Honoured to be interviewed by the wonderful Loren Kleinman over at Huff Post. She asked me about translating Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn for National Translation Month. Always fun to get to reflect on that mysterious thing that happens when it’s just you, sitting before the computer, caught up in the words and sentences and world of the text you’re translating.
I fell hard for this erudite, madcap, astonishingly inventive book. A bookseller in Barcelona pressed it into my hands in February 2016, a few months after it was released by Editorial Minúscula. “If you want to read something that says this much”—he opened his arms wide—“then this is the book for you.” He couldn’t have put it better: Los palimpsestos’s slight dimensions belie how exceptional and ambitious it is.
Polish writer Aleksandra Lun wrote this novella, her debut, in Spanish after living 10 years in Spain. It tells the story of Przęśnicki, an Eastern-European immigrant writer who, having neglected to write his first novel in his mother tongue, is committed to a psychiatric hospital to undergo “Bartlebian linguistic reintegration therapy.” Within the walls of the asylum, he meets other patients likewise afflicted with foreign writer syndrome, including Samuel Beckett, Emil Cioran, and Joseph Conrad.
Los palimpsestos is first and foremost a book about literature: Via a daisy-chain of literary references, it offers backstage access to the phenomena of foreign writers and their decision to switch languages. It portrays Europe as a linguistic playground while offering sly commentary on the politics and privileges of artistic creation and reception, especially when shadowed by nativism.
And it more than lives up to its title: Przęśnicki and his roommate are Polish; they are in francophone Belgium; Przęśnicki wrote his first novel in Antarctic and is writing his second one on the pages of a Dutch-language newspaper; and the book itself is written in Spanish. Yet, while multiple languages are mentioned or presumed throughout, there is no trace of them on the page, with two exceptions: Wampir and Kaskader, the titles of Przęśnicki’s books. He says they are in Antarctic, though readers with a knowledge of Polish will have a head start comprehending this fantastical language. So Lun’s novella exists in a context of polyglossia while almost never providing linguistic evidence of it. In other words, in Los palimpsestos, everything is perfectly translated.
Read the rest at PEN America.
Edited by Will Evans
In an article in El País, Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina noted contemporary Peruvian novelists’ aptitude for creating narratives infused with historical and political reality: novels that set out to capture the real. Blood of the Dawn’s allusions to events of the recent past—some oblique, others named, but all with real-world equivalents unmistakable for Peruvian readers—make it not out of place, I don’t think, to name those events here so readers of the translation are better equipped to find out more.
There is another reason to do so. Historian Cecilia Méndez G. has argued that, while the Shining Path insurrection has had an indelible effect on Peruvian society, it is a period that many Peruvians, especially those who live in the capital, do their utmost to forget. Dwelling on this “time of fear,”—or, for Quechua speakers, the “sasachakuy [difficult] time”—which claimed at least 70,000 lives, is too painful. The urgency of representation present in Blood of the Dawn is a courageous response to this amnesia, a demand to remember as much as an attempt to represent, a pointing toward the real as well as a transformation of that real by means of the imagination.
So, a list: the 1983 Lucanamarca massacre, the 1985 Accomarca massacre, the 1986 prison riots and massacres (including at the women’s prison in Santa Mónica), the 1991 Barrios Altos massacre and the 1992 Tarata bombing. Reference is also made to a 1989 video that features the Shining Path leader dancing to “Zorba the Greek” with the high command.
The Quechua words I decided not to gloss mostly represent complex ideas from the Andean cosmovision, where features of the landscape are invested with spirit. Some rough approximations: Apus are sacred mountains or powerful mountain spirits; Pachamama is something like Mother Earth; and Pachacuti is a space-time turnover, a chaotic time where everything is turned on its head after a thousand-year cycle of the earth ends and the next begins. Another Quechua term derives from Andean experiences of colonialism: the Pishtaco is a mythological bogeyman, often a white stranger, who kills Andean individuals to steal their body fat. Body fat is a sign of vitality and beauty in the Andes. Add to this the Andeans’ horror on observing the way Spanish conquistadores treated their wounds with the fat of their enemies’ corpses and you have the makings of a myth set to endure. Its modern incarnations include the belief that sugar-mill machinery uses human fat as grease—a critique of Western capitalism if ever there were one.
Blood of the Dawn manages to compress a great deal into very little space, which has made translating it an absorbing and sometimes daunting challenge. One remarkable feature is the way a single idea is expressed twofold through content and form. For example, the plot’s focus on women as drivers of history is reflected in how their stories are told: Salazar Jiménez reminds us that language is a means of articulating systems of domination, patriarchy among them, through her steadfast refusal to use the full sentences dictated by standard grammar. In another example, Blood of the Dawn wrestles with how we might begin to represent violence in light of the physical and psychic damage it wreaks. The fragmentary nature of the narrative—its rapid switching among scenes, perspectives, grammatical tenses and persons, and especially the sections that turn away from grammatical organization almost completely—articulates the near impossibility of relating trauma while at the same time offering up an ambitious attempt to do the same.
A key challenge in bringing across all this compressed complexity was trying to reflect the different voices of the protagonists. These voices are painted with Quechua-inflected Spanish (in sentence structure as much as vocabulary), Maoist ideology, echoes of Catholic catechism, the language of elitist prejudice and racism, and much more besides. Through the rhythm of Modesta’s voice, I hope I have conveyed something of the repetitions that call to mind predominantly oral cultures, where lodgment in the listener’s memory is often favored over economy of expression. With Marcela/Marta, I have tried to emphasize the sense of indoctrination into Shining Path ideology. For example, when the word “encarnado” (“in the flesh,” “embodied,” “personified”) is used to describe the way she exemplifies the revolution, I opted to include a biblical allusion by translating “revolución encarnada” as “the revolution made flesh” in an echo of both the 1611 and standard versions of the King James Bible, “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14).
…is now out in the world.
Such a thrill to think that a book I have lived with for the past 3 years can now make its way into the hands of readers. Claudia Salazar Jiménez has, I think, made something very special, and it has been supremely satisfying to get to grapple with some of the creative and intellectual challenges of bringing her powerful debut to life in English.
Here’s the blurb:
The fate of three women intertwine and are ripped apart during what’s known as the “time of fear” in Peruvian history when the Shining Path militant insurgency was at its peak. This powerful and poignant debut novel rewrites the armed conflict through the voice of women with a mixture of politics, desire, and pain told in lucid, brutal prose. Salazar stimulates the reader’s imagination through visual and narrative references that hit us by delving into the personal stories of these three quite different women. The social trauma of Peru is full of personal tragedies like these, and while Salazar’s characters may be fiction, the pain they all endure is completely real and universal.
Blood of the Dawn is a tremendously lyrical and ambitious debut, a highly accomplished, moving, beautiful novel that serves as an example of what art can do to help us not forget.
And the first words of the novel:
blackout total darkness Where was it? all over Where did it come from? high tension towers fell to their knees bombs explode all raze blast burst Were you with the group? cooking at home while I waited for my husband blackout typing up the meeting’s minutes blackout developing some photos blackout get candles I don’t have enough six pages two towers the outskirts of the capital What did you say? you can’t sign comrade darkness excluded from history submit or blow up bomb Did you find out what they did? wow you cleaned your whole plate smile no candles eat three towers they say now more time more towers When will there be light again? candles turn on the radio I can’t find the matches three candles no matches make a spark with flint just kidding bomb we have a generator go to the epicenter where what we can’t see is happening bomb report what’s happening on the other side of the towers see Where were each of the three of them? blackout
They brought me to this jail in the capital not long before our leadership fell. They almost always bring me to this room so Major Romero can interrogate me. Everything is white, whiter than a hospital. The three chairs. The table with the white melamine top. White walls, too. It’s already almost two weeks since I found out they’d caught them. I wonder what they’ve done to Comrade Leader. Fucking dogs. If they touch him, they’re all going to die; one by one we’ll take them down.
The only sound is the clock. Romero hasn’t shown up yet. It’s a bit chilly in this white room. Such a difference from that sandy place where I started my social work. I especially remember one day when the sun tested us. Unbearable, hellish. That’s what the heat felt like on that long stretch of sand settled by so many people. I was there with the engineer who coordinated the construction projects and with Fernanda, the social worker. I’d also taken along my four-year-old daughter. I thought it would be good for her to play with children who had little or nothing.
The sandy ground stretched on and on, a boiling yellow cloak. The heat was stifling. I felt the sweat of my girl’s tiny hand in mine. One of the people in charge of the housing committee handed me a glass of water to relieve her thirst. Water was sold at the price of gold, offloaded from trucks that came barely once a week. The glass that my daughter had just finished meant less water for one of these children.
She was more settled now so I left her with the other little ones and joined the community members to discuss the upcoming projects. They needed a network of potable water, drainage and public lighting to cover at least ten streets. They had also asked the municipality for a health post with basic services and for a school to be built. Education is fundamental to breaking free from the structural inequalities that social organization is founded on; without it, the potential for change Mami!!! is practically non-existent. My years of experience as an educator give me the authority to confirm Mamiiiiiiiiii!!!! that without the appropriate level of Señora Marcela, your daughter!
I ran to where the children were playing. My daughter was stock-still in the middle of the sandy area, her little legs trembling in fright, almost not breathing, hiccupping, her face soaked in tears. She had fallen over in a spot where sand had mixed with compacted earth and it was hard to stay upright. When she saw me, she stretched out her little arms and let fly a loud, distressed wail: Mami, there’s no ground here, carry me!
If you’re in Australia and would like a copy, you can support the good folk at independent bookstore Readings, who will deliver it to your door.
If you’re elsewhere in the world, you can purchase it over at publisher Deep Vellum’s site.
I used to think of translation as a process, as what happens when you move words from one language to another, recreating meaning, effects, echoes. Creating new elements, too, out of potentials buried in the source text.
Now I’m starting to think of translation as a place. Part of what makes it conceivable as a locality is your constant effort to get to know it and imbue it with meaning. To fashion it out of meaning, first, and then to layer it with more. Words are responsible for its strata and its topography, and then for its weathering.
Edition 4 brings together seven translation places. It opens and closes with experiments in self-translation that, as the author-translators will tell you in their accompanying notes, come close to drifting free of meaning altogether. To my mind, their willingness to teeter on this precipice is one path for newness making its way into a culture. Hold your breath: skirt the edges of meaning with them.
The edition is arranged into two suites of translations, hinged by one other. The first suite, from Gamilaraay, Indonesian and Georgian, has a post- and anti-colonial thread. The bridge piece is a story translated from youthful, suburban Parisian French. And the closing suite is propelled by movements symptomatic of our globalised world: there is poetry by an ethnic Albanian Kosovar writing from Mexico in non-native Spanish, a multilingual text that is a collaboration between friends, and an act of creation born of travel across both space and time. Let me introduce them to you.
Read the rest, and the incredible contributions, at Seizure Online.