As we reported, the Mexican edition of the Hay Festival was moved this year to the city of Querétaro. It closed its run Sunday (September 4). Adam Critchley spoke with author Álvaro Enrigue there about his conviction that translated work is finding a widening world audience, not least because it’s not as ‘risky a bet for a publisher’ as some might think. — Porter Anderson
By Adam Critchley
‘By Reading Translation, We Renew Literature’s DNA’Álvaro Enrigue’s first novel, La muerte de un instalador, won the Joaquín Mortiz debut novel prize in 1996 and his most recent, Muerte súbita, won the 2013 prestigious Herralde Prize. It was published in English as Sudden Death by Penguin Random House in 2016. The translation is by the award-winning Natasha Wimmer, known for bringing the works of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño to the English-speaking world.
Enrigue’s short story collection Hypothermia (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013) is translated by Brendan Riley and charts a writer’s struggle to achieve success and adapt to his new life in the United States, a transition the author has himself experienced as a resident of the US, teaching at Columbia University and Princeton.
Publishing Perspectives spoke with Enrigue at the Hay Festival in Querétaro, focusing on what he sees as a surge in interest in Latin American fiction in translation. He sees it, he says, as a flight from a kind of homogenization in American literature and as an interest among publishers in more stylistically ambitious and audacious authors from other latitudes.
Publishing Perspectives: What do you think is behind a new interest in Latin American writers in translation?
“Mexico has always been a difficult and complicated country. Right now, it’s going through a crisis of identity and of direction, and such difficult historical periods have always produced better art.”Álvaro Enrigue
Álvaro Enrigue: I think there has been a change in perspective among readers, both in the US and the UK, regarding the notion of translation.
I think reading a work in translation used to be seen as reading a “false” book, but the new generation has modified that outlook, and this is not simply due to a renewal of readers but of editors. We’re seeing a new generation of editors, who now tend to be younger than writers. And many of these young editors are women, and that has introduced an aspect to the market reflected in seeing more translations read.
There was also an impressive shift from the 20th to the 21st century in the quality of translations. I moved to the US in 1998 and in those days if you wanted to read Spanish-language writers in translation the only options were [the Spaniards] Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías. There was absolutely nothing else. But now a writer under the age of 30 who publishes a decent novel in Mexico or Peru, for example, can find a publisher in the US or the UK.
PP: But the percentage of books read in translation remains very low in the US.
AE: It’s about 3 percent, and that figure remains constant. But I have the impression that the shelves of new releases in US bookstores are becoming more globalized. They’re still not as international as those in bookstores in Rome or Paris or Mexico City or Buenos Aires, where there is a much higher percentage of books in translation. But I think works in translation are becoming much more visible.
But it takes a generation, and is not a taste that develops in five years or so. I think there is a trend toward reading more in translation in the US.
PP: And Latin American writers’s works are being read?
Using successful, tested authors in translation, is “an operation that the Spaniards discovered many years ago, and which has grown through the Frankfurt Book Fair.”Álvaro Enrigue
AE: In the UK definitely. The shelves of new releases in the UK increasingly resemble those in France or Italy, and are much more international.
In the US, much prestige—and deservedly so—is awarded to literature from central Europe and the Far East, both the classics and contemporaries. And they appear to have an advantage over Latin American literature in how much attention they receive.
This opens possibilities, not just for readers but also for writers. Literature evolves through its showdown with translation. Literature’s engagement with another language is a learning curve, and it’s by reading translations that we renew literature’s DNA.
But, then, I come from a country where literature is also a global affair and not something tied to one language.
Rights Rising Amid a Globalization of Latin American Work
PP: Are you seeing an increase in interest from abroad in Mexican literature specifically? An elevation of literary talent at home?
“I think the more curious editors are seeking literature in places where writers have more ambition for experimentation and less ambition for financial success.”Álvaro Enrigue
AE: Time will tell. There’s more attention being paid to Mexican writers by international media. Mexico has always been a difficult and complicated country. Right now, it’s going through a crisis of identity and of direction, and such difficult historical periods have always produced better art.
The usual tools of journalism and social science cease to be of use to explain what is happening. Which doesn’t mean that literature can explain it either, but literature does serve to broaden the questions we’re asking. And in that sense it seems natural that there be an emergence of writers as interesting as the times we are living through. It’s of course painful to live through, but we have to be capable of putting it into a historical perspective.
PP: The interest in Latin American writers is borne out by the Guadalajara Book Fair, which is seeing a marked increase in the number of rights buyers attending, in search of Latin American talent.
AE: It would seem that all the signs point to the same trend. There’s a process of globalization of Latin American writers. It’s also an issue that has to do with the cost of a writer. A US writer who has not published a book but has just graduated from an MFA could be a writer with six-figure sales. A Latin American writer needs to have the translation paid for, and the rights are bought for a fifth of the price. However, this might be a writer who has written five novels, is capable of working the media, and is therefore not a risky bet for a publisher, but a bet on someone who has already forged a career.
And this is an operation that the Spaniards discovered many years ago, and which has grown through the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s much cheaper and much safer to procure good literature in translation than go fishing in such an inflated market as the US.
PP: A few years ago, the only Mexican literature in translation one could find was Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes. Now one opens a literary magazine or supplement and Mexican authors are popping up everywhere; Juan Pablo Villalobos, Valeria Luiselli, Carmen Boullosa, Naief Yehya, Cristina Rivera-Garza. What’s happened?
“Translation as renovation. As Borges said, a novel in translation is an original work. The translator is a creator.”Álvaro Enrigue
AE: I think there’s a process of homogenization in writing in English, and in the US it has to do with the production of writers in MFA programs. I think the more curious editors are seeking literature in places where writers have more ambition for experimentation and less ambition for financial success.
PP: And perhaps publishers are looking for an antidote to that same formula?
AE: It’s a perception that I have. The US has a tremendous literary tradition. Through the 19th and 20th centuries they were unbeatable. But in recent years, and coinciding with the proliferation of MFA programs, the literature being produced demands less from the reader, while the literature from Latin America, from central Europe or Korea, is literature that is seeking to provoke different effects in the reader.
Short Story Writers: Still ‘More Exquisite’
PP: The US has a long and rich tradition of the short story, a genre that waned somewhat in the UK but is resurging. Latin America also has a strong short story tradition, for example Jorge Luis Borges or Julio Cortázar. Do you see the genre as still strong here?
“I am not the owner of my books. My work is over very early when it comes to reading them, and I tend to listen to my editors. And I’ve always been fortunate enough to have good ones.”Álvaro Enrigue
AE: I grew up believing that the short story was the master genre in literature because I read masters of the short story such as Borges and Cortázar. There’s something libertarian and left-field in being a short story writer. There’s a kind of myth surrounding short story writers, those who refuse to write novels and only produce stories, and how can they sustain themselves.
A short story writer is still perceived in Mexico as being much more exquisite than a novelist. I feel like I am two writers, one when I write novels and another when writing stories. The two genres are two completely different animals.
PP: What’s your relationship with your works in translation? Your novel Hypothermia appeared in English as a short story collection, for example.
AE: It’s a good example of translation as renovation. As Borges said, a novel in translation is an original work. The translator is a creator. When I spoke to my editor he said he saw it as a book of short stories. I am not the owner of my books. My work is over very early when it comes to reading them, and I tend to listen to my editors. And I’ve always been fortunate enough to have good ones.