Even More Mad: Ariana Harwicz, ‘Feebleminded’, translated by Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott

‘An Evening with Ariana Harwicz’ took place at Waterstones on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, on 26th April 2019. The discussion was chaired by translator Daniel Hahn, and featured translator and Charco Press editor Carolina Orloff.

Ariana Harwicz, Feebleminded (Charco Press, 2019), translated by Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott.

By Rebecca DeWald

“This is a slightly stressful book, a strange piece of writing”, as an opening remark to a book reading, would maybe rub up some authors the wrong way. Not so Ariana Harwicz, who simply nods in response to Daniel Hahn’s remark. She knows Feebleminded is strange, and that’s pretty much the point, given that her motivation to write it comes from a desire to break with norms and conventions. At the launch of her most recent novel to be translated into English, she discussed the book, living in a different language, the necessity of writing, and the feeling of being translated.

Harwicz is considered to be at the forefront of new Argentinian fiction, her style characterised by its violence, eroticism, irony, and the questioning of conventional family relationships. Feebleminded follows the Man Booker International long-listed Die, My Love (2018), her first book to be translated into English (by Orloff and Sarah Moses), as the second part of an “involuntary trilogy”: the protagonists, a mother-daughter team, is at the centre of the novel, a portrayal of their feelings and excesses, and their reactions to the way in which the men (currently and formerly) in their lives affect their personalities, self-esteem and relationship with each other. What is much more telling about the book, rather than its plot, is its urgent style, the underlying threat of violence and its speed: I usually make notes on the pages of books I read for review, though it felt like Feebleminded was pushing me to read on, not to stop, but to give into the delirious fever-dream of the text.

I come from nowhere The world is a cave, a stone heart crushing you, a horizontal vertigo. The world is a moon slashed by black whips, by arrows and gunfire. How far must I dig before striking disdain, before my days burn. I could have been born with white eyes like this forest of stark pines, and yet I’m woken by volcanic ash on the garden clover. And yet my mother’s pulling out clumps of hair and throwing them on the fire. The day begins, I’m a baby and my mother’s in her armchair with her back to me, crying. I wake up as a girl. Outside, the lavender; inside, mother, her black hair in the embers. Cuttings of cloud everywhere, low and pasty, high and fleeting, dark and nondescript.

What connects the books in the trilogy (the third one is yet to be published in English) is not so much their content but their aesthetic aim: “After I wrote the third novel, I realised that it was a political act of subverting language. I wanted to interrogate my Spanish from Buenos Aires. But many things had to happen in between, many things that had to do with being a foreigner.” Harwicz, who speaks enough English to understand the questions, though prefers to reply in Spanish, interpreted by Orloff, has been living in France for the past 12 years, so she is used to speaking a foreign language, and to being a foreigner. Writing for her, she explains, is not separate from life. So experiencing the world abroad, and noticing one’s own language change through the self-imposed exile, necessarily becomes part of her fiction. Living abroad, she is becoming more estranged from her own mother tongue, as she has developed an accent, a form of “betrayal to the language.” This estrangement is all the more felt through the publication of her fourth novel, edited by Spanish publishing house Anagrama. The original manuscript, she explains, contains many “gallicisms”, loan words and calques from French; the syntax, much like with Feebleminded, freely sways between French and (Argentine) Spanish. The Spanish editor, however, corrected everything so the text would be in “pure” Spanish. But “many writers are now writing in languages that are corrupted in amazing ways”, Hahn interjects, and Harwicz’s chimes in with the term “corrupted”, citing second-language writers Conrad and Nabokov as stellar examples of writing on the “frontier of language”.

Harwicz’s background is in screenwriting, which comes through in her “dialogues” (these aren’t set out seperately on the page, but are given in the form of a stream of consciousness, mixing internal with external monologues), though not as much in her portrayal of characters. “What remains with you as reader is not the characters, but the relationship between those characters”, Hahn remarks. Harwicz confirms: “Certainly, yes. It all depends on language and on the relationship you have with language.” She explains that her protagonists purposefully don’t have names so their roles are interchangeable: the mother becomes the daughter and the daughter becomes the mother. There are multiple passages when the reader cannot be sure who is who:

On the road, we empty ourselves out. First onto the velour seat, then onto the steering wheel. Mother onto her blue blouse with small white buttons, me down my long legs. Covered in my own waste, I had the pleasant sensation my new look suited me. We strip in the layby, our shorts tangling in our high heels. Our bras on the back seat, our guts on the tarmac, we drive off with open windows and our hair tied up. We stink as we cross the white lines, no headscarves, no lip gloss, but we’re laughing for the first time in years. We never used to do that, it’s not our style to drive at a hundred miles an hour howling with laughter. To want to live and laugh again. We run inside, two teenagers with sticky skin and we shower.

Writing Die, My Love, Harwicz describes, “was absolutely necessary”, though she didn’t know at the time that she was writing a novel. Yet, as Hahn points out, there is a contradiction in that, as her prose feels “deliberate, controlled, intentional.” Conversely, that is also true: while the process of creation is very chaotic, the final outcome appears intentional. She compares it to painters, or musicians and says: “Once I hear the melody and the rhythm, which come close to a partitur, that’s when I start writing.” She goes on to cite pianists Glenn Gould and Daniel Barenboim as inspiration, who would both play Beethoven sonatas, but in very different interpretations. “I believe in following the rhythm, the pace, rather than meaning — there are words in my texts that don’t mean anything, but their sound just fits perfectly.” Following Borges’s paradigm that “synonyms don’t exist”, every word has earned its place in the sentence through sound and melody, rather than intrinsic meaning. And while that is not only a stylistic, but also a political act — breaking free from the idea of necessary and unalterable meaning in a word or text — it is also a “nightmare for translators,” Orloff interjects, as translators operate on the assumption they can find a synonym in another language. Taken to the extreme, Harwicz prefers rhythm over the idea of a word, so that it almost doesn’t matter what the word is, but only how it rolls off the tongue.

The discussion keeps coming back to language, although, as Hahn points out, Harwicz likes to reference painters, musicians and filmmakers when explaining her work — “for someone for whom language is everything, you put yourself alongside the expressive arts.” “That’s because I’m very jealous of them!” is her reply. “No one questions the point of view of a painting, or asks the painter or musician what their work is about.” Writers, in contrast, get questioned about their style all the time, by copy-editors, and through working with translators. “What fascinates me more than pianists,” she continues, “are translators. The big problem, for which there is no solution, is that a writer needs to achieve an inimitable style — but how do you translate that? How can you translate what is untranslatable?”

This aspect of the linguistic decisions made for the source text also influenced the translation, and collaborative translators Orloff and Annie McDermott had to discuss these challenges. Harwicz’s prose is like poetry, determined by rhythm and metre, and “you can imagine how hard it is to translate poetry.” In addition, characteristic of her prose is the unsaid. The co-translators often checked with the author about the meaning of certain ambiguous passages, and while Harwicz was willing to explain them to the translator team, she warned “don’t you dare explaining it to the reader.” The unsaid is both a stylistic means and a political act in need of being discovered by the reader, so they can become complicit in its construction.

Despite the seeming “utopia, impossibility” of translating a Spanish text imbued with its own conflicted relationship to its own language, the “impossible”, an English text, exists. “What is your relationship with the book”, Hahn asks. “I feel very emotional. When Carolina translated Die, My Love, I heard a musical quality very close to the one I had originally heard.” But with Feedbleminded, Orloff and Harwicz, who share an Argentine upbringing, the experience of living and working abroad for more than a decade, and of living in a foreign language, became even closer, which is reflected in the book.

I can hear the same music that I heard when I wrote it. We made music together.

Orloff gives an example: “Ariana would mention in passing the smell of bike rental places on the Argentine coast. That’s a very specific thing, a very summery thing, and marks a very specific time in history that we both share.”

Despite this very characteristically Argentine moment, Feebleminded is not set in any specific location or time. The idea, like with much fiction and film — Harwicz cites Faulkner and Tarkovsky — is to create non-existent spaces particular to the novel, a landscape that is “not completely European, but not not Latin American.” The same goes for time: the novel is clearly “not set in the 15th century”, but the characters are modern, not “fully afflicted by capitalism, but all are somehow influenced by the experience of war.”

Although translators are “even more mad than writers”, Harwicz’s concludes after a reading of her novel, followed by Orloff’s reading of the translation:

I would like to say that we often speak of the translation as betraying the original, but we also have the miracle when the translation is better than the original. I’d like to kiss Carolina now to thank her.

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