By the Light of Translation by Natasha Wimmer

Excerpt from the NEA publications The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Literature in Translation

The second section of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives ends with a conversation between Amadeo Salvatierra, an avant-garde poet of advanced years, and two young poets. After a long night of talk over a bottle of mezcal, Amadeo asks, “Boys, is it worth it? Is it worth it? Is it really worth it?” and one of the poets mumbles “Simonel.” We don’t know exactly what Amadeo is asking, but we can presume that at some level he means: Is poetry worth it? Is the pursuit of literature worth it? Have our lives been worth anything? Clearly, much rests on the translation of “simonel,” which is an ambiguous Mexico City slang term. Earlier in the novel, another character asks plaintively “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” This sole prior mention seems to indicate that “simonel” is intentionally ambiguous, and that the simple solution to the problem is to translate “simonel” as “simonel,” since the reader has already been given enough information to draw his own conclusions. But when I inquired, at least one of my informants said that “simonel” was a mix of yes and no, but that it really meant yes. Was Bolaño playing with yes and no only to come down ultimately on the side of yes? Or was it I don’t know shaded with yes? Or simply I don’t know?

Translating is a kind of writing, of course, but it’s also a kind of reading: a very, very slow kind of reading—possibly the slowest kind of reading in the world. First of all, you read the book (probably: Gregory Rabassa, one of the great translators of the 20th century, claimed never to read a book all the way through before he translated it). Then you sit down and face the first sentence. You read it. You come up with a preliminary approximation of meaning (this may be instantaneous and unconscious or slow and laborious). You set out to transfer that meaning into English. You tack away from the Spanish at one angle. You tack away at another. You feel the pull of the Spanish on the English. You break free from the Spanish. You check the Spanish again: the English is true but it stands on its own, an independent refraction of the original.

By stretching the Spanish in every possible direction, testing the limits of meaning, considering every possible nuance, you’ve done something to the Spanish. It feels baggier, more accommodating. The critic George Steiner puts it beautifully: “Every schoolchild, but also the eminent translator, will note the shift…which follows on a protracted or difficult exercise in translation: the text in the other language has become almost materially thinner, the light seems to pass unhindered through its loosened fibers.” It’s an exhilarating feeling, but according to Steiner, it’s also exactly what’s wrong with the act of translation. Nothing is allowed to remain unarticulated or unexplained in the translator’s mind; the translator—famously—isn’t allowed to skip. Even when she decides to replicate the obliqueness of a phrase, she has to be conscious of every implication of its obscurity; its unknowableness must be precisely calibrated. The glare of the translator’s lamp dispells the suggestive murk of the text.

The translator and scholar David Bellos tells a story about trying to read Hegel at a library in Germany. Unable to make any headway, he glances over at the German student in the next carrel. This student is also reading Hegel—but in English. In the bright light of translation, a difficult philosophical text is rendered more comprehensible. Did the translator set out to clarify? Almost certainly not. But the very resourcefulness of translation, its inclination to seek the best possible English equivalent, has resulted in a more transparent text.

In a way, the translator must know the text better than the author. The author is allowed to write intuitively, sometimes blindly—the translator is not. The translator must translate consciously, deliberately. I don’t think this is wrong. It’s simply the nature of translation. And it tells us something about the difference between writers and translators, between original works and translations. The translated work isn’t (and can’t be) the object itself; it is a reading, an act of seeing.

It was 2005 when I began the translation of The Savage Detectives , a few years after Bolaño’s death, so I couldn’t ask Bolaño what he meant by “simonel.” For a while, I was convinced that it had to be yes, partly because it was the bolder choice, and it seemed to mirror the leap Bolaño makes at the end of the novel. After a lot of wandering, The Savage Detectives ends in a startling and somehow life-affirming display of violence, and “yes” seemed an equally explosive conclusion on a more abstract level. In fact, in looking back at an early draft, I see that I initially translated it as “absolutely”—“boys, is it worth it? is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Absolutely.” But I grew uneasy with this solution. Bolaño’s poets are heroic figures, but also tragicomic, deluded, and grandiose. This ambivalence—the sense that to be a writer is both vital and absurd—is central to Bolaño’s writing. And of course there was the earlier reference to “simonel,” the only hard evidence I had.

I don’t regret the choice to stick with “simonel” (yet, at least). But I do relish the glimpse of the novel that I got in the light of “absolutely.” Translation may momentarily render the foreign text thinner, but it also reminds us of the richness of fiction, of the many possible readings it permits and encourages.

Natasha Wimmer has translated many authors from Spanish, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Petros Juan Gutiérrez, and Roberto Bolaño. She received an NEA Translation Fellowship in 2007 to translate Bolaño’s epic novel 2666, which won the PEN Translation Prize in 2009.