FATE, COINCIDENCE, LIFE ITSELF – An Interview with Beth Fowler on translating Iosi Havilio

Editor Rebecca DeWald travelled to Argentina and took books of and about Argentine literature with her, a literature which is receiving more and more attention in English at the moment. In this thread, the Argentine Travelogue, which will continue over the next months, she offers travel accounts about books, Argentina and translation.


Iosi Havilio Open Door (2011) and Paradises (2013), translated by Beth Fowler (And Other Stories)

Beth Fowler, interviewed by Rebecca DeWald

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After a first stop in the Argentine capital, our journey takes us on a 10-hour night bus northwest away from the Province of Buenos Aires, passing through Córdoba, to the small rural town of Jesús María, known for its yearly gaucho festival. The taxi driver taking us the rest of the way, for which there is no other form of public transport, explains that many tourists come to the nearby Sierras Chicas to spot the “ovnis”: UFOs. The ride takes us along sandy tracks further and further away from main roads and any form of settlement; it crosses my mind more than once that the driver could be taking us anywhere, despite his friendly chat about Jesús Maria, the benefits of living in Argentina (“best country in the world”), his interest in Egyptian pyramids and pharaohs, and the former Jesuit estancia which used to own all the lands we are passing. I am a bit surprised when the white towers of the Estancia Santa Catalina suddenly appear between the dense Quebracho trees as the taxi reaches the peak of one of the multiple hills in the dusty road. Midday and mid-summer make Santa Catalina a ghost town, though it is doubtfully ever a buzzing hotspot. The few houses are inhabited by locals curious about the occasional invaders arriving for Sunday mass or hoping to get a glimpse of one of the best preserved estancias in the area. The place is too small to be called a town: the central church, the former clergy quarters and the ex-slave quarters, which have been converted into our dormitory for the night, are all that remains of the grand estancia. Santa Catalina is a strikingly peaceful alternative to busy Buenos Aires and instantly slows our heart rates sped up by the heat with which we elective Scots are so unfamiliar. Our inn, La Ranchería, operates an open door policy, the unlocked front gate letting day trippers stroll through the front yard with its outdoor parilla, past the guest house and the owners’ home. Hardly any of them make it up the hill to the ruins marking the former outline of the estancia. I take a rest in this quiet spot, in the shade by the pool belonging to our host and hostess, whose Spanish is so filled with cordobés localisms, stretching his syllables and swallowing the endings, that I almost miss out on the offer. I open my book, Open Door, and wonder about the Spanish title, which I assume to be a literal Puerta Abierta with its fluid rhyme. It is not until after we have left the peaceful idyll and returned to reliable internet access that I think about finding out about Havilio’s Argentine novel and the town near Luján just outside Buenos Aires where it is set for which its name, Open Door, seems too “English” a choice.

“Open Door,” the novel’s back cover reads, is a “small town in the Pampas named after its psychiatric hospital.” The reader finds out that this hospital was founded by Dr Domingo Cabred and known to be operating an open door policy for mental health patients in asylums — the first one of its kind in South America. I was wrong in that neither Havilio’s novel nor Cabred’s town bear the name Puerta Abierta, as I find out, but are in fact called Opendoor/Open Door, respectively, deriving from the psychiatric practice first pioneered in Scotland. This approach moved away from the prison-like asylum system in the treatment of mental health patients, common in the 19th century and continued, in some cases, until after the First World War, towards an emphasis on crafts, farm work and gardening. It seems a rather appropriate, if coincidental, fit that Iosi Havilio received a Scottish voice (if not as markedly as my cordobés host) in his translator Beth Fowler. Open Door and Paradises, also by Havilio, are Fowler’s first book-length literary translations after having won the inaugural Harvill Secker Young Translator’s Prize 2010 with her translation of the Argentine Matías Néspolo’s short story ‘El hachazo.’ She kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the novels, Argentine literature and her work as a translator.

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Rebecca DeWald: Iosi Havilio is a contemporary Argentine novelist whose first and third novel, Opendoor and Paraísos, you translated into English. How did you come across Havilio and what is your relationship with both him and the text?

Beth Fowler: I was introduced to Iosi’s writing by And Other Stories, which had just launched as a not-for-profit literary publisher. AOS organises reading groups looking at new and exciting books from various countries and invites readers, translators, editors and anyone interested in good writing to collaborate and help with the decision-making process. Open Door was discussed as part of the first Spanish reading group, and it was decided that it would be one of the publisher’s first titles. I read and instantly liked the book, did a sample translation and that’s how it all began. I’ve yet to meet Iosi in person, but he has always been on hand via email throughout the translation process to help me with any queries about the text – and to decipher Argentine slang!

RD: Open Door narrates the story of a young assistant in a veterinary surgery who, after her partner Aída disappears, abandons Buenos Aires for the countryside and begins a new life with Jaime, a gardener at least twice her age, and simultaneously with Eloísa, a promiscuous village teenager. Paradises recounts the protagonist’s return to Buenos Aires with her and Jaime’s son Simón, years later. Jaime has died – another tragedy – and she has become a mother, yet she does not seem to have changed, is still seduced by Eloísa and still “drifts” through life.

We never find out very much about the narrator and she appears unaffected by whatever happens to her, much like Albert Camus’ Meursault, a character who the reader finds difficult to identify with. What’s the function of a character who doesn’t have a lot of characterisation? How do you find a way of portraying her?

BF: I think a character like this acts as a lens through which to view the world. She is essentially an observer of life, people and events who gives almost nothing of herself, betraying scarcely any emotion. When I started reading Open Door, I was desperate to find out more about her and her background, why she is the way she is. But as I carried on reading, I realised that it wasn’t her I wanted to hear about, but her descriptions of everything going on around her, the eccentric characters she encounters and the unlikely situations in which she finds herself. She is so passive that she allows fate, coincidence, life itself — whatever you want to call it — to be the driving force. For me, this makes these novels all the more intriguing and entirely unpredictable.

However, I must confess that I do find it hard to identify with the narrator’s apparent lack of emotion — especially when she has a child. Having recently become a mother myself, I find her apathy towards motherhood unnerving. But I don’t think that it is necessary to identify with a character to find them compelling.

As for portraying someone like this, I try to let the voice of the text come through naturally when I am translating. I certainly didn’t make a conscious decision to “portray” her one way or another. I find that Iosi’s writing creates such clear images in my mind that I really just use my instincts to, hopefully, recreate the voice of the Spanish original and I’d like to think that I’ve remained true to his text.

 Open Door jacket cover high res copyRD: The protagonist of both novels is an unnamed female first person narrator. It strikes me that there is a tension between a male author depicting a female character in a way which often focuses on her sexuality, not shying away from explicit sex and masturbation scenes. Do you think he painted a male cliché of a woman?

BF: I don’t think so. Yes, the sex scenes are fairly explicit, and you could argue that a woman writing through a female narrator might have adopted a gentler approach (although I don’t think that’s necessarily the case), but I don’t think there’s anything clichéd about this character or indeed about the sex scenes, which are often uncomfortable, even unpleasant, and to my mind not at all erotic. I see the narrator as a rather androgynous figure, so unusual in her apathy and detachment from everything that she is unlike anyone I’ve ever met, male or female.

RD: Do you think by having a female translator the novels have become more feminine, if that exists? Is there a difference between reading a ‘male’ and a ‘female’ voice?

BF: I don’t think a translator can help but give a bit of themselves to the text. My word choices are inevitably influenced by any number of things, my background, where I live, the books I read, as well the fact that I’m female. Having said that, I try my best to be faithful to the voice of the original and not to impose my own voice on it. Perhaps it would take a male reader to pick out a more feminine voice in my translations, but I certainly haven’t knowingly feminised them.

I think there can be a big difference between reading a male and a female voice. For example I recently translated a book telling the stories of ten Chilean women, in their own words – Ten Women by Marcela Serrano. That, unsurprisingly, had a strongly feminine feel, and the whole purpose of the book was to give a voice to this group of women of different ages and from different backgrounds. And of course there is the phenomenon of “chick-lit” and certain male authors who write in a very “laddish” manner. But there isn’t always such a neat division between a “male” and a “female” voice and, to be honest, it doesn’t matter to me what gender the voice is as long as it is compelling. Sometimes I find an overtly male or female voice off-putting, when it is very deliberate, as I find it can detract from other qualities of the writing. I dislike the idea of certain writing being “for women” or “for men”, and I don’t like to feel that a book has been aimed at me purely because I’m a woman, I like to feel free to explore all writing and discover the voices and stories that appeal to me, whether written by a man or a woman.

Iosi Havilio

Iosi Havilio

RD: Many contemporary Argentine novels recently published in English translation interrogate Argentine history: the many dictatorships the country has endured, the disappeared, the economic instability, the political oppositions. The two Havilio novels do not mention Argentine history, neither explicitly nor implicitly. Do you think it is unusual for a contemporary Argentine novel not to engage with the country’s complicated history?

BF: We are all a product of our history and the events that have affected our lives in some way, whether on a personal, national or global level, and while some people like to reflect on the past, others would rather focus on the present or dream about the future. I don’t see that it’s any different in literature. Naturally, in a country with such a turbulent recent history, many authors will choose to engage with the life-changing events that have shaped their nation, but I don’t think it unusual for a writer to find inspiration elsewhere. On the contrary, as the world becomes smaller and we are increasingly exposed to other cultures and ways of life, I would find it strange if all Argentine fiction did look back to the country’s troubled history.

RD: Many readers of translations often think that literary translators have a lot of time on their hands to ponder stylistic and linguistic questions to create the perfect literary work. Could you tell us about your approach to a literary translation and how you cope with deadlines?

BF: If only! I should say, first and foremost, that there’s no such thing as a perfect translation. It’s very subjective work because you approach it primarily as a reader, and of course all readers will respond differently to any piece of writing. I like to create a first draft fairly quickly, even if it’s only very rough, as I find it the best way to capture my gut reaction to the text as a reader — before getting bogged down in specific terminology — and to get a feel for the book as a whole. Then I go back through it more slowly, checking it against the original, and then again to “tweak” it and make sure it reads well. I usually go too far with the tweaking, so sometimes the deadline is a blessing in disguise because it forces me to be decisive. So far I’ve always had perfectly manageable deadlines for my novel translations — although sadly not so for my commercial translations — so I find that as long as I’m organised and set myself a schedule, I’m not usually racing against the clock.

PARADISES_FRONT COVER RGB copyRD: How did you start out as a literary translator? Do you also translate other kinds of texts?

BF: I started out doing commercial translation, having studied Spanish and Portuguese at university. I had always liked the idea of literary translation, but commercial work, mainly for translation agencies, seemed to be a more straightforward way of getting started for someone with no experience or contacts. Then, in 2010, I saw an advert for the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, which involved translating a short story by Argentine author Matías Néspolo. I thought I’d give it a go — and won! That effectively catapulted me into the world of literary translation and enabled me to make contacts that have led to all my literary work so far. Recently, however, I’ve returned to commercial translation as I had a baby last year and don’t have the time to commit to big literary projects at present.

You can read Beth Fowler’s thoughts on winning the Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize here, as well as her translation ‘The Axe Falls’ of the mentioned short story by Matías Néspolo.

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