I once thought to say, in earnest and in jest—or maybe it was in jest and in earnest—that the books we publish are not newborn children. Rather, they are already grown, ready to go out into the world by themselves and thrive or fail or go unnoticed for ten years or a hundred years or forever. While we are bringing them about/up, nothing matters more than they do. But then, when they leave, we are more interested in the children who are still living under our roof, who, of course, have greater need of us, who count on our time and our dedication.
The translated book is, in this sense, an anomaly and an anachronism. It is like a grown-up child who decides to start over, facing a language and a set of customs about which they know nothing at all. So someone else must write the book over again, sentence by sentence, word by word.
No one reads more deeply, more ruthlessly, or more lovingly than a translator. The only indisputable literary triumph takes place when, upon finishing their work, the translator hates neither the translated book nor the author they translated nor themself for having accepted, in a moment of weakness, the task of translating some shitty book.
I think the author is not the father of the book, but rather its mother. A single mother, usually. Perhaps, in a way, the father is the publisher, because he put down some money and took off, or remained more or less present but had to multitask, because publishers tend to have many children at once.
If the author is the book’s mother, the translator is, naturally, its stepmother. I’m going to ask my friend Megan McDowell if she agrees. Maybe you’ve read one of her books, although her name, lamentably, was absent from their covers for years. Just lately some publishers—not all—have begun to correct this inexplicable error. As seven of the books Megan has written were previously written by me, I can safely state that she is my translator, but identifying or introducing her as such would sound arrogant, not only because she is of course not “mine” and she does not translate only me, but also because at this point, after fifteen years, Megan is above all my friend. One of my best friends, I mean: one of the people I love most across the length and breadth of this massive planet and its surrounding areas.
Our friendship was forged in a prehistoric email exchange and took shape over the course of hundreds of meetings, via Skype and in person, that could well have been brief but tended to stretch on for hours. We would talk proportionally little about work matters, and much, much more—as friends do—about other things, about anything, about everything.
But we also talked about translation.
We once talked over the phone about the word “homesickness.” I was living in her country and she in mine, so inevitably and unconsciously we would talk about roots and displacements. But the conversation at hand turned instead on that mysterious moment when we finally, truly, adopt a word.
I’ve never gotten used to the word “homesickness.” I’ve said it many times. It’s one of my favorite words in English, precisely because when I say it, in the background, a fuzzy thought is briefly let loose—a thought about the word “home” and the word “sick,” and I like to see them come together and bump into each other or unexpectedly drift apart.
I also like to compare this foreign word to the word in Spanish. Something changed in my life or in my mind maybe thirty years ago, when a Spanish teacher told us the word “nostalgia” came from Greek, and that “nostos” was “return” and “algia” meant “pain.” However, Megan and I talked not about etymologies, but rather about an intuitive, improvised knowing, one that dazzles translators and writers and also, I suppose, to some extent, Scrabble players.
I knew the word “homesickness” at least from 1997 or 1998, when I heard—or, as Juan Emar would say, when I “isolated”—“Subterranean Homesick Alien,” the Radiohead song. But, as Megan and I agreed, it’s one thing to know a word and quite another to really use it, to submit it to the prose of the world; to wear it out, to manhandle it at risk of its losing a part of its beauty or exuberance.
Just as a native Spanish speaker might go their whole life without “seeing” the words “sol” and “edad” colliding in the word “soledad,” a native English speaker, in principle, ought not pause for even a millisecond over the words “home” and “sick” when uttering or writing the word “homesickness.”
I recall, on that note, these lines by my friend Andrés Anwandter, which seem untranslatable, although I’m sure Megan would try to translate them:
Me intriga la razón en la palabra
el otro en rostro
amor al inicio
en medio de metamorfosis
escondido en tambor.1
How does it feel to be translated into English? It’s an odd, uncomfortable question that sometimes sounds naïve and other times indulgent or triumphalist or imperialist or condescending. Once, since I didn’t like the tone in which this question was put to me, I answered that I didn’t feel anything, which, of course, was false. Another time I said it hurts for a couple of hours and leaves a mark, but you get used to it. Perhaps the perfect answer, reliable and polite, would be, quite simply: it feels fine, thanks. Because English is the only other language I can read and more or less speak and it’s true that if at the age of twelve you’d told me I was going to write books and that those books would be translated into the language of Shakespeare, it would have been a hard thing to believe. But maybe at that age, more than the language of Shakespeare, English was, for me, the language of Debbie Gibson. I’m sure I would have fantasized about the idea of her reading my books. Maybe that’s still my hope. Only in my dreams.
Indeed, Megan tells me she has often felt she is the stepmother of the books she translates, although she’s also interested in the figure of the lover, because there is something presumed to be “wrong” or “dirty” in the work of translation. She prefers, nonetheless, the role of stepmother. Stepmother and lover are both figures whose legitimacy is denied or debated, but only the lover is kept under wraps. And the work of translators is not kept under wraps. It is taxing, almost implausibly arduous, and often belittled, but it is not kept under wraps.
Not too many years ago, upon the release of a new edition of The Magic Mountain, a reviewer said, thanks to this new translation, Thomas Mann’s characters were “considerably closer to speaking English” than in the previous translation. It was a joke, or a provocation, I suppose, since not even the most scatterbrained reader would read The Magic Mountain with the goal of checking up on Hans Castorp’s English. But it’s also an honest judgment, one that says what is always said when a translation is praised: that it doesn’t seem like a translation. I don’t know if that reviewer knew German or not—I’m tempted to think he did, which would make him an exception, since in the U.S. and Chile and everywhere most of those charged with assessing translated literatures don’t know the original languages. What they judge, above all if not uniquely, is the translator’s prose. There is no deceit here, not at all: it is understood that a well translated novel is, at this point, a novel whose comprehension was not hindered by the translation, which does of course leave to one side the chance that the work not only has not been hindered but has been, in some sense, improved or enriched by the translation. If the style shines, it is understood that the translator has managed to recreate a preexisting, unfamiliar shine.
Ought, then, a critic or reviewer be proficient in a book’s language of origin? That is, ought they know it well enough to judge the translation itself? I don’t think so. That’s not their job; later, it will be the job of others. A certain dose of bilingualism, even if minimal (like mine), wakes us up, makes us happy, and makes us better, but I believe the second language of those who read literature is always literature itself. It’s hard to remain monolingual if we read—even if we read a novel written in our own language by a neighbor whose lived experience is, in theory, very similar to ours, but that blows us away with its ability to name what we thought could not be named, or because it makes up new and unexpected names for things we named before with automatic familiarity. The difference when you read a book in translation is that said neighbor tends to live extraordinarily far away.
Of course, there is an important difference between those who judge translated literature by more or less the same standards they would use to rate a Chilean avocado or an Italian wine and those who accept the challenging nature of the exercise, arguing over and relishing the delightful uncertainty that a translated text adds to the uncertainty inherent to the masquerade ball that is literature. Those of us who grew up in a grueling, dictatorial monolingualism, which threatens even the future of our own indigenous languages, cannot help but give thanks to the literature that has nourished our desire for a true dialogue with diverse languages, sometimes far away, sometimes close by but silenced and distorted.
In her inexhaustible essay This Little Art, Kate Briggs insists upon the “novelistic” nature of translation, even if what’s being translated is not a novel. Reading a translation, the famous suspension of disbelief coined by Coleridge operates intensely and doubly. We readers not only believe the narrated events took place; we also accept the belief that what we know was said in a language we don’t know was said in the language we know best, our own. In this sense, what happens when we read a translated novel is more “fictional” or novelistic than what happens when we read a novel written in our own tongue.
Just as we forget the novel we’re reading was written in a language we don’t know, I’m sure sometimes, over the course of their laborious substitutional odyssey, translators forget that the book they are translating/writing was written by someone else. This a beautiful confusion, and one that prefigures the possibility that we authors might be the ones who, upon reading our own texts in translation, forget we were the ones who wrote them.
That’s happened to me, reading Megan. When I was living in her country, some people who had read her but thought they had read me invited me to take part in an event at which they expected me to read excerpts from some of my books that she had written. I’m a very sociable person, so I accepted the invitation and set about reading those books of mine published in Megan’s language, books whose preliminary versions I was already familiar with but that I had never read as such, sprawled on my favorite sofa, à la “Continuity of Parks.”
For long moments I truly forgot that I knew those books, and that, as it happened, I had written them. Sometimes the name of a place or a character brought me back to reality, but the illusion worked, always restored. Then I chose a few excerpts and tried to read them aloud, but everything sounded fake to me, so in the end I had to call Megan and ask her to please record them for me so I could imitate, directly and shamelessly, her rhythm, her emphasis, her pronunciation, her voice.
I think the reading went well. Everybody at the bar seemed happy to hear me singing these songs written by Megan McDowell. They didn’t even realize that they were covers, that I was doing karaoke. I was a little off-key, but I don’t think anyone noticed.
I love learning about translators’ biographies. You hear lots of stories, but two above all. Some decided to delve into languages that, for various reasons (because it was the language of their grandparents, for example), were always close to them—their careers therefore imply an intoxicating and substantial debate around their own origins. But sometimes there is no other reason for becoming a translator besides an uncontrollable, ravenous, almost pathological enthusiasm. Megan had already fallen in love with her neighborhood’s literature, but then she found Hopscotch, a book that, in its way, is many books, but two books above all, and that in English, thanks to Gregory Rabassa’s translation, was also, in its way, many books—the others, the same—but two books above all—ditto—and after reading all the books this book was in English, Megan wanted to read all the books this book was in Spanish too. Then she read other books written in that same foreign language that was starting to feel like her own. And after that came her romance with Chile, with the Spanish of Chile, and from there with Spanish in general. And the bold decision to go back home and convince the neighborhood to read some unfamiliar, far-away books.
A translator wants those neighbors who live extraordinarily far away to settle down on their own block, and for their strange customs to modify our own ever-precarious and biased idea of community. Their work is not condescending—it consists not of taming the savages nor creating conditions in which the community might tolerate coexisting with these outlandish people. Their work is to show us that the definition of our identity is an unending process, as arduous as it is pleasurable; that to grow is also to multiply; that, seen from up close, we are all a little ridiculous and extraordinarily complex and strange and beautiful and wonderful and stupid; that we don’t know why we’re here or why we are who we are and still it’s necessary and crucial and fun to celebrate these mysteries, dancing and singing in other ways.