Our “Translator Relay” series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. Alfred Birnbaum passed the baton to Spanish translator Ronald Christ, who has translated everything from Mario Vargas Llosa's novels to Jorge Luis Borges' poetry to art and architecture criticism. He won the Kayden National Translation Award for Diamela Eltit’s E. Luminata, ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award for Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, El Zarco, The Bandit with the Blue Eyes, and the PEN Southwest Special Translation Award for Diamela Eltit, Infarct of the Soul.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
I was connected to Latin America by FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy and its Nelson Rockefeller implementation. It was imprinted on me before my knowing Spanish—all by unrecognized propaganda, developed nefariously with more than half the news written by our Department State.
Spanish B2 my last college language course, the teacher Gregory Rabassa, my first translation the final exam. After graduate school and time to publish my dissertation on Borges, for which I had an NEH grant in 1966 to visit Buenos Aires—my first other city—, John Coleman at NYU suggested my applying to the Center for Inter-American Relations, where I ended up as Director of the Literature Program, devised by the brilliant José Guillermo Castillo. I met many Latin American authors and artists; I also traveled in Mexico and South America on my own and on Center errands. In the late 1970s I traveled with Dennis Dollens in Spain, where we eventually acquired a piso in Barcelona—my second other city.
I have been fortunate, usually, to know writers or artists before encountering their work. Without that direct relationship, I doubt that I would have interested myself in or been able to complete what little I have done.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
I don’t like such puzzles; Helen Lane rejoiced in them. I labor now at Pombo’s Contra Natura, choosing, in confluence with author and publisher, to retain that title, having discovered that US readers mostly understand it as Latin. A seductive situation here: Spanish read as Latin contra naturam and understood as against nature; but then Pombo beautifully introduces the balancing contradiós. Enviable symmetry: my migraine. Deriving from contra + deus, sometimes written contraDiós, the word usually names the more trivial. Preserving every other contra, I still puzzle over preserving Pombo’s symmetry? Suggestions?
Diamela Eltit’s novel Lumpérica became E. Luminata (helped there by ever-generous Carol Maier) because I found readers not recognizing lump-en! not recognizing Am-erica either! as I recognized why the novel had been termed untranslatable. In section 8, where the character slices her arms repeatedly with a blade, I crashed into:
En cambio—hacia arriba—se vuelve barro, barrosa, barroca la epidermis.
Barroca, vital to the book’s self-revelation, I had to maintain, along with alliteration. Eventually, I intruded:
Whereas—upward—the epidermis becomes bog/
barbered barbaric baroque
My punctuation accords with the book’s; my contributed words correspond with thematic elements, yet; I recognize how am rewriting.
Do you have any translating rituals?
Well, I do; but neither very superstitious or ritualistic, mine may not qualify. By the ancient method of sortes biblicae or sortes virgilianae, I open to any page, put my finger down without looking, then copy out the sentence, so I can imitate it severally: imitate the syntax, next including any tropes or figures; imitate the diction; imitate the perceived intention; and, finally, imitate freely. I find myself turning back to those rapid warm-ups for their hasty insight dimmed with word-by-word, letter-by-letter translation, surprising myself with what I saw, felt in rapid-fire ways that don’t seem quite intellectual. Not so different, really, from a glance at a new person or falling in love at first sight, which I did with the first page of Lumpérica.
Or I read a chance passage aloud, trying to imitate the author’s voice if I’ve heard the author or, if not, improvising a suitable, evocative voice. Enacting or re-enacting this way—acting, anyway—establishes punctuation and phrasing: lines of a palm I’ve not read. Charles Van Doren, Kenneth Koch both told me they never taught a book without first reading it aloud. I’ve learned from imitating their practice, though seldom attaining their thoroughness.
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
I tried to believe some of these metaphors. Tried really hard, and ultimately rejected every one, while recognizing some as partially accurate: Helen Lane’s autobiographical suggestion of cryptography; Robert Wechsler’s savvy plea for performance (Performing without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation), so eagerly praised by grand Margaret Sayers Peden. Mine’s no metaphor; rather, it’s a displacement in time and curriculum.
I practice Quintilian’s imitation, adjusted to my circumstances and limited abilities. Translation is collaboration between an originating writer and a rewriting translator; imitation, signals a first step toward peaceable co-existence.
I’ve taught the method with gratifying results to students of English—intra-lingual translation—and I’ve suffered their achievements being labeled Christian-ized. I’ve suffered and exalted in Helen Lane’s painstaking criticism, say, on Eltit’s E. Luminata, as hardly translation at all: a trot, rather; because I place my interest on the osmotic process, sometimes pre-existent, between Spanish and English. Some of Borges’s effects result from his osmotic position between English and Spanish. He did not commit the macaronic; but, for one example, the word la red, which names what we call a net or network, and making it simultaneously signify the color red in English, he gracenoted his fiction, “Death and the Compass,” extending his play with names: Red Scharlach, where scharlach self-identifies as German for scarlet. He writes in three languages simultaneously! I see translation as a needed, necessary opportunity to enrich a sometimes proudly famished English. There’s too much strunked English being written. (William Strunk, I mean.) Let’s have some purple, please, pretty please? Stylistic anorexia is pitiful, and one remedy lies in Spanish, certain Spanish authors.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.
If I had encountered Pombo’s work earlier, I would have been translating him all along. Pombo’s view in Contra Natura, starkly and subtly presented in paired contrasts is contrarian. For me, the unimpeded opportunity to further a critical voice that is also emotive, empathetic, and contradictory—contra—to much that is dreamy, allows me to speak up in a conflicted debate. Translation permits such active participation, and I always encourage every beginning translator to advocate by adopting a writer, the lesser known or younger the better, and cultivating that relation while writing that author’s joint representation in translation before an admittedly small but, one hopes, a widening audience.
I’m excited at encouraging a mutually expansive hybridizing of Spanish and English syntax, punctuation. I’m delighted by ways of expressing the Spanish literary barrio in our English neighborhood, even though some will inevitably fault me for nourishing English with too much Spanish. Once more: my analogy of osmosis, but with the attempt at making the membrane more than semi-permeable.
Alfred Birnbaum's Q: People often say they feel they have “different personalities” in different languages, obviously a factor when speaking or interpreting in realtime. Do “different selves” manifest in you when moving between languages and cultures in writing?
I work toward personifications, personae, not “selves.” I’m never six characters in search of an English author.
Recently, with conversations between a cultured individual and unbookish men, I speak their voices aloud, informing my selection of register, a studied completeness of syntax contrasted with oral casualness, its compressions and contractions.
Conventionally, third-person narration is not translated with contractions; yet reciting it may discover opportunities for informal constructions. Henry James dictated novels, even the punctuation. Pombo admires James; and I discovered his dictation of novels by reading his prose aloud and on that basis asking if he used a secretary.
Intensively invading or inhabiting a voice, I’m not surprised at transporting some of its rhythms, vocabulary into my speech. Reading those voices aloud, I automatically contribute gestures, perhaps facial expressions that must also get transported—translated. Do these exercises constitute other selves? I doubt it, but they do extend my repertoire of selfhood. Sometimes the extension’s unconscious. One generous reviewer used the metaphor of ventriloquism to praise a translation. Bluntly asked, though: Who’s the dummy in such a case? Being grateful for its intention, I don’t like the metaphor, preferring dramatic parity, whether between active partners or the dead/absent and the living/present. Good actors, surely, don’t become their characters on stage, some actors calling up their past in order to perform the evident Other.