Fragments From the Piglia Translations, With Translator’s Comments
Fragmento de Nombre falso:
Un crítico literario es siempre, de algún modo, un detective: persigue sobre la superficie de los textos, las huellas, los rastros que permiten descifrar su enigma. A la vez, esta asimilación (en su caso un poco paranoica) de la crítica con la persecución policial, está presente con toda nitidez en Arlt. Por un lado Arlt identifica siempre la escritura con el crimen, la estafa, la falsificación, el robo. En este esquema, el crítico aparece como el policía que puede descubrir la verdad. Escritura clandestina y culpable, escritura fuera de la ley, se entiende que Arlt haya buscado que sus libros circularan en un espacio propio, fuera de todo control legal… Por otro lado, como en toda buena novela policial, lo que está en juego no es la ley, sino el dinero (o, mejor: la ley del dinero)…
Por fin: cuando se dice –como Arlt– que todo crítico es un escritor fracasado, ¿no se confirma un mito clásico de la novela policial?: el detective es siempre un criminal fracasado (o un criminal en potencia). No es casual que Freud haya escrito: ‘La distorsión de un texto se asemeja a un asesinato: lo difícil no es cometer el crimen, sino ocultar las huellas”. En más de un sentido, el crítico es también un criminal. (Nombre falso 122 – 123)
From Assumed Name:
A literary critic is always, in some way, a detective: he pursues the contours of texts, the tracks, the traces that allow him to decipher its enigma. In turn, this assimilation (in his case a bit paranoiac) of criticism with police pursuit, is present with all clarity in Arlt. On the one hand, Arlt always identifies writing with crime, swindling, falsification, theft. In this scheme, the critic seems to be like the police officer who might uncover the truth. Writing that is clandestine and guilty, writing that is outside the law, it is understandable that Arlt wanted his books to circulate in their own space, outside all legal control… On the other hand, like in all good detective novels, what is at stake is not the law, but money (or, better yet: the law of money)…
Finally: when someone—like Arlt—says that every critic is a failed writer, does that not in fact confirm a classic myth of the detective novel, that the detective is always a frustrated criminal (or a potential criminal)? It is not a coincidence that Freud wrote: ‘The distortion of a text resembles a murder: the difficult thing is not to commit the crime, but to hide its tracks.’ In more than one sense, the critic is also a criminal. (Assumed Name 124 – 125)
Nombre falso—Assumed Name—was the first book I translated. From the beginning, I loved the play with names, attribution, authorship, and property, which was reproduced—and magnified—in translation. The literary intrigue begins with the title of the book and continues through “Luba,” Piglia’s brilliant short story, which he falsely attributes to Roberto Arlt toward the end of the book. But not entirely falsely, as it turns out. Piglia’s work with citation and plagiarism speaks directly to the task of the reader, of the critic—and of the translator. Not knowing what I was getting into, I found myself implicated in the confusion of equivocal originality present in Piglia’s work, assuming a name that was not mine, trying to say the same, in my own tongue—which is also not quite mine—and immediately finding everything different. Translating Nombre falso revealed levels of mediation and re-writing, even as it added another one: the inevitable distancing of a practice (translation) that is meant to bridge differences.
The fragment cited above appears in “Homage to Roberto Arlt,” a nouvelle that doubles as a scholarly homage to the early twentieth-century writer who Piglia helped to reframe as one of the key writers of the Argentine tradition. The text includes a literary investigation of Arlt’s notebooks. But the investigation is also an exploration of filiations and influences, of homage and imitation, and ultimately of the role of re-reading and re-writing—of mis-translation—in the Argentine literary tradition. As Piglia suggests in this footnote, the translator—much like the critic, much like the reader—reproduces the ‘crime’ of writing. That it be re-written in another language is fitting of the equivocation—as well as the homage—implied in “assuming” an-other’s name.
Fragmento de La ciudad ausente:
… Como si la máquina se hubiera construido su propia memoria. Ésa era la lógica que estaba aplicando. Los hechos se incorporaban directamente, ya no era un sistema cerrado, tramaba datos reales. Por lo tanto se veía influido por otras fuerzas externas que entraban en el programa. No sólo situaciones del presente, pensó Junior. Narra lo que conoce, nunca anticipa. Volvió a Stevensen. Ya estaba todo ahí. El primer texto mostraba el procedimiento. Tenía que buscar en esa dirección. Investigar lo que se repetía. Fabrica réplicas microscópicas, dobles virtuales, William Wilson, Stephen Stevensen…
Junior empezaba a entender. Al principio la máquina se equivoca. El error es el primer principio. La máquina disgrega ‘espontáneamente’ los elementos del cuento de Poe y los transforma en los núcleos potenciales de la ficción. Así había surgido la trama inicial. El mito de origen. Todas las historias venían de ahí. El sentido futuro de lo que estaba pasando dependía de ese relato sobre el otro y el porvenir. Lo real estaba definido por lo posible (y no por el ser). La oposición verdad-mentira debía ser sustituida por la oposición posible-imposible… (La ciudad ausente 102 –103)
From The Absent City:
… As if the machine had built its own memory. That was the logic being applied. The events were being directly incorporated, it was no longer a closed system, it was weaving in real facts. She was influenced by other forces—external ones—that entered into the program. Not just situations in the present, Junior thought. It narrates what it knows, it never anticipates. He went back to “Stevensen.” It was all there already. The first text demonstrates the process. He had to continue searching along these lines. Investigate what was being repeated. It builds microscopic replicas, virtual doubles, William Wilson, Stephen Stevensen…
Junior was starting to understand. At first the machine would get it wrong. Errors are the first beginning. The machine ‘spontaneously’ breaks up the elements of Poe’s story and transforms them into potential fictional nuclei. That is how the initial plot had emerged. The myth of origin. All the stories came from there. The future meaning of what was occurring depended on that story about the other and what is to come. Reality was defined by the possible (and not by what was). The true-false opposition had to be substituted by the possible-impossible opposition… (The Absent City 82 –83)
When I translated The Absent City, I had the strange feeling that the version of the novel that I was writing anew in English was somehow already anticipated—and perhaps produced—by the machine at the center of the novel. I felt, at times, as if my work as a translator was a projection of the machine, with its ceaseless output of stories that are re-workings of other stories, in turn reproduced and circulated throughout a city somehow composed of the stories themselves. A machination of narrating (una máquina de narrar) as if projected from the original itself, yet distorted, absent but also present. Even my recorded conversations with Piglia from the time, while translating The Absent City, seemed organically connected to the recordings of the enigmatic machine. As if my translation were a one of the machine’s stories; as if the author of the translation were the machine.
The machine in The Absent City is, in fact, a translation machine that thrives in spite of—or perhaps, thanks to—its errors. The first story that the machine mis-translated, we learn, is Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” a story about the unsettling presence of doubles. To note that the machine begins with error, as the fragment above points out, further accentuates the disorienting effect—and enormous potential—of storytelling and translation in the novel. In and through language, as a mined field of potentiality, in history and in what is to come, a new city based on the (im)possible, imagined as real for a time to come, in the reader’s mind, in translation from its origins. And its origins in translation.
Fragmento de Blanco nocturno:
Tony Durán era un aventurero y un jugador profesional y vio la oportunidad d ganar la apuesta máxima cuando tropezó con las hermanas Belladona. Fue un ménage à trois que escandalizó al pueblo y ocupó la atención general durante meses. Siempre aparecía con una de ellas en el restaurante del Hotel Plaza pero nadie podía saber cuál era la que estaba con él porque las gemelas eran tan iguales que tenían idéntica hasta la letra. Tony casi nunca se hacía ver con las dos al mismo tiempo, eso lo reservaba para la intimidad, y lo que más impresionaba a todo el mundo era pensar que las mellizas dormían juntas. No tanto que compartieran al hombre sino que se compartieran a sí mismas.
Pronto las murmuraciones se transformaron en versiones y en conjeturas y ya nadie habló de otra cosa; en las casas o en el Club Social o en el almacén de los hermanos Madariaga se hacía circular la información a toda hora como si fueran los datos del tiempo.
En ese pueblo, como en todos los pueblos de la provincia de Buenos Aires, había más novedades en un día que en cualquier gran ciudad en una semana y la diferencia entre las noticias de la región y las informaciones nacionales era tan abismal que los habitantes podían tener la ilusión de vivir una vida interesante. Durán había venido a enriquecer esa mitología y su figura alcanzó una altura legendaria mucho antes del momento de su muerte… (Blanco nocturno 13 – 14)
From Target in the Night:
Tony Durán was an adventurer and a professional gambler who saw his opportunity to win the big casino when he met the Belladona sisters. It was a ménage à trois that scandalized the town and remained on everyone’s mind for months. He would always show up with one of the two at the restaurant of the Plaza Hotel, but no one could tell which sister he was with because the twins were so similar that even their handwriting was identical. Tony almost never let himself be seen with both at the same time; that is something he kept private. What shocked everyone the most was the thought of the twins sleeping together. Not so much that they would share the same man, but that they would share each other.
Soon the rumors turned into stories and conjectures, and before long no one could talk about anything else. In people’s homes, or at the Social Club, or at the Madariaga Store and Tavern, the information circulated at all hours of the day as if it were the facts about the weather.
In that town, as in all towns in the Province of Buenos Aires, there was more news in a single day than there would be in any large city in a week. The difference between the regional and the national news was so vast that the residents could maintain the illusion that they lived an interesting life. Durán had come to enrich that mythology, and his figure reached legendary heights long before the moment of his death… (Target in the Night 3 – 4)
In my opinion, the most important element that needs to be recreated in the translation of Blanco nocturno is the feel, or the tone of the narrative. Something about the rhythm, the speed of the storytelling, even the attitude of the narrator—as well as the multiple voices and versions of the mystery. For the feel of the narrative is different at different points of the novel. Very noire and syncopated, at times, while at others it’s much more lyrical, or self-reflexive. At times it sounds like a crime novel, at others like the most sophisticated of Modernist texts. The narrative style ranges from echoes of Raymond Chandler, to F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. But that’s already an equivocal translation, a false equivalence. The engrossing mystery of Blanco nocturno exists always within the very specific setting of the Argentine pampas, with the corresponding specifics of the characters and the history and the language and the worldview of a small town in the province of Buenos Aires. And the novel dialogues directly with Argentine tradition, from Sarmiento and José Hernández, to Borges and Rodolfo Walsh, among others; and with Argentine history and oral mythologies.
So how do you translate Blanco nocturno—a novel so rooted in Argentine tradition, a novel where the Argentine landscape and ways of speaking are so important—into English? How does one go from Blanco nocturno to Target in the Night? A noirish detective novel set in the Argentine pampas. A literary thriller; a paranoid fiction. The suspicious death of a stranger from the North (where he is also an ‘other’: an Afro-Puerto Rican in New Jersey) in a small town in the Province of Buenos Aires (in the South), where his very presence seems to upend the local hierarchies and unveil socio-economic tensions and family secrets, long before the moment of his death…
Fragmento de Blanco nocturno:
[En esta sección, Renzi y Croce están investigando juntos las circunstancias misteriosas alrededor de la muerte de Tony Durán:]
Salieron en el auto, a medianoche, hacia Tapalqué, por una ruta lateral que cruzaba el borde del partido. Iban en medio del campo, esquivando los alambrados y los animales quietos. La luna se escondía de a ratos y Croce usaba el buscahuellas, que estaba en el costado, un foco fuerte con una manija que se podía mover con la mano. De pronto vieron una liebre, paralizada de terror, blanca, quieta, en el círculo iluminado, como una aparición en medio de la oscuridad, bajo el haz de luz, un blanco en la noche que de pronto quedó atrás. Anduvieron varias horas, sacudidos por los pozos del camino, mirando el hilo plateado de los alambrados bajo el cielo estrellado. Por fin, al salir a una senda arbolada, vieron al fondo, lejos, el brillo de la ventana iluminada de un rancho. Cuando llegaron a la huella y enfilaron hacia el rancho ya empezaba a clarear en el horizonte y todo se volvió de un color rosado. Renzi se bajó y abrió la tranquera y el auto entró por un sendero entre los yuyos. En la puerta, bajo el alero, un paisano tomaba mate sentado en un banquito. Un policía de consigna dormitaba junto a un árbol. (Blanco nocturno 149 – 150)
From Target in the Night:
[In this section, Renzi and Croce are working together to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Tony Durán:]
They headed out of town in Croce’s car, at midnight, on a side road that bordered the district line, toward Tapalqué. They drove across the countryside, avoiding the fences and the still animals. The moon was occasionally covered by the clouds, so Croce would use the searchlight attached to his side of the car, a bright bulb with a handle that could be adjusted by hand. All of a sudden, in the illuminated circle, they saw a rabbit, paralyzed by fear, white, motionless—like an apparition in the middle of the dark. Caught in the light beam, it was a target in the night that they quickly left behind. They drove for several hours, bumping along because of the pits in the road, staring at the silver lines of the wire fences under the stars. Finally, turning off at a wooded path, there was a glow from the lighted window of a country house in the distance. By the time they reached the source and were getting close to the small house, dawn was starting to break on the horizon, turning everything a pinkish hue. Renzi got out and opened the gate so the car could go in and down a narrow road surrounded by bushes. At the door, a peasant was sitting on a bench under the eaves, drinking mate. A patrol officer was dozing off nearby, leaning back against a tree. (Target in the Night 128 – 129)
One of the most difficult things to translate about Target in the Night is the title itself. In Spanish, Blanco nocturno has several meanings, and there is no way to reproduce all of those in one single title in English. “Blanco nocturno,” translated literally, would be “Nocturnal White,” which does not make much sense in English. White Nocturne was a possibility, and it was never that far from Target in the Night. But “blanco” in Spanish is not just “white.” The most important meaning of “blanco” in the context of the novel is “target.” “Tiro al blanco” is target shooting; “dar en el blanco” is to hit the target. While blanco does mean white, it also means blank, as in a blank space. Tony Durán, the mulatto Puerto Rican from New Jersey, the strange foreigner who travels to the small town in the Province of Buenos Aires, is a dark man at the center of a dark mystery. He is also a target from the moment he sets foot in the Argentine town. Or perhaps Tony Durán has gone to the town with a secret target in mind. These possibilities emerge from the title, and from a number of scenes in the novel that work by juxtaposing opposites: black and white, day and night, past and future, presence and absence, tradition and innovation.
I considered several options before arriving at Target in the Night. In the end, the centrality of the target, as well as the feel of the story, outdid the lyricism of White Nocturne. Nocturnal Target, or Night Target, were not far off. White Night would have overly simplified things, although it would have kept the blanco–nocturno binomial. Night Blanks, or Blank Night sounded mysterious, but too ambiguous. Night Vision, although intriguing, would have changed the meaning too much. Likewise, I considered A Shot in the Dark, but found it off the mark. Conrad Aiken has a lovely poem entitled “White Nocturne,” and while there are some very beautiful passages in Piglia’s novel, and while there is definitely something poetic about Blanco nocturno, the novel has a jazzy, driving feel to it, a noirish hook much closer to Target in the Night.
Fragmento de El camino de Ida:
En aquel tiempo vivía varias vidas, me movía en secuencia autónomas: la serie de los amigos, del amor, del alcohol, de la política, de los perros, de los bares, de las caminatas nocturnas. Escribía guiones que no se filmaban, traducía múltiples novelas policiales que parecían ser siempre la misma, redactaba áridos libros de filosofía (¡o de psicoanálisis!) que firmaban otros. Estaba perdido, desconectado, hasta que por fin –por azar, de golpe, inesperadamente– terminé enseñando en los Estados Unidos, involucrado en un acontecimiento del que quiero dejar un testimonio.
Recibí la propuesta de pasa un semestre como visiting professor en la elitista y exclusiva Taylor University; les había fallado un candidato y pensaron en mí porque ya me conocían, me escribieron, avanzamos, fijamos fecha, pero empecé a dar vueltas, a postergar: no quería estar seis meses enterrado en un páramo. Un día, a mediados de diciembre, recibí un correo de Ida Brown escrito con la sintaxis de los antiguos telegramas urgentes: Todo dispuesto. Envíe Syllabus. Esperamos su llegada. Hacía mucho calor esa noche, así que me di una ducha, busqué una cerveza en la heladera y me senté en el sillón de lona frente a la ventana: afuera la ciudad era una masa opaca de luces lejanas y sonidos discordantes. (El camino de Ida 13 – 14)
[… Poco después Renzi viaja a New Jersey para enseñar un curso de posgrado sobre Hudson; en la siguiente escena se encuentra para hablar y almorzar con Ida Brown:]
Terminamos de comer y salimos por Witherspoon hacia Nassau Street. El sol había empezado a disolver la nieve y caminamos con cuidado por las veredas heladas. Iba a tener unos días libres para ambientarme, cualquier cosa que precisara no tenía más que avisarle. Las secretarias podían ocuparse de los detalles administrativos, los estudiantes estaban entusiasmados con mi curso. Esperaba que estuviera cómodo en mi oficina del tercer piso. Cuando nos despedíamos en la esquina frente al campus, me apoyó la mano en el brazo y me dijo con una sonrisa:
–En otoño estoy siempre caliente.
Me quedé seco, confundido. Y ella me miró con una expresión extraña, esperó un instante a que yo dijera algo y luego se alejó resueltamente. Tal vez no me había dicho lo que me pareció escuchar (“In the fall I’m always hot”), quizá me había dicho En la caída soy siempre un halcón. Hot-hawks, podría ser. Otoño quería decir semestre de otoño, pero recién empezaba el semestre de primavera. Claro que hot en slang podía querer decir speed y fall en el dialecto de Harlem era una temporada en la cárcel. El sentido prolifera si uno habla con una mujer en una lengua extranjera. Ése fue otro signo del desajuste que se iba a agravar en los días por venir. Suelo ponerme obsesivo con el lenguaje, resabios de mi formación, tengo un oído envenenado por la fonética de Trubetzkoy y siempre escucho más de lo debido, a veces me detengo en los anacolutos o en los sustantivos adjetivados y pierdo el significado de las frases. Me sucede cuando estoy de viaje, cuando estoy sin dormir, cuando estoy borracho, y también cuando estoy enamorado. (¿O sería gramaticalmente más apropiado decir: me pasa cuando viajo, cuando estoy cansado y cuando me gusta una mujer?) (El camino de Ida 21 – 22)
From Ida’s Way:
I was living various lives at the time, moving in autonomous sequences: the series of friends, of love, of alcohol, of politics, of dogs, of bars, of nighttime walks. I was writing movie scripts that weren’t get filmed, translating several detective novels that always seemed like the same one, putting together dry books of philosophy (or psychoanalysis!) signed by others. I was lost, disconnected, until finally—by chance, suddenly, unexpectedly—I ended up teaching in the United States, involved in an event about which I’d like to leave testimony.
I received an offer to spend a semester as a Visiting Professor in the elite, exclusive Taylor University. They had lost a candidate and had thought of me because they already knew me, they wrote. We made progress, set a date, but then I hesitated and delayed: I didn’t want to spend six months buried in a barren plain. One day, in mid December, I received mail from Ida Brown written with the old syntax of urgent telegrams: All set. Send Syllabus. Awaiting your arrival. It was very hot that night, so I took a shower, grabbed a beer from the fridge, and sat on the canvas chair facing the window: outside, the city was an opaque mass of distant lights and discordant sounds.
[… Shortly afterwards, Renzi travels to New Jersey and begins to get ready for his semester as a Visiting Professor; in his first meeting with Ida Brown, we read:]
We finished eating and went out Witherspoon toward Nassau Street. The sun had started to melt the snow. We walked carefully along the frozen sidewalks. I had a few days to get settled, anything I needed, all I had to do was ask. The secretary could take care of the administrative details, the students were excited about my course. She [Ida Brown] hoped I’d be comfortable in my office on the third floor. When we said goodbye at the corner across from campus, she put her hand on my arm, smiled, and said:
“In the Fall I’m always hot.”
I stopped short, confused. She looked at me with a strange expression, waited a moment for me to say something, and then left, resolutely. Maybe she hadn’t said what I thought I’d heard (“En otoño estoy siempre caliente”), perhaps she’d said When I fall I’m always a hawk (En la caída soy siempre un halcón). Hot-hawk, it could be. Fall meant the Fall semester, but it was the Spring semester that was about to start, not the Fall. Of course hot might mean speed, in some slang; and fall could refer to a spell in jail. Meaning proliferates when you speak with someone in a foreign tongue. That was another sign of my imbalance, which would only increase in the coming days. I tend to obsess over language, a bad habit from my years as a student, my ear is poisoned by Trubetzkoy’s phonetics, I always hear more than I should, sometimes I stop at an anacoluthons, or an adjectival noun, and lose the meaning of the phrase. It happens when I travel, when I haven’t slept, when I’m drunk, and also when I’m in love. (Or would it be more accurate, grammatically, to say: It happens when I’m traveling, tired or interested in someone?)
The next few weeks were full of these kinds of strange resonances. I’m unsettled in English because I make mistakes more frequently than I’d like, and I attribute to these equivocations the threatening sense that words sometimes have for me. Down the street there’re pizza huts to go to and the pavement glows, a bluish slate gray. I’m unable to think in English, I start translating right away. At the bottom of the street there’s a pizzeria and the asphalt shines critically under a blue light.
In Ida’s Way, Emilio Renzi—Ricardo Piglia’s well-known alter ego, of sorts—is invited to a prestigious, private university on the East Coast for a semester to teach a graduate seminar. Here Piglia gives us an Argentine traveler in the U.S., as Renzi experiences, observes and goes on to investigate an unexpected mystery, all the while disoriented because, as an outsider, he sees everything through the lens of mis-translation. Renzi’s perspective is directly related to the fact that he is a foreigner in the U.S.—in a manner very much analogous to W. H. Hudson’s English perspective in Argentina in the 19th century. Ida’s Way alerts us to this important parallel from the beginning (it is not a coincidence that Renzi has been invited to teach a graduate seminar on Hudson), and later includes important references to Joseph Conrad and J. L. Borges, among others, deepening the complexity of the novel.
Renzi’s perspective as an outsider in American academia, and later in an investigation involving counter-culture movements and anti-establishment ideologies, creates startling insights. Furthermore, Renzi’s unique perspective is manifested in the strangeness he experiences in the U.S., in English, which he expresses in a very specifically Argentine Spanish. The nuances in the language are particularly difficult to translate. The translation of Ida’s Way must recreate the novel’s examination of certain aspects of U.S. society, as seen through the eyes of an Argentine traveler. The challenge to the translator is that the narrator’s adventures and insights occur in—and in parts thanks to—his Argentine language and culture.
The task of the translator of Ida’s Way is to recreate this unique “outsider’s” perspective in English—even when the language and culture themselves are investigated in the novel. The translation should seek to recreate the strangeness that the character experiences, aiming to sound strange in an analogous manner to how the narrative sounds strange, at times, in the original. This strangeness appears in the novel in situations that in and of themselves seem to be untranslatable, but somehow the connotation as well as the denotation of these examples must be rendered in the translation. In everything from the title, to Renzi’s many encounters, to the series of cultural and political reflections along the way, the translator of Ida’s Way—like the reader of Piglia’s work in any language—must be attuned to this rich complexity in form as well as content.
Piglia, Ricardo. Nombre falso. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 1975.
——. La ciudad ausente. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1992.
——. Blanco nocturno. Buenos Aires: Anagrama, 2010.
——. El camino de Ida. Buenos Aires: Anagrama, 2013.
——. Assumed Name. Trans. by Sergio Waisman. Pittsburgh, PA: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1995.
——. The Absent City. Trans. by Sergio Waisman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
——. Target in the Night. Trans. by Sergio Waisman. Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum Publications, 2015.
——. Ida’s Way. Trans. by Sergio Waisman. n. d. TS. “Translator’s Notebooks.”