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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy to see ‘lacustrine’ accounted for; I also had to look up ‘bothy’, and I wonder what its Spanish equivalent was. I read this novel in one sitting at the hospital while my partner’s grandmother underwent open heart surgery. It really is a fine book, and one I’m grateful was translated.

The passage Ms. Carson mentions, describing the fish and thier “well-regulated” life is indeed memorable. It is interesting to hear the process of translating it.

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