We’re back in South America and the Spanish language, this time with translator Roy Kesey. Kesey’s latest books are the short story collection Any Deadly Thing (Dzanc Books 2013) and the novel Pacazo (Dzanc Books 2011/Jonathan Cape 2012). His translation of Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories will be published by Soho Press in January of 2017. He is the winner of an NEA grant for fiction and a PEN/Heim grant for translation. His short stories, essays, translations, and poems have appeared in over a hundred magazines and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and New Sudden Fiction.
K.E. Semmel: How did you discover Pola Oloixarac’s work?
Roy Kesey: In the past decade or two, Peru has really come alive with independent publishing houses, some of them working a particular genre or sociopolitical vein, others looking for a particular flavor of weird genius to champion. One of my favorites is Estruendomudo, headed up by the brilliant Álvaro Lasso. When I moved back to Peru after six years away, I started catching up on some of their recent projects, one of which—it would have been 2010 at this point—was a Peruvian edition of Savage Theories, Oloixarac’s first novel, which originally came out with the Argentinian publisher Entropía.
The book just wiped me out—a novel shaped like a satire that wears its (black) heart on its sleeve, a novel of sex and messy history and great big ideas. Not the kind of thing you see very often, not the kind of book I could ever write, but wholly engaging at every level—and looking back over that half-sentence, it seems like a pretty good list of the kinds of things that will always interest me as a translator, and as a reader.
The critical reception to Savage Theories was overwhelmingly positive, but you could see the reviewers straining for comparisons to other authors (Argentinian and otherwise), which heightened my interest even more—Oloixarac really was doing something strikingly original. So she was on my radar from then on, and the pings only got louder a few months later when Granta published their list of best young Spanish-language novelists and she was on it.
KES: What was it like, the process of finding a publisher for Savage Theories?
RK: These roads are often long and winding, I think, this one as much as any. The Granta thing caught the attention of a lot of publishers. I did a summary for one, a reader report for another, a couple of sample translations. Lots of suitors, and one long engagement. The constants for me were the text and how much I loved it and the pleasure I took in corresponding with Pola.
Soho Press was in the mix at the very beginning, and swooped back in at the end, and I couldn’t be more pleased. I’ve been a fan of their list since forever. Mark Doten is a terrific editor, and the cover that Jon Gray built for the book is just gorgeous.
KES: What are some of the particular challenges you faced when translating Savage Theories from Spanish?
RK: There were plenty, as with any project, I guess. There were the predictable moments of desperation as I tried to find worthy ways of rendering multi-layered jokes, or punning cultural references, or local differences in dialect. Some others that were maybe more particular to this book:
- The abrupt shifts in register, from high-end anthropology to pseudo-academic to hacker slang and back again
- The way Savage Theories treats narrative omniscience as a sliding scale rather than a fixed position
- The great familiarity Pola and her narrator have with basically all of the arts and sciences
- The subtle modulation between (on the one hand) nods to great figures in philosophy and psychology and (on the other) things that seem like nods but are actually head-fakes
KES: In addition to your work as a translator, you’re also a terrific novelist and short story writer. How does your translation work feed your creative writing? And vice versa?
RK: Each of them saves me from the other the way both save me from still other things, is what I think most days.
By which I mean: on a given day (or at a given hour or minute) when for whatever reason my own blank page is too much for me, when the silence feels unstainable, I can turn to this other magnificent, complicated, implicating, and most importantly already finished project, and start the bit-by-bit of unbuilding it in its native language and rebuilding it in English. (It’s never that simple, of course, but just the momentary feeling that it might be that simple is usually enough to kickstart the process.)
And on/at a given day/hour/minute when I just can’t face yet another failure to find a sufficiently layered English treatment of a given Spanish paragraph that’s already defeated me half a dozen times, I can return to a bit of my own voicing that isn’t quite like anything I’ve heard before, and all of a sudden extending that bit of diction—listening to it, figuring out its implications and their consequences—seems like work that is not only essential but also possible in some way that it didn’t the day before.
KES: One of the things that I love about your novel Pacazo is that the story reads like it could’ve been written by Mario Vargas Llosa. Perhaps it’s the Peruvian setting, perhaps it’s the way history is blended into the novel, I’m not sure. But I love the prose. It seems like a book that could only have been written by someone with deep knowledge of Latin American literature and history, and it’s fascinating. Can you tell us a little bit about how it came to be?
RK: Thanks very much. Pacazo started life as a short story about a really sad guy on a bench and a huge lizard in a tree. The guy’s diction was so strange, so stylized and heartfelt and wounded. The first draft of the story was barely finished when I started hearing him talk about other things, and I knew I was in it for the long haul.
I’d been living in Peru for three years or so at this point. A few years later I had a novel starring this guy and the lizard and a bunch of other people and animals. I still loved the diction of it, and my agent sent it out, and everyone liked it but not enough to publish it—the usual. Which was a blessing (as it often is) because it led me (several years further down the road) to realize that I’d been hiding the book’s core identity from myself the whole time. And once I knew that, and took on the layering work that fixing it entailed, I finally got the book the way it wanted to be all along.
KES: What advice would you give to young or emerging translators?
RK: I have no business giving advice to anyone about anything. But there are a few things I wish I’d known earlier. I’d have started sooner. Picked up a few more languages earlier. And I’d definitely have gotten into the habit of tracking down publishers whose taste maps well to my own earlier than I did—that seems to me an incredibly useful way of finding new projects.
K.E. Semmel is a writer and literary translator and the creator of Translator’s Cut. His forthcoming translation is The Hermit by Danish novelist Thomas Rydahl. Semmel is also the Executive Director of Writers & Books in Rochester, NY. Find him on Twitter @kesemmel.