Q&A with Natasha Wimmer
on Translating Roberto Bolaño's 2666
Q. How was this book a different experience from translating The Savage Detectives?
It's almost always easier to translate a second book by the same author, because the translator benefits from experience. And although it might not seem so on the surface, 2666 is in some ways a simpler book than The Savage Detectives. Instead of being written from 40-some different perspectives, it is written from a single omniscient perspective. True, there are five different sections, but Bolaño maintains a consistent narrative coolness and formality throughout (except perhaps in the Amalfitano section, which wouldn't be out of place in The Savage Detectives). This doesn't mean there were no challenges. The novel is full of pastiche and homage - most notably the Fate section (hardboiled crime) and the Part About the Crimes (police procedural). Then, too, Bolaño revels in some obscure subjects - species of seaweed, methods of divination, Soviet science fiction - that required a fair bit of research. On a more personal level, I was worried that it might be grueling to spend months translating all the Santa Teresa crime scenes, but it wasn't. I found that I enjoyed the challenge of the forensic language, and the experience was more bracing than depressing.
Q. The five distinct sections of 2666 range over North America and Europe, with quite a lot of slang and a panoply of voices. Did this present any challenges? Were there instances when the spirit of the book ran counter to the letter?
As I indicated, there are actually fewer distinct voices in 2666 than in The Savage Detectives. But there were more than enough to keep me busy. There was Lola, the crazy mother of Amalfitano's daughter Rosa; Reinaldo, the gay talk show host; Florita, the Santa Teresa seer; Haas, the suspected serial killer; Azucena Esquivel Plata, the avenging angel and member of congress. Slang, of course, is always near-impossible to translate. But again, there was less of that in 2666. The most challenging section in that regard was the Fate section, whose protagonist is an African-American reporter based in Harlem. Bolaño didn't speak much English and had never been to the U.S., so the section was more a product of his imagination than a representation of anything approaching reality. My feeling was that it would be perilous to try to make the dialogue sound more quote-unquote authentic to U.S. readers, so I just tried to represent it as I read it, which was as a mix of hardboiled homage and Bolañoesque weirdness.
Q. It's said that only 2-3% of titles published in the U.S. each year are books in translation. With the recent success of authors like Bolaño or Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses), do you think this trend is changing?
Who knows? I would be surprised. Most literary fiction in translation - like most literary fiction in general - just doesn't pay for itself, and on top of that there are the translation costs to consider. And it takes time and devotion on the editor's part to figure out what's worth publishing in the first place. But I hope I'm wrong. Bolaño and Petterson, among others, do prove that there is a readership out there to be reached.
Q. Lastly, how did you come to discover Roberto Bolaño?
Belatedly and with delight. FSG sent me a copy of The Savage Detectives to read, maybe in 2002, several years after it came out in Spanish, and I couldn't put it down. As I read, I kept anticipating disappointment, but it never came, and by the end I was convinced that it was the best and most important novel in any language that I had read in years.