Hingston: Translating the ‘beautiful art’ of literature

News Date: Friday, February 1, 2013

Translator Katherine Silver looks forward to June roundtable in Banff

By Michael Hingston, Edmonton Journal January 31, 2013

Katherine Silver

EDMONTON – As a child in California’s Bay Area, Katherine Silver grew up in an environment that was, for all intents and purposes, bilingual. But the Spanish she was constantly overhearing was never given much credit, especially among the state’s wealthier and supposedly more cultured classes.

“I always think of the little booklets they used to sell in bookstores, of how to talk to your gardener or your maid,” Silver says. “Little phrases that tell them how to do the job.” In that context, translating literary fiction from Spanish to English became almost an act of subversion. “It’s saying, ‘This is a language that has beautiful art in it — it’s not just telling your gardener to pull the weeds.’”

These days, Silver is helping produce that beautiful art first-hand. In addition to being one of the world’s première translators of Latin American fiction, with decades of experience and dozens of titles under her belt, Silver is also the co-director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. For three weeks each June, Silver and Hugh Hazelton welcome translators from around the world to their corner of the majestic Banff Centre to work on their projects, talk shop, and collaborate with a roundtable of like-minded devotees of world literature.

The annual residencies are run tri-lingually, and participants must be translating either into or out of English, French or Spanish. Silver first attended Banff as a participant in 2007, before becoming faculty in 2010 and a co-director the year after that.

Part of what she loves about the program is that there’s no hierarchy. “Many times the newer, emerging translators have as much to learn and teach as the more senior translators,” Silver says, adding that one past participant had translated more than 60 titles into German. “Sometimes the more senior translators are a little burnt out, or cynical. And then you have these new translators who are really enthusiastic. Everybody works together and learns from each other.”

Despite growing up surrounded by the Spanish language, Silver didn’t really pick it up herself until she went travelling after high school. She came back and flirted with academia, but it didn’t take. This was in the 1970s, when English translations of books like Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude were setting off an explosion of interest in Latin American fiction. Inspired, Silver decided to try translating something in her spare time: a slim, epistolary novel by the Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska that was eventually published by Pantheon.

“In retrospect, translating was a way to be close to literature,” Silver says. “I felt it was a way of practising writing — like doing scales to a musician. All a translator has is language. They don’t have to deal with character, or plot, or anything. It’s a way of honing those skills.”

And when you work on the kinds of books Silver does, you need all the honing you can get. Her two most recent translations, both for New Directions, are short but demanding texts, albeit in very different ways. On the one hand you have The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, the latest from Argentine trickster César Aira, whom Silver says “is writing from some subliminal place in his brain. He has access to that kind of half-dream state that so many of us don’t. I just love being there with him.”

And on the other hand is a re-translation of Martín Adán’s 1928 modernist masterpiece The Cardboard House, which Silver first worked on more than 20 years ago. It’s an extremely sensory, fluid, and poetic set of disconnected memories and set pieces.

“I think it’s a gem,” Silver says, “this moment of brilliance by this very strange person who lived in Lima in the early 20th century. After he wrote that, he continued to write poetry, but spent most of his life in an asylum.

“To be able to work on that, it’s like a dressmaker working with the most gorgeous lamé silks. Just absolutely gorgeous material.”

Aside from her gig at the Banff Centre, Silver remains a full-time literary translator based in Berkeley, Calif. When I asked her about upcoming projects, she rattled off a half-dozen that were in the works, including two new Aira novels.

But when June rolls around, she’ll return to Alberta to charge her own batteries and get fired up about translation all over again.

Silver remembers one participant at Banff saying, “‘One of the joys of reading when you’re young is that you don’t understand everything. We must allow the reader the mystery of something they don’t understand.’

“I love this,” she adds.

Aira, a translator himself, would no doubt approve.

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