The Naked Woman is out today with the Feminist Press. When it was originally published in 1950, critics doubted a woman writer could be responsible for its shocking erotic content. In Armonía Somers’s searing critique of Enlightenment values, fantastic themes are juxtaposed with brutal depictions of misogyny and violence, and frantically build to a fiery conclusion. Finally available to an English-speaking audience, Armonía Somers will resonate with readers of Clarice Lispector, Djuna Barnes, and Leonora Carrington.
The day that Rebeca Linke turned thirty, she began with what she had always imagined, despite a secret illusion against: nothingness. And if nothing happened then, he had asked himself more than once, either for good or even for bad, that it is always something?
The opening paragraph (not to mention the great majority of the subsequent ones) in La Mujer Desnuda by Armonía Somers tends to draw that response at first glance. Of course, the above is a particularly poor rendering served up by Google Translate, useful chiefly as reassurance that I won’t be being replaced by an algorithm, not this year at least. But neither should we be too harsh with the inanimate program; I’d conservatively estimate that I went through about a dozen different versions myself and then maybe a dozen more along with the wonderful people at the Feminist Press before we (kind of) settled on a definitive one:
As much as she’d been hoping otherwise, Rebeca Linke’s thirtieth birthday began with exactly what she had expected: nothing. What if nothing happens? she asked herself. I don’t care if it’s good or bad, so long as it’s something.
Somers is in fact a pen name invented for the publication of La Mujer Desnuda, which, as she’d anticipated, caused quite the ruckus in Montevideo society. When asked about the name many years later, she shrugged and said she figured it sounded a little like “summer” in English and German. Or that maybe it was a tribute to Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine —published as Vino de verano in Spanish several years after she’d chosen her nom de plume. Maybe you’re beginning to get an idea of the kind of tricky character we’re dealing with.
The thing about Somers’s writing is that it refuses to conform to convention or expectations. In fact, it generally sets out to subvert them in every way possible. This was true throughout her career but maybe especially so with this, her first novel, which is full of the uneven energy of every first novel worth its salt, a quality fast disappearing amid the MFA-led professionalization of contemporary literature.
Over the next few pages, we are taken on a dreamy train journey, after which we witness a ritual auto-decapitation and the grand disrobing that lends the novel its title. But it’s not just the action that sets your head spinning: syntax, tenses, and points of view hop around without warning, surrealist imagery pops up where you least expect it, and perhaps most maddeningly of all, Somers has a tendency to go all Grampa Simpson on us: interrupting one thought with another and then another until we’ve forgotten what we were talking about in the first place.
Needless to say, this presents some challenges to the translator. The first draft extract I sent out to publishers was frankly terrible, something dashed off with little hope and less expectation that anyone would take on such an infuriating challenge (I’ll be eternally grateful to the Feminist Press for doing precisely that).
Translation theory is a fascinating subject because, like all the best academic disciplines, in the humanities at least, there are no right answers. The history of translation is a history of failure; sometimes abject, often worthy, occasionally glorious, but failure nonetheless. We translators are like Zeno’s arrow—we can halve the distance as much as we like but we’ll never really get there.
But because it’s also a deeply necessary practice, you have to start somewhere. What I usually try to do is indulge in a version of the intentional fallacy: I imagine how the author might have approached the text if English had been their first language. With Somers that’s a very difficult prospect—she made damn sure that no one, ever, was going to write like her in Spanish, let alone another language. In my attempts to find a way in, it’s fair to say that arms were thrown up in the air, both metaphorically and literally, more than once. But once I’d suppressed the silent little tantrums and really got to work, what I believe to be her greatest quality began to come to the fore: her mischievous, often coruscating sense of humor. Somers likes to tell and play jokes, on her readers, herself, literature, and especially society. Once you accept that, as both reader and translator, what once seemed frustrating starts to become exceptionally amusing—you want to play along, even if you’re never quite sure of the rules of the game.
So all I had to do was replicate that experience. Here comes that “huh” again. Help came in the form of a superb review by Martin Schifino of some new translations of Borges’s poetry in the Times Literary Supplement from a few years back in which he gently chastised some of the translators for trying to “tame” the great Argentinian writer. I realized that no one was going to thank me for trying to do something similar with Somers, certainly not her (I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a posthumous curse), and somehow that gave me the freedom to find a tone and style that seemed right.
The longer I worked the more I came to realize that going at the text up close wasn’t going to cut it. However, if I stood back a little to look at the whole, things began to grow a lot clearer: if we move that here . . . and this here . . . and use this adjective here . . . It was kind of like shaking up a Cubist painting so that all the constituent parts were rearranged just as apparently chaotically but in a way that seemed to work in the light of the new language.
When I finally sent it off to the Feminist Press and they came back saying that they thought it could stand to be a little weirder still, I knew we were on to something. Eventually, between us we came up with a text that, I believe, achieves something pretty close to reading Somers in the original: during the first few pages you might well do a double-take, you might even want to do a little arm-waving of your own, but I can assure you that you’ll be rewarded for your perseverance.