Sunday, December 4, 2016

Translator's Note by Valerie Miles



Edmundo had begun outlining the novel when we met during our respective sojourns in Madrid; I was the associate director of Alfaguara, the imprint where he was publishing his work, and he was on sabbatical from Cornell. Anyone who has spent time in Madrid can attest to the vibrant social and cultural scene there, which makes it famously difficult for a visiting writer to  get any work done. But Edmundo’s enviable discipline prevailed, and I had the chance to read an early version of Norte in 2009

By then I had moved back to Barcelona, and he and Liliana Colanzi came to stay with us for a few scorching days in August. Poet Forrest Gander was also in Barcelona at the time, and with Aurelio Major we had a long, memorable Spanish lunch at the iconic Flash Flash and deliberated on some of the issues Edmundo was setting out in the novel, particularly the way in which the United States absorbs and domesticates the splendidly variegated Spanish-speaking cultures under blanket terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino”. In the process, it invests a cliché on the undocumented worker, since society is often incapable of appreciating the singular in human experience, lumping personalities into sweeping typecasts for easy classification. The novel as form, luckily, being a work of the imagination, and by virtue a subversive one, counteracts this trend by exploring the space of individual experience, celebrating particularity and disputing the kind of intellectual indolence that turns a language spoken by people from over twenty-one different countries and their respective traditions into a shibboleth. As Azar Nafisi wrote in The Republic of the Imagination, literature “enables us to tolerate complexity and nuance and to empathize with people whose lives and conditions are utterly different from our own.” So as I translated Norte, one of my first concerns was finding way to capture the diversity of their voices, to differentiate the characters clearly and not to domesticate them or their language into an easy typecast. They hail from different countries despite the fact that they have the Spanish language in common, and the two who are Mexican, Jesus and Martin, are from very different backgrounds, social circumstances, and generations.

Edmundo is a Bolivian expat, A Spanish speaker in an English-speaking country; I’m an American expat, an English speaker in a Spanish-speaking country. We share an appreciation for how easy it is to get lost in a foreign environment, for the things you forfeit and the things you gain. But what happens to immigrants who ae emotionally or mentally crippled? What happens to those who are forced to struggle against economic hardship and denigrating prejudices, especially when civic and governmental institutions, police forces and prisons, universities and health care systems all fail?


Edmundo was interested in mapping the lives of migrants who have gotten lost both physically and spiritually in the vast “North” as they scramble to find a better life for themselves. We kept the title of the novel in the original Spanish so as not to lose all the inherent cultural references that are immediately associated with the Spanish word. As it goes, if I tell you not to picture an elephant, you inevitably see a pewter-haunched pachyderm; the image of the word “North” conjures in an American reader’s mind is not the same one as if you read the word “Norte”. Meaning, it’s not about Canada, no. North is a cardinal location on a compass, but it’s also a space in the imagination.

In Spanish there’s an expression, “perder el norte”, which means to lose one’s way, to lose sight of a goal, to lose control, to lose the  sense where is up and where is down on a compass. A few of the characters in the novel are based on real people who were uprooted, rendered anchorless, who lost their communities and their way in the vast, hostile territory that is the United States. Just as the border can be porous both physically and as a metaphor, identity to can be fluid; there is always a linguistic and cultural bleeding out in both directions, nothing is fixed, everything is in flux  . . .

We met again at the Bogota Book Fair and a few more times in Madrid and Barcelona. Edmundo wanted to approach the translation as if working on a manuscript. Many writers find it excruciatingly tedious to go back over a novel that has already been published, but Edmundo chose to use this as an opportunity for another revision of the original, to continue polishing the ideas, sharpening the dialogue, tightening structure and some of the psychology that moves the characters along. So the American translation is not always a direct translation; it evolved as a result of this ongoing exchange into a new version of the original novel.

Our conversations began tangentially at first, not directly on formal considerations such as  the placement of dialogue but on the characters themselves, their emotional make-up, motivations, and how to strike the right tone for each voice. Ae they based on real characters or not? If so, who and how closely? What materials did I have to work with that would help me gather a sense of their inner worlds, their outer surroundings? We talked about the American writers Edmundo reads while preparing the novel: Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis. We discussed how to balance the tenor in the episodes of extreme violence, emphasize the suspense leading up to these scenes, and keep a smooth, tightly measures timbre when describing the action, as he does in the Spanish.

I wanted to capture the slight linguistic estrangement of a Bolivian writer using Mexicanisms, Americanisms, and Argentinisms. He never falls into parody but is quite guarded against overplaying linguistic tics or pitches, though he sprinkles them in certain bits of dialogue to great effect. He writes in understatement, allowing the action to move the narrative forward, prioritizing drive and sense of pace, following a style predicated by Borges and Bioy Casares when writing as Bustos Domecq: the invisible narrator. The prose is largely free of adjectives, straightforward, close to the semantic tightness of the noir novel but sans winks to the genre’s parlance.

In Norte, Edumndo Paz Soldan uses a sort of backdrop storytelling technique that, like bas-relief, allows the voices of the characters to rise up in contrast when he moves in and out of their consciousness in free indirect speech. I’ve tried to maintain the effect when possible, but in order to keep the fluidity, and because it’s difficult to render accents without falling into caricature, some of the dialogue that was inside the body of the text has been restructures into direct discourse inside quotation marks. . .

The novel represents a foreigner’s view of the US. It’s the case with Fabian’s disgruntled opinion of American academia and with both Jesus and Martin’s third-person stor-lines: Martin’s story opens in the 1930S and largely takes place in California, Jesus’s in the 1980S in the north of Mexico, in Juarez, El Paso and other cities along the US border and Florida. Jesus speaks a lower-caste, urban, coarser type of Mexican Spanish, while Martin’s speech is more naïve and peasant-like, but in both cases their language is quick and flowing. Martin’s sentences are particularly melodic, the result of a sensitive if disturbed mind. The tension between these stories is that they represent two different ways of being; Jesus all motion and exploit, where Martin’s is stasis and introspection.

The third story-line that braids through the novel is that of the young, very talented Michelle and her profligate professor and lover Fabian. It’s the only story told in the first person. Here the conflict, the narrative tension, is found in the counterpoint between the creative act and destruction, authenticity and mendacity, truth and pure fiction versus imitation. It can be read as an analogy of the creative process, and it was important to clinch her voice  as a renegade academic and budding artist and not just some star-struck ingénue. She is infatuated with strung-out professor Fabian, and though she seems to passively allow herself to be sucked into the vortex of his self-destruction, in fact she exerts a subtle resistance the whole time. She’s observing something that fascinates her as a cat would observe a scorpion . . .



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