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Founding Editors of the Buenos Aires Review: The Short Form Interview

Publishing digitally allows for much greater freedom for translations.

A digital English-Spanish bilingual literary journal.

The Interview

(Following is an interview with the founding editors of The Buenos Aires Review: Heather Cleary, Jennifer Croft, Pola Oloixarac, and Maxine Swann)

Which classic authors of Spanish language do you think are most overlooked in the world of English readers?

Macedonio Fernández (1874-1952) has been terribly overlooked. Which is strange, considering he was one of Borges’ closest collaborators and that he and William James were pen-pals, and kept a philosophical friendship for years. Also from Argentina, writer and aspiring inventor Roberto Arlt (1900-1942). His novels—paeans to the underbelly of porteño society—are canonical in the Spanish-speaking world, but are barely read here. And the Chilean poet Enrique Lihn (1929-1988), of course.

Resources aside, what is the biggest challenge in this kind of cultural exchange?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to set the question of resources aside—for a long time, readers only had access to books that were deemed financially viable by major publishing houses and commercial distributors. In the States, this means a fairly insular market; in Argentina and throughout Latin America, it means untenably high prices for books, which—to make matters worse—are largely produced in Spain. The advent of digital publishing is changing that, slowly but surely. There’s still a lot to figure out, but publishing digitally—as several great independent presses like New Vessel, Frisch & Co. and Restless Books have started to do—allows for much greater freedom in that respect. Particularly for translations, which have been marginalized in the U.S. for a long time now (that terrible 3% statistic leaps to mind). This balance is gradually shifting, and we at BAR are delighted to be a part of that change. In addition to our online magazine, we’ll be publishing a series of ebooks starting next year. First up is a dossier of work by and about the ineffable Mexican writer Mario Bellatin (whose Beauty Salon and Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction are available in English).

[In South America] there are a lot of literary workshops run informally by authors, pretty much like the ones you find in Bolaño’s Savage Detectives.

Among a lot of young writers who come out of North America, an MFA is usually tacked on to their bio. How different is this tradition among writers in South America?

MFA’s aren’t common in South America. It’s a North American trend that’s just starting to catch on. But there are a lot of literary workshops run informally by authors, pretty much like the ones you find in Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. Younger writers pay a monthly fee in cash to a more experienced writer—sometimes famous, sometimes just a gifted teacher—and workshop their writing in that writer’s home or at a bookstore or café.  The effect this produces is similar to the MFA, if perhaps less professionalized. It is generally assumed here that writing is something you do because you are passionate about it, not because you want to/can earn a living at it.  But it does generate trends, schools, cliques, etc., while also being very helpful and encouraging.

BAR not only translates Spanish into English, but also English into Spanish. How would you say Spanish benefits from this?

Yes. Everything in BAR is published in both Spanish and English—we get new texts from emerging and established writers working in both languages, translate it, and then publishing it bilingually. We also invite contributions from other languages, like Russian, Galician, German, and Portuguese—those pieces appear in Spanish, English, and the original.

The benefits of this to Spanish as a language are not unlike the benefits to English, or to any language that has been touched by translation. Sometimes a word’s meaning is pushed to the limit, or even past it; connotations expand to accommodate the ideas of foreign-language texts. Sometimes even the structure of a language is changed: it is striking to see how Borges enacted his own process of translation in his prose, imbuing Spanish with an English sentence structure and an English economy of language. This is just one example from the Spanish side, but really, translation nudges every language in new directions and makes it question itself in interesting ways.

What are some of the noteworth things you find in newer Spanish-language writing that you can't imagine coming from the older writers?

In the past, Latin American writers moved in packs organized according to ideas like Communism and Revolution, or generations (Boom or Crack). Now it’s more disperse, atomized. Perhaps lately there’s been a little too much influence of the American short form style… a model that supplanted the previous influences of Russian and French. But that is starting to change, too. The biggest influence right now is the Internet, the writerly market of affect par excellence. The tangling together of the intricacies of private life with politics is a big part of the Latin American tradition… but perhaps the great writers of the past wouldn’t have been so charmed by the chattiness of that first person narrative we see so much today.

Do you find that there is diversity in either style or content among different countries within the Spanish-language domain?

There tends to be a music that’s unique to each. The traditions and histories that haunt Mexican prose are different from those that haunt the prose of Uruguay or Colombia. Mexican writing often reads like a narrative eddy; Uruguayans are exquisite, detailed; Argentines often go in for heavy rhetoric. Bolaño sounds super Chilean—much closer to Bad Vibes by Alberto Fuguet, or the way transvestites in Santiago insult each other, than to Borges or Cortázar. These are of course just tendencies, generalizations. But the things these literatures have in common stand out even more when you start noticing the differences.

Tell us a little bit about each of yourselves and what paved your way to translation.

POLA: I used to translate psychiatric manuals into Spanish; my first jobs were translating Latin for researchers. My biggest loves were writers I found in translation (usually from Engl ish), or who thought in translation, like J.L. Borges. I began to write and kept on romancing other languages, like French, Portuguese, German (this one only for a couple years), and Biblical Hebrew. Now I’m studying Russian and investigating grammars of lost Amazonian languages (my next linguistic goal is to dream/write in those). As an author, I’m always interested in reading outside my comfort zone, and promoting translation is part of sharing that love.

JENNIFER: I majored in English and Russian in college with a minor in Creative Writing, so translation seemed like the most logical way to combine those three things.  I went straight from undergrad into an MFA program in Literary Translation at The University of Iowa and have been translating Slavic literature, particularly Polish, ever since. Right now I’m working on a brilliant book of criticism by Michal Pawel Markowski as well as one of the best novels Poland has produced in the past twenty or thirty years, Olga Tokarczuk’s Runners (Bieguni in the original).

MAXINE: I’ve been living in translation for my entire adult life, ever since I moved to Paris as a junior in college to study Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne. Paris led me to Pakistan and then to Buenos Aires, where I’ve been living for the past decade. Like those invasive plant species that flourish on foreign soil in a way that they never would on their home turf, I find I’m much happier as a transplant. I also like to think that I write better. It’s as if the process of translation—not only of language, but also of customs, ways of being, conceptions of the universe, social codes, desire—refreshes everything you have lived, learned, or thought you understood.

HEATHER: I came to it by accident, really, as an undergraduate. I was writing a traditional Comparative Literature thesis that wasn’t going anywhere interesting—at least, not to me. I mentioned this to Richard Sieburth, an incredibly gifted translator and my professor at the time, who suggested I try my hand at translation. I was immediately hooked. I fell in love with the closeness of translational reading and the challenge of taking a text apart and putting it back together, and pestered my friends (this should probably not be in the past tense) with endless discussions about tone and register. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to immerse myself in the literary worlds of some truly inspiring writers.

Can you tell us a little bit about your story recommendations:

Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, translated by Nick Caistor, is a beautifully simple, lovely, moving novella just published by an excellent new house called New Vessel Press. Also: “1997,” a short story from one of our favorite young writers, Liliana Colanzi (Bolivia; translated by Sandra Kingery), is featured in the latest issue of Two Lines, the magazine of the Center for Literary Translation. From our website, an English-language original called “Bestiary” by Aaron Thier offers a lyrical, unexpected perspective on the Aberdeen folios, and “The Pizarro Sisters,” by Juan Álvarez, named one of the “25 best kept secrets” in Latin American writing at the 2011 Guadalajara Book Fair. This darkly funny story, which was translated by one of our editors, was declared too scandalous for publication in Colombia; it’s about a sensationalist writer who gets tangled up in politics, supermodels, and hit men. Then there’s Andrea Rosenberg’s weird and wonderful translation of “Bola negra,” a work of short fiction by Mario Bellatin that was turned into a film and is now an opera, and “The Hunt,” a stunning visual poem in the form of a map by John Pluecker (okay—that one’s not fiction, but it’s great).

Recommended by Founding Editors of the Buenos Aires Review

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra

So he became the little dumb kid, the idiot of the family. They let him play with the women, and did not demand from him the proofs of virility the other males in the family were called upon to demonstrate: firing a shotgun, lassoing or riding steers. He spent his time with his cousins, who fetched and carried him, treated him like a doll, played at being schoolmarms with him, and taught him everything they knew. They forced him to write so that he wouldn't forget the alphabet, made him communicate with them by writing letters on a slate, and bathed in the river with him. My aunt Dolores used to tell me that when the girls were getting changed to go for a swim down among the willows, they would make him turn his back to them. He would clap his hands once (his way of asking if he could look yet) and they would say no. After a while he would clap again, and they would say no a second time, that on no account was he to look around, and then he would hear them laughing and turn to find that his cousins were already in the water.

Their little joke must have tormented Salvatierra, because in his work you can often see adolescent girls getting changed in the green light beneath the riverside willows, suntanned girls in a hurry because they are ashamed of their nudity. He must have painted them because he needed to see at long last those scenes that had taken place behind his back but which he had been unable to witness, their luminous intensity that was so close and yet forbidden to him.

The Pizarro Sisters

Two years earlier, I had figured out a way to con a bunch of intelligent and enthusiastic young editors. I made them think I had written a good book, a collection of short stories I had researched and worked on for years. A monument to discipline, the kind of book only a mature writer could produce. Two drinks later, we sealed the deal. I asked for a million pesos, which came out to around five hundred dollars, and stressed that they were in a great position. I told them I had asked for so little because I believed in small, independent publishers. I told them that we all had to sacrifice a little in the name of solidarity. We raised our glasses and smiled. I took the money and bought myself the oldest Vespa I could find, then headed for a little town near Bogotá to relax.

We read it in The Buenos Aires Review.

Full story online.


Adam and I were the only ones who didn't take the confirmation classes. They excused him because he was Canadian and what could you expect from people from those parts, lacking both morality and religion, but the priest threatened to fail me if I wasn’t confirmed. I’m Jewish, Father, I told him to get out of it, and Mamà found my response so funny that she told everyone, proud of the things I come up with.

We read it in Landmarks: Two Lines World Writing in Translation.

Originally published in .

Black Ball

According to his grandmother, the story of the Caravan of Toothless Souls came to a close the night government forces rounded up Japanese immigrants to ship them off to concentration camps in the United States. The neighbor and her husband committed suicide that very night. My grandmother told me that they’d asked her to look after their young children just a few hours before. The little boy was very fat and the little girl very skinny. She also told me that an hour later they heard a gunshot, and then another. The husband first killed his wife and then committed suicide. The neighbor had asked her to hide the children well. The fat one and the skinny one. To care for them as if they were her own. But my grandfather turned the children over to the police shortly after the shots rang out. I think it was partly by way of excusing him that my grandmother sometimes told me how hard times were back then. That I shouldn’t condemn my grandfather’s actions or those of the rest of my family. I think it is because of their actions that I understand all the better Bohumil Hrabal as he clambered out on that ledge, saying he was going to scare off the pigeons. They say that his fall was deafening. That he showed not a trace of the elegance with which a bird executes its final flight. Actually, birds die huddled in some remote corner of nature.

We read it in The Buenos Aires Review.

Full story online.


Bears give birth to a shapeless fetus—white in color, with no eyes—which the mother then sculpts with her mouth.

Panthers give birth only once in their lives, which is perhaps an explanation for their diminishing numbers.

Bees are produced from worms, which are themselves produced when one beats a dead calf with a stick. One may produce hornets in the same way by substituting a horse for a calf, and wasps by substituting an ass.

The animal kingdom is indeed rich and varied, and there is no more complete zoological guide than the Bestiary, from which one also learns that if a lion eats too much, it inserts its paws into its mouth and pulls some of the food out, that hyenas live in tombs, that snakes despise clothed men and fear naked men, and that if a beaver fears it’s being pursued by a hunter, it will gnaw its testicles off and throws them in the hunter’s face, knowing that its testicles are the object of the hunter’s desire. Very effective medicine can be made from a beaver’s testicles.

We read it in The Buenos Aires Review.