A translator's task – to disappear

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

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor
Natasha Wimmer: The commercial success of her translation of Robert Bolaño’s ‘2666’ was a ‘surprise.’

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.

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.")

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."

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."

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