In Conversation: Daniella Gitlin on translating Rodolfo Walsh’s Operation Massacre

"Walsh is relevant for American readers now, even if they don’t necessarily understand the nitty-gritty of the political situation of his time."

One challenge of translation is finding a text that appeals to an audience separated geographically and culturally from the author. Finding a nonfiction text with that kind of currency is all the more difficult. The translator of nonfiction is faced with a text tied to local events and often steeped in a historical, social, and political context. Why should the average international reader care about nonfiction in translation? Today, Asymptote sits down with Daniella Gitlin, the translator of the famous 1957 Argentinian reported novel, Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación Masacre (Operation Massacre), previously excerpted in our Summer 2013 issue, to discuss her encounters with a masterpiece of nonfiction and outline the urgent relevance of a text six decades old. 

Lara Norgaard (LN): Tell me a bit about how you came to translate Operation Massacre.

Daniella Gitlin (DG): I spent the year after college in Buenos Aires working for a nonprofit, Poder Ciudadano, with a Princeton in Latin America Fellowship. I was back in Argentina for a visit and told my friends there that I was applying for the nonfiction writing program at Columbia. Before I left, my friend Dante gave me a copy of Operación Masacre with a dedication in it. He wrote, “Dani my dear, a little ‘Argentinian nonfiction’ will do you good. I hope you like it.” I took the book back with me. I had heard of Walsh, but I didn’t really know anything about him.

I started school at Columbia’s nonfiction program in 2008 while working part time for Seven Stories Press. I took a translation workshop as part of my degree. I tried to translate something from Russian, but then I remembered the Walsh book. I translated some of it and the workshop gave me good feedback. When I confirmed that there was no English version, I wrote a book proposal and pitched it to my boss at Seven Stories.

At first he was a little concerned. He wanted to make sure that the book wasn’t too local. How are you going to make readers here get it and care about it? That’s how we ended up getting an introduction by Michael Greenberg, an afterward from Ricardo Piglia, and my translator’s note. Piglia situated the book in Latin American literature. Greenberg had spent some time in Argentina and writes for The New York Review of Books. He’s a journalist and placed Operation Massacre in context for the US reader.

LN: When you first read Operation Massacre, what made you think this is a book that could be published and that should be published? What was it about the text that made you see its potential?

DG: The truth is, I read the book as I translated it. Reading something in Spanish wasn’t easy for me, and Walsh’s language is direct and clear, but it’s also from the fifties. It’s very local and Argentinian, and there’s a lot of military and legal vocabulary, references that I had to look up, and so on. I was encountering the text almost in the way that a reader encounters it, which was very interesting in terms of translation as a practice of reading and writing. I couldn’t adjust my translation according to what I knew came later. In retrospect, the fact that the book grabbed me as much as it did just from the prologue is indicative of why it’s so incredible. I was hooked by the first few pages.

I knew it would be a huge responsibility to put Walsh into English for the first time, especially because he did some translation and has Irish ancestry. His prose is a little bit more Anglo in that his phrases are shorter and more direct. They are only occasionally circuitous, when it’s very intentional. That spoke to me. It felt like I could hear Walsh and know that it would be a good idea to render it in English, and that it could be rendered well in English.

There’s also the question of stakes. Even before Walsh knows the stakes of what he’s doing, he conveys a kind of urgency. His encounter with this unbearable situation comes across on the page. It’s so honest.

LN: And so evocative, too. The book opens with Walsh playing chess and then overhearing the fact that there’s been a civilian massacre. It’s an insanely powerful moment.

DG: It helps that Walsh was a fiction writer and a journalist. He knew what made for a good story, like those details. I always think of Walsh as having this horse sense, not just about crimes being committed but also about writing. To me, Operation Massacre was pitch perfect. He seemed to know how to write about these people who were killed, who left behind six fatherless children in a way that is both a good story and incredibly human. He didn’t create that distance of artifice. How do you not glorify or aestheticize this story while still making it a really gripping drama? That’s something that we still have trouble with today.

LN: And Operation Massacre is also somewhat pioneering in terms of genre. It predates In Cold Blood as the first investigative novel.

DG: That’s a funny thing that comes up in discussions about Operation Massacre. Argentinians say, we invented nonfiction. And then Americans say, well, we invented Truman Capote. It’s this sort of national competition. If you look at the two books, they’re pretty different. It’s true that they’re both accounts of crimes that were committed and they’re both literary accounts. But beyond that, I almost think it takes away from what Walsh did and what Capote did to compare them. If you read the first page of In Cold Blood and then the first page of Operation Massacre, they’re such different projects. The crime in In Cold Blood doesn’t become the political crusade of Truman Capote’s life. He’s not also in danger of being killed for what’s he writing. It’s uncomfortable, but also, it’s over. It’s not an open case.

LN: The stakes aren’t there.

DG: The stakes are completely different. But that also has to do with Walsh’s life after the story of Operation Massacre.

LN: Right. A military dictatorship does eventually kill Walsh, but it’s not the dictatorship that Operation Massacre is about, which is even more confusing for a foreign audience. Very few people in the United States even know that there had been coups and dictatorships in Argentina before the last military junta in the 1970s and 1980s. I imagine that the way Walsh’s work and life are so tied into these politics made Operación Masacre especially hard to translate. So, in terms of the translation, what were the challenges of rendering the text readable for a foreign audience?

DG: Beyond trying to contextualize the piece with the foreword, the translator’s note, and the afterword, we also did some notes. Walsh himself includes notes in the book, which are helpful for the Argentinian reader and marginally helpful for a non-Argentinian reader. In some of the notes Walsh is just professing that he’s corroborated whatever facts he’s discovered. But I added maybe thirty notes and also a glossary for basic historical and political context. If Walsh mentioned the Triple A, the note would say what that group was, what they were generally known for doing, and what regime they were connected to. Pablo Martín Ruiz, my friend who now teaches Spanish at Tufts in the Romance Languages department, read over every single word that I translated. He’s Argentinian and one generation older than me. He knows Walsh’s work and the context. He was especially helpful with the notes.

There’s a debate that goes on with translators about whether you should try to explain things within the text. You don’t want to have excessive footnotes everywhere. But for a book that’s so context specific, it seems irresponsible not to give the reader a sense of what the stakes are, historically, politically, socially, and ethically.

I was also fortunate that including the information felt like it was in the spirit of Walsh. He was a data monger. I felt like I was just adding to the case, trying to do my best for you, English-language reader, to understand what he was up against and what the conditions of this writing were.

LN: I agree that the notes are somehow in Walsh’s spirit. In his detective stories, Walsh would include fictional original documents for the reader to look at. He liked to expose the artifice of his writing and reveal the data behind it.

DG: The flip side of that is that Walsh wanted Operation Massacre to be this thrifty thriller, one that you care about because it’s a good story. And then, hopefully, you care about it because you care about the people, the characters, and about justice. In that sense, the notes are the opposite of what Walsh intended when the book began as a yellowed paper pamphlet.

LN: I think Walsh wanted to make the book so immediately thrilling because he tried publishing it right around the time when the events happened. Ultimately, he wanted people to notice the crimes. And when you’re publishing it decades later for an audience that might not know really anything about Argentinian politics, it’s going to have a different role for the reader anyway, right?

DG: Walsh did add epilogues and prologues over the next twenty years when Operación Masacre was reprinted. That’s another defense for publishing the English-language version. Walsh kept adding context, trying to re-signify the thing. There’s something tragic about that in how his excessive research didn’t matter. One of the most memorable images of the text is Walsh walking around Buenos Aires with this stack of papers that nobody wants to publish, let alone read. That’s what stings so much at the end of Operation Massacre. At the end of the day, justice wasn’t served. These guys are still dead, and the families weren’t properly compensated.

LN: What do you think Operation Massacre gives to a foreign audience that might not know anything about Argentina, or that might not have much interest in Peronism or the political implications of the text?

DG: It’s incredibly well written and gripping. And it’s short. The structure of it makes sense. It’s a good thriller, which is surprising given that you know how it ends from the beginning.

LN: It’s kind of a detective novel. You know the crime from the outset.

DG: Exactly. So it serves that purpose, as a good pseudo-detective novel. And the book is not what the American or English-language reader associates with Latin American literature, which is known to be magical realism or, generally, something fictional. Walsh uses mechanisms to talk about things that are not fictional but that are still not sayable. In the afterword, Piglia talks about the poetics of ellipses. He’s referring to how Walsh won’t ever say something himself but will instead put words through someone else’s lips and ventriloquize. This displacement is part of Walsh’s mechanism of writing about trauma and absence in a way that is not fantastical. It’s as though Walsh is making an argument that there are other ways of diverting the real beyond fiction. He opens up a space for the reader to do the imaginative work that people associate with fiction, but that good nonfiction also does.

Aside from the actual quality of the book as a literary work that readers everywhere can appreciate, I think Walsh is relevant for American readers now, even if they don’t necessarily understand the nitty-gritty of the political situation of his time. In my edition of Operation Massacre, you have Walsh’s “Open Letter to the Military Junta” at the end. You get a sense of Walsh as a very active proponent of alternative media and of the value of having an independent journalist present to tell the story and to bear witness. For the US in 2017, and especially after November 8th, 2016, the importance of independent and alternative media can’t be understated. This book is also about proto-fascist governments and populist movements, which is relevant. Walsh is clearly relevant as an example of journalistic integrity and fighting the difficult fight in difficult times. I don’t see why Operation Massacre wouldn’t be in the canon.

I decided to tell Walsh’s story by putting the “Open Letter” at the end of the English edition because, in my reading of Walsh for the purposes of that book, those two texts were milestones. He was heavily politicized by the experience of writing Operation Massacre and then struggled to reconcile being an intellectual and being an activist. It’s very in line with the tradition of the Latin American writer-activist. Like Martí or, at the other end of the spectrum, Borges, who also invoked that tension between the figure of the intellectual writer who kept his nose in his book on the train and the gaucho who went out to the Pampas to fight.

This is part of what makes Operation Massacre more relevant now, too, specifically for the US. There has been an elevation of political consciousness in this country, which is not to say that people weren’t aware before. But as a general populace, the US is now more necessarily engaged with politics, what’s going on in the White House, what’s going on in Congress. Life and politics, whatever that means, are coming up against each other. The trope of the writer-intellectual versus the activist-militant was less of a dilemma before, but now you need to figure out where you stand and whether or not you’re ready to fight. That kind of mentality has always been there in Latin America, where politics are in the street.

LN: Do you want to continue translating nonfiction in the future?

DG: There were a couple of things that came up that I considered taking on, but I translated Operation Massacre because I cared about the story and I cared about Walsh, not because I necessarily want to be a translator. Actually, I ended up translating Operation Massacre sort of arbitrarily. It’s a little bit like how Walsh himself began Operation Massacre. The news of the shootings came to him. He doesn’t say, I first heard about the shootings, which of course would sound a lot better in translation. But then you lose what I see as his intention in structuring the sentence in that way. He writes, “The news of the June 1956 shootings first came to me in a café in La Plata, sitting…” It’s a long sentence that basically explains how sudden and arbitrary the news was. The story came to him, and once it came to him, he couldn’t shake it. It feels a little perverse to compare that to how the translation came to me, but it did feel like once it had me, I couldn’t let go in that same way that Walsh couldn’t let go of the story.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Read an excerpt from Operation Massacre that appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Asymptote.

Daniella Gitlin is a writer, translator, and doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at New York University. In addition to her English translation of Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación Masacre, published in 2013 by Seven Stories Press, Gitlin is an Asymptote contributor (her translation of Pablo Martín Ruiz’s “Epiphanies on the Danube” was in our inaugural edition!) and a member of PEN America’s Translation Committee. Her writing appears in publications such as The Huffington Post and CineAction, and she is currently writing a book on Israel.

Rodolfo Walsh (1927-1977) was an Argentinian journalist and fiction writer. His book-length work of investigative journalism, Operación Masacre, exposed a civilian massacre that took place during the state’s repression of a Peronist uprising on June 9, 1956. Walsh later became a militant political activist involved with the Montoneros, a left-wing guerrilla group active during the 1960s and 1970s in Argentina. Considered an enemy of the state for his writing and militancy, Walsh was kidnapped and murdered by the Argentinian military Junta after distributing his famous “Open Letter to the Military Junta,” a text that decries the human rights abuses and economic oppression of the authoritarian regime.

Lara Norgaard is a recent graduate of Princeton University in Comparative Literature with a focus on Latin America. She teaches English and researches public memory in Brazilian literature as a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar in Brazil.


Read More Interviews: