Translating Bolaño: An Interview with Natasha Wimmer

by Joshua Barnes    /  January 17, 2013  / 3 Comments

Natasha Wimmer

Natasha Wimmer. Photo: Olivia Stransky

Natasha Wimmer had been working for Farrar, Straus and Giroux for several years when she was presented with the opportunity to translate The Savage Detectives, Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s first novel, into English. She hadn’t heard of the author before, but Wimmer read the book in Spanish and was floored. “It was the best book I had read in either Spanish or English in a long time,” she said. Still, Wimmer didn’t think she would get the job: Christopher Andrews, who had already translated Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Distant Star, was the go-to choice. However, in a stroke of luck, Andrews was too busy to tackle the project and Wimmer took it on. After The Savage Detectives was released in the United States, both the book and its late author became literary sensations. That was in 2007.

Since then, Wimmer has translated Bolaño’s magnum opus 2666, a collection of his articles called Between Parentheses, and the most recent novel released by the Bolaño estate, Woes of the True Policeman, among others. Additionally, she has completed several other translation projects, including three books by Mario Vargas Llosa, and written a biographical essay on Bolaño.

Wimmer also occasionally works as a book critic and is currently teaching a seminar on translation at Princeton University. In December 2012, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh brought her to the Northside where she spoke about her experiences translating Bolaño and read from Woes of the True Policeman.

In this interview, which includes questions from the audience after the reading, Wimmer talks about becoming a translator, the controversial note at the end of Woes of the True Policeman, learning about Bolaño while living in Mexico City, and the United States’ relationship with literature in translation.

How did you become a translator?

I learned Spanish because when I was 10 my family moved to Madrid for four years. Later, I studied Spanish literature in college and spent a year abroad in Madrid. After I graduated, I moved to New York to work in publishing at Farrar, Straus and Giroux where I was helping to commission translations. At some point we were looking for a translation of the Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, but couldn’t find a sample that was approved by the editor-in-chief. I thought, “I should try my hand at this.” That was the beginning of my translation career.

Was translation the best way for you to fit in the literary scene? I read that since you were in college you said you’d “never become a fiction writer,” even though you love books.

I realized that I just didn’t have the talent to become a fiction writer, so I redirected my efforts. I understood that you didn’t have to write fiction if you wanted to write. There’s plenty of amazing non-fiction and critical writing, plus I love the essay. Publishing was my first attempt, but I liked the role of translator better than the role of editor.

Why do you prefer to be a translator?

Being an editor is a very public position, which requires diplomacy. As a translator you work more exclusively with a text and you’re alone a lot, which I don’t mind. The problem can be that translating exercises just one part of the brain and you don’t get to be very analytical. So I’ve done some review writing and just started teaching, which are nice complements to the translation work.

What are you teaching?

It’s a translation seminar at Princeton. I wanted this class to be the kind of class that I wished I could have taken. Translation is something you can do without training—I’m essentially self-taught, like most translators in the U.S.—but it’s a craft and you can learn a lot from a class. It allows you to start out ahead and not have to cut your teeth on some poor writer who suffers the consequences.

woes of the true policeman

Woes of the True Policeman, 2012. Farar, Strauss and Giroux.

Now let’s talk about Woes of the True Policeman. There’s a note in the back of the book, written by Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, from whom he was separated at the time of his death. The note explains how the novel was found and that its parts are at “different stages of completion, though the general level of revision is high.”

It’s a long and complicated description. I don’t have any inside information on how the book was put together, I’m afraid. The note is from the estate, and what it says, essentially, is that the book was spliced together from several versions of a complete manuscript.

Do you have any idea why the book is being released now?

I don’t. And that’s true with the other posthumous books like Third Reich. I don’t know why they surfaced when they did, but what’s impressive is that Bolaño had so many top-notch manuscripts lying around. Why they were kept back or why they were found when they were I don’t know.

You’ve translated some of Bolaño’s other fiction: 2666 and The Savage Detectives. Is there anything you noticed about Woes of the True Policeman that gave you a new perspective on the author?

The character, Amalfitano, is also a character in 2666 and the way that Bolaño writes about him in Woes of the True Policeman gives you the sense that he’s in love with the character. He compares him to Christopher Walken and gives several lavish biographies that almost sound like spoofs of similar scenes in previous books. For example, in Woes of the True Policeman Amalfitano is portrayed as the hero of the resistance in all kinds of Latin American countries and a brilliant scholar. Maybe those portraits are intended ironically, but if they’re not, I get the sense that Bolaño might have toned them down or trimmed them a little if he had completed the book. But of course that’s pure conjecture on my part.

So let’s talk about translating the brain behind The Savage Detectives, who was already deceased at the time you began the work. Did you research what he was like as a person first? (Question by Jim Abraham)

That’s a question that’s very pertinent to Bolaño, since his first novel, The Savage Detectives, is very autobiographical, to the extent that a friend of his told me that 98% of it is true, or based on fact.

I didn’t do a lot of research before I translated that novel, but after I finished it I wrote a biographical essay about him, which required a lot of research. It was very enlightening. I’m not sure that knowing the information I uncovered would have changed my translation, but it definitely shed light on many things in the novel.

Something peculiar about Bolaño is that he wanted to write what he called the “Total Novel.” By this he meant that he wanted all of his novels to be interconnected. So you’ll see some of the same characters pop up from novel to novel in different forms, but then you’ll also see those characters appear in his life. I’ve always thought that a fun thing to do would be to produce an annotated edition of The Savage Detectives. For example: there’s a group of young poets in The Savage Detectives called the visceral realists, but in real life Bolaño started a group called the Infrarealists in Mexico City. Some of the ex-Infrarealists have a website about their time in Mexico City with Bolaño. On it they posted bitter remarks about how Bolaño had sold out, how he should have stayed a poet, and how they were the true characters in the novel.

You even lived in Mexico City while translating The Savage Detectives… What did you learn from that experience?

My husband and I were living on a street parallel to Calle Bucareli where Café Quito from The Savage Detectives is—it’s called La Habana in real life—and it’s basically the same as it was when Bolaño was there. The trip was useful in all kinds of ways; there were references I would’ve had a hard time tracking down if I hadn’t been in Mexico. For example, there’s a reference in The Savage Detectives to someone called El Santo, who I thought might be a saint or religious figure. But of course he’s one of the most famous wrestlers in Mexican history. When you’re in Mexico, he’s all over the place—you pick up a magazine and there’s a feature on El Santo, there are posters of him. My husband got really into masked wrestling and went to all kinds of matches; I went to one.

It seems you spent a lot of time and energy researching and translating one book. Do you have a sense of how much time Bolaño spent revising and how much of your work is revision of the same book? (Question by Toi Derricotte)

Are you asking whether I spent more time working on it than he did? (laughs) That is often the question the translator asks him or herself, but Bolaño was a very careful writer who rewrote a lot. I take as much time as I can on translations, but it’s not endless. I go through five or six drafts, but with proofs and revisions, it’s even more than that.

In the time you’ve spent researching Bolaño, have you found out how he perceived himself as a writer in exile? (Question by Merritt Wuchina)

He had a complicated relationship with the concept of exile. If you read his essays you get the impression that he got a little fed up with people asking him to speak about it all the time. He has one long essay about exile in which he says several things that should possibly be taken with a grain of salt—he could be very sarcastic in his non-fiction. He says he was never exiled because the Spanish language was his homeland, but he makes fun of that later. It’s interesting that the Spanish town where he chose to live was a little beach town north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava. It’s the kind of town where there are 10,000 residents in the winter and then 150,000 in the summer. It’s a weird hinterland in great flux. There are not really any locals. It’s a town of exile in a way.

  1. Translations by Natasha Wimmer
  2. • Dirty Havana Trilogy
    Pedro Juan Gutiérrez (2002)
  3. • Letters to a Young Novelist
    Mario Vargas Llosa (2003)
  4. • So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance
    Gabriel Zaid (2003)
  5. • The Language of Passion
    Mario Vargas Llosa (2004)
  6. • The Way to Paradise
    Mario Vargas Llosa (2004)
  7. • Kensington Gardens
    Rodrigo Fresan (2006)
  8. • Delirium
    Laura Restrepo (2007)
  9. • The Savage Detectives
    Roberto Bolaño (2007)
  10. • 2666
    Roberto Bolaño (2008)
  11. • The Secret of Fame: The Literary Encounter in an Age of Distraction
    Gabriel Zaid (2008)
  12. • Antwerp
    Roberto Bolaño (2010)
  13. • Between Parentheses
    Roberto Bolaño (2011)
  14. • Third Reich
    Roberto Bolaño (2011)
  15. • Woes of the True Policeman
    Roberto Bolaño (2012)

Lets talk about nuances in the languages. I was surprised to learn that “The Part About Fate” from 2666 was difficult for you to translate. I would think that your experiences as an American in New York City—where Fate, the African American reporter is from—would give you a leg up in translating the English colloquialisms and voices.

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I’m American and I live in New York, but no in the sense that I’ve never been very good at slang and specific genre slang. There were all kinds of pitfalls in that section because I didn’t want it to sound hackneyed or falsely imitative. So my editor and I debated whether we should make the language sound more American and folksy, but we ended up not doing very much—very slight turns of phrase, like the use of the word “folksy.” The trick was to balance some neutral word choices with specific vocabulary that wasn’t too jarring, but also suggested particular character traits and surroundings. Ultimately, what carried it through was faith in the details of the story. It’s not just the style and character that establish the mood, it’s also the plot and the details.

I can imagine that to handle the nuances of Spanish was even more difficult. The places where Bolaño lived have their own type of Spanish, with different rhythms, slang, and aphorisms. How did you handle that? (Question by Adriana Ramirez)

Bolaño is Chilean; he spent his formative years in Mexico City, and lived the majority of the rest of his life in Barcelona. Yes, I was worried about not being able to capture that. I remember there was a review that said, “This translation is fine, but it’s never going to capture the range of Spanish that Bolaño uses—especially in The Savage Detectives.” That book is full of 70s slang from Mexico City, and some of it isn’t even real slang, it’s slang he half-remembered or made up.

I did as much research as I could to figure out what he was trying to say, but did I capture the difference between Mexican Spanish and Chilean or Peruvian or Castilian Spanish in the novel? No. That’s lost. But while that’s an element of his style, it’s not the only element of his style. Even some Spanish readers might miss some of the nuances of those different types of Spanish. If you’re a Castilian Spanish reader, chances are you won’t know the difference between a Mexican expression and a Columbian expression.

As a translator of Spanish, how do you go from the original to the last version of the book? What do you try to accomplish from draft to draft? (Question by Marc Nieson)

I usually translate five to eight pages a day. First, I turn out a draft as fast as I can type, in very rudimentary English. The next morning I go over it and rustle it into shape, which is the bulk of the work. Eventually I go back and fine-tune the whole book, which still involves fairly substantial revision. Then I read it on paper.

For your secondary edits, do you look at the Spanish sentence-by-sentence? (Question by Marc Nieson)

Yes I do. I come from an editorial background, so in some ways I approach it as an editing project when it’s at that stage. If I had all the time in the world, I would read the final draft once more against the Spanish.

How do you know for yourself that what works in another language is working in English? Do you have a specific process for determining that?

I’m very conscious of rhythm. It’s the one thing that I’m most concerned about when translating. With the right rhythm you can reconstruct what’s lost from one language to the next. The right rhythm also makes it easier for the reader to engage naturally with the text.

There’s an oft quoted statistic that only 3% of literature in the United States is literature in translation. In a 2011 interview, the translator Eliot Weinberger said that the actual figure is more like .3%. What do you think about the current state of translated literature in the United States?

Translators get asked this question a lot and there’s no good answer. Obviously the difference has a lot to do with the United States’ position politically and the dominance of the English language. It’s a fact that when you listen to the news in other countries, America is at the top of the headlines, and when you listen to the news in the United States, Germany is not number one in coverage. But, with that said, there’s a lot of literature that is translated in the United States, if people seek it out.

Additionally, the books that get translated in the United States tend to be very literary or mass-market titles. There’s not much in the middle, which makes sense, because people want to feel that they’re getting something “extra” when they’re reading a translation. They want to read the best of a certain literature, or they want pure entertainment. Still, a lot of good things do surface, and even though plenty of interesting writers are neglected, the situation isn’t as dire as some people make it sound.

Now that you’ve finished Woes of the True Policeman, what are you working on?

A memoir by the Spanish writer, Marcos Giralt Torrente, which is about his relationship with his father, who was an artist. It’s called Tiempo de vida in Spanish, which is difficult to translate because it can mean a person’s life span (“life time”) as well as the time one has left to live before dying (“time left”), and also has an underlying hint of the imperative “time to live,” in the sense of “seize the day.”. It’s about Giralt Torrente’s father dying of cancer, and his experience spending the last two years of his life totally committed to him, trying to make up for the problems they had earlier on. It should be out next fall.

About the Author

Joshua Barnes is Sampsonia Way's Associate Editor. In 2010 he earned a bachelor’s degree in Fiction Writing and Literature at the University of Pittsburgh. During his undergraduate career, he was awarded 2009′s Ossip Award in Critical Writing for Anna Kavan: A Critical Study. Josh is involved with several musical projects and working on a variety of multi-media narratives.

View all articles by Joshua Barnes

3 Comments on "Translating Bolaño: An Interview with Natasha Wimmer"

  1. ilse andrews January 18, 2013 at 12:11 pm ·

    Thank you – very interesting and introspective. (Just a minor thing: “So I’ve done some review writing and just started teaching, which are nice compliments to the translation work. ” – should be “complements”. Perhaps an overeager spellchecker.)

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