La traducción es un yunque / Roberto Bolaño

Translation Is An Anvil

What is it that makes an author so beloved by those of us who speak Spanish become a second or third rate author, when not absolutely unknown, among those who communicate in other languages? The case of Quevedo, Borges recalled, is maybe the most flagrant one. Why is Quevedo not a living poet, which is to say a poet worthy of rereading and reinterpretation and ramifications, in fields beyond the Spanish language? Which leads directly to another question: Why do we consider Quevedo our greatest poet? Or why are Quevedo and Góngora our two greatest poets?

Cervantes, who was underestimated and disdained while he was alive, is our greatest novelist. There is hardly any disagreement about this. He is also the greatest novelist – according to some the inventor of the novel – in lands where Spanish is not spoken and where the work of Cervantes is known, above all, thanks to translations. These translations can be good or not, which isn’t an obstacle for the Quijote’s reason to impose itself or fertilize the imagination of thousands of readers, who don’t care about verbal luxury or the rhythm and force of Cervantean prosody which any translation, no matter how good it is, will undo or dissolve.

Sterne owes Cervantes a great deal, and in the XIX century, the novelistic century par excellence, Dickens does too. Neither one, it’s almost too obvious to say it, knew Spanish, from which we can deduce that they read the adventures of Quijote in English. What is marvelous – and yet natural, in this case – is that those translations, good or not, knew how to transmit what in the case of Quevedo or Góngora they didn’t and probably never will: what distinguishes an absolute masterpiece from a dry masterpiece, or, if it’s possible to say so, a living literature, a literature that belongs to all mankind, from a literature that merely belongs to a specific tribe or to a segment of that specific tribe.

Borges, who wrote absolute masterpieces, already explained this on one occasion. The story is the following. Borges goes to the theater to see a version of Macbeth. The translation is dreadful, the mise en scène is dreadful, the actors are dreadful, the set design is dreadful. Even the seats in the theater are extremely uncomfortable. And yet, when the lights go down and the play begins, the spectator, Borges among others, once again immerses himself in the destiny of those beings who travel across time and he once again trembles with that which for lack of a better word we will call magic.

Something similar happens with popular representations of The Passion. Those determined, improvised actors who once a year play out the scene of Christ’s crucifixion and who emerge from the most frightening ridiculousness or from the most unconsciously heretical situations astride the mystery, which is not such a mystery, but rather a work of art.

How do we recognize a work of art? How do we separate it, even if only momentarily, from its critical apparatus, from its interpreters, from its tireless plagiarists, from its denigrators, from its final destiny of solitude? That’s easy. We must translate it. That the translator not be a genius. We must rip out pages randomly. We have to leave it strewn in an attic. And if after all this a young person appears and reads it, and after reading it makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, it makes no difference) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its journey to the edges and both are enriched and the young person adds a grain of value to its natural value, we are in the presence of something, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings: not a tilled field but a mountain, not the image of the dark forest but the dark forest itself, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.

{ Roberto Bolaño, Entre paréntesis, Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2004 }

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