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for the week of June 29, 2011

Chad W. Post: How did you come to translate Corátzar? How many books of his have you translated so far?
Anne McLean: I started translating Cortázar when I was first thinking about becoming a translator and wondering if such things were even possible. In 1998 I wrote an MA thesis on translating Cortázar (I did a couple of stories from Deshoras, one of his last books), Cortázar in English translation (he’s had a huge range of translators over the years from Claribel Alegría and Darwin Flakoll to Paul Blackburn, Gregory Rabassa, Suzanne Jill Levine, Alberto Manguel, Stephen Kessler and lots more), and Julio as a translator (he translated the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe, for example, as well as Chesteron, Gide, Defoe, Keats, Yourcenar, and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women > _Mujercitas_).

A few years later I met Jill Schoolman, the founder and publisher of Archipelago Books, when it was just a newborn. We immediately discovered this shared passion for cronopios in general and their inventor (or discoverer) in particular. She’d already acquired the rights to Diario de Andrés Fava, which was the first book I translated for Archipelago. _From the Observatory_ is the third, with the marvelous surrealist travelogue Autonauts of the Cosmoroute in between.

There is also a longish short story, “Diary for a Story”, which was published in the aptly named magazine _Hopscotch_ back in 2000.

So, the short answer is: 3.
CWP: As a long time fan of Corátzar (especially the “big” books—Hopscotch, Blow Up, 62: A Model Kit), I’ve been pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the Corátzar books Archipelago has “unearthed.” In my opinion, these really add to the Corátzar mythos . . . From the Observatory isn’t Hopscotch, Part II. It’s still obviously Corátzar, but a more poetic, almost reflective Corátzar. What’s is it like for you to be responsible for bringing this “other Corátzar” into English?

AM: It’s thrilling for me, and also very daunting (as with any seriously good writing, really, when you’re translating it you spend half the time thinking: oh, I can’t wait for people to be able to read this in English, and the other half wondering how on earth you can ever possibly recreate the wonderfulness of the original). But there are many, many “other Cortázars”; there were lots and lots of different Julios inside that one giant of a writer. Many of them were at play and in action in Hopscotch, for example. But you’re right, of course, _From the Observatory_ does come from Cortázar’s reflective, poetic, philosophical side.  

CWP: The lyrical nature of this book mixed with the striking images of Jai Singh’s observatories creates a really stunning work, but one that’s hard (for me) to get a handle on. How would you describe From the Observatory to a casual reader?

AM: If forced to describe From the Observatory, I would probably describe it as indescribable, but I guess that wouldn’t help much. 

It’s a prose poem about the life cycle of Atlantic eels and about an early eighteenth-century Indian astronomer-prince and his (imagined) observations of the night sky and about science and its fascinations and limitations and poetry and its possibilities and about opening up to life and love and about challenging ourselves and changing the world.

Hey, you know, it was the still practically the sixties.

I don’t think describing books like this one is necessarily the way to go but the advice I’d give to any reader is not to be too concerned about getting a handle on it, but just let the not-very-prosaic prose get a hold on you, and enjoy the beautiful photos that Julio took when he went to visit Octavio Paz in 1968.

CWP: Do you know any of the backstory to this particular book? Like how he ended up including the provocative photographs, etc.?

AM: I don’t really know but I’d always assumed that the photos, or at least the visits to the observatories (in 1968, when he and Aurora Bernárdez were staying with Octavio Paz, Mexico’s Ambassador to India at the time), were the initial starting point, the spur that set him off on the various tangents, and then, of course, he came upon the article about eel migrations in Le Monde and it all became clear (to him)!

But seriously, I suspect that rather than a case of deciding to include the photos it was one of writing a text to accompany them.

Cortázar was always very fond of a genre he called Collage Books. In English, I think the only example is a selection from two of them, Thomas Christensen’s excellent translation of Around the Day in Eighty Worlds which also contains pieces from Ultimo Round).

From the Observatory is not the same thing at all, but images as well as text are integral to many of his books.

CWP: I just want to say that Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is one of my favorite Corátzar (& Archipelago) books. Contains all of Corátzar’s playfulness and his philosophical musings gently laid over a pretty emotional situation. 

AM: Mine too! 

CWP: Aside from Corátzar, which other translations of yours would you recommend? 

AM: That’s not really a fair question. I love all my authors. Over the last few years I’ve been working with three brilliant Colombian writers: Evelio Rosero, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Héctor Abad and three great Spanish writers: Javier Cercas, Enrique Vila-Matas and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón.

The first two of each trio have been very well received and fairly widely reviewed in both the US and the UK. Abad’s Oblivion: A Memoir got some wonderful reviews in Britain when it came out last winter but really, really deserves to be read much more widely.

And Martínez de Pisón is a wonderful Spanish novelist and short story writer who gets better with every book, and who has somehow eluded the notice of publishers in the English-speaking world. I translated his non-fiction book, To Bury the Dead, which is about the murder of José Robles, the translator of Dos Passos, a few years ago for Parthian, a small but interesting and outward-looking press in Wales, but I think there are a lot of readers in North America who would be interested in the story. Robles taught Spanish at Johns Hopkins and just happened to be home for the holidays in Madrid with his family in 1936 when the civil war broke out and immediately volunteered his services to the Republic. He’d been teaching himself Russian to read Chekhov and Dostoevsky and ended up working with some of the Soviet military advisors. His disappearance was also one of the reasons for the end of Hemingway’s long-standing friendship with Dos Passos.

But I also highly recommend Anatomy of a Moment, The Secret History of Costaguana, Never Any End to Paris and The Armies as well.

Anne McLean
interviewed by
Chad W. Post

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