The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction
For far too long now, the translator has been relegated to the rear-facing backseat of the literary world; the ever-so-smaller “translated by” name towards the bottom of the title page that few people (save those of us passionate about literature in translation) give more than a cursory glance to. But in Suzanne Jill Levine’s book, The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction, the translator’s role is at last given full and detailed attention in a vibrant and unique way. Levine’s goal with her book is to:
Make the translator’s presence (traditionally invisible) visible and comprehensible…Far from the traditional view of translators as servile, nameless scribes, the literary translator can be considered a subversive scribe. Something is destroyed—the form of the original—but meaning is reproduced through another form.
At its heart, The Subversive Scribe is about the creative collaboration between writers and how writers perceive their own processes of writing. Levine takes the reader on a compelling journey in which she lyrically describes her personal journey as a translator, and details how she fell in love with Latin American literature. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and wholly fascinating, The Subversive Scribe offers an inimitable insider’s perspective into the vital role translators play in world literature today. Although Levine has experience with a myriad of distinguished and prolific Latin American writers, she focuses The Subversive Scribe’s narrative upon three writers who were all Latin Americans in exile (“each in his own way was a subversive, and not only as a literary artist”): Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Manuel Puig. Ultimately, she argues that above all, the translator, just as the author, must be a writer in order to succeed.
The author, Suzanne Jill Levine, is a Spanish professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, as well as a renowned translator of Latin American fiction’s powerhouses such as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Manuel Puig. In addition to The Subversive Scribe and several scholarly publications, she’s also published a biography: Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions.
When lovingly outlining just how she transferred her passion for the Spanish language into a lifelong odyssey as a translator, specifically of Latin American (male) authors, she says:
Scientists could come up with new inventions; astronauts could set foot on new planets; the only frontier adventure available to the translator seemed to be the crossing of language and cultural barriers, stepping through the Looking Glass to see what a presumably untranslatable Spanish text would look like on the other side, in English. I was challenged thus (and perhaps doomed to the fate of Borges’s pathetic Pierre Menard or Flaubert’s bumbling Bouvard and Pecuchet) by these Latin American fictions.
To most, the word “subversive” has political connotations, and draws readers a mental image along the lines of Solzhenitsyn toiling away in the gulag. Yet in the case of Levine’s narrative, she poetically states that the act of translation is in itself a subversive act:
A translation will never be the text it imitates, which was written in another language, but it can be a version lying dormant and, like Frankenstein (to use an Infantesque metaphor), animated by a mad translator, a text illuminated and motivated by the original, realized in its next life, in translation.
Levine’s illuminating and crisp prose is at its height when describing her philosophical approaches to translation, and when sharing her personal experiences with Latin America’s literary crème de la crème. However, the narrative flow becomes a bit bogged down when the author launches into the more specific nuances of Spanish grammar and linguistics. Organized in four parts, The Subversive Scribe outlines the linguistic trials and tribulations of titles, names, and even specific cultural sexual innuendos for a greater part of the book than I personally would have preferred. Because I’m not fluent in a second language and haven’t translated literature myself (and lack much experience with Latin American literature), much of these sections that were heavy on literary criticism and linguistics were lost on me. The Subversive Scribe sings out when Levine focuses more on her personal relationship with authors and her experiences translating, but merely hums when she delves deep into the grammatical grit. That said, I get the sense that The Subversive Scribe would be perfect for someone who is fluent in a second language, and possesses their own firsthand experience translating literature.
Ultimately, The Subversive Scribe “is meant to jolt the reader out of a comfortable (or uncomfortable) view of translation as secondary, as faint shadows of primary, vivid but lost, originals . . . to dramatize this I have purposely focused on writers and writing that speak explicitly of the original’s self-betrayal . . .Readers also need to understand how Latin American writing is transmitted to them, and how differences and similarities between cultures and languages affect what is finally transmitted. Knowing the other and how we receive or hear the other is a fundamental step toward knowing ourselves.” Indeed it is.