We talked to Natasha Wimmer, one of the foremost Spanish-language literary translators working today, about her newest project—Álvaro Enrigue's "Sudden Death"—and about why her next book will be one written by a woman.
Photo by Alicia Kennedy
If you have lugged around Roberto Bolaño's massive 2666, you've also had the work of translator Natasha Wimmer in your hands. Wimmer began her translation career unexpectedly in 2001 while working as an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and she's been working in the field ever since, not just on the intense, immersive Bolaño, but also with texts by Spanish-speaking writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, Marcos Giralt Torrente, and Laura Restrepo. This month, she adds Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death to that list.
Enrigue's name might be new to English readers, but he published his first novel in 1996. Since then, he's earned a reputation as a writer's writer, with a style that feels alive—hyper-intellectual, hilarious, biting, and apocalyptic. This is all on display in Sudden Death, which was originally published in Spanish in 2013. It follows an imaginary tennis match between the Italian artist Caravaggio and 17-century Spanish poet Fernando de Quevedo, played with a ball made of Anne Boleyn's hair; traverses continents to visit with the Aztecs; and brings in the writer himself for cameo appearances in today's New York City.
In other words, it seems like a very difficult book to translate. I spoke with Wimmer about Enrigue's writing, whether translating a work can be considered a recommendation for the work, and what it's like to build your reputation working with great male novelists.
BROADLY: What drew you to working with Spanish-language literature in particular?
Natasha Wimmer: My family lived in Spain for four years when I was growing up, so I learned Spanish when I was young. In college, I studied romance languages and literature. I don't think I thought specifically about going into translation at that point, but I knew I wanted to work with books, so I moved to New York and I went into publishing.
As it happened, I was working on books in translation, soliciting translations from translators, and we came across a book by the Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. We were having a hard time finding a translator, and I asked my boss if I could try, so I did a sample myself and got it. It was a very nice break for me, and obviously, you know, an advantage of being where I was at the time.
How do you stay up on contemporary Spanish?
I wouldn't say that I am! One of the hard things about translating from Spanish is that there are all different kinds of Spanish—there's Mexican Spanish, Cuban Spanish, and Spanish from Spain. My formation is in peninsular Spanish, so Spanish from Spain. It's been a long time since I've been back, and in New York I probably talk most to Mexicans in Spanish. It always requires a bit of research, depending upon how slang-y or how colloquial the books is. The slang-iest books are the hardest books to translate.
The first book I worked on, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez's DirtyHavana Trilogy, is actually the most slang-y. It's also very dirty, scatological, so that was a scary first project. The Savage Detectives has a lot of different ranges, because Bolaño dips into different kinds of Spanish—he himself was born in Chile, grew up in Mexico, and lived in Spain, so there's all of that, plus he brings in a bunch of other stuff, too. Some of that is just lost.
Álvaro also has a very broad range, but the thing about Sudden Death is that it's set in the late 16th, early 17th century, so there's a certain overlay of period speech, but at the same time it's very contemporary. There is some first-person, and the tone is very modern and very blunt, and also can be very crude and funny. To get the liveliness of it across—but also to have some of the period flavor—was a challenge.
Would you say that was the major challenge of translating Sudden Death?
[It was] one of the main challenges, especially to get the bluntness and the irreverence, to get the right kind of slang and to make the characters sound convincing to a contemporary ear but also convincing as historic characters. Figuring out the rules of tennis and making sure I was presenting that properly was also a big challenge.
I do think that it's my responsibility to seek out women writers and to translate them.
There are also historical documents in the book that aren't actually historical documents, so I had to mimic the language. Towards the end, there's a character who speaks in this garbled Spanish; he's an Aztec character. He prides himself on the Spanish that he learns, but it's this sort of made-up half-Aztec, half-Spanish, and I had to come up with an English solution for that.
Did you work on Sudden Death collaboratively with Enrigue?
Yes, in the sense that when I was done with it, we went over it with a list of questions. Álvaro read the manuscript. We sat at a café for hours and went over the questions. The great thing about working with Álvaro is that you think he'd be, you know, tired of discussing the book, but he can write paragraphs about any tiny point and is also just really funny. He has a great sense of humor, which in this kind of intense back-and-forth is unusual and very welcome.
Your biggest success has been with the Bolaño books. How has it changed your working life?
For one thing, I spent ten years translating Bolaño, so it was just a big chunk of my life. Around the time I was translating The Savage Detectives, I gave up my day job. I was translating full-time for a while; now I'm teaching, too, so it's a bit more mixed.
Because of Bolaño, you're considered an important translator. People are going to pay attention to a book because it has your name on it. Does that put pressure on you?
Yeah, I think it does, if by translating something you're implicitly recommending it. I always think about that when I choose a project. I was just reading an interview with the translator Michael Hofmann who translates from German, and he was saying that in his ideal world people would consider his name an imprimatur. I'm really not sure how many people look to the translator to see what to read next, but I do try to make coherent choices.
I'm interested in books that are about ideas or are driven by ideas.
And, of course, the books that are translated become representatives of those literatures.
True, there's that, too. I feel that my choices in that sense are inadequate, because as much as I try, I don't feel like I'm in a position to choose the best that's coming out, to be sure that I'm choosing the right thing and steering the American conversation in the right way when it comes to Latin American literature or Spanish literature. I think you only know that after the fact.
The press release actually says that you specifically chose Sudden Death—
Well, it was offered to me, but I do turn down things, too.
What about Sudden Death was attractive?
I like the mix—the intellectual boldness of it but also the physical viscerality of it. I think that it's kind of an unusual combination. And also just the force of it and the energy. Álvaro has a very energetic and contagious style, and he's a great narrative writer; he's a very good storyteller.
What do you want in a project when you take one on?
I'm interested in books that are about ideas or are driven by ideas. That's one of the things I really like. I'm actually interested in nonfiction and memoir, because I think that's underrepresented in translation. The next book I'm doing is a memoir. I like the mix of fiction and nonfiction; Álvaro himself makes little cameos in the novel, and I enjoy that.
The memoir is by Gabriela Ybarra, called The Dinner Guest. The writer's very young; she's 32. It's about her grandfather who was kidnapped by ETA terrorists from the Basque country in Spain in the 70s, and he died in captivity. It's about his death and her investigation of his death, and also her mother's death; her mother died of cancer. She actually dies in New York, so part of it is set in the Basque country, some of it in New York, some in Madrid. It's just really beautifully written and really thoughtful, and also ideas-based.
Do you have any specific philosophy for approaching a new project?
No, I just start on the first page and get through it. I tend to work quickly. I think it's better to go through a job quickly and then go back again, rather than to get lost in the details on the first draft. I think you have a better overview of it if you move a bit more quickly.
You're always translating these giant male figures. Do you feel any tension in that?
There's a reason I'm translating a woman next. I think about that; I think about the question of women writers in translation. I've translated on commission a lot, so I tend to just choose the best of what I'm offered, and that's happened to be male writers. But I do think that it's my responsibility to seek out women writers and to translate them.