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By now, readers of this blog (and I would hope readers in general) need no introduction to Cesar Aira, one of the most exciting authors to be making his way into English. Over the past couple of years, New Directions has done amazing work with Aira, publishing novel after novel. I think they’re beginning to make some headway in developing the kind of audience that this writer deserves.
They have just published The Seamstress and the Wind, the sixth title of Aira’s to appear in English from New Directions. (A seventh, The Hare, was published in 1997 by Serpent’s Tail but has since gone out of print.)
Perhaps New Directions is beginning to feel that an audience for Aira in English is somewhat assured, as this is the strangest Aira they have yet published. (Although, as this interview makes clear, there are much stranger things out there.) Although no Aira title I have read is conventional, this one goes further than anything I’ve seen in English in throwing out the traditional mechanics of plot and character to create something pure Aira-ian. It’s a strange book, albeit a powerful read. I interviewed its translator, Rosalie Knecht for some insight into Aira, his books, and his future in English.
Scott Esposito: Your bio accompanying Seamstress and the Wind indicates that you received a Fullbright to work with Aira on the translation of this book. Can you tell us a little about how Aira participated?
Rosalie Knecht: We met several times for coffee and talked about how the translation was going, and I emailed him drafts as I finished them. I was in Santa Fe, Argentina, and he lives in Buenos Aires. He had a pretty light touch on the whole thing–he translated mass market stuff from the U.S. for a living for years. He would read the drafts and say, “Sure, that’s fine.” Close to the end of the process I had a list of problems I couldn’t solve and we met in Buenos Aires and went over them. He approved the final draft and gave me the go-ahead to talk to his U.S. publisher.
SE: Can you discuss one of the translation problems from the list that you brought to Aira?
RN: One of them was the word acanastado. I’d had no luck in my dictionary or online–Google returned exactly one result, and it was the same text I was working on, which is apparently online in PDF form somewhere. Anyway, canasta means basket, and acanastado is what would happen if you could conjugate basket like a verb. It was referring to the backseat of a car that had been in a wreck. I asked him if I could use basketed, and he said that that was probably what he meant. He wrote the book in 1994, so some of it was reverse-engineering to something that he hadn’t needed to think about in a long time.
SE: It’s funny that you mention about Aira not having thought about the text since 1994. I conducted an interview with him in the spring where he essentially said that he writes so much that he more or less forgets what he’s previously written, to the point that it’s hard to talk about it with critics, interviewers, etc. Did this come up a lot with the translation of this book?
RN: It did come up, yeah. When I brought him translation problems he tended to approach them in a collegial way, as if the two of us were working on a third party’s book and he just happened to be more knowledgeable about it than I was. He doesn’t like to look back on his past work, and people often remark on that, but I think it’s actually kind of typical for writers. I write fiction too, and once I’m really finished with a piece, I kind of superstitiously avoid it. There’s a sense that once you let go of a piece of work, it may change into something you don’t recognize.
SE: I take it you’ve read a number of books of Aira’s. Can you talk a little about why this one was chosen for you to translate, as well as how you see this one fitting in with some of the better-known Aira books out there? For my own part, I found it a remarkably whimsical book from an author who, of course, tends not to spare the whimsy.
RN: I picked this book myself. It was the second half of a two-novella volume put out by Beatriz Viterbo in Argentina, the first half being How I Became a Nun. I was just pulled in by it. I think a lot of it is about loss. All the stuff you lose, all the stuff you can’t get rid of no matter how hard you try. But it’s sort of wide-eyed instead of being depressing.
It does fall more on the whimsical side–How I Became a Nun buries its weirdness a little deeper, messing with gender and continuity instead of monsters and cars made out of armadillos and that kind of thing. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter plays it pretty straight, by Aira’s standards, a lot of the time. I think some of the weirder stuff hasn’t been translated yet, like his short stories, for instance. Cerebro Musical is about a brain made from cardboard that plays music in a library, and then escapes and wreaks havoc on Aira’s actual hometown. Mil Gotas is about the drops of paint that make up the Mona Lisa, which escape (a theme?) and go into space and get into some kind of interplanetary showdown. But he’s published about eighty books, so I can’t claim to know his whole catalog.
SE: Seamstress has a strange sort of beginning. Aira discourses about the role of memory and forgetting in the creation of fiction, and then he starts telling what is ostensibly a true anecdote about when he was a boy growing up in Colonel Pringles and a boy named Omar went missing. This ends up being the first event in what is clearly a fictional story; and, throughout the book Aira casually injects himself into the narrative, seemingly per whim. How do you construe his relationship to this text?
RN: There’s a lot about things going missing and “disappearing” in the novel, which is a very loaded word in Argentina. I think Omar’s disappearance is kind of an oblique reference to the dictatorship years–something historical and specific turned into something abstract and personal. Maybe it’s that “personal” aspect that explains Aira’s relationship to the text, beyond just the fact that Aira tends to insert himself into his own books, either as a character or a commentator, pretty often. The memories described are obviously not real, because these things can’t actually happen, but they could be seen as a personalized, individualized interpretation of national collective memories that are traumatic.
I think if he heard me say this, though, he would roll his eyes.
SE: One final question about where translators might head next with Aira. Of the stuff out there to be published, there’s the story “Cecil Taylor,” one of my favorite Aira works. I’d love to see that published somewhere someday. Will you be translating any Aira in the future and what books of his you’d most like to see make their way into English.
RN: I’d be happy for the chance to work on another Aira book, and I’m also looking into some other writers. The challenge is finding the money to do it. Most translators are either grant-supported, as I was in this case, or they’re academics.
I was just talking to somebody the other day about Ema la Cautiva–one of his more popular books, and as far as I can tell, unavailable in English. It was sort of his breakout novel in 1981, after which his books started getting printed in Europe. Somebody should get on that.
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