11 April 17 | Chad W. Post |

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

Monica Carter is a freelance critic whose nonfiction has appeared in publications including Black Clock, World Literature Today, and Foreword Reviews. She curates Salonica World Lit, which is a virtual journal dedicated to international literature and culture.



Zama by Antonio di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Argentina, New York Review Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 80%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 18%

Primal, erudite, hallucinatory, and brutal, Zama is a novel of disillusionment and desire. Divided into three parts by time, it covers a 9-year period between 1790–1799 in the life of former chief administrator Don Diego de Zama. Posted to Asunción in the Paraguayan hinterlands to serve the Spanish crown, he longs to return to Buenos Aires to his wife and family. Zama is a Creole and because he is not Spanish born, he can no longer hold the position of chief administrator. Originally published in the 1956, this is the first English translation of Zama, an Argentinian masterpiece. Esther Allen inhabits the essence Antonio Di Bendetto that makes this translation feel of its time while simultaneously modern.

Zama opens in 1790 with the Zama waiting for a ship to arrive with news from his wife, Marta. Di Bendetto explains right off who Zama is, “. . . was a fighting cock, or, at the very least, ringmaster of a cockfighting pit.” He is a man stuck in time and place desperately wanting to leave. He is second in command of a small port town with no real prospects of escaping. Women are his distraction and play a heavy part in parts one and two contrasting his base desires with his own high self-regard as a faithful and principled man. His action and thoughts betray his own ego when he spots a naked townswoman bathing and she spots him watching her. An Indian girl chases after him and he beats her:

Naked as she was, I took her by the throat, strangling her cry, and slapped her until my hands were dry of sweat, before sending her sprawling to the ground with a shove. She curled up with her back to me. Delivering a kick to her buttocks, I left.

With me went my anger, already yielding to bitter self-reproach. Character! My character! Ha!

My hand may strike a woman’s cheek but it is I who will endure the blow, for I shall have done violence to my own dignity.

When the violent outburst occur, Zama attempts to revert to the man he thought he was—upstanding, respectable and dignified. These periods send him further into paranoia and isolation. He dreams of a beautiful woman and tries to find her in the limited prospects available to him according to his standards. He argues with an assistant and then blames him knowing that he will be sent away. Zama’s digression into ill-fated trysts, gambling and misguided suspicion creates a vertiginous existence of despair and longing for what he lacks—a woman he dreamed, his family, his dignity.

The second part begins in 1794 when Zama is near the bottom of his descent. Unable to afford the inn where he lives and kicked out by Emilia, a Spanish widow whom bears his child, he takes up residence at a house on the edge of town owned by wizened shadowy figure, Soledo. Zama’s time there is marked by fever dreams and impulsive behavior. Di Bendetto gives this section a phantasmagorical feel, with atmospheric darkness and tone, straddling between reality and the imaginary. There are two women in the house, or maybe one. They might be Soledo’s daughter or his wife. Parts of the house are closed off to Zama and his dreamlike states muddle his perception. He grapples the visions of the two women he sees:

Immediately I was at pains to seize upon their vision, fearing it would flow from my head without leaving any clear or lasting impression. The thing was not palpable or real. It was . . . an absence. Yes. What was missing, behind the glass panes, was a pink dress. The young woman wore pink.

The other woman, who had passed in front of me a moment earlier, was dressed in green.

Therefore it was not the same woman. There had been no time for a change of clothes.”

His position and his private life intersect when his new secretary, Manuel, marries Emilia and becomes the father of Zama’s son as a token of friendship. By the end of this section, Zama is recovering from a sickness under the care of Manuel and Emilia. As he ventures back to Soledo’s, he is presented with the reality that Soledo, the women and servants have all moved to Brazil weeks ago. Without a home, a family or money, he is forced to accept years have passed and his life has only become worse.

The third part opens in 1799 with Zama and Captain Parilla leading men across the flatlands to capture Vicuña Porto, a famed bandit. Zama’s existential crisis is all he has along with his hopes that this capture might award him favor with the king. Zama is the only one who knows what Porto looks like have served with him many years earlier. Eventually Zama ends up the prisoner and is left to meet his fate alone.

Di Bendetto presents a violent, tortured character so flawed and unlikeable yet utterly compelling, it’s difficult to ignore this works brilliance. Di Bendetto, a contemporary of Jorge Luis Borges, is an underserved writer whose own life is novel-worthy as well outlined by Esther Allen in her preface. Under two hundred pages, Zama feels like we have read a colonial epic. In the end a man becomes victim to his own expectations:

As I cursed the havoc within me, I felt its power. My blood’s yearning defied my bridle. I had to contain myself, punish myself.

9 September 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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 . . .

....
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