Exclusive: Natasha Wimmer Tells Us About Translating the Next Great Latin American Author

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When Natasha Wimmer’s translation of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives was first published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2007, it was an immediate hit among

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literary enthusiasts. The story begins in the 1970s and chronicles the wanderings around Mexico City, and later the world, of two Visceral Realist poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, and their quest for enigmatic poet Cesárea Tinajero.

After The Savage Detectives there was a clamor for Bolaño, and his unfinished, apocalyptic epic 2666, about the serial killings of numerous women in a town called Santa Theresa. It was published posthumously in 2004, a year after Bolaño’s death. After Wimmer’s translation of his final work came out last month, she sat with Edith Grossman, veteran translator of Spanish and Latin American literature, at the Strand to discuss the often problematic tradition of literary translation.

Naturally we jumped at the opportunity to ask Wimmer a few questions about her experience translating the most buzzed about Latin American author since Gabriel García Márquez. Check out our interview after the jump.

Flavorwire: What is the biggest obstacle you encounter in translation?

Natasha Wimmer: In a word, slang. And particularly very local colloquialisms.

FW: What initially attracted you to the work of Roberto Bolaño? Tell us about your initial encounter with it and how you came to be the translator of The Savage Detectives and 2666.

NW: I first loved his urgency and tenderness; his viscerally real characters and his opaque lyricism. I never expected to get to translate him, because he already had a translator: the incomparable Chris Andrews. But Andrews passed on The Savage Detectives, and I was the fortunate second in line.

FW: Who are your favorite authors, and who are your favorite authors to translate?

NW: A few recent favorites: Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness and Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder (try reading these back to back; two very different treatments of the same Central American tragedy). Also, in no particular order: V. S. Naipaul, Norman Rush, David Foster Wallace, John Updike, Geoff Dyer, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, George Saunders. Among others. I don’t really have a favorite author to translate: some styles come more naturally than others, but by the time I’ve worked through a book it’s so familiar that it’s hard for me to judge it objectively.

FW: During your conversation with Edith Grossman at the Strand, you mentioned a trip to Mexico City that greatly influenced your translation of The Savage Detectives. In what ways did being in the city aid you and affect your work?

NW: Bolaño is a writer obsessed with geography — he’s always describing the routes his characters take, often street by street and block by block. To walk those same streets and blocks in Mexico City was very helpful. And of course it was useful to be immersed in Mexican Spanish.

FW: Have any translation theories influenced your methods?

NW: Not really. I never formally studied translation theory, but I am interested (though not necessarily swayed) by the concept of foreignization, or the use of literal translation to create an intentional strangeness intended to remind the reader that he or she is reading something originally written in another language.

FW: How has your translation style evolved since your first book?

NW: I would say it’s become a bit looser as I’ve gotten more confident. When I worked on my first translation, I sweated over every tiny deviation from the original. Now, for better or for worse, I worry more about how the English reads.

FW: Has the high anticipation level surrounding the publication of 2666 in English been exciting for you? Why do you think Roberto Bolaño is so popular in the literary world at the moment?

NW: Very exciting — it’s a translator’s dream. I can only guess at why Bolaño is so popular right now, but I do think it’s been a long time since we’ve come across a writer who is so intensely ambitious and at the same time so nakedly human.