I’ve always assumed you would need a lot of empathy as a translator. Or perhaps it’s more purely technical than that – just a matter of understanding the words and putting them through the grinder? I know that you spent some time in Mexico City when working on The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s debut novel – in what way did this affect your interpretation of the book?Click to read the full article
I think you do need empathy, but I resist the familiar notion that the translator somehow becomes the author, or has some sort of special telepathic relationship with the author. Frankly, I think that’s a bit presumptuous and grandiose, and it obscures the delicate process by which the translator adjusts his or her own voice to the author’s voice. It requires a kind of harmonizing, by which I mean that the translator must find a tone in her own register that somehow suits the author’s. It is easier, at least for me, to translate an author or a character for whom I have a natural affinity.
As for Mexico City, the time I spent there completely transformed my understanding of the book. The Savage Detectives is a love song to Mexico City, and to walk the same streets that Bolaño and his characters walked gave me a very intimate, visceral sense of the city and the novel. There’s something about Mexico City at night, in particular, that’s distinctive. For one thing, it’s darker than most other cities I know, which means that things seem to loom out at you as you walk, and you have the sense that you’re on the verge of the kind of bizarre encounter that Bolaño’s characters have all the time. I also spent time at Café La Habana (the original of Café Quito in the novel), which hasn’t changed much since Bolaño hung out there, and I stumbled over all kinds of cultural details that saved me from translation pitfalls (‘El Santo’??? for example, was one of the notes scribbled on my first draft of the translation; he is, of course, Mexico’s most famous masked wrestler, as I soon discovered).
The printed issue of Granta 110: Sex also includes Roberto Bolaño's text The Redhead.