Natasha Wimmer

NEA Literature Fellow for Translation
Natasha Wimmer

Photo courtesy of Ms. Wimmer

Transcript of conversation with Natasha Wimmer

Natasha Wimmer: I like the lyrical passages. Those were things that were difficult to do in translation but could be successfully done in the end. So, his dream sequences and Bolaño's flights into poetry. He was originally a poet and every once in a while, it just flowers up. I really enjoyed those things. The Savage Detectives, I loved the characters so in that sense it was a pleasure to work on the novel. You know, it's satisfying to work on a really good writer because it makes it easier as a translator, even in the most difficult passages you can trust the writer and you don't feel as if you're part editor, part translator.

That was translator Natasha Wimmer. Natasha is best known for her translation of Roberto Balaño's astonishing novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

If you've read The Savage Detectives or 2666 in English, then you know the debt of gratitude that you owe Natasha Wimmer. The translation was a monumental task of monumental work. 2666, for example, clocks in at close to 900 pages. Bolano's characters range from an African-American journalist who's an ex-Black Panther, to a Mexican woman who is psychic, from street thugs to literary critics. And his language is equally broad from Mexican slang to flowery poetic musings. In an early part of 2666, one sentence runs for four and half pages without a full-stop.

But Natasha Wimmer more than rose to the challenge; although how she pulled off the translation with such fluidity and grace is nothing short of amazing, and it brings up the whole intriguing question of translation, of the intellectual acrobatics needed to move literature successfully from one language into another.

I had opportunity to speak with Natasha Wimmer, who had been awarded an NEA Fellowship to translate Bolaño's novel 2666. I began our conversation by asking her how she made a career out of translating.

Natasha Wimmer: By sort of a circuitous route. There really isn't a professional route for people to become translators in this country. And I learned Spanish; as a child I lived in Spain for four years with my parents and then I ended up studying Spanish Literature in college. And after college, I decided to come to New York and work in publishing. And I loved working with books. I discovered I didn't love being diplomatic every day. So I thought about trying to find something where I could -- a little less contact with people and being a translator is pretty much the perfect job for that. And it just so happened that I had been working on a lot of translations. I was working at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which publishes a lot of translations and a book came over my desk. I was looking for a translation for it. It was by a Cuban writer, Pedro Juan Gutierrez; called Dirty Havana Trilogy. And we weren't having any luck finding anyone who was agreeable to the Editor and Chief. And finally I decided, "Well, maybe I'll try to do a sample myself." And so I got in through the back door sort of nepotisticly and that was how it started.

Jo Reed: I think we all know that door. You landed the translation project of the decade, which is translating the two epic novels by Roberto Bolaño.

Natasha Wimmer: Again, just amazing luck. Those books were picked up by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and I had actually read them on submission for FSG. So, in other words, I read the book, wrote a report and let them know what I thought about them. I was really blown away by them. And, you know, I let FSG know that I would love to translate them but I didn't think that I would have a chance because Bolaño already had a translator, Chris Andrews, who's a fantastic translator and he had done some of the shorter books for New Directions. But as it turned out, he wasn't able to do those two longer books and so I was the lucky second choice.

Jo Reed: Did you have any particular reason for wanting to translate him?

Natasha Wimmer: They were the best books that I had read in any language for years and years, so yes. I think I had a pretty good sense. I had no idea that they would be as big as they were but I knew that they were important books and I really loved them; especially The Savage Detectives, I just completely fell in love with that book.

Jo Reed: You know, I'm curious with the whole art of translation because it is an art. You're not taking something from one language and giving us a word for word transcription into English. You do a lot more than that. You have to interpret.

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah, there's a certain amount of cultural translation that goes on and you do add a little bit of context and you try to do it as unobtrusively as possible. That's essentially what you're talking about?

Jo Reed: Yeah. That it's both art and a science.

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah, it's maybe not so much of a science although definitely as I've translated more and more books, there's certain solutions that I fall back on. And you know, especially translating the same writer over and over again, now I've translated five or six of Bolaño's books. There is certainly tricks of language that he uses and that I've figured out how to work out in English. But, I'm trying to think of a good example of something that needs to be explained culturally. Well, there's certain things that I have to research myself. I'm thinking for example of a moment in The Savage Detectives where there's a reference to El Santo, which literally translates as the Saint. And I spent some time in Mexico City while I was translating the book and before I was in Mexico City, I had no idea of who El Santo could be. And then the minute I got to Mexico City, I realized his posters were all over the place. He's the most famous masked wrestler in Mexican history. So somehow, I don't remember exactly how I got that into the text, but somehow I had to communicate to the reader that he was who he was.

Jo Reed: Here's the thing. You start with Bolaño's two major works; as you said Chris Andrews had interpreted his earlier work, which had been much shorter. Did you feel like you were just pushed into the deep end of the pool? Do you think it might have been a little bit easier/less challenging if you had transitioned into the big work?

Natasha Wimmer: Yes and no. And the reason I say no is because not only are the earlier books shorter, but they are also very different. Bolaño is one of those writers who seems to have a different register for every novel. And so in some ways the shorter books wouldn't have been great preparation for The Savage Detectives, which is I think Bolaño's most personal novel and also his most colloquial novel. The other two are more formally experimental. I mean The Savage Detectives is too but less obviously so. And I think that no matter when I translated it, The Savage Detectives would have been the most difficult novel to translate, 2666 in comparison is actually easier to translate; or I found it to be easier.

Jo Reed: Do you think it's because you did The Savage Detectives first?

Natasha Wimmer: No, I think that that had something to do with it but I think it's also a -- it's written from the third person mostly. The Savage Detectives is in the first person and is told from the voice of many different characters. The 2666 has a more formal, removed kind of cool tone to it and The Savage Detectives is more colloquial, more local. There's a lot of Mexican slang and that's always what's most difficult for the translator; at least what I find most difficult.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I want to talk pretty specifically, especially about The Savage Detectives. One part, the middle section where -- It's actually called The Savage Detectives?

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Four hundred pages?

Natasha Wimmer: Right.

Jo Reed: Fifty narrators and they're all distinct.

Natasha Wimmer: Yup.

Jo Reed: And it takes place over 20 something years. Those are a lot of voices to keep your mind wrapped around. Keeping those voices is distinct is quite a feat.

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah, although I didn't experience it that way so much when I was translating it I think because Bolaño gives a lot of great cues and details. And so it wasn't all language. It was also something that Bolaño had worked into the fabric of the text in a way that wasn't all tied to language. You know, obviously there were certain characters who had certain ticks. There was Amadeo Salvatierra, the old man who had grown up in the 1920s and there's certain things that I did to make him sound like someone from the 1920s.

Jo Reed: Okay, when you say there are certain things that you did to make him sound like the 1920s --

Natasha Wimmer: You know, more formal language, more certain archaisms. He's also very erudite so you know, but he's also funny so it's sort of humorous academic language, which Bolaño actually does quite a bit of with different characters.

Jo Reed: Translating from Spanish I would imagine would be a challenge straight off the bat, even if you are not dealing with a writer like Bolaño because there are so many regional and different kinds of Spanish.

Natasha Wimmer: Oh absolutely, yes. And it's interesting because Bolaño spans so many of them because he was born in Chile and because he grew up in Mexico and later lived in Spain. My own formation was in Spain and somewhat unfortunately because most of the writers I've ended up translating are Latin American and I wish I had spent more time in Latin America. But as it turns out Bolaño has this sort of hybrid and a mishmash of language and I tried to get across some of that. But that I think is what you do lose in the translation and I think that the novels live without that. I think that there's more to them then the regionalisms hopefully. But I did try to get across Bolaño's very idiosyncratic use of different regionalisms and just in the sense that I tried to use expressions that maybe sounded -- Well, The Savage Detectives for example, is set in the 1970s so I tried to use language that would have not been out of place in the 1970s but at the same time was not dated and stale seeming and also was occasionally eccentric. I mean, there are times where I wasn't sure whether Bolaño had made up an expression or whether it as just a very obscure expression because he does range so widely. So I had to do a lot of research trying to work things like that out. But in the end, the way I tried to deal with it was to use somewhat neutral, somewhat date -- I don't want to stay dated but somewhat, you know, what's the word? From a certain time, language from a certain time period but also expressions that might have come out of nowhere and that might suggest Bolaño's sort of freewheeling use of language.

Jo Reed: He uses a lot of idiomatic language.

Natasha Wimmer: Yes, he does. But the other thing about his style is that he uses non sequitur a lot to get across his effects. And I think that that comes across well in translation. That's not something that's lost. His particular brand of lyricism has this kind of opaque quality, which also comes across well in translation. He writes very plainly and simply most of the time but then all of a sudden he'll fall off the cliff of extravagance. And that too I think is fairly easy to capture in translation.

Jo Reed: He's impressive because there are such a range of different voices with different Spanish if you will, flowing throughout all of them and it's almost as though he's doing this verbal slight of hand and you're the person translating the ventriloquist if you will.

Natasha Wimmer: Yes. Yeah, and it is difficult but at the same time, as I've said before, I think that he is such a good character writer, that he makes you believe in the character through all kinds of details that don't necessarily have to do with the language or that are tied to language in way that just sort of pulls the translator along with him. I didn't feel like I was struggling to convey a voice. Usually I felt as if Bolaño were helping me long.

Jo Reed: Do you have to fight to keep yourself out of it or is that not an issue?

Natasha Wimmer: No, that hasn't really been a problem for me. It's sort of more the -- it's kind of the issue of you seeing the trees and not the forest. I'm just so deeply into it that it's sort of sentence by sentence. And people ask me whether it was hard to translate the crime section from 2666; the part about the crimes. And you know I was worried about that before I translated it because it's just the account of one murder after another. But, in the end, it didn't affect me -- this really. In fact, it was kind of like a game. I did a lot of forensic research. It's narrated very coolly and it didn't affect me that way.

Jo Reed: It seems as though when you're translating, you're moving in two directions at once. You're really honing down and looking at the page word by word, sentence by sentence. And at the same time, there's all this research that you've done on the outside and it's the combining of those two things that give us the translation.

Natasha Wimmer: True although in my case I usually do my research after the fact.

Jo Reed: Walk us through the process. 2666 is plumped on your desk.

Natasha Wimmer: You know, probably it would behoove me to have done research earlier but it has just worked out for me that I don't really know what the problems are going to be until after I've translated it. And I do two passes essentially of the translation and so in between those two passes is when I do most of my research. But the way it works is, you know, I get the translation. I do a sort of two stage translation early on or I just translate as fast as I can type and then the next day I go over it. And then, by the time that I've gone over it that second time, it's about 80% clean. And then once I've done the whole book that way, I go back and I read -- and I go through the whole manuscript again. And it's in between those two stages when I do the research.

Jo Reed: Were there any voices that were particularly challenging to translate?

Natasha Wimmer: Yes, definitely. It's been a little while since I did The Savage Detectives and 2666 so now I'm trying to think which ones they were. There was a Peruvian character in The Savage Detectives in that middle section who was very difficult to translate, partly because his voice -- it revolved around a lot of Peruvianisms and it seemed almost impossible to get that across in English and to think what I did try to do for that. I think I left in a little bit of the Spanish although I don't think that probably helped many people except that they noted that there was something foreign about the character. The Peruvianisms he used were kind of extravagant and so I tried to give that extravagance into his language. Who else was difficult? Oh, there's a seer in 2666; Florita. And she's just sort of a rambling narrator and there's a long section that she does about divination, which was really, really, nearly impossible. And there are more, there definitely were more.

Jo Reed: I was going to say, how was translating the ex-Black Panthers? Ten page monologue.

Natasha Wimmer: Oh my gosh, yes! Sorry, he was absolutely the most difficult of all. I don't know how I could have forgotten that.

Jo Reed: You blocked it.

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah, well, this is Bolaño writing as someone who's never even been to the United States; writing from the perspective of a black journalist from Harlem who goes to Mexico. And you know, the Spanish is fairly neutral so the question is how much do I try to make him sound like a black reporter from Harlem. And I was a bit cautious. My editor was the one who pushed me to take it a little bit farther and maybe push it a bit farther than Bolaño himself had gone. And I think that it worked out fairly decently. But you know, that's very tricky ground. I certainly don't -- it doesn't necessarily come naturally.

Jo Reed: Well, there is a four and a half page-long sentence in the first part of 2666; four and a half pages without a full stop. Here is what one reviewer said. "For all its twists and turns, the sentence reads as if Bolaño wrote it without breaking a sweat." When I read that I thought, "Well, let's hear it for the translator."

Natasha Wimmer: Well, you know those very long complicated intricately structured sentences, they are really difficult to translate. But actually they are one of the more entertaining challenges of translation; at least for me. It's not like slang where you just feel like no matter what you do, it's just never gonna be really quite right. You can nail those sentences. So they're kind of fun to do. You know, it's almost mathematical. You're just rearranging parts of speech and trying to fit things together. Spanish in some ways, supports run on sentences better than English so it can be a bit more challenging and Bolaño doesn't use for example -- It's interesting. I'm translating another Bolaño novel now, which he uses semicolons quite a bit. But in The Savage Detectives and 2666, he almost never uses a semicolon. So that was sort of a weapon that was taken out of my arsenal. I didn't feel that I could use that so I had to rely on commas. And I did add a fair number of dashes. But yes, those sentences are fun.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this; is it different translating expository text versus dialogue?

Natasha Wimmer: Yes, yeah. And in some ways I think that I've changed over the course of being a translator. I think at first I found expository text to be easier and dialogue to be harder. But as I feel more licensed to be freer in my translations, I've come to enjoy dialogue because I do feel like dialogue requires a translator to be freer. It's almost like poetry; you just have to let go a little bit and when I feel the license to do that, which I do more so with dialogue than with expository prose then in some ways, it's easier.

Jo Reed: Is it hard balancing the writer's voice with the translator's voice?

Natasha Wimmer: That's interesting that you should ask that. I do wonder about that sometimes. Obviously, the translator has certain habits of language that are bound to infect the writer's -- you know, the translated text. And I try to notice what those habits of mine are and to curb them. I guess my hope is that the narrative itself is so strong that it will erase any little traces of language appropriation on my part and I think that is the case with Bolaño's fiction.

Jo Reed: I'm sure there are more sentences that seemed almost untranslatable.

Natasha Wimmer: Yes, well yeah, it's slang essentially. And that's the frustrating part about being a translator. I was just thinking about this on the way over here for this interview. I was reading another book in translation and it's very hard for me to read books in translation, especially from the Spanish just because the wooden parts of it are so transparent to me and I know that the same is true of my own translations. And so, you know, it's an imperfect art and I think that as a translator or at least for me, I'm often conscious of that and I find it frustrating. I guess my test recently has been can I flip through the book and stop at any page and read a sentence and not feel like I want to hide under my desk. And more and more so I feel that way but still it isn't the same. It is -- you are looking through the glass directly to a certain extent and so yeah, that's a bit difficult for the translator.

Jo Reed: What do you think makes literary translation different from translating something more prosaic, fundamental like a manual? Macs for Dummies.

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah, you know, I haven't done too much nonliterary translation. I mean, you're looking for something different. All you're looking for in a technical text is comprehension. And when you are reading a literary novel or any novel, you are looking to lose yourself in the language and to be sort of swept up by a writer's voice. And that's a very, very difficult thing to do, and that's why I think that narrative is so important in translation. I really admire writers who translate text that are all about language. They're more experimental. And I think that those texts can work but I think that the most successful translations also have a really strong, not necessarily conventional but have some sort of narrative that pulls you through it because I think that you need that to counterbalance what you lose with a language.

Jo Reed: Aside from Bolaño, you've translated works by Mario Vargas Llosa, Pedro Juan Gutierrez. Are there different challenges in translating works by authors, first of all, who are stylistically so different from one another?

Natasha Wimmer: Oh absolutely. I mean, one of the most obvious challenges is just that different writers from Latin America are writing in different forms of Spanish or Vargas Llosa is from Peru and Pedro Juan Gutierrez is from Cuba; extremely difficult. But yes, and stylistically there are huge differences too. Vargas Llosa is the master of the complicated sentence. That's where I really cut my teeth on the very elaborate sentences. But on the other hand, his Spanish is not very regional anymore or is not very local anymore. It was in his earlier books, in his earlier novels but for a long time now, he hasn't lived in Peru and I think that his written language has taken on a sort of more neutral, sort of transatlantic flow. And that makes him easier to translate. And Pedro Juan Gutierrez is a good example of the most local possible writer. You know, he lives in Cuba. He's always lived in Cuba as far as I know. And it's very, very colloquial and it's just very hard to get.

Jo Reed: And what about Laura Restrepo?

Natasha Wimmer: Well, she's Colombian and the novel that I translated is full of sort of not just language, not just particularities of language in Colombia but also details of the culture. I remember there's a lot of food vocabulary and Colombia's country that I really know less about than some other Latin American countries so that involved a lot of research for me. That's the only novel that I translated by a Columbian writer.

Jo Reed: Natasha, what about translating a living author? Do you collaborate more with the author? Is it more challenging?

Natasha Wimmer: Well, it's funny because I think that that is the picture that people have of translation if they think about it at all is the writer sitting side-by-side with the translator and having these collegial discussions about word choice. And I know that that does happen but for me it has not happened so much. A lot of the writers I've translated have been inaccessible for one reason or another. But Rodrigo Fresán actually who is an Argentinean writer living in Spain, I probably had the most back and forth with him and that was helpful. And actually Laura Restrepo and I had lunch together and discussed some things too. I think she was living in Mexico at the time and I was in New York. Usually the way it works is if it's a living author, I'll try to answer as many questions as I can by myself because writers who are translated, especially writers who are translated into a lot of languages. You know, they're busy and if they really answered every single question that every translator from every language had for them, they would spend all their time answering translation questions. So at the end of the book, the very nagging sort of questions I have, I do ask. But yeah, it's a bit different. You feel a different sort of pressure, especially if you know the writer reads English.

Jo Reed: I would think.

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Did you talk to Chris Andrews at all when you took on The Savage Detectives because he had been Bolaño's translator and also his friend?

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah, I didn't talk to him before. We did talk afterwards. We exchanged emails through our publishers and he lives in Australia. We haven't discussed technical questions or, you know, word choice or anything like that. It's been a more general exchange. But I really admired his translation and he's had only nice things to say so far about mine. So, that's good. We don't hate each other.

Jo Reed: No, I wouldn't imagine you would.

Natasha Wimmer: <Laughs>

Jo Reed: You were awarded a $20,000.00 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to translate 2666.

Natasha Wimmer: Which was essential. It was amazing. It was fantastic.

Jo Reed: How did that come about? You just applied?

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah, I applied and you know, I kind of thought it was a long shot and in fact it was at a time when I was really busy. And I thought, "Well, you know, ah, this isn't gonna happen." I think it was over Christmas break that I did the application. And then it came through and it makes a huge difference. I mean, as you can imagine, that was a pretty large percentage of what I made on the translation overall and yeah, translators don't make a huge amount of money. So, yeah, it made a really big difference.

Jo Reed: How do you choose books to translate at this point? I mean, now you're Natasha Wimmer.

Natasha Wimmer: Well, you'd be surprised. I don't have a million offers coming in every single day. But I mean at his point, actually I've done a lot more Bolaño and there's still a lot more to come so I've been kind of booked up. And so I have had the luxury of being able to say -- or sometimes the disadvantage of saying I can't do this for a year. You know if you want to wait a year. You know, and people have come to me so far mostly and I haven't been in the position of taking a writer I love to a publisher and saying, "Can I translate this book?" And again, I think that's something that happens more in fantasy than reality. I don't think that many translators are in the position to do that. But I can anticipate possibly trying to pull something like that off someday.

Jo Reed: Do you ever think to yourself, "Hmm… one day I'm going to write a novel of my own?"

Natasha Wimmer: No. You know when I was younger I thought that that was what I aspired to. I thought that I would write fiction someday. But I was never very good at writing fiction. And then one day in college I met someone who said, "You know, I want to be a writer but I have no interest in being a fiction writer. I'm going to be a nonfiction writer. You know, I'm going to write essays and I'm going to write critical things and I'm going to write nonfiction." And I thought, "Oh, well, yeah, I could do that too. I don't have to be a fiction writer." And I do like to write and I have been trying to write more criticism and you know, who knows what might turn up someday. But I don't aspire to write fiction, which is kind of a relief, frankly.

Jo Reed: Right now, you are working on another book by Roberto Bolaño.

Natasha Wimmer: Yeah, another novel, it's a book that's set in Spain and it's about -- it's called The Third Reich. It's about a player of war games. It's a funny novel.

Jo Reed: Thank you for those great translations. I mean honestly, I felt like you just gave us a gift. I really do.

Natasha Wimmer: Oh, well thank you. Thank you very much.

Jo Reed: Thank you Natasha.

That was NEA Literature Fellow Natasha Wimmer, best known for her translations of Roberto Bolaño's novels The Savage Detectives and 2666.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Original Guitar Music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernandez.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at Next week, a conversation with a recipient of the NEA's 2010 Opera Honors, Soprano Marina Arroyo.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTSon Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Natasha Wimmer was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2007 to translate Roberto Bolaño's epic novel 2666. In this interview, she discusses the complexities of translating Bolaño's work and other tribulations of working as a translator. [27:08]