Chris Andrews and fellow translator Will Heyward discuss Roberto Bolaño, César Aira, Oulipo, and the peculiar challenges faced by the translator.
Chris Andrews is a translator whose work has been lauded throughout the Anglophone world. He taught French at the University of Melbourne for many years, and currently teaches literary translation and comparative literature at the University of Western Sydney. His poetry has been published widely, and he is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. His translations of Roberto Bolaño’s The Secret of Evil and César Aira’s Varamo have recently been published by New Directions.
I saw Chris speak about his work as a translator of Spanish prose at the 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival. He spoke carefully and with an obvious intensity about his work. Like many people, I’d spent the last few years reading and loving Roberto Bolaño’s novels, and the fact that one of his translators was a compatriot had always registered with me—irrationally—as a small feeling of pride. Bolaño’s prose, as rendered by Andrews, has always seemed to me to be rare, unexpectedly beautiful, and energetic. If, as some reviewers have observed, Bolaño proves that literature is capable of anything, what sort of task must his translators face? After the session at the festival, pride had been displaced by curiosity and admiration. Later I read the novels by César Aira that Chris had also translated, and the suspicion that he was channelling some of the most original and ingenious prose into English grew. The conversation below is the product of a series of generous and friendly emails and phone calls between Melbourne and Sydney.
Will Heyward One of the novelists you’ve translated, Roberto Bolaño, has a lot of readers across the world, in part thanks to you. He’s known for his incredible range of voices, forms and styles. How do you render that in English? And how do you think he does what he does?
Chris Andrews The first thing I should say is that there are always losses and shifts in translation, and Bolaño is no exception. But I do think that his style comes through relatively strongly, whether it’s me translating him or someone else. When I read Natasha Wimmer’s translations of his other books, I feel like I’m straight back into the world of Bolaño, and I don’t feel any resistance or drag or loss. That is partly because some of the key stylistic features in his work are quite large-scale, like the head-long sentence that keeps rolling on via coordination, for example, with, and, and and, and and. And sometimes the challenges are syntactic. For example, in a book like By Night in Chile, the sentences don’t just extend themselves by coordination, but also by subordination, and that requires some rearrangement of the order of the elements.
Many of the figures and the kind of post-surrealist images that come in strange bursts in his prose are also pretty amenable to translation, and overall, he does have a robust style. Natasha Wimmer said somewhere that she thought that Bolaño’s style was characterized by an underlying plainness and I agree.
WH I’ve always thought when reading Bolaño that there are deliberate references to other authors that might have influenced and inspired him. When I read a book, like, for example, Nazi Literature in the Americas, which you translated, I think of Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings. And those long, coordinated sentences you describe have always reminded me of Thomas Bernhard. Do you see [Bolaño] fitting into a genealogy or tradition?
CA It’s a big question because Bolaño was really an omnivorous reader. You were mentioning The Book of Imaginary Beings, and I do think Borges is one of the most important influences on his work. For Nazi Literature in the Americas, A Universal History of Infamy is also an important model.
One thing that makes [Bolaño’s] work distinctive is that there is a kind of double genealogy, in that Argentinean prose fiction writers like Borges and Cortázar and Puig are very important for him, but so too are Chilean poets, like Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn and Jorge Teillier. He read very widely in Latin American literature generally, in North American literature (he was an admirer of Don DeLillo, for example), and in European literature (I suspect that Bernhard did have an influence on the “rant books,” By Night in Chile and Amulet). One of the tasks of Bolaño criticism in the years to come will be tracing all these influences. Critics may eventually get hold of his notebooks and journals, which I’ve seen in a television documentary.
WH I’ve always thought that one of the great pleasures of reading Bolaño—and I recently read Between Parentheses, which was great in this way—is discovering so many new writers. He continually uses other writers as reference points, but also as characters. As his translator, do you acquaint yourself with everyone who appears in his books? Are they all even real?
CA Well, all the ones in Between Parentheses are real writers. One of the tricky things about reading and translating the fiction, however, is that there are quite often real writers appearing in the midst of the imaginary writers, whether it’s in The Savage Detectives or Nazi Literature in the Americas. For example, in Nazi Literature there is a Cuban writer called Ernesto Pérez Masón, and he has fights and feuds with a number of real Cuban writers, like José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera. The dividing line between the imaginary and the real writers is often quite hard to trace, and [Bolaño] has designed his fiction in that way, I think, to make it an intriguing game.
WH This seems to me to be a mark of a particular kind of Spanish-language fiction. I’m thinking of Enrique Vila-Matas, for example, who also seems to break down any division between real and imaginary, using authors as characters, characters as authors, superimposing fiction and reality onto one another, and so on.
CA A lot of that comes out of Borges and a lesser-known Argentinean writer, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, who was an important influence on Bolaño. I think Vila-Matas likes him as well. Yeah, there is a lot of meta-literary play going on in that tradition.
WH Staying on the topic of Bolaño for a little longer, what do you make of his extraordinary recent fame in the Anglophone world? I don’t think that when you started working with his writing this would have been the case. Has it got something to do with his sudden death? Or was it inevitable that he would receive the recognition that he has?
CA Back when I started in 2002, Bolaño was already very well known in the Spanish-speaking world because he had won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize for The Savage Detectives. But that didn’t mean he was bound to be well known eventually in other languages. The Germans and the Italians had picked up on him fairly quickly, and, interestingly, the first book they both translated was Nazi Literature in the Americas. When the first couple of English translations, By Night in Chile and Distant Star, came out in England, they weren’t published in America straight away. Those books didn’t go very well at all—they didn’t sell very well—although they got good reviews; there wasn’t much interest. It was only a little bit later with the first book of stories, Last Evenings on Earth, which had been commissioned by Harvill in the UK, but was published first in America by New Directions, that there was a bit of buzz around. Only then did I start to think that the others would be translated, because with the first two I really wasn’t sure there was enough interest.
His premature death also may have had something to do with the excitement around his work, but not that much. He’s a writer who invented a commanding, distinctive style, in the largest sense of the word—a way of organizing experience as well as words—which is a pretty rare achievement. That spoke to many readers, for a number of reasons—I’ve heard, for example, that he is an antidote to the North American model of the professional novelist groomed by creative writing schools. There might be something symptomatic about his success, but I think that the main reason for it is that he is a fascinating singularity.
WH There are other Spanish-language writers whom you have translated—such as César Aira—who are becoming more prominent in the Anglophone world. Why are these writers coming to attention now, and how much credit goes to publishers like New Directions?
CA I think that a lot of credit has to go to the publishers who have the gumption to commission the translations because, commercially, it is a very hard thing to do. New Directions is one of those publishers, but there has been a bit of a multiplication of small presses with a focus on translation in the US in the last ten years or so. Dalkey Archive is another that has been going for a while. And among the newer ones: Europa Editions, Open Letter, and Other Stories.
Why are the books are doing well now? Why does Hispanic literature seem to be so popular? I’m not sure. There were writers who had a big body of work waiting to come across into English. That is the case with Aira, who has written an enormous amount, and who has been publishing in Argentina steadily since the ’80s.
WH I wanted to talk about the nature of your work as a translator. You’re known primarily as a translator of Spanish, but I understand you are also fluent in French. What has determined the books you have translated, and why have you worked from Spanish, rather than French?
CA It really hasn’t been my choice. It’s been luck, I think: I got the contract for the first Bolaño book back in 2002, and because of what has happened with Bolaño, I’ve had the opportunity to do some other things from Spanish. I’ve looked for work from French, but haven’t found it, or I haven’t been able to persuade publishers to commission translations of books that I like. It’s not that I chose Spanish rather than French.
WH Even though you haven’t published much work translated from the French, how does the work of a translator changes when the language changes? Are the differences merely practical?
CA Well, it’s not just a question of reading the language, or speaking it, or feeling comfortable with it. You develop a set of strategies for overcoming the challenges presented by translating between two particular languages, and then there are strategies particular to the kind of text you’re working on. You sort of train yourself over again every time, as you go, in a quite focused way. I imagine that for people who are switching between source languages—and between languages that are further apart than Spanish and French—it probably takes a little while to get their translation mechanisms operating smoothly again.
WH You used the word, training, and I thought of a remark I heard Eliot Weinberger—another translator from Spanish to English—make, in which he said that translation is the greatest education on how to write. Is this the case for you?
CA That’s an interesting one, and I think Eliot Weinberger comes at it from a slightly different angle, I think he’s coming at it from a Poundian angle. And he is seeing translation as a way of collecting a kind of armoury of language resources that can be deployed in writing essays and poems. I would say that I have learned a lot through translation, but I couldn’t honestly say that I’ve noticed it improving my writing. It’s true that it obliges you to spend a long time looking for alternative phrases or synonyms. So you spend a long time consulting thesauruses, which is a pleasurable activity in itself, looking at different ways things can be said, and hopefully enlarging and loosening up your active vocabulary. So perhaps this breaks down some of your tics and habits.
WH Do you think that you have improved, if not as a writer, then as a translator? You have worked on writings of two authors quite extensively, Aira and Bolaño. Has your understanding of their work grown with each book? Might it ever get to the point where you would want to revise a previous translation?
CA In a way, that’s something I try not to think about too much because I know that if the early translations of Bolaño that I’ve done had been put in a drawer, and were now being pulled out, and I had the chance to revise them, there would be things I would change. Even when I’m looking at those translations to write a critical article, I will sometimes do what critics do, which is to say, “translation modified.” It’s a process that doesn’t stop. Wanting to make changes doesn’t mean that I’ve necessarily become a better translator; it might just be the effect of passing time, and as time passes, some problems that I couldn’t see clearly before are bound to come into focus. Which is why I try not to think about it too much!
WH At the Melbourne Writers Festival last year, you said that when you are preparing to work on a translation you often read what you consider to be an example of very fine prose in English. Can you explain that process? And who are the writers that best prepare you to translate Aira and Bolaño?
CA I usually don’t do it so much in the preparation phase, or even during the first draft phase, because at that stage I’m working on getting a literal translation down. What I like to do when I’m revising and getting towards a final version is take a little break and read some English prose that I like as an example of style. It doesn’t have to be something that is stylistically very close to the author I’m translating. In fact, I actually prefer it to be not too close because the function of the breaks I take is not to find a specific solution to a problem that I’ve got with a translation, or to be influenced, but in a way just to forget the problem. I read a couple of paragraphs or a page. And when I put the refresher book down, it’s as if I’m starting again, but now coming at the problem from a background of well-constructed sentences. It’s hard to explain precisely. I remember using John Banville like this because I liked reading one sentence of his after another. But it could be Denton Welch for the same reason, or Penelope Fitzgerald.
WH Returning to the same Melbourne Writers Festival session, Eliot Weinberger called you something very flattering along the lines of—and I hope I’m not misquoting here—“the first Australian translator of major international significance.” You mentioned dialect earlier in reference to Bolaño. What does it mean to be an Australian, involuntarily equipped with our dialect, yet translating for an international Anglophone audience?
CA It depends where the commissioning is done, and what’s happened with Bolaño has been a little strange because the commissioning shifted from the UK to the US after the first three books. When it has been for an English publisher, I have written, for example, “flat” rather than “apartment.” I’ve never really used many “Australianisms” though. I’ve tried to smuggle a few in here and there, but it’s tricky, and it’s hard to get away with! It would be different if you were working for an Australian publisher, publishing for an Australian market. It has occasionally been tempting to use an “Australianism” to translate an expression from Chilean Spanish, but the risk is that it would be merely confusing, even for an Australian reader.
WH Well, according to David Bellos, there is a kind of English called “English minus,” or a neutralised English stripped of all its local particularities, which is often employed in translation. Have you found that to be the case?
CA I think one advantage of being an Australian translator is that you’re less likely to assume that your own dialect is or should be the standard. I don’t think that a translation has to end up being insipid because it has had some of its dialect markers removed in the editing. With Bolaño, for example, I think that the prose still has a strong flavor, and that’s partially because of all the place names and the proper names, and, occasionally, words that have been left in Spanish, which is something that both Natasha Wimmer and I have done. For example, in The Savage Dectectives she leaves mano and mana—the abbreviated forms of hermano and hermana, brother and sister—in Spanish.
WH I was thinking about it, and I don’t know whether the existence of a neutral international language would be a cause to rejoice or lament.
CA Sometimes the people who lament that global English has become a “grey language” forget that the greyness predominates in certain social contexts, like business communication, and they forget that while English has been running around the world displacing other languages, it has also been appropriated in all sorts of ways. I think that people sometimes underestimate English’s tendency to diversify itself and break up into dialects, like other languages that have spread over big parts of the world (Arabic or Spanish, for example).
WH You have published a lot on writers who were part of the Oulipo group such as Queneau and Perec, writers who might be described as having had a scientific approach to form, and I know that you studied science at University . . .
CA When I discovered those writers I was excited to find a kind of experimentalism that was constructive—inventing and building new forms rather than simply breaking up old ones—and clever without taking itself too seriously. I became interested in how some of them use forms to signify. Queneau, Perec, and Roubaud in particular: they’re writers who lend themselves to paranoid reading and overinterpretation. I’ve been there and I’m hoping to go back.
WH Is César Aira a writer in the Oulipo tradition?
CA I would say that he uses what the Oulipo writers, and Perec, in particular, would call a protocol for writing. He has a method, which doesn’t bear on the result—on the text he produces—but on the process of producing that text. That’s his famous method of ‘flight forward,’ of not going back and rewriting, but attempting to redeem the errors or inadequacies of what he has already written by adding, by writing more, by improvising retrospective explanations. So he has a protocol like the some of the Oulipo writers. But his attitude to the Oulipo is interesting: he has been asked on a number of occasions what he thinks of them, and basically he finds them dull, and doesn’t like the idea of a formal constraint, and even feels that there is something nightmarish about the Perec novel, La Disparition, written without using the letter e, something incompatible with his idea of literature as a space for free play. So that kind of constraint is anathema to him. And yet he is a fervent admirer of Raymond Roussel who is one of the important precursors of the Oulipo writers. This might seem contradictory, but he sets great store by history, and feels that a law of diminishing returns operates in the history of the arts: the original inventors make the great leaps forward and those who follow in their wake take smaller steps. For Aira, I think, the Oulipo are Roussel’s epigones, repeating his avant-garde gesture in less and less interesting ways. I wouldn’t agree with that; I think there are some very interesting and genuinely inventive writers at work in the group, like Jacques Roubaud, Jacques Jouet, and Michelle Grangaud. And Michèle Métail, who was the first woman to join the group, in 1975, and has distanced herself from it now, is one of the most interesting contemporary French poets.
WH I have heard it remarked by Simon Leys that literary translation is a “luxury good,” because it is so unprofitable. Which leads me to ask, is translation always an act of appreciation, or a form of advocacy criticism? In the same essay, Leys suggests that one can only really translate the books that one would have liked to write
CA I couldn’t have lived off the translation I have done. Even if I had done three times as much. Simon Leys, who says in that essay that he took 18 years to translate Two Years Before the Mast, by R. H. Dana, is at one end of the spectrum, and the full-time professional translator, who has to take on all sorts of jobs, is at the other. I work somewhere in between: I have to respect the author and his or her project, but I don’t have to feel that I would have liked to write each book myself. One of the satisfying things about translation is that you are making a new experience possible in the world: the experience of reading X in English, which simply couldn’t be had before.
WH Do you have any translations you are working on at the moment? Is there anything coming out soon?
CA Varamo by César Aira is coming out soon: it will be published by New Directions in the US and by Giramondo here in Australia. Bolaño’s The Secret of Evil will be coming out later this year in the States. And to do a variation on the title of a book by Sean Condon, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the secret of evil is a secret.
WH How do these different occupations or identities—translator, academic, poet— interact with and inform one another? Does one take precedence in your mind?
CA They nourish each other and compete with each other. In the competition for time, teaching and translation have the unfair advantage of deadlines to meet, so it requires a bit of nerve not to let them dominate completely. In the end, though, they’re all involvements with literature.