Interview: Natasha Wimmer, Translator of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666


This interview with Natasha Wimmer was originally conducted for Lit Seen, a newly conceived Voice literary column. But, as befits a conversation about 2666, the whole thing ended up spilling over into a much more sprawling, detailed conversation about vast terrain of the novel. The entire transcript is below.

As a translator, you’re in the somewhat unenviable position of being reviewed along with the author you’re translating, often by critics who’ve never seen the work in its original language. Can you tell who’s faking it?

I must admit that I’m usually glad to get any positive mention, justified or unjustified–but I do know what you mean. There are certain all-purpose adjectives that can seem a little rote. Then again, if the reviewer does engage at all with the translation, I usually get the sense that he understands what the book required, at least. And I think I understand why critiques tend to be vague. It’s not just that reviewers can’t read the book in the original. Translation is all about imperfectly achieved goals, and if reviewers were being honest, they would probably base their judgments on the degree to which they were able to appreciate a novel despite the translation.

That makes a lot of sense. Although Bolaño specifically has such a distinct way with words that my reviewer experience had a lot to do with a kind of line-by-line fascination. Is there a translator analogue to that electric feeling a reader gets when he or she discovers one of the many hidden, continuous linguistic themes of Bolano’s work? I’m thinking here of the way things like “Seeming was an occupying force of reality…it set the rules, it rebelled against its own rules…it set new rules” and “Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming” line up, 500 pages apart. How careful do you need to be as a translator maintaining very specific word-decisions over a book as big as 2666? Do you worry (as I am right now) that doing something as simple as falling back on the same word twice might create false consonances?

Actually, that was a very intentional consonance, on Bolaño’s part (I am absolutely certain) and on my part. The (multiple) references to semblance (“apariencia” in Spanish) build up to an almost manifesto-like passage: “Irrational fears, thought Ansky, especially when the fearful soothed their fears with semblances. As if the paradise of good writers, according to bad writers, were inhabited by semblances. As if the worth (or excellence) of a work were based on semblances….” (It’s longer than that, but you get the idea.) 2666 is full of internal references and in-jokes, and I was more worried that I might miss some than that I might create new ones by accident. In fact, if there’s anything controversial about the previous example, it’s that I used two words instead of one (“seeming” and “semblance” are both “apariencia” in Spanish). My reasoning was that in certain places “semblance” didn’t quite work in the way that “apariencia” did, and so I needed a variant.

I’m interested to hear from someone with your perspective about what you might feel are some other major, unspotted consonances in the book. 2666 is terribly concerned with secret histories, unnoticed facts, unremarked upon but momentous events. Surely you feel like some things in the book are still dormant, and waiting to be discovered?

Yes, I’m sure you’re right. Take all the references to classical mythology. I can’t give you a full list here, but just for starters, there’s Archimboldi’s encounter with a statue of what he believes to be a Greek goddess, a conversation about Medusa (“‘Pegasus came out of Medusa’s body? Fuck'”), and the suggestion that the Greeks invented evil. There are also lots of links to The Savage Detectives and probably the other novels, too. For example (this is an obvious one), there is the suggestion in The Part About the Crimes that the young cop Lalo Cura is the son of either Arturo Belano or Ulises Lima from The Savage Detectives (“two students from Mexico City…who said they were lost but appeared to be fleeing something”).

Do you think there’s one person or critic who has really nailed the book thus far?

I don’t think I’ve read all the reviews (I haven’t seen Francine Prose’s Harper’s review yet, for instance), but of what I have read, I was particularly struck by Adam Kirsch’s Slate piece, in which he quotes Proust, saying that “one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly.” I think that’s exactly right. Bolaño is allergic to easy eloquence; he is a lyrical writer, but his brand of lyricism takes some getting used to. Kirsch also picks up on a reference that I missed, noting an allusion to Yeats’ “The Second Coming” in The Part About the Crimes.

Bolaño’s writing is often ugly. Was it a challenge to recreate some of the more tangled, self-consciously wooden passages?

Yes, very much so. The translator’s inclination is to smooth things over and make passages read seamlessly, so it’s a counterintuitive process. After translating certain lines, I had to actively restrain myself from prettying them up.

Which is somehow an entertaining visual. Exhausted 2666 readers like myself might hope that you’re presently on a well-deserved vacation. This was a pretty major thing to have completed.

I’m not working on a book-length project, but I’m not exactly on vacation. I had planned to take some time off, but little projects keep cropping up, and I have an 11-month-old daughter, which is consuming in itself. Meanwhile, though, I’m realizing now how much I learned from translating The Savage Detectives and 2666, and I’m eager to test myself on the next book, whatever it is.

To finish this off: Favorite Bolaño character? Favorite 2666 character, in particular?

2666 is interesting, character-wise. Its characters tend to be more mask-like and less human than the characters of The Savage Detectives. But the major exception is Amalfitano, who also happens to be my favorite. I have a special fondness for the whole Part About Amalfitano, in which Bolaño is at his most tender. And Lola, Amalfitano’s deluded wife, is a great creation.