Carlos Fonseca's Natural History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) is a singularly difficult book to describe. It’s always hard to sum up an entire novel in a few words, but this one poses special difficulty. It has multiple, layered, sprawling stories, and the book is more about the journey than the destination. It’s a philosophical novel of ideas, a story about art and theory in which language is of primary importance. It’s about mimeticism and identity, about belief and nihilism, family and generational conflict. It calls to mind Georges Perec’s idea of the novel as a puzzle that the reader must reconstruct, though Carlos ensures that the solution is always just out of reach.
The process of translating Natural History was unique. Carlos is very interested in translation; he speaks great English and was very involved throughout, which may sound like a recipe for disaster but wasn’t, because Carlos also put a lot of trust in me as a translator. He was always open to talking through issues with the text, and the translation and editing process became a kind of ongoing conversation between the two of us, and later also included Julia Ringo, our editor. As we worked on the book, I asked nitpicky questions focusing on very specific plot points, and also tried to tease out throughlines of ideas and arguments that undergirded the novel. One of the main lines of inquiry driving Natural History has to do with masks and camouflage, both in the animal kingdom and in society—most of the main characters change names, languages, professions, and cultures over the course of their lives. The book is deeply concerned with the construction of identity: characters deliberately take on and throw off societal and cultural markers in order to shape their identities, or to hide them.
This idea led, after the book was published in July, to the following conversation; Carlos started with the astute observation that translation is another kind of camouflage, and that our translation process had a lot to do with the content of the book we were translating. And we went from there.
Carlos Fonseca (CF): Hi, Megan. The other day, I was talking to Diego Azurdia, and he noticed something that led me to rethink Natural History a bit. He mentioned that the novel’s interest in animal mimicry, camouflage, and dissemblance made it indirectly a novel about translation. I kept thinking about this idea and soon realized that he is absolutely right. In a way translation is another type of camouflage. The translator remains herself while becoming the author. As a translator, what do you think of this idea?
Megan McDowell (MM): I think there’s something about translation that lends itself to metaphor. We’re always using other images to talk about translation—a bridge, a window, a piece of music. There’s something inherently mysterious about what actually happens during the act of translation, and after all these years I’ve been doing it, it’s still hard to really explain, even though it’s essentially an act of communication. What we’re communicating, though, is someone else’s art, so that makes it an act of multiple communication—I have to understand and interpret your art, then successfully communicate it to readers. There’s so much that could go wrong!
The idea of translation as camouflage is one I hadn’t thought of before, but there’s part of it that rings true. As a translator I feel protected or shielded in a way—I never make myself as vulnerable as the author does. I get to flex my creative muscles and engage with literature in ways that are stimulating and exciting, but always from a bit of a distance. My voice is there in the text, but only I will ever see it, because yes, I’m doing impressions of the writer I’m translating, channeling their voice. It’s me but in disguise.
I’ve never really loved the idea that a translator’s job is to be invisible, to make it seem like the book was written in English (in my case). I think we can trust readers a little more than that. My job is to guide the reading experience, to make it enjoyable or uncomfortable or poignant as the case may be. It’s not just a matter of making myself invisible, but more like hiding in plain sight, like the animals that obsess Giovanna in Natural History.
What about you? After participating in the translation process, do you feel like the English version is your book in disguise?
CF: Yes, I always feel that the translation is at once the same book and yet something else. A copy of the original where some things have nonetheless slightly changed, a bit like the camouflaged animal that, despite resembling the environment, is an independent being in itself. In our case with Natural History this was literally true: we reworked the text, edited it, changed words.
I strongly believe that writing is a process that never ends. It only gets interrupted by the moment of publication, so translation offers the possibility of going back to the writing pad—only this time the writer is not alone but accompanied, and the work is performed in a language that is not his or her native tongue but a foreign one.
”Cultural appropriation takes and silences, while translation gives voice and tries to genuinely understand.”
And this makes me think of something else that you mentioned: the idea that translation offers another way of finding oneself. Just as the chameleon gains its identity by its precise act of mimicry, the translator begins to build a style through the words of others. I recently read a wonderful piece that Lily Meyer wrote about your work, in which she points out something crucial. She highlights the fact that you have translated authors with very different styles—Alejandro Zambra, Lina Meruane, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enriquez, just to name a few—but nonetheless you have remained faithful to a very distinctive, unique style as a translator. I remember reading that piece and thinking: “That’s right!”
How can it be that a translator finds her voice through the voices of others? How can we speak of style beyond the old-fashioned notion of the authorial voice? I like this idea of finding oneself precisely when one attempts to become another. Almost all of the characters in Natural History behave like that. In a way it is almost an ethical and political stance against solipsism, against cultural self-sufficiency.
MM: I absolutely agree that writing is a never-ending process! A text is never finished, and that’s why I feel that the translation is a continuation, the next step in a long process. It’s a performed reading, and also a chance to revisit the text editorially. When you think about it that way, it’s so reductive to talk about what’s “lost in translation,” when actually so much is gained!
I’ve talked elsewhere about how being a twin has given me a kind of language for or comfort with translation, because when you’re a twin you always in some way define yourself in relation to someone else: you have to assert your individualism and identity, but not on your own. You’re always looking into a kind of imperfect mirror. I feel like that’s what my translations do: they find their identity and stand on their own, but they start out being a piece of something else—they shared a womb, so to speak, with the original. Another part of this is that when you’re a twin, you become comfortable or accustomed very early on to using the words “we” and “us,” and the first-person singular feels a little strange. When I’m working on a translation, I do that too—I talk about “our text,” and I’m not always sure where my contribution starts and the author’s ends.
The question of style is a really interesting one. When I translate I’m certainly not trying to inject my own style; I’m always asking the question of what’s best for the text. There are moments when the translation calls for “creativity” and I have to create the writer’s voice in less-than-literal ways. That’s why I like to work with the same writers over the course of their careers in English—the more I work with them, the better I can inhabit and enact their voices. One thing I liked about that essay of Lily Meyer’s is that she recognizes that translators do have egos and subjectivities and personal stories, and that the act of translation is more complicated than the humble act of subservience it’s often made out to be. In fact, it’s an act of hubris! she says. I agree, and the flip side is that you feel a strong sense of responsibility—it’s scary to write someone else’s book!—and a complicated sense of ownership.
I could go on, but I wanted to ask you about the different voices you use in your book—I think you were inspired by writers you admire, no? Could you talk a little about that?
CF: I had forgotten you have a twin! Yes, that works perfectly within the questions regarding repetitions and differences that Natural History posits. If I had thought about it, maybe I would have made Giovanna a twin.
Regarding the different voices you mention, I think you are right. Several years ago I had a sort of revelation while reading Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s wonderful novel Tres Tristes Tigres (translated into English by Donald Gardner and Suzanne Jill Levine as Three Trapped Tigers). In one of the main sections of this highly ludic novel, Cabrera Infante rewrites the same story using the styles of eight or nine famous authors of the Cuban tradition: Severo Sarduy, Lydia Cabrera, José Martí, Alejo Carpentier, and even José Lezama Lima, among others. This act of literary ventriloquism struck me as a particularly interesting way of defying one of the holy tenets of literature: the belief in the personal, singular voice of the author. Cabrera Infante seemed to believe that it was possible to find oneself through the voice of the other.
Years later, when I started writing Natural History, I remembered his strategy and decided that it might be a good way of approaching a text that was implicitly about imitation, about mimicry. I decided to write each of the parts of the novel in a style borrowed from authors that I admire. One really doesn’t have to worry too much about finding a voice of one’s own; the singularity always ends up coming through even when one tries to imitate. I guess in a way it relates to what you said: you find your style as a translator when you try to remain faithful to the original text.
”Translation is never a mere act of faithful copying but rather a conversation.”
For me this all presupposes a sort of ethical gesture. Recently the whole debate concerning cultural appropriation has become quite heated. I understand where it is coming from and respect it, but I still believe that fiction is always a movement toward the other. An attempt to understand the other that undermines any sort of solipsism. I am afraid that the rise of autofiction might lead to a sort of identitarian insularity of the sort that says, “I can speak of myself and only myself.”
Instead, I think fiction must always try to bridge the distance between myself and others, and it is in that sense that translation strikes me as a perfect example of how to think beyond cultural appropriation. Natural History, as you say, is just as much yours as it is mine, and in that possibility of commingling voices lies the possibility of a new community.
MM: I really want to ask you whose voices you were imitating, but I’ll refrain!
Small point: I always cringe a little when people talk about translation in terms of “faithfulness,” and I really try to move away from that and promote a more atheistic and polyamorous idea of translation. I kid, but I really do feel like the consistent invocation of the word “faithful” paints a picture of a subservient acolyte bowing her head and sacrificing for the good of the other until she disappears. Instead, I think the idea is of a translator in constant conversation with and about the text: a give-and-take in which writer and hypothetical reader are also interlocutors.
But yes, we can be atheists and also ethical! I like your way of framing translation as an ethical gesture. I think you’re right that translation can be seen as an opposing force to cultural appropriation; like most things, it’s about power dynamics. Cultural appropriation takes and silences, while translation gives voice and tries to genuinely understand.
Your previous answer has two inherent conceptualizations of the act of narrating: first, as a way of “finding yourself,” that is, looking inward, and conversely as a “movement toward the other” or looking outward, and maybe all fiction combines these two gestures to varying degrees. Autofiction, yes, would be at one end of the spectrum, and I also have my reservations about the genre. So much of human communication has to do with the stories we tell and listen to, and when there’s that sense you refer to that we can only tell our own stories, or we only WANT to tell our own stories, yes, we turn solipsistic and we lose empathy. There’s a question in here about legitimacy—who has the right to tell stories, and whose stories can they tell? Whose voices should be heard, and what do they have the right to talk about? But I guess any writer and most readers will answer that question by saying nothing is off the table if you tell the story the right way.
I’m probably not the only translator who suffers from imposter syndrome. Much of becoming a translator has to do with getting comfortable in this role of telling someone else’s story, and with the idea that you can and should. Do you ever question your role as a writer that way? Do you worry about the ethics of the stories you tell?
CF: I love your idea that nothing is off the table if you tell the story the right way. I completely agree with it: when we are given certain stories—by chance, by inspiration, or by any other demon—what matters is what we then do to deserve these stories. And that happens at the level of writing. It is at the level of writing that ethics unfolds. The same story could be told unethically or ethically depending on the capacity of the author to attentively understand what is politically at stake. Nothing is determined beforehand. W. G. Sebald, for example, was able to depict Jewish suffering brilliantly without being Jewish himself. Nothing predetermines the stories we can tell but our own writing capacity, which is ultimately, as you say, a capacity for empathy.
And this ties neatly, I think, to what you say regarding translation. I agree: translation is never a mere act of faithful copying but rather a conversation, a moment in which two writers attentively attempt a sort of attunement between two worlds. When writing, I never think of ethics as something exterior to the text, but rather as something immanent within it: any good writing is ethical, because it is the product of an attentive portrayal of the world. That is what I like, for example, about Sebald’s or Rachel Cusk’s narrators: they show that storytelling begins with the gesture of forgetting oneself and listening.
MM: Forgetting oneself and listening! I can also think of no better way of describing the act of translating.
Carlos Fonseca was born in San José, Costa Rica, and spent half of his childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. In 2016, he was named one of the twenty best Latin American writers born in the 1980s at the Guadalajara Book Fair, and in 2017, he was included in the Bogotá39 list of the best Latin American writers under forty. He is the author of the novel Colonel Lágrimas, and in 2018, he won the National Prize for Literature in Costa Rica for his book of essays, La lucidez del miope. He teaches at Trinity College, Cambridge, and lives in London.