Editors' Week: Interview with Natasha Wimmer

Posted on October 04, 2010 by Scott Esposito

To celebrate the release of the latest TWO LINES, called Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, we've asked the editors--Natasha Wimmer and Jeffrey Yang--to do some interviews and blogging about the book. We're calling it Editors' Week. First up is an interview with Natasha Wimmer.

And if you're intrigued by what you see, you can order Some Kind of Beautiful Signal directly from the Center right here, or on Amazon right here.

Scott Esposito: In your introduction to Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, you make reference to one the novel excerpts in this book. In it, a doctor at a sanatorium in Russia that's similar to the sanatorium in The Magic Mountain is sent a copy of that book. Far from reveling in the similarities--as the acquaintance who sends him the book suggests--the doctor finds Mann's characters frivolous and backward. You go on to say that the pieces in this volume are stubborn and honest just like that doctor. I wanted to start by asking why you find those qualities valuable for a collection of literary translation.

Natasha Wimmer: I guess I find those qualities valuable for any kind of fiction, translated or not. In the case of literature in translation, they may be even more valuable, because the more directly the writer speaks to the reader, the more easily he or she transcends cultural barriers. It’s hard enough to communicate across cultures, but when formal conventions get in the way, it’s even harder. The Mann episode in the novel excerpt that you mention is especially revealing and immediate because in it, through the narrator, the writer weighs in on the very problem of conventions: in this case, the (to him) alien conventions of a classic Western novel.

Scott Esposito: You also mention in your introduction that as one of Bolano's translators you've seen first-hand just how much an author in translation can shape perceptions. It might be a little too much to hope that Beautiful Signal will have quite the impact that Bolano has had, but what is your hope for the kind of impact that a series like Two Lines will make?

Natasha Wimmer: I actually think that the greatest impact a series like TWO LINES can have is indirect. Of course, it’s wonderful when the average reader picks up a journal like this, but realistically, readers of Two Lines are probably already avid readers of translation. On the other hand, a series like TWO LINES is a great way for younger translators and writers unknown in the U.S. to get a foothold and gradually worm their way into the American consciousness. The editors, writers, and readers of influence who pick up TWO  LINES are an ideal first audience for new literature in translation.

Scott Esposito: Do you feel like literature in translation in the U.S. has become higher-profile in the years since Bolano came on the scene, roughly since 2003?

Natasha Wimmer: Hard to say, since I’m not a neutral observer, but it seems that way. A lot of people are certainly working very hard to get translation to the American public, which is especially remarkable considering the general state of book publishing in the U.S.

Scott Esposito: One of the distinctive things about TWO LINES is that it's printed multi-lingually. I think something around 15 separate languages are represented in Beautiful Signal--there are some particularly uncommon ones in this volume, like Zapotec and Uyghur. As someone who's not fluent in 15 languages, what do you think is the value of having those original languages in there?

Natasha Wimmer: The look of an unfamiliar script on the page is beautiful in and of itself. Beyond that, I think it’s nice to remind readers that there is an original text, and one of the best and most immediate ways to do that is to simply present that text. And when the alphabet is familiar, the diligent reader can get some sense of the sound and rhythm of the original, even if the meaning isn’t comprehensible.

Scott Esposito: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about the piece you translated for this volume, Roberto Bolano's essay "La traduccion en un yunque," which you translated as "Translation Is a Testing Ground." It's an interesting piece about the limits of translation, which it illustrates by talking about those authors who will and can be translated versus those who can't or won't. What was the thought-process that got you from "yunque" to "testing ground"? And did your own extensive experience with translation inform your decision to go for this interpretation of "yunque"?

Natasha Wimmer: “Yunque” means “anvil,” so the suggestion is that translation is the anvil on which literature is tested. If it’s good enough, it will survive even the worst translation, or the most brutal pounding of the hammer. It seemed to me that the meaning of “La traducción es un yunque” was more immediately obvious in Spanish than in English, so I gave the title an interpretive rather than a literal translation. In retrospect, though, I wonder whether it wouldn’t have been better to leave it as “Translation is an Anvil,” which also (it occurs to me now) suggests that translation is a heavy weight falling from a great height on a poor unsuspecting text. Maybe I’ll change it for the book version (the essay will be published in the forthcoming collection Between Parentheses)—check in and see!