If You Love Roberto Bolaño’s Work, You Love Natasha Wimmer
His translator on what it takes to bring the Chilean author’s work to English readers
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Natasha Wimmer has worked on numerous books by the late, great Roberto Bolaño, including The Savage Detectives and 2666 (for which she won the PEN Translation Prize in 2009). She took Bolaño dazzling prose and gave it new life to millions of readers who would never have had a chance to read his masterpieces.
Wimmer’s most recent translation is of Bolaño’s latest posthumous release, The Spirit of Science Fiction. Written by the Chilean novelist in the 1980s, the novel was first published in 2016 by the Spanish publishing house Alfaguara. The novel follows two young poets in Mexico City trying to keep their friendship alive while forging a future for themselves.
I corresponded with Wimmer via email about the challenges of translation, translating the literary works of Bolaño, and the translated books that she’s most excited to read.
Adam Vitcavage: It’s easy to understand an author’s path to publishing, but I am not sure the path to becoming a translator. How did you become a Spanish literary translator?
Natasha Wimmer: I spent four formative years in Madrid, Spain (from 10 to 14) and then another year in college. I always knew that I wanted to be involved with books in some way, and my first job in New York was at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which had (and has) a very strong list of literature in translation. After a few years there, FSG was kind enough to let me take a stab at the Cuban novel Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and I haven’t stopped translating since.
AV: What is your approach to translating? Very literal or do you try to capture the essence?
NW: That’s the great toggle of translation: back and forth from the closest possible translation of a sequence of words to a more idiomatic or loose rendition. There is no such thing as a literal translation, as any translator will tell you. Every translation is an interpretation. I fall on the looser end of the spectrum (I think), but I question every choice, debating whether I’ve stretched too far.
AV: What is your normal translation process? Is there a lot of back and forth with the author?
NW: It depends on the writer. In the case of Bolaño, of course, I worked on my own since he died a year or two before I started to translate him. With other writers, I try to gauge how much they want to be involved. In most cases, I come up with a list of questions once I’ve finished the translation and we spend a few hours or a few days going back and forth. Some writers relish the process: Álvaro Enrigue went so far as to add new material to the translation of his novel Sudden Death, and in general dealt with my annoying questions and misreadings with humor and patience.
AV: Roberto Bolaño is a revered writer, but a lot of his works have published posthumously. How do you tackle translating for someone who has passed?
NW: It really isn’t much different from translating anyone else, except that I have to make more independent choices about what an enigmatic word or sentence might mean. In the case of Bolaño, I’ve been translating him for so long that I feel at home with his rhythms. I’m also conscious of the repetition from book to book of certain words or motifs. For example, in The Spirit of Science Fiction, the word simonel (an ambiguous slang term that means yes/no) crops up, and I decided to leave it untranslated, just as I had in The Savage Detectives.
AV: In what other ways is Bolaño different than other writer you’ve translated?
NW: In the most basic sense, Bolaño is different for me because I’ve spent so much time on him. I’ve been translating him for fifteen years, on and off (mostly on). I’ve translated long novels, short novels, short stories (not many of those), and essays. I’ve also translated him in many different registers: the deadpan novel, The Third Reich; the prose poem, Antwerp; the playful essay collection, Between Parentheses, among other books. I have a better sense of his range than I have yet of any other writer I’ve translated.
AV: What was your initial reaction to when you read The Spirit of Science Fiction?
NW: It reminded me of falling in love with The Savage Detectives, which was the first Bolaño book I read. There’s a sunniness to the sections about Jan and Remo (the protagonists of Spirit of Science Fiction) that reminds me of the young poets of The Savage Detectives and the delight they take in each other’s company, in exploring Mexico City, in the pursuit of literature.
AV: Do you read a lot of international books? Are there any you’re dying to sink your teeth in to?
NW: Sure — though lately I’m on a history kick, and I’ve been making my way through Jill Lepore’s These Truths and Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, with Masha Gessen’s The Future is History and David Blights’s Frederick Douglass biography also on my shelf. On my to-read list of books in translation are Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear and The Emissary (trans. Susan Bernofsky), Javier Marias’s Thus Bad Begins (trans. Margaret Jull Costa), Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. I highly recommend Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds (trans. Megan McDowell), and also Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama (trans. Esther Allen)
AV: What upcoming projects do you have lined up?
NW: I’m working on two books by the Chilean writer Nona Fernández, Space Invaders and The Twilight Zone. They’re novels that explore the legacy of Pinochet in Chile in a hybrid way that is personal and essayistic. After that, I’ll be translating a new novel by Álvaro Enrigue, which is an adventure set in the wild country on the US/Mexican border once known as Apacheria, and is also a fairly uncategorizable book.
AV: What other translators’ work do you admire?
NW: So many! I’m probably most familiar with other translators from Spanish, and I love so much of their work. I’ve long admired Edith Grossman and Esther Allen and Katherine Silver, for example, and then there are younger translators like Megan McDowell and Heather Cleary. I urge readers to get to know translators and follow their work — it’s a great way to approach literature in translation and to learn about new writers.