An interview with Chris Andrews, the wonderful translator of Cesar Aira and Roberto Bolano:
WH Do you think that you have improved, if not as a writer, then as a translator? You have worked on writings of two authors quite extensively, Aira and Bolaño. Has your understanding of their work grown with each book? Might it ever get to the point where you would want to revise a previous translation?
CA In a way, that’s something I try not to think about too much because I know that if the early translations of Bolaño that I’ve done had been put in a drawer, and were now being pulled out, and I had the chance to revise them, there would be things I would change. Even when I’m looking at those translations to write a critical article, I will sometimes do what critics do, which is to say, “translation modified.” It’s a process that doesn’t stop. Wanting to make changes doesn’t mean that I’ve necessarily become a better translator; it might just be the effect of passing time, and as time passes, some problems that I couldn’t see clearly before are bound to come into focus. Which is why I try not to think about it too much!
WH At the Melbourne Writers Festival last year, you said that when you are preparing to work on a translation you often read what you consider to be an example of very fine prose in English. Can you explain that process? And who are the writers that best prepare you to translate Aira and Bolaño?
CA I usually don’t do it so much in the preparation phase, or even during the first draft phase, because at that stage I’m working on getting a literal translation down. What I like to do when I’m revising and getting towards a final version is take a little break and read some English prose that I like as an example of style. It doesn’t have to be something that is stylistically very close to the author I’m translating. In fact, I actually prefer it to be not too close because the function of the breaks I take is not to find a specific solution to a problem that I’ve got with a translation, or to be influenced, but in a way just to forget the problem. I read a couple of paragraphs or a page. And when I put the refresher book down, it’s as if I’m starting again, but now coming at the problem from a background of well-constructed sentences. It’s hard to explain precisely. I remember using John Banville like this because I liked reading one sentence of his after another. But it could be Denton Welch for the same reason, or Penelope Fitzgerald.
WH Returning to the same Melbourne Writers Festival session, Eliot Weinberger called you something very flattering along the lines of—and I hope I’m not misquoting here—“the first Australian translator of major international significance.” You mentioned dialect earlier in reference to Bolaño. What does it mean to be an Australian, involuntarily equipped with our dialect, yet translating for an international Anglophone audience?
CA It depends where the commissioning is done, and what’s happened with Bolaño has been a little strange because the commissioning shifted from the UK to the US after the first three books. When it has been for an English publisher, I have written, for example, “flat” rather than “apartment.” I’ve never really used many “Australianisms” though. I’ve tried to smuggle a few in here and there, but it’s tricky, and it’s hard to get away with! It would be different if you were working for an Australian publisher, publishing for an Australian market. It has occasionally been tempting to use an “Australianism” to translate an expression from Chilean Spanish, but the risk is that it would be merely confusing, even for an Australian reader.
WH Well, according to David Bellos, there is a kind of English called “English minus,” or a neutralised English stripped of all its local particularities, which is often employed in translation. Have you found that to be the case?
CA I think one advantage of being an Australian translator is that you’re less likely to assume that your own dialect is or should be the standard. I don’t think that a translation has to end up being insipid because it has had some of its dialect markers removed in the editing. With Bolaño, for example, I think that the prose still has a strong flavor, and that’s partially because of all the place names and the proper names, and, occasionally, words that have been left in Spanish, which is something that both Natasha Wimmer and I have done. For example, in The Savage Dectectives she leaves mano and mana—the abbreviated forms of hermano and hermana, brother and sister—in Spanish.Head to BOMB for the rest of the interview.