Adventures in the Panoramic Delta: An Interview with Chris Andrews, Translator of Marcelo Cohen’s Melodrome
Chris Andrews’ latest translation, Melodrome (2018), published here in Australia as part of Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes Series, is a novella by the Argentine science fiction writer, Marcelo Cohen (1951-). The author of 14 novels, 5 story collections, many essays and countless translations, Cohen is already well-known in the Spanish-speaking world. He lived in Spain from 1975 to 1996, during the dictatorship in Argentina, and has been publishing fiction since the early 1980s.
In Melodrome, as in several other fictions written since he returned home, Cohen focuses on an alternative universe, the Panoramic Delta. An archipelago of loosely associated city states, it might be a near-future Argentina or a world remade in the country’s image by neoliberal capitalism and rising sea levels. Rather than improve living standards, technological and social change – including cyborgs, fly cars and a kind of telepathy called pan-consciousness – have universalised Argentina’s early 21st century experience of austerity economics. Cohen’s novella, published in Spanish as Balada (2011), concerns the aftermath of a turbulent affair between a psychoanalyst, Suano Botilecue, and his beautiful, temperamental patient, Lerena Dost. The two rekindle their relationship during a road trip in search of a folk singer-turned cult leader, Dona Munava. It’s an intriguing introduction to an author whose rich oeuvre is still largely unknown in the Anglosphere – but won’t be for long. I corresponded with Chris Andrews by email to learn more.
James Halford (JH): This is the first of your translations of Latin American writers to have been published in Australia. How did it come about?
Chris Andrews (CA): Marcelo Cohen participated in a symposium on literary translation organized by the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University in 2010. I had read some of his fiction and essays before that. Ivor Indyk was one of the organizers of the symposium, so he met Marcelo there. When Balada was published in 2011, Marcelo sent me a copy. I read it and really liked it; I found it haunting. Some years later, in 2016, I think, Ivor was invited to visit Argentina, and met up with Marcelo again. When he came back, he asked me if I would translate Balada for Giramondo, and I said yes. So it came about in a circuitous and rather slow way.
JH: Would it be fair to say Cohen’s work hasn’t yet been widely translated? How did you first encounter his writing and what attracted you to bringing it into English?
CA: I think it’s fair to say that, perhaps because it’s quite tricky to translate, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. I first encountered it in the book of stories La solución parcial (The Partial Solution), which is a kind of selected stories, published in Spain in 2003. Although the stories predate the construction of the Delta Panorámico, they are part of what Cohen calls a “fantastic sociology”: they’re set in a future world where social, political and technological conditions are at least initially unfamiliar to the reader. What attracted me was that within this speculative frame, Cohen was always interested in capturing and transmitting sensations, feelings and emotions.
JH: Cohen has an extensive back catalogue. Why did you choose Melodrome as an introduction to his work?
CA: Well, as I said, I really liked it, and Ivor Indyk is particularly interested in short novels and novellas (he has a series entitled Shorts). That’s an aesthetic interest, but translation is an extra cost in publishing, a cost proportional to length, since translators are paid by the word (or the thousand words), so starting with a short book is financially prudent too.
JH: Cohen often coins neologisms for everyday objects in the Panoramic Delta – cronodión for clock which you translate as chronodeon; farphonito for mobile phone, which you translate as farfonette. What was your approach to finding English equivalents?
CA: Sometimes the objects named by the neologisms are everyday objects or relatives of things that we have and use, as in the examples you cite. And those two words were relatively straightforward to translate, because English has some cognate morphemes that I could use: chrono- for crono-, and -ette for -ito. Far in farphonito is a “translation” of the Greek-derived prefix tele- (“far off”), and I toyed with translating that component into Spanish: Lejofonette. But the result seemed too cumbersome and opaque, so I stuck with far. In other cases, it was more complex, either because the referent was not as easy to place, or because the word itself was not made up of recognizable morphemes, or for both reasons. To take just one example, at one point, Lerena thinks: “She could no doubt have found an even better position in some other company, but she couldn’t see how she would ever disguise her character well enough to stop [ningún binimucho] shrivelling up with fear.” Binimuchos must be fearful, spineless people. One thought I had was that perhaps the word referred to the opposite of a marimacho (butch woman), i.e., an effeminate man. But I wasn’t really convinced by that gendering. In the end, the “equivalent” that I came up with, more or less intuitively, was nambicle, from the adjective namby-pamby plus the diminutive suffix -icle, which we find in the names of various small body parts (testicle, cuticle, clavicle). In forging these new words, I let myself be influenced by the rhythmic context of the sentence and the paragraph, because that’s what Cohen seems to have done when writing.
JH: The translated title doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. How did you arrive at the lovely and resonant: Melodrome?
CA: Credit where it’s due: that’s the invention of Nick Tapper at Giramondo. We were looking for an alternative to Ballad, and Nick came up with Melodrome. He put it out there half playfully, but I liked it straight away, because of how it sounds and because it’s so suggestive of the book’s content. You can analyse it as the combination of two Greek roots: melos, song, and dromos, course. Most appropriate for a road trip in search of a singer. And then the book is a kind of narrative palindrome, because the way there and the way back almost coincide.
JH: Cohen is a formidable and prolific literary translator in his own right, who has produced Spanish versions of writers like J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Clarice Lispector, William Burroughs and even Henry James. Did you have any contact with him while working on your English version? What was it like translating a translator?
CA: Marcelo sent me a glossary of deltingo, that is, words he has invented for the Delta Panorámico. Many of the invented words in Melodrome are not in the glossary, but it was a real help, and a fascinating document in itself. I also asked him questions when I was approaching the end, and he helped me to clear up some doubts. In one way it’s intimidating to translate such an eminent translator, but in another way it’s reassuring: I knew that he would understand the problems that I was facing.
JH: Roberto Bolaño once said that everything he had written was a love letter or a farewell letter to his own generation. That is, the generation of Latin American writers who were born in the 1950s and had the misfortune of being young during the military dictatorships of the 1970s. César Aira and Marcelo Cohen are also of that generation. What, if anything, do these very distinct writers share?
CA: Stylistically and thematically, they don’t share much at all: each is quite different from the other two. Bolaño and Cohen shared the experience of exile in Catalunya. Bolaño is the only one of the three to have thematized the dictatorships directly, but in that he is representative of his generation, while Cohen and Aira are exceptional. Your question has made me realize something, though: all three are novelists for whom poetry is important, who go to poetry as a space where literary language is reinvented. Bolaño began as a poet (and went on writing poetry up to the last months of his life). Cohen and Aira have both written wonderfully about poetry, Cohen in his book-length essay Un año sin primavera [A Year Without Spring] and Aira in his books on Alejandra Pizarnik and Edward Lear.
JH: Historically, there hasn’t been much direct literary exchange between the Anglophone and Hispanic Souths. Even for those with an interest in Latin American writing and some language competency, it isn’t always easy to keep up to date with the Spanish-language literary scene from Australia. How do you do it?
CA: The internet has made a big difference. I read reviews in a range of places. Otra parte semanal, edited by Marcelo Cohen and Graciela Speranza, is an excellent review site with new content each week: http://revistaotraparte.com/semanal/. Another good source of news, interviews, extracts etc. is the blog published by the bookshop and publishing house Eterna Cadencia: https://www.eternacadencia.com.ar/blog.html
JH: I also like podcasts. There’s a weekly books podcast on Radio Nacional de Argentina called Resaltadores: http://www.radionacional.com.ar/category/resaltadores/, and there’s one called Recital (it’s on the iTunes store), in which a writer chooses and reads a story by another writer: very simple, but the choices are interesting, not the same old names.
And, of course, I ask friends for recommendations.
JH: Your academic work has framed contemporary Latin American fiction as a literary laboratory – a place where experimental forms are tested. What could a deeper engagement with writing from the region offer Australian writing?
CA: I think that deeper engagement with the literary culture of any part of the non-English-speaking world is bound to enrich Australian writing, but in ways that are hard to predict because they will depend on singular encounters. Fans of Alejo Carpentier or José Donoso might hope to see Australian authors enlarging their sense of the plausible, but writers will work with what works for them, and they might be inspired instead by all the patient fieldwork and sharp listening that goes into Leila Guerriero’s narrative non-fiction. There’s no point being prescriptive in this area.
JH: Thanks very much, Chris.
Marcelo Cohen (Buenos Aires, 1951) is a widely respected and highly innovative Argentinian novelist, who has invented a distinctively South American kind of speculative fiction. In an ambitious series of novels and stories he has constructed a future world, the Panoramic Delta, in which he imagines in detail a range of changes beyond those wrought directly by technology: political, cultural and emotional. One of the most agile stylists writing in Spanish today, he is also an internationally renowned translator, critic and editor. An fundamental name in Argentinian literature of the last two decades.’— Fernando Bogado, Radar‘
CHRIS ANDREWS is a leading translator of contemporary Latin American fiction, the author of two poetry collections and a literary critic. He made his name internationally as the first English translator of the Chilean novelist, Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003). His translations of By Night in Chile (2003), Distant Star (2004) and Last Evenings on Earth (2006) – published in the wake of the author’s untimely death from liver failure – helped establish Bolaño as the biggest name in Latin American writing since Gabriel García Márquez. Since then, the Australian has been a translator in demand. Over the last fifteen years, he has curated an impressive reading list of Latin American fiction for English-speaking readers, much of published in the USA through New Directions. In addition to ten of Bolaño’s books, most recently the posthumous collection of short stories & ephemera, The Secret of Evil (2014), Andrews has translated nine titles by the prolific and inventive Argentine, César Aira: The Linden Tree (2018), and one by the Guatemalan surrealist, Rodrigo Rey Rosa: Severina (2014).
JAMES HALFORD is a Brisbane writer whose creative work and criticism have been widely published in Australia and abroad. He holds a literature degree and a creative doctorate from the University of Queensland, where he now teaches, and he has studied Spanish in Argentina, Mexico, and Spain. The recipient of a 2016 Copyright Agency/Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellowship, his academic research focuses on contemporary Australian and Latin American literature in transnational reading frameworks. His first book, Requiem with Yellow Butterflies, a Latin American travel memoir, will be published in early 2019 by UWAP.