A translator's task – to disappear: Natasha Wimmer 's acclaimed translation of Roberto Bolaño's '2666' is givi ng foreign works new prominence.
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Sat Jan 17 16:22:34 UTC 2009
A translator's task – to disappear
Natasha Wimmer's acclaimed translation of Roberto Bolaño's '2666' is
giving foreign works new prominence.
By Matthew Shaer | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
from the January 16, 2009 edition
RSS Staff writer Matthew Shaer discusses the effect of '2666' on the
US literary landscape.
New York - In the spring of 2006, Natasha Wimmer left her job at a
Manhattan trade publication and moved with her husband to Cuauhtémoc,
a bustling neighborhood in the northwest of Mexico City. Their flat
overlooked Calle Abraham Gonzalez, not far from a café called La
Habana, and Ms. Wimmer spent many afternoons there, reading and
chatting with Mexican friends. At the time, she was working on the
first English translation of "The Savage Detectives," by the novelist
Roberto Bolaño, who died in 2003. Bolaño was Chilean, but had drifted
in and out of Mexico City throughout his life, first as an adolescent,
then as a revolutionary and littérateur.
"He was a geographically obsessed writer, especially when it came to
Mexico City. He always told you exactly where he was going – down to
the street, the intersection, the building," Wimmer remembers. "Café
La Habana, for instance, was the basis for Café Quito," an important
set piece in "The Savage Detectives." (The book, which traces the
literary and political adventures of two ambitious poets, is partly
"Being in the middle of that was very clarifying, and very useful,"
Wimmer says. "I found I understood the cultural references better, and
had a closer sense of the vibrancy of the place. And that's what I
wanted to capture. The book has such a quality of urgency and ease. So
many other books I'd read felt willed, and this one didn't. It seemed
These days, Wimmer lives on the third floor of a carefully restored
brownstone in Harlem, far from the noise and traffic of Mexico City.
On a snowy Saturday this month, while her husband watched their young
daughter, Wimmer recounted the years – more than three in all – she'd
spent translating "Detectives," and then "2666," Bolaño's 992-page
posthumous masterpiece, released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux last
"It's been a long and amazing experience. It may be the peak of [my]
career as a translator," she says, pausing. "Chances are good."
It's hard to overstate the critical fervor with which Bolaño-mania –
the phrase coined by the Economist – has hit North America. Writing in
the New York Times Book Review, the critic James Wood called Bolaño,
"one of the greatest and most influential modern writers." The
novelist Jonathan Lethem noted that, "Bolaño has proven [literature]
can do anything." "The Savage Detectives" topped many best-of lists in
2007, and Time magazine named "2666" the best book of 2008.
More notable still is the commercial popularity of "2666," an
unusually complex and occasionally obtuse novel. According to the
Economist, the book's first printing vanished from shelves within
days, forcing the publisher to rush a second order.
In recent years, US publishers have sought to establish a more
international tone, partly to counter charges of American insularity.
(Last October, Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish
Academy that distributes the Nobel Prize in Literature, said that
American writers were "too sensitive to trends in their own mass
But generally, says Jason Boog, an editor at industry blog GalleyCat,
"it's the smaller presses that champion the translated works. This was
a big exception" – Farrar, Straus and Giroux is considered to be one
of the premier names in literary fiction – "and it paid off."
Wimmer, who first encountered Bolaño in Spanish (the novelist has also
been translated into English by Chris Andrews, an Australian
professor) says she wasn't surprised by the success of "The Savage
Detectives," "which besides being important, was a fun book to read."
The real shock was the runaway success of "2666," a book much bleaker
"2666" is split into five sections, each at least tangentially
concerned with a rash of murders in the Mexican desert and an
enigmatic novelist named Archimboldi. Most of "2666" is a detective
story without a pat conclusion. It is from the omnipresent sense of
foreboding that the book draws its real emotional ballast.
"To Bolaño, I think, Latin America was the secret heart of the world,"
Wimmer says. "That's one of the themes of '2666.' Latin America is the
secret root of the evils of the 20th century and of the future to
come. I think right now we're not feeling so secure anymore here in
the US. So maybe that has driven people to [read '2666']. Maybe Bolaño
is the right kind of voice for us right now."
Wimmer's career as a translator followed a decidedly untraditional
arc. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Spanish
literature, she moved to Puerto Rico, where her family then had a
home. She worked for a few months to save some cash, and then decided
to send out her résumé to publishers. Since she didn't know much about
the publishing world, she reached out to 40 houses.
FSG took the bait – "I had no idea how lucky I was," Wimmer laughs –
and Wimmer moved to New York to work as an editorial assistant. Soon
she was promoted to managing editor and dabbled in some manuscript
work, including a handful of translated works. One of the books was
"Dirty Havana Trilogy," by the Cuban novelist Pedro Juan Gutiérrez.
When another editor mentioned that FSG was having difficulty obtaining
a suitable translation, Wimmer asked if she could give it a try; the
editor agreed, and her manuscript was accepted.
"I've always been impressed by Natasha's resourcefulness, and range,"
says Lorin Stein, the FSG editor who handled "2666" and "Detectives."
"If a translator doesn't understand what's going on in the original
language, it tends to show up in the target language. If you're not
totally in control, you start erring on the side of safe. [Your best
achievement it to] disappear, and that's been Natasha's triumph."
But Wimmer, who never met Bolaño, and accepted the assignment for "The
Savage Detectives" only after Mr. Andrews declined, has not
disappeared. As she notes, since Bolaño is not available for
interviews, many literary journalists approach her for insight into
the Chilean novelist's work. Wimmer is not an unskilled stand-in – her
forward to the second paperback edition of "Detectives" is a deft
piece of biographical and critical synthesis – but she views the role
with some reservation.
"In a way, I can't be that person," Wimmer says. "They should talk to
Chris Andrews or Bolaño's literary executor. At the same time it's
understandable, and it's very exciting for me." These were books
Wimmer spent years with – usually at a pace of eight hours a day, six
days a week – and in "some ways," she says, "I know Bolaño much better
than any other reader."
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