Interview: Natasha Wimmer, Translator of Roberto Bolaño's 2666
This interview with Natasha Wimmer was originally conducted for Lit Seen, a newly conceived Voice literary column. But, as befits a conversation about 2666, the whole thing ended up spilling over into a much more sprawling, detailed conversation about vast terrain of the novel. The entire transcript is below.
As a translator, you're in the somewhat unenviable position of being reviewed along with the author you're translating, often by critics who've never seen the work in its original language. Can you tell who's faking it?
I must admit that I'm usually glad to get any positive mention, justified or unjustified--but I do know what you mean. There are certain all-purpose adjectives that can seem a little rote. Then again, if the reviewer does engage at all with the translation, I usually get the sense that he understands what the book required, at least. And I think I understand why critiques tend to be vague. It's not just that reviewers can't read the book in the original. Translation is all about imperfectly achieved goals, and if reviewers were being honest, they would probably base their judgments on the degree to which they were able to appreciate a novel despite the translation.
That makes a lot of sense. Although Bolaño specifically has such a distinct way with words that my reviewer experience had a lot to do with a kind of line-by-line fascination. Is there a translator analogue to that electric feeling a reader gets when he or she discovers one of the many hidden, continuous linguistic themes of Bolano's work? I'm thinking here of the way things like "Seeming was an occupying force of reality...it set the rules, it rebelled against its own rules...it set new rules" and "Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming" line up, 500 pages apart. How careful do you need to be as a translator maintaining very specific word-decisions over a book as big as 2666? Do you worry (as I am right now) that doing something as simple as falling back on the same word twice might create false consonances?
Actually, that was a very intentional consonance, on Bolaño's part (I am absolutely certain) and on my part. The (multiple) references to semblance ("apariencia" in Spanish) build up to an almost manifesto-like passage: "Irrational fears, thought Ansky, especially when the fearful soothed their fears with semblances. As if the paradise of good writers, according to bad writers, were inhabited by semblances. As if the worth (or excellence) of a work were based on semblances...." (It's longer than that, but you get the idea.) 2666 is full of internal references and in-jokes, and I was more worried that I might miss some than that I might create new ones by accident. In fact, if there's anything controversial about the previous example, it's that I used two words instead of one ("seeming" and "semblance" are both "apariencia" in Spanish). My reasoning was that in certain places "semblance" didn't quite work in the way that "apariencia" did, and so I needed a variant.