OVER THE LAST FIVE years Robert Bolaño has been so fervently canonized in the United States that it’s easy to forget one sobering fact: at the time of his death in the summer of 2003, none of his books had been published in English. Within a few months New Directions released a translation of his tiny masterpiece By Night in Chile, followed by two more short novels, but it wasn’t until the 2007 publication of The Savage Detectives that Anglophone readers finally woke up to Bolaño, celebrating his work as if it were an unearthed treasure nearly lost to history. Never mind that Los Detectives Salvajes had won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos — one of the world’s most lucrative literary awards — back in 1999, and that Bolaño had already been sanctified in the Spanish-reading world as one of the most important writers of his generation.
Unfortunately, Bolaño wasn’t a rare oversight. For most world writers, translation into English will have to wait until the twilight of their careers, or in the most egregious cases, until after a major milestone like the Nobel Prize or death. Publishing folks call this “The Three Percent Problem,” based on the estimation that only three percent of each year’s English language books are translations. (Speaking strictly in terms of literary fiction and poetry, we could more accurately call it the “Zero-Point-Seven Percent Problem,” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring.) Season after season, only a handful of international writers will find English readers via a major publisher, aside from the occasional Murakami or Keret, and the occasional new translations of Tolstoy, Flaubert et al.
As with so many other literary enterprises, university and indie presses are left to carry the torch, often reliant on subsidies and grants. (For a peek behind the scenes, check out the $2.99 e-book The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation and The Future of Reading by Chad W. Post, director of Open Letters, the University of Rochester’s translation press — all proceeds benefit hungry translators.) Yet despite many valiant attempts to grow the audience for literature in translation, The Three Percent Problem remains a mere problem for an industry grappling with crises.
Now and then someone in the world literary community calls bullshit on this sorry state of affairs. You may recall back in 2008, when Horace Engdahl, Grand Poobah of the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize, ruffled feathers by calling American authors isolated and insular. “They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” Nobody likes to be called ignorant, especially not American bookworms who fancy themselves the last bastion of serious thought in a country where Netflix algorithms are primary tastemakers. But it’s easy to see why readers and writers worldwide share Engdahl’s opinion. While U.S. publishers remain notoriously averse to translations, they profit handsomely by selling foreign rights around the globe, and Anglophone authors consider it especially badass to have their work translated, showing off their international covers like passport stamps.
What’s curious is how many American readers seem hungry for stories about other parts of the world, provided the author is writing in English, preferably an Anglo travelling abroad, an immigrant, or the child of immigrants relating tales of assimilation sprinkled with food details. (Nam Le skewers this dynamic in his powerful short story, Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.) So why isn’t there a greater appetite for world literature? Do American readers consider translation inauthentic, or do they simply want to be accompanied on their travels by an English speaking tour guide? Perhaps that’s part of the problem: this misguided notion that reading international writers is the literary equivalent of travel, when in fact, it’s not about seeing new places — it’s about a new way of seeing.
One major pitfall of this tour guide approach to international literature is that even the most well intentioned readers are often content to read one writer (or just one book) from any given country. As Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk puts it, "You are squeezed and narrowed down, cornered down as a writer whose book is considered only the representation of his national voice and a little bit of anthropological curiosity."
For Latin American literature, this squeezing and narrowing was for decades taken to the extreme, from “One Country, One Writer,” to “One Aesthetic, One Continent.” The Boom of the 1960s and 70s introduced the world to luminaries like Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and others, while renewing interest in older writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda. Yet as Daniel Alarcón and Diego Trelles Paz observe in their introduction to Zoetrope’s Spring 2009 Latin American issue, a few nearly perfect works of Magical Realism “served as precursors to an unfortunate string of imitations, novels that combined a little magic, a little folklore, and a few miraculous recipes in entirely predictable formulas, creating an exotic, unrealistic, and ultimately damaging vision of Latin America.” The resulting “stylistic hegemony” meant that many other worthy writers worked in obscurity, virtually unknown outside their home countries.
This attitude remains even today. Ask many otherwise well-read people about Latin American literature, and they’re likely to respond with something along the lines of, “Oh, I love Magical Realism.” Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet learned this in an unfortunate way when he visited the International Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in the early 1990s. One of his stories was rejected by The Iowa Review on the basis that it wasn’t “Latin American enough.” Heaven forbid his story might very well have taken place in Los Estados Unidos. The experience provoked Fuguet and friend Sergio Gómez to curate the McOndo anthology — McDonald’s meets Macondo — a collection of 19 writers from Latin America and Spain seeking to represent an aesthetic that better represented modern day realities in their countries. Likewise, in 1996, a cohort of Mexican authors published The Crack Manifesto, a battle cry for Latin American writers to break with the pervading Magical Realism and return to the complex styles of Borges and Cortazár. When we consider that the McOndo and Crack Movements were still necessary 30 years after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, we can begin to see just how large one aesthetic can loom.
This is just one reason why the ongoing translation of Roberto Bolaño’s works into English is such an important process, however belated it might be. As Francisco Goldman wrote in his 2007 essay “The Great Bolaño”, when we read his work, “...we are far from the way that the most famous generation of Latin American novelists and poets…understood the long-standing and dreadful Latin American problem of literature and politics.” Rather than representing violent political realities fantastically, Bolaño gazed directly at violence and kept looking, page after page. Just as importantly, he pushed the geographic boundaries of Latin American literature. Fuck “One Country, One Writer.” A Chilean writer forged in Mexico and Spain, Bolaño was a vagabond poet writing about vagabond poets, hopping from country to country, history to history. Yet despite living in Spain throughout the final decades of his life, he maintained that he was fundamentally “Latin American,” that his home country was the Spanish language.
By the time of the 2007 Hay Festival, it was clear to anyone who was paying attention that Latin American writers were embracing a new global heritage. That festival marked the celebration of the Bogotá39, a list of 39 writers under the age of 39 — all born after the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The list spanned South and Central America and the Caribbean, and even included Americans Daniel Alarcón and Junot Diaz. The goal was to introduce the world to the possibilities of 21st century Latin American literature, and a fresh wave of attention followed. In 2010, Granta published its own Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists, with a Best of Young Portuguese Novelists forthcoming in 2012. One welcome benefit of all this list making is that more Latin American writers are seeing their work translated into English when they are closer to the beginning of their careers than they are to the end.
One writer featured on both the Bogotá39 and Granta lists is Andrés Neuman, but don’t believe anyone who tries to convince you that he is a new or emerging writer. It’s almost impossible to fathom an American writer producing so much in so many different forms at such a young age. Born in Buenos Aires in 1977, Neuman has already published four novels, five collections of short stories, enough poetry collections to merit his own “Selected” poems, a book of essays on travel in Latin America, and a collection of aphorisms. His latest novel, Traveler of the Century, winner of the 2009 Alfaguera Prize, is his first book length publication in English, but relatively speaking, his translation occurred at breakneck speed. If we’re lucky, there will be more on the way in short order.
As Goldman wrote, “Bolaño made a distinction between celebrated authors whose work inspired imitation and a writer like Borges, whose fictions, he said, opened paths of literary experimentation for other writers to explore.” If Bolaño held the door open for Latin American writers to escape the long shadow of the Boom, Neuman has kicked that door wide open with Traveler of the Century, a Latin American European historical novel, a story of love and translation.
Traveler of the Century opens with a minor geographical note about its setting: the “moving city” of Wandernburg, a municipality on the border of Saxony and Prussia, precise coordinates unknown. One winter night, a young translator named Hans seeks a room in Wandernburg despite the ominous warnings of his carriage driver. For Hans, who “never felt nostalgia for anything,” travel is a way of life, and he intends to stay for one night — no more — but he can’t seem to find his bearings in this odd hamlet.
…the city’s layout somehow shifted while everyone was asleep…the tavern he had lunched at the day before was on the opposite corner from where he remembered it, the clangs from the smithy, which should have been on the right as he turned the corner, surprised him by coming from the left, the sloping street that went down now went steeply up, a passageway he remembered walking through which should have opened onto an avenue was a dead end…
In some ways Wandernburg is more concept than place — an echo of Calvino’s Invisible Cities — yet it’s grounded in a very specific historical milieu: early 19th century Germany, after the fall of the Napoleonic armies, during the years of the Holy Alliance and conservative restoration. News of Metternich’s Europe is pervasive in Wandernburg’s coffee shops, pubs, and literary salons, as is the memory of French troops in the streets. These days Hans draws strange looks on account of his traditional German beret, frowned upon by the post-restoration regime. Shortly after his arrival, he befriends an enigmatic old organ grinder who hosts wine-fueled nights of conversation in the cave outside town where he dwells. Not long after he finds his way into the social circle of wealthy landowner Herr Gottlieb, whose daughter Sophie hosts a literary salon each Friday. By way of an omniscient narrator, we follow Hans between these two spheres, contemplating music, travel, and love during fireside chats in the cave, and debating Kant, Hegel, Goethe, and others during the weekly salons. In both scenarios lengthy conversations are presented without paragraph breaks or quotation marks, parentheses helping distinguish between speakers who frequently interrupt each other. The sense of simultaneity gives the conversations a swirling energy, as if we are right there sipping our drink:
Gentleman, ahem, Herr Levin ventured, if you will allow me, it is trade, not morality, that guarantees unity, that is, if Europe traded more it could not allow itself to go to war, you see, no, not so much cake, please, that’s enough thank you. Agreed, said Hans, but such changes cannot take place independently of a common political policy, for if we over-emphasize the identity of every nation, there will continue to be wars to decide who controls the markets. It is also possible to educate the economy, wouldn’t you agree? Yes, replied Herr Levin, not forgetting that education depends on the economy. Economic wisdom, Professor Mietter insisted, forms part of nation building, and there Fichte hit the nail right on the head. Kant hit the nail on the head, Hans replied, when he wrote Lasting Peace. That’s a good one! (said the professor, devouring a canapé, without clarifying whether he meant the canapé or Kant.)
As host of the salon, Sophie Gottlieb has plenty of opinions of her own, but social conventions dictate that she politely steer the course of the debates while making sure the jelly isn’t too watery. “The only virtue of our humble salon…is that anyone can say what they like,” Sophie says. “The only rule is that people be sincere in their opinions, which believe me, Herr Hans, is nothing short of a miracle in a city like this.” Despite being perhaps the most well-read person in the room — fluent in many languages — Sophie can only get a word in edgewise by humbling herself in between rhetorical barbs: “I shall venture upon this difficult topic in order to state that, as far as I can see, which admittedly is not very far, Herr Schopenhauer is decidedly one of the most wretched authors I have ever had the opportunity of misinterpreting.” Sophie’s rebellious streak is the source of much grief for her father who is only months away from marrying her to one of the wealthiest young men in the area, Rudi Wilderhaus, who might hopefully deliver the Gottlieb household from financial ruin.
Naturally, Hans is smitten, stealing glances at Sophie whenever possible. “Whatever she touched, whether her teacup, the edge of the table, or a fold in her dress, Sophie’s hands appeared to determine its significance, to interpret every object…” Before long, Hans is making points in the salon primarily to earn Sophie’s admiration, and in her thirst for literary conversation, Sophie begins exchanging letters with Hans throughout the week between salons.
The slow-burn of forbidden romance provides the narrative fuel, yet as the seasons change, the book unfolds into a broad social novel, peering into the daily lives of the ruling class, as well as farmers, clergymen, mill workers, innkeepers and politicians. Despite the almost scholarly attention to historical context, the novel never has the musty museum-like feel that blights some historical fiction. As Hans mentions during one Friday salon, “I am passionate about history, which is why I regret the current trend for historical novels. I have nothing against the genre, but it is rarely done justice. I believe the past should not be a distraction, but a laboratory in which to analyze the present.” So Wandernburg is Neuman’s laboratory, where he shows us the 19th century through 21st century eyes, exploring the issues of the day, and our contemporary moment: federalism, international trade, wealth redistribution, labor unrest, women’s rights and more. Likewise, the novel blends traditional Romantic lyricisms with postmodern play. Within these pages you’ll find translations of English poetry, romantic poetry, love letters, plays within plays, columns from the local newspaper, and most memorably, the Notes of All Souls, a ledger kept by the local priest who keeps a careful notations on the moral progress of Wandernburgers, including those behind on their tithe.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Neuman’s writing is his capacity to balance lengthy philosophical arguments about literature and history with a buoyant, lyrical love story. Ushering us throughout the town, he vividly renders Wandernburg’s pubs, dance halls, libraries and plazas, equally adept at miniature and panorama: “Looked at from the sky, the city is like a candle floating on water. At its center, the wick, is the gaslit glow of the market square. Beyond the square, darkness gains ground in an ever-widening circle. Threads of light spread out like a pattern of nerves in a leaf along the remaining streets. Rising from the walls like pale creepers, the oil lamps scarcely illuminate the ground beneath them. Night in Wandernburg is not as dark as a wolf’s den — it is what the greedy wolf devours.” Darkness in the city brings its own drama, a masked rapist who has lately been attacking the town’s women, so far evading the city’s father-son detective team, Lieutenant Gluck and Sub-Lieutenant Gluck, who lend the novel an undercurrent of whodunit suspense.
Yet ultimately, what keeps the reader turning pages is the ticking clock of Sophie’s imminent nuptials, so wrong but so inevitable, despite her and Hans’ shared passion for literature, language, and translation. When Hans invites Sophie to co-translate an anthology of European poetry, the project becomes a pretense for a love affair, a way to steal time together in bed. They share literary pillow talk, translating the work of Hugo, Byron, Keats and others. “Hans and Sophie alternated between books and bed, bed and books, exploring one another in words and reading one another’s bodies… The more they worked together, the more similarities they discovered between love and translation, understanding a person and translating a text, retelling a poem in a different language and putting into words what the other was feeling. Both exercises were as happy as they were incomplete — doubts always remained, words that needed changing, missed nuances.”
Nuance is the great challenge of the translator, and although you won’t see their names on the cover, Lorenza Garcia and Nick Caistor deserve kudos for what must have been an especially challenging translation. Neuman’s novel encompasses the entire social strata of Wandernburg, modulating between high and low diction, lyrical and academic tones, tracing lengthy conversations between an insanely large cast of characters, each of whom maintain their own distinct voice and charm. All the while they unravel a metacommentary on the very enterprise of translation: In one literary salon, an esteemed professor insists, “…any feeling expressed in another language cannot be the same feeling, not even a variant of it. At best it can be inspired by another feeling. Call this an exchange, an influence or what you will. But, I beg you, do not call it translation.”
Yet as Paul Auster wrote, “Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another.” In that light, Hans and Sophie are more than star-crossed lovers putting their futures on the line for love. They risk everything for their faith in the disruptive power of literature. In the face of censorship and oppression, they cling to translation in hopes that by interpreting the elusive world, they can help forge a better one.
Translation does more than cross borders — it attempts to dissolve them, if only fleetingly. That same elusiveness is what makes Neuman’s borderless Wandernburg so enchanting, so difficult to leave. If translation is invariably a struggle, Neuman shows how that struggle is our only hope. When we interpret languages, we interpret histories. Hans argues as much in Sophie’s salon: “Even if translation were an impossible dialogue, culturally speaking it would be the most necessary one. Renouncing this dialogue would lead to the worst form of nationalism…And so this is not simply a question of grammar and philology, but of principles.”