For the month of August, Asymptote Book Club’s selection was From the Shadows, the English-language debut of acclaimed Spanish language writer, Juan José Millás. In the following interview, Asymptote’s Jacqueline Leung speaks to the novel’s translators, Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, on the pressures of translating a national literary hero, the various processes of co-translation, and how the novel’s pertinent themes of isolation and alienation relate to our current times.
Jacqueline Leung (JL): Juan José Millás is routinely recognized as one of the greatest writers in Spain today, and From the Shadows marks his long overdue debut into English. How (if at all) did these factors play into your process? I’m referring to critics’s inevitably high expectations regarding a literary master’s very first work in English translation, as well as the author’s own ability to potentially chip in on or judge the outcome. Was there an added sense of pressure or due deference on your end, or were you as free as ever to “play around”?
Daniel Hahn (DH): I don’t think it was a factor, actually—it’s certainly not something Tom and I ever discussed, whether between the two of us or with our publishers. You really just have to take each text as it comes, and simply commit to doing whatever it tells you to do, without fretting about expectations or reputations. Besides, while Millás is a big deal in Spain, I’m not sure the English-speaking world has been waiting on tenterhooks for a chance to read this translation—for all intents and purposes, he’s being presented to the Anglophones as a debut. Of course, this first book could turn out to be a stupendous runaway success, which would indeed put extra pressure and expectations on book two, but if that added pressure is the price we have to pay for insane bestseller sales, I’ll take it . . . READ MORE…
According to Sylvia Plath, August is an “odd and uneven time” so it’s all the more fitting that we’ve chosen Juan José Millás’ spectacularly surreal and cerebral novel, From the Shadows, as our Book Club selection this month. Millás is an author known for bringing existential thought into dreamlike spaces, and in this exemplifying work, the narrative carves a labyrinthine path through a mind withstanding both physical and mental confinements, and the language, rife with darkness and comedy, traces the fine walls of worlds both real and imagined with Kafkaesque soliloquy.
The Asymptote Book Club strives to bring the best translated fiction every month to readers in the US, the UK, and the EU. From as low as USD15 a book, sign up to receive next month’s book on our website; once you’re a member, you can join the online discussion on our Facebook page.
From the Shadows by Juan José Millás, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, Bellevue Literary Press, 2019
“Every love story is a ghost story”: David Foster Wallace’s epigraph encapsulates the phantasmagoric search for love and acceptance in Juan José Millás’ From the Shadows, the author’s much-anticipated English debut. Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn, From the Shadows follows the story of Damián Lobo, an unemployed maintenance worker, who, in a strange turn of events, hides himself inside an old wardrobe and gets transported to the home of a young family. Instead of escaping from his physical confinement, Damián inhabits the space behind the wardrobe and becomes the “Ghost Butler,” a spectral being who tends to chores around the house in the daytime when the family is out and slips back to his hiding place in the master’s bedroom at night.
During a routine mushroom-picking expedition in the forest, a wheelchair-bound child gets separated from her grandfather and is left to face the forces of nature on her own. In today’s Translation Tuesday, Ilka Papp-Zakor takes us on a fairy-tale adventure that comes to a surreal and haunting conclusion.
Grandpa’s beard was made of cotton, and his face of crinkled crepe paper. His hands shook, so he almost always spilled his tea, but his eyes were beautiful. I liked to watch him read his old books in the evenings, squinting by the light of the oil lamp—we didn’t have electricity in our shack—rocking back and forth in his rocking chair, the corners of his eyes smiling delicately from time to time, which is how I could tell where he was in his book. I knew all his books by heart. That’s how our evenings would pass. He’d rock in his chair, I’d stare at him, and sometimes, when I’d grow bored of staring, I’d roll around in my wheelchair. Grandpa didn’t like that, because the wheels made an ugly sound on the uneven plank floors. But he loved me anyway.
He said I’d be a beautiful girl if it weren’t for my distorted features, my underdeveloped legs and mangled hands, but I was happy there was something about me that he liked. I had long, curly, golden hair, a little reddish. Grandpa said the bridge of my nose was freckled, though I’d never seen it myself, because our shack didn’t have a mirror either, and I couldn’t lean so far out of my wheelchair over puddles to catch my reflection clearly. In any case, Grandpa said these features were my sex appeal, and that when I’d have kids, I should strive to pass onto them only these two features, because they wouldn’t get very far with the rest. At the time, it was difficult to imagine that I’d someday have a family, and kids of my own, because I didn’t know anyone else besides Grandpa.