Translator Questionnaire: Ilan Stavans

"To me, inspiration feels like a downpour."

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books. His most recent translations are Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs (Norton, 2015, with Anna More), and Lazarillo of Tormes (Norton, 2016). A recent conversation with him on translation, with Charles Hatfield, is “Silence Is Meaningful,” Buenos Aires Review, July 15, 2015.

What is the best translated book you’ve read recently?

I am in the middle of a strange yet fulfilling experiment: I am rereading Madame Bovary in various translations at once (Eleanor Marx-Aveling, Geoffrey Wall, Lydia Davis, Adam Thorpe), along with the French original and a Spanish translation. I first read Flaubert’s novel in my teens, while still in Mexico. Coming back to it in all these dress-ups is, at times, an embarrassment of riches. Marx-Aveling was the daughter of Karl Marx. Wall wrote a biography of Flaubert. Davis is Davis. And Thorpe talks about the task as “the Everest of translation.” Unfortunately, the Spanish version (not the same one I encountered when young), in its title page, refers to the author as Gustavo Flaubert and to the novel as Madame Bovery. The rest, one might say, is indeed like climbing the Everest.

Who would you like to see translated into English? Who deserves more attention in English?

Scores of authors deserve more attention in English. Ours is the world’s lingua franca yet in the United States only 3% (yes, the putative 3%) of books published annually are translations. For instance, I would like to more works from Icelandic, Farsi, and Bengalese rendered in English.

For a more concrete response to your question, I would like to read authors like María Sonia Cristoff (Argentina) and Sabri Louatah (France) in English. I would also like to see the 19th-century Colombian classic María, by Jorge Isaac. The only available translation is from the Cro-Magnon Age.

How did you know you would become a translator?

I have lived all my life at the intersection of languages (Yiddish, Spanish, Hebrew, English, and French), which means that in my head—and in my mind—I am always doing what in Spanish is known as “interpretación simultánea.” When, in the mid-eighties, I immigrated to New York City, I became conscious of this condition, and, over time, I have resigned myself to it. Perhaps my response should be: I have never been able to escape translation, and heaven knows I have tried. In fact, I sometimes envy monolinguals: they live life plainly, unobtrusively.

What are you translating right now?

I have begun translating José Hernández’s The Gaucho Martín Fierro, first published in 1872. This, as you may know, is the epic poem that created Argentina as a modern nation. (But is it really modern?) My task, I recognize, is a fanciful. This is the first stanza of Canto I in the original:


Aquí me pongo a cantar
Al compás de la vigüela,
Que el hombre que lo desvela
Una pena estraordinaria
Como la ave solitaria
Con el cantar se consuela.

For purposes of understanding, here is a rough prose version:

What I’m about to tell you is a rare tale of uncommon sorrow and I cain’t do it lest I strum on my guitar. I’m like a lonely bird singing hisself to sleep.

There have been various English-language renditions. This one is by Walter Owen (1936):


I sit me here to sing my son

To the beat of my old guitar;

For the man whose life is a bitter cup,

With a song may yet his heart lift up,

As the lonely bird on the leafless tree,

That sings ‘neath the gloaming star.

This one is in prose by Henry Alfred Holmes (1948):


Here commences my song, to the strains of the guitar; for to the man who is a pray to griefs that hardly may be borne, relief comes in song, even as the lonely bird signs and finds consolation.

And this last one is by C. E. Ward (1967):


Here I come to sing

to the beat of my guitar:

because a man who is kept from sleep

by an uncommon sorrow

comforts himself with singing

like a solitary bird.

I am fascinated by this Spanish-language variety. Hernández wrote in a colloquial form he adjudicated to Argentine Gauchos. Truth is, the Gaucho lingo was oral, not written, and by the time Hernández came around it was already in decline. Plus, he, like other classic authors of Gaucho literature (Bartolomé Hidalgo, Estanislao del Campo, Hilario Ascasubi, and later, of course, Borges) wasn’t a Gaucho. Thus the description of Hernández’s work, not as “literatura gaucha,” but as “literatura gauchesca.”

Where do you go for inspiration—translation, literary, or otherwise?

To me, inspiration feels like a downpour, from which I must look for shelter… Another way of seeing this is by talking about death: we all have a set number of days inscribed in our forehead; these are the days we are allowed to exist. I live with the urge to make them plentiful.

What language do you wish you could read?


  • Joanne Chow

    Hello, I’d be interested to know your thoughts if you’ve completed your experiment. So, how do the translations (English, in particular) of Madame Bovary compare with each other?