On Avenida Juárez, across from the Alameda in Mexico City, sits an unassuming little bookstore, three steps below street level. It was here at the Librería del Sótano where Roberto Bolaño would buy novels or poetry books or, when he was short on cash (which was often), just pocket them. For centuries Latin American literature belonged not to those passionate, young biblioklepts like Bolaño but to affluent property owners who dabbled in writing the way they might take up equestrianism or falconry. Some time in the 1960s the roles reversed and the middle class became the seedbed of national literature. Bookstores, libraries, and the literary life prevailed in the cultural scene of Mexico City and Buenos Aires just as much as they did in Paris, New York, or London. This bibliophilia, this bibliomania, this passion for the literary life binds the world together in a global industry that sadly still remains separated by language barriers and a lack of curiosity.
Serious readers are omnivorous. They want to read everything great. The best translated fiction, emerging writers, overlooked classics, small-press finds, public intellectuals of the moment, mind-bending poetry—it all goes down the hatch. The problem, of course, is that no one can read everything. Selecting which books to read requires discernment, a degree of happenstance, and an iterative process that ideally sharpens the discernment itself with each volume digested.
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.
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 newtranslation? Because The Burning Plain has been out since 1967. I’m wondering if you thought that that translationwas 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.