17 December 2009

The best of Bolaño is yet to come

Or at least the one-half of it. If Bolaño himself (crafty mythmaker) is to be believed. Forrest Gander mentioned in his not-fully-available-online essay, “Un Lio Bestial,” in The Nation, that ‘Bolaño considered Tres (Three), a book of poems published in 2000, to be "one of my two best books."’ The other best book being ... I don’t know.

Such straight pronouncements are characteristic of Bolaño, whose essays are often riddled by Parra-like (Parrian?) puzzles. These puzzles of Bolaño appear like Freudian slips that are both conscious and unconscious, thrown to the wind and catching them at the same time.

Bolaño has interpreted a poem by the anti-poet Nicanor Parra, a poem that plays on numbers: “The four great poets of Chile / Are three: / Alonso de Ercilla and Rubén Dario.” Bolaño’s close reading of this poem was recounted in an essay by Marcela Valdes, also in The Nation. This anti-poem inspired a joke which I’m sure Bolaño will appreciate: “So the two best works of Bolano/ Are one/ Three.”

And then there is this last advice of Bolaño to an aspiring short story writer: “Read Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver, for one of the two of them is the best writer of the twentieth century.” He does not say which one. I’m inclined to vote for the Russian but then the “seriousness” of the joke is bound to be broken once I made the wager.

Tres, by the way, is a compilation of three poems. Another collection of Bolaño poems is Los perros románticos (The Romantic Dogs) which collects the poems of Bolaño starting from 1980. Both poetry collections were published in 2000; I’m not sure which came first. But so far I loved The Romantic Dogs. Intentional or not, a sort of “Parrian subtraction” is actually embedded in the book. At the back of the book it says that it is “a bilingual collection of forty-four poems,” but strangely I (dizzy) counted only 43 in the table of contents. I'm counting again later to make sure. And also at the back page, there’s a blurb by Forrest Gander about a poem describing some "fist-fucking" and "feet-fucking" and mentioning “Pascal, Nazi generals, Shining Path bonfires, and a teenage hooker.” Well, pray tell me which poem is this in the book, because I haven’t found it. Maybe I did not read close enough. This could be the 44th poem so it has to be somewhere in there.

A few months back I came across Garabatos, a journal blog by Laura Healy, the translator of The Romantic Dogs. It was started sometime in June, I think. I cannot open it directly now; you need to subscribe. But I have my RSS feed. There were only two journal entries to date.

In the first entry, “Introduction,” we get to have a glimpse of Healy's background: “The Part About the Translator of Poetry.”

I started this blog to help me study for my general exams as I start my first year of work toward a PhD in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard. My specialty is 20th-century Latin American literature. I’ve always known I should start a reading journal, but I’ve just never had the discipline, so hopefully this blog will be a way for me to record my initial reactions to different texts, without having to adhere to any particular format. That’s the hope. We’ll see how it goes.

And then she provided her reading list in Spanish lit for the course she's taking, 154 books in all!

Poetry has always been sidetracked in favor of prose. B was aware of it and so he “shifted” to fiction to better fend for his family. The quantity of his novels far outweighs that of his poetry, but readers do not complain.

Even in translation, focus has always been given to B’s novels and stories rather than his poems. Of course, his poems are the batteries energizing the flashlights of his fiction.

Here's the beginning of the second journal entry by Healy ("A Bolaño Fanatic"):

I’m not quite sure where to start here, since Bolaño has been such an incredibly important figure for me. I first found out about him from Zach and Jonah in 2005. Jonah had heard about him from some friends in Chile and Zach had been reading Chris Andrews’ translations of Distant Star (1996) and By Night in Chile (2000), both published by New Directions. Distant Star is a beautiful, flawless little novella, though I found myself more engrossed by the voice of Father Urrutia in By Night in Chile. I could say much much more (obviously) but I’ll leave it at that for now and go into more detail in future posts.

Anyway, around the same time that I read those novellas (in English), I decided to take some time off from school and travel around Europe with Zach. After bopping around for a while, we rented a room in an apartment in Barcelona and stayed there for a few months. Zach’s Spanish wasn’t very good at the time and he was on a poetry kick, so he bought me a copy of Los perros románticos, a collection of Bolaño’s poems, and asked me to translate it for him. I already had my eyes peeled for a translation project because I would need to complete one in order to graduate, so I gave it a shot.

Translating a book of poems is no small potatoes, so I figured I might as well milk it for all I could. I contacted Bolaño’s literary agent, was put in touch with New Directions in New York and somehow managed to get permission to translate the collection and submit my translations for publication. By the time I returned to school, I had completed most of the collection and Forrest Gander (a great poet/translator and also my advisor) helped me to edit them and polish a final draft. He also advised me through a translation of another collection of Bolaño’s poems, Tres, which will hopefully be published eventually (the opening series of prose poems “Prosa de otoño en Girona” is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing).


Great story on how the translator first discovered the work of her author and the circumstances leading to the publication of her translation.

Healy’s acclaim regarding the opening prose poems “Prosa de otoño en Girona” of Tres corresponds to that by another translator of the same cycle of prose poems. Chad W. Post of Three Percent interviewed Erica Mena, a translator who will publish her version of “Tales from the Autumn in Gerona” in the March issue of Words Without Borders. I can’t wait to read it. Erica Mena chose this project as her best translation to date, adding that B’s prose poetry is “much, much better” than his other poems. Bolañophiles alert!

I also wonder, like Chad W. Post, who will finally translate the entire book for publication.

What I’d like to happen is for the two translators, Healy and Mena, to complete their separate versions, and then we will have side by side two interpretations of what could really be one of B’s two best books.

To venture an opinion: I’m not surprised that B will excel in the form of prose poetry, a necessary hybrid that interleaves the savage spirit of his poetry within the sturdy clothing of prose.

But still, the question begs itself: Is Bolaño’s (other) best book yet to come in English language? Is it this much-vaunted, much-awaited (by me at least) Tres? The knight’s answer may or may not be the same as the knave’s. If we don’t trust Roberto, then I guess we should always trust his translators. After all, when Roberto asked the essential question: “How do we recognize a work of art?” he himself answered it without reservation:

That’s easy. We must translate it. That the translator not be a genius. We must rip out pages randomly. We have to leave it strewn in an attic. And if after all this a young person appears and reads it, and after reading it makes it his own, and is faithful to it (or unfaithful, it makes no difference) and reinterprets it and accompanies it on its journey to the edges and both are enriched and the young person adds a grain of value to its natural value, we are in the presence of something, a machine or a book, capable of speaking to all human beings: not a tilled field but a mountain, not the image of the dark forest but the dark forest itself, not a flock of birds but the Nightingale.

That rambling prose poem is your answer.

I can be led to believe that Tres is one of the two best books of Bolaño, the other being the rest of his oeuvre.


  1. I'm glad you liked that joke about "the best books of Bolano"- I was rather pleased with myself when I wrote it. This is a very nice blog you've got here, by the way.

  2. It cracked me up! One of the best two I heard this week. :) Thanks.

  3. Great write up - thanks for mentioning me! The references you mention Gander making on the back of The Romantic Dogs actually refer to the second poem in Tres, the only one in the book that is written in verse.

    Multiple translations of Tres would be a fascinating thing to have. Years ago a student of translation raised the question of how to know whether a translation was good...it was a great debate, and the only real answer we could come up with was to read as many translations as were available. And I hope in this case they'd both be good. Unfortunately, it's hard to get poetry in translation published -- seemingly especially so with this book. It has taken years to even get the excerpt in Words Without Borders... a somewhat frustrating situation, all in all, considering I had my translation done in late 2007 and I think it is some of the most interesting of Bolaño's work, and certainly his best poetry.

    Anyways, I'll be waiting with baited breath to hear what the plan is for Tres, and hope that it eventually gets to the readers it deserves to have.

  4. Thanks, Erica, for the clarification re the mis-blurbed poem in The Romantic Dogs. So it is contained in Tres, after all. Awesome.

    Your translation of “Uno” out of Tres is one of my most anticipated literary events of 2010. I hope the full book will also come soon. It’s surprising it took this long before an excerpt of Bolaño’s best poetry is published. And that’s considering he already had a big following in English. Poems are really a hard sell. No wonder Bolaño opted to write novels and stories.

    I agree that multiple translations of great works are desirable. So that we (especially we who don’t speak the original language) can somehow detect the various frequencies emitted by these gems, so to speak. Thanks for your comment and insights on translation.

  5. Hi everyone. Laura Healy here. Thanks for reading my short-lived blog! I was very enthusiastic about it, but when my semester started I didn't have any time to write, so I took it down. Maybe now that I'm on break I can add a few more posts and open it back up. Nice to know someone was reading it.

    Erica, I just recently heard about your translation. Congrats on getting any of it published. It's gotten much harder to publish Bolaño since he took off here in the States... I'm not really sure about all of the details, so all I can say is that I've been trying to make it available... I'll let you know when I have any more info. It's definitely an amazing collection.

    I just went back and recounted the poems in my Spanish copy of Romantic Dogs... 43. That's just a mistake there on the back cover of the English version. And Forrest Gander is referring to the second poem in Tres, "The Neochileans." He was a professor of mine, so he read both collections back in 2007 when they were first translated (funny that Erica and I were translating simultaneously... I'm curious to see the differences/similarities).

    Anyhow, thanks for your post. It's certainly an interesting discussion. Fingers crossed that you'll get to read Tres soon!

  6. Hi, Laura. Really nice to hear from your side. It could be that the 44th poem of The Romantic Dogs is the sequel: Tres in English! I do hope it’s coming soon. Both translations are highly anticipated. The way you describe the poems, I’m sure there are a lot of Bolaño fans waiting for them now.

    I also look forward to more entries from your blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.