Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

April 29, 2010

"Los Neochilenos" (Roberto Bolaño)

Los Neochilenos” (“The Neochileans”) is the second of three poems in Tres. Tres is Roberto Bolaño’s second collection of poetry in Spanish and what he considered to be one of his two best books, that is to say his best writing. It will be brought to English soon in a translation by Laura Healy, who also did The Romantic Dogs.


We also know that Erica Mena had completed her English version of the entire Tres sequence. (An excerpt of the first poem in Tres, “Tales of the Autumn in Gerona”, was published last month in Words Without Borders.) However, according to Erica herself, she wasn’t allowed to bring out her version in book form. This elicited strong reactions from critics.


Published in the latest issue (Issue 25 - Winter/Spring 2010) of the literary journal Washington Square was perhaps another translation of this poem. The translation was by Mariela Griffor. Maybe this is again only an excerpt as it was titled "de los Neochilenos" in the archive.


Back in 2008, the magazine n+1 also published "Los Neochilenos" (issue no. 7: Correction). The translator was not credited online and only a very short fragment of the poem was available online. I’m not sure if the magazine published the whole poem. (EDIT: They did publish it in full. But the full-text poem is one of the most highly valued pieces of the magazine. It would cost some $75,000 for it to appear online.) Here is the fragment:

Los Neochilenos [excerpt]
by Roberto Bolaño

And the only thing
Truly pleasant
That we saw in Arica
Was the sun of Arica:
A sun like a cloud of
Dust.
A sun like sand
Subtly displacing
The motionless air.
The rest: routine.
Killers and converts
Mixed in the same discussion
Of deaf-mutes,
Of idiots undone
By purgatory.
And the lawyer Vivanco
A friend of Don Luis Sanchez
Asked what kind of crap we were trying to pull
With this Neochilenos bullshit.

So there may be 3 or 4 English translations of this poem alone while there are two extant versions (by Healy and Mena) of the entire book Tres. Only one English Tres, however, was authorized to come out. Which is a pity. I think the more translations available of a single work, the more exciting the situation will be for readers who are only able to access the works of a writer in translation.


Multiple translations will sharpen our perception of how literature sounded in the original. I find it exciting to compare several versions of a single work. Right now I’m reading side by side two translations of Norwegian Wood by Murakami Haruki – Jay Rubin’s authorized version (2000) and Alfred Birnbaum’s earlier translation (1989) for Kodansha – and enjoying both versions so far. A few months ago, I’ve finished Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal, in a supple translation by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin. I first encountered it in the spare version of Leon Ma. Guerrero. I wouldn’t mind rereading it again in the first translation (in a supposedly baroque style) done at the turn of 20th century by Charles Derbyshire and in the latest rendering by Harold Augenbraum. Of course, I also won't let pass Lacson-Locsin's rendition of El Filibusterismo, the sequel to Rizal’s book (my favorite of the two based on my readings of Ma. Guerrero). Reading multiple translations is a great way to increase understanding of the work of fantastic writers one would not have any other way to read.


In an interview, translator par excellence Edith Grossman was asked a hypothetical question: Assuming that a reader or reviewer is trying to choose between two translations of a book, how can she judge which of the two is the better? Grossman’s reply was instructive:

In a way it’s like asking, how do you choose between two pianists who perform a Beethoven sonata? Well, maybe you listen to both. The fact that you like one doesn’t mean the other is inadequate. In the case of a book that’s been translated more than once, if you have several translations, how terrific for you. That means you have a very, very broad range of interpretation.

I find Erica’s excerpt in Words Without Borders to be a revelation. It's a side of Bolaño the poet I haven't encountered before. It is disappointing that her complete version of Tres is not to be allowed to see print. As what I’ve said before, I’d like Laura Healy and Erica Mena to bring out their separate interpretations of this trilogy of poems so that we will have a chance to experience two unique readings of it. Certainly not to decide which version is superior but to detect correspondences and deviations between the two translations which is a way for us readers to closely read a poem or, in Grossman’s terms, to listen to a performance of a great symphony. This poetry collection is what Bolaño personally considered one of his best works. Maybe we owe it to him that we must make an attempt to listen to his lines and learn his art as it was created before our very own eyes, in as many interpretations as the concert hall can produce.

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