I first interviewed Lars Iyer in 2011, after the publication of his novel Spurious, the beginning of a trilogy that concluded with Exodus (my favorite of the three). I asked Lars to talk with me about his trilogy for an email interview, and we ended up discussing failure, comedy, optimism, academia, American writing, Britain in the mid-eighties, and his forthcoming novel Wittgenstein Jr.
Biblioklept: Why a trilogy? Was that by design? Is it a trilogy?
Lars Iyer: Spurious was only a beginning. I wanted to historicise my characters, to present their friendship as part of a larger social, economic and political context. Otherwise, I risked merely contributing belatedly to the literature of the absurd.
Biblioklept: I want to talk about the end of Exodus but that seems like bad form for an interview. Spoilers, etc. Can you comment on where you leave your protagonists, or how you leave them, or why you leave them?
LI: I leave my protagonists roughly where they were at the beginning of the trilogy: rudderless, rather lost, full of a sense of their failure, but with their friendship, such as it is, intact. ‘No hugs, no lessons’: my characters haven’t learned anything…
Biblioklept: Why can’t they learn? Why the repetition? Why not a heroic arc? Why not a saving grace?
LI: Perhaps because learning implies a kind of resolution that I think is inappropriate for the characters. Kundera says something apposite about Don Quixote. Cervantes makes his would-be knight-errant set off in search of battles, ready to sacrifice his life for a noble cause, ‘but tragedy doesn’t want him’. Kundera goes on:
since its birth, the novel is suspicious of tragedy: of its cult of grandeur; of its theatrical origins; of its blindness to the prose of life. Poor Alonzo Quijada. In the vicinity of his mournful countenance, everything turns into comedy.
So it is with my trilogy. No tragedy! No heroism! No tragic catharsis, that would see the tragic hero being dragged back into line. And no comic catharsis either, in which the older norms of a traditional societal system are reaffirmed. So much comedy is self-congratulatory, self-reassuring: the humour of good cheer, of port and cigars. It shores up things as they are. This is why I can never bear to watch comedy on television. It’s so rare to see comedians turn the joke on themselves. We need cruel comedy. Black comedy, which laughs at itself laughing…
Why the use of repetition in my novels? Because I want to portray the breakdown of things as they are, not once, but again and again. Failure, without amelioration. Serio-comic breakdown, without restitution. Anomie. Helplessness. Crushed hope. How else to acknowledge the prose of our lives?
Much of the humour of Don Quixote, depends on the contrast between lofty ideals and the concrete, everyday, corporeal life. The humour of my trilogy is analogous – but, of course, our everyday is utterly changed! A generalised precarity, un- and under-employment, free-floating anxiety, consumerism, the emphasis on self-representation, the sense that history is over, that politics is all played out, that financial and climatic catastrophe loom…
The tragedy of everyday life is that it’s not even tragic. It never reaches the lofty heights of tragic grandeur. Well, nor do my characters. When W. is at his most wretched, he cannot even die – that’s the end of Dogma. When W. is at his most revolutionary, participating in his own version of the Occupy movement, as at the end of Exodus … well, I won’t spoil the story, but it won’t surprise readers of previous books in the trilogy that there is neither a heroic arc nor a saving grace.
One feels happiness each day, you’re happy to be alive and not dead already. That’s a great capital.
From the person who died, I know that you love life to the very last moment. Basically, everyone loves to live. Life cannot be so terrible that you don’t keep on with it after all. The motivation is curiosity. You want to know: what will come next? It is more interesting to know what will come tomorrow then what is here today. When the body is ill the brain develops astonishingly well.
I prefer to know everything. And I always try to rob people and get everything that is in them out of them. As long as you can do so without the others recognizing it. When people discover that you want to rob them they shut their doors. Like the doors are shut when someone suspect comes near. But if nothing else is possible you can also break in. Everyone has some cellar window open. That also can be quite appealing.
In a 1934 radio interview, Gertrude Stein talks American football:
INTERVIEWER: You saw the Yale-Dartmouth game a week ago Saturday didn’t you? Did you understand that in the American way or the football way or how?
STEIN: IN the American way. The thing that interested me was that the Modern American in his movements and his actions in a football game so resembled the red Indian dance and it proves that the physical country that made the one made the other and that the red Indian is still with us. They just put their heads down solemnly together and then double over, while on the sidelines the substitutes move in a jiggly way just like Indians. Then they all get down on all fours just like Indians.
INTERVIEWER: But those jiggles are just warming-up exercises.
STEIN: It doesn’t make any difference what they are doing it for, they are just doing it, like the way the Indian jiggles in the Indian dance and then there is that little brown ball they all bend down and worship.
INTERVIEWER: But the ideas in that is to get the ball across the goal line.
STEIN: But don’t you suppose I know that, and don’t you suppose the Indians had just as much reason and enjoyed their dancing just as much?
This is the 2nd part of my conversation with Ilan Stavans about The Plain in Flames, his translation of Juan Rulfo’s short story collection El Llano en Llamas. Catch up with part 1 here. Lauren Flinner made the artwork below. (Editor’s note: “Schade” is George D. Schade, who did the first English translation of Juan Rulfo’s short stories as The Burning Plain.)
The goal of putting these stories out in English is to say, “I can’t see the world without them.” I believe that I can dress the stories in a way that is truthful to the original. But now that they’re there, it is up to whomever comes to the text to be able to synchronize with the stories.
Rulfo said, upon finishing Pedro Paramo, “I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, which signaled to me that it was finished.” When did you know you were finished?
I take after Walt Whitman – I know that I am finished when I have finally forced myself to send it to the editor and begin the editorial process, and when (or if) I open it again – as you are making me do right now [laughs] – there is always a feeling of discomfort, “mm, maybe I should have done this slightly different,” because the Ilan Stavans that is sitting with you is not the Ilan Stavans of a year ago, who had the text and was reacting to life in a particular way.
A text is finished the moment the text reaches the page. There is always the temptation to retouch it. There is always the sense, in my view, that one should move forward, and what you did then is an expression of that time, and you should do other projects.
In the introduction you mention that Rulfo’s Mexican Spanish includes countless peasantisms, and that it would seem very jarring if you tried to mimic them in this era. Why did you not include them and what made them so jarring?
It is jarring because… let me transpose it just for a second into the slice of a culture that I think you will understand better. If I tried to translate a rap song from English into Spanish, I will find very quickly that there is no easy referent to the exact same culture in the Spanish speaking world, and that slang in one culture works in one way that doesn’t work in others. If I use the word “chota” in Spanish to describe police, there is no word in English that will make me convey the sense of fear of the degradation, of abuse, of disgust that chota has. “Cops” doesn’t quite work…
But that already brings an animalistic view here that you don’t have in Spanish. So, slang or speech that connects particularly with a region, localisms, or with a class, are very difficult to convey and you don’t want to have the wrong impression. It would have been very easy to use, for instance, language of farmers in the Midwest to recreate certain words that the peasants in Mexico in the 1950s are using. But if I had done that, what people would have thought in those words would be to connect it with Midwest America. The context would have totally been destroyed. And so you have to sometimes sacrifice geographical or cultural contexts in order to creatively convey the content of a word. You can translate words, but culture does not easily translate.
In most of those cases, would you keep the original Spanish, instead of using the jarring word?
I would keep the Spanish because I felt that the Spanish was no longer foreign. Take the word campesino. Campesino is a word that, in 1967, for Schade, might have meant “peasant”. But today if you say campesino, it is clearly a term that is used in certain parts of Mexico and Central America to denote somebody who is illiterate, who has no access to power, who has been alienated from urban society, for decades and decades. “Peasant” has a very different connotation. The word patrón is probably even a better example. Patrón could be simply “boss,” or “leader.” But the word patrón in Spanish means really… when you use “no patrón,” you really mean you are inferior to the person you are connected to. Inferior not only in a momentary way, but in terms of class, in terms of humanity, you consider yourself below that other individual. It is very difficult to look for an equivalent to patrón. And yet, the word patrón is so established that I chose to leave it in several places, because I believe that the English language readers have been exposed to it for long enough to react to it, to get the sensibility.
Reading your translation of “Luvina,” you use the poetic phrase “rumor of wind.” I read The Burning Plain to see how Schade took it – “noise” – and clearly you see this as an issue of translation.
I can tell you in general that the choice had to do with the fact that I wanted to recreate the poetry of the original, el rumor del aire, and simply “noise” wouldn’t have done it. Even though it is less clear in English, the poetry in Spanish is unavoidable.
And if you see the title… I’ll tell you. The title in Spanish has the alliteration – El Llano en Llamas. Llano. Llamas. In English, the first translation was The Burning Plain, which is so dull, so plain, so uninteresting. I immediately said I’ll do it, but it has to be The Plain in Flames, which plays with the alliteration. The Juan Rulfo Foundation said “we love it.” The publisher said “we can’t do it” – because people have already connected The Burning Plain with Rulfo, and if you change the title, you can lose readers. And I said I’m not doing that. If we don’t have “The Plain in Flames,” I won’t do it. And finally we were able to convince them. So they resisted for marketing reasons. That’s something that translators often have to deal with.
I noticed in The Burning Plain, the titles of the stories are extremely different – “No Dogs Bark” as opposed to “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” in your translation – which is striking.
The Spanish title – “¿No oyes ladrar los perros?” “You don’t hear the dogs bark.” That was a perfect story! The Spanish is so challenging. You see, in Spanish, it could mean it doesn’t have a question mark. But it could almost implicitly suggest that there is a question there. “Don’t you hear the dogs barking?” And this is the story of a father who is carrying his son… it’s an astonishing story, my God, that enough would have given Rulfo a place in the history of literary classics…The father is taking the son [who is wounded]. The father really doesn’t want to take the son because he is so ambivalent at the life the son has led. He believes that the son actually killed the mother because of his behavior. But he has to take him. The son is covering his ears, and he can’t hear for that reason, and the son is supposed to be the one that would hear the dogs barking when they approach the town where they will find the doctor. But you have the impression that the father might be walking in circles, to prolong the agony. And so it could be, “Don’t you hear the dogs barking?” “You don’t hear the dogs barking.”
I would send my translation to Harold [Augenbraum, co-translator], and he would say, “are you sure of this? What has Schade done? What other options do we have here?” We would have five or six options and I would go back to my original one, try to defend it, until we finally had the one that worked best.
In the story, the father still carries the son. And the father takes some joy, I think, about making his son cry about his mother.
I have to tell you of an experience that transformed my life. Last November  when the book came out, I got an invitation from a high-security prison in upstate New York. The inmates were all reading, in a class, The Plain in Flames. They wanted me to come and talk about the translation. I have never had such a rapt, passionate audience, and we spent a long time discussing that particular story. It has been said that no one understands Hamlet better than a person who has committed a crime, who has actually murdered. And in this particular case, I can tell you that this, between twenty-five and sixty year olds, all of them criminals in one way or another reading the story, transformed my way of seeing the story. They had either the burden of having killed someone, or understood that condition… and they felt the ambivalence of the father’s duty in a way that I had never seen before. It’s as if the story had been written for them.
I see immense differences in the design in both translations. First, with the illustrations and the very stylized text for the story titles in The Burning Plain. One of Rulfo’s photographs graces the cover of The Plain in Flames, and it strikes me as being very similar to his writing, as you say “realismo crudo,” interested with the rawness of life. The Burning Plain almost looks like a collection of fairy tales because of this sort of design. Did you have any say in the use of font, whether or not there would be illustrations, or any other matters of design?
I admire Rulfo as a writer without reservations, even though not everything that he wrote is superb and supreme, enough of it is to put him, in my view, in that shelf of classics that ought to be read for generations. I admire him not in equal measure, but almost, as a photographer as well. His photographs, when you see them, you will realize, are about those silences, and about that sense of desolation and isolation that exists in the Mexican countryside.
I wanted, and thus I petitioned to the Juan Rulfo Foundation, to use more than one photograph, and to see if one or two, or maybe more, could be used in the interior. They told us right away no, and you can only use one on the cover. I was at first disappointed – I thought it would be beautiful for the reader to see the photographs in connection with the book, because this a visual window, by the author himself, to his own stories, unfiltered, untarnished by a translator. Photography doesn’t have a translation, it comes as you see it. But they denied it, and now I think that I am grateful that they did, because the stories are read as stories, and that’s the way Rulfo wrote them. He did not write them to be accompanied by the photographs – they are published in separate volumes.
I am thrilled that I chose the one on the cover. If I have a reservation – and my editor and I claim that reservation – it’s that the font is a little too small. I wish it was a little larger, but I did not have any control on how the book was designed in its interior. I like the spareness, the big spaces of white; I like that we didn’t have any folksy type of imagery. But the stories live or die on their own merit. The same thing is true for the translation.
The complaint that I have about the font has to do with my aging. When I was younger I could read this in an easier way. Now I still can but I can perfectly sympathize with somebody who would say, “Oh, I’m sure those are great stories but the font is too small and I can’t read them.” And I think they should be accessible also to readers who might have that challenge.
I want to ask how that makes you feel as a writer and a translator. The design of the book has an immense impact on your reading. With The Burning Plain, the book itself is such an odd shape…
You have to think, also, in the 1960’s, Latin America was seen as a factory of folklore, much more connected to that kind of mythical past than the United States, which was already moving so fast into a post-capitalist stage of society. So, this style, this design of The Burning Plain reflects the way publishers and translators were looking at Latin America in that period, and here, with The Plain in Flames, I’m happy to say that, if this is a reflection of how we see it, Latin Americans have become contemporaries with the rest of the world, and we don’t need to turn it into folk stories – we can read them as legitimate, authentic, wonderful stories the way we would read them from an author from Russia or from Italy or Egypt or any other part of the world.
I grew up in Mexico and I came at age twenty-five to the United States. It was much easier for me to translate from English into Spanish, because Spanish was a language in which I had grown up in. English is my fourth language. And so it took me years to feel comfortable in English. I have reached a certain point in my life, linguistically, that there is a symmetry between the comfort that I have in Spanish and the comfort that I have in English. For that reason, if the same invitation by an editor had come to me fifteen years ago, when Spanish was much more a powerful force in my linguistic life and English was coming second, I would have had to say no, I don’t think I’m capable of translating Rulfo into English. In 2011, this symmetry was such that I thought I could do a service to Rulfo, that probably somebody who is a native English language speaker cannot do, because for me now the two languages are balanced.
Did that symmetry with English and Spanish come in any way from reading English literature?
It comes from literally having my life cut in two. Half of my life was spent outside the United States, and half of my life now has been spent within the United States, meaning I’ve lived my life inside and outside of English. And after twenty-five years the language becomes you, and you become the language. It comes from reading, it comes from being exposed to the language, it comes from becoming that culture – I am now an American, and a Mexican… I don’t know which is which.
What was your favorite story to translate? And which is your favorite story to read?
“It’s Because We’re So Poor,” the first one that I translated, it’s the story of a boy who is sitting next to his sister and their cow is carried away by the flooded river and he’s describing how their world has collapsed and how the reputation of the family is now in question… I adore that story. I adore “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking.” If I had to choose ten stories from any writer and do an anthology for the future where only these ten stories would be read… that story would be there.
This is the moment to say that a good short story writer has ten, fifteen, maybe less, five stories to write, and that he or she spends his or her time trying to find which of those stories are going to be final… and many of them are exercises. Many of them are rehearsals for the big crime that will be committed in the defining story. I think some of the stories come as preparations for the great stories that you have in the book. But even a not-fully-developed story by Rulfo is an incredible story.
I am in the minority in not thinking that Pedro Paramo is a better book than this. There are many who think that Pedro Paramo is his greatest contribution. I believe El Llano en Llamas is the greatest contribution. I think some stories here are eternal.
Jason Schwartz’s novel John the Posthumous was published last year to wide acclaim, despite—or maybe because of—its challenging, disruptive qualities. With blurbs from Gordon Lish, Ben Marcus, and Sam Lipsyte, John the Posthumous had “cult novel” written all over it from the outset. It was a 2013 highlight for many critics, including K. Thomas Khan, who called it “a dizzyingly delightful and hypnotically haunting book that resists easy classification,” and David C. Winters, who described it as a “Fractal baroque: an unfurling art that enfolds us in incomprehension, in fear, but also in irreducible beauty.” In my review, I wrote that John the Posthumous is “strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth . . . and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.”
Schwartz is the author of another book, A German Picturesque (1998). He lives and works in Florida. Schwartz kindly consented to an interview with me via email; his answers here approach the same oblique verbal dexterity that we see in his fiction. Get John the Posthumous from OR Books or your local bookstore.
Biblioklept: Your book John the Posthumous is a challenge to describe, let alone summarize. How do you describe the book to those who haven’t read it?
Jason Schwartz: I lie–it seems the only decent way to proceed. Why dwell upon unpleasant things?
Biblioklept: In a recent interview with 3:AM Magazine, you said that one of the first things you tried to write—in high school—was “a very long espionage novel.” You mentioned charts and appendices—lots of plots. In the same interview, you also say that you “favor format as someone else might favor plot,” which I think evinces in John the Posthumous and A German Picturesque. I’m curious what experiences—particularly what reading experiences—may have motivated a shift from an initial interest in writing plot-driven genre fiction to the stuff you write now.
JS: I’m sure I was abandoning other things too. I seem to recall something about a war. A catalog of imaginary battles, land and air–that would have been a handy enough project for a kid. Remember Little Wars? I don’t, but I like the idea of H.G. Wells and company concealed behind end tables, orchestrating cavalry raids. Unless the tactician was free to explore the drawing room, inspecting positions and so on, enumerating the wounded, admiring an especially fine artillery barrage. That seems more likely. But the would-be novel, espionage–I started that on a lark. I’d found an old Olivetti somewhere in the house–in the attic, I’d like to say, but we didn’t have an attic–and one thing led to another, et cetera, et cetera. A turn may or may not have occurred at that same moment, give or take, with all those devices, the appendices, the charts and annotated maps, captions for photographs that didn’t exist. Hard to say, exactly, going back now to the tenth grade. But they began to overtake the plot, such as it was. I liked some of the Bond books, and Graham Greene–still do–but I also liked The Encyclopedia of Espionage and that kind of thing, compendiums of jargon, biographies of Bulgarian spies. So maybe it was more the subject than the genre.
Biblioklept: Do you think about a particular audience when you compose?
JS: A young family, stranded on a mountain pass, killing time until help arrives. They take turns reading aloud–the text in question having been purchased by mistake and packed by accident, and later discovered in the luggage as potential kindling. The father shields the first child from those passages displaying traces of grotesquerie. The mother corrects the second child’s pronunciation or praises his elocution–as the case may be–on the occasion of the most ostentatious phrases. The third child, meanwhile, has wandered off into the woods. Ah!–it’s beginning to rain.
Biblioklept: Did John the Posthumous start as something smaller, like the pieces that make up A German Picturesque? Did you have the theme of adultery in mind from the outset?
JS: Yes, it was there from the outset, adultery, running through a number of things–directly and otherwise–and many of these appeared in magazines as individual pieces, beginning in 2003 or so. The “Corinthians” section, for instance, was once called “Breviary.” The final section in “Hornbook” was “Notation on Hidden Children.” Another one in that little series–a section in “Adulterium”–was “Notation on the Principal Graves.” There were changes in every case–all this happened over a very long period of time, obviously. “Housepost,” on the other hand, was done more or less at once, mostly in sequence. I published certain parts of this–“The Mary Casket” is an example–in various combinations, dismantling the house a few different ways.
Biblioklept: Your sentences are precise and concrete, but they also often refuse to give the reader something definite to grip on to. There’s a lot of power—and, I’d argue horror—in this restraint. How much of this technique is attributable to editing? How do you edit your work?
JS: As to the second question: it varies. No set method. And as to the first: I’m not really editing in that direction, no. I see this more as a simple matter of description. So–for instance–the schoolmarm in the museum, a wax form, with pins for eyes. A person of reputation in her hometown, I take it, and–it turns out–a distant relation of mine. I don’t wish to be flippant–or to sunder a cousin without good reason, here on the spur of the moment–but she seems easy enough to grasp in one’s hands, or at least as easy as any other set of letters. And she was, she certainly was, when they cut her in two, at the waist, and then into several smaller portions–her coat and purse set off to one side, forgotten there (the former eaten by moths, I’d guess, the remnants used to stuff the dummies on the second floor; the latter left on a shelf and, later on, mistaken for something foreign and important, given its own display)–in order to get her out the door. She’d have used, by the way, back at the schoolhouse, a razor blade and a ruler, according to a practice now out of fashion. “Children, let’s remove all your objectionable words and phrases, replacing them with more companionable ones.” And in the evening, the janitor and janitress would sweep up the scraps, and then use them to write ransom notes.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JS: Sure. Including one from my grandparents’ bookcase, I’m ashamed to say. The book was The Deer Park. I was three, I believe, or four, or five. I was not, at the time, a fan of Norman Mailer. I must have mistaken it for something else–or maybe I had plans for it in the construction of a fort or what have you, some structure already underway, or only in the earliest planning stages, back home, down in the basement, off in a corner reserved for projects of just that sort. I suppose it could have been the jacket art, an attraction to that, but I can’t recall what was depicted on the cover, or even the colors on display. It’s unfair to speculate in this way, I know, but–to be on the safe side, and to put the matter out of mind, once and for all–let’s just assume it was a stick-figure deer, in black, on a field of red. Very much, in other words, the kind of stick figure–and field–I’d have quite disliked as a child. Anyway, my grandmother gave chase. She shouted in a language manufactured on the spot, and composed wholly of bedbugs and regret, dozens of variations on these words, accompanied by near-simultaneous translations, bent by the effect of her breathlessness, and taking curious shapes, in formation, at my back and overhead–or so it all seemed to me. And then? I was caught, of course.
Which reminds me: Some of your detractors say that you’re merely fashionable.
Well, the mere has always been a useful category.
That you’re a jackdaw, and your principle of selection is whatever glitters most.
I weep and tear my hair. And disagree.
Let’s look at a specific jackdaw’s nest, the barricade in “The Indian Uprising.”
I don’t see anything particularly fashionable. The table made from a hollow-core door may be a 1960s reference but aren’t people still making them?
But your barricade is not intended as straightforward realism; these things are artifacts of a certain culture.
An archeological slice. Not much glitter.
Won’t it require scholarly annotation in the future?
I’d say no. If you read The Swiss Family Robinson and you’re reading about what they unpack from the pinnace as they shuttle from ship to shore you don’t need any footnotes, even though there may be four hundred pounds of tallow in the cargo. You have a vague recollection that it’s used to make candles.
Actually I think the jackdaw business is a function of appearing in the New Yorker with some frequency. People read the fiction with after images of Rolls Royces and Rolexes still sizzling in their eyes. Rare is the reviewer who can resist mentioning the magazine’s ads when talking about the fiction. One is gilded by association.
Suppose we turn things around. Suppose I say that when I read that story I’m not at all concerned about whether people made tables from hollow-core doors in the 1960s. Rather, I’m interested in the speaker, who in the metaphorical context of the story is besieged by Comanches.
Is besieged by very much more than Comanches, but also by Comanches. He’s not meant to be a walking-around person so much as a target, a butt. The arrows of the Comanches but also sensory insult, political insult, there are references to the war there, to race, to torture, jingoism . . . But none of the references in the story were picked at random, and none are used simply as decor. If they seem random it’s probably because the range of reference is rather wide for a short piece—you have Patton and Frank Wedekind and the seventh cavalry coexisting on the same plane—but the crowding is part of the design, is the design.
Biblioklept: What is Haute Culture Press?
Luis de Miranda: Haute Culture is a new venture in luxury publishing with a mission to bring masterpieces of global literature to English-speaking readers around the world. Since your site is called “Biblioklept,” I’ll start by saying that we are a new kind of Robin Hood: we give to both the “poor” and the “rich.” We offer free e-books to the modern global reader interested in discovering hidden gems of classic European literature and, simultaneously, we offer individuals of greater means the opportunity to become mini-Medici’s, actively supporting culture while enjoying a luxurious limited edition book that will increase in value year after year.
This model is summed up in our slogan: Physical books should be sublime, digital books should be free. The sales of our limited luxury editions—each a distinctive art object—support the distribution of free e-books for each of our titles. Buyers of our limited editions, in effect, become benefactors—or “Book Angels,” as we call them. I believe this model will satisfy collectors and book lovers.
Furthermore, as e-books become cheaper and cheaper, I want to create a model that does not depend on the diminishing revenues of e-book sales and allows us to reach as many readers as possible, particularly younger readers. If we want younger generations to read quality literature, and not just the latest bestsellers, free e-books are the way to go.
Biblioklept: Is the possible disconnect between electronic books and “luxury” an issue? Does this new publishing model privilege the book as an aesthetic object?
LdM: This model privileges the free distribution of quality literature and it reinvents the physical book as a cult object. I aim to create unique objects that make the poetry of texts tangible. As we all spend more time in front of screens, I believe that the experiential aspect of the printed book will become more important, with readers looking for a higher quality object. I foresee the return of the “gentleman’s library” (or “gentlewoman’s library”), with fine leather volumes and limited editions—the polar opposite of e-books. Our limited editions will embody my great respect for the ritual of reading and for the craftsmanship of book making, while at the same time subsidizing the free distribution of our e-books and building a new global audience for iconic European literary masters.
Biblioklept: Is Haute Culture the first group to employ this model, to your knowledge?
LdM: Yes. We are innovating and experimenting. I don’t know if ours will be an economically viable model in the end, but it is definitely a desirable one. Since we are exploring uncharted territory, we have to take things step by step. We are avoiding the established highways over artificial ponds, and attempting to build our own bridge. We might fail or we might create a new path that the others will soon follow.
Biblioklept: Why did you choose A.H. Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice as the first book in this series?
LdM: Our first publication is actually a new translation and an ultra-limited bilingual edition of the Flaubert novella, Felicity: The Tale of the Simple Heart. In December 2013, it will be on sale at Assouline Boutiques in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris.
Volume I of Tammsaare’s Truth and Justice is planned for publication in 2014. It is a fine example of an untranslated classic. Tammsaare himself is an icon of 20th century Estonian literature. Two museums, a monument, and a park in the center of Tallinn are all dedicated to him. Unlike some traditional classics, which are widely referred to but rarely read, his masterpiece, Truth and Justice, still retains its place at the front of Estonian bookshelves and yet this epic work has never been translated into English. I also have some personal reasons for launching the press with an Estonian icon like Tammsaare. I wrote my last novel in Estonia three years ago and I wanted to pay homage to the land that inspired me.
Biblioklept: What is Tammasaare’s book about? Why is it important?
LdM: Truth and Justice is considered Tammsaare’s most important work. It was written during the rise of dictators—Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini—and it captures the evolution of Estonia from Tsarist province to independent state. Though it’s deeply rooted in Estonian peasant life, the first volume deals with timeless literary and philosophical issues, developing a vigorous, straightforward narrative that addresses the dual nature of the human psyche.
The book’s characters, storylines, and language continue to inform Estonia’s culture today. References to Truth and Justice are pervasive, and one hears its echoes in contemporary Estonian literature, as well as other art forms. One need only call two men “Andres and Pearu” for any Estonian to understand the nature of their relationship.
Volume I presents life in an Estonian village, as farmers battle against nature during the last quarter of the 19th century. The two main characters, both unique and powerful men, represent the essential conflicts of human nature: not only good vs. evil, but also hope vs. conservatism, conquest vs. pettiness. The saga explores how human impulses compete with each other and complete the characters.
Although the first volume seems entirely dedicated to peasant life in rural Estonia at the threshold of modernity, the book deals with fundamental issues that are quite relevant today. You might say this book reflects what we are trying to do at Haute Culture. Truth and Justice is a story of simple people who work the land endlessly, striving to build a world were truth and justice prevail, where good is fostered and protected, not killed by conformity or lack of courage. Beautiful things grow slowly like plants. Perhaps this is a lesson for all the capitalists of the world.
Biblioklept: What future plans do you have for Haute Culture? What other books would you like to publish?
LdM: We are currently translating a Russian book by the cult novelist Yuri Mamleyev, called Shatuny. We are working with one of the best Russian to English translators, Marian Schwartz, who translated Bulgakov and Berberova. Shatuny is a mind-blowing, hallucinatory story about the quest for absolute truth. Maybe we are obsessed by truth?
Bringing untranslated texts to English readers around the world is one aspect of a wider mission to bring singular, fine, original works to the global corpus. That has always been my goal—to democratize access to culture. I’ve been to the Frankfurt Book Fair many times and met with publishers and agents in New York. I’ve noticed not only that many great European works have not been translated to English, but also that the mainstream US and UK publishers tend to translate only genre bestsellers—thrillers for example.
English is now the international language and I believe it’s possible, and indeed essential to bring to the international psyche works that aren’t standardized and cliché, but truly represent a unique viewpoint. I plan to build a catalogue that only includes masterpieces. Publishers who rely on the old publishing model must often publish potential bestsellers they secretly despise, yet there are so many excellent contemporary classics waiting to be discovered and translated into English. With Haute Culture, I refuse to compromise. Literature has the potential to create a more diverse and interconnected world, but in order to reach that potential we must fight against a profit-driven culture.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
LdM: When I was 18, I had a summer job at a bookshop in the Pompidou Center in Paris. At the end of my first day, I took about 20 books home with me, feeling that I had found Ali Baba’s cave, but a few days later I felt guilty and replaced all the books on their shelves.
Your own influences—whom would you like to cite as your spiritual ancestors?
They come in assorted pairs. Perelman and Hemingway. Kierkegaard and Sabatini. Kafka and Kleist. Kleist was clearly one of Kafka’s fathers. Rabelais and Zane Grey. The Dostoyevsky of Notes from Underground. A dozen Englishmen. The surrealists, both painters and poets. A great many film people, Buñuel in particular. It’s always a stew, isn’t it? Errol Flynn ought to be in there somewhere, and so should Big Sid Catlett, the drummer.
When I first read the press materials for Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s documentary Cartoon College, I’ll admit that I was mostly interested in the prospect of seeing comix legends like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Lynda Barry, Chris Ware, Scott McCloud, and Stephen Bissette discuss their craft. What Melrod and Wray deliver though is much more—an intimate and often very moving look at the lives of the young artists who attend the prestigious Center for Cartoon Studies. This is a film about passion, drive, commitment, and what it means to be an outsider.
In my review, I wrote: “Cartoon College offers an intriguing story about real people trying to do something that they love, and I enjoyed that. This is a film about the impetus, motivation, and hard, hard work that goes into the creative process. Great stuff.”
Josh was kind enough to talk to me about making the film over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: How did you begin the documentary Cartoon College? How did the project come about?
Josh Melrod: In 2006 my wife, then my girlfriend, Tara Wray, had just finished her first movie, Manhattan, Kansas, and was looking for her next project. She’s a huge fan of Chris Ware and she read an article about how he’d been a visiting lecturer at CCS, which had just opened a year earlier, and that was enough to get her thinking about a cartoon school documentary. She asked me if I’d consider moving to Vermont for a year–we were living in New York, and had been for a while–and I said ok. Then we had to convince James Sturm and Michelle Ollie, who founded the school, to let us film, which took several months of emails and a couple of face-to-face meetings and a trip or two to White River Junction. Once they gave us the green light we basically packed up and moved to Vermont. That was in August of 2007, and we’ve been here ever since.
Biblioklept: So you guys were shooting for like, three years? When you started did you have an idea of the kind of story you wanted to tell in Cartoon College?
JM: Our original conceit for the movie was a year in the life of a cartoon school. It was supposed to be more about the institution and how it was helping to revitalize White River Junction, which had been a town in decline for about a century. So we shot for the 2007-2008 academic year and then started working with an editor in New York that summer. It took about six months to get a rough cut put together, but when all was said and done we weren’t happy with what we had. Part of it was that the story of the school’s impact on the town didn’t quite come together–it was an arc that was unfolding too slowly to really be seen during the year we’d been filming. But we also realized that what really interested us, much more than the school itself, was documenting the creative lives of the students and witnessing these aspiring artists at a very pivotal time in their careers. We basically scrapped the rough cut, which was a pretty difficult decision, and went back to film for what turned out to be another year-and-a-half.
Biblioklept: Some of the students, like Blair Sterett and Jen Vaughn, for example, are on screen a lot more than others. Was this because they were more open to the cameras? Were there students who were reticent to talk to you?
JM: Jen is kind of a natural in front of the camera, so in a sense she was more open than some of the others. But there were only a very small handful of people during the entire production who told us they really didn’t want to be filmed. A lot of the cartoonists we spoke with are fairly introverted, and quite a few, both the younger and the more experienced artists, discussed how they express themselves best through their comics, but it doesn’t take too long for most people to begin to forget the camera is there.
Biblioklept: I like that the film is really about the career of cartooning, and that the film focuses on the arcs of these aspiring cartoonists. You’ve got all these great interviews with people like Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns, but their comments ultimately work to illuminate or enrich, through their perspectives, what the students are going through. It seems like there’s a lot of restraint and wise editing on your end here. Can you talk about how you put the film together? I’m curious how intuitive the process of forming the narrative was . . .
JM: By the time we finished shooting we had something like 150 hours of footage. I don’t remember how it all broke down, but maybe forty percent was interviews. There was a lot to go through. But it was pretty clear what the character arcs were for Blair and Al and Jen. Actually, it’s kind of hard for me to remember the process in any great detail. I was just starting to work on the rough cut when Tara and I had our twins, so for the first six months of the edit I was working from around ten at night until six a.m., stopping every couple of hours to help with feedings and changing diapers, and getting a few hours of sleep here and there during the day. It’s all very blurry, and sort of miraculous that I finished the rough cut at all. My method of working was to cut the footage down from 150 hours to just 10, which is a manageable amount of material, and from there put together an assembly that had the basic structure of a movie, and then loosely refine that into a two-hour rough cut. Then I went to New York to work with another editor, Chris Branca, who came in with a ton of great ideas and further refined the story. As for the interviews serving to illuminate what the students were going through, that was pretty organic. The challenges that a person faces when they decide to become an artist are fairly universal–the self-doubt, managing your time, coming to terms with your own limitations, figuring how to make a living, etc.–so the experiences shared by the established artists were in-line with what we documented from the students.
Biblioklept: You brought up that Tara’s interest in Ware’s work kind of sparked the genesis of the documentary. Were you a fan of comics too? How much did you know about the cartooning world going into the filming process?
JM: As a kid I loved Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County/Outland and The Far Side, but those all ended when I was in high school and I pretty much stopped reading comics at that point. Then, after Tara and I moved in together, I’d pick up some of the books she’d leave around the apartment–like Jimmy Corrigan and Hate, I remember in particular–but I knew virtually nothing about the cartooning world when we started the movie.
Biblioklept: Have you become a fan since then?
JM: I love comics, but I’m a very casual fan. I still gravitate towards non-graphic novels, and I’m not quite sure why that is. Comics certainly demand more attention from the reader, if the reader we’re talking about is me–the interplay between the pictures and the text require a level of focus that isn’t needed when you’re just reading words, although I’m not sure I ever noticed that when I was a kid–and so maybe it’s that I don’t always have the mental energy to pick up a heavy graphic novel. I am really interested in reading comics from the people in the movie–CCS graduates are doing just incredible work and a lot of the former students we followed are starting to put out books now. Katherine Roy just illustrated a book and has a couple of others coming out soon; Jen Vaughn released a book last week; Josh Rosen is going to start serializing the project he was working on while we were filming; Joe Lambert, who we interviewed but didn’t appear in the movie, although he designed the poster, made a book about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller that’s just incredible.
Biblioklept: What kind of movie would you like to do next?
JM: I’m working on a short, a fiction movie, with a couple of guys who used to edit a literary magazine with me. It was called the Land-Grant College Review and we published for five or six years starting in about 2002. We wanted to work on something new, and I’m really interested in doing a narrative, and they’d been thinking of doing a screenplay, so that’s what we decided to do. We’re still writing, but we have some good advisers on board and the plan is to shoot next summer. And I’m in the development phase on a pair of new docs. They’re both about personalities, as opposed to being issue-based, which is a common denominator. One follows a semi-famous performer and the other involves a family on its summer vacation. It’s still pretty early to talk confidently about any of this stuff. I just have to keep plugging away and see what happens, but these are the projects I’d like to do next.
Biblioklept: The docs sound intriguing. I spent some time in the Land-Grant College Review archive just now—what a great collection of authors. Your little microfiction there is a good creepy laugh. What are you reading now?
JM: Thanks! We had a short but good run, and got to publish a lot of great writers. One of my most prized possessions is a postcard that David Foster Wallace sent me–in response to a letter I’d written asking him to send us a story–saying that he’s “just working on stuff that isn’t suitable for publication any place.”
As for what I’m reading, I just started [Erik Larson's] The Devil In The White City, which I’d been hesitant to open for a few years since I do a lot of reading before bed and I thought it would mess with my sleep. So far so good.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JM: No, never stolen a book, but I have gone a long time without paying for a book. A lot of the books on my shelf I picked out of piles left on the curb or at the recycling center near where we live now. Sometimes I like to let the universe decide what I read depending on what I find in front of me, which is how I got to read The Universe And Dr. Einstein, a lay readers guide to general relativity that I still managed not to understand.
My aunts told wonderful stories. Not to me, but to each other. We had a very strong family. My mother’s sisters loved each other intensely. The uncles loved each other intensely. Those were the days when it meant something to travel, when people were still grinning because you could drive a car over a hundred miles. So when they got together they really narrated. Children were supposed to be quiet, so we’d all go to bed, but I’d still hear these stories going into the night and people’s laughter. It was a delightful way to go to sleep on Christmas or Thanksgiving. They had huge senses of humor. Humor meant everything to them because they had all been through the war and the depression, and now they had decent work and jobs. I think there’s no kind of happiness and laughter as after you’ve made something after a tough grade.
I was born in Clinton, Mississippi, which had 1,500–2,500 people when I was growing up—a village. Now it’s impossible to go back to these places because they’re not there anymore. My generation, we were the war children, and so there’s just hurt all over the continent because there’s no place to go home to.
Today, there’s no present to people. Nobody wants to listen for very long to anybody talking, except in certain places—in a bar, in a confessional, or maybe a shrink’s office. All they say is, Yeah, yeah, yeah. Men don’t even tell dirty jokes much anymore.
Nobody stops to talk except the instructors at college who’re paid for it. So it was a much more primitive time back then. More heartfelt. A more patient time, and I was the beneficiary of that.
Ilan Stavans is a Mexican-American writer and translator. His work spans from the study of Latin American culture, to “Spanglish,” to translation; his work takes the form of books and comic-strips; and he is highly regarded internationally as a literary and cultural critic and has received numerous awards and honors. He is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Stavans at Amherst’s Frost Library to discuss The Plain in Flames, his 2012 translation of Juan Rulfo’s short story collection, El Llano en Llamas. His is the second translation of this work into English, the first being George Schade’s The Burning Plain.
Juan Rulfo, a highly influential Mexican writer, was born on this date 96 years ago. He died in 1986. Stavans introduces Rulfo beautifully here.
You mention in the introduction your fascination with the book growing up. When did you first read El Llano en Llamas, and when did the translation project begin?
Growing up in Mexico in the 70s and 80s, Rulfo was already an established figure, a classic. When I first discovered Latin American literature in general, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, Hopscotch, Conversation in the Cathedral, and other important books of the 1960s and 70s, to which I was coming somewhat late, maybe a decade or so after they had been published, there was a constant reference, a constant moving around the figure that had fostered that type of new writing from Latin America. More than one figure, there were two or three to be honest – one of them was Borges, another one was unquestionably Juan Rulfo.
Juan Rulfo was by then already known as a man of very few words. He had published only two books: El Llano en Llamas and Pedro Páramo, a collection of short stories first, and two years later, a relatively short novel – and I say relatively short because, in that period that I am recalling, the novels that were coming out from Latin America were hefty and ambitious and epic, and this was ambitious and epic and hefty but short. It had myth as its main quest. And, you know, there are writers that you read, you enjoy, and you forget. And then there are writers that you read and you are transformed. Rulfo, from the moment I discovered him is … in very few words, in very few pages, he’s capable of creating an entire world, entirely complex and entirely vivid in its imagery. And growing up in Mexico, that world was very close to me. It is the world of the countryside, of the provinces; it is the world of pride, and proud working- class people living in the llanos, in the villages, outside of Mexico City.
And so I had a reference, I knew what he was writing about. And I also knew that he was writing about it in a way that, for us, illuminated their existence, if you would see them as simply part of the landscape. Now it was giving them an inner life. It was simply stunning.
I went beyond and wanted to meet Rulfo at one point. I knew that he was the head of El Instituto Indigenista, an institute created and devoted to fostering a better understanding of aboriginal and indigenous communities and indigenous cultures, but it was always very hard to get in touch with him. He was never in the office. And only as time went by did I discover how difficult it was to get to talk to him because of his reserve, his shyness.
He is one of the towering figures of Latin American literature.
Did you ever get a chance to meet him?
I saw him in an event, but I never talked one-on-one to him. In retrospect, it is… it’s fine [laughs]. I find sometimes that talking to writers that one admires is a difficult task.
Was his speaking rhetoric like his writing?
He was a man of very few words. Even when he was…
…in front of the microphone.
But he was a man that, when you saw him, you would not think necessarily that he would be able to create these astonishing stories. I think the stories are part and parcel of how Latin American reality should be understood.
Garcia Márquez, in an entire novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, can make you understand what is it in the DNA of the culture that makes it move. I think that Rulfo does that in one story, sometimes in one paragraph. Not surprisingly, Garcia Márquez sees Rulfo as a major influence.
When did the translation of this begin?
At one point I was doing a book of conversations that a Chilean historian had invited me to engage in on Hispanic culture; it’s called What is la hispanidad?. It was a very festive project. In delivering it to the publisher, who had already given us a contract, the editor said to me, “Would you consider doing some translations for me?” And I said, I love translation; it would have to be something precious, it would have to be a diamond or a jewel. “What do you have in mind?” And I said, if you had, Ilan, to choose the one book that you think you would like to translate and you think people should see differently, which one would that be? And I said without hesitation, El Llano en Llamas. They had published it in an earlier edition.
So I had started the conversation, and one thing led to another; he got in touch with the Juan Rulfo estate. The Juan Rulfo estate is partially run by one of his sons who is a filmmaker. I was asked to translate one of the stories to see how my translation would be different. I did “It’s Because We’re So Poor.” They liked it very much and we decided to do it.
The project altogether took a year and a half; the translation was commissioned in 2010, thereabouts.
You said you wanted to pick a gem. But was there any indication to you that it was in need of a new translation? Because The Burning Plain has been out since 1967. I’m wondering if you thought that that translation was merely dated, or if you think there is an historical significance in publishing it in 2012, and if there were any faults in The Burning Plain that you noticed.
Let me answer that question by taking a step back and telling you that over the years I have been very interested in translation, not only in the practice of translation, but what translation means for us as a culture, the history of translation, and the impact of translation in the shaping of Latin American identity. Who were the first translators? What role did they play upon the arrival of the conquistadors and the missionaries? How has translating foreign culture shaped Latin American civilization? Who did the 19th century politicians read… of the French, or of the British, or of the Italian politicians of the time, or political philosophers? So the idea of translation has been with me for quite some time.
I also, in 2001, published an autobiography, a memoir, called On Borrowed Words, that is an investigation of the life that I have lived in four different languages. My first language was Yiddish, then I switched to Spanish, and then switched to Hebrew, and now I’m communicating with you in English. So this coming and going of languages is very close to my heart.
In 2003, I, by then, was already really deep into the study of Spanglish, the mixing of Spanish and English. I had published a translation into Spanglish of the first chapter of Don Quixote that later on I finished, and it’s now coming out in comic strip form at the end of this year. And so, the idea of what we translate, how we translate, what the impact of translation is, was very much with me when the editor of Texas University Press suggested this project.
And I knew that classics are books that need to be reread. And that, when doing a new translation, you are inviting readers to reread the book. You are not supplanting, necessarily, the first, earlier translations; you’re inviting readers to see them anew. Dressing them up in a different way. There are 22 full translations of Don Quixote into English. And so the question is, do we need 22? And the answer is, well, every generation needs its own reading of Don Quixote. And I think El Llano en Llamas is a classic; it needs different approaches, different interpretations, and that’s why I wanted to do it.
I had my own qualms with the translation that had been published in 1967, but more than anything I wanted to bring new attention to the book, try my luck, and also, show that the English language has changed, and that the approaches to translation have changed since the 60s.
I noticed, in The Plain in Flames, certain Spanish words are italicized. Whereas, in The Burning Plain, words like “chicalote” and “jarillas” are not italicized. They seem to be more integrated into the text that way. Does that ignore their origin?
No… I don’t believe that that is fully accurate. I did actually the opposite in many cases. There were words that were not italicized in my translation that are italicized in the George Schade translation because they had become much more common; they are less foreign from the 1960s to 2012; Spanish has become commonplace, a common language in the United States, and my argument is that in doing a new translation, we are reaching a readership that doesn’t have the foreignness, or the kind of alienation from the Spanish language that readers in the 1960s had.
However, there are certain words that are underlined in the original Spanish. For instance, in the story “It’s Because We’re So Poor,” the name of one of the daughters is italicized, and the name of the cow is italicized, and we did not want to take that away.
It’s an idiosyncratic strategy of Rulfo’s. He has a selective, unique way of choosing what to emphasize, and I thought my duty as a translator was to replicate that.
On the other hand, there are words that you don’t need to italicize anymore. And there are other words that, I thought, by using the italicized form, you would be telling the reader that this word is unique in English as it is unique in Spanish. And that was the purpose of it.
If I had to do a recount, I would say that there are fewer words that are italicized in my version than the Schade.
So for example, in the title story, “¡Viva mi general Petronilo Flores!” is not italicized.
Exactly. You also have to factor in that, in my age, I’ve already learned how to deal with the presence of copy editors who on occasion will tell you, “Are you sure you don’t want to italicize this word? English language readers are not going to…” and you have to defend your position. You have to make sure that by the time you reach the copy editor, you have a strategy, you have a declared approach to how to do it, without necessarily including that in the prologue or in a glossary or anything of that sort.
I noticed that in The Burning Plain, Schade omits certain words that in your translation, you have included. For example, “tequesquite salt” and “pasojos de agua,” which is an idiom. Are those common enough Spasnish phrases and words now? Are some of them uncommon? Do you think that, if we keep having future translations, like with Don Quixote, will we see more of these Spanish idioms?
One of the differences between the George Schade translation of 1967 and the one that I did is that in the interim, Juan Rulfo died, and the Juan Rulfo Foundation established a standardized Spanish version of El Llano en Llamas. And when I said to the foundation that I wanted to do the translation, they said they’d want me to work on the standardized version.
The standardized version included a few more stories than the one that Schade had, and it also included stories that had more paragraphs, or less paragraphs, or sentences that had been twisted and changed. [Rulfo edited some of the stories even after they were published.] Ultimately, the foundation had decided that the most authoritative version of any particular story was the latest one approved by Rulfo. So that meant that the text that I had in front of me to work on was not necessarily the same that Schade had.
At the same time, I did thorough research in every single story and when I found that there was a discrepancy between what the standard edition had, what Schade had, and what two other versions that are also considered canonical in Spanish had, I would send a letter to the foundation that asked, “Are we sure that we want to have this paragraph here?… Is this approved?…” and there would be a dialogue with them.
So, on occasion it was a creative decision on my part; on many others I was basing it on the authoritative text that the foundation had established.
In the introduction you mention the perfection of some of these stories. On the outset you talk about the “elusive quest” for perfection in short story writing. As a translator, that must become an extreme obstacle or difficulty. I’m wondering how this idea of perfection impacted your work. And also if you think, concurrently, that a perfect translation is possible. How does perfection translate, if you will? Does the idea of perfection always change with time?
There is no such thing as a perfect text. For the same reason, there is never going to be a perfect translation. And yet, as translators we should strive for as close to perfection as our translation is capable of being.
And what do I mean by perfection? As genuine, as authentic, as truthful, as loyal, and as artistic and creative as that can be. Every translation is a product of its time and space. My translation was defined by the factors that have defined me as an individual, and the translation by George Schade likewise was defined by the factors, the forces that shaped him as an individual. Whoever is going to come in 10 years, 15-20 years, 40 years, is going to live life differently, is going to register the temperature of language, the Spanish and English languages, in a different way, and the languages will have changed by then. So those translations will reflect the time and the cultural texture of the moment.
I think that a classic is a book that survives its time and space. It survives very often thanks to translation, and very often it is the translator that “updates” the original by making it palatable, by making it accessible, by fitting it in to the time in which we live.
I believe that the explosion of Hispanic culture in the United States in the last 20-30 years has redefined the way we see Latin American literature, that the first translations of some of these classics were the result of a moment of initiation, of discovery, of freshness, and today we have assimilated that work and we see that Spanish is not as foreign; there is a Latin America living within the United States. And so the translation that I tried to produce is a translation that reflects some of those changes.
I adore Chekhov. I adore Isaac Babel, I adore Kafka. I don’t read Czech, I don’t read Russian. I partially read German. And for that reason, the way I will access any of these writers will always be through translation. There is always going to be an intermediary between me and Isaac Babel, or Kafka, or Chekhov. I have to trust the translator as an intermediary, as a conduit, and yet I know – and I hope everybody knows – that we are not reading the original, that somebody has offered a filter, or a veil. There is a very important, early modern Jewish poet who said once that to read a book in translation is to kiss a bride through a veil. You are kissing the bride, but there is something in between.
In the second part of Don Quixote toward the end, Don Quixote and Sancho enter a bookstore in Barcelona, and they are talking about translation, and Don Quixote tells Sancho that to read a book in translation is the equivalent of looking at a Flemish carpet from the back. You know there are colors, you know there are silhouettes, but they are not fully what you’re seeing.
One hopes to come as close as possible, and that is the strife that we have in perfection. Not hoping to be perfect is a failure; achieving perfection is impossible.
Coming from the translation so recently, do you think that future translations seem possible at all? That there are future readings or events that could impact how this work is retranslated?
Because of the laws and the mechanics of the market, this translation is going to be around for some time, and things are going to be seen through what is happening between now and whenever the next translation comes along: things that have to do with immigration, that have to do with assimilation, that have to do with ways of changing culture.
The original book came out in 1953; that is mid-20th century. We are already in the 21st century. Mexico continues to be a poor country, but now there’s a growing middle class. The middle class reads Rulfo in a way that the middle class in the 1950s didn’t, because poverty has changed in Mexico and because the countryside is now seen as a tourist destination, because there’s something kitsch about peasant life in Latin America that these writers, like Rulfo, have helped to provide. The scene of a donkey, with a poor campesino walking around, carries a certain cache that is kitschy and what we call in Spanish “cursi” that didn’t exist 50 years ago and that might change dramatically later. Cultures are always in persistent transformation, and that pushes us to read writers in a different way.
I wanted to ask more about the act of translation. Julio Cortázar also speaks about perfection in the short story in his essay “On the Short Story and Its Environs.” In it he speaks of writing a short story as a sort of exorcism, and how the story gains autonomy separate from whomever wrote it. He argues that the story is projected “into universal existence, where the narrator is no longer the one who has blown the bubble out of his clay pipe.”
Surely there is a responsibility of the translator to maintain a certain style of the writer himself. But do you think that there is a similar ecstasy, or exorcism, in translating a short story?
I believe that writing a short story, in literary terms, is arguably the most difficult task. In my view, it is much harder to produce a good short story than to produce a good novel. A short story is, as I mentioned to you before, like a diamond, like a precious stone. Every single corner, every single edge, needs to polished just in the right way. There are hundreds and thousands of short stories. But there are very few extraordinary short stories. And those short stories are the ones that, you read them and you feel the world is no longer the same. You have all of a sudden seen the color of existence under a new light thanks to this particular writer, thanks to 3 or 4 pages of this particular writer. That is enough for that transformation to happen.
But once the short story takes place, once it is published, it no longer belongs to the author. It no longer belongs to its original creator. It belongs to whoever is reading it; and the act of finding the story, and of having an intercourse with the story, is an act of creation, because the story is the encounter between he or she who gave birth to it, and he or she who receives it. And without the receiver, the story doesn’t exist.
Likewise with translation, a good story needs a midwife that will enable it to get into the world just in the right way. There are hundreds of thousands of translations. But a good translation, it seems to me, is the one gets into the essence of the story, is able to read the DNA of the author and tries to convey the mapping of that DNA in the new language, in the receiving language. It is a big task [laughs].
You have to be synchronized in two cultures. You have to understand beyond the words how the original cultures moves, what makes it tick. And you have to get into the receiving culture and be able to translate, meaning transpose, meaning recreate, in that receiving language, what is conveyed in the first one. I think it is as much as a creative task as the task of writing a story. And it is as much the writer’s and the translator’s as it is the reader’s. But it is none of theirs anymore the moment it is published. Once my translation is out, it is not mine anymore but it belongs to a man whose last name is Stavans, who could be really anybody… the fact is, it’s already in the world as it is, and I have become secondary. It is the object as such that has life.