In Conversation with Alfred MacAdam

"They are like magic formulas, and it’s not a good idea to tamper with magic."

Recently, Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly spoke via e-mail with Alfred MacAdam, translator of the likes of Fernando Pessoa and Surrealist filmmaker and novelist Alejandro Jodorowsky. For an excerpt from Jodorowsky’s Albina and the Dog-Men, check out this recent installment of Translation Tuesday. This interview is also available in the Asymptote Fortnightly Airmail. Subscribe here.


RM: What was it like translating Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Where the Bird Sings Best and Albina and the Dog-Men? Did Jodorowsky’s prose get under your skin? You are an experienced translator and are perhaps more immune to the novel’s effects, but I found Albina‘s dark mythology to be intoxicating. What was it like to translate that?

AM: First, let me say that when Ilan Stavans asked me if I might be interested in translating Jodorowsky, I was dumbfounded. To me he was the crazy filmmaker of the 1970s whose El topo or Fando and Lis knocked me and my friends silly. I had no idea he had metamorphosed into a novelist.

So when Ilan sent me Where the Bird Sings Best I was simply not prepared for what it was. First of all, the Jewish essence of the book, its tracing the circuitous route of Jews who end up in Spanish America, whose religion suffers innumerable modifications along the way, was, I thought, a subject whose time in Spanish American literature had long since come. By which I mean that in the U.S. we take our Jewish writers for granted, that the Bellows, the Malamuds, the Roths (both of them) are simply part of our culture. But where was the “great Jewish novel of the Spanish American world”? 

The second shock was Jodorowsky’s Spanish. He’s not a literary man like his fellow Chilean José Donoso, who was a consummate stylist, attuned to linguistic nuances, and influenced by French and English models. Jodorowsky’s Spanish is the one he speaks, inflected with myriad Chilean expressions, but also showing the influence of his long stays in France and other European cities. So it’s a kind of international Spanish.

Finding an appropriate English, which really meant finding an English with something like the rhythms of Jodorowsky’s Spanish, was a maddening experience. And I’m not sure I ever managed it. Where the Bird Sings Best is hilarious, and the essence of comedy is timing, so learning how to pace scenes, how to build toward punch lines or scenes was yet another task.

And then there are the abrupt shifts in diction, tone, intonation. How to make the women sound like women. These things, coupled with the overt deployment of magic, were major problems. Remember, García Márquez’s great innovation in One Hundred Years of Solitude was to infuse the family saga novel with fantasy. Well, Jodorowsky uses the magic of religion, of belief, which is a totally different kind of magic to construct a family history that is also a spiritual history.

The second book I translated by Jodorowsky, Albina and the Dog-Men, is a different kettle of fish. Here we move from Jewish culture into a profound exploration of identity, but studied at the archetypal level. The magic here is right out of the shaman’s manual, rather than the Bible or the Torah. True enough, there are parallels: Albina deals with outcasts who can only survive through their wits, but the curses, the journeys of self-discovery, and the metamorphoses are matters only Jodorowsky’s alchemical imagination could blend into a coherent totality. In this case, it wasn’t the Spanish that challenged the translator but the shifts and swerves of the story itself.

RM: True: in Albina some characters transform into their archetypal opposite. The lustful, violent antagonist Drumfoot becomes Lohan, Albina’s loyal protector. The ugly Crabby, whose birth name is Isaac, turns into beautiful Isabella. What liberties did you have to take as a translator in bringing these names and identities into English? How did you stay afloat amongst the twists and turns? Were you able to consult Jodorowsky with translation problems; and if so, what advice did he give?

AM: I didn’t consult the author. I rarely do, unless we have the chance to be in the same place at the same time. Besides, they’re usually busy writing other books. I don’t think I took any liberties. With Jodorowsky I felt the best plan was to stick as closely to the text as English would allow. In effect, I think one could use both translations as trots to read the original. Jodorowsky’s genius works that way.

RM:  Several times throughout the novel, Albina or her masters mutter words in an “incomprehensible language”. For example, “Om badzra puspe ah hum svaha” or “Dehi phy bgegs kyi bar chod las… bgegs la glud pham gto ru bya”. Were these copied directly from the original text? Do you have any thoughts on where these words may come from?

AM: They were copied from the original. I assumed it was made up. Sure doesn’t sound like Hebrew.

RM: Albina is filled with descriptions of sex that seemingly only Jodorowsky could muster, like when Crabby compares a winding mountain path to a “labyrinth that resembled in every detail the wrinkles on [Amado’s] scrotum.” Every character in the novel is sexualized, in beautiful and grotesque ways. What is your take on all of the sexual imagery? How will readers and critics of today take it?

AM: I think Jodorowsky’s sexualization of practically everything derives from his Surrealist roots. The affinities between him and Dali are, I think, clear. The hard-edged depiction, the improbable associations, and of course the polymorphously perverse sex.

As to reception: when you deal with Jodorowsky you expect this stuff.

RM: How long did it take you to translate Albina? Do you work on more than one translation at a time?

AM: Albina took me—I think—about four or five months. Mind you, I started on Albina shortly after finishing Where the Bird Sings Best, so I was up and running. Meaning to say I didn’t have to crank up my translation skills after a long respite. Usually I work on one project at a time.

RM: You said that the best plan was to stick as closely to the text as English would allow. The book is filled with idioms and very inventive metaphors. For example: “Your past is of no importance! The cat is not its tail!” or, “A few clouds in a strict straight row slowly passed through his field of vision like seagulls with rickets.” In cases like these, were you always going for the close, literal translation?

AM: Absolutely. In cases like the ones you’ve listed it seemed important to try to be literal. They are like magic formulas, and it’s not a good idea to tamper with magic.

RM: I want to wrap up with a couple questions about Pessoa.

You published a translation of The Book of Disquiet in 1991, and an essay on Pessoa appeared in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography in 2014. Yet you mostly have translated fiction from the Spanish. How does Pessoa fit into your concerns and interests as a translator, scholar, and reader?

AM: I began reading Fernando Pessoa as an undergraduate, probably because of Jack Tomlins, a professor of mine at Rutgers who told me all about Pessoa. Much later, during the 90s, I wrote a short monograph about Pessoa for a long-forgotten encyclopedia of European authors published by Scribners. Then I translated a selection from The Book of Disquiet. The essay in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography I wrote at the insistence of my dear friend Maria DiBattista at Princeton University. It was a kind of settling of accounts with Pessoa, a demystification. So Pessoa was a kind of digression from my usual work both as translator and as critic, though I have translated a couple of texts by the Brazilian author Machado de Assis. I try to include Brazilian authors in any survey courses on Latin American literature simply because they get forgotten.

RM: In the Cambridge article, you argue that the typewriter’s ability to project thoughts immediately, like conversation, allowed Pessoa to “find a personification,” especially when he typed letters, but that he mostly avoided personal contact with those he wrote to. What do we know about Pessoa as a speaker? Do we know if his everyday speech was as rhetorical as his writing?

AM: Not a subject I know much about. He had to deal with people, had to make statements from time to time, but I think he was only comfortable with pen and paper or the typewriter. For him, the typewriter would have had the same liberating effect word processing on a computer had for so many people suffering writer’s block.

RM: Do you prefer translating prose to poetry? Have you tried translating Pessoa’s poetry? And lastly: what’s the next project you’re working on?

AM: Translating poetry is a thankless task. Poets are rarely satisfied with the results. I much prefer prose. Needless to say, I have translated poetry, and in fact have played around with two of Pessoa’s poems over the past few months. Perhaps, I’m hoping, a novel will fall into my lap.


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  • David Spellman

    Thanks for this. Having Jodorowski and Pessoa together is an interesting juxtaposition. The “incomprehensible language” mentioned above looks like different transliterations of Buddhist mantras. The first looks like it was originally Sanskrit but Tibetans mispronounce the Sanskrit Vajra as Badzra. The second quote looks like a strange transliteration of Tibetan that’s a variation on the Wylie system.