OB: Bolaño’s work is full of indifference and black humour, perhaps most of all when it comes to sex. ‘The Redhead’, the extract from Antwerp printed in Granta 110: Sex, in which a girl periodically visits a narcotics cop to have sex with him, is no exception. One line reads, ‘Purple-tinted scene: before she pulls down her tights, she tells him about her day…’ How much did you have to get absorbed in the atmosphere of the book, and how did you achieve that?
NW: If you mean did I have to dim the lights and put on Barry White, I hate to disappoint you. I won’t say that the mood of a scene doesn’t affect me, but I’m not the translating equivalent of a Method actor. And luckily, I don’t think that Bolaño’s fiction – even the sex scenes – requires the translator’s own fiction. As you say, his work is full of indifference and black humour, which means that there is a sense of remove even when he’s at his most graphic. And that layer of coolness is what makes his sex scenes at once unromantic and curiously realistic and touching. It’s also what makes it possible for me to translate them more or less convincingly – or so I hope. I had a much harder time with the Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, another novelist with a penchant for descriptions of unconventional sex, because his tone is less controlled and more hedonistic, which frankly is a bit alien to me (I am the daughter of a Methodist minister, after all).
I’ve always assumed you would need a lot of empathy as a translator. Or perhaps it’s more purely technical than that – just a matter of understanding the words and putting them through the grinder? I know that you spent some time in Mexico City when working on The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s debut novel – in what way did this affect your interpretation of the book?
I think you do need empathy, but I resist the familiar notion that the translator somehow becomes the author, or has some sort of special telepathic relationship with the author. Frankly, I think that’s a bit presumptuous and grandiose, and it obscures the delicate process by which the translator adjusts his or her own voice to the author’s voice. It requires a kind of harmonizing, by which I mean that the translator must find a tone in her own register that somehow suits the author’s. It is easier, at least for me, to translate an author or a character for whom I have a natural affinity.
As for Mexico City, the time I spent there completely transformed my understanding of the book. The Savage Detectives is a love song to Mexico City, and to walk the same streets that Bolaño and his characters walked gave me a very intimate, visceral sense of the city and the novel. There’s something about Mexico City at night, in particular, that’s distinctive. For one thing, it’s darker than most other cities I know, which means that things seem to loom out at you as you walk, and you have the sense that you’re on the verge of the kind of bizarre encounter that Bolaño’s characters have all the time. I also spent time at Café La Habana (the original of Café Quito in the novel), which hasn’t changed much since Bolaño hung out there, and I stumbled over all kinds of cultural details that saved me from translation pitfalls (‘El Santo’??? for example, was one of the notes scribbled on my first draft of the translation; he is, of course, Mexico’s most famous masked wrestler, as I soon discovered).
Your translations can be quite lyrical, swinging with syntax you’ve preserved from the original but somehow achieving great readability in English. I’m interested in how you arrive at this – could you give us a sample sentence of the Spanish, and show us earlier and later versions, if that’s how you work?
I’m glad you think I make the translation read naturally in English while preserving some of the original Spanish syntax, as that’s something I strive for – though it’s not always possible. Like many writers in Spanish, Bolaño has a high tolerance for what we would call run-on sentences. I can’t always retain them in English, but it’s easier when they’re clearly delivered in the voice of a particular character, because the English reader is more willing to accept run-ons in the form of speech. In the example from Antwerp that I cite below, the voice is that of a cop having sex with a nameless girl:
Metió los dedos hasta el fondo, la chica gimió y alzó la grupa, sintió que sus yemas palpaban algo que instantáneamente nombró con la palabra estalagmita.
He pushed his fingers all the way in, the girl moaned and raised her haunches, he felt the tips of his fingers brush something to which he instantly gave the name stalagmite.
I don’t keep early drafts of translations, but do I remember some of the decisions I made. The word that gave me most trouble was ‘grupa’, which literally means a horse’s hindquarters. I wanted to preserve the farmyard connotations, which give the sentence an extra jolt of dirtiness. Another possibility might have been ‘rump’, but there’s something more suggestive and sexual about ‘haunches’. The rest was fairly straightforward, once the decision had been made (at the start of this short chapter) to respect the often ungainly length of the sentences. Reading it over now, it occurs to me that the effect is almost of breathlessness, or panting, which is certainly appropriate in the context.
Indeed – a performative solution. And you’ve shown again here Bolaño’s trademark mix of bathos and black comedy. His must be a strange mind to try and understand. If you could have met Bolaño, what single thing would you have asked him?
That’s a hard one. There are so many little things I’d like to ask him: what did you mean here, what did this word mean in Mexico City in 1970, how should this sentence read? Many times I had to make decisions based on context and consultation and ultimately my own best guess, and there are all kinds of minor questions that I’d love to see decisively answered. But if I only had one question to ask, I suppose it should be a big one, and I’m not sure what that might be. In a way, I feel as if his books themselves are the answer to any serious question I might ask, and I’m not sure that there’s anything he could (or would) tell me that isn’t revealed in the work he left behind.
Photograph © invisible lighthouse