CFP// LASA 2016: What Is “New” in New Media?

The Latin American Studies Association is coming to NYC, and I’m putting a panel together with the brilliant Phillip Penix-Tadsen on new forms of narrativity made possible by digital technology (and to what extent these forms really are “new”). Interested in joining the conversation? Fantastic. Follow the instructions below to submit an abstract. Questions? Just send us a note…

Call for Papers, LASA International Congress
New York City, May 27-30 2016

Panel: What is “New” in New Media?
Co-organized by Phillip Penix-Tadsen (U. of Delaware) and
Heather Cleary (Sarah Lawrence C.)

In the four decades since the first personal computers became available in Latin America and across the globe, the range of digital technologies and their cultural influence have expanded exponentially. This panel focuses on historically grounded perspectives that contextualize the most impactful recent tendencies in Latin American new media production. The organizers invite interventions that engage the concept of digital narrativity or digital signification—understood broadly as meaning-making through elements including language, sound, image and interactivity—in the Latin American context. We seek abstracts focused on current and future trajectories in new media products such as visual poetry, video games, hypertext narratives, software modification,, blogs and social media. At its core, the panel seeks to answer the question: What is “new” in new media, and in what specific ways are contemporary Latin American creators building on past traditions while engaging the most recent technologies?

Deadline: September 1, 2015
Abstracts of 200-250 words can be sent to or

All about Bellatin

So, I’m gonna go ahead and not dwell on the fact that it’s been a year since I posted anything to this site. I’ve been writing quite a bit, though (chau, dissertation), and have published a few book reviews here and there. I’m pretty excited about the most recent one: not only was it for Music & Literature, one of my favorite mags, but I also got to talk about the latest translation of a book by Mario Bellatin, a writer with whom I’m completely enthralled.jacob

The book is Jacob the Mutant, translated by Jacob Steinberg and published in a gorgeous edition by Phoneme Media. I’m particularly fond of this work because it belongs to a series of texts and public interventions in which Bellatin plays games with those things the literary establishment holds most sacred: above all, the ideas of authorship and originality. Remember that press conference when—after one journalist insisted the writer name a literary influence—Bellatin invented a Japanese writer named Shiki Nagaoka and then doubled down on his ruse, writing an apocryphal biography of the man? Jacob the Mutant is sort of like that, only this time the game revolves around an apocryphal text.

Even better, the Phoneme edition makes an explicit point of being what all translations are, implicitly (and sometimes begrudgingly): an original work. Thanks to a translator’s afterword brilliantly conceived by Steinberg to mirror the strategies employed by Bellatin, Jacob the Mutant is truly a text in dialogue with its earlier Spanish editions, and it wears this originality proudly.

When we talk about translation, too often we talk about what is lost. The brilliance of this translator’s afterword—which does not comment on Bellatin’s text but rather performs it anew, weaving Roth’s fragments together with Steinberg’s personal history, religion, and family tree—is that it establishes a parity between Bellatin’s productive appropriation of Roth’s narrative persona, and his own, of Bellatin. As a whole, then, that belongs to a greater whole, the recent publication of Jacob the Mutant not only offers the reader a memorable exploration of the compelling but futile drive to hold on to the familiar in a world marked by constant change; it also insists on the status of its translation as the rebirth of a work that, like its protagonist, will continue to take on new and ever vital forms.

You can read the rest of the review here. I also wrote a little something about David Shook’s luminous, witty translation of Shiki Nagaoka for Words Without Borders a million (well, two) years ago; here’s that.

And now… (Drumroll, please.) Keep an eye out for the Bellatin dossier coming in May from the Buenos Aires Review, which will feature new work from Bellatin and Shook, as well as essays from Edmundo Paz Soldán and Craig Epplin, a conversation between Mat Chiappe and Bellatin in which the latter discusses his feelings about Japan (he has many), and more. For me, at least, the past month has been all Bellatin, all the time—and I can’t say I’ve minded it one bit.

Blame Derrida

There are a million reasons I shouldn’t be writing this post right now, but I can’t stop thinking about the disappointing turn Zadie Smith’s otherwise beautiful reflection on climate change for the New York Review of Books takes at the end.

Early in the piece, Smith talks about how comfortably her contemporaries have settled into discussions of the “new normal”—avoiding, like the bereaved, allusions to what once was. She takes up arms against these complacent, accommodating euphemisms, naming precisely what it is that is being lost, at home, in the heart:

Forcing the spike of an unlit firework into the cold, dry ground. Admiring the frost on the holly berries, en route to school. Taking a long, restorative walk on Boxing Day in the winter glare. Whole football pitches crunching underfoot. A bit of sun on Pancake Day; a little more for the Grand National. Chilly April showers, Wimbledon warmth.

A few lines later, we watch these changes play out on distant shores and a far more devastating scale, though they are hidden behind the rhetorical jousting between “alarmists” and “realists” and a convenient slippage of verb tense:

In Jamaica, where Sandy first made landfall, the ever more frequent tropical depressions, storms, hurricanes, droughts, and landslides do not fall, for Jamaicans, in the category of ontological argument … Going, going, gone! But not quite yet. The apocalypse is always usefully cast into the future—unless you happen to live in Mauritius, or Jamaica, or the many other perilous spots.

How can we even begin to account for the damage we’ve done? To whom do we answer, in the end? Smith, like many others, looks to future generations; rather, she looks to the generations of the not-so-distant future, since it seems we’re already well on our way toward the endgame. She imagines herself trying to explain the coming climatic apocalypse to her seven-year-old future grand-daughter, who—to Smith’s credit—is not a polite, passive figure but instead an inquisitive, albeit “slightly tiresome and judgmental,” soul.

Now, what would she say to the child, to explain how it all went so wrong?

I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes—and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat.

Wait… what? Deconstruction? What about individual and collective greed, and the stranglehold big corporations—the primary culprits in deforestation, chemical dumping, and our dependence on fossil fuels—have on governments around the world? If it’s a cause for apathy you want, why not look to the scores of protests that fell on deaf ears after the attacks on the World Trade Center sent the war machine rumbling into the Middle East, and speculative investment took down the global economy (but failed to generate any real structural change to the world financial system)? What about the effective disenfranchisement of millions of citizens and the legislative endorsement of race-based homicide here in the States? It’s enough to make anyone feel impotent, defeated. But with all this, Derrida’s the problem?

What bothers me so much is that the claim isn’t only absurd, it’s also just as docile and fatalistic as the euphemisms and elegies Smith herself criticizes. In a piece so concerned with naming, why would such a talented writer shy away from naming the systemic issues behind the causes and effects (environmental destruction and apathy, interchangeably) of climate change? In doing so, in missing this opportunity, she has renounced the little hope we do have in all this, the possibility of a well-reasoned and compelling argument falling on the right ears. Though I can’t say I know whose ears those would be.

Translating on the Edge at PEN World Voices

On May 3, I’ll be moderating a panel sponsored by the PEN Translation Committee for the organization’s World Voices festival. I’m very excited to hear what the panelists have to say about language, politics, and “dangerous” or endangered texts.

I suspect there are people who would like to attend, but will be unable to for one reason or another. Video from the event will be available on the PEN website, which is great, but I thought it would be even better to open things up a bit and include a few questions from those who will be following the event remotely.

Questions for the panelists can be submitted as comments to this post, or to, until May 1. To get the wheels turning, I’ve copied the description of the panel below.

For the official PEN event page and ticket information, click here.

Screen Shot 2014-04-18 at 9.45.38 AM

Translating on the Edge
With Bonnie Huie, Robyn Creswell, and Sara Khalili

Translation can be dangerous and subversive from a literary perspective. It can also take on a political or ideological dimension. Two translators of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were attacked, one fatally, while the Turkish translator and publisher of William S. Burroughs’s The Soft Machine were put on trial. In other far less visible cases, translations have been suppressed for the voices and ideas they convey, rather than for any lack of literary or cultural merit. This panel brings together translators who have worked with texts considered blasphemous, obscene, or otherwise dangerous to offer their views on the place where art meets politics.

Saturday, May 3
1 – 2.30pm

The Frederick P. Rose Auditorium, The Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square

hello, again.

photo: Lucía Vasallo

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, but I have been keeping busy. Since October, a couple of book reviews have come out here and there, and a more or less respectable amount of headway has been made on my dissertation. I turned in the final manuscript for The Dark, the most recent of Sergio Chejfec’s novels to appear in my translation, which will come out this October from Open Letter Books (and The Planets, which came out last year, was nominated for a Best Translated Book Award). I’ve been traveling back and forth from Argentina, and teaching, and whatever else it is that I do with my days.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I know what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working with three incredible women to put together a fully bilingual, fully digital literary magazine called the Buenos Aires Review. It’s been a ton of work, but I couldn’t be happier with the result. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll take a second to check it out, and to see what we’re all about.

I’ll still be posting here from time to time, though. Eso sí.

In the meantime, here’s one of my favorites from among the pieces we put up for the launch (for the record, my bias is not retroactive: I translated it because I love it, not the other way around). It’s a clever essay on the politics behind the glamour of Eva Perón.


on causes, lost and found.

A few months ago, I found myself de sobremesa with a motley bunch of porteños and transplants from all corners, staring at the cheese rinds, empty bottles, and cracker shards scattered across the table as reminders of the pleasant meal we’d just shared and the less pleasant morning to come. In one of the sated silences that punctuated the evening’s political discussions, I asked the guest of honor, a playwright and novelist who left the country on the eve of the dictatorship and was back for a brief visit, if she’d happened to have heard of the book I’d just finished reading, a Colombian novel from the 80s called Sin Remedio. “Of course,” she said, “Antonio’s a dear friend of mine.” Another silence, this one uncomfortable. “But,” I finally said, because I couldn’t manage to dislodge the sentence from between my teeth any other way, “he’s a bit of a misogynist, isn’t he?” She laughed, and I’m pretty sure I caught a conspiratorial nod.

Antonio Caballero has called his picaresque Sin remedio, which translates roughly to A Lost Cause, a book about “how hard it is to write poetry.” It might also be described as a political and sentimental education, in spite of the fact that its protagonist seems to have learned little, if anything, by the novel’s close. It is, undeniably, a smart, scathing critique of the Colombia of the 1960s and early 70s, when the Left began to respond to the National Front, which maintained a tight grip on the nation from 1958 to 1974, with guerilla violence (one of the region’s most widely known militant organizations, the FARC, was founded during this period). First published in 1984, this expansive work was celebrated not only for its acerbic prose and incisive social commentary, but also for offering an alternative to the imitations of Márquez that had come to dominate the literary landscape.

Ignacio Escobar, the floundering-poet-turned-“radicalized petit bourgeois” at the heart of the novel, is caught between two worlds. As the black sheep of one of Bogotá’s ruling families, he divides his time between fine restaurants and country estates, and the underground circles of his best friend, Federico, an artist and activist involved in the revolutionary project of the Left. Little by little, Ignacio is swept up in the movement and eventually finds his voice—understood in both aesthetic and political terms—after being robbed of all his material possessions. Following a series of false starts, he writes a stunning anti-ode to the city of Bogotá in a single, multi-day sitting in his empty apartment. He takes the poem to the street, eager to share it with The People, only to feel it dissolve in a sea of political chants and slogans.

Yet despite his politico-poetic epiphany late in the novel, our protagonist is not a particularly sympathetic character. He’s been spending most of his time crafting bad verse in bed and living off the allowance he still collects from his mother, whom he avoids like the plague. He runs his girlfriend off with his self-righteous inertia and attacks on her aesthetic sensibility, then embarks on a series of liaisons that begins with her former ballet teacher but quickly branches out to include a prostitute, a young cousin, and both Federico’s housekeeper and sister-in-law, Angela. He skips his brother’s memorial service, and then his uncle’s. He compares himself to Rimbaud. He seems incapable of looking at a woman without imagining what it would be like to sleep with her and, in most cases, trying pretty actively to find out, no matter how abhorrent he finds her (and he usually finds her pretty abhorrent).

Ignacio’s almost cartoonish aversion to affective commitment dovetails neatly with the question of political commitment in art, which is discussed at length in the novel, and to commitment to a course of action, in general. Our protagonist, it comes as no surprise, tends to be a passive observer of his own life, often ignoring the issue at hand in the hope that the responsibility will fall to someone, anyone, else.

This is certainly the case in Sin remedio’s denouement. Having grown progressively radicalized over the course of the novel, Federico is eventually picked up by the police. Fearing he might be tortured, his wife asks Ignacio to get his influential uncle, Foción, to arrange his release (which Ignacio does, in good time, complaining all the while about what a hassle it is to have to get up, leave the house, etc). As soon as Federico is out of jail, however, he starts planning the political kidnapping of the very man who intervened on his behalf, and decides that Ignacio should be the one to negotiate his uncle’s ransom. But Ignacio doesn’t go the meeting; he gets distracted and ends up  at the house of one of his cousin’s friends instead, where he drinks and does lines and sits in the sauna while word of Foción’s death breaks on the news.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the questionable character of its protagonist, there is much to recommend this book. Caballero, unlike Ignacio, clearly does not shy away from politically committed art; enriched by the author’s background in journalism, Sin remedio’s descriptions of the volatile streets and staid drawing rooms of Bogotá, and of the individuals who occupy each, are vivid and devastating. Of course, key to the story is the increasing political instability in Colombia, and Caballero evokes the energy of the moment and the constant threat of violence that hangs over it with remarkable skill. Immediately after Ignacio realizes that his revolutionary poem is worth little among the rabble, he stumbles upon an election-day protest:

The Maoists marched with long strides along the avenue, gleefully overturning tables and frightening voters as they went. The officer with the mustache, his face purple with anger, shouted into his two-way radio and his men, now on one knee, raised their rifles to their shoulders. Two army jeeps full of troops pulled up from a side street and the military police stormed down Nineteenth, clubbing onlookers and respectable citizens waiting in line at the voting tables with their batons as they went.

Caballero’s deft prose moves the novel along at a quick pace, though this might also be an effect of the humor that girds the critiques it levies against both sides of the political divide, adding texture to the work and serving as a counterpoint to the gravity of its political message. And sometimes it’s just that the language and imagery is, simply put, quite lovely, as in this description of the city in the small hours:

The faintly illuminated drizzle, the delicate odor of garbage fermenting in the night, a watchman making his rounds, snaking up the steep avenues of La Perseverancia on his bike. Signs for pharmacies and liquor stores glowing mint green, hot pink, cadmium orange.

Still, it’s hard to endorse this book without reservation. For one thing, Ignacio’s world is populated by some fairly detestable characters and can be a rampantly sexist, and occasionally homophobic, place. The men are juvenile and arrogant and the women fare worse still, being almost invariably hysterical, materialistic, vacuous, or all of the above. The Bogotá elite, young and old alike, is over-indulged and under-informed, while the Left so determined to unseat it is comprised of opportunists and hypocrites, and spends far more time talking about the revolution over lines of cocaine and bottles of rum than it does bringing it about. Even though, as a conceit, it is both artfully realized and absolutely central to the novel, this absence of a sympathetic anchor can be somewhat trying in a book of this length.

Ultimately, Sin remedio is a novel very much of its time and place, for better and for worse. It’s a vivid, accessible, and emotionally gripping portrait of a city and a political moment; at the same time, it presents things like gender and sexuality in a way that can be jarring for a reader today (even a fairly unflappable one). Still, some things never change: the questions Caballero raises about the place of art in politics and activism are no less relevant now than they were then, and the same can be said for the time-honored tradition of hashing out A Better Way in declarations as categorical as they are slurred. Or, at least, that’s what I remember of that night, a few months ago.

the angels of history

Tierra de los padres
dir. Nicolás Prividera (Argentina 2011)

Of all the things one could say about it, it would be hard to accuse Tierra de los padres of a lack of ambition, aesthetically or politically. The film, which was controversially excluded from the BAFICI and Mar del Plata festivals despite being lauded in Toronto, Havana, and Mexico, examines the political history of Argentina through its foundational texts, which are read aloud among the mausoleums and monuments commemorating the nation’s “fathers” (and iconic jefa espiritual, Eva Perón) in the Cementerio de la Recoleta. As Prividera writes in a letter to the audience distributed at the film’s belated national premiere, the work explores”the construction of identity over and against an ‘enemy’ to be fought (as is always the case when politics turns into war).”

This “always” is key: Prividera—whose criticially acclaimed first film, M, traces his attempts to discover what happened to his mother after she was “disappeared” by the state in the late seventies—keys in on the ideological and discursive commonalities among the moments of violence that have marked Argentina’s history and, in so doing, blurs the line between past and present, documentary and narrative.

Prividera’s telling of this (hi)story is divided into three movements. In the first, the national anthem is played over a string of still images: of the victims of the military campaigns into the desert at the end of the 19th century, the bombing of the Plaza de Mayo (1955), and the casualties of the Ezeiza masacre (1973); of fallen soldiers in the Falkland Islands (1982), the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo denouncing the state terror of the Dirty War (1976-1983), and the tumult in the streets after the economic collapse of 2001.

Cut to a little girl in a school uniform holding a very large book. To her left is a flag embellished with the national crest; the tight alleys and house-like crypts that run through the urban necropolis stretch out behind her. Haltingly, she reads a passage from a text written in exile by Esteban Echeverría (1805-1851) during the rule of the Federalist (despot) Juan Manuel de Rosas and dedicated to the “martyrs” who gave their lives for their homeland. Echeverría’s lament for the political polarization between its Unitarian and Federalist citizens catch on her tongue; when she reaches the end of the selection, she pauses uncomfortably for just a moment before closing the book and running, away from the camera, to join her peers.

We’ve moved into the centerpiece of the film, a series of readings from seminal cultural and political texts that date from the earliest days of Argentina’s nationhood to the present. People of all ages—some of them recognizable writers, some students; some appear to have been plucked at random from the alleyways of the Cementerio—give voice to the work of historical figures like D.F. Sarmiento (President of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, author of Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, and importer of European educational models) and the Federalist caudillo Juan Facundo Quiroga (1788-1835), to whom the title of his categorical denouncement of Rosas refers; Juan Bautista Alberdi (intellectual and diplomat who contributed to the composition of the Argentine Constitution of 1853); Rosas himself and his liberal opponent Bartolomé Mitre (President of Argentina from 1862 to 1868, author, founder of the newspaper La Nación). The list goes on. (This is where the aesthetic ambition of the project is most pointed: Prividera sustains this pattern of still shots of readers in front of a crypt or monument, nearly unvaried in the way they are framed and punctuated only by momentary contextual vignettes, for over an hour.)

To these voices are added the more recent ones of Eva Perón, patron saint of the working class, the writer and political activist Rodolfo Walsh, who died in a shootout with the armed forces one day after publishing his famous “Open Letter to the Military Junta” in 1977, and public statements issued by heads of state and business leaders to allay international concern over the political and economic instability toward the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. The tracks are gradually layered over one another to create a stunning wall of sound (think Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North”) that in turn gives way to the opening notes of Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” as the camera pulls back and up, swirling over the neatly arranged rows of mausoleums, then back further still to include the neatly arranged rows of apartment buildings surrounding the cemetery. We’re still trying to digest Prividera’s juxtaposition of these two spaces as a traveling shot takes us over the city and to its edge at the ports.

In the final moments of the film, as Verdi’s soaring, aching strains evoke the pain of exile and the restorative power of memory (“Fly, thought, on wings of gold;/ go settle upon the slopes and the hills […] may the Lord inspire in you a harmony of voices/ which may instill virtue to suffering”), we come to a stop above the rippling waters of the Río de la Plata, the final resting place of countless victims of the military dictatorship’s “death flights.” There is nothing else in the frame. We’ve moved from a chaos of voices to a categorical silence—not the absence of sound, but the silence of a history suppressed—and we remain suspended there for quite some time.

But wait, you might say, this doesn’t sound like a narrative film at all. And you’d be right, except for the parallel stories being told at the margins of the focal scenes, which combine to form an account of a present in which the past is both entirely assimilated and almost completely forgotten. Through exchanges between the groundskeepers and the families of the entombed, through the flood of schoolchildren scrambling to copy factoids into worksheets in front of Evita’s crypt, and the tourists prospecting for the perfect photographic souvenir, the question behind the project asserts itself among the polemics: Who is the guardian of our history? Whose voice will tell it, and how will it be told? I couldn’t help but feel a bit complicit in the dissipation of historical specificity as I sat comfortably in my seat in the Sala Leopoldo Lugones (1874-1938; writer and political activist) on the tenth floor of the Teatro San Martín (named after General José de San Martín [1778-1850], liberator of Argentina, Peru, and Chile from Spanish rule) on the Avenida Corrientes (a city in the north that fought with particular fervor for independence).

But data can only take us so far. “It is one thing to recite,” Prividera insists, “and another thing to understand.” In these micro-portraits of class conflict, the educational system, and the fickle gaze of the consumer of culture woven among the ghostly discourse that inhabits the space, conjured only momentarily by the readers and then lost again for however long, we see the distillation of fraught historical moments into a thin stream of names and dates; as George Santayana would remind us, with their abstraction and gradual progress toward oblivion comes the inevitability of their repetition.

And so we come back to that “always,” and Prividera’s claim that the polarization and the oppression integral to the nation’s founding are still present in a structural, rather than an episodic, way. Though there’s always the danger of such a stance naturalizing these abuses by presenting them as inevitable or as part of a grisly tradition, the spirit of denouncement in which the film was made comes through more than clearly in the camera’s final movement, which joins the official, monumentalized version of the nation’s history to the one hidden beneath the water’s surface, just offshore, condemning a violence that accumulates not as a series of isolated events, but as a single mass. Rubble piled upon rubble, cast at our feet.

a bouquet of dark matter

Many thanks to Scott Esposito of The Quarterly Conversation, who brought Daniel Bosch’s recent essay on William Kentridge to my attention. Those of you who read Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds will remember Kentridge’s appearance toward the end of the book, and how his explicitly rendered lines of sight echo the narrator’s particular way of looking, the bidirectional “gaze in the process of continuous renewal” that at once brings the outside world in and lays the inner world bare. Bosch’s sweeping essay, grounded in the lectures Kentridge gave earlier this year at Harvard, touches on the concepts of fate, justice, and futility; it also includes a striking anecdote that brought Chejfec’s narrative style, in a broader sense, to mind:

In the closing moments of lesson one, Kentridge spoke as we watched the projected image of a kinetic sculpture rotate on its vertical axis, from which sprouted a bouquet of dark matter, fragments of black paper or metal or plastic or charcoal. As these fragments moved in their orbits, fixed by armature wire about that axis, their silhouettes seemed, momentarily, to combine, to come unglued, and then to recombine in greater forms, each haunting, suggestive, but inarticulate. Quite quickly we understood that the rotating axis of the sculpture, though it stayed in one place, was headed somewhere, fated for some destiny. And voila! Precisely as Kentridge fell silent, the black elements in motion on the screen slowly passed their mark, then gently rotated backward into place, the place, so that we could see, finally, how his carefully disposed fragments came together to make a whole—in this case a drawing of a manual typewriter. (Kentridge had reminded us moments before that such machines, metonyms for the development of mass communication in the late 19th century and its explosion in the 20th, were built in the same factories where the Remington corporation had made the rifles used in U.S. Civil war.) The initially incomprehensible—the in-motion, the fragmentary, the disjointed—had come, in its time, to rest, at representation and thus recognition. It was a bravura gesture, an admonition to remember the distorting and defining powers of perspective, anamorphosis, and point of view.

Bosch’s essay can be read in its entirety here; video of all six Kentridge lectures (not to mention other treasures… Eliot! Borges! Trilling!) is available here. For Scott’s reflections on My Two Worlds, click here.

in other words

If there’s one thing translators and theorists of translation love to discuss, debate, and ultimately disagree about, it’s the extent to which a translated work should sound “natural” in the target language. It’s been a hot topic since at least 1813, when Friederich Schleiermacher presented his two opposing methods of translating—the first being to move the source text toward the reader by standardizing its usage in the target language, and the second being to move the reader toward the source text by preserving those images and constructions that might seem out of place in their new habitat. The latter has been championed by scholars like Antoine Berman and Lawrence Venuti—who advocates this “foreignizing” approach over and against the “cult of fluency” which, he claims, masks the ideological interventions that shape the  work as it passes from one literary system into the next—as well as Gayatri Spivak, who sees it as an ethical imperative for those translating into “dominant” languages. On the other side of the fence are usually the translators themselves (as much as I hate to repeat the reductive opposition of theory and practice, it seems to play out this way, in this case), who want to highlight the literary value of the text; this often means making it, bluntly put, sound good.

But what happens when a certain foreignness is already present in the original?

Reading Sergio Chejfec, I’m always struck by the way his prose both deflects and draws the reader in, never allowing complete immersion in the narrative: whether explicitly or implicitly, the medium in which the story is told is under constant scrutiny. In other words, I’m struck by the way Chejfec’s language is never “natural.” He discusses this aspect of his work in a beautiful essay titled “Simple Language, Name,” which hinges on the capaciousness of the word “nombre” (both “name” and, grammatically, “noun”). The piece begins with a reflection on the necessary illusion of linguistic transparency, and then delves into the particular kind of access to personal histories and collective traditions that surnames allow.

It turns out that Chejfec is an imposed appellation: like so many before him, his father was forced to translate his name to one more in keeping with local orthography and pronunciation (for those of you who are wondering, parsed in English it would be Chay-feck) when he immigrated to Argentina. This primal alienation permeated his relationship with language: having adopted Spanish as an adult, Chejfec’s father was forced to express himself in the coarsest of terms. In the process of his translatio, he lost his nouns along with his name. Chejfec’s own prose style, he writes, emerged in response to the frustrated terseness he witnessed at home, to the deficiencies his father saw in his own usage.

There came a time when I decided to distance myself from everything my father’s speech and writing represented, from that strange, personal, and incorrect tongue, in favor of one I deemed more viable. In reality, I had no choice. But my father’s way of speaking was also my own, just like his writing and his misgivings. The result was an artificial language that I forced myself to adopt. I went out of my way to write in an obsessively cerebral style, as though I didn’t just want to exhibit a certain complexity and literary aptitude (this was the most explicit part, also the most obvious and naive) through long, difficult, and largely unvaried passages, but also to construct a baroque and ponderous style that was everything my father’s limited, but true, language was not. A similar structure, though one built with radically different tools and materials. […] This sense of foreignness, of seeing my writing as something outside me that writes itself, to which it is my role to attach ideas, is a constant for me.

Though the essay is predominantly about Chejfec’s experience of writing and language toward the end of his father’s life, the passage above might just as easily describe the sense of linguistic estrangement that pervades The Planets, out this week with Open Letter.

For one thing, there’s the bio/bibliographical proximity of the period on which the essay centers and the composition of the novel. More significant, though, is the notion of writing in—and through—the shadow of another’s voice. Just as Chejfec suggests that his adopted style bears the marks of his father’s speech, the narrator’s language in The Planets is haunted by that of his childhood friend, identified only as M “(M for Miguel, or Mauricio; it could also be M for Daniel since, as we know, any name at all can reside behind letters),” one of the thousands lost to state violence during Argentina’s Dirty War. The book, which weaves the narrator’s reflections on the friendship and its loss together with anecdotes told by M and his father, and almost clinical glosses of what has already been recounted, is in some ways one that M might have written, had he lived; at the same time, it can only exist in his absence.

The story about the pair of nomads absorbed me just as much as the one about the eye. Unlike me, who was unable to describe the events of the previous day except in the most confused terms, M abounded in stories and anecdotes that not only concerned him directly, relating to his own experience like the episode of the eye, but also encompassed broader, more diffuse—and therefore more debatable and controversial—material, which reached him from who knows where to adopt a new form through his voice. This is why it is clear to me that, were he still alive, he would have been the writer, the novelist.

In this sense, the project of the novel is the telling of a “story without an ending”  (without any definitive proof of M’s fate, the experience of his loss can have no conclusion) by means of a language the narrator senses is only partially his own. Name and noun converge here again, as the years of fruitless searching for any mention of M among the lists of the deceased demonstrate the final cruelty of the dictatorship’s strategy of abduction and misdirection: having forcibly seized the bodies of its victims, the state enacted a similar violence upon the way their stories could be told by indefinitely prolonging, and exploiting, the proliferation of questions where answers were so dearly needed.

Shaped not only by the narrator’s struggle with a tragedy impossible to circumscribe, but also his ambivalence with regard to his own “adopted tongue,” the language of The Planets flits in and out of the familiar. As a complement to the complex rhythms of the prose, conventional phrases and constructions are often rendered nonstandard by the replacement of a single term, forcing the reader to reflect on the constellation of meanings implied not only by the word on the page, but also by the one that was withheld. This is characteristic of Chejfec’s writing, though it is especially pronounced here.

Holding the reader at arm’s length from the medium of its telling (the early image of the narrator attempting to read a newspaper and seeing only splotches of ink comes to mind), The Planets is therefore marked by a certain—productive—dissonance. That is, it strikes a minor note. For this reason, among others, translating the novel was not so much a matter of pulling a text or pushing a reader, but rather one of situating the work at a remove from colloquial English that was comparable to its relation to colloquial Spanish. Because from this vantage point just beyond the familiar we can observe, through the narrator’s dance with the shadow of his lost friend, the fundamental unnaturalness of the natural.

Postscript: I hear Margaret Carson is translating the entirety of “Simple Language.” I’ll be keeping an eye out for that (as should you).