Playing with Fire: Translation and Its Challenges

The London Reads the World Book Club (which stretches far beyond the confines of London, as we have people calling in from Italy and the US, as well as me just outside the M25) reads books in translation. For November, we had chosen not one but two books, which work very well together: Chilean writer Diamela Eltit’s Never Did the Fire, translated by Daniel Hahn, and Hahn’s Catching Fire, a real-time diary of blog posts that he wrote while translating the book, now reunited in one volume.

Photo credit: Charco Press

Both are published by the tiny but mighty Charco Press, who specialises in Latin American literature, and whom I’ve loved since it first appeared on the publishing scene. I had followed Danny’s diary as he was writing it, but missed the occasional post and had forgotten most of it, so it was a lovely reread. But it was my first time reading the book. Most of us in the book club read the diary first and then the book, and I think I would recommend doing it that way round, because the book itself can be quite a challenging read, so it helps to know a bit more about it. We were also fortunate to have Danny join us on Zoom and tell us even more about his experience of translating the book, which added to my understanding and appreciation of it.

I admit that I admired rather than loved the book – because I found the subject matter quite difficult. It takes place mostly in the small flat, in the bed even, of a couple who used to belong to an underground revolutionary cell in the past, and who have lost a child because back then they did not dare to go the hospital and thereby risk discovery. We don’t find out much more than that, this could take place at any time (it’s been fifty years, a century, a thousand years since Franco died) and in any country that has experienced a dictatorial regime where protest was punishable with torture and imprisonment. But we could also be talking about a radical leftist group like the FARC, since there seems to be talk about discipline, training of cadres, carrying out orders. The plot, such as it is, is so obliquely done that some of us thought the narrator was talking about an abortion rather than a child. I was convinced the two revolutionaries were getting old, because there is constant talk of physical pain, of bones and limbs struggling to unfold. However, Danny pointed out that even that is not beyond doubt, as it could be that their bodies are suffering the consequences of torture or years of living ‘underground’ with no medical services, rather than age.

Nevertheless, it feels to me like a novel about the loss of revolutionary ideals and beliefs, seeing that the world has not changed so much after all, in spite of all the personal sacrifices that the rebels have made. Yet there are hints that even the idealistic youthful impulses were not quite as spontaneous and free as one might think.

… we used to take each other’s hands at the sound of The Internationale, its music, its words that are so eloquent or persuasive, a mythical line-up of elated bodies that are young, so young and already shackled to The Internationale as we sealed an urgent commitement to history and you sang and I struggled to fix the song’s words in my mind, I didn’t want to get them wrong, it was dangerous, yes, changing a single word or a syllable within those great sparking lines and transforming the song, the International no less, into trouble, demolishing it utterly to rubble.

It is rare to encounter a book that is, as the translator describes it, so uncompromising. The author makes no concessions for the reader: she refuses to disambiguate events, characters, who is speaking, or what has happened. The ambiguity is deliberate, everything in the book feels slippery, all our knowledge and certainties are ready to fall at any minute. You can tell that this is a deliberate effect, because there are also passages that are more literal, that are descriptive and simple: where the female narrator goes out into the world and cares for old people in their homes. The descriptions of wiping their bums and cleaning their dirty bedsheets are not the most lyrical, but they are deeply affecting and therefore effective. Yet I was equally as fascinated by the infuriatingly repetitive passages, the incriminations and self-justifications as the couple argue with each other. You don’t often get a glimpse of what the Baader-Meinhof gang might have been like if they’d grown old and disillusioned (and less terrorist). The only way to read this book is to allow yourself to be taken into its wildwater like a raft and emerge somewhat shaken and most definitely stirred on the other side.

But as a translator, of course, you cannot do that. So how can you recreate that effect in another language, without completely confusing the reader and making them want to give up? Especially when in English you might miss even the small clues you get in Spanish regarding gender or number of people speaking. I think he has succeeded very well in conveying that sense of discombobulation and claustrophobia that the novel provokes in its readers.

I would recommend reading the two books in tandem, as we did, although perhaps not when you are reading other books in parallel which are also slippery, tricky and delve deep into the human psyche (like Solenoid and The Loft). I think I need something very light and fluffy now, for a change.

#20BooksofSummer and #SpanishLitMonth: Lina Meruane

Lina Meruane: Seeing Red, transl. Megan McDowell (Atlantic Books, 2017)

I managed to sneak in one more review for #SpanishLitMonth, initiated by Stu Jallen – although I will probably continue reading Latin Americans for the Women in Translation month coming up. It is also Book No. 17 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, so great satisfaction all round!

When I saw Lina Meruane speak at Hay Festival in 2018, I was horrified to find out that Seeing Red is actually based on her own experience. She was doing her doctoral studies in the US when her eyes really did begin to bleed and she was in danger of losing her eyesight forever (but she has recovered now). To add to the confusion whether this is an autobiographical account, the main protagonist in the novel is also called Lina (or Lucina), a Chilean doctoral student in New York, who is trying to write a novel.

But Meruane is merely toying with our expectations. Her fictional Lina is much tougher and nastier, perhaps, than the author – or else she is one possible side of the author when facing blindness. She resolutely refuses to be a victim: ‘But I’m not going to just sit in a chair and wait for it to pass.’ She is loud and brash and dominant – with her boyfriend Ignacio (even when she is afraid of losing him), with her parents (both doctors in Santiago de Chile who think initially they might be able to advise her), with doctors, friends and tutors who ask about her writing. She is increasingly cruel. She has to create a new identity for herself as everything she used to be or do is in danger of disappearing. She is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, living in mortal fear, yet doing her best to pep herself up and almost daring anyone to feel sorry for her. Almost punishing the others for not suffering as she does.

The sentences are short, staccato, sometimes ending mid-sentence – the kind of incoherence that fear or anger often produce. Just look at this first paragraph, describing the moment when Lina’s eyes suddenly cloud over at a party:

It was happening. Right then, happening. They’d been warning me for a long time, and yet. I was paralyzed, my sweaty hands clutching at the air while the people in the living room went on talking, roaring with laughter – even their whispers were exaggerated, while I.

You soon get used to the breathless style – and even to the lack of speech marks, which I find deeply tedious in contemporary fiction (making things unnecessarily difficult for readers without adding much to the style). The story barrels along with its long paragraphs, lack of punctuation, quick changes of people speaking. As Lina adjusts to a dark world, all of her other senses become hypersensitive, and she becomes incredibly touchy in her conversations with others. As a reader, you are thrown, like Lina, into a frenetic melee of sounds, impressions, exchange of words and have to try to make sense of it all.

I think the author is also trying to draw some parallels between the fictional Lina’s blindness and the fate of her home country, Chile, and the temporary blindness (or amnesia) of the people about Pinochet. A body collapsing also bears similarities with a country or political system collapsing. She visits her parents while waiting for an operation in the States, and her hometown is both familiar and strange to her. Meanwhile, Ignacio (who is Spanish) has gone to Argentina and spent far too much money there following the economic collapse of 2001 (but really it could be any number of collapses and defaults). Lina mocks him, of course:

… he had done it all with the stupid idea of stopping the collapse. You alone, with just some dollars? Like a second-rate conquistador with glass beads?

There are some disturbing, surely surreal little touches, of Lina actually taking over her/touching/sucking her parents’ or her boyfriend’s eyeballs. I found that a bit shocking and hard going, I have to admit. Overall, I can’t claim that I enjoyed the book, but I appreciated what Lina Meruane was trying to do and would certainly like to see more of her in translation. I understand that her books are often about bodily frailty, and how that resembles family ties.