Steve Dolph is the translator of Juan José Saer‘s novels The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and Scars, both published by Open Letter Books. He is currently at work on a translation of Saer’s posthumously published novel, La Grande. Dolph is a scholar in the highest sense of the word. His passion and dedication to his work are contagious. Saer (1937-2005) was a celebrated Argentine novelist and writer. He moved to Paris in 1968 and became a lecturer at the University of Rennes. He wrote numerous novels and short story collections as well as critical studies on literature. Dolph’s grasp of Saer’s work is expansive, and his passion for the preservation of world literature through translation is, in a word, noble. Our conversations opened a window for me into the gruelling, precise and often unacknowledged work of translators, men and women who toil away like monks locked in an abbey, preserving and passing along the gift that is the world’s collection of stories. It was a rare privilege to have spent time talking with Steve Dolph, and it is a distinct pleasure to introduce him to Numéro Cínq.
See also the NC reviews of Scars and The Sixty-Five Years of Washington; also an excerpt from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and an excerpt from Scars.
Richard Farrell: How did you come to work on literary translations? Was this something you sought out or did it just happen through the course of your studies?
Steven Dolph: During my master’s program in creative writing at Temple, I took a translation class with Lawrence Venuti, the translator and scholar. That class was incredibly energizing and inspiring. It was a half a dozen students from various disciplines, no one focused exclusively on translation, if I remember correctly. We read a good amount of canonical translation theory, then workshopped translations-in-progress, not only from a formalistic perspective typical of creative writing workshops, but also based out of the theory we were reading. We read the translations, in fact, as theory, an approach that was at first shocking. Like most writing students, I think, I had always understood theory and literature to be distinct practices, and overlapping them seemed pretty scandalous. Frankly, I was less than prepared to read and write in that way, and I did pretty poorly in the class. But it was my first real exposure to comparative literature, and it stuck in a big way. After that class, I couldn’t really do anything else. It was at that time that I started working on the poetry of Néstor Perlongher, a project I stuck with for quite a while.
RF: It seems like most of the translators I know are poets, though I don’t know why that is. Are you a poet?
SD: I’m not a poet. I studied fiction at Temple.
RF: Are you still writing fiction?
SD: I stopped writing. I never felt the enthusiasm for writing that I felt for translation. I’m back in grad school now, at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m getting a Ph.D. in Hispanic studies. It’s a five year program. I hope to write about translation of Latin American literature. I’ve always thought of translation as a critical practice, and I’m trying to develop that sensibility.
RF: Your work with translating Saer’s novels must be intensely time consuming. Could you walk us through a typical ‘day in the life’ of working on the translation of a novel?
SD: On a good day I’ll spend six to eight hours at the computer. It’s hard to measure production by the day or the week, because I’ve always squeezed it in, early in the morning before work or class, or on the weekend. In any case, the farther along, the slower it goes. Sometimes I’ll spend an entire morning on a single paragraph, or less. That has to do not only with the nature of Saer’s prose, which is difficult, but also the nature of the work in general. I’m always thinking in terms of capturing equivalences between Spanish and English, and if I’m translating a passage on, say, the description of a river, I may spend an entire morning reading sections of Huck Finn just to remind myself what writing the river sounds like in English.
RF: Do you work directly with the original works? I know that some translators use native speakers to do an initial translation, a literal translation, before going in and turning the ‘rough’ translation into something with more nuanced (poetic) language.
SD: I do translate directly from the original. That said, I rely on the help of informants— friends who either know Saer’s work better than I do, or who have a deep fluency in Spanish, which I don’t have, or who have a particular familiarity with some aspect of the English vocabulary: doctors, lawyers, mothers, scientists, horsemen, and so on. I’d be lost without these people.
RF: I wonder if you might expand a bit on who your ‘informants’ are.
SD: Sure. One is Sergio Chejfec, who is a contemporary Argentine novelist and a professor of writing at NYU. He’s a big fan of Saer, and he reached out to me and offered to help . It helps to have other people who know the work, who really know the work as it was first written.
With Saer especially, there is a certain style, a certain sensibility that his prose follows. There’s a lot of parataxis in his writing, and a certain openness of meaning in his lines, or double meaning, inversions, and so on. Some of these things can be lost on me when I first read through it. A lot of the humor is there. The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, for example, plays with a lot paraphrase and hearsay. So I would check on sentences that I couldn’t quite get a handle on. It helped to have people who were more familiar with his language to guide me.
RF: How did you come to work with Saer’s novels. I imagine you must be under contract before you begin. Perhaps not?
SD: The Saer translations, a three-book contract, were offered to me by Open Letter after I submitted a sample. This was back in 2008. I should mention, while we’re talking about the press, the amazing editorial work of E. J. Van Lanen, the editor at Open Letter. He’s been so fantastic to work with, and some of the real gems have come from his suggestions. In fact, many of the passages that have been quoted in reviews have been directly inspired by if not literally copied verbatim from his suggestions.
RF: How much contextual/historical research do you have to do with a writer’s work in order to render the best translation?
SD: For me, lots. Lots and lots. Before translating the first Saer book, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, I read quite a bit of Argentine history, especially the history of the Peronist regime, the coup, and the military dictatorship that followed: from 1940 to 1990, basically. I also read some of the literature that was being made at that time. That period, though, was one of the most productive, in terms of the novel, in the history of Latin America, and arguably anywhere, so I barely scratched the surface. I’m trying to focus some more attention on that these days. I also read a bit of what Saer was reading as he wrote the first book, in particular the French nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet and so on. Finally, for tone and affect, I read some history of rhetoric, and narration theory. The Sixty-Five Years is concerned, primarily, with the nature of storytelling, and Saer slides between close, colloquial speech and detached, critical prose. I tried to recreate that balance. I also read The Chicago Manual of Style like a novel, and had the idea of a parody of that style always close in mind. All that said, I don’t know if my research made the translation better in any way. After I started working, I read everything of Saer’s that had already been translated, mostly by Margaret Jull Costa and Helen Lane, to get a sense of what Saer already sounded like in English. I read a few interviews on line.
I came to see The Sixty-Five Years of Washington as a novel about storytelling, about Argentina’s Dirty War and about the memory of trauma. The more I read the book, the more I came to appreciate it. Saer was so intent on rendering the Santa Fe region of Argentina, the region around the Paraná River. So a lot of the early research involved gathering a sense of the history, of the language, and referring to the previous translations. I tried to look at how those translations handled his idiosyncratic use of the language.
RF: I know that you founded a literary journal on translation. Could you talk about that journal and how it works?
SD: As I was finishing the master’s program in writing, I got the naïve idea that I wanted to start a journal of literature in translation, focusing primarily on the voice of the translator. We would publish brief translation excerpts alongside the originals and translator introductions. Brandon Holmquest, who’s an editor at Asymptote now, said he would edit the thing with me, and it ran in print and online for three years and five issues. We wanted, basically, to publish a journal in which literature and criticism held equal footing, and where translators could speak more than just anecdotally about their craft.
RF: How does translation affect your appreciation of language and literature?
SD: The effect has really been profound. I tend to see all writing in terms of translation, either linguistic or cultural, and have less trust in concepts like national literatures or genealogies among writers. Even the idea of a unified language in itself seems deeply suspect and ideologically motivated to me. I’ve also become much more conscious of translation’s connection to linguistic colonialism, and the political role that translation plays between national groups and between individuals. I see novels, and narration in general, as less closed or finished, and rather more open than I used to, more a confluence of many, many voices than the product of a single voice. Along with that, the idea of authorship, and the distinction between fist-order and second-order artistic products seems more and more like a fiction to me. At the most basic level, though, I’m compelled to see translation—and, by extension, all reading, of text or of the world—as essentially hermeneutic rather than empirical. Which is to say: meaning is not inherent to writing or to language as such; meaning is a product of interpretation, which is never disinterested or absolute, but always, always informed and circumscribed by the cultural position that the reader occupies.
RF: Could you expand a bit on this idea of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ production with respect to translating literary works?
SD: The idea of a clear transfer from a first order to a second order production is really recent, and has more to do with the 19th-century development of copyright than with what actually happens between texts, and involved the codification of the limits of artistic work and influence. It’s certainly useful from a legal standpoint, but from a reader’s perspective, I don’t see it as very useful. A book is a confluence of many different voices and ideas. For the translator, it’s a whole other set of voices and ideas. The process just feels more open to me. Our ideas about originality and authority, these codes, are informed by an ideology of the role of arts and the artist that translation has always worked to destabilize.
RF: You mentioned linguistic colonialism. Is this about dominant languages and how this affects the work of translators?
SD: Are you asking, is the translation of a literary text a neutral agent? A good portion of translators might not want to think about that question too much.
Translations are always informed by the ideologies that are implicit in the language community, from the way language is used, to its ideological undercurrents. Translators can be aware of or ignore these relationships. A translator has to find ways to address this issue, especially when these dominant languages move in to displace minority languages.
RF: I’m imaging that to translate a novel-length work, you must enter into a very deep relationship with the book. I’m also imagining that this could have negative effects, too. You must reach a point of exhaustion after a while. Do you ever just get sick of the pace of it?
SD: Never sick of it, no. Nor exhausted, really. A negative effect, though, is that with such an intense focus on producing a good structure, rhythm, and sound for individual sentences, it’s often easy to lose sight of the forest for all the trees. Then again, this focus has made my reading of other books that much more enjoyable. I pay much more attention than in the past to the ways that rhythm and syntax in prose are employed to create effect. I’m also now constantly on the lookout for interesting or startling language use in the world around me. I think the positive effects offset the negative ones, definitely.
RF: There must be work that is still in need of translation or in need of fresh translations. Who do you want to see brought back to life?
SD: That list is infinite. Something I’d really like to work on, and which has been neglected here for the most part, would be the black novels—hard core pulp detective writing—from Argentina since the 60s. Borges had his hands all the way in that mess. And Ricardo Piglia, more recently, has been working out of that tradition. What’s between those two writers needs a second look.
RF: What projects are you working on now?
SD: Right now I’m working through the last of three books for Open Letter Books, Saer’s posthumous novel La Grande, which should be out next year.
RF: I know this is beyond the scope of strict translation, but in Scars, the character of the judge is translating into Spanish Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This must have been a fun moment for you while translating!
SD: Not to sound sentimental, but that was the most heartwarming part to translate. That section was a metaphor for the way practices are invisible, how the product stands at the front and the producer is behind a screen. Despite his cynicism, despite his nihilistic view of society, his relationship to the work shows a deep care and attention, though he understood the futility of the work—the novel had been translated so many times.
Then you read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and you see the way the book discusses appearances and the aesthetic practice and how the book calls this into question. And the content of what the Judge was translating, it made him seem so alive. We only get a little bit at a time, but the moments when he is working, that is the person he is when he’s most alive.
Steve Dolph is currently a doctoral student in Hispanic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He previously translated Juan José Saer’s novel, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, part of a three-book contract with Open Letter Books. He founded the journal Calque, which focuses on literature in translation. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.