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Interview with Chris Andrews

Like many, I have come to admire and appreciate the work of Australian Chris Andrews, whose translations have been key in bringing to English readers the works of Roberto Bolaño and César Aira.  His exceptional renderings are so strong in style and voice that they never feel like works in translation.  Andrews has translated five books by Roberto Bolaño: By Night in Chile (2003), Distant Star (2004), Last Evening on Earth (2007), Amulet (2008), and Nazi Literature in the Americas (2009).  From César Aira, he has brought us three: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2006), How I Became a Nun (2007), and Ghosts (2009).

The work continues!  From Bolaño, in August, we will see Andrew’s translation of The Skating Rink; in 2010, of Monsieur Pain (January), Assassin Whores (June), and The Insufferable Gaucho (August); and in 2011, of The Secret of Evil (November).  All will be published by New Directions (New Directions will also be publishing, in the same general time period, two other Bolaño books — Antwerp (April 2010) and Between Parentheses (June 2011) — translated by Natasha Wimmer, who did exceptional work on Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666).  Besides a translation of Aira’s Varamo (forthcoming), I’m hoping that in the mix there are some more transations of Aira’s books.

I’m pleased that Mr. Andrews has taken the time to respond to some questions about his work as a translator, and in particular as a translator of Bolaño and Aira.  (All typos in the interview are mine — not because I wrote it myself but because I typed it up myself.)

Chris-Andrews

Q:  Mr. Andrews, I’d like to begin by asking about your pathway to your current work translating Roberto Bolaño and César Aira.  How long have you been translating, and why from Spanish?

I studied literature, French and Spanish, at university and started translating in the mid-1990s with travel narratives (including Ana Briongos’ memoir Black on Black about living and travelling in Iran) and some short stories (including Cortázar’s uncollected, early story “The Season of the Hand”).  I wanted to translate longer works of fiction, but it’s hard to get a contract; there’s simply not much work for translators of fiction into English.  With Bolaño, I had a lucky break: I was approaching publishers in England, expressing interest in translating work, and it happened that I visited Christopher Maclehose at The Harvill Press in London shortly after he had acquired the rights to By Night in Chile.  That was in 2001.  He asked me what I had been reading and I spoke enthusiastically about Bolaño (I had just read The Wild Detectives).  Harvill already had a translator lined up for By Night in Chile, but when that fell through, they needed a replacement, so they asked me for a sample, then commissioned me to translate the book.  Barbara Epler at New Directions published By Night in Chile in the United States, and I’ve been working directly with her since Last Evenings on Earth (which was originally commissioned by Harvill but published first by New Directions in the United States).

What happened with Aira was also serendipitous.  New Directions were considering some of his books, and Barbara was asking for opinions.  I had been “converted” by An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (I remember clearly reading it on a tram on a sunny winter’s day in Melbourne and suddenly feeling that I “got it”, after an initial phase of bewilderment, or more precisely realizing that if I stopped trying to “get it” as historically responsible fiction, it would open up as a strange and beautiful blend of phantasmagoria, essay, and narrative poem.  After that, I was hooked and embarked on the treasure hunt that Aira has set up for his readers by publishing his books all over the place, with all sorts of outfits).  So when the chance to translate An Episode and How I Became a Nun came up, I was very keen.

Q:  What attracted you to the work of translating in the first place?

Translating is a very practical, hands-on way of working with literature: taking the sentences apart, puzzling over the bits, and reassembling them; poring over dictionaries and other reference works.  I like trying to think about literature in critical and theoretical ways too, but there’s pleasure in losing the distance that theory requires and losing yourself in the details.

Q:  I have found Bolaño and Aira to be two incredibly different authors, yet authors whose style is part of the product.  In other words, their subject tends to determine the very form they write in.  How do you approach such diverse and complex translating projects?

I think you’re quite right: they are very different, but in both cases style, in the broadest sense, encompassing the organization of a life-work and a working life, is central.  Part of Aira’s style in that broad sense is to keep changing his style at the level of the chapter or paragraph, or rather to keep jumping from genre to genre to genre (Patri’s dream in Ghosts is a clear example of that: it is made up of free-wheeling anthropological reflections, which contrast strongly with the fairly straightforward narration in which the dream is set).  So there are sharp differences within the books as well as between them, which are disorienting for the translator, as for the reader.  When the translator reaches those discontinuities, he or she just has to hang on tight.

Q:  Do you find yourself suffering from translator’s block?

Yes, but it lasts for hours, not days, weeks, or months, and I think it’s quite different from writer’s block.  The problems to be solved are complex, but largely pre-set by the original, whereas a writer has to keep coming up with problems as well as solving them.

Q:  Having translated a handful of works by each author, have certain things become automatic or at least easy?

No.  That hasn’t happened yet!

Q:  Now that we’ve talked about some of the challenges of translating, what are the pleasures?

César Aira has said that for him becoming a writer gave him an excuse to go on reading in the luxurious, irresponsible way that children do.  Translating is a good excuse for reading too, and rereading.  So I’d say that one of the main pleasures of translating is prolonged immersion in interesting fictions.  Handling literary language is a great source of pleasure too.

Q:  What are you working on now?  And, if it doesn’t breach any pact of secrecy, what is coming up?

Right at the moment I’m finishing off Bolaño’s Monsieur Pain, before getting on to some more Bolaño stories.  César Aira’s Varamo is coming up after that.

Q:  Who are some of your favorite authors writing in Spanish who have not been translated into English?

I’ll mention two, who are very different from each other.

Dalia Rosetti, from Argentina.  Recently I read her book Me encantaría que me guestes de mí (clumsy translation: I’d love it if you fancied me).  It’s a lesbian surfing romance that jumps into the future.  The labels make it sound like a genre mish-mash, and I guess that’s what it is, but what fascinated me was the falsely naive vitality of the narrative voice, which is cunningly sustained.

Juan Villoro, from Mexico.  His El Testigo (The Witness), about a self-exiled Mexican intellectual returning home after the elections that ended the PRI’s long reign in 2001, is dense, epigrammatic, and built like a palace.  It’s the most ambitious of Villoro’s books to date, but there are many more, in an impressive range of kinds: stories, essays, travel writing, children’s books.

Q:  Do you have a say in what works you will translate?  If so, how do you select your next process?

Generally publishers do the commissioning and translators take the job or don’t.  Publishers often listen to the opinions of translators, or ask them for reader’s reports, but they usually gather a fair few opinions and then they just have to “go on their nerve” as Frank O’Hara said of poets.  When a book is proposed, two main factors influence my decision: (a) Am I in tune with the book? and (b) Can I do it in the publisher’s time frame, given my other commitments?

Q:  Finally, what are three books you recommend we all read?

These aren’t recommendations for everyone, just some things I like and that might appeal to some readers of The Mookse and the Gripes: Anything the Landlord Touches, poems by Emma Lew, from Melbourne (Giramondo Press); A God’s Breakfast, poems by Frank Kuppner, from Glasgow (Carcanet); The Power of Flies, a novel by Lydie Salvayre, from France, translated by Jane Kuntz (Dalkey Archive Press).

11 thoughts on “Interview with Chris Andrews”

  1. lena says:

    Great interview! I’ve always wondered what it is like for folks who translate the books. As for the book he mentions – I’d love it if you fancied me – it sounds incredible.

  2. kimbofo says:

    Thanks for such an insightful interview. As Lena states above, I’ve long wondered what it must be like to make one’s living from translating great works of fiction. As someone who knows no other language other than English (and even then a kind of bastardised English-English and Australian-English with a bit of Irish-English thrown in) I’m fascinated by people who can speak two or more tongues.

  3. This is one of the more informative and interesting blog interviews that I can recall reading — it certainly told me some things that I did not know. Given the number of New Directions books that you have been reviewing, I wonder if sometime in the future someone from the publishing house might consent to an interview on how they decide which international titles they publish?

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for commenting all. This post has gotten many hits today, which is excellent, but I like to see how people are responding. I also thought Chris had excellent answers that really illuminated — especially for me — some aspects of translating.

    And Kevin, that is an excellent idea! I wouldn’t mind getting insights from New Directions, The Dalkey Archive, Pushkin Press, Archipelago Books, Open Letter, and Melville House. Maybe they’ll all respond to a few questions about that and we can see how it goes for them. I sure do appreciate their work, however it works. In the end, they produce beautiful books. It’d be excellent to see how it all begins.

  5. Randy says:

    Trevor, this was such a great post and idea. I read A LOT of translated fiction, and have come to really appreciate quality of prose rendering, having experienced attrocious (won’t name names) to excellent.
    Just discovered both Aira and Bolano, and Chris’s work is in the excellent category. In the case of living writers, I wonder to what extent (if any) there is feedback or input between author and translator?
    Its great to know the transalted works of Aira and Bolano are in such excellent hands.

  6. Trevor says:

    You’re right, Randy. A good question would have been: “Have you spoken with Aira?” Shoot! Oh well! Some secrets will remain for the time being :).

  7. Damion says:

    Question for Chris: You mentioned “Wild Detectives,” and I’ve wondered about that, because I know Borges translated Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms” as “Las Palmeras Salvajes.” Do you think that’s a better translation than “Savage” and do you have any inside scoop about why they went with “Savage Detectives”?

    I’m reading Distant Star now and looking forward to all your new Bolano. Thanks!

  8. Trevor says:

    Hi Damion, I’m not sure Chris Andrews checks this blog regularly or even if he comes here any more. I’d like to think he does in between translating more Aira, but maybe not. Because you might not get a response from him, I’ll invite anyone with knowledge to answer your questions. And I’ll try to answer it in my own way as well — I’m fluent in Portuguese and proficient in Spanish, though I’m no translator. Any other thoughts are very welcome.

    I’ve never read The Savage Detectives, so this is not my opinion on whether “savage” or “wild” is more correct when applied to Bolaño’s book. I think both Mr. Andrews and Ms. Wimmer are exceptional translators, and I’m not even sure if it was Ms. Wimmer or the publisher who chose the title. My words here are more of an exploration. You can determine whether “savage” was le mot juste.

    When I first arrived in Brazil, I remember hearing about all of the “savage” (“selvagem”) animals. I was in the Amazon area, so I assumed “selvagem” connoted what “savage” does in contemporary English, something dangerously wild and uncontrollable, something coldly vicious. Then someone said they had a cat that was “selvagem,” and I learned that in Portuguese the word “selvagem” (and in Spanish the word “salvaje”) is often used in the same way we in English use “wild” to mean untamed, feral, or even undomesticated (I have an idea that undomesticated, with its connotations of homelessness and wandering, might work well in Bolaño’s book). None of those words necessarily mean vicious or cold. But then again, neither does savage, particularly as it used to be used. Its great to see what baggage words pick up over the years.

    Whether “savage” was used because it fits the text or whether it was used because it is more marketable, I don’t know. It does sound a bit more compelling than “The Wild Detectives,” though, doesn’t it? But even if “savage” is wrong because it connotes the wrong meanings in English, “The Wild Detectives” might not connote in English the same ideas as “salvaje” does in Spanish. I might think of unruly as opposed to feral if “wild” were used.

    One thing’s for sure, the art of translating is truly an art. Translators deserve much more credit than they get.

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