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Modern Languages and Literatures
A Scene of Translation: An Interview with Sergio Waisman
Assistant Professor of Spanish Denise Kripper interviewed professor, writer, and translator Sergio Waisman for the first issue of Latin American Literature Today. They discussed Waisman’s long translation collaboration with the late Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia and his recently published translation Target in the Night.
A Scene of Translation: An Interview with Sergio Waisman
By Denise Kripper
Through Skype and from his basement in Kensington, Maryland, Sergio Waisman lets us take a peek behind the curtain into the working process of a translator. After having given voice to Ricardo Piglia in English for over twenty years, he reveals what he calls “the scene of translation,” one that most often is shrouded in mystery, where the translator practices what one might call his or her dark arts. It’s in the scene of translation—in that vague, ambiguous space of the multiplicity of tongues and texts—where the unbridled potential of meaning and associations is opened. In that space, the translator has before him or herself, not only both cultural and linguistic contexts (the source and the target) in mind—in the lab of that scene of translation—but also both historical and political contexts. While by definition this would seem untranslatable, he does translate it, and he does it quite successfully. His latest book, Target in the Night, the translation of Ricardo Piglia’s Blanco nocturno, was published by Deep Vellum in 2015. Here’s more about it:
Denise Kripper: Were you thinking about translating him the first time you read Piglia?
Sergio Waisman: Yes, from the very beginning I found in Piglia a certain tone, or a certain voice. I immediately thought, as I was reading him in Spanish: that’s how I want to write in English. From the beginning, I began imagining how he might sound in English, if I translated him.
DK: So do you see translation as a natural progression from reading and writing? Is translation a mode of reading or writing for you?
SW: I think it’s both, really. At this point, more than twenty years later, and after having done a fair amount of translation, and a lot of research about translation and translation theory, I find that I almost can’t read without translating. I mean that in a literal way: when I read in English, without even being conscious of it, I find myself thinking about how the text I’m reading might sound in Spanish, and vice versa. I’m not sure to what an extent this mode of reading and translating at the same time was already there when I started translating Piglia. I think it was already there. In that first realization, when I first read Piglia, that I was finding a style, a narrative that I wanted to emulate, to recreate, but in English. From the beginning, for me it was a mode of reading—the way I was approaching the material that I was reading—but it was also anticipating how I wanted to write, how I wanted to translate. At the same time, I definitely believe that translation is a mode of writing; I believe very strongly that the translator is a writer, but with the slight difference that the translator already knows what they’re supposed to write, in a sense, because it’s already there in the original.
DK: That brings us to the paradox of translation. Translators are both invisible and authors. In appropriating Piglia’s voice, translation becomes a rewriting of the original and, of course, a rereading as well. How much of your own voice can we find in your translation of Piglia?
SW: It’s a good question and it’s very complicated because for a translation to be good, it needs to have both. Somehow it is my voice because I wrote it, but somehow it is also Piglia’s voice because it’s a translation. If it was too much of an appropriation, or if it was too much of a rewriting into a voice that’s too much Waisman and not enough Piglia, then it actually wouldn’t be a successful translation. It may or may not be a successful new text. But if it’s not enough of the voice of the translator, then that comes across very quickly as sort of awkward, almost like a kind of Google translation or something like that, where it doesn’t really have a new voice in the target language. If the translation works, then the original author is still very much there, paradoxically, because he finds a new voice in the voice of the translator. I like the word that Borges uses for that: “la conjunción.”
There’s a fine line between appropriation and copying, between creative rewriting and careful and accurate reproduction. Sway too much in either direction and the translation is very unlikely to succeed. Walk the fine line in-between, and it’ll drive you crazy, but—with any luck and a ton of work—you might end up with an acceptable new version of the source text that’s a new recreation but almost paradoxically very true—analogous in effects, parallel in style, reflective in storyline—to the original. That’s the task of the translator, from my point of view.
DK: In your introduction to the novel Target in the Night you describe it as a “literary thriller set in the pampas of Argentina.” How does that translate into English?
SW: I realized early on that to be a good translator of Piglia and Argentine literature, I had to do a lot of research about Piglia and Argentine literature, and all the different literary references found in his texts, as well as the historical contexts and the political implications of his books. You really have to understand the source text in the cultural context that it comes out of if you’re going to be a good translator. At the same time, I was trying to imagine how Blanco nocturno could be recreated in English, reimagined for a U.S. audience. In Piglia, and especially in Blanco nocturno, the story is deeply rooted in the Argentine countryside and Argentine history. For Argentine readers, the text resonates a certain way whenever there are references to las pampas or el sur or el desierto. It can’t possibly resonate in the same way to English-language speakers in a different place and culture, even if you say “the pampas” or “the literary setting of the Argentine pampas.” And yet, the translator seeks to make it so.
DK: Were you at any point tempted to explain those Argentine references to American readers?
SW: I feel very committed to trying to be as accurate and as true as I can to the original work, especially if it’s a project I’ve taken on mostly as a labor of love and because I feel very strongly that I want it to exist in English so that English-speaking readers can read it. There’s always a temptation for the translator to add on, to explain the cultural context in a footnote, but I think that’s a temptation that for the most part should be avoided. I want the translation to be, as much as possible, the same as the original, even when by definition that’s impossible.
DK: The novel, though, is filled with footnotes and, although they’re Piglia’s, the footnotes sometimes sound like they could have been written by a translator…
SW: Yes, some of the footnotes definitely read as if they were written by a translator, or by an editor with a different authorial voice. There’s a rich tradition in Argentine literature along these lines: Manuel Puig, Borges, Rodolfo Walsh. The footnotes work in an interesting way in Blanco nocturno; they make the novel self-reflective, at times, and they add multiple perspectives as part of the different versions of and possible solutions to the mystery at the center of the novel.
DK: The novel very is self-reflective about its language too…
SW: Definitely. Piglia’s work with language, especially in Blanco nocturno, is very interesting because the way that Tony Durán, the Puerto Rican character from the U.S., looks and sounds creates a very important effect in the small town in the countryside of Argentina where the novel is set, affecting all the social and political dynamics of the place.
DK: Are these things you’ve discussed with Piglia? You two have been working together for a while now. Could you tell us a bit more about your collaboration with him?
SW: Yes. In addition to working on these translations, I have communicated and corresponded with Piglia about translation since I started. He’s been very generous. Usually for each project I would write him or, when I could, I’d visit him in person with a list of questions or problems of translation. His willingness to talk about whatever I brought to him was hugely important, and very productive. But there was also, if I can be honest, constantly a feeling of anxiety as to whether I’d be up-to-par with what he was doing in his writing, which includes using translation as a mode of writing. One of the challenges to translating Piglia is that he himself is very astute about translation and its potential, as well as its possible pitfalls.
DK: Is that why you’ve continued working with Piglia, after so many years?
SW: Yes, but also because one of the most important things that I found in Piglia, when I first started reading and translating his work twenty-five years ago, is an uncompromised belief in the importance and the potential of literature. Even —or perhaps especially— during difficult times, even during periods of repression and fear and terror. Now more than ever I feel that this central tenet in Piglia’s work—about the importance of literature, in and of itself, and as a way to read/understand/interpret history— has tremendous relevance, and should be read far and wide, in as many languages and cultures as possible. And the potential of literature, especially during trying periods, is realized, for Piglia, through the power of storytelling, by re-telling and translating narratives and voices that help us hear another version —and hopefully many other versions— of the story. And of history.
DK: The first book by Piglia you translated was Nombre falso, a collection of short stories from 1975, which you published in 1995 as Assumed Name. How did that book change in twenty years and in between languages?
SW: That’s a really interesting question. To a certain extent, I think the ideal situation would be if one were able to have translations come out almost simultaneously with the publication of the original, but that usually doesn’t happen. There are many linguistic and cultural distances and displacements that come to light in the process of translation; it’s almost like there’s a little Pierre Menard effect between ’75 and ’95. In “Pierre Menard,” the meaning of the work changes drastically mainly because of the passage of time, and it’s up to the reader to understand what has changed and what new meanings have arisen. I think something similar could be said here. The first thing to notice is that meaning always changes with time, even before we change languages. If someone read Nombre falso in Spanish in 1995, there would be almost the same degree of change in meaning and implications, related to the historical moment of the writing and of the horizon of the reading and its distance from 1975.
In the scene of translation in which Nombre falso (from 1975) was reformulated into Assumed Name (in 1995), I was involved in a transformation into a completely different linguistic and cultural code system, and also, at some level, trying to navigate the dual historical moments (1975 and 1995) which were seemingly unbridgeable. And yet—for one moment, for one theoretical moment (the mechanisms for measuring the precise length of which remain unknown)—both times nearly unexplainably co-existed in the nearly invisible scene of translation. This is what I’d like to make visible, to show another more conceptual side of translation.
DK: Since then, you have published two more translations. Have you noticed Piglia’s writing change over time? How has this affected your translation?
SW: It would be very hard to determine, because Piglia has engaged in a life-long process of rewriting his own work. This becomes most evident with Los diarios de Renzi [The Renzi diaries]. Yes, they’re his personal notebooks where he’s written most of his ideas, but even now as they’re being published in Spanish for the first time, in these last few years, Piglia is reworking them. He’s not giving us a facsimile of his notebooks. He’s giving us a rewriting of those notebooks in the present, looking back through time and rewriting and translating them, in a sense, through the rewriting. Which of course sounds a lot like a process of translation proper. At the very least, it is a process of rewriting and somehow trying to account for more than one historical moment and cultural context at the same time.
DK: This reminds me of the translation machine at the center of La ciudad ausente, which is the other novel by Piglia you translated…
SW: Yes. La ciudad ausente remains one of my favorite novels of all time and by far the favorite book that I have ever gotten to translate. Translating The Absent City was such a strange experience because in the novel there are versions of stories and micro-stories, originating from—or at least being reproduced by— the machine at the center of the novel, which made me feel as if my writing in translation was actually coming from the very machine in the novel. The mechanisms of rewriting and the process of translation seem to already be anticipated and even narrated in different versions and various anecdotes and stories in the novel itself. There’s a scene of translation at the core of Piglia’s writing. For the translator, it’s almost like you see your own reflection in the original. The reflection of your task as the translator. I spotted it first in Nombre falso because there’s a whole play there between authorship and citation and the doubling between the writer and the translator, or between the text and the reader, or both. This is one of the things that I love about Piglia, and it explodes in a lot of different directions in The Absent City.
DK: So translation, like you said, is very much inscribed in Piglia’s literature and in a way it renders it translatable. But I want to ask you about something you said was “brilliantly untranslatable,” which is the title of your latest translation, Target in the Night. What are the challenges of translating such a polysemic title in Spanish?
SW: Blanco nocturno of course, in Spanish, has different possible meanings: they’re opposites, blanco and nocturno, but blanco is not only the color white or a blank page, it’s also a target. Tony Durán, from the moment he arrives in the small town in the province of Buenos Aires, is a blanco nocturno: he’s a dark target (because he’s Afro-Puerto Rican); in an almost literal sense, Tony Duran is a night target. I had a list of nearly ten options, from the more literal to complete rewritings of the title. I had a brief correspondence with Piglia about this and I also got input from a couple of colleagues in the field, and towards the end, we finally decided on Target in the Night. In English, the title is meant to indicate, in part, the feel of a thriller, the noir modality of the novel. Without a doubt, the translation of the title in English loses the binomial that’s present in Spanish, but I think this is actually a perfect example of a scene of translation in which the translator realizes there’s so much potential and so many multiple meanings, but one is also aware that one is going to have to limit oneself to only one of the many possible solutions, because you can’t have a book that has five different titles when there’s only one title in the original…
DK: Or a footnote, you can’t have a title with a footnote…
SW: Right, so instead of a footnote for the title, what I was able to do—and a good practice that’s available to translators— was to include a translator’s note or preface to lift the curtain on the scene of translation so that the multiplicity of the meanings in the original didn’t get lost, and also to reveal, if possible, the potential richness of the process as you explore the various meanings and the different possibilities in the target and source language alike.
DK: Every time Piglia publishes a new book, it becomes a sort of literary event for Latin American literature. What do you think happens with his works in English? How was your translation received?
SW: This is one of the things that has changed over the twenty-five years or so that I’ve been working with Piglia, going back to one of your earlier questions. When I started with Piglia he was already very important, of course, but his place in the local and world republic of letters has grown and expanded in unpredictable ways in the last twenty-five years. The English-language reception has been good so far. I’ve been very happy with the work of the small independent publishing house Deep Vellum on the last translation (Target in the Night). But overall, the number of readers in English, and even more the impact that a translation like that can have in the U.S., feels like a drop in the ocean compared to the huge wave, like you said, that’s produced when a new book by Piglia comes out in Argentina. In any case, I believe that publishing my translations of Piglia with independent publishers in the U.S. actually fits Piglia’s avant-garde nature very well.
The publishing of translation, as well as its reception and criticism in the U.S., is a changing landscape; there’s a lot of great work that’s being done, and a lot more work that needs to be done. Ideally, a literary translation as rich as Argentina’s would be read not only by the fragment of readers who are paying attention to literature in translation, but by any reader interested in good literature. The next aspiration for this translation, or for any other good translation of a quality literary text, would be to have it be read by other American writers and readers so it might become part of the U.S. literary tradition itself. Sometimes this just takes time; other times, it never comes to pass. More than ten years after the translation of The Absent City, I started hearing of more people reading the translation in dialogue with certain U.S. writers like Don Delillo or Thomas Pynchon, with whom it makes a lot of sense to read writers like Piglia and Saer and Puig and Walsh, in addition to Borges of course. I try to remain patient—maybe with Target in the Night this will happen eventually. In the end, it’s not my responsibility any more. I write the translation, find a home (in a good, independent press, with any luck), and let them launch it into the world in search of possible readers from the future.
DK: And speaking about the future, are you going to translate another Piglia book?
SW: From the time that I started working with Piglia, the publishing world has grown and become globalized, and it has been much more complicated and much harder for me to know how to navigate. Much of the buying and selling of international rights for translations is done through literary agents, located at centralized sites such as Barcelona, London, or New York City, and most of the business is carried out at major international book fairs, like Frankfurt or Guadalajara. But to answer your question: I would love nothing more than to continue translating Piglia, whether it be his most recent publications (from El camino de Ida on), or going back to Prisión perpetua [Life in prison], or his collections of short stories, or some of the terrific essays and interviews he’s published through the years. There’s a lot to translate still, and I hope I get to do at least some more of it sometime soon.
Sergio Waisman is currently working on a book of essays about Ricardo Piglia and translation. The book will include material from a series of recorded conversations and correspondence that Waisman held with Piglia through the years. The book will pay special attention to various “scenes” of translating the work of Ricardo Piglia. Among other things, the book will argue that it is in the “scenes of translation” where authorship and originality are put into play and a field of potentiality is developed.
–Latin American Literature Today, April 2017