Interview with Margaret Schwartz
Following on last week’s serialization of Margaret Schwartz’s introduction to Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), here’s an interview that she did with Meredith Keller, one of our current interns.
Meredith Keller: I know you spent your Fulbright year studying Macedonio Fernandez’s life and work, but how did you first come across him?
Margaret Schwartz: I first encountered Macedonio in a lovely phrase from Borges: “What will die with me when I die? What fragile, pathetic form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a roan horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?” I have always been fascinated by the idea of traces—small, seemingly insignificant tokens that mysteriously open on to hidden worlds. That’s what the name Macedonio Fernandez was for me. I was moved enough by the passage to look him up, started reading him, and that was it for me. I remember the first time I walked by the corner of Serrano and Charcas, too—there’s a gas station there, now.
MK: Aside from those studying Argentine literature (or working at Open Letter), I don’t think many American readers are familiar with Macedonio. How is he perceived in Argentina?
MS: I’d say that Macedonio is considered a folk hero more than a literary giant. Everybody knows him, but only the academics and literary folk have actually read him. Popularly, however, he’s sometimes viewed with more affection than Borges, who is often considered a snob or a tourist attraction. In academic and literary circles, where people do read and respect him a great deal, he’s often viewed as a kind of postmodern visionary. There are lots of books in Spanish about his prescience on topics as diverse as postcolonialism, deconstruction, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. There is also a group of young people, hipsters I guess, who run an “Anarchist Archive” in San Telmo and they have some Macedonio first editions.
I think if you’re down there as an American and you’re interested in Macedonio, people treat you really well, because he’s not so well known outside of Argentina. They feel really honored and excited that you’ve taken the time to discover someone that they feel is deeply intertwined with their national values and the peculiarity of what makes them Argentines. And that’s across social strata. The first time I was in Buenos Aires I stayed at a kind of ladies boarding house, and the women I met there were all really working class and not very educated. But they seriously framed a copy of the letter of permission I got from Macedonio’s granddaughter, Maite Obieta, that I was going to use for the Fulbright application, because they were so emotional about my work. Strange, but true, I swear!
MK: Museum must’ve been a particularly difficult book to translate. Was there a theoretical (or maybe procedural?) approach that you used for this project?
MS: The key to my process in this case is the hours and hours I spent in Macedonio’s archive, reading his handwritten manuscripts, notebooks, and diaries. Almost all of Macedonio’s books were published posthumously, which means he never got a chance to decide what order things should be in, and what things should get cut and what things should stay. That biographical fact, plus the spiraling, open-ended nature of his prose and the ideas he’s trying to express about consciousness, make reading him (and translation is in some ways a very special kind of reading) into a sort of detective work. You work with clues—with traces, like I said before. And you have to go with your hunches. In my case, those hours spent reading accumulated in my subconscious to make a kind of Macedonian murmur. It took a long time to hear—but there’s an earnestness and melancholy about him, despite all his irony and silliness. Once I realized that, I found I had a voice for him, and I had the confidence to translate him without trying to be ridiculously faithful to his insane syntax.
As for theoretical approaches—is it cliché at this point to talk about Benjamin? Though I don’t buy the idea of a shared linguistic essence, his ideas about translation resonate with my process for The Museum of Eterna’s Novel. As a translator, you have to believe there’s something there, that you can pull out of the source language and sort of embed in the target language. I’d hesitate to call it a truth or an essence, but it’s something. So when I was translating Macedonio I would kind of put my ear to the tracks, metaphorically speaking, and listen for what he might sound like in English. Maybe that’s why when I do readings of Macedonio I sometimes end up sounding like my old Jewish relatives.
MK: Which leads nicely into my next question: Do you have any favorite sentences from the book?
MS: Sigh! There are so many good ones. When I read Thirlwell’s preface I was struck by some of the passages he quoted. I was like, “Wait, did I translate that? It’s beautiful!” You get very close to things when you’re working on a book. So I’ll pick the one that a friend picked: “All the statues that saddened the plazas were evicted, and in their place grew the best roses.”
MK: I know this if your first book-length translation to be published, but are there other Spanish writers you’ve worked on? Ones that are maybe easier to translate than Macedonio? It’s hard to imagine anyone starting off with such a complex novel . . .
MS: I have actually mostly translated Macedonio. [blush.] I was working on another of his books, called The Newcomer’s Papers, when I met Chad from Open Letter, and we started working on _Museum of Eterna’s Novel_—which I had also translated parts of, but wasn’t actively working on at the time. Macedonio is what made me want to do literary translation.
I did also translate an issue of Popular Communication, which is an academic journal in Media Studies (I’m an assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University). That was a really rewarding experience, because so much work in our field is global, but it doesn’t get circulated as it should because all of our major journals are in English. So I really salute Popular Communication for that—it’s much rarer in academia than you’d think.
But the experience of doing that translation—well, everything seems so much easier after Macedonio! But it was also interesting to find that one still struggles with voice—how to make it sound like an academic article would in English, with the same kind of diction, the same kind of authoritative register. It was fun.
MK: In your introduction to the novel, you cite Scalabrini Ortíz’s statement that Macedonio was Buenos Aires’s only authentic philosopher, and elaborate that “He’s an archetype, a kind of distillation of what it is to think like an Argentine, of the particular poetics and mournful solitude of the South.” Is there something unique about the way Argentina/Macedonio thinks?
MS: Argentina has typically viewed itself as kind of unique in Latin America—a sort of different breed. Which is why if you talk to people from other parts of that region they’ll often say that Argentines are snobs! But historically, Argentina developed as a nation in a far corner of the Spanish empire, during the colonial period. The land is mostly flat, with lots and lots of plains—the pampas—and so it developed as a ranching country, much like the American west. It had a very small population of immigrants, and its indigenous population was mostly nomadic—not like the big civilizations of Peru and Mexico. So if you put together those factors—the small population, the quickly decimated native people, and the huge expanses of land—you get a certain individualism, and a certain sense of isolation. The archetypal Argentine is the gaucho—a man who works as a ranch hand and as a mercenary, who travels with the herd and who sells his knife or his tracking skills to the highest bidder. Romantically he’s often pictured with his mate and his guitar, alone on the prairie, much like our cowboys.
Now Macedonio, of course, was no kind of cowboy. But he came from a very old family, one that traced its roots back to the earliest colonial times. He was Argentine, through and through, in a nation that identifies itself, much as the U.S. does, as built on immigration. And he was a highly original thinker who believed in the uniqueness of the Argentine people. His writing is full of witty references to life in Buenos Aires, and to little details of everyday life that have a very distinct Argentine flair to them: mate, a strong tea drunk from a gourd; empanadas, alfajores, whistling tea kettles and chilly winter patios and lost buttons and dimly lit street corners. His writing, but more properly his persona, which he cultivated in life and which Borges amplified after his death, exemplifies the kind of courteous, self-effacing, idealistic yet melancholy feeling that is part of the romanticism in Argentine literature about those empty, lonely, vast expanses to the south.
MK: Anyone who’s ever tried to translate literature knows that it takes more than fluency, a solid grasp of grammar, and a good dictionary—the true challenge and key to a successful translation is rendering the poetics and refined artistry of the original prose in the target language. You describe Macedonio’s prose as “baroque” and “complicated and ornate,” where the “diction is antiquated if not necessarily high-register.” How did you go about conveying these characteristics in English?
MS: I tried to keep the register high, even absurdist, without tangling the syntax too much. I remember insisting that the verb “to redact” not be changed to the simpler “to write,” for that reason. There’s something of the old-timey soap box salesman in Macedonio—there are no cars or carts in his world, only conveyances, contraptions. He also reminds me of a silent film comedian, like Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin: there are a lot of exaggerated, winking asides and grandiose yet absurd gestures, a lot of madcap, Keystone-Cops-esque sequences. So where I could, I let run on sentences run on. I tried to find a way to keep all that loopiness, even when sometimes I had to straighten out the syntax or cut a long sentence up.
MK: Do you have any recommendations or advice for aspiring literary translators?
MS: OK well this will sound very goofy, but it’s true: Translate what you love! I worked for ten years on this, and I never hoped to get it published. Then one day I met Chad at a conference and he asked me what I was working on. I said, “Oh, you won’t have heard of him, he’s this Argentine avant-gardist . . .” and he said, “I’ve been trying to get the rights to that book for the past five years.” Suddenly I had a press that really believed in translation and an editor who loved the project. It was perfect. You’re not going to make a million being a literary translator, so why not let your passion guide you? You’ll be happier, and you’ll attract people who care about the project the same way you do. It’s a win-win!