In the last issue, I spoke with Danish translator Martin Aitken. This time I turn to Argentina and translator Roanne L. Kantor. Her translation of Juan José Saer’s The One Before publishes with Open Letter this month. Read Ryan C. Corder’s review of this book in this issue of the SFWP Quarterly.
K.E. Semmel: What distinguishes Juan José Saer’s work from his Argentinian contemporaries such as Borges and Cortázar, who are, as of now at least, probably better known today?
Roanne L. Kantor: Certainly, a book of stories like The One Before puts one in mind of the short, philosophical stories of Borges or Cortázar. As you know, Borges had been writing for decades before he gained prominence during the 1960s with the “boom.” Cortázar, too, was on the older end of the “boom” generation, whereas Saer and his cohort are a generation beyond them, what we might call “post-boom.” For Saer, then, the trick is to find a place for his work, take advantage of the increased attention toward Latin American literature, without being pigeonholed as “the next” Borges or Cortázar.
Because The One Before takes on the short story genre that Cortázar and Borges are so famous for, it sort of invites that comparison, but also refutes it. In the first place, while Borges’s stories have been influential in certain streams of literary theory, the writing itself was not as much in conversation with contemporary philosophy. Saer, on the other hand, was deeply engaged with philosophy. The title story and some of the Arguments, like “Scent Memory,” are actually rehearsing arguments in phenomenology! Yet at the same time, Saer’s writing is also more grounded, more engaged with the Argentinian environment and with a group of people that the reader can come to know and care about. Borges and Cortázar wrote stories about character types. Borges wrote rather flat characters that primarily served to further the conceptual argument of the story. Pierre Menard, for instance. We don’t care about him as a person, his motivation—he’s just there to perform the work of re-writing Don Quixote. Cortázar is famous for literally writing about character types: Cronopios and Famas, etc. The One Before, like almost all of Saer’s novels, is set in Santa Fe amongst a group of recurring characters. These characters work through philosophical concepts, they are interested in abstract ideas about the nature of memory and perception, but they are also people who go on living for decades in Saer’s fiction. So each of these stories has to simultaneously advance a theoretical argument and advance the development of the characters involved.
KES: The One Before seems to me a kind of hybrid between fiction and prose poetry. “Arguments” like “My Name is Pigeon Garay” and, more explicitly, “The Traveler,” are rich with poetic detail. And yet there are other “Arguments,” such as “Regarding Autumn Siestas” or “On Dry Shore,” that read more expressly like stories. I found it necessary to read only one short piece at a time and really think on it in the same way I read poetry. Is this part of Saer’s style, or is it an aspect of only this particular book? How does The One Before fit with the rest of his body of work?
RLK: I think the first Argument, “A Layman’s Thoughts on Painting,” really tells you how to approach the whole collection. Essentially, the speaker in that story claims that the white space between paintings is as important as the paintings themselves. The same thing could be said about the break between each Argument. Because the Arguments are short, and they’re certainly easier to read than the longer stories, but they’re not easy! You need a pause between stories to really digest them, to mull them over.
I think that Saer’s twisty syntax has the same effect. When I first won the Sontag Prize in 2009, there was a conference in Argentina about the process of producing the translation and Saer’s place in the Argentinian literary canon. His longtime editor, Alberto Díaz, was one of the speakers. He told us that the editor’s temptation (and, I might add, the translator’s) is always to iron out Saer’s syntax, but without the pauses and the digressions and the run-on sentences, there was no Saer. Not only that, but the way he wrote was the way he talked: Saer was asthmatic, and so according to Díaz he worked his way slowly through each sentence, punctuated by long pauses. The commas sort of capture that, I guess.
I also feel that this idea of an asthmatic speaker comes through in the ending of the stories, the kind of quietness with which a lot of them end. Whereas a lot of writers, I think, aim to end with a bang, like a great punchline, the Arguments tend to end softly, or even by undercutting themselves. For example, one of my personal favorites, “Argument Over the Term Zone,” is mostly just a philosophical monologue by this one character about the nature of boundaries. Then, right as he’s delivered the resounding finish of this argument, the other character pipes up and says “I disagree.” And that’s it! That’s the end of the story! Or the end of “Autumn Siestas” where the speaker concludes a very beautiful description of walking and talking with his friends through the city by saying something like “all this is even worse for you than doing drugs, and no one should try it.” I appreciate how so many of these stories end with a sort of tonal question mark or a raised eyebrow. It forces you to really sit and think things over.
KES: Speaking of thinking things over. The two longer stories in this book are, in one very important way, radically different from the Arguments that come before them, and I think this difference is best summed up on the sentence level. The Arguments are built with more traditional—read: simpler—sentences. But then we come to, say, the titular story and we find this opening: “Earlier, others could. They would wet, slowly, in the kitchen, in the afternoon, in the winter, the cookie, soaking it, and raise, afterward, their hands, in a single movement, to their mouths, they would bite it and leave, for a moment, the sugared dough on the tip of their tongues, so that from it, from its dissolution, like dew, memory would rise, they would chew it slowly, and now suddenly they would be outside themselves, in another place, clinging to…”
And this sentence goes on for another ten lines. My first thought was: Holy shit! The longer stories have a complicated structure that must’ve been difficult to translate, and as a reader you do have to sit and think. And yet there’s a lovely music in them, a rhythm. How did you keep all these long sentences straight in your head?
RLK: Thank you for noticing that the longer pieces were hard to translate! I first started working on this collection because the Arguments were exactly the right length for the translation workshop that Michael Henry Heim used to hold at UCLA before he passed away in 2012. I fell in love with translation and with Saer because of that workshop. So then when I looked into translating the whole book for the Sontag prize, I saw “The One Before” and basically had a heart attack. Readers should know that the original collection begins with “The One Before,” which is a 30-ish page story with no paragraph breaks and where the first sentence alone goes on for 10 lines or so. It’s also a meditation on the breakdown of linear time and the continuity of existence, so, you know, light reading.
I actually decided to translate the book starting with the Arguments at the end and working my way forward, with the hope that by time I got to “The One Before” I would have learned enough about Saer’s style to tackle it. Eventually, I came to feel that the reader deserved the same chance to learn how to read Saer before diving into the longer stories. Open Letter agreed, so we re-ordered the sections of the book, essentially, from least to most challenging. Otherwise I imagine a lot of potential readers would have read the first sentence of the book and just quit! However, I don’t agree that the stories are radically different from the Arguments. “The Traveler,” for instance, has literally no punctuation. That’s a fair preview of the challenges of “The One Before.”
KES: Interesting that you mention “The Traveler” and punctuation. I actually read the spaces in between the sentences as a form of punctuation—just a very idiosyncratic one (and one I absolutely love).
RLK: Yes, you’re right. It’s not so much that the story has no punctuation as that the spaces act in place of punctuation. At the same time, that form of punctuation asks a lot more of the reader than a more standard layout, and so in that sense it prepares one for the longer pieces in the book. This is true even though at a technical level “The Traveler” has many more spaces than usual, and the two longer stories, many fewer.
The other thing to say about “The Traveler,” in case you’re interested, is that that was the story I submitted with my application to the Sontag Prize. It’s also one of the few stories where I was able to get feedback from Michael Heim. Later, through the Sontag Foundation, I met Susan Bernofsky, who, as you probably know, is a very accomplished translator of German literature, and a big advocate in the field. She had also been mentored by Michael at one point, and we had a really wonderful moment bonding over that experience. So for me it’s very special that this translation can carry forward a little bit of his guidance.
KES: The One Before is a very smooth read in English. And I commend you on the fabulous work you did to achieve that. Can you talk a little bit about how you made the translation read so smoothly?
RLK: In terms of figuring out how retain some of the fluidity of the original while also dealing what we might call “varsity level” translation challenges, I owe a lot to two people.
The first is my friend and colleague Rebecca Lippman, whom I asked to read over the English drafts of each piece and point out things that weren’t flowing. At a certain point, you as the translator can get so keyed into the original form that you lose sight of what the thing sounds like in the “target” language. This is especially true translating Saer, where you have to be so attentive to formal features. Incidentally, Becca and I are both twins, so we probably had the most fun working on “Half Erased,” which has to do with the relationship between two recurring characters, Pigeon and his twin brother Cat, and the way that twin-ness forces one to think differently about identity.
The second is Steve Dolph, who translated three of Saer’s novels for Open Letter. Steve got in touch with me as he was finishing The 65 Years of Washington (Glosa), and even though we’d never spoken before, we clicked right away over what it was like to translate Saer. He just knew exactly what the challenges were. And he also knows Saer’s world so intimately.
That’s the best thing, for me, about The One Before. You can enjoy it as a stand-alone piece, but it’s also a fantastic introduction to Saer’s characters and their world. For instance, there’s a couple throw-away lines in the story “Half Erased” about different exploits of Cat and Pigeon’s forebears, and those stories get elaborated in Scars (Cicatrices) and The Event (La ocasión). The Argument “Friends” references another recurring character, Ángel Leto, after he commits a murder that’s then expanded upon in The 65 Years of Washington and Scars. “Half Erased,” meanwhile, tells the story of how Pigeon leaves Argentina for Paris, while the novel The Investigation (La pesquisa) acts as a sort of book-end, telling the story of his return more than 20 years later. So many connections! Saer may be a bit hard to get into, but the rewards for a dedicated reader are huge.
(Read Ryan C. Corder’s review of The One Before in this issue of the SFWP Quarterly.)
Juan José Saer was the leading Argentinian writer of the post-Borges generation. The author of numerous novels and short story collections (including Scars and La Grande), Saer was awarded Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize in 1987 for The Event.
Roanne L. Kantor is a doctoral student in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. Her translation of The One Before won the 2009 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation. Her translations from Spanish have appeared in Little Star magazine, Two Lines, and Palabras Errantes: Latin American Literature in Translation.
K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in the Ontario Review, Washington Post, World Literature Today, Writer’s Chronicle, Southern Review, and elsewhere. His translations include books by Karin Fossum, Jussi Adler Olsen, Naja Marie Aidt, and Simon Fruelund.