a series of skits, some of which mock writers like Günter Grass or Heinrich Böll, some of which vindicate pop culture, some of which are calculated to offend. It says something about Goetz’s acumen that Siegfried Unseld, one of the great editors of the twentieth century, tried to get him to cut that section, and Goetz refused, because it is precisely that part, with its refusal to accept any label, to brook any commitment, that so many of his readers have found inspiring.

The translation came by chance, in a way. When my first Josef Winkler translation was going to press, I was in Berlin and visited the Suhrkamp offices, and Petra Hardt, who was director of foreign rights, asked Nora Mercurio, who has since taken over for her, to bring me copies of Goetz’s books. What drew me into them was his respect for the autonomy of the phenomena he addresses, and his feeling that each must be examined on its own terms. It’s the opposite of what we see in so much American fiction, where with an MFA and a feeling of inspiration you can make these broad-brush statements about the Zeitgeist, and if you’ve got the right agent and publisher, people will take you seriously. The great Swiss writer Hermann Burger says something to the effect that if he opens a book and sees no specialized vocabulary, he can confidently close it, he knows it isn’t true—this doesn’t mean a novel has to read like a scientific treatise, but the fact remains that every sphere of life, whether it’s tending bar, dealing drugs, or managing political campaigns, has its own linguistic world, and writers who overlook that are really just talking about themselves. Goetz, who has one foot in the tradition of Weber and Niklas Luhmann, has more respect than most for what you might call, in sociological terms, the individuation of social spheres.

I have to say a word about the publisher here, too. Insane was not easy work, and it is not something I would have done on spec. I was translating my sample when the ARCs of Fitzcarraldo’s first two books were coming out. Just seeing the breadth of interests covered by Zone and Memory Theatre, I thought, this could be the one. I happened to meet Jacques for a coffee in early 2015 and we talked the book over; it didn’t hurt that Goetz won the Büchner prize in July of that year. An incalculable advantage with Fitzcarraldo is that Jacques can read a lot of the books in French; for a translator, that’s significant, because you don’t have to worry you’re overselling, and it gives you the sense that the book is a project in common rather than your own quixotic fixation destined to drive some unsuspecting publisher into insolvency.

SE: What were some of the things that made Insane such a difficult translation? What is some of the specialized vocabulary Goetz employs?

ANW: The obvious things: there’s a lot of slang, much of it specific to Munich in the eighties. There’s a great deal of technical psychiatric and anatomical vocabulary; again, much of the former is dated—the biochemical approach to mental disturbances, which is the prevailing approach at the hospital where the protagonist, Raspe, works, was in its infancy when Goetz was writing. You want all that vocabulary to carry the stamp of its time, but it shouldn’t be incomprehensible to the reader. There were lots of references that had to be tracked down: in one section, he talks about a film, Blutjunge Masseusen, which you might translate as something like fledgling masseusses; the English title was Swedish Massage Parlor, it’s an exploitation film by Erwin Dietrich, who was a kind of Swiss Russ Meyer. Toward the end, he says something about “Hamburgs schöne Aussichten”; this could be the beautiful views in Hamburg, but it’s actually the name of a café. I did a lot of googling and a lot of bothering native speakers (I’d love to thank Flowerville, Uwe Schütte, Marcel Inhoff, and Sven Meyer for their help). Finally, I don’t like to break up an author’s sentences if it’s not necessary—even if it’s English, something of the style of the original ought to be perceptible through the veil—and many sections, for example, those that discuss Karl Held, the brilliant social critic and leader of the Marxist Group, are extraordinarily knotty.

SE: I have a feeling that Insane is going to prove popular, at least among that sliver of the public who knows how interesting and important translated literature is. Were a publisher to take on more Goetz, where is the next logical place to go?

ANW: We’ve talked that over. A likely next candidate is Rave. Goetz was deep in the electronic music scene in the 1990s with people like DJ Westbam and Sven Väth who are still active today. It’s a lighter book than Insane, it shows an important aspect of Goetz’s work that I think is often overlooked: the question of optimism, of how an optimistic comportment may be maintained amid horror and decadence. I am also a fan of his most recent novel, Johann Holtrop, which is based on the rise and fall of German media mogul Thomas Middelhoff, who was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in 2014—after the release of the Panama and Paradise papers, it’s hard to imagine a more germane theme. Then there’s Kontrolliert, about the German Autumn and the Red Army Faction. Our news is consumed with terrorism and the generic reaction is bafflement and commonplaces like “they hate us because we’re free”; we’ve forgotten how widespread terrorism was in Europe in the seventies, and the extent to which intelligent people considered it a reasonable response to political oppression.

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:

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:

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.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


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 . . .


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.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2019. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.