Interview with Esther Allen
Earlier this week, the NEA announced the recipients of this year’s Literature Translation Fellowships. To provide more info about the stellar group of people and projects the NEA is supporting, they’re going to be interviewing at least some of the authors for Art Works, their relatively new, and quite impressive blog.
First up is the stellar Esther Allen whose project sounds interesting and long-overdue:
NEA: Please briefly describe the project this grant will support. How do you choose the works you translate?
EA: I’m translating Zama, a 1956 novel by Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, considered a great masterpiece in the Spanish-speaking world but never before translated into English. The project grew out of a trip to Argentina I made in 2005 at the invitation of the Fundación TyPA, which brings editors and translators from across the world to Buenos Aires for a whirlwind week-long literary boot camp each year. There I discovered that the Argentine writers who are known internationally are quite a different set of names from the ones everyone in Argentina is talking about. Antonio di Benedetto came up frequently in meetings with critics, writers, and editors, but I’d never heard of him before. I came home with a couple of his books and found them simultaneously intriguing and off-putting—I couldn’t quite enter into what he was doing. Edwin Frank, editor of New York Review Books Classics, went on the same trip a couple of years later, and he’s the one who brought Zama back. He asked me to have a look at it and see if it was worth doing—and I decided it was.
Quickly want to point out that the TyPA Editors’ Week is effing fantastic. I participated a few years ago—before we published Saer, before we published Macedonio—and absolutely loved it. (You can read all about it in excruciating personal detail by clicking here.) Came back with more knowledge of the Argentine literary scene—and tango, oh, yes, the beautiful tango—than I ever would’ve imagined. And yes, trips like these are one of the ways that publishers find titles to translate. And yes, I am now even more obsessed with Argentine literature . . . and the tango. In fact, I may well write a Publishing Perspectives piece about learning the tango at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but more on that project later . . .
Back to Esther and how much she totally rocks:
NEA: You’ve spoken of your work as “a kind of activism in defense of translation”—what do you mean by that?
EA: When I first started out as a translator in the early 1990s, it often felt as if it was the last thing in the world anyone should be idiotic enough to devote time to. There was a prevailing sense that translation, any translation, was some sort of shameful, lowbrow thing. Most publishers resisted doing translations—many were so out of practice they wouldn’t have been sure how to publish a translation even if they’d wanted to. Some academics were bringing out their translations under pseudonyms, to avoid the stigma of being a translator. It’s a wonder people kept doing it at all. There were a number of us at that point who started thinking about how to surmount those barriers and keep the conversation between literature written in English and the literature of the rest of the world going. I’ve been a reader of Borges from a very young age, and for Borges translation is the central literary activity; it was painful to see how belittled it had become in the English-speaking world. Now, twenty years later, our culture has certainly become far more receptive to translation. But it seems to be a cycle; American culture had previously been very receptive in the 60s and early 70s, and then moved back toward monolingual insularity. Eliot Weinberger has suggested that Americans become more interested in reading works from other languages when they are disenchanted with their own country—so perhaps these moments of increased attention to translation weren’t due to the work of “translation activists” but to misguided wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq. In any case, it’s clear that translation in the English-speaking world will continue to need defenders.
Esther is an amazing translation activist who accomplishes more in a year than most of us do in a lifetime. Anyway, read the complete interview for more insights into the process of translation, the balancing of the author’s voice and that of the translator’s, and the importance of what the NEA does. And I’ll re-post more of these interviews as they become available . . .