The precocious seven-year-old protagonist of María José Ferrada’s picaresque novel How to Order the Universe, referred to simply as “M,” is one of the most astute, enchanting, and affecting characters I have ever had the pleasure to translate. Her concept of the universe, which she cribs from a hardware catalog, is an astonishing metaphor. I won’t spoil the delight of encountering it in the book by detailing too much about it here, except to say that it is used throughout the novel to both comic and insightful effect—that is, until the metaphor fails under the weight brought to bear on it by the Pinochet dictatorship, and M’s life is changed forever.
The narrative suggests that any frame of reference for grasping the complexities of the world around us must always prove woefully inadequate, especially when the complexities we are trying to comprehend pertain to that most tantalizing of cosmic questions, human nature. At the heart of all this is the question of why people do the things they do, what our relationships are built on, and how we might seek to protect our loved ones from structures that are much greater than we are. How to Order the Universe also quietly advocates for the little people in Chilean history and, in turn, condemns the politics and neoliberalism that have jeopardized their lives and livelihoods.
Over the course of two weeks and several emails, María José Ferrada and I delved into the conjectures the translator can make about the world of the novel and the curiosities that the author can have about the translation process. The kinds of inquiries that, due to the time pressures of a publication schedule, often remain unexplored. The questions we put to each other punctuated our days, little invitations for thought dropped into each other’s inboxes, to be mulled over in spare moments until a response was ready to be set down and sent off.
Elizabeth Bryer (EB): I think it can be tempting to think of a novel as something that happens after its writer has gained enough experience—as something that is only able to materialize once enough elements align and the writer is compelled to begin. If this explanation of (or excuse for?) novel writing rings true, then what were the separate elements that came together, making you feel that you had to write How to Order the Universe? I ask, in part, because there are so many elements that I admire in this book, and even though I have pored over every word and know every scene, I am still unable to identify the exact magic that allows the disparate elements to come together so seamlessly. And, as a part B to this question: What did the novel teach you? In the process of writing it, what did you learn?
María José Ferrada (MJF): There were different excuses or motivations for writing How to Order the Universe. Some prompted me to write, and others materialized once the process was well underway. The first excuse or motivation, and by this I mean the one that led me to write the first page, was my desire to tell the story of my father’s trade. I believe in writing as a form of safekeeping the things that would disappear if we neglected to record them. It seemed to me that this would be the case for traveling salesmen, whose trade was not compatible with the specific requirements of the neoliberal system adopted so barbarically in Chile in the eighties. That, and the fact that as a writer of children’s books, I often get to witness the ways children approach reality, and I wanted to write a novel that explored the tenderness and fragility of their worldview. So those two elements came together: a young girl would tell the story of Chile’s traveling salesmen. As I worked, other ideas arose, a lot of them linked to the political history of my country, the tension and the anguish that was caused by the dictatorship. I didn’t intend to write about the dictatorship, but the idea arrived, and I let it stay. I think that was the biggest thing I learned—that once you have some clarity about the way your characters understand life, you can let them go about constructing the story themselves.
I have a question for you too. As you know, How to Order the Universe is a novel about catalogs and about the attempt to order the chaos that makes up a life, a family, a regime. I think of the dictionary as one of the greatest catalogs that human beings have built. I would like to know whether you feel that language is an attempt at classification on a grand scale. And, if you think that this is the case—and classification, for me, seeks to make things concrete, to give them a framework—then in the process of translation, how do you interact with the words that rebel against the order? I’m thinking of words that don’t have an exact equivalent in another language, and also of the silence that the great catalog that is language holds.
“The dictatorship forced a painful silence upon us.”
EB: That’s a great observation, and one I agree with: language is one of our attempts, maybe our most ambitious, to classify and order the world. You seem to have intuited that the words that rebel against this order can cause a bit of trouble for translators—words that don’t have an exact equivalent often create the most intricate of puzzles, especially when there is humor involved. Which means that they often call for the most creative translations. In How to Order the Universe, just one example of a rebellious word was “humanidad,” which, as you know, in Spanish encompasses both “(hu)mankind” and, in its abstract sense, “humanity.” This usually wouldn’t be a problem, because “humanity” in English covers both senses too. But in this case, my problem was that “humanity” was not the word used by Neil Armstrong. To lose that echo of moonwalking would mean to lose the humor, as well as the connection to an earlier scene. Eventually, I had the idea to shift the humor to another key component of the sentence, which was the concept of taking a step—or a “small step,” as I re-created it, to echo the one that Neil Armstrong said he took, and to contrast with the giant leap he said this was for mankind. So, “Como fuera, a la semana siguiente D dio un paso en nombre de su propia humanidad” (gloss: “Either way, the following week D made a step in the name of his own humanity”) became “Either way, the following week D made his own small step for mankind.” These are the kinds of creative dexterities that make translation such a rewarding and addictive practice, so it’s a thrill for me whenever I encounter a rebellious word.
I haven’t yet responded to your suggestion that language harbors silence, but I have gone on too long already, so let me ask you about silence in your work. So much is unspoken about what the photographer E is really up to in his attempts to photograph “ghosts” (and part of the problem, it seems, is that his questions in each of the small towns are met with silence). When E meets M’s mother, that encounter is characterized by “a strange silence.” And one of the things M learns from the traveling salesmen is that “most of the time, a good silence is more valuable than a good piece of advice.” This is a lot to throw at you, but I wonder: What role does silence and the unsaid play in your work? And what, if anything, does this silence have to do with the time and place in which How to Order the Universe is set?
MJF: The silence of How to Order the Universe is linked to the setting—the dictatorship forced a painful silence upon us, and this silence branched out into all different types of silence. The silence of M’s mother is perhaps the one that weighs most heavily of all, because it is born of pain so great you can almost touch it. Then there is the silence that is born out of fear, which is the kind that the photographer encounters on his search for ghosts.
Those of us who grew up in the dictatorship years know how to recognize the different types of silence because, in some sad way, silence settled like a blanket over our childhood. As children, we saw how the grown-ups around us were experts in speaking without saying anything. And their silence reached levels of absurdity when they were in our presence because, if we were to repeat the conversations we heard at home, we could unknowingly put them and ourselves in danger. So we children of that era constructed our explanations of reality in the empty space that stretched between words. I wanted that silence and those explanations, which were built on such unstable ground, to become a concrete presence in How to Order the Universe.
Related to this, I wonder if you could tell me how a translator might deal with all those things that are not explicitly stated in a text. For example, how would you deal with a historical era that is never named? From the perspective of translation, are there different kinds of silence too?
“We laughed at our own precariousness.”
EB: Yes, there are all kinds of silence in translation. I think that translation begins just as writing does: as an attempt to communicate, to bridge a silence. We can say this about all translations, but there are also silences particular to the text being translated, and particular to the translation itself. If there is a deliberate ambiguity or elision in the text—a not-telling, a not-specifying—then I think it’s important to re-create that absence or silence in the translation. In How to Order the Universe, we see that in the silence around M’s relationships: her relationship with her mother just is; her relationship with her father just is. It’s only after the climactic scene that the silences around those dynamics and what they might mean become apparent. As for history: we know early on that M’s parents met in November 1973 and married a year later. On reading this date, a Chilean reader is likely to pinpoint it as two months after Pinochet’s coup d’état, which makes this silence—the fact that the dictatorship is not mentioned and does not need to be mentioned—very present. Some English-language readers would recognize the significance of this date; others would not. For those who would not, there is a danger that the silence is absent from their reading of the translation, because the moment of recognition is not necessarily activated by that date. In such cases, I think it can be easy, as a translator, to want to rush in and point out such things, to leave some clue. Yet we can forget that on publication, the novel will be surrounded by paratexts—that is, that we needn’t limit our problem-solving to within the text itself. In this case, for example, the English-language publisher’s description includes a few phrases that serve as primers for readers, describing the events as taking place in “Pinochet-era Chile,” something that is not mentioned in the Spanish-language edition. So while silence and omission may not be conjured for an English-language reader when they encounter that date, the publisher’s description means they come to the text with the knowledge that the novel is set during the dictatorship, and with the expectation that this must be somehow significant to the events that take place. In this case, I decided that this was enough. The silence is not lost, just made a little more amorphous. As for other, smaller details: as translators tasked with communicating, I think we often feel the need to explain everything. It’s an instinct I try to keep in check. I think it’s important to perform an act of communication that is full of all the elusions, insinuations, and undertones of any good work of literature. For this reason, ambiguities and silences have their place. And whenever I do get that impulse to clarify, I remind myself that if a reader does really want to know about, say, the history of changes in currency in Chile, it’s only an entry into a search engine away.
To change topic entirely, I wanted to ask you about humor in your work. I am in awe at how funny How to Order the Universe can be. It has such a unique take on the world. You mentioned that one of the reasons characters go by initial letters only is because you wanted real people to recognize themselves when they read the work; you said “it was something like a private joke between us.” That got me wondering: What role, if any, did humor play in your life growing up? And what were the challenges of bringing humor to the page?
MJF: When it comes to humor, I had great teachers in the people who inspired the protagonists of this story. I think traveling salesmen were forced by their trade to cultivate a sense of humor because the products they sold were not all that different, so the shopkeepers bought from whomever was the most engaging. We laughed at our own precariousness, and I include myself here because, for seven- or eight-year-old me, whenever I accompanied my father, I felt I was one of them. I remember the man who inspired one of the characters—S—getting out of his car in the main square of a small town, peering at our surroundings with a thoughtful look on his face, and then saying, after a few seconds, “Fucking shitheap.” The town was not especially pretty or especially ugly; I was not expecting him to say that. And yet he went and said it. What I liked was that there was no bitterness in his words, and even if there was, with that comment, directed as it was at a little girl, any bitterness dissipated. I think that in some way the traveling salesmen perceived the absurdity of taking oneself too seriously, and that lent them a sort of wisdom in my eyes. I think that was their gift to me, and I tried to thank them for it by writing this novel.
EB: How to Order the Universe as an expression of gratitude: I’ve heard no better excuse or motivation for novel writing than that!
María José Ferrada’s children’s books have been published all over the world. How to Order the Universe has been or is being translated into Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Danish, and German, and is also being published all over the Spanish-speaking world. Ferrada has been awarded numerous prizes, such as the City of Orihuela de Poesía, Premio Hispanoamericano de Poesía para Niños, the Academia Award for the best book published in Chile, and the Santiago Municipal Literature Award, and is a three-time winner of the Chilean Ministry of Culture Award. She lives in Santiago, Chile.
How to Order the Universe is published by Tin House.