Katherine Silver is one of the most talented, interesting, and dedicated translators working from Spanish today. She recently translated Cesar Aira’s novel(la) The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, her second Aira translation (it joins The Literary Conference) though definitely not her last (read on).
I asked her six questions about the particular challenges of translating Aira, her own interpretations of his oeuvre-in-progress, her discovery of Aira, and what lies ahead for Aira-fans in the English language. In addition to Aira, Silver has translated Almost Never by Daniel Sada (with two more Sada novels to come), three novels by Horacio Castellanos Moya, Battles in the Desert by Jose Emilio Pacheco, My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel, and numerous others. She also codirects the Banff Centre’s translation program, which is a fantastic program that all translators (not just of books into English) should apply for. Lastly, her translation of Martin Adan’s The Cardboard House has just been published by New Directions.
Scott Esposito: Like all Aira books I’ve read, The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira will sound a bit strange in summation. It seems there’s Dr. Aira, whose archnemisis, Dr. Actyn, keeps trying to trick into performing one of his “miracle cures,” through the use of actors pretending to be doctors attending to dying patients. For some reason, it’s very important to Actyn to record this, and just as import to Aira not to be recorded. This may all be an elaborate metaphor for Aira’s method of writing novels.
One thing that stuck out at me as I read the book was the attention paid to acting vs being “natural” and the different ways Aira would distinguish between the two in the book. There are all sorts of things here about writing vs living vs acting vs performing one’s identity vs memory . . . the concept of the “blunder” is very important to the book; on page 22, Aira writes “blunders were a tributary of spontaneity.” I think this perhaps bears some relevance for Aira’s “constant flight forward,” his perpetually improvisational method of writing books. I’d like to ask you if and where “blunders” come into your practice as a translator, particularly with regard to your translations of Aira.
Katherine Silver: Your question points to an important “theme” in the book, perhaps in all of Aira’s work, as well as one principal difference between translating and composition. Nor is the fact that Aira made his living for many years as a translator, often of genre fiction, irrelevant to these considerations. The answer to your question is, simply put, that they don’t, that blunders, improvisation, and spontaneity have little to do with the method or the madness that is literary translation, which is, at least how I do it, picky, detailed, fussy, and painstaking. There are times, many, when I feel I am channelling the text, translating as fast as I can read and type. But what spills onto the page during those sessions is not what you, or any other reader, finds in a published book, which has subsequently been read, reviewed, and corrected at least five more times. Unfortunately, as a translator, my mistakes are much less whimsical, fanciful, or even excusable than blunders, as Aira defines such things. And having done lots of both kinds of writing, he knows of what he speaks.
SE: You’ve clearly read a lot of Aira and enjoy him very much. Can you talk a little about your introduction to Aira–how you first started reading him, and what about the books appealed to you so much as to make you want to begin reading deeply into his work?
KS: Aira was a gift, a precious and deeply appreciated gift, to me from New Directions. His translator, Chris Andrews, was busy translating something else, probably Bolaño, and they asked me to do one. I was thrilled, and suspect I will continue to be so, as long as there is more Aira to read and as long as I get to keep translating him. I think to read Aira is to gain a fresh awareness of what narrative is and can be. With all his supposed gimmicks and nods to genre, he brings the reader very close to the raw material, the original text, so to speak, that is, the primary experience of being human. He seems to write directly from that liminal state, half-dream, half-awake, that is precisely (see prior question) uncensored and so difficult for us mere mortals–who don’t make clones or work miracle cures or follow the walking dead–to hold onto. One feels one is tagging along behind his mind as it weaves and ducks and cross-punches. As a translator, and as a reader, one must trust him and not try to make “sense,” whatever that might mean, of it all. I appreciate that practice.
SE: At numerous points throughout The Miracle Cures of Dr Aira, Aira strikes a contrast between the “partiality” of writing and the “totality” of the present, as though writing is an act of cutting out parts of a “total” reality. This is reflected later in his “miracle cure,” which entails closing off possible realities in favor of the one preferred reality (in which the “cure” is successful), which Aira at one point directly compares to the act of writing a novel. Do you feel like something analogous happens when you translate?
KS: Here, I would answer quite differently, and give a qualified yes. Every word, every phrase, every syntactic construction, every lilt or pause or tone or twist of a translation is the result of a million decisions of exclusion and inclusion. This becomes evident when one compares various translations of the same, even simple, passage, which are never identical, suggesting that there are infinite ways to solve any particular puzzle and that the puzzles are endlessly multiple and overlapping. Sometimes, indeed, I feel language cascading into my office in the same way reality intrudes on the sickroom where Dr. Aira is working his miracle, and though I probably don’t actually do the dance of a madman while trying to hang screens that stretch and bend and slice through any onrush of parts of speech and possible lexical combinations, there’s a lot of picking and choosing going on behind the scenes . . . or is that screens?
SE: Was there anything in particular in this translation where you felt a sense of closing off options particularly strongly, or where you agonized over choosing just one of the many ways you might have translated a span of text?
KS: As you pointed out, certain concepts, expressed by specific words, are pivotal and recurrent in the book. I knew I would have to repeat whatever word I chose as often as he repeated its counterpart, hence they had to be words with a broad enough range without being too vague. Alternatives offered other nuances, but since Aira is, in a sense, defining the words as he uses them, I sensed that I had a little wiggle room. For example, “Blunder” may not have been the most natural choice, but it was the best available, in my mind, and I think it works quite well, in part because it is currently underused hence open to being swayed.
This does bring up another issue that comes up in any translation, but with a particular lilt in Aira. And a method I use for dealing with it. Aira’s prose is just barely off kilter, to my ear, slightly out of tune or off the beat. This is inseparable from the work’s sensibility, not some kind of imposed style. That same oddness comes through in my English, I hope. Upon each re-reading, I must resist making minor, mostly syntactic corrections that would tune it up, so to speak. Whenever tempted, I go back to the original and translate back, that is, check to make sure that Aira did not choose that other wording, or its close equivalent, in Spanish, that would have made me translate that passage in the first place in the way I am now tempted to correct it.
SE: Early in the book, during the first scene where Dr. Actyn’s agents are trying to trick Dr. Aira into performing his “miracle cure,” Aira reflects that “The trap consisted of making him think until he’d convinced himself that it wasn’t a trap.” I think this, obviously, can be read as pointing toward the act of writing a novel, as Aira implies at many points throughout the book. But I felt that one of this book’s strengths was that Aira leaves things schematic enough that you don’t need to reduce this to a book about writing novels. What was your own read of what this book was about, or trying to do?
KS: I’m always reluctant to say what a book is about because if a book can be “about” something that can be summarized briefly, why write or read it. And I usually only think about what a book is trying to do when it doesn’t quite manage to do it. This book, in itself and as part of Aira’s oeuvre, has changed the way I feel the world, being alive, reading and writing. Oddly enough, I felt the same way many years ago about his compatriot, Jorge Luis Borges, someone with whom I feel Aira is always in some kind of concrete or highly abstract dialogue. Borges, however, at least in his stories, isn’t half as funny, at least not to my bone.
But to answer your question more directly: Dr. Aira is a character who undoubtedly undergoes trials, tribulations, doubts, inspirations, persecutions, and tragedies that are, in some form, familiar to the author. I do not think I reduce the book at all by saying that I intuit in more detail something about how the author Aira writes and thinks about his writings by reflecting on the good doctor and his struggle with theory, practice, and humiliation. Also, I like to read his books as installments, parts of a large whole that is, under it all, a slow and stealthy plot for world literary domination. We already knew that outlandish scientific experiments were not beneath his dignity, and now we have miracles on top of it. All I can say is, beware!
SE: Have you read much Aira beyond what has been translated into English? Can you give us some idea of the treasures that still have yet to reach us in English translation?
KS: I have read some, but relative to what is out there, still very few. I picked up around ten slight tomes last time I was in Mexico. Several were brilliant (and some of those will be coming to your local bookstores within the next year or so), some less so, and some were downright awful. That is part of the charm and wonder that is his oeuvre: the treasures in the sand. According to Borges, G.K. Chesterton wanted to compile an anthology of the very worst poems in the world, as long as they were by the very best poets. If Shakespeare, he said, wanted to write a ridiculous page, he would have no qualms about doing so, but a mediocre poet would have no really bad poems because he would be too cautious, would watch over himself too closely.