In Conversation: George Henson, Translator

Rosie Clarke chats with George Henson, translator of Sergio Pitol's "The Art of Flight"

George Henson is a senior lecturer at UT Dallas, where he specializes in literary translation, translation theory, Spanish language, 20th century Latin American poetry and narrative, and queer literature. His translations of short stories by Mexican author Elena Poniatowska have appeared in Nimrod, Translation Review, The Literary Review, and Puerto del Sol. His translation of Carlos Pintado’s short story “Joy Eslava” was published by Zafra Lit, and his translations of poems by Francisco Morán have appeared in Sojourn and The Havana Reader.

His translation of Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight, the first of Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory,” was published last month by Deep Vellum. Recipient of the Cervantes Prize in 2005, Pitol is considered by many to be Mexico’s greatest living author, but this is his first appearance in English translation. I spoke with George via email about why this could be, and discussed his translation practice and the challenges of working with a multigeneric work like Pitol’s.

How did you become involved in literary translation?

It wasn’t until I arrived a UT-Dallas that I began to read Latin American literature in translation in the literature seminars I was taking. It was at this point that I began to think about translation in earnest. I found myself comparing the translation to the original, which allowed me to think about translation more critically. It’s always interesting to think about the choices translators make; after all, translation is all about making choices.

At Asymptote, we celebrate the act of translation as a creative act in itself. As someone working in the field, what are your feelings on the subject of the role of the translator?

Vicente Huidobro, who was the founder of creacionismo, in his “Arte poética” said that the poet is a “pequeño Dios,” a “little God.” So, yes, like the poet, the translator is creative in the sense that he or she “creates” a text; but “creative” can also mean “imaginative.” Benjamin talks about the “Aufgabe,” the “job, duty, task’” of the translator; at times, that task requires that the translator be creative in how he or she solves translation problems or challenges. But I believe that translation should be at the service of the original text. As a translator, then, I can be no more creative than the author I am translating, but neither can I be any less.

How did you come to be involved in this project? And was Pitol a writer you were already keen to work with, or an unknown figure?

I knew who Pitol was, of course. I had read him years ago, although not much. I did not know he had not been translated into English, however, until I read Valeria Luiselli’s article in Granta. Michelle Johnson from World Literature Today sent me the article. I was as surprised as Luiselli that, with the exception of a handful of short stories, Pitol had not been translated. Around the same time, I had spoken to Will Evans, who at that time was apprenticing at Open Letter and was in the process of planning his move to Dallas launch a translation press. I had pitched him another project, and at the same time told him about Pitol. He, of course, jumped at the latter. The former is yet to be published.

I found your translation of The Art of Flight quite exceptional. You skilfully captured Pitol’s humour, self-doubt, and emotional fragility, in addition to his clear confidence as a critic. Is he as engaging to translate as to read?

First, thank you. I am filled with self-doubt. I am very hard on myself, so your words are like a tonic for me. I worked very hard at doing his prose justice. The short answer is, yes, this book was very challenging, which is perhaps one of the reasons it had not been translated. It’s written in many styles, registers, and voices. There’s lots of intertextuality, extensive quotations (often with little attribution), oblique, obscure, and arcane literary references. I wanted to be faithful to Pitol’s prose and his vocabulary, which at times borders on baroque and recondite. Many times, I would Google a phrase or a word pair (adjective/noun) to find that the only person who had used the phrase or pair was Pitol. This required that the English be as original as the Spanish. Pitol pushes the limits of language, which meant I had to do the same. I had to do lots of reading and research. I grew both as a humanist and student of literature, and hope I did him justice.

In The Art of Flight, Pitol moves quite swiftly from memoir to essay to criticism. Did his inclusion of multiple literary genres pose any difficulties for you?  

Yes, the text’s hybridity presented many challenges. It made the translation process more difficult, but it makes the book much more interesting. As Álvaro Enrigue wrote recently in an essay in Letras Libres, which will be the prologue to The Journey, Pitol was making a conscious decision to subvert genre in The Art of Flight and The Journey. The multigeneric nature of The Art of Flight–the interweaving of memoir and fiction and criticism–is doing the very work that Pitol set out to do: erase all boundaries between genres. I mention fiction because The Art of Flight also contains fiction. Consider, for example, “The Marquise Was Never Content to Stay at Home” or “The Dark Twin,” which are ostensibly “essays” about the novel, but they are also exercises in writing fiction. This to me is fascinating and innovative. So inside these essays, we have at least two writing styles: essay and fiction, which made the translation process challenging but incredibly rewarding.

On a lexical level, and I may have already said this, on more than one occasion Pitol used word pairs (adj + noun) that no one else has used in Spanish, at least nothing that could be found online, or he used adjectives in ways that were very different than the established usage, or he used words that simply don’t exist in Spanish: “facilonería” is one example. It doesn’t exist in the dictionaries; no native speaker I consulted knew it, including Carmen Boullosa, but it looks like it could be Spanish. As it turns out, it’s Italian. The question is, did Pitol, who speaks Italian and who translated Italian, borrow it from Italian, or was it a word that perhaps his grandmother used? (All four of his grandparents were Italian.) The reader, of course, doesn’t need to know about any of this. He does, however, deserve to have the same kind of experience that Spanish readers have as they come across a word that is “foreign” to them. I chose the word “slapdashness,” which is a neologism in English. The adjective “slapdash” exists, but the noun form does not.

Can you talk about the biggest challenges you faced while translating this book?  

Early on I made a decision to not translate the many quotes in the text, most of which are from languages other than Spanish, but were translated into Spanish. For the English texts, it was merely a matter of quoting the original, Faulkner for example. For the other quotes, where possible I wanted to use existing English translations, even for Spanish texts, which I could have translated, but I thought that having multiple translators would contribute to the polyphonic quality of the text. As you know, Pitol is a big fan of Bakhtin. In most cases, finding English translations was not a problem. Finding the quoted passages in the translations, however, was very difficult. For some books, I literally had to leaf through each page looking for the passage. For other translations, Google Books helped. There was a lot of detective and forensic work.

In some cases, there were no English translations available. For example, Pitol quotes Mann’s diaries at length. The English translation of Mann’s diaries, however, is abridged. This required that I translate some portions of the diary entries from Spanish. I also had to do this for quotes from Vasconcelos’ Ulises criollo. The Spanish translation of Bobbio was significantly different from the English, and from the Italian. I read Italian, so I was able to determine that the English was more faithful to the original and that the Spanish was “freer.” But certain aspects of the Spanish translation, which differed from both the English and Italian, were important to a larger point Pitol was making. I had to find a way to incorporate the Spanish–specifically one word, “civilizado” [civilized]–with the Italian, ‘il mite” [the meek man], which is also present in the English. I don’t know if Pitol did the translation or not, but I had to use “civilized” or the point Pitol was making would have been lost. In fact, Pitol was a big advocate of free translation.

More than anything, however, it was difficult not being able to consult or collaborate with Pitol. He suffers from a neurological disorder­–progressive primary aphasia–which is robbing him of language, and makes collaboration impossible.

 And what gave you the most enjoyment or satisfaction during your translation?

I love to solve translation puzzles. In the case of The Art of Flight, I loved uncovering the literary references, especially the obscure ones, which are embedded in the text. An example: Pitol describes a young effeminate black boy he happens upon in a dive in Barcelona as “Una princesita negra de los brezos,” which literally means “a little black princess of the heaths or heathers.” What in the world did he mean? I knew it was doing some kind of work; nothing in Pitol is gratuitous. It turns out Pitol is alluding to a 19th century German novel Das Heideprinzeßchen, which was translated into Spanish as La princesita de los brezos, and in English as The Princess of the Moor. This is just one example. He begins “The Marquise Was Never Content to Stay at Home” with a parodic reference to the Communist Manifesto that could have easily been lost. These are the kinds of things I enjoyed uncovering in the translation.

What do you hope for English-language readers to gain from your translation?

First and foremost, I want them to gain an appreciation for Pitol, the richness of his vocabulary and prose, his erudition. When he uses words like “cotidiano,” which can be translated as “daily” or “everyday,” but also “quotidian,” I want them to know this is a writer who would use “quotidian” without flinching. So I don’t want readers to flinch when they read that and other words that are elevated in English.

I hope they also realize they are reading a foreign text. I am not a fan of domestication. I think to say that a translation reads as if it were written in English is unfortunate. I know that most translators consider it a compliment, but I do not. All translators praise the ability of translation to “enrich” the target language and culture, but it cannot do that if translators erase the foreign from the text, if they find English equivalents for every metaphor or idiom. Translation will only enrich the receptor culture and language if translators allow foreign aspects of the source text/language/culture to be visible. The translator can disappear without making the text’s foreignness disappear.

What are your current and future translation projects?

In the short term, I’m working on the edits of Pitol’s The Journey, then I need to begin The Magician of Vienna. I’d love to translate his Carnival Triptych (his last three novels). I want to translate more of Elena, specifically her nonfiction book on Octavio Paz, which is also a multigeneric text, but also her novel El tren pasa primero. And Alberto Chimal’s first and/or second novel. I’d also like to translate Leonardo Padura. I met him when I went to Havana in 2012. He has a couple of novels that are still untranslated. I want to find a publisher for Sánchez Baute’s Al diablo la maldita primavera. Oh, and there’s a Portuguese novel on the drawing board.