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A translator's task – to disappear

Natasha Wimmer's acclaimed translation of Roberto Bolaño's '2666' is giving foreign works new prominence.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 16, 2009

Natasha Wimmer: The commercial success of her translation of Robert Bolaño’s ‘2666’ was a ‘surprise.’

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor


New York

In the spring of 2006, Natasha Wimmer left her job at a Manhattan trade publication and moved with her husband to Cuauhtémoc, a bustling neighborhood in the northwest of Mexico City. Their flat overlooked Calle Abraham Gonzalez, not far from a café called La Habana, and Ms. Wimmer spent many afternoons there, reading and chatting with Mexican friends.

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At the time, she was working on the first English translation of "The Savage Detectives," by the novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003. Bolaño was Chilean, but had drifted in and out of Mexico City throughout his life, first as an adolescent, then as a revolutionary and littérateur.

"He was a geographically obsessed writer, especially when it came to Mexico City. He always told you exactly where he was going – down to the street, the intersection, the building," Wimmer remembers. "Café La Habana, for instance, was the basis for Café Quito," an important set piece in "The Savage Detectives." (The book, which traces the literary and political adventures of two ambitious poets, is partly autobiographical.)

"Being in the middle of that was very clarifying, and very useful," Wimmer says. "I found I understood the cultural references better, and had a closer sense of the vibrancy of the place. And that's what I wanted to capture. The book has such a quality of urgency and ease. So many other books I'd read felt willed, and this one didn't. It seemed essential."

These days, Wimmer lives on the third floor of a carefully restored brownstone in Harlem, far from the noise and traffic of Mexico City. On a snowy Saturday this month, while her husband watched their young daughter, Wimmer recounted the years – more than three in all – she'd spent translating "Detectives," and then "2666," Bolaño's 992-page posthumous masterpiece, released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux last December.

"It's been a long and amazing experience. It may be the peak of [my] career as a translator," she says, pausing. "Chances are good."

It's hard to overstate the critical fervor with which Bolaño-mania – the phrase coined by the Economist – has hit North America. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, the critic James Wood called Bolaño, "one of the greatest and most influential modern writers." The novelist Jonathan Lethem noted that, "Bolaño has proven [literature] can do anything." "The Savage Detectives" topped many best-of lists in 2007, and Time magazine named "2666" the best book of 2008.

More notable still is the commercial popularity of "2666," an unusually complex and occasionally obtuse novel. According to the Economist, the book's first printing vanished from shelves within days, forcing the publisher to rush a second order.

In recent years, US publishers have sought to establish a more international tone, partly to counter charges of American insularity. (Last October, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy that distributes the Nobel Prize in Literature, said that American writers were "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.")