Two Translators on Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa

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When the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature announcement went out last week, we were thrilled they named our author Mario Varga Llosa. I reached out to two of his translators for their thoughts.

Edith Grossman is an award-winning translator of Gabriel García Márquez, Julián Rios, and Álvaro Mutis, among others. Her 2003 translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote is widely acclaimed as one of the best translations from the Spanish in recent years.

Natasha Wimmer is best known for her translation of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666. She has also translated Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy.

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Chapman: How did you first discover Mario Vargas Llosa’s work?

Edith Grossman: I first discovered his work in graduate school, when I was reading works of the Latin American Boom—Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, García Márquez, Rulfo, Cortázar, and so forth.

Chapman: How did you come to translate his books in the United States?

Grossman: I was approached by FSG to translate Death in the Andes, the first book of his I worked on. I had met him a few times before that in New York, at talks and readings.

Chapman: Did you work with him directly during the translation process? Were there research trips to Peru or elsewhere?

Grossman:  I never work directly with the author while I’m translating. Sometimes, when I’ve completed the work but before I turn it in to the publisher, I ask the writer for an explanation (not a translation) of certain words or phrases. I think the only research travel I’ve ever done is going to Spain for a year on a Fulbright many years ago.

Chapman: You’ve translated a number of García Márquez’s novels—another Latin American Nobel laureate—who is lionized as much for his influence as for his writing. Do you also see the Vargas Llosa imprimatur in younger writers?

Grossman: I can’t really answer that question except in the broadest terms. Vargas Llosa’s influence may lie in the intertwining of the personal and the political. García Márquez’s influence is more stylistic, I think: the intertwining of fantasy and reality, perhaps. They both owe a great debt to William Faulkner and, most of all, to Miguel de Cervantes. On the other hand, the impact of the Latin American Boom on young writers everywhere was enormous, and I don’t think Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie, for example, would write the same way without that older generation of Latin American writers.

Chapman: Speaking of the next generation, what was your reaction to Granta‘s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” list?

Grossman: I was very happy that Granta devoted an issue to young Spanish-language writers. In fact, I translated one of the stories, by a Peruvian, Santiago Roncagliolo. He’s a wonderful writer—I did a novel of his, Red April, a couple of years ago.

Chapman: Where would you recommend that new readers start with Vargas Llosa’s work?

Grossman: I can make some recommendations, but you have to remember that he not only is prolific but also is something of a chameleon: I mean that his themes and subject matter can vary from book to book. Having said that, I think Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter might be a good place to begin—it’s charming, funny, and very smart. Conversation in the Cathedral, also an earlier book, is darker and much more overtly political than Aunt Julia. A more recent book is The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, which I find deeply amusing and absolutely serious at the same time. Finally, for a stunning view of dictators and dictatorships, there is Feast of the Goat. I think this may be one of his best.

Chapman: At a recent press conference, Vargas Llosa said:
My idea of books is paper books. I think this will change and keep changing, but my hope is that new technology won’t mean the trivialization of the contents. I hope new technology will keep literature something deeply related to the most essential problems—social, human. The danger is that technology will impoverish the contents of the book, but this also depends on us! If we want literature to keep being what it has been, I think it’s in our hands, not to permit technology to destroy what has been built on the long route of civilization. But we don’t know what will happen in the future with literature and the arts, with technology. It’s an enigma.
Do you think technology is aiding literature—say, through its democratization of access—or hurting it? Are there intangible experiences tied to print reading that you feel are at risk?

Grossman: I’m too much of a Luddite to answer this with much objectivity. I am very fond of books on paper. I like the feel of the pages and the heft of the volume. On the other hand, I don’t believe that technology itself can harm literature—only lack of readers can do that. Try to imagine the impact of the printing press when it was first invented. I’m sure there were many back then who thought it might destroy literature, but the press and the spread of literacy universalized access to books. The electronic book will probably have the same effect as long as readers continue to demand great writing.

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Chapman: What drew you to Mario Vargas Llosa’s work? How did you come to translate his books in the United States?

Natasha Wimmer: It was chance that led me to Letters to a Young Novelist, my first Vargas Llosa translation. I was pretty green at the time. Letters was only my second book-length translation, and it was very different from the first, which was the slangy and scatological Cuban novel Dirty Havana Trilogy. I think it was while translating Letters to a Young Novelist that I realized that I was really serious about translation as a career, so in that sense it was a formative experience.

Chapman: You’ve translated two of his nonfiction titles and one novel. Were there unique challenges or opportunities to each of them?

Wimmer: The prose of the two nonfiction titles (Letters to a Young Novelist and The Language of Passion) was more formal and elaborate than the prose of the novel (The Way to Paradise). I’ve always admired Vargas Llosa’s mastery of structure, and to translate his nonfiction is to learn a lesson in sentence construction. The length of the sentences was the main challenge, but they were always elegant and impeccable.

Chapman: Did you work with him directly during the translation process? Or get a chance to visit Peru?

Wimmer: We didn’t work together, though he did very graciously answer some questions for me. I’ve sadly never had the chance to visit Peru.

Chapman: I remember you saying one of the challenges of translating Roberto Bolaño is finding English counterparts for his characters’ Mexico City slang. Did you come across any comparable colloquial (or historical) lexical issues in The Way to Paradise?

Wimmer: The Way to Paradise is indeed a historical novel (it’s about Gauguin and his grandmother Flora Tristán), but it’s written in a fairly neutral, timeless style. Here, too, it was often the construction of the sentences that was the main challenge, though overall this was an easier translation project than either of the two nonfiction works.

See Also:

Edith Grossman on Lydia Davis in The Paris Review Daily

An Interview with Natasha Wimmer on Translating Bolaño’s 2666