Writing as a Case of Performative Translation: A Reading of Valeria Luiselli’s Fiction and Non-Fiction
By Viviana Kawas
This thesis proposes the new concept of “performative translation” to analyze the fiction and non-fiction works of Mexican contemporary writer, Valeria Luiselli, and, furthermore, to begin situating her writing within a global literary context. To do so, this thesis engages Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Task of the Translator” (1923), and Rebecca Walkowitz’s recent work in Born Translated (2015). In these works, both theorists resist existing approaches to translation in World Literature and Translation Studies by disrupting the supposed binary and hierarchy between an original and translated text. This thesis seeks not only to use translation theories to examine Luiselli’s writing, but also to use her writings to build on existing ideas.
The idea of translation as a dynamic practice already embedded in the writing process is one that recurs in Luiselli’s work, thematically and formally. This paper emphasizes the presence of this notion in her texts and defines it as a performative writing technique—“performative” specifically in its intent to foreground and thematize translation in a recurrent and self-conscious manner. In order to illustrate this technique and demonstrate its thematic and formal prominence on the page, “performative translation” is broken down into three categories: explicatory, explicit, and implicit modes.
The following pages offer an analysis of a writer who thinks across languages, geographies, literary forms of fiction and non-fiction, and literary histories; features that, while not unique to her writing, are important for writers working within systems of international literary exchange. “Performative translation” attempts to highlight these self-conscious, critical literary features to demonstrate how texts like Luiselli’s can be theoretically useful: her oeuvre weaves a creative stage defined by multiplicity—of languages and literary traditions—that comparative literary scholars can use to think about the relationship between translation, circulation, and literary form in an increasingly globalized literary arena.
In 2015, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli decided to volunteer as an interpreter for the federal immigration court in New York City. She spoke with Central American children who had immigrated to the United States, had no legal representation, and barely had a cohesive set of words to make up a story. Yet Luiselli paid close attention to their reticence and wrote compellingly: “We listen to their stories in Spanish and note the key points in English. … It can be confusing and bewildering, and I find myself not knowing where translation ends and interpretation starts” (Tell Me How It Ends, 60-61). In this passage from her book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), the essayist interprets the children’s silence as indicative of ambiguous interlingual cracks. She meditates on the significance of these cracks, thinking about how translation participates in larger justice systems and the human, as well as cultural, repercussions they have. Luiselli’s commitment to an ongoing project querying language and translation illuminates and complicates an inflated immigrant narrative, one that circulates in discordant versions throughout Latin American countries and the United States. The simultaneity of translation and interpretation that Luiselli depicts is heightened by the context in which this bitter interrogation occurs—one where what is said must fit a larger narrative that will enable a child’s legal representation. Luiselli’s essay in forty questions interrogates the value of storytelling as a standardized, bureaucratized procedure in this high-stakes context: “Telling stories doesn’t solve anything,” she writes, “[it] doesn’t reassemble broken lives. But perhaps it is a way of understanding the unthinkable” (69).
Storytelling, at the outset, anchors Luiselli’s investigation of the boundaries of language and, within this inquiry, the role and capacity of translation. Through her literary essays and novels, works engaging intellectual meditation and political questions, Luiselli introduces a compelling theoretical field: one where translation, as a subject of writing and a movement between genres, languages, and registers, is at the intersection of the literary and the political. In the case of Tell Me How It Ends, the Mexican writer navigates the fragments of these young migrants’ reality and attempts to weave them together narratively by using the forty questions on the immigration form as an organizational thread and rhetorical device. Thematically, however, translation is one of the meditation’s unifying narrative devices. “I reworded, translated, and interpreted” (64), she writes. “For children of that age, telling a story—in a second language, translated to a third […] is practically impossible” (65). Her affinity for interrogating interlingual spaces pulses not only through this politically charged work, but also through her earlier works, where a literary perspective on translation takes precedence.
Luiselli has engaged with translation in different ways throughout her fiction, non-fiction, and scholarly writing. Her affinity for translation generates new ways of understanding this literary field, particularly in the realm of fiction. As her work has progressed from her first book of essays, Papeles falsos (2010), to her doctoral dissertation on what she terms “Translation Spaces: Mexico City in the International Modernist Circuit” (2015) and to her second novel, La historia de mis dientes (2013), a conceptual map of translation, as she understands it and as this study will investigate, takes shape. One cannot fully understand the complexity of Luiselli’s fiction without first visiting the ideas she foregrounds in her non-fiction. Nor can one fully grasp Luiselli’s approach to writing without encountering her biography.
Certain aspects of Luiselli’s biography especially illuminate her literary career and her focus on translation. Born in Mexico City to diplomatic parents in 1983, Luiselli acquired Spanish as her mother tongue but did not live in a Hispanic country for very long before beginning a highly itinerant life, thus losing her proximity to the language. Growing up, the writer lived in the United States, Costa Rica, South Korea, and South Africa before moving back to Mexico City with her mother at the age of sixteen, finding, at that time, that she did not quite fit in. In an interview with Publishers Weekly Magazine in 2014, Luiselli shares part of this experience. “When I went back to Mexico City with my mother when I was 16,” she relates, “I couldn’t quite adapt; I had learned how to be a foreigner, but I didn’t know how to be a Mexican. I got a scholarship to India and finished high school there by myself, then I did half my college in Mexico and half in Spain, with a bit in France.” This peripatetic upbringing is, in retrospect, the through-line for what Luiselli considers a productive linguistic movement between Spanish, her mother tongue, and English, her “daughter tongue” (Luiselli, “Swings of Harlem”). Luiselli finds that this liminal linguistic space between languages sets the stage for her literary career. She has alternated between English and Spanish as languages of instruction throughout her life, writing her first published works in Spanish in order to reclaim the language that had become foreign to her after growing up abroad, and finally participating in the translation of her own texts in collaboration with her translators. Luiselli’s early education and relationship to language in both literary and non-literary spaces have informed her approach to language in her career, not only in writing and translating her own work, but also in engaging questions around language in the content of her work.
Tell Me How It Ends is a good example of her concern with language and translation. The book was written first in English, later translated and expanded by the author herself into a Spanish version, published in Mexico by Sexto Piso as Los niños perdidos (Un ensayo en cuarenta preguntas) (2016) with an added introduction, and retranslated by Lizzie Davis in consultation with Luiselli. The multiple iterations of this essay signal a movement between languages that seems unconcerned with fixing labels of “original” and “translation.” This fluidity, furthermore, is part of an active countering of conventional approaches to translation that forms part of Luiselli’s hermeneutics. Committed to an engagement with language and translation that is not constrained by conventional theories of source and target texts but is, rather, more generative, Luiselli demonstrates an interest in exploring the boundaries of translation that grows more acute throughout her writing career. She arrives at her approach primarily through the employment of what I will call, in this capstone, “performative translation,” a concept that investigates how translation can be, in the words of Walter Benjamin, a form (an idea that will be expanded on in the following section).
This thesis advances the notion of “performative translation” as a working concept to help read Luiselli’s texts and begin to situate them in a global context—a context defined here as the site for what certain scholars have called the “global novel.” The theoretical groundwork for this concept incorporates primarily the ideas of Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay, “The Task of the Translator” (1923), and of Rebecca Walkowitz in her recent book, Born Translated (2015). Both thinkers resist existing approaches to translation in World Literature and Translation Studies by disrupting the fundamental binary between an original and translated text. In disrupting this binary, they propose to understand translation as having larger capacities for reading and writing: these theoretical texts suggest a new way of considering the relationship between language and meaning, between texts and their global contexts of circulation and reception—creating a literary field that is constantly in play.[i]
In her proposition for a new model of the global contemporary novel, Walkowitz also resituates writing, primarily Anglophone, within a new distribution network for which translation, as a concept intrinsic to the writing at its origin, is central. Within their theoretical move to revise approaches to translation, Benjamin and Walkowitz thus transform translation into a more capacious concept, relevant to how a text, in its original iteration, is configured thematically and formally. My notion of performative translation provides a way to explore the technical capacities of translation that have interested these theorists, and that come to the fore in how Luiselli writes and circulates her texts. I define performative translation more specifically as a writing practice involving a system of interlocking techniques and modes, among which multiplicity, metafiction, thematization, and the notion of versions are central. These techniques and modes are not mutually exclusive and often overlap and influence one another in Luiselli’s work. Multiplicity, used here in relation to Walkowitz’s definition of the concept, refers to the multiplying of languages, origins, references, and authorship that is achieved through some of the text’s thematic and structural features. Metafiction refers loosely to the text’s self-reflexive gesture, critical to how translation goes from being a theme to an organizing principle for the work’s overall structure. Thematization refers to the text’s desire to think about or employ translation as theme or action on the page.
Additionally, Luiselli’s writing offers three possible forms for employing performative translation. These primary categories can be termed explicit, implicit, and explicatory. The explicit mode consists of instances where translation is explicitly enacted on the page—for example, a young editor in Luiselli’s first novel translates a poem from Spanish into English, discussing different strategies with her boss and illustrating the translation process on the page. The implicit mode is demonstrated by instances where translation is assumed but is not shown—for instance, the language of dialogue is reported in Spanish but assumed to have happened in English, the text being, thus, already translated. The explicatory mode occurs in instances where translation is discussed by characters or in narration. The scenes analyzed in the following pages involve these three types of performative translation; yet, they focus more on explicit cases where translation is being “performed” for the reader. Again, while these three categories of explicit, implicit, and explicatory modes of performative translation provide useful distinctions for this complex practice, they are not mutually exclusive. Their overlapping, in fact, reflects the interconnected aspect of the elements that constitute the technique.
In attempting to capture how these examples of performative translation work within Luiselli’s writing, especially in the cases of the explicit and implicit modes, Roman Jakobson’s linguistic considerations of translation will also be useful. His categories of translation, composed of interlingual, intralingual, and intersemiotic, are pertinent to the task of determining what kind of translation is at work in a performative scene, and thus, for further determining the larger effect of the technique on the work as a whole.
I have chosen Luiselli’s work as exemplary of this kind of writing because, as is revealed by her biography and bibliography, she lives and thinks in a multilingual world, writing in Spanish and in English, sometimes translating her own works, but also working side by side with her translator, Christina MacSweeney. Luiselli allows the translator to create parts of the work—as evidenced by her latest novel The Story of My Teeth (2015), where MacSweeney entirely authors the final chapter of the English version. Her fiction offers new ways of thinking about translation as a fictional form of writing, through which a text might attempt a self-reflexive treatment of the language(s) as well as the literary and historical contexts of production and circulation configuring it.
Through her ideas in Born Translated, Walkowitz serves as a starting point to attempt to answer the question of why the concept of performative translation might be useful. Walkowitz allows us to think about authors like Luiselli as not only operating in but also emerging from translation. The theorist indicates that there are various ways, from multilingualism to translation conceits, through which this formal switch happens. The affinity between Born Translated and my notion of performative translation inserts the latter in a tradition of revising conventional methodological and conceptual approaches.
In Walkowitz’s case studies, the reader encounters novels designed with translation at their core, where a movement between languages and geographies highlights the novel’s non-fixity in a global context. Walkowitz operates through what she calls “close reading at a distance,” a concept that prioritizes a rethinking of how scholars read world literature.[ii] My study is, however, more concerned with a technique of close reading that tries to understand translation’s varying imprints on the page without encasing it exclusively in its global implications. Luiselli’s writing retains implications for both contexts: she engages with translation in a way that thematizes the practice in her texts, but her engagement with translation within the text is not devoid of contextual implications, as it is, for example, concerned with commenting on literary histories, publishing industries (in the case of her first novel), and political realities (in the case of Tell Me How It Ends). My sense of performative translation asks the reader to think about translation as more than an invisible process linking versions of a text in a hierarchical relation to one another and proposes a close reading where translation becomes a theme, context, and form.
The first section of this essay will contextualize more fully the concept of performative translation in relation to existing theoretical constructs, among which, as previously mentioned, those of Benjamin and Walkowitz will be central. Roman Jakobson’s linguistic considerations will also be useful in arriving at a more nuanced configuration of textual examples. This theoretical frame will be followed by an analysis of two of Luiselli’s texts: an essay about translation, entitled “Dos calles y una banqueta,” from her first published book Papeles falsos, and segments of her second novel, La historia de mis dientes. An analysis of these two texts will aid in understanding Luiselli’s use of multiplicity, an aspect of performative translation for which Walkowitz’s theory is most relevant. My reading of multiplicity in Luiselli’s works reveals the disruption of ideas of origin, translation, and authorship, and of the hierarchies of language implied in translation.
Following this discussion of multiplicity in Luiselli’s early non-fiction, I will focus on her early fiction: her first novel entitled Los ingrávidos (2011). This section will explore examples of explicit, implicit, and explicatory modes of translation and will look at metafiction and thematization as constitutive features of performative translation, setting up a larger commentary about translation as a liminal space between language and meaning. Although the analysis will ultimately be concerned with the text’s internal design, it will also provide a brief consideration of the text’s preoccupation with contextual matters, primarily those involving literary histories.
Finally, the last section of my study will address another dimension of performative translation, which concerns what can be understood, for the purposes of this investigation, as a more conventional approach to translation—that is, as a process of carrying over a source text from an original to a target language. For this final analysis, the concept of “versions” will be key, as a collaborative concept that Luiselli herself uses to describe her approach to the task of translating her works. The case that is most exemplary of this innovative practice of literary translation is her second and most recent novel, La historia de mis dientes, translated into English by Christina MacSweeney as The Story of My Teeth. A comparative analysis of the Spanish and English texts will seek to unpack Luiselli’s use of the term “versions” as a replacement for “original” and “translation.” Using this conceptual shift as a starting point for the analysis, speculations will then be provided on why certain changes were made to the text when translated into English, considering in particular how the changes might be linked to the author’s and translator’s imagined reception of the text by a US audience. For this purpose, it will be useful to consult interviews with and articles by the author in which she has discussed her work and the thinking behind her approach to translation. In addition, the analysis will be supported by well-known Mexican literary platforms (e.g. Letras Libres) for indications about a Hispanic audience, and in the United States (e.g. The New York Times) for references to an Anglophone audience. These references, although brief, will be key to discussing reception, but at the core of the analysis, driving the argument for seeing these texts as “versions,” will be the translation choices themselves and the effects they have on the different configurations of the Spanish and English texts.
Drawing on a philosophy of art to describe the born-translated text in the introduction to her book, Walkowitz obliquely references translation’s performative capabilities by writing that “novels that incorporate translation function more like performances than like site-specific sculptures” (46). This performative aspect is crucial to Luiselli’s writing and thinking. The performative function of translation occupies multiple layers of Luiselli’s work: these include metafiction and narrative symmetry, linguistic questions (explored through childhood and memory), the inscription of historically significant exchanges between literary traditions, and the enforcement of the translator’s visibility in the collaborative translation. “Performance,” in Walkowitz’s remarks, supports the idea that translation is formally and thematically active in Luiselli’s novels, registering the distance between language and meaning, reverberating with the vague echoes between two narratives that long to write one another, like two trains running parallel or, as Benjamin suggests, like the echo that radiates from a language forest.
Conceptualizing Performative Translation through Walter Benjamin and Rebecca Walkowitz
Unlike a work of literature, translation finds itself not in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. (Benjamin 258-259)
The above passage from Benjamin’s well-known essay “The Task of the Translator” (1923) suggests a way into studying the complex writing of Luiselli’s fiction and non-fiction. In his “wooded ridge,” his “echo” and “reverberation,” Benjamin performs for his reader part of what it means to translate a work of literature. This performance happens in two ways: as an image in which translation is enacted (standing before the wooded ridge with echoes and reverberations) and as the translation act that the metaphor itself constitutes (the metaphor as a form of translation). In the first function, the reader witnesses Benjamin’s imagined translated text, facing the wooded ridge and performing translation by locating an echo and reverberation that ultimately imprints both versions of the text. The metaphor provides a performance through which Benjamin’s theoretical assertion gains clarity. In the second function, the performance is indicated not by the content of the metaphor but rather by the metaphor itself as a literary device. Benjamin’s metaphor translates theory into image: it provides the reader with a different vocabulary for a premise that could be expressed otherwise. As metaphor, then, translation moves an idea in the way an echo and reverberation move sound across space and time—distilled and variably altered.
We might think of this form of translation as what linguist Roman Jakobson would call “intralingual” translation: where one term or idea is necessarily defined, or redefined, by associating it with other concepts within the same language; yet, we might also call it “intersemiotic” translation, as the metaphor immediately engages other senses—visual and auditory—as alternate mediums for understanding the language, embodying theory through metaphor. The different modalities of translation that the metaphor as a device engages demonstrate its ability to perform translation. Like translation, the metaphor implies a relationship of equivalents in that it seeks to transfer sense within language between one image and another as a means to enable comprehensibility.
Perhaps one of the most challenging of Benjamin’s propositions in his essay is the idea that “translation is a form” (Benjamin 254). This claim echoes what has been observed in the passage cited above in that, by identifying this excerpt’s performative capacity, it is possible to consider that Benjamin is in some sense enacting the notion of translation as form in his own essay. Form can be understood here as referring to the aesthetic and structural realms of the text: aesthetic, in its use of metaphor as a stylistic feature, used to make the argument more comprehensible; and structural, in the metaphor’s ability to reorganize the text’s information. However, this reading has its limits, as it is not entirely clear what Benjamin understands as form in his claim.
His argument can also be understood in relation to the essay’s overall impulse to reexamine existing translation theory: by indicating that translation is a form, Benjamin shifts the conceptual and practical center of translation. His claim breaks away from what were at the time contemporary approaches to translation, often binary and reductive in their notion of “original” and “translation” as fixed forms—relating hierarchically to one another, the original almost always being superior to the translation. Benjamin comments on these existing theories by pointing out that they “seem to be no longer serviceable to a theory that strives to find, in a translation, something other than reproduction of meaning” (259; emphasis added). Benjamin’s claim of translation as form serves, then, as a conceptual rift that theorizes translation not as an operation of equivalency, but rather as a field of inquiry in itself. The following pages of this essay will explore how this radical proposition can be opened up to allow us to grasp what Luiselli does in her approach to a new form of writing fiction and non-fiction in and about translation. I will suggest that her writing is, in line with Benjamin’s comprehensive vision, always “translated,” or rather, utilizing translation as a mode of writing.
Thinking on a larger scale almost a century after Benjamin, Walkowitz has recently introduced a theoretical model for the contemporary Anglophone novel which operates on a comparable understanding of Benjamin’s idea of translation as form, thereby complementing and extending the latter’s vision. In Born Translated (2015), Walkowitz argues for a segment of the contemporary global novel where texts, she proposes, are already translated in their “original” iterations. While Walkowitz offers a number of characteristics for this concept, she foregrounds the idea that certain texts are “born-translated” works primarily because of the different ways in which they incorporate translation into the content and architecture of the work. This engagement with translation enables the born-translated novel to be self-reflexive: it considers its own production, participation, and mobility in different linguistic contexts and circulation systems.
In this work, Walkowitz understands translation as an analytical and structural concept that emphasizes the effects of circulation, language, and globalization on the production of a text. She tests the concept’s usefulness in analyzing novels that circulate, both externally and internally, across multiple linguistic and cultural contexts. Walkowitz departs, as we have noted in Benjamin’s example, from a binary notion of translation that reduces a translated text to be either foreignizing or domesticating the original. Instead, she understands translation as encompassing more than the linguistic movement between a completed original and an always-lacking translation caught in the interpretive space between source and target language as well as culture. Walkowitz, then, introduces born-translated as a necessary concept for understanding how a particular type of contemporary Anglophone global novel—one that, in her analysis, is: first, written in English, second, widely translated and circulated, and third, engaging with notions of translation and circulation through the content, form, and presentation of the text—uses language and multilingualism in a self-conscious manner, reflecting on its position in larger inter-cultural systems of circulation. Walkowitz links this form of multiplicity to the born-translated novel’s capacity to comment on its own linguistic mobility, which is fundamentally rooted in a resistance to the idea that there is a fixed audience or a fixed origin. Responding to binary-laden translation theories, she argues that some of these texts locate translation at the origin as opposed to the “afterlife” of the text. With Born Translated, Walkowitz ultimately seems to provide a map that accounts for the changing relationship to language, culture, and nation that contemporary novels display.
What I understand as a possibility for “form” in Benjamin’s sense aligns, then, with Walkowitz’s theory in that they both argue for translation as an integral part, as opposed to a secondary and derivative product, of the literary text: the work is already participating in a field of translation where the movement between languages is registered in both explicit and implicit ways. “Translation,” therefore, becomes a renewed thick concept, a field of inquiry, and a network of intersecting writing techniques that I choose to call performative. This term is apt for describing this theoretical aperture for translation because it highlights two functions of language and literary writing: first, the difference and distance between language and meaning that translation must constantly face—which resonates with the “foreignness of language” (257) Benjamin describes—and second, the linguistic, self-reflexive, and mobile capacities of writing. These capacities are displayed in how, by incorporating translation as a theme or a structure, a text suggests that translating can not only be located at the origin of writing, but also be conceived of as an ongoing process—within the text’s unfolding argument or narrative, or through subsequent translations.
In the vein of the above revisionary thinking, I am proposing the concept of “performative translation” as a device for reading Luiselli’s works. The term describes a mode of writing constituting a system of interlocking techniques that, among other functions, allows fiction to reflect on its linguistic and cultural position in systems of circulation and publication. While Walkowitz travels through a number of characteristics that describe the contemporary novel’s global desires as a function of their engagement with translation in form and content, her discussion of translation as an internally configuring force remains committed to a larger model of World Literature. In my version of “performative translation,” indebted to her thinking, I take from Walkowitz the idea of translation as a part of a complex writing practice that uses translation as theme or structure, but that also provides a vocabulary and apparatus for close reading.
Multiplicity in La historia de mis dientes and The Story of My Teeth
In the Born Translated model, multiplicity is key to how Walkowitz conceptualizes a link between translation as form and its implications for the circulation of contemporary Anglophone global novels as world literature. Her model, as previously noted, is concerned with the position that translation has in the field of World Literature.[iii] For Walkowitz, multiplicity is at the core of how a text operates through translation, as it indicates that translation is part of the writing to begin with. Multiplicity operates on several levels, including language, origin, and audience: it is through these aspects that texts are able to comment, for example, on notions of fixed source or target texts.
My analysis of La historia de mis dientes engages with multiplicity as a technique and concept particularly as it concerns collaboration in terms of authorship, origin, and geography. I will specifically examine collaboration in the Spanish text as an important component of the writing and translation process. In examining the English version, I will consider the text’s non-fixity, generated by its departure from the “original” text through the employment of a playful translation approach. In discussing the centrality of the translator in the English version of Luiselli’s novel, the notion of authorship will be especially relevant. Shaped by multiple voices and traditions and engaging translation as a creative space, the writing of La historia de mis dientes (2013) and its translation into The Story of My Teeth (2015) seem characterized by a kind of authorial itinerancy. This itinerancy brings us back to how the novel’s multiplicity is largely shaped by its collaborative frame: itinerancy suggests that there are various layers of movement that the novel undergoes, both in its original writing process as well as in its subsequent translation.
In the English version’s afterword, Luiselli discusses the process of writing and translating the novel, claiming that “This book is the result of several collaborations” (191). The book was written as a commission for a contemporary art exhibition sponsored by the Jumex Collection, a highly prestigious worldwide initiative funded by a Mexican juice factory called Grupo Jumex. Interested in the gap between “two worlds: gallery and factory, artists and workers, artwork and juice,” (191) Luiselli approached the task of writing about the art installations from an unusual angle. She drew inspiration from two literary practices: the first being the mid-nineteenth-century Cuban “tobacco readers,” a term referring to the tradition in Cuban tobacco factories of having someone read aloud—texts ranging from fiction to history—to tobacco factory workers as a way of alleviating the boredom of rolling tobacco. The second tradition was the serialized fiction produced in England and France in the early days of printing. The mission of Luiselli’s project was to treat the exhibition as an object aligned with these practices, and she decided to write a form of serialized novel which included works from the exhibition, in collaboration with the Grupo Jumex factory workers. After writing a text based on one of the art pieces of the exhibition—she called each of these texts “installations,” which later became the novel’s chapters—she would send it to the factory workers, modeling a serialized mode of writing and reading. Moreover, similar to the tobacco readers, the Jumex factory workers would read the texts out loud and comment on them, discussing informally amongst themselves. Each one of these sessions was recorded and sent on to Luiselli. This material was then built into the writing, through revision of the drafts she had already sent and in writing the following ones.
By informing her reader of the novel’s collaborative inception, the afterword provides a creative frame for the novel and opens up a way in which to understand the novel as multiple in origin, geography, and authorship. As showcased above, this section discusses the multiple voices, mediums, literary traditions, geographies, spaces, and authorial stances involved in the writing—the latter referring not only to Luiselli’s practice but also to her translator’s, as she was from the outset involved in writing the English version. Furthermore, the multiplicity of origin here refers to geography as well as source. Geographically, the text was written while it was quite literally travelling between different geographic, social, and intellectual spaces—e.g. from the industrial neighborhood in the outskirts of Mexico City to New York City where Luiselli lives, from Juice Factory to the study in Harlem where Luiselli writes. The characters and thoughts of the juice factory workers are incorporated into the writing and voicing of the novel: they shape the tone and provide models for Luiselli’s protagonists. The afterword asserts the novel’s multiple sources: from the artwork on which Luiselli’s text installations are based, to the “reading and publishing practices” (192) inspiring the creative and formal composition of the project, to the thoughts and voices of the factory workers informing the trajectory and texture of the “final” piece.
La historia de mis dientes, however, resists the notion of a fixed final text, which further reinforces the idea of having multiple versions of a text as opposed to contained originals and translations. The primary rationale for this resistance is that La historia de mis dientes changed significantly when translated into The Story of My Teeth. These changes occur on several levels: on a structural level, Teeth rearranges the sequence of chapters and modifies their titles; on the level of content, there are changes in names and references, especially those that would appear unfamiliar to the foreign reader (i.e. non-Mexican, or not familiar with Mexican political and literary history as well as popular culture). Finally, at the level of language, the sentence structure and vocabulary are altered to accommodate the conventions of narration in the receiving language. These transformations underline Luiselli’s claim that La historia de mis dientes and The Story of My Teeth are versions of the same text as opposed to an original and a translation. This relationship articulates a creative continuum as opposed to a hierarchy linking the texts. Interestingly, Luiselli continues to support this dissolution of a hierarchy in translation when she claims, during her talk about Teeth at the 2015 Library of Congress National Book Festival, to like the English version more than the Spanish. It can be argued that it is precisely the English text’s obvious engagement with and celebration of translation that justifies this predilection.
There are opposing effects, however, connected to this subversive act. As has been noted above, “versions” implies an equal relationship between the Spanish and English text; the term indicates strategic nomenclature in that Luiselli rejects conventional vocabulary to designate her books, and signals to her readers an erasure of the implied hierarchy between “original” and “translation”—one that often positions the former above the latter. The transformative choices, however, might also have a negative effect—that is, contradictory to the text’s claimed ideal of multiple origins and collaborative process—as they might make the bilingual reader skeptical of the rightness of the novel’s inventive proposition. This kind of ambivalence involves a concern not for the original text but, rather, for the collaborative context of the writing. The alterations, which might be called a “domestication” of the novel by some translation scholars, provide the bilingual reader with a provocative groundwork to examine Luiselli’s creative translation process. The bilingual reader might ask herself what implications these changes, and Luiselli’s concluding translation “statement” justifying them, have on the text’s reception. Given the English version’s significant movement away from the Spanish version and, further, from the factory workers as a creative source for the novel’s voices, it is possible that the novel in translation is signaling the need for the reader to think about the proximity of a translated text to the original context of the writing, as opposed to the original text.
A different, yet exemplary, feature of the novel’s reshaping in translation, and of the text’s resistance to a final text, involves, again, the idea of authorship. This feature is further linked to the novel’s thematic critique of fixed reading and writing practices—particularly those involving translated texts. The Story of My Teeth’s final chapter is authored entirely by MacSweeney, the translator. The chapter, entitled “The Chronologic,” consists of a map of events connected to historical counterparts of the figures and places referenced in the novel. By including this final chapter in the English version, Luiselli allows for the foregrounding of MacSweeney’s visibility as the translator, giving MacSweeney authority and subverting the popular perception of the translator as secondary to the text—for often she is merely footnoted and thus absent from the reading experience.
In light of these choices and the effects they have in framing the novel’s reception in translation, it seems necessary, when talking about this work, to account for both Spanish and English versions as though they compose a single reverberating work. Although a more detailed comparative analysis of the versions of the novel, with a focus on reception, will be the concern of the last section of this study, this brief discussion has provided a sense of Luiselli’s playfulness with translation, as well as of some of the implications these changes have in redefining fundamental assumptions the reader might have as she reads, particularly in translation.
This consideration of Luiselli’s second novel has emphasized her revisionary approach to conventional understandings of translation. Her innovative stance on translation, both in the writing process and in Teeth’s performance of authorship (as collaboration), is significant within the theoretical tradition of which Benjamin and Walkowitz are a part: this stance aims to redefine the horizon of translation as both a critical and a creative mode. By foregrounding the translator’s key role in creating this new version of the novel, Luiselli maneuvers a performance of authorship, implicating both her and MacSweeney in a celebration of the translator’s visibility. Furthermore, this collaborative strategy between author and translator resists categories of writing and reading: by emphasizing the task of the translator and destabilizing the binary of translator and author—as MacSweeney becomes author of her own chapter and Luiselli participates in the translation of her novel—Luiselli operates according to a more fluid notion of translation as a practice. The collaborative process of the writing of La historia de mis dientes, moreover, supports the idea that translation is already present at the origin as opposed to the “aftermath” of the text, because the novel, much like Walkowitz’s born-translated works, attempts to “place translation at the source of literary history” (122). It does so by revealing the unfixed origin of the text, rooted in various voices and created in the midst of circulation. La historia de mis dientes, then, was in a sense already undergoing translation—moving between different geographic and linguistic spaces—as it was being written.
Through her disruption of fixed notions of authorship, origin, and the relationship between them, as well as of the status of an “original” and “translated” text, Luiselli emphasizes the capaciousness of translation as a form, that is, as a literary field: translation becomes a more capacious, creative space where writing is produced and later read. This creative space is better illuminated by the internal design of Luiselli’s earliest texts, Papeles falsos and Los ingrávidos, to which the next section turns. While in the case of Dientes and Teeth, performative translation is obliquely involved through the idea of multiplicity, in the case of these earlier works, performative translation is best explored in the “original” versions themselves. Luiselli’s non-fiction, which is the next section’s concern, fleshes out central categories of interlingual, intralingual, and explicatory translation and the creative field enabled by each, also situating them within the larger concept of multiplicity.
Luiselli’s Non-Fiction: Mapping a Translation Project
In her first book, a collection of essays entitled Papeles falsos (2010), Luiselli enacts the concept of performative translation in an essay specifically about translation. Focusing on specific passages of this essay will first demonstrate how translation is made the subject of the writing. Second, this analysis will illustrate how the text’s engagement with the concept opens up the task of translating for the reader to witness and participate in. Third, these passages will demonstrate how the text interrogates the foreignness of language produced by translation not only between, but also within, languages.
Papeles falsos literally means “fake papers,” and has the connotation of “fake documents”[iv] in Spanish. The collection of essays was translated by Christina MacSweeney into English as Sidewalks (2013). In the collection’s fourth essay, entitled “Dos calles y una banqueta” (Two Streets and a Bench), Luiselli thinks about the problem of “untranslatables” by using as primary example the Portuguese word saudade. Luiselli situates the word’s untranslatability insofar as it does not have a direct equivalent in other languages. After establishing the word’s perceived uniqueness, she briefly comments on the political effect of its inaccessibility for foreign readers. “Todo parece indicar,” she claims, “que si no eres lusófono, no tienes derecho a la saudade” (Luiselli 427).[v] By exposing the assumptions surrounding untranslatable terms as markers of difference effecting linguistic exclusivity, she then suggests a solution: “¿por qué no robarse la palabra?”—why not steal the word? This proposition reflects her understanding of untranslatability as a productive rather than constraining moment. Moreover, Luiselli’s reflection on saudade and the approach to untranslatability it mobilizes are not without relevance to existing scholarly debates on translation.
Her proposition is particularly relevant to Emily Apter’s treatment of the “untranslatable” in her recent work, Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (2013). Here, Apter argues for the untranslatable as a generative process, as suggested by her description of it as a “linguistic form of creative failure with homeopathic uses” (20). What brings together Apter’s notion and Luiselli’s approach is that both resist dominant approaches to world literature that bypass the function of translation and neglect the productive outcome that untranslatable terms, such as saudade, may have. However, Luiselli’s ideas diverge from Apter’s approach in important ways. Where Apter advocates for reading in original languages as the only way to expand the horizons of the texts included in World Literature studies, Luiselli seems to defend the foreign reader by proposing that this reader has an imaginative advantage: “Cuando nuestra comprensión de un idioma es parcial, la imaginación rellena el sentido de una palabra, de una frase o de un párrafo” (Luiselli 438).[vi] The foreign reader’s advantage, a creative interpretive space, resonates with Apter’s concept of a “linguistic form of creative failure,” and yet Luiselli demonstrates that this generative process might exist especially when reading in translation.
In a multilingual passage, Luiselli subverts the assumption of a uniform readership which translation supposedly always accommodates:
La saudade no es homesickness ni es heimweh. El kaihomielisyys finlandés, aunque recuerde a home y a miel, expresa sólo su dimensión más invernal. El söknudur islandés es seco; el tesknota polaco apenas la toca; al lack inglés le falta algo; el stesk checo se encoje; y en el ihaldus estonio la <> es helada. La morriña rueda hacia ella como una piedra de trayectoria asintótica. Los brazos largos del longing no la alcanzan. En Sehnsucht se demora demasiado una <>. La saudade no es nostalgia y no es melancolía: quizá la saudade tampoco sea saudade.[vii] (Luiselli 439)
Starting and ending with the Portuguese word, saudade, Luiselli unpacks the potential meaning of equivalent and similarly untranslatable words in other languages that are present in saudade’s semantic field (that is, related to some of the possible referents the word conjures—such as home, lacking, or longing). Their meaning is pursued using a combination of their sound in Spanish or their meaning in the original. While this method can be understood as homophony as opposed to translation, the interlingual movement Luiselli enacts is best understood as translation because she engages meaning as well as sound in her experiment: the conceit of the passage is the pursuit of saudade’s meaning or lack thereof.
Another reason why the passage engages translation above homophony is that it operates on the meaning of saudade to create the irony of the text’s frame as an experiment in translation. The word saudade roughly describes a sense of nostalgia or longing for that which one never possessed; this definition can broadly reflect translation as an ongoing endeavor for meaning that, nested in a foreign language, was never possessed by the receiving one. Translation functions as a critical frame for the excerpt, set up by the various languages in the text and Luiselli’s presumed mission to write towards saudade—or its condition as an untranslatable—through multiple languages. Thus, homophony can be understood to serve the text’s intent to parody the process of translation, and more precisely, the idea of the “untranslatable.”
However ironic this engagement with the “untranslatable,” the concept remains important to Luiselli’s arguments about translation in this passage: the first idea is that translation and untranslatability occur between and within languages, and the second idea is that untranslatability, or the idea of it, can yield creative interpretive opportunities for the foreign reader. A close reading of her homophonous translations demonstrates this critical approach. Luiselli writes that “al lack inglés le falta algo” and so is “el kaihomielisyys finlandés, aunque recuerde a home y a miel.” These two attempts at translation reveal untranslatability as a central obstacle. Moreover, untranslatability, in this example, takes place not only between two languages, but also within a single one. The last two words in the second example, home and honey, seem to emerge primarily from the associations of sound in English and Spanish, therefore establishing an interlingual translation. In the first example, however, Luiselli translates around the word “lack” by drawing on its meaning within the same language, English. In this case, she uses a synonym to say that lack “misses” (“le falta”) something, thus establishing intralingual translation. In this way, she suggests that translation is what Benjamin describes as “only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages” (Benjamin 257). Here, Benjamin understands translation as an endeavor to reconcile the distance between different languages; their foreignness is something translators must continuously confront. This experience is dramatized in Luiselli’s passage, yet she takes the idea one step further by suggesting that a translator’s work involves having to face the distance produced within a single language, between several possible meanings and words.
In pursuing performative translation, Luiselli brings attention to interlingual as well as intralingual estrangement. In coming back to saudade at the end of her text, for example, Luiselli proposes that even within Portuguese, the language of its origin, the term is not an equivalent for itself: “Saudade is neither nostalgia nor melancholia: maybe saudade is not saudade either.” By using the untranslatable through other languages, Luiselli estranges the word from its own linguistic category. This effect is demonstrative of performative translation in that it foregrounds both the distance between language and meaning and the mobility of languages within a multilingual text.
Not only does Luiselli enshrine the fundamental rift between language and meaning, but she also reinforces the relevance of the rift to the task of translating. Because she dramatizes translation as an impossible meaning-making system, Luiselli’s depiction of the process foregrounds how translation is a performative act to begin with. Her enactment of translation allows readers to witness how this linguistic estrangement happens. Yet, this estrangement does not lead to the exclusion of readers or to the privileging of a certain type of reader: it is paradoxically a gesture towards inclusion. The multiplicity of languages on the page that highlights intralingual estrangement rejects the possibility of an ideal local reader: no reader, even one reading in the Spanish “original,” is exempt from facing the foreignness of language.
On another level, this foreignness operates in and demonstrates the text’s multiplicity, as a concept conducive to a more fluid understanding of interlingual literary enterprises. By including various languages on the page, Luiselli again rejects the possibility of an ideal local reader because the single linguistic origin of the text in Spanish has been displaced. In Walkowitz’s model, one of the ways in which translation is placed at the source of writing is indicated by how the novel registers its own multilingualism (Walkowitz 64). For Walkowitz, one of the effects of this linguistic multiplicity is the disruption of Benedict Anderson’s concept of an imagined community—referring to the role of print culture in the reading experience, making it important to the formation of national consciousness. Anderson roots his argument in the idea that, with the distribution of texts at a national level, an audience that shares a language and culture is able to imagine, while reading, a larger, potentially national, community that is simultaneously reading the same text and is, thus, included in a literary tradition. Walkowitz, however, notes how some writers solicit an “alternative model by emphasizing multiple contexts—and multiple scales—of aesthetic production” (Walkowitz 61). These models move away from Anderson’s model of novels as containers for national configurations.
Walkowitz highlights the need for reorienting readings of a novel’s origin—from singular to multiple. In Luiselli’s case, multiple linguistic origins displace notions of fixed beginnings and monolingual readerships. In the passage examined in this section, the assumption that a native reader will produce an imagined audience unified by a shared language or nation no longer holds. When faced with multiplicity, most readers are forced to confront the foreignness of language. This performance of multiplicity marks a born-translated moment, in which Luiselli, by registering multiple linguistic origins to the writing, resists the construction of an original readership that is tied to one language.
On Weightless Translators and Modernists: Scenes of Performative Translation in Luiselli’s Earliest Fiction
An early scene in Luiselli’s debut novel, Los ingrávidos (literally, “The Weightless”), provides a performance of translation different from the one found in Papeles falsos, which primarily stresses multiplicity:
La bebé duerme. El niño mediano, mi marido y yo nos sentamos en las escaleras, frente a la puerta de la casa. El niño mediano pregunta:
Papá, ¿qué es una avispa?
Es una abeja peligrosa.
¿Y una ballena asesina?
¡Una ahorca! ¿Y en inglés cómo se dice, papá?
Se dice: Moby Dick.[viii] (Luiselli 28-29)
What animates translation in this dialogue is a child’s—the first narrator’s son’s—curiosity for language at an age when he is still mastering his mother tongue, Spanish. The scene is performative for reasons similar to those demonstrated in the saudade reflection discussed earlier (inter- and intralingual playfulness); yet, this example yields different effects in the novel’s internal system and is unique as an event of translation more generally. The dialogue between father and son operates according to various layers of translation, of which intertextuality—the reference to Moby Dick—is a part. Luiselli eases the reader into the quietude of everyday life in a Mexico City household, a place where “the baby sleeps. The middle boy, my husband and I sit on the stairs, facing the front door of the house.” On one level, this description reveals the novel’s treatment of childhood to be one of its driving thematic currents. On another level, through intertextuality, the passage shifts the center of interest and allows the novel here to oscillate between references to literary and non-literary manifestations. The female narrator registers her child’s curiosity—he comes into language through new words and interlingual bridges. His father’s response introduces a world of literary figures that capture, perhaps better than any definition, the sense of the son’s question.
From a linguistic perspective, the language game resulting from the boy’s curiosity contains three types of translations. To return to Jakobson’s linguistic considerations, all three forms—interlingual, intralingual, and intersemiotic translation—are present in this exchange. The first category is situated in the boy’s final question: how to say “ballena asesina” (killer whale) in English. He asks, “[and] in English how is it said, Dad?” To which the father responds, displaying a literary register from which the child is excluded, “You say: Moby Dick.” The intertext turns the boy’s interlingual impulse into an intersemiotic leap, given that the father not only translates “killer whale” from Spanish into English, but also from what seems a colloquial register to a literary one.
In the passage’s overall display of the boy’s language acquisition, there is one more translational leap. Mastering the Spanish language in this example involves, first, a grasp of meaning, a task illustrated in the boy’s inquiry around words like “avispa” (wasp). His curiosity sets up the humor and registers the text’s concern with translation’s function in both literary and non-literary events. The colloquial becomes literary through reference as well as wordplay, an intersection seen in how the dialogue’s intralingual movement operates through untranslatable punning: “una orca” (whale) becomes “una ahorca” (a strangle). Both the father and the boy offer intralingual translations strung together by the sound and meaning of the words in Spanish. The dialogue’s display of literariness and intimacy is exemplary of Luiselli’s attention to the multiple translation spaces that are possible in writing—a feature not only characteristic of this first novel, but also applicable to the various expressions of translation in her other works.
Los ingrávidos, moreover, opens up narrative creases in which two lives echo one another. It not only brings us into a world where multiple voices, spaces, temporalities, and affinities sustain two parallel lives, but it also self-consciously concerns itself with the notion of what might be “una novela compacta, porosa” (37). That is, a novel with tight features that is, paradoxically, also “porous,” or less fixed in its configuration and interpretation. In its structural as well as thematic concerns, Los ingrávidos is, then, largely about translation, as a technique and as a concept of writing. The novel reconstructs the lives of two people whose stories run parallel to one another and are organized in short interlaced sections, each of which is narrated in the first person by one of three narrators.
A young mother living in Mexico City, whose name is never given and who rarely leaves her house, is attempting to write a book about a dead Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen. She, the first narrator, provides a frame story that nests three narrative spaces. The first space is her own life within her household in Mexico City as she struggles through her marriage and through motherhood. The second space is occupied by another, younger, version of the first narrator—what is presumably her life when she lived in New York City and worked as a translator. This is the space of the second narrator. The third space is the life of Gilberto Owen as a young poet living in New York and later in Philadelphia, narrated by Owen himself.
The female narrator begins the project of writing a book, while in her twenties, about the early twentieth-century (real-life) poet Gilberto Owen, when she was living and working in New York City as an editor and a translator in an obscure publishing house interested in bringing foreign language texts to a US audience. The novel opens with a memory of this other life, in “otra ciudad,” where she “era joven, tenía las piernas fuertes y flacas” (11).[ix] The second female narrator, this younger version of the first, lives an itinerant life within New York City itself, moving between houses and intellectual pockets, driven by her research of the life of Owen and her translation of his work. She seeks relentlessly to convince her boss at the editorial house to publish her translations of the poet’s work, succeeding only when she presents a forged manuscript of these translations falsely authored by a Modernist poet of Owen’s time period for whom her editor had a liking. The third narrator, Owen, alternates his narration between life in New York City and Philadelphia, providing a glimpse into different aspects of his literary and personal trajectory during these years: from collaborative translation projects of other poets in New York and letters he wrote to other Mexican Modernist poets, to his ailing health as he grew blind and detached from his ex-wife and children.
As suggested by the above description, the third narrator, Owen, is the female narrator’s literary project. She researches his life in New York City in the 1920s—a time and place historically significant for the rise of Modernism in metropolitan centers. Like the young narrator investigating his life, Luiselli also worked from archival material, some of which were texts produced by Owen himself during this period—e.g. letters to other Mexican poets, poem collections, and photographs. Luiselli and both versions of the story’s female narrator pursue this research in order to give life to Owen’s narrative voice. This creative reconstruction of the poet’s life is mostly comprised of his exchanges with other Modernist poets from different national and literary backgrounds, such as the Spanish poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca, or the American objectivist poet, Louis Zukofsky.[x]
This interaction of voices raises the question of the novel’s metafictionality: we come into Gilberto Owen’s first-person narration only after being acquainted with the young woman’s extensive research on him. The first narrator, in remembering her early research on Owen, sets out to write a book about him. As the novel introduces Owen’s perspective through the third narrator, it is strongly suggested that the book she is attempting to write is the book we have in our hands: the narrative strands bleed into one another in a way that reflects the text’s concern with the relationship between fiction and reality. A transitional point midway through the novel, when the entry of Owen’s narrative perspective is imminent, demonstrates this meta-structural device:
Todo es ficción, le digo a mi marido, pero no me cree.
¿No estabas escribiendo una novela sobre Owen?
Sí, le digo, es un libro sobre el fantasma de Gilberto Owen.[xi] (Luiselli 63)
This brief scene provides a glimpse into the multiple textual layers structuring the novel: layers that enable personal history (signaled by the female narrator’s constrained domestic world), biography (her past research on Owen), and literary history (international Modernist exchanges) to interact. These multiple textual currents resonate with what Walkowitz calls the “world-shaped novel” as a geographically and formally itinerant text that she further describes as “multistranded” (121).
This concept of the multistranded text, which can be understood as part of the larger concept of multiplicity, applies to Los ingrávidos, which is obviously “[aware] of translation,” because it “[emphasizes] global circulation” (Walkowitz 126). Both aspects are delineated in both Owen and the first narrator’s movement in a literary circuit composed of two metropolitan centers—Mexico City and New York City. In its geographic configuration, the novel, thus, sets up a movement across borders, emphasizing “regional rather than national spaces” (Walkowitz 126). This choice, relevant to Luiselli’s revisionary project, links the novel to literary history: for it traces a narrative geography composed of the two cities between which historically significant exchanges within the Modernist movement took place in the 1920s and 1930s.[xii] Luiselli’s construction of Owen as a literary figure through archival research and references does not remain a paratext but is, rather, built into the novel. Multiplicity of space is thus embedded in the novel’s internal geography, where the movement between two cities defies any fixed origin or audience. This configuration resonates with what was discussed about the previous passage from Papeles falsos, where registering languages becomes a marker of unfixed origin.
The examples discussed above showcase some of the novel’s forms of multiplicity. These forms link back to the notion of performative translation in that the strategies employed open up the task of translation to various literary and social settings and, in doing so, foreground translation as a theme. In the analysis of the saudade excerpt in Luiselli’s essay, thematization was shown to be an important component of performative translation—an element that continues to be true for performative translation’s manifestation in the novel. In Papeles falsos, performative translation takes on an explicit and explicatory mode: explicit, because Luiselli displays a multilingual attempt to translate saudade, where homophony and humor prevail; and explicatory, because this explicit delivery of playful translation precedes and contributes to an extended discussion of the practice. The explicit employment of translation is most relevant to the father-son scene from Los ingrávidos, as this early scene in the novel of a father-son translation experiment begins to thematize the practice of translation within the text as a whole.
This thematization allows for translation to be critically, and playfully, engaged: Luiselli investigates and partly satirizes translation through a child’s voice, or through the concept’s inclusion in the narrative as being central to the biography of a Mexican avant-garde poet. The novel engages with and demonstrates translation in multiple forms—i.e. in dialogue, intertext, and as a literary project of the narrators. These examples of performative translation highlight multiplicity as one of its primary components, by bringing the reader’s attention to the relationship between language and meaning, origin and audience, to the task of translating, and to the configuration of the work itself as a piece of fiction.
A Liminal Space: Performative Translation as Structure and Metafiction
I have suggested above that performative translation operates at a thematic level: it enables a reflection on the distance between language and meaning (primarily in the case of Luiselli’s saudade exploration) and emphasizes the task of translating as always actively participatory. The participatory aspect will be expanded on in the following pages, as it is relevant not only to the novel’s thematic configuration, but also to its structure. To observe how this works, it will be instructive to analyze closely a specific scene, which will serve as exemplary of the novel’s structure. This scene functions as a metaphor for the novel’s design in two ways: first, it reflects the novel’s narrative model, which I have described and will be describing as a folded or creased narrative;[xiii] and second, the scene also contributes to the novel’s potential argument about translation as a comprehensive creative medium.
The scene in question is, in reality, composed of two scenes in different parts of the novel: the same event is narrated twice—once by the second narrator and once by Owen. This event involves the ambiguous apparition of the narrators in the New York subway. These apparitions are weightless, or ingrávidas, in the sense that readers cannot trust their materiality: the young woman narrates having seen Gilberto Owen sleeping in the train car opposite, and Owen later narrates having seen the young woman reading a book in the corresponding position. This example makes palpable how the novel’s three narrative currents, or voices, gradually come closer to one another without ever fully meeting, and, also how this approximation more specifically points to the emergence of a liminal space. This liminal space can be defined as the narrative crevice formed by the folded model, where the stories or voices of Owen and the female narrator resemble and pursue one another.
While the proximity of the voices pulses throughout the novel, the scene towards the end of the novel reveals that Owen and both versions of the female narrator effectively operate in a liminal narrative space. Owen claims that, “no sólo había visto a Ezra Pound,” but that he had also seen “una mujer de cara morena, y ojeras hondas que vi en repetidas ocasiones,”[xiv] a figure more ambiguous than the US-American Modernist poet, whose work inspires the novel’s title in the English translation, Faces in the Crowd (2014). The “woman with a brown face, and deep bags under her eyes” that he saw on the train traveling parallel to his seems to be, in fact, the second narrator—the young editor struggling to publish her translations of Owen’s work. Two things suggest this: the apparition that Owen witnesses matches the physical description of the young female narrator provided earlier in the novel, and the inverse of this sighting has already taken place from the woman’s perspective. Earlier in the text, she also sees Owen in the subway car of the train running parallel to hers. Creating a liminal narrative space, not only does the scene suggest a mirror-like encounter between the characters, but it also provides an image resembling two narratives trying to meet in a novel.
This parallel movement, almost suggesting an encounter, emphasizes the narrative closeness of the characters, developed throughout the book as the reader learns about the young translator’s attempt to translate, publish, and later write a book about the Mexican poet. By highlighting the narrative proximity between these voices, and the impossibility of them ever fully meeting, this configuration suggests there is a liminal space where both characters coexist narratively—given that they both provide an account of the same event, where physical space is coextensive despite their disparate time frames. Moreover, within this liminal space, their stories, which had been previously relevant to one another only as the female narrator’s literary project, now stand in an uncertain, perhaps mimetic relation to one another.
We might use this relation to explore how the scene can function as a metaphor for the novel’s structure. A primary component of the scene’s metaphorical capacity is the idea of symmetry. By having two events narrated from two different figures, the novel already proposes a relationship between them, thematic and structural. The frame story for each narration implicates both narrators as possible authorial and biographical sources of the writing in our hands. The young woman reconstructs a part of Owen’s life while Owen, as we learn toward the end of the novel—also the end of the poet’s life—attempts to write the young mother’s story. While, as the reader learns from the first pages of the novel, the first narrator is attempting to write a “book about the ghost of Gilberto Owen,” the Modernist poet attempts to write a novel about the female narrator. This novel, as Owen describes, is narrated in the first person by “a woman with a brown face and deep bags under her eyes that maybe has already died” (114). The subway apparitions, then, materialize the biographical process linking the narrators to each other by providing a space where the narratives immediately converge outside of the realm of the narrators’ imagined versions. The metafiction links the symmetry to the novel’s structure, as it creates a sense of there being two possible books being written within the work—the story of the young, tired woman on the train and the story of Owen’s ghost.
These stories echo one another, much like Owen’s description of the spectral people he sees in the subway: they were “ecos de personas que tal vez habían vivido en la ciudad de arriba y ahora sólo transitaban por sus entrañas” (92).[xv] Owen sees people as echoes, as distilled and ghostly versions of who they were in a different life. Both he and the young woman experience each other as echoes, as weightless apparitions reconstructed through research, translation, and narration. Furthermore, given the symmetry of the events, their writing projects also suggest that the narrative voices themselves echo one another, possibly standing, as previously noted, in mimetic relation to each other. The narrators are quite explicitly writing one another’s stories, so that it is unclear, as previously mentioned, what book we are reading: the one written by the first narrator writing from Mexico City, about Gilberto Owen, or the one written by Owen, writing from Philadelphia towards the end of his life about a young woman resembling an apparition in the metro.
The echoes Owen mentions and the parallel trains experienced by both him and the young woman serve as metaphors for the general narrative structure, in that such images suggest a parallelism and approximation between the narrators that is also true of the narratives themselves throughout the novel. In addition, what is true of both these images, as well as of the larger pattern, is the suggestion, as in translation, of a relationship of affinity, approximation and, to an extent, reflection. What this meta-structural configuration achieves is the folded narrative: a symmetric narrative structure where the narratives are sequenced, shaped, and thematized in relation to one another. While Owen’s first person point of view does not appear until halfway through the novel, the narration continues, from there, to move between the three voices, organized in short sections, in a seemingly balanced manner.
Thematization and Performative Translation
Translation is thematically linked to Los ingrávidos’s narratological system of folding in more visible ways. First, it is through her work as a translator that the young woman encounters Owen’s writing and decides to translate him and later write a book about him. This conceit of fiction is supported by the conceit of translation, which is often bolstered by the verisimilitude provided by translation scenes such as Owen and Lorca’s attempt to translate Louis Zukofsky’s poetry from English to Spanish. The translation project of the young woman, however, is the site where Owen’s voice emerges. While translations of Owen’s poetry are not shown to the reader in the text as explicit translation, the second narrator does convey the centrality of translation in the process of, first, discovering Owen as a remarkable literary figure, and second, reconstructing Owen through a combination of biographical research, immersion in his work, and her imagination of this poet’s life and writing. The apparent centrality of translation as part of the female narrator’s literary project of recreating the Mexican poet is supported by the instances of explicit performative translation Owen delivers.
The second aspect of translation as theme important to the novel’s structure involves the multiple performances of literary translation featuring in scenes where two or more characters discuss and attempt to translate a text with which the reader might be familiar (i.e. poems written by contemporary Modernist intellectuals, most of whom were also sojourning in New York). Such moments constitute implicit and explicit interlingual modes of performative translation, because the characters, on the one hand, imply translated narration and, on the other, disclose the process of translating on the page for the reader to witness.
These performances of translation throughout the novel occupy fully, although often satirically, linguistic and literary spaces. While the example of the boy’s questions to his father illustrates how these spaces might operate simultaneously, the translations concerned here differ in that they involve a more conventional expression of the practice. Both narrators are translating literary texts—from English to Spanish, in the case of Owen, and from Spanish to English, in the case of the young woman. An element strengthening the sense that there is a parallel, mirror-like relationship between the narrators is this shared engagement with literary translation. The young woman is interested in publishing what would be the first translations of Gilberto Owen in English, while Owen attempts to translate other Anglophone poets into Spanish. This affinity for the practice of translation sets up a conceptual link between the narrators.
The third component of translation as theme worth highlighting involves more of an effect than a constitutive strategy: striving for a performative capacity, thematization through the demonstration and discussion of translation on the page emphasizes an awareness of the practice not only in writing fiction, as previously discussed, but also in reading it. Thematization is key to performative translation in Los ingrávidos precisely because it asks the reader to consider the significance of translation—as concept and as practice in constant use—throughout the book. In addition, by becoming aware of translation as a mediating practice linking these narrators, the reader might also become aware of the impossibility of them ever meeting. Perhaps, like translation itself, each narrator’s approximation, or iteration of the other, will only be just that: an echo but not an equivalent. This impossibility reiterates the presence of a liminal space emerging in translation, and these performative features seem to demonstrate the novel’s ability to signal and argue for it.
The narrators’ shared affinity for translating can be seen in the different moments of explicit translation in the text, which also highlight the differences in the narrators’ motivation to play interlingually. For the young mother (first narrator), translation manifests both in her children’s language acquisition and in her writing of a book about the ghost of Gilberto Owen. For the young woman (second narrator), translation is her living—more specifically, the translation of obscure foreign writers. For Owen (third narrator), translation constitutes a large part, if not all, of his interactions with other Modernist poets and artists. If one incorporates a distant reading and considers the literary history in which Owen is implicated, his practice seems also to emerge from the need to solidify a productive literary exchange between Anglophone and Hispanic, more specifically Mexican, Modernist poets. However, in the explicit performative translation in which Owen participates, the outcome is often a humorous mixture between colloquial Spanish and poor English translations, given his limited knowledge of the foreign language.
Throughout the novel, most of Owen’s translation work takes place during meetings with Federico García Lorca, as the poets try to translate portions of Louis Zukofsky’s long form poem “A,” from English to Spanish. Owen’s satirical and dramatized engagement with the practice throughout the novel in the form of explicit and implicit translation is a central strategy for showing how the novel engages with its larger literary context. This context is defined more precisely by Luiselli’s concern with the role of translation in building a connection between the literary histories implicating Mexico City and New York City as representative Modernist centers.
One of these scenes of explicit performative translation between the poets is particularly demonstrative of the intertwining of literary motivation with the satirical end product of their translation project. In the events leading up to the following scene, the poets translate a fragment of “A.” Their translation strategy consists of translating its lines immediately after Zukofsky recites them during their meetings, with Owen in charge of carrying over the meaning, and Lorca—the better performer of the two—in charge of preserving the rhyme and rhythm at the time of performance. One of the textual performances of this translation, registered for the reader and preceding the poets’ debut on the subway platform, turns literary translation on its head. In the meeting, Zukofsky prefaces the poem by telling them that “en el fragmento le interesaba poner a hablar a los objetos.” Owen translates this explanation to Federico as, “aquí van a hablar los objetos” (Luiselli 107).[xvi] The effect of this scene, as that of other performative translations in the novel, can be understood through the terms of Walkowitz’s analysis of the born-translated novel: the scene “[produces] the effect of translated writing” (124). By this, the theorist refers to the embedded assumption in the text that the dialogue or narration is happening in a foreign, “original” language and yet is being delivered in another, already translated, foreign one.
Aligned with this idea of an already-translated effect, the conceit of Los ingrávidos effectively lies in translation: part of the dialogue is presumably experienced originally in English, yet reported, and already translated, into Spanish.[xvii] Within the novel’s network of techniques, this conceit relies on implicit translation, another constitutive technique of the novel’s performative configuration introduced earlier in this study. The connection between this implicit translation and Walkowitz’s “effect of translated writing” is relevant in that, by aligning her technique with the born-translated model in their representation of translation on the page, Luiselli also aligns performative translation with the “born-translated” interest in commenting on mobile language contexts, where writing and circulation processes take place. This effect is significant for asserting Luiselli’s concern with, and degree of success in, commenting on a literary history of synchronous Modernist movements through the employment of performative techniques.
It is not only this implicit translation that bolsters the novel’s critical impulse, but it is also, and perhaps more evidently, in moments of explicit translation that a representational intervention into these literary figures and their associated movements emerges. The result of the explicit interlingual translation—Owen and Lorca’s playful attempt to translate Zukofsky—is not a favorable one. Due to the Hispanic poets’ poor English, the resulting translation of Zukofsky’s poem is a humorous string of lines carried over more by the words’ phonetic resonance to other familiar English and Spanish words than by their meaning. Similar to other instances of explicit interlingual translation provided in the novel, homophony parodies translation. Despite the seemingly serious motivation of Lorca and Owen’s project, the translation, similar to the child’s interlingual experiments, ends up as more literal and homophonic than poetically true. This apparent focus on sound as opposed to meaning as the goal of their translations characterizes most of Owen’s engagement.
An earlier scene, in which the poets listen to and translate an earlier portion of “A,” illustrates how humorous mistranslation might hinge on the untranslatable:
The poem will be called <>, nos explicaba el poeta, because a little boy, when he’s learning how to talk & enumerate the World, always says: <>, <>, & so forth and so on. Dice que su libro se va a llamar <>, le explicaba yo a Federico, que porque un niño chiquito siempre dice <>, <>, y algo así.[xviii] (Luiselli 90-91)
Important to this passage is the dramatized juxtaposition between the linguistic and the literary aesthetics of translation. The text’s multiplicity is found in both spheres, as it seems to implicate multiple languages—Spanish and English—and multiple literary traditions. Other linguistic considerations arise from the passage’s translation. The enterprise is suggested to be an impossible task, although for different reasons than the saudade excerpt. The syntactic structure is untranslatable for the poets undertaking the project, given that the title and primary linguistic concern of the poem, the English article “A” would have to be fully altered to “un” or “una” in seeking to carry over an “essential” meaning from English to Spanish. The poets, however, do not approach the task in this way. While Owen claims they are undertaking a “phonetic translation,” the slight irony in their conversations and in their performed, or explicit, translations suggests that their humorous mistranslations are less of an aesthetic choice and more a result of their limited English.
In respect to the literary angle, two components are worth mentioning. On a surface level, the translation is literary because its subject is a literary text, in fact a poem that some readers might be familiar with. On another level, the linguistic and literary backgrounds represented in this exchange suggest an interaction between multiple traditions. Performative translation, in this explicit interlingual iteration—where the characters track, deliver, and hyperbolize their practice through a culminating performance in the subway—functions as a bridge to a larger literary context, where humor forms part of the commentary being made about the role of translation in connected histories.
The poets’ translation enterprise, imagined by Luiselli in the novel, inscribes the kind of exchanges that took place between poets from different contexts during the Modernist wave. Both of the novel’s narrators long for translation—to translate as well as to be translated. The female narrator is only able to convince her editor of publishing a translation of Owen’s work when she forges a manuscript of translations supposedly authored by Louis Zukofsky, another dead Modernist poet whose name has more weight than hers and Owen’s. If we link these internal politics of translation—tied to relevance and recognition—to the novel’s treatment of and situation in literary history, it is possible to read in Los ingrávidos a commentary on the absence of Owen’s work in English translation.
Moreover, thematizing translation and providing a performative space within the text, performative translation highlights the intellectual network of which Owen was a part at the height of Modernism, because it is in the events of translation that these poets come together. These events also reflect the larger space of translation in literary history: Owen’s itinerancy and intellectual networking via translation may be read as an account of the Modernist exchanges between different literary traditions, specifically reflecting a literary circuit linking Mexican Modernismo and international Modernism. Luiselli’s biographical project relates to Walkowitz’s idea that “literatures, as we have known them, are already combined” (22). In this regard, the performance of translation in the novel is contextually significant, as it reconstructs a practice unaccounted for in the literary history of Mexican Modernismo and the larger Modernist movement.[xix]
In this analysis, I have attempted to show how performative translation operates in explicit, implicit, and explicatory manners in Luiselli’s earliest non-fiction, Papeles falsos, and in her fiction, Los ingrávidos. Both texts offer examples of performative translation as a capacious concept that describes a system of interlocking techniques of writing that broadly incorporates translation into its internal configuration, through theme and structure. An analysis of both texts has been useful in demonstrating more specifically the role of multiplicity, metafiction, and liminal space as prominent constitutive techniques of performative translation. These techniques are not mutually exclusive and may occur under any of the three primary modes of performative translation—explicit, implicit, and explicatory.
In Papeles falsos, a close reading of an excerpt dealing with an “untranslatable” Portuguese term, saudade, illustrates how multiplicity might function linguistically and thematically. Performative translation is defined, in this example, as a practice that makes translation the subject of the writing, that highlights the foreignness of language produced by translation (both between as well as within languages), and that also enacts the practice of translation for the reader to witness and take part in. This analysis has incorporated ideas from Rebecca Walkowitz’s “Born Translated” model for the contemporary global novel. Her analysis has been central for two primary endeavors. First, her model has aided in conceptualizing performative translation as a writing strategy in Luiselli’s work, particularly by providing a foundational definition of multiplicity that is pivotal for the concept’s use in this paper as a component of performative translation. Second, Walkowitz’s analysis places the writer within a larger map of literary production—an aspect that will be more relevant in the last chapter of this essay, which interrogates the reception of Luiselli’s work.
While the analysis of Los ingrávidos has helped to reiterate some of these performative functions, it has moved away from multiplicity and moved towards metafiction as a writing technique—which includes liminal space and meta-structure as constitutive elements. The novel engages larger units of multiplicity—the three first-person narratives—and explores their configuration in relation to the novel’s theme, structure, and, though less emphasized, context of production. In its different iterations, performative translation constitutes Los ingrávidos in various ways: in the suggestion of geographical and linguistic multiplicity, in the multi-stranded narrative structure of the work, and in the embedding of the practice in literary history concerning an intellectual circuit linking New York City with Mexico City. Scenes of performative translation manifest in different contexts and through the use of different strategies—explicit, implicit, and explicatory—throughout the novel. This practice is present in the way a young mother perceives the exchanges between the members of a fragile family; in the young woman’s affinity for, and translation of, Gilberto Owen; in the voice of Owen himself; as the medium through which poets engage with one another intellectually; and as a parody of actual literary translation—a gesture perhaps dramatizing the performative quality of all translation.
On Translations, “Versions,” and Critical Receptions: A Comparative Analysis of La historia de mis dientes and The Story of My Teeth
…translators play a really important role. They really are the bridges between cultures. So Christina I guess was a reader for Granta and she responded very enthusiastically to the book, and I guess translated an excerpt. And then they gave her the translation. And I’m very glad because she is a brilliant translator. She’s a genius. (“An Interview with Valeria Luiselli” 2015)
Perhaps the most compelling case for investigating how reception and translation are present in Luiselli’s work is the making of “versions” of La historia de mis dientes (2013) (or its translation into The Story of My Teeth ). The following section will expand on the analysis of Luiselli’s second novel by focusing on exemplary differences between the versions of the text, the different audiences it reached, and on the implications that these differences might have on the text’s varying reception. Book reviews suggest that the novel was poorly received in Mexico and other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, but very successful, on the other hand, in the United States.
Luiselli, as has been discussed in previous sections, performs translation on multiple levels in her writing—from thematic and structural strategies, to conceptual choices that put categories of authorship and translation work into question. From this perspective, one of the most interesting performances is her work as a collaborator in the translation of her own texts: the “versions,” as she calls her translations, as texts that comment on and reverberate with each other. She commented on this process during a 2015 interview with The Atlas Review, expanding on this alternative concept:
I would also say that my books are somehow rewritten in English because Christina translates them and translates them brilliantly and I give her a lot of creative space to not stick to certain metaphors that don’t work in English, and then she gives me a lot of space too. She lets me rewrite a lot on top of her translations and give my books another direction if I want to. And really, my books in English and in Spanish are versions of each other because when I make changes in English I often go back to Spanish and make more changes that I discovered in my English rendering of the text. So my second editions in Spanish are modified by my English translations.
Understanding her texts as such, then, the following section will look at differences in the Spanish and English versions of La Historia de mis dientes and The Story of My Teeth. These selected differences are exemplary of the transformative process undergone by the text in translation. This analysis will identify and discuss some of the choices made in translation, thinking both about text and audience. Informed by reviews, interviews, and the texts themselves, this section will also suggest potential reasons behind the translation choices. I will consider the reception of the text in its two primary linguistic and cultural audiences—Mexico, in the Hispanic context, and the United States, in the Anglophone one.
One of the first aspects of the translation of this novel that might strike a US reader[xx] is the fact that The Story of My Teeth contains an entire chapter, entitled “The Chronologic,” authored solely by the book’s translator, Christina MacSweeney. As noted in an earlier section about Luiselli’s employment of multiplicity, part of what the inclusion of this chapter achieves is a destabilization of the boundary between the fixed roles and statuses of author and translator. The content, style, and format of the chapter, however, are also different from the rest of the novel. This chapter could even be perceived by some as more of a paratext (perhaps an epilogue) than an integral section contiguous with the book’s content. The chapter contains a map that contextualizes the story of the novel’s main character, Carretera (or in the English version, Highway) with events from various loosely, if at all, connected contexts: Mexican socio-economic, political and intellectual history (e.g. the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the US) to biographical notes about the lives of the literary figures referenced playfully in the novel, including Luiselli herself. The last chapter, then, seems to ask the reader to rethink everything that she has read through the lens of a large eclectic map tracking a “chronology” of the events happening simultaneously to those in Highway’s life. Such re-contextualization, however impossible given the array of cited events and the incoherence their juxtaposition might create, can be considered another one of Luiselli’s metafictional devices. This device comments on the writing of fiction and the act of translating simultaneously—a reflexive strategy more explicit than what we have seen in Los ingrávidos.
Of course, “The Chronologic” is fully absent in La historia de mis dientes, as the chapter is born out of the process of translating the text. Luiselli explains, in a brief talk about and reading of Teeth during the 2015 Library of Congress National Book Festival, that MacSweeney wrote the map as an exercise for understanding the rich material composing the intertextual world of the novel. When Luiselli saw the map, she told MacSweeney that it should be included in the translation. Her agreement, then, resulted in the incorporation of an additional chapter, situated before the author’s afterword, and indicating the move from translation to translation and co-authorship. This inclusion, furthermore, makes sure to address the problem of the translator’s “invisibility”[xxi] by granting authorship of the last chapter to Christina MacSweeney, and subsequently calling The Story of My Teeth a collaborative and new “version.” Not only do these unusual techniques make the text’s status as a translation clear to the foreign reader, but they also argue for Teeth as inventive and unique, and ultimately transformed by translation.
The absence of the chapter in the Spanish version, however, is significant for several reasons, regarding both the internal configuration of the text and its relationship to The Story of My Teeth. Without “The Chronologic,” Dientes lacks one of the English version’s most significant markers of formal playfulness, metafiction, and authorial generosity for which it was celebrated in reviews by US critics.[xxii] In a 2016 article from Mexican literary magazine Letras Libres that considers the critical reception of Dientes and Teeth in Mexico and the United States, Mexican critic Jorge Téllez provides an interesting suggestion about the chapter’s function. “Pensar en una cronología de la novela de Luiselli,” he writes, “implicaría pensar en un gesto de normalización del texto, que explicara o justificara todo eso que en México se interpretó como ‘mero parloteo’ y humor fallido.” After noting the disjunction between the narrative order provided by the linear structure of a chronology and the characteristic non-linearity of the novel, Téllez notes that with the inclusion of the chapter, “la traductora enfatiza este rasgo del libro, tematizándolo en el último capítulo: se pasa entonces de lo arbitrario o aleatorio como defecto a la ilusión de arbitrariedad como efecto.”[xxiii] The critic’s comments illuminate the chapter’s potential role as an antidote for what was perceived negatively by Mexican critics as arbitrariness and babbling.
With this reading of the chapter’s function in the novel and of the reason behind its inclusion, it is possible to observe two interrelated aspects about this textual difference. First, there is the view, which the critic recognizes, of the choice as part of the author’s creative engagement with translation: Luiselli’s and MacSweeney’s approach to translation and authorship is, as discussed in a previous section, one in which the roles are interchanged and translation seems to improve the original version—as a creative writing practice where translation provides the opportunity to vindicate a text’s holes and flaws. Luiselli herself, as revealed by the above interview, has expressed her belief that translation grants the opportunity to revise. The change, thus, is concerned with expanding the perceived capacities of translation. Second, however, is Téllez’s stronger argument about Luiselli’s choice to include the chapter: the change, no matter how much it encourages new approaches to and understandings of translation, is motivated by reception. The chapter, if understood as a remedy for the “mero parloteo,” or “mere babbling,” of the original, reflects the translation process’s larger project of reimagining its new audience. This will also be seen in the changes made to the novel’s references.
The chapter’s critical modality might remind one of similar self-reflexive strategies in Postmodernist writings, such as Nabokov’s commentary in Pale Fire or in the historical notes of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Luiselli’s Teeth employs, with “The Chronologic,” a performativity that allows it to comment on itself as a text, a work of fiction, and a translation. The text’s performativity, however, is not limited to authorship, but also has to do with the conceptual proposition of the novel as the fiction-writing analogue of contemporary art—a connection proposed by the author. A strategy already at work in MacSweeney’s chapter, with its intersecting, disparate chronologies, the analogy to contemporary art refers to the act of removing and shifting the context of an object in order to change its meaning. This experiment comes to life in the density and playfulness of the novel’s referential world.
A crucial aspect of the negative reception of the text by Mexican critics—as failed humor and aimless babbling—has to do with the novel’s referential excess. La historia de mis dientes builds into the story, by way of personal association to the main character, the names of well-known intellectuals, writers, and artists from different contexts. This practice gets established in the first few pages of the novel, when Carretera recounts his life as a child in a small apartment building, remembering “Julio Cortázar, nuestro vecino del 4oA que murio de tétanos” (Luiselli 18).[xxiv] The Latin American literary giant, presented here as Carretera’s neighbor, is one of the first names dropped and decontextualized—from being, primarily, an intellectual and literary one. Other literary names are similarly given to family members (examples include Carretera’s favorite uncle, “Marcelo Sánchez-Proust” or his other uncle, “Fredo Sánchez Dostoievsky”). These names are not only decontextualized, but they are also brought into a new linguistic context by being altered to fit Carretera’s family name, some of them also given a Spanish spelling. A humorous example of these slight linguistic alterations is the punning with Michel de Montaigne’s name, presented as “el señor Montaña, o Montaigne en buen francés” (54).[xxv] They are also brought into a new thematic context, dispossessed, at least partially, of their established literary or intellectual context.
A description of the idea behind this technique, provided by the author herself during a 2014 interview with Bomb Magazine, is useful here:
The novel’s narrator is an auction caller, but he auctions stories more than objects. I use a lot of names of writers in Mexico City, as if they were found objects, and displace them to a foreign context—an old procedure in contemporary art that is maybe not so common in fiction. I take the names, empty them of content, and place them in the context of a story very different from their real one. (102, italics are mine)
The above statement captures the larger conceptual project of which the references were a part. These references, however, are mainly found in Dientes, such as the names of figures that were a part of Mexican intellectual and political history: Venustiano Carranza (a leading figure in the Mexican revolution), who features in Dientes as Venustiano Sánchez Fuentes, or Salvador Novo (Mexican poet, member of the Contemporáneos generation of Modernist poets), who is the pasteurization operator at the juice factory where Carretera works as an adult. These names change in the English version. It is possible to propose that the reason why these names change is that such names would not resonate with an Anglophone, specifically a US, audience. Venustiano Sánchez Fuentes becomes Solón Sánchez Fuentes and Salvador Novo becomes a nameless “Pasteurization Operator.” Reception, then, seems to be a concern for MacSweeney and Luiselli when thinking about which references—as names charged with cultural and intellectual capital—to include in the translation. There is no way to empty names, to use Luiselli’s own words, if the names dropped do not have a meaning the reader can register. These changes, if tied to a concern with reception, also reflect larger changes in the novel’s conceptual build.
Some of the changes to these references reveal not only the author and translator’s attention to the varying resonances of these names in different audiences, but they also reveal larger changes being made to the text. An example of this, and a strong indicator of the referential changes, is the name of Carretera’s son. In the Spanish, the son is named Ratzinger Sánchez Tostado (in reference to the former Pope), and in the English, his name changes to Siddhartha Sánchez Tostado (in reference to the birth name of the founder of Buddhism, but also to Hermann Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha, which tells of the spiritual journey of a man of that name—the reference is both religious and literary). The first reason for why it seems this change might have been made is due to the different sense of humor that would be appropriate for the different audiences. In the Spanish, “Ratzinger” strives for humor in its mocking of religious attitudes and figures. The Pope himself was notorious, at least in several Latin American countries, for being a caricaturesque “evil” figure as a supreme religious authority. It is possible to speculate that Dientes’s ambition for a humor largely tied to religious satire, an approach perhaps more effective for a Mexican popular audience,[xxvi] would not resonate as much with a US reader. Or maybe, as Mexican critics also pointed out, the reference, as an attempt at humor, was just a bad joke to begin with. What seems to be at stake in this change for Luiselli and MacSweeney, similar to what has been suggested about “The Chronologic,” is an attempt to translate by refining the humor. The question is, however, whether the refining is needed due to a concern for an incompatible sense of humor in a US audience or because the humor was flawed in the Spanish version to begin with. The change from “Ratzinger” to “Siddhartha,” implies the hold that the Hesse novel has on US imagination. But in Teeth, contrary to Hesse’s character, Siddhartha turns out to be a bully and an opportunist.
Carretera does not choose his child’s name in either version, but is rather convinced forcibly by what he describes as his despotic wife’s wishes. He has his child, Ratzinger/Siddhartha, with La Flaca,[xxvii] or in the English, Flaca, a woman he meets when taking a contemporary dance class at the famous Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM),[xxviii] and who lures him into an intense relationship that leads to La Flaca’s pregnancy. La Flaca remains in both versions a despotic, manipulative, and cruel woman, and retains also her Hispanic name, although not translated as, “The Skinny One.” In the English, she becomes just “Flaca,” losing the female pronoun but acquiring a new life story. This life story changes how the reader might perceive La Flaca as a character and as a representational figure—that is, as a caricature of a Mexican woman of a particular socio-economic class.[xxix]
Carretera’s/Highway’s description of this woman changes notably in the English version and can be linked to and help explain the son’s name change. Here is the portrait in the Spanish version:
La Flaca había llegado a novicia en un convento, pero a la hora de la verdad se había arrepentido y tras un periodo de liberación y experimentos con el poliamor en un retiro ubicado en el pueblo de Tepoztlán, se había vuelto ayudante de dentista. Ella, muy moderna, me mantendría si lo de la danza no traía dinero. En una de esas, un día, me podría arreglar ella misma los dientes.[xxx] (Luiselli 25)
The Spanish version portrays La Flaca as an overpowering woman; it comes off as a satire of a strong female personality. Her character is given a religious background with a rebellious side, which can be loosely understood as reflecting a stereotypical woman in Mexican culture. This strong religious background, furthermore, aligns with the reason for naming their child after the eminent, and terrifying, religious figure. “Supongo,” Carretera narrates, “que le puso Ratzinger al niño como un modo de pagarle a la iglesia lo que le debía en culpa acumulada por haber abandonado la carrera de monja” (26-27).[xxxi]
This connection between La Flaca’s background and the name “Ratzinger,” however, is altered in MacSweeney’s translation. Although La Flaca’s Catholic background is preserved, her trajectory changes. In the English version, she is experimenting with Buddhism:
Flaca was brought up in an all-girl Catholic school, and was as perverted as any of those rich white Mexican girls. But she had rebelled, or so she said, and was studying to become a Buddhist. As she had saved enough from her earnings—lies: it was her father’s money—she offered to support me if the dance-theater thing didn’t turn out to be particularly remunerative. I was ready to go along with that. (Luiselli 14-15)
This excerpt is exemplary of the novel’s divergence from the Spanish version on several levels, two of which are worth mentioning here: syntactically, the writing switches to shorter sentences, suggesting an accommodation to a sense of orality in the English language. In terms of content, Flaca’s character is significantly redrawn. While she is still a stereotype, she is more explicitly presented as one. This is suggested by Carretera’s judgment of her as “any of those rich white Mexican girls,” a comment that also suggests class resentment. Flaca’s turn to Buddhism aligns with the naming of their son “Siddartha,” just like La Flaca’s Catholic background aligns with the name “Ratzinger.” This detail registers a change in target (not Catholicism but appropriated spirituality and literary currency), offering a different, more US-friendly, intertext.
This brief review of changes in characterization and references demonstrates Luiselli’s and MacSweeney’s craft: they approach translation as a generative opportunity for rewriting. It is unclear to what extent the motivations of this rewriting are based on a concern for reception—with cultural and linguistic implications in mind—or on a concern for improving the text through translation. Both seem to be at work in informing the decisions for these changes, and they also have implications for the limits of Luiselli’s approach to translation—as a practice inviting a free and playful movement between languages within a text.
It is interesting to note (particularly in light of Luiselli’s openness with using translation as a way to rewrite the text, returning and making changes to the Spanish version) that the added chapter to the English version has not been translated into Spanish. A step further can be taken in noting that there is also no existing translation back into Spanish of the whole English version. If the texts are so different, and if the author claims to rework the Spanish in light of the revisions made in translation, why is this updated Spanish version not visible? These absences might, then, be indicative of the author’s focus on reception, perhaps overshadowing the idea of an ongoing process in which the versions keep on changing as they speak to each other. Reception, as a proposed influence on the translation of Dientes into Teeth, suggests that there is a limit to how we move between linguistic and cultural contexts, as the reader is to an extent constrained by her own background.
This consideration of reception also has implications for the limits of performative translation as a concept operating on interlingual movement in order to expand our understanding of language and translation. Even Luiselli, who engages translation performatively in her work and who has had a peripatetic life, moving between multiple linguistic and cultural contexts, is attentive to and critical of the limits imposed by the reception of texts in translation. Examples of this awareness are not limited to the case of Teeth, but also include scenes from Los ingrávidos, comments in interviews, and short articles written by the author.
An example from Los ingrávidos is revealing. During a normal day at work, the second narrator, a young translator, comments on her boss’s narrow interest in Latin American literature:
White estaba seguro de que, tras el éxito de Bolaño en el mercado gringo hacía más de un lustro, habría un siguiente boom latinoamericano. … ¿No fuiste amiga de Bolaño?, preguntó White a gritos desde su escritorio… ¿No tienes cartas suyas o alguna entrevista o algo que podamos publicar?… tenemos el honor de trabajar con la única latinoamericana que no fue amiga de Bolaño.[xxxii] (Luiselli 24)
This scene from Los ingrávidos depicts the chief editor’s eagerness to publish material written by Roberto Bolaño as symptomatic of a reception phenomenon in the United States popularly known as the “Bolaño fever.”[xxxiii] The narrator’s critical stance against White’s requests, moreover, suggests that his comment is representative of an existing, and exhausting, pattern of readership of Latin American literature in the United States: one characterized by the homogenizing impulse to peg the region’s literature to a single or a few authors. In this case, Bolaño is at the center of reception of Latin American literature in the North American country and there seems to be room for no one else.[xxxiv]
White, the editor, also insists on finding out whether or not there was any archival material, “letters from him or an interview or something that we could publish” (Luiselli 24). This insistence reflects an interest in texts that have “value” not only because a canonized writer authors them, but also because they contribute to the fabrication of a market figure. Luiselli comments on this more explicitly in her 2008 article entitled “Bolaño fever,” published in Letras Libres: “Si reparo en esto es simplemente porque me parece que lo que está sucediendo con la figura de Bolaño es sintomático, antes que nada, de la cultura literaria estadounidense: el marketing de un mito.”[xxxv] Here, Luiselli sees the literary market phenomenon as symptomatic of a larger literary culture in the US that has produced myths to characterize a Latin American literary tradition. Luiselli’s proposition allows us to consider not only how an author is made into a myth, but also how the case of Bolaño opens up another cycle of myth-making about the literature, and by extension, culture, of Latin America.[xxxvi]
There is irony, of course, in that this reference, which acts as a critique of a problematic market hegemony, includes Luiselli’s books as part of a publication schedule. While this reference to Bolaño in Los ingrávidos is, on the one hand, a humorous comment about the pragmatic editor, who is portrayed as a stereotype of the market-oriented US-American publisher, their interaction ends up signaling the author’s own situation, revealing the author’s awareness of the recent literary publication history contextualizing her own novels. In including this kind of intertext, Luiselli is ironically not only critiquing market systems, but also writing herself into the cultural industry that concerns her novels.
These notes on reception have been instructive for situating Luiselli’s texts in a larger publication context that can illuminate some of the aspects of her work, particularly the thematic concerns with reception seen in Los ingrávidos and in the creative translation of Dientes into Teeth. As a foreign, Latin American writer in the United States, Luiselli is implicated in the market system, having to maneuver its constraints and expectations. The analysis of this short scene from Los ingrávidos is another example of Luiselli’s probing of translation, where the problem of reception (as theme within and implication for the text’s circulation) suggests that translation, although a practice and concept that has the textual capacity to move creatively between languages, also has its constraints when thinking about the publication industry and its imagined readers.
In her dissertation, an exploration of the relationship between literary translation, architectural spaces, and Modernist writings produced in Mexico City and New York City during the 1920s and 30s, Valeria Luiselli provides a broad yet thick definition of translation, informed by the terms “translation” and “traducción,” that allows her to theorize what she calls “translation spaces.” As the term suggests, Luiselli understands translation spatially: “as a way of carrying something over in space, of transporting it, but also as a way of conducting someone or something along” (28). Luiselli’s definition provides this study with a provocative lens for understanding the performative use of translation in her own work, capturing much of what my idea of “performative translation” does and is founded on. “Translation spaces” and “performative translation” operate on a similar understanding of translation as a capacious concept that invites thinking about writing techniques, aesthetics, literary histories, and intersecting linguistic as well as cultural traditions.
This study has explained how these aspects operate in Luiselli’s works: “performative translation,” as a close reading device for studying Luiselli’s fiction and non-fiction, demonstrates how these works incorporate translation in their content and form. My theoretical apparatus is founded on the propositions of early twentieth century and contemporary thinkers, Walter Benjamin and Rebecca Walkowitz, whose ideas about translation counter conventional notions of “original” and “translated” texts, labels often suggesting a hierarchical organization. These theorists attempt, instead, to bend translation and generate more productive theories that do not reduce the practice to a binary of foreignizing or domesticating approaches. For Benjamin (in his essay, “The Task of the Translator”), this bending means understanding translation as a form, a notion that this study entertains, exploring it through the concept of “performative translation.” For Walkowitz, the bending of translation means viewing the concept globally, studying a selection of contemporary global Anglophone novels as cases for what she calls “born-translated” texts—that is, texts that incorporate translation into their content and form in ways that speak to their larger contexts of publication and circulation. “Performative translation” has conceptually emulated Walkowitz’s understanding of translation as deeply implicated in global contexts, particularly by attending to her idea of “multiplicity,” a complex concept crucial to the upending of constraining labels of “original” and “translation.” Ultimately, at the core of what this study incorporates from both theorists’ approaches to translation is a resistance to conventional discourses about translation, proposing, instead, a literary field that is constantly in play.
The analyses of Luiselli’s earliest books and latest novel provide ample room for testing this notion. Papeles falsos offers an excerpt dealing with an “untranslatable” Portuguese term, saudade. A discussion of this text illustrates how “multiplicity” can function through theme and multilingual, almost ironic, experimentation. Performative translation can be understood to work here by making translation the subject of the writing, by highlighting the foreignness between as well as within languages, and by enacting the practice of translation for the reader to witness and take part in.
Los ingrávidos, although echoing some of these functions of multiplicity in the context of fiction, makes more room for metafiction as a writing technique central to performative translation. The novel’s employment of metafiction, as revealed in this paper’s analysis, includes liminal space, meta-structure, and thematization as realms and strategies for interrogating translation. Performative translation manifests in different contexts and through the use of different strategies—explicit, implicit, and explicatory. This technique is present in Los ingrávidos in several ways: in the suggestion of geographical and linguistic multiplicity, in the “multistranded” narrative structure of the work, and in the embedding of the practice in a literary history linking New York City with Mexico City. Los ingrávidos, as seen in the final section, also shows a concern for questions of reception implicated by this literary circuit.
This paper has explored reception through the lens of Luiselli’s notion of “versions” as a term describing her texts in translation, setting up a different performance of translation that concerns Luiselli’s collaborative approach to the translation of her own texts. A brief comparison of the Spanish and English versions of her most recent novel, La historia de mis dientes (The Story of My Teeth), focused on analyzing some important differences between the texts, asking how such differences might be influenced by demands of reception. While “versions” enact some of performative translation’s playful interlingual movement, a brief reception analysis suggests a limit to this free performative movement between languages, as there is textual awareness of how the reader is also influenced by her linguistic and cultural background.
Although it is not clear whether or not performative translation is a portable concept, I have found it relevant for analyzing Luiselli’s work, and for helping to grasp the talent of a writer aware of a world in which people and languages are constantly moving; where the “foreignness of all languages,” present in any effort to translate, is already embedded in the literary work; and where immigrant children, peripatetic poets, auctioneers, and an intelligent essayist are all somehow implicated in constant performance.
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[i] In its current state, this project does not incorporate theories of performance and performativity because it seeks to first conceptualize “performative translation” through the writings of Valeria Luiselli, which results in an emphasis on the analysis of her texts and in the framing of her writing through models that focus on the connection between translation as theme and form, on the one hand, and the idea of “global writing,” on the other. The choice to use theories of World Literature, such as Walkowitz’s, and to incorporate only one of Benjamin’s essays on translation without an extensive analysis or use of more translation theories of the twentieth century is due to similar reasons of scope and emphasis, where Luiselli’s writing takes precedence over a longer and more comprehensive theoretical apparatus—which an inclusion of performance and performativity theory, as well as a more robust accounting of translation theory, would surely necessitate. Nevertheless, future developments of the project will seek to extend the conceptualization of “performative translation” to include scholarship on translation and performance/performativity, theories to which performative translation has strong connections. Performative translation draws largely on central features of performance and performativity, some of which include: the text’s (or other art forms’) self-conscious employment of its features as text and site of performance, the unexplored relationship between theatrical and performative, the text’s ability to show not only itself as an art object but also its process of creation, and the high dosage of these performances and performative elements (as moments registering in the text a self-awareness of its form, medium, and process). Employing all of these features, Luiselli’s writing is, furthermore, a strong case study of what William McEvoy has recently called, in a discussion of Hélène Cixous’ écriture feminine, “critico-creative texts” and “performative writing,” that is, “writing that moves beyond the metadiscursive function in order to act as well as reflect” (Stevens xviii).
[ii] Attempting to reconcile the rift between close and distant reading strategies, two different methodological approaches in World Literature, Walkowitz proposes this model of “close reading at a distance.” It consists of employing close reading strategies in order to draw a connection between smaller textual units (e.g. structural, thematic, and aesthetic features), and larger contexts of production, circulation, and translation of which born-translated texts are a part and to which, Walkowitz argues, they speak. “What I call ‘close reading at a distance,’” she writes, “differs from traditional ‘close reading’ in two principal ways: it demotes the analysis of idiolect, the privileged object of close reading’s attention, in favor of larger narrative units and even units that seem to exceed the narrative; and it adds circulation to the study of production by asking what constitutes the languages, boundaries, and media of the work” (51).
[iii] In her study on the “Born Translated” novel, Walkowitz notes World Literature’s emphasis on travel when studying texts, an approach particularly strong in scholarship produced in the twenty-first century. She further notes that a shortcoming of this emphasis has to do with its treatment of translation. Although the new model of world literature as a network or system of texts marks a more nuanced and generative understanding of the concept and field, Walkowitz calls our attention to this hole (that is, the problematic place of translation within the model) by writing that, “The focus on travel, while tracing uptake and renovation and therefore also new emergence, has also tended to emphasize the distinction between literature’s beginnings and its afterlives. Translation appears as part of literature’s second act” (29).
[iv] Papeles falsos is a collection of literary essays exploring a wide range of topics from translation to architecture, to the relationship between city structures and writing. The essays incorporate rich intertextuality, pulling in writers from a variety of literary traditions—such as Joseph Brodsky and Gilberto Owen.
[v] “Everything seems to indicate that if you are not Lusophone, you don’t have the right to saudade” (my translation: all in-text and footnoted translations are my own unless otherwise indicated. The existing translations of Luiselli’s works, by Christina MacSweeney, are not quoted here due to the significant differences between the original and the translation, some of which will be discussed in the final section of this capstone.)
[vi] “When our understanding of a language is partial, imagination fills in the sense of a word, of a phrase, or of a paragraph.”
[vii] “Saudade is not homesickness nor is it heimweh. The Finnish kaihomielisyys, although it reminds one of home and miel, expresses only its most wintry dimension. The Icelandic söknudur is dry; the Polish tesknota barely touches it; the English lack is missing something; the Czech stesk shrinks; and in the Estonian ihaldus the ‘h’ is cold. The morriña rolls towards her like a rock with asymptotic trajectory. The long arms of longing do not reach her. In Sehnsucht an ‘e’ lasts too long. Saudade is neither nostalgia nor melancholia: maybe saudade is not saudade either.”
[viii] The baby sleeps. The middle boy, my husband, and I sit on the stairs, in front of the door of the house. The middle boy asks:
Dad, what’s a wasp?
It’s a dangerous bee.
And a dangerous whale?
A killer whale.
A killer whale! And in English, how do you say it, dad?
You say: Moby Dick.
[ix] “another city… [I] was young, had strong, long legs.”
[x] The relationship between these poets rendered creatively by Luiselli in the novel represents a literary historical network linking Modernist poets from different literary traditions—particularly those moving between Mexico City and New York City. This movement between people and ideas interests Luiselli in her dissertation (“Translation Spaces: Mexico City in the International Modernist Circuit” ), where the significance of these references as recreated historical figures is central to her project. She writes: “There was an increasing traffic of Mexican intellectuals to the USA and vice versa, which started to become significant in the early 1920s and was at its highest in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A series of individuals, a transnational, floating intelligentsia of sorts travelled constantly to and from the two countries—particularly between NYC and Mexico City—writing books, organizing exhibitions, giving talks and conferences, or simply spending periods of time abroad” (8). Although partly satirized, it is this intellectual context of exchange (implicating poets like Owen, Lorca, and Zukofsky) that Luiselli seems interested in representing in Los ingrávidos.
[xi] “Everything is fiction, I tell my husband, but he doesn’t believe me.
Weren’t you writing a novel about Owen?
Yes, I tell him, it’s a book about the ghost of Gilberto Owen.”
[xii] For more on this line of investigation into the literary exchange, see Luiselli 2015, “Translation Spaces: Mexico City in the International Modernist Circuit.”
[xiii] I propose this term to describe the novel’s structure. The following analysis will demonstrate how the folded model is central to the emergence of a liminal space, and can be understood as a narrative configuration where the voices of the narrators, and the narrative strands themselves, are first symmetrically constitutive of the overall text, and secondly, within this symmetry, the narratives begin to bleed into one another through a thematized translation space, metafiction and structural resemblance (all of which shape the liminal space).
[xiv] “Not only had I seen Ezra Pound… [but also] a woman with a brown face, and deep bags under her eyes that I saw on repeated occasions.”
[xv] “Echoes of people who maybe had lived in the city above and now only transited through its bowels.”
[xvi] “In the fragment he was interested in making the objects speak…[Owen translates as] here the objects will speak.”
[xvii] In MacSweeney’s translation, the implicit translation is inverted: the Hispanic poets’ dialogue in Spanish is reported in English, thus delivered already translated.
[xviii] “The poem will be called ‘A,’ the poet explained to us, because a little boy, when he’s learning how to talk & enumerate the World, always says: ‘A dog,’ ‘A lolly-pop,’ & so forth and so on. He says that his book will be called ‘A,’ I explained to Federico, because a little boy always says, ‘A perro,’ ‘A paleta,’ and something like that.”
[xix] This revised literary history is the subject of Luiselli’s doctoral dissertation, “Translation Spaces: Mexico City in the International Modernist Circuit” (2015). Luiselli shifts the model of diffusion to highlight exchange in the formation and development of literary traditions, specifically concerning Mexican Modernismo and the international Modernist movement in literature and architecture of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
[xx] This general term, the “US reader,” is borrowed from Sarah Pollack’s approach to discussing reception (i.e. the reading of Latin American literature in the United States), in her 2009 article entitled, “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States.”
[xxi] This term makes reference to Lawrence Venuti’s well-known essay, entitled “The Translator’s Invisibility” (1986).
[xxii] A good example of which is Jim Krusoe’s review in The New York Times, where he describes the chapter as a “completely wonderful chronology created by Luiselli’s translator, Christina MacSweeney,” and notes that “There is something thrilling about finding a writer generous enough to invite another to participate in her work, and it is at this point that the book blooms into an entirely different creation.”
[xxiii] “Thinking about a chronology to Luiselli’s novel implies thinking about a gesture to normalize the text, that would explain or justify everything that in Mexico was interpreted as ‘mere babbling’ and failed humor. […] The translator emphasizes this trait of the book, thematizing it in the last chapter: one moves then from the arbitrary and random as defect, to the illusion of arbitrariness as effect.”
[xxiv] “Julio Cortázar, our neighbor from 4A who died from tetanus.”
[xxv] “Mr. Mountain, or Montaigne in good French.”
[xxvi] The extent to which this approach to humor is effective even for a Mexican audience is questionable, as this is one of the faults in the novel pointed out by Mexican critics—what has been called, as written above, “mere babbling.” However, this humor might even be more tied to a specific, perhaps non-literary audience (therefore my loose term of “popular culture” to describe its imagined audience). This audience, furthermore, might even be reflective of the novel’s “original” audience—that is, the Factory workers. If their voices and conversations informed the writing, were they perhaps part of the source of the humor?
[xxvii] “La Flaca” (“The Skinny One”) is a nickname often used in Hispanic countries to refer endearingly to someone, used often romantically. The name is, in fact, what Luiselli’s husband and Mexican writer, Álvaro Enrigue, calls her. This connection supports the referential system of the novel and extends it by inserting the author herself into this network of decontextualized names and events.
[xxviii] This reference is significant, as the UNAM has become a trope in works by other Latin American authors writing about Mexico City—a good example is its appearance in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. It is also an important academic center in Latin American intellectual history, as several literary figures have passed through this university—such as Octavio Paz.
[xxix] Most of the characters in the text are representational, to some degree, as they operate on stereotypes and clichés in Mexican popular culture. Other examples include the figure of Carretera’s auction mentor, Carlos Yushimito (“Carlos” being his “Western name”), part of the (seemingly intentional) orientalist portrayal of Asian culture in the text. The example of La Flaca is interesting, because (1) she is a partial reference to the author, as suggested by their shared nickname, and (2) she seems to represent a particular social class in Mexico—but a different one in each version: in the English, she is almost a kind of petit bourgeois, whereas in the Spanish she has a lower economic class upbringing.
[xxx] “La Flaca had trained as a novice at a convent but at the time of truth she had repented and after a period of liberation and experiments with polygamy in a retreat located in the small town of Tepotzlán, she became a dental assistant. She, very modern, would provide for me if the dance thing didn’t bring money. In one of those times, she could herself fix my teeth.”
[xxxi] “I guess she named the boy Ratzinger as a way to pay the church what she owed them in accumulated guilt for having abandoned the nun’s career.”
[xxxii] “White was sure that, after Bolaño’s success in the US market more than a lustrum ago, there would be a next Latin American boom. … Weren’t you a friend of Bolaño’s?, asked White, screaming from his desk… Don’t you have letters from him or an interview or something that we could publish? … we have the honor of working with the only Latin American that wasn’t Bolaño’s friend.”
[xxxiii] The scene relies on the reader’s understanding of some of the references made. These references are, first, the Latin American boom, which refers to the literary wave of writers during the 1960’s and 70’s who gained international recognition and came to distinguish the region’s literary tradition for audiences abroad; and the second reference involves what critics consider the largest post-boom phenomenon, at least in the United States, for Latin American international literature.
[xxxiv] For more on the reception of Bolaño’s work in the United States, see Pollack 2009, “Latin America Translated (Again): Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in the United States.”
[xxxv] “If I pause to consider this, it is simply because it seems to me that what is happening with Bolaño’s figure is symptomatic, before anything else, of the literary culture of the US: the marketing of a myth.”
[xxxvi] For more on the history of this reception phenomenon in an academic context, see Sylvia Molloy’s “Latin America in the U.S. Imaginary: Postcolonialism, Translation and the Magic Realist Imperative.” In this brief piece of cultural critique, Sylvia Molloy poignantly interrogates the readings of Latin American literature produced in the US academy, specifically by pointing to the tendency not only to impose models (e.g. Postcolonial literature) that preclude a nuanced and appropriate reading of the region’s texts, but also to produce and reproduce monolithic constructs of literary tradition—as best exemplified by the emergence and marketing of Magic Realism as the primary model for Latin American writing in the second half of the twentieth century. While she does not discuss the case of Bolaño here, the article provides fundamental insights regarding the kinds of concerns reception raises in both academic and non-academic circles: homogenized and reduced notions of how and what Latin American writers write, the kinds of assumptions that they must, by consequence, fight against (when producing writing that will get published and later published in translation in a North American context). Although her texts have not reached the level of circulation and academic attention of those of the Magic Realist and Boom generations, Luiselli is surely not excluded from this literary reception context, determined more, perhaps, by the pressure of what one could view as a kind of Bolaño imperative.