Heather Cleary's translation of American Delirium, the first novel by Argentine author Betina González to appear in English, was recently published by Henry Holt. In the essay below, Cleary describes how a playlist she compiled for fun developed into a crucial tool in the translation of American Delirium.
I used to love making mixtapes. Sitting on the living room floor, surrounded by piles of cassettes and compact discs, weaving a message from snippets and songs. The best ones established some kind of narrative—stories of redemption or revenge—or created a space for feeling energized or quiet, empowered or vulnerable. They were both repositories of a moment and objects meant to be shared; receiving one meant getting a glimpse into styles and syncopations you might not have known existed.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes translation as the most intimate act of reading; for a long time, I understood this observation through the lens of close readings on multiple planes—from literary and linguistic contexts and connections to the minute details of usage that are critical in reconstructing register and tone. But I’ve become increasingly aware of how translation also exceeds the intellect, of how the intimacy of the practice involves something at once more ephemeral and more visceral. The intimacy of translation is also a practice of close listening that passes, in different ways, through the body. We experience and interpret the music of a text in ways that are often instinctive rather than cognitive.
This felt especially true as I translated Betina González’s American Delirium, which draws us into a bizarre yet familiar world of rampaging deer, economic precarity, countercultural movements, and powerful hallucinogens. The narrative unfolds along three distinct but interrelated storylines, each with its own voice. The first section of each chapter centers on Vik, a chronically ill taxidermist from an island known as the “Pompeii of the Caribbean” who discovers a woman living in his hall closet; the second is told from the perspective of Beryl, a tough-as-nails former hippie who longs for the days of “endless drinks, dicks, and dancing” but who’s willing to settle for training the other regulars at the local senior center to shoot so they can do something about the deer problem. The third storyline follows Berenice, a young girl whose mother has just run off to join a commune in the woods. Berenice needs to find an adult, any adult, willing to pose as her relative so she isn’t shipped off to one of the work farms set up by the government to put the “left-behinds” to good use.
“It quickly became evident how much the process clarified for me about these characters and their narrative world.”
Listening closely to the voices behind these three storylines, becoming attuned to their narrative crescendos and diminuendos (and, while we’re at it, their innuendos), was a job for both body and mind. Beryl was the first to really take shape in English: her monologue sustains a tone of gruff vulnerability even as she jumps back and forth between the present and her past in a commune, and I was captivated by her cynical take on consumer culture, her uncynical devotion to an erstwhile love, and her encomium to solo sex in chapter two. Trickier was establishing distinct identities for the Vik and Berenice narratives, which are both told in the third person, but with subtle differences in register and tone. The Vik sections simmer with quiet frustration and disdain, whereas Berenice’s have a softness to them, a fairy-tale quality. I was able to follow Betina’s lead in keeping the sentence structure of Berenice’s sections less winding than Vik’s; I also tried to avoid harsh phonetic combinations in the passages when we’re closest to her perspective. For Vik’s narrative, lexical choices were key: the invented island where he grew up had been under both Spanish and British colonial rule, so I peppered his sections with Briticisms (trainers rather than sneakers; knickers rather than underwear). This was also my way of evoking Betina’s subtly heterogenous Spanish, which is inflected with terms and syntax she picked up over the nine years she spent living in El Paso and Pittsburgh.
Though I translated the novel straight through, I did the edits for American Delirium by storyline rather than by chapter, because I wanted to tune in to one of these voices at a time. This was when I started making a playlist based on the novel. I admit that it was initially a form of procrastination. But it quickly became evident how much the process clarified for me about these characters and their narrative world. (This shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did: I love using playlists as a teaching tool for exactly this reason.) The mix was both a mood collage and a space to track the narrative arc of each storyline. I asked Betina to contribute a few songs, and she sent along what she’d been listening to as she wrote—music from Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, and the legendary Charly García, among others. Listening to them, I felt the quiet precision of Betina’s prose and the minor key in which much of this novel is played.
But—like any translation—the American Delirium playlist is a creative intervention, a parallel text in conversation with both Betina’s original and the new context (starting with my culturally situated brain) and language (in this case, music) in which it appears. It features three blocks of songs, one for each of the novel’s protagonists; these are separated by two interludes inspired by the hallucinogenic albaria plant (“See No Evil” by Television and Cream’s “White Room”) and framed by an intro and outro that are nods to the novel’s setting. First up is Vik: his tracks reflect the sense of alienation he feels as an immigrant in a small Midwestern city and the arc of his relationship with the dropout living in his closet, particularly toward the end. Beryl’s tracks, like her storyline, start in the present and jump back to her days in the commune, where she divided her time between experimenting with mind-expanding substances and pining after a lover whose eye has wandered to a younger woman.
The final section of the playlist begins just before the novel does, in the moment Berenice’s mother decides to abandon her daughter, her flower shop, and society as a whole to go live off the grid in the woods. As in Berenice’s narrative in the novel, different perspectives emerge in this selection; “I’m So Free” reflects the attitude of her mother, Emma Lynn, while the track “Mister Misterio” does double duty as a nod to both the mysterious Carnation Man and an excerpt from Lund’s nineteenth-century travel diary, which details the explorer’s encounter with albaria. “Song Among the Pine,” for its part, pays homage to the space of the woods, so important throughout the novel; at the same time, it evokes Mr. Müller’s epiphanic moment there, when he connects the dots between the marauding deer and Emma Lynn’s disappearance.
Anyway. You can listen to the whole thing here. The playlist shouldn’t contain any spoilers, but it’ll make the most sense after you’ve read the novel. That said, it might also be a fun way in. For me, making this mix has expanded the way I think about translation; it’s also been a way to keep these characters close after spending so much time with them last year. I’ve missed the sound of their voices.