Maintaining Boundaries (and Borders): Translating Senselessness

by Katherine Silver    /  March 12, 2010  / No comments

One of the most interesting aspects for me as a translator of the complex and multifaceted novel Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya, is its exploration of how syntax, specifically syntactic distortion, subverts—or perverts—the internal coherence of the individual psyche.

The narrator of this concise, breathless novel has been hired by the Catholic Church in an unnamed Central American country to copyedit a report about the massacres of the indigenous communities by the armed forces. As he slogs through the one-thousand-one-hundred page text, he becomes obsessed by snippets of testimonies by traumatized non-native survivors, testimonies that describe horrific brutality and violence. The narrator is fascinated by the idiosyncratic syntax of these sentences, experiencing them as both poetic—even reminiscent of the great Peruvian poet, César Vallejo—and indicative of the speakers’ trauma. As the book progresses and he becomes more and more paranoid about being the target of those who would like to silence such voices, his own syntax—that of the narrative—gets infected—distorted—by these utterances. At first glance, the reader might suspect that the narrator, and the author, is aestheticizing the testimony, thereby pushing away the ethical and political issues involved, as well as emotionally cutting himself from the violence and its implications; the fact that he ultimately takes on the syntax implies a much more intimate identification with the victim: getting under their skins and climbing into their minds invokes a different process altogether.

Part of the challenge and the joy of translating this text was finding a way to re-create this almost imperceptible process in English without sounding contrived or falling into the cliché of stilted, broken English phrasing. I was also aware that by translating the novel into English, introducing it into the cultural and linguistic context of the United States, I was adding yet another layer—much as the narrator does when he copies the phrases into his notebook. The Spanish text, infected by the distorted syntax of the native languages of the victims, moves into English, thereby infecting English with a distorted syntax from another subordinated language, namely Spanish. The language of the conquered subverts the conquering language through a syntax that undermines the sanity of the narrator (and the society?). Then the text is translated into English, the language that has colonized and continues to—as we speak and translate—the original colonizing language itself.

When the novel begins, the narrator pretends to maintain that distance between himself and the utterances that so enthrall him, as well as the brutality and violence they convey. In the text, these sentences are italicized to emphasize the fact that they have been taken from another source, quoted, decontextualized. When the narrator copies them down in his little notebook and obsessively reads them to himself or, mostly inappropriately, shares them with others, they take one further step out of their contexts. This again reflects back on the act of translation, for what do we translators do if not lift texts out of their own worlds and dump them into new and often inhospitable ones?

The first of these italicized phrases the narrator lifts from the report—and the first sentence of the book—spoken by an indigenous man whose family has been slaughtered in front of him, is:  “I am not complete in the mind.”

Here is a sampling of others:

“The houses they were sad because no people were inside them.”

“Because for me the sorrow is to not bury him myself.”

“While the cadavers they were burning, everyone clapped and they began to eat”

“If I die I know not who will bury me.”

Then, toward the end:

“We all know who are the assassins!”

In the last several chapters, we have lost the italics, and the boundaries. The narrator has taken on the sp (and the trauma?) of the victims:

“As if free of fear I awoke that first morning in my assigned room at the spiritual retreat center . . .”

And then the next paragraph on the next page begins:

“As if free of nightmares I awoke that first morning in that austere room with white walls, lying in my bunk where I enjoyed contemplating, through the glass door that faced the large lawn and the pine forest beyond, the fog drifting by on the breeze.”

One perspective on the narrator’s state of mind is that his subjectivity has been layered over that of the text he is editing, thereby creating a mind confused by other, multiple, subjectivities. This layering, or dialogue, if you will, is eerily similar to what a translator engages in, a process in both cases that suggests great intimacy, a deep unveiling. Anecdotally, there were moments when the translator’s sanity was challenged by the text (the novel) that spoke of a different text (the report) that was challenging the narrator’s sanity. In one scene, the narrator is describing the testimony of a particularly horrific torture session involving a young woman. He says he felt so terrible reading it that he flung open the door to his office and took a walk around the palace grounds where he was working. Each time I revised that scene, I experienced the same feeling of suffocation, the same need to see something in front of my eyes besides the images invoked and the pain recounted; I would step outside my office door and into my garden.

Herein lies a rather brutal instance of a common occupational hazard for translators: our minds take on the mind of the writer of the text we are translating. In the jargon of the psychology of human relationships, we translators, like our paranoid and poetically sensitive narrator, sometimes have boundary issues.

Read Silver’s bio.

Buy a copy of Silver’s translation of Senselessness.

MORE BY KATHERINE SILVER

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About the Author

Katherine Silver has translated the works of many Spanish and Latin American authors, including Antonio Skármeta, José Emilio Pacheco, Elena Poniatowska, Martín Adán, Pedro Lemebel, and Jorge Franco. For her translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness, she received her second NEA fellowship, a PEN Translation Fund grant, and the 2008 NCBA Translation Award. Her collection of modern and contemporary Chilean fiction, Chile, A Traveler’s Literary Companion, was published by Whereabouts Press in 2003. She has translated plays, screenplays—some for major motion pictures—and a wide assortment of academic and other nonfiction books. She also works as an editor and publishing consultant/manager, and lives in Berkeley, California.

View all articles by Katherine Silver

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