In anticipation of City Lights’s publication of Silvina Ocampo’s Forgotten Journey (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Katie Lateef-Jan) and The Promise (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell), Argentine writer and critic María Agustina Pardini reflects on Ocampo’s writing and legacy and speaks with the translators of the forthcoming works.
Silvina Inocencia Ocampo was a short-story writer, novelist, poet, and one of the most influential writers of her generation. Born in Buenos Aires in 1903 as the youngest daughter of one of Argentina’s wealthiest families, she received the best education, learning French and English first and later Spanish. Her name is very often associated with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares; her sister, Victoria Ocampo; and her husband’s best friend, Jorge Luis Borges, but her invaluable contributions to Argentine literature and her striking personality established her as far more than a secondary character.
In La hermana menor: un retrato de Silvina Ocampo (The Little Sister: A Portrait of Silvina Ocampo, Anagrama, 2018), renowned Argentine writer Mariana Enríquez observes that one of Ocampo’s most remarkable traits was that she felt free to write everything she wanted, the way she wanted, in spite of the fact that she was always surrounded by two dominating male writers. She was mysterious, imaginative, irreverent, and modern, and so was her writing. “Silvina didn’t believe in the fixity of things and identities,” Enríquez observes. “She was not crazy: it was her spontaneous way of feeling, thinking, and seeing the world.” She adds that Bioy believed Ocampo seemed to have no literary predecessor—she influenced herself. She had her own voice, to which she remained faithful.
This month, Ocampo’s first and last books—Forgotten Journey and The Promise—will be available for the first time in English translation from City Lights Books. It is evident that in the decades between the writing of the books, Ocampo developed her literary voice: it grew stronger and more defined. Nevertheless, it is possible to observe in both works the characteristics that appear in all her writing and that distinguish her from her contemporaries and the prevailing literary aesthetics. She incorporates colloquial Spanish, omits personal pronouns (especially the first-person narrator), plays with adjectives in a masterfully chaotic way, takes the fantastic genre to the extreme, explores the absurd, reflects on universal themes—such as childhood and the difference between social classes—from a new perspective, and gives the reader the freedom to interpret the ending. In considering her evolution, Argentine journalist Matilde Sanchez writes, “Over the course of four decades, her narrative gradually changed from the bookish imagery characteristic of the upper class (from the Katherine Mansfield-like impressionism of Forgotten Journey) to the hidden erotic demons of the middle class in The Guests—from delicate tales with highbrow references to brief episodes treated as urban myths,”(Los Andes, 2003).
Forgotten Journey was first published in 1937 and was reviewed by Ocampo’s sister, Victoria, who claims that Silvina distorted their childhood when recreating it: “These memories, told in the form of stories and mixed with many inventions, could have been mine; but they were different, different in tone.” The Promise, which was published posthumously in 2010, is Ocampo’s most extensive work. The theme of memory, a recurrent topic in her writing, is present throughout the novel. In his prologue to the original edition, editor Ernesto Montequin comments, “It is possible to read this book as a posthumous autobiography, and, at the same time, it anticipates, with tragic irony, the ending which would connect, ten years later, the protagonist and the writer.”
It is difficult to understand why it took Silvina Ocampo’s first and last books so many years to meet the English-speaking world. Enríquez observes, “What is strange is that Silvina’s work has not been translated in general. None of her books are particularly ‘commercial’ and each of them is interesting for different reasons; what is striking is that such a personal writer is not widely known outside of Argentina.” Perhaps it is because Ocampo was not doing what was expected of women writers of her generation—producing work that reflected the preestablished literary and syntactic rules of the moment and expressing feelings and memories in a reasonable, structured way. As Jessa Crispin asks in her prologue to Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing: “What is it going to take to have full reconsideration of how literature has been dominated by one small worldview, to see how our ideas of greatness are affected by our own need to see ourselves, our gender, our nation as great, and to see radical plurality as this exciting, beautiful thing, and not a threat to your tiny, little self?” Not enough people were able to appreciate Ocampo in her time, both because her work broke conventions and because it wasn’t translated, and it is imperative that her radical and beautiful writing now be incorporated into the international literary canon.
I spoke with the translators of Forgotten Journey and The Promise—Suzanne Jill Levine, Katie Lateef-Jan, and Jessica Powell—about Ocampo’s work and the process of bringing her words into English.
María Agustina Pardini: Suzanne, as the cotranslator of both books, what was the greatest challenge you faced when bringing Viaje olvidado and La promesa into English?
Suzanne Jill Levine: To speak of the greatest challenge of this doubleheader, or actually three-headed, project (myself with collaborators Katie Lateef-Jan and Jessica Powell) would require answering all of your excellent questions at once. Silvina Ocampo’s life was as original as her work. She had a rich, wildly personal imagination. As a young girl, she wanted to paint (and she studied art in Europe under the tutelage of Giorgio de Chirico), but she soon decided that she was fated to be a poet, and especially a poet of fiction, to take the communication between images and words to unexplored zones.
My collaborators will no doubt agree that the greatest challenge is Silvina herself. Her hermetic metaphors, her perversely elusive wit, and her oblique (and often infinitely ambiguous) use of language under the influence of surrealism—more pronounced in baroque turns of phrase in the first book, Viaje olvidado, or Forgotten Journey (the title is almost an oxymoron), but still present in the collage technique of The Promise at the very end, posthumously published. The latter work was a “promise” she made to herself that she would write, and this brief novel took her almost twenty years.
Another part of the challenge was that, from the perspective of a certain class and in a certain era in an Argentina that practically no longer exists, Silvina boldly gave voice to marginal figures of her world: servants, women, children. As L. P. Hartley remarked at the beginning of his pungent novel The Go-Between, “the past is another country.” So we were translating not only a language but from one era to another, and yet, paradoxically, dealing with a writer who was in no way old-fashioned but rather an intrepid innovator and more modern than many young writers today. When I discussed with an Argentine scholar the meaning or intention of some of the more byzantine words and convoluted passages in these narratives, she said “Even in Argentina she was often impossible to understand.”
María Agustina Pardini: Why do you believe these books had not been translated before?
Suzanne Jill Levine: Forgotten Journey, when it first came out in 1937, was severely criticized by Silvina’s more famous sister, Victoria, for the extreme obscurity and occasionally incorrect or at least forced grammar of the writing style. So when she was finally published decades later in English (following the example of French translations), her later stories were anthologized, but this first book, with the exception of two stories, was ignored, and had been out of print for decades. Her final narrative work, The Promise, is a very wild, tragic, and comic unfinished novella, and it contains peculiarities which also appear to be mistakes but (mostly) are actually intended. So we have here two very eccentric books by a woman writer who is not exactly a best seller to begin with! Hooray to City Lights for taking them on.
I feel there is a larger answer to your question. First: the traditional obstacle in Argentina (and most of the world) of women as second-class citizens. To be an edgy woman writer in the early twentieth century, Silvina risked invisibility (except for the happy few readers). To boot, she was associated with (and thus overshadowed by) a brilliant duo of male writers: the now world-famous Jorge Luis Borges, and her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares; even Bioy himself was overshadowed, as is to be expected, by Borges. A less obvious but significant second larger answer is given to us by Silvina herself, as she once wrote (published in Leopoldina’s Dream, x-xi):
For a long time I had been writing and hiding what I wrote. For so long that I suffered from the habit of hiding what I wrote: as if God could heal me and give me a piece of good news that never came . . . I did not hope to be known: that seemed the most horrible thing in the world to me . . . I will never know what I was hoping for . . . What matters is what we write: that is what we are, not some puppet made up by those who talk and enclose us in a prison so different from our dreams. Will we always be students of ourselves?
Unlike her enterprising older sister, Victoria, Silvina shied away from the limelight and was highly suspicious of publishers, journalists, and all publicity. I met in her in Buenos Aires in 1971 and shortly after wrote to her to ask permission to translate a story and publish it in Fiction magazine. In her reply, as a way of joking about her nonexistence in translation (except perhaps in French and Italian), she recounted, in her large squiggly handwriting, that William Carlos Williams had once written to her, asking permission to translate one of her poems. She never answered him because she couldn’t believe it was the important American poet and so she thought, from the name, that it was a Brazilian samba musician.
To conclude: Bioy and Silvina were wealthy in their heyday—the Ocampos were one of the richest families in Argentina in the 1920s when Argentina was the fifth richest country in the world—and could afford idiosyncrasy. They could assume the marginality that became their destiny, until literary prizes, publishers, and translators like myself (way back in the ’70s) insisted upon knocking on their door.
María Agustina Pardini: What differences did you find in the process of translating both books?
Suzanne Jill Levine: I worked with two different collaborators: The Promise was done with Jessica Powell, a former student of mine and now an accomplished published translator with whom I collaborated on a hilarious novella (recently made into a film) by Bioy and Silvina called Where There’s Love, There’s Hate. Forgotten Journey was a collaboration with Katie Lateef-Jan, a current doctoral candidate whom I mentored in the translation studies program I founded and directed at UCSB, and who has coedited with me a scholarly volume of essays called (with certain humor) Untranslatability Goes Global. While I could have translated both books by myself, the work was enhanced by these bright young translators and by what everyone in dialogue brought to the two books.
Both books were difficult, but from the strictly linguistic perspective, The Promise, the unfinished work written before her death in 1993, is written in simpler, more contemporary language. Not that there weren’t huge challenges involving local terms and references and just plain craziness. For example, Jessica and I struggled to understand what was happening to who and when, or indeed, who was who? Not only because Forgotten Journey (the book of stories) is longer, but also, because it was written in the late 1920s and ’30s in an opaque style described in the answer to your first question, it was (I believe) the more difficult work. It required, if not much more rewriting—or, as you say, “intervention”—much more meditation and rethinking possible solutions that kept close to the original but, at the same time, replayed the original in the best possible way.
María Agustina Pardini: Was there any intervention from your part? Was it necessary for you to use paratexts?
Suzanne Jill Levine: Intervention seems to me a good metaphor for translation. “Intervention” as in a surgery, like a total knee replacement, is what a translator does, like taking apart a knee and putting it back together again: it’s different, made of different, artificial (compared to natural) material, but it still serves its principal function. “Using paratexts,” in the sense of working within an intertextual frame, is what happens continually in literary translation. Words are “naturally” allusive, alluding to previous usage, whether literary or not. So when we translated the title of the last story, “Casa de los Tranvias,” a poignant tableau about a streetcar conductor’s unspoken affinity with one of his passengers, while there are several terms as well as different but similar conveyances—including trolley car and tramway—“streetcar” hit the right note, with the resonance in English of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And while the story is called literally “House of the Streetcars”—it’s also a beautiful turn of phrase, as in Lorca’s “Casa de Bernarda Alba”—why not get rid of “of the” and have “Where Streetcars Sleep,” reminiscent of such phrases as “Where Eagles Dare,” “Where Dreams Go to Die,” “Where the Trail Ends”?
One more example relating to your question: I wanted to pay invisible homage to Silvina’s kindred spirit, Borges, and got the opportunity in the story “The Backwater,” where two young girls stuck in a remote ranch on the infinite pampas of Argentina are described as feeling “off-center” (our first version) in relation to their faraway city friends. “Adrift” then occurred to me, an adjective used in English when Borges’s now famously Argentine sense of alienation was first introduced to readers as “adrift in metaphysics.”
María Agustina Pardini: How much did you know about Silvina Ocampo before these books came into your hands?
Suzanne Jill Levine: As a graduate student in the 1970s, I had wonderful mentors, such as the brilliant Uruguayan literary critic Emir Rodríguez Monegal, and thus I discovered Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. I met Bioy and Silvina at their Buenos Aires home in July 1971, and it was immediate enthusiasm at first sight amongst the three of us. From that moment on, I felt my mission in life was to bring their unknown work to English readers. I ended up being Bioy Casares’s principal translator and wrote a book about him. I was among the very first to translate wonderfully subversive stories by Silvina, such as “Mortal Sin,” “Coral Fernandez,” and “The Lovers.” But, as I’ve said, until recently, it was hard finding a publisher for her. And in the pre-millennial era, publishers were skeptical about translated volumes of short stories by unknown writers.
María Agustina Pardini: Suzanne and Jessica, how did you manage to keep the local Spanish (castellano rioplatense)?
Suzanne Jill Levine: Hélas, you never “keep” the local language you are translating from—even if you leave words in Spanish, they’re not the same—but you can give that language another life in English and sometimes get miraculously close to the tone and even to sounds. Here’s a simple example in a story titled “Nocturne”: the term “ama de llaves” (literally “mistress of the keys”)—that is, “housekeeper”—in a sentence describing this character’s very busy and burdened everyday life. Both the normal usage of the term and the fictional context tell us that “keys” signify more than keys, that “keys” are really a metonym for the whole house. The narrator sums up her many duties in one sentence: “Eulalia era la costurera, ama de llaves, de muchas llaves, y a veces tenia tiempo,” etc. The narrator’s repetition of the word “llaves” (“keys”) is a clue to the translator that the narrator is being gently sardonic. So we kept the repetition of keys, referring to many, keeping in mind that Spanish, rioplatense or otherwise, is naturally musical in its sounds, and we added the alliterative play of “keeper” and “keys” to suggest a woman bearing a big burden, thus: “housekeeper with many keys to keep,” as in “Eulalia was the seamstress, the housekeeper with many keys to keep, and sometimes she had the time to water the flowers and the lawn.”
Jessica Powell: Aside from rioplatense-specific vocabulary, I think what marks Silvina as specifically Argentine (of a certain literary circle and social class) is her particular style of humor. There’s a certain quality to her humor, a quirky yet deadpan sensibility that delights in bon mots and plays on words and character names, and it felt important to Jill and me to maintain this humor in our English translation. One example from The Promise is a character by the name “Genaro Vino.” “Vino” is the third-person singular past tense form of “venir”—“to come”—so Genaro Vino could be heard not as a first and last name but rather as a statement about Geraro’s whereabouts: “Genaro came.” The narrator notes that, “His last name led to misunderstandings.” To preserve the humor here, we needed to come up with a name that was funny in the same way in English. If we’d left it as “Vino,” the joke would have been lost. We arrived at “Genaro Hascomb,” so that when one character says, “Genaro Hascomb” and another character replies, “Where is he?,” both the joke and Silvina’s distinctive sense of humor are preserved.
María Agustina Pardini: Jessica, did you have to read other novels, stories, or poems to grasp her style?
Jessica Powell: The most useful thing for me in terms of grasping Silvina’s style was the experience of cotranslating the novel she cowrote in 1946 with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate. The only book that Ocampo and Bioy wrote together, it is a detective novel—and a satire of the genre—set in a remote seaside hotel in Argentina. All the hallmarks of Silvina’s writing are there: wry humor, puns and double entendre, sudden twists of tone and plot, love triangles, adults both ridiculous and sinister, and unsettlingly precocious children. I found, when it came to translating The Promise, working on Where There’s Love, There’s Hate had been an excellent way to become closely acquainted with the peculiarities of Silvina’s literary sensibilities.
María Agustina Pardini: Katie, what do you believe will be her contribution to the English-speaking world?
Katie Lateef-Jan: Ocampo offers a glimpse into the world of young girls—and how childhood was constructed—in early-twentieth-century Argentina. This glimpse is, of course, limited by Ocampo’s own positionality and immense privilege, but her foregrounding of characters and bodies so often underrepresented in literature is an important precedent worthy of critical attention in the English-speaking world. Ocampo’s writing anticipates the work of later women writers who have been translated more extensively into English, like Clarice Lispector, and contemporary Argentine writers like Mariana Enríquez and Samanta Schweblin. Making more of her work available in English will, we hope, help establish webs of influence in the Latin American context and beyond which place women writers in dialogue with other women writers.
María Agustina Pardini: Forgotten Journey’s first review was written by Victoria Ocampo and published in Sur. She states that there are grammatical mistakes. Do you agree? Was it difficult to keep up with her ingenious style?
Katie Lateef-Jan: I would say that Silvina herself didn’t fully agree with Victoria’s assessment, and I’m wary of the word “mistakes,” though there are certainly irregularities. In 1982, in conversation with Noemí Ulla, Ocampo reflected on Forgotten Journey’s reception and identified a shared sensibility she perceived between the collection and Clarice Lispector’s more well-known work, especially in its “twisted way of putting together sentences.” She mentions Lispector (who had just died) wanting to meet her at the book fair in Buenos Aires and laments that the meeting never came to pass—both writers expressed admiration for each other, and their early stories share more than a similarly unconventional use of language, springing from each writer’s multilingualism; Lispector, too, in collections like Family Ties, delved into the lives of women and children in Latin America. It was certainly difficult but ultimately rewarding to keep up with Silvina’s unusual (and very much ingenious!) way of constructing sentences.
María Agustina Pardini: Forgotten Journey is her first book and The Promise, her last. It is clear to the reader that she matures as a writer, but do the themes and genres make them too incompatible for any connection to be drawn between them?
Katie Lateef-Jan: Though Forgotten Journey is a collection of short stories and The Promise is Silvina’s only stand-alone novella, The Promise’s vignettes echo Forgotten Journey’s flash fictions in a way. There is, of course, a stylistic maturation, as Jill notes, from the twists and turns of Forgotten Journey’s syntax to The Promise’s simpler, sparse sentences, but thematically and formally, Silvina comes full circle. We believe publishing the two works simultaneously showcases Ocampo at her most feminist, idiosyncratic, and subversive.
Suzanne Jill Levine has translated major Latin American writers and poets, such as Borges, Cortázar, Donoso, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, Bioy Casares, Onetti, Vallejo, and Cecilia Vicuña. Her books include Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman (Farrar Straus Giroux and Faber & Faber, 2000) and The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (Graywolf Press, 1991), reissued by Dalkey Archive Press, along with her classic translations of three novels by Manuel Puig. Among her honors and grants she has been a fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment of Humanities, and the Rockefeller Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, and has won several PEN awards, including the first PEN USA West Prize for Literary Translation (1989), the PEN American Center Career Achievement award (1996), and the 2012 PEN USA Literary Award for her translation Jose Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale (Northwestern University Press). Her creative works and translations in the last decade include a five volume edition of the prose and poetry of Jorge Luis Borges for Penguin Classics, and, recently, newer writers like Luis Negrón, Eduardo Lalo, Guadalupe Nettel, and, for the Dorothy Project, Cristina R. Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome, a finalist for this year’s National Translation Award.
Jessica Powell has published dozens of translations of literary works by a wide variety of Latin American writers. She was the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship in support of her translation of Antonio Benítez Rojo’s novel, Woman in Battle Dress (City Lights, 2015), which was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Translation. Her translation of Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016) was named a finalist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award and made the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award. Her translation of Pablo Neruda’s book-length poem, venture of the infinite man, was published by City Lights Books in October 2017. Her most recent translation is Edna Iturralde’s award-winning book, Green Was My Forest, published by Mandel Vilar Press in September, 2018. Her translation of Gabriela Wiener’s Nine Moons is forthcoming from Restless Books in June 2020.
Katie Lateef-Jan is a PhD candidate in comparative literature with a doctoral emphasis in translation studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on twentieth-century Latin American literature, specifically Argentine fantastic fiction. She is the coeditor, with Suzanne Jill Levine, of Untranslatability Goes Global: The Translator's Dilemma (2018). Her translations from the Spanish have appeared in Granta, Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, and ZYZZYVA.