A translator's task – to disappear
Natasha Wimmer's acclaimed translation of Roberto Bolaño's '2666' is giving foreign works new prominence.
(Page 2 of 2)
But generally, says Jason Boog, an editor at industry blog GalleyCat, "it's the smaller presses that champion the translated works. This was a big exception" – Farrar, Straus and Giroux is considered to be one of the premier names in literary fiction – "and it paid off."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Wimmer, who first encountered Bolaño in Spanish (the novelist has also been translated into English by Chris Andrews, an Australian professor) says she wasn't surprised by the success of "The Savage Detectives," "which besides being important, was a fun book to read." The real shock was the runaway success of "2666," a book much bleaker in tone.
"2666" is split into five sections, each at least tangentially concerned with a rash of murders in the Mexican desert and an enigmatic novelist named Archimboldi. Most of "2666" is a detective story without a pat conclusion. It is from the omnipresent sense of foreboding that the book draws its real emotional ballast.
"To Bolaño, I think, Latin America was the secret heart of the world," Wimmer says. "That's one of the themes of '2666.' Latin America is the secret root of the evils of the 20th century and of the future to come. I think right now we're not feeling so secure anymore here in the US. So maybe that has driven people to [read '2666']. Maybe Bolaño is the right kind of voice for us right now."
Wimmer's career as a translator followed a decidedly untraditional arc. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Spanish literature, she moved to Puerto Rico, where her family then had a home. She worked for a few months to save some cash, and then decided to send out her résumé to publishers. Since she didn't know much about the publishing world, she reached out to 40 houses.
FSG took the bait – "I had no idea how lucky I was," Wimmer laughs – and Wimmer moved to New York to work as an editorial assistant. Soon she was promoted to managing editor and dabbled in some manuscript work, including a handful of translated works. One of the books was "Dirty Havana Trilogy," by the Cuban novelist Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. When another editor mentioned that FSG was having difficulty obtaining a suitable translation, Wimmer asked if she could give it a try; the editor agreed, and her manuscript was accepted.
"I've always been impressed by Natasha's resourcefulness, and range," says Lorin Stein, the FSG editor who handled "2666" and "Detectives." "If a translator doesn't understand what's going on in the original language, it tends to show up in the target language. If you're not totally in control, you start erring on the side of safe. [Your best achievement it to] disappear, and that's been Natasha's triumph."
But Wimmer, who never met Bolaño, and accepted the assignment for "The Savage Detectives" only after Mr. Andrews declined, has not disappeared. As she notes, since Bolaño is not available for interviews, many literary journalists approach her for insight into the Chilean novelist's work. Wimmer is not an unskilled stand-in – her forward to the second paperback edition of "Detectives" is a deft piece of biographical and critical synthesis – but she views the role with some reservation.
"In a way, I can't be that person," Wimmer says. "They should talk to Chris Andrews or Bolaño's literary executor. At the same time it's understandable, and it's very exciting for me." These were books Wimmer spent years with – usually at a pace of eight hours a day, six days a week – and in "some ways," she says, "I know Bolaño much better than any other reader."