Skip to content
For literary responses to COVID-19 from writers around the world, check out our Voices from the Pandemic series.
from the July 2013 issue

Many Voices: A Life in Translation

"When we first learn to speak as children, we are learning to translate."—Octavio Paz

One of the first authors I translated, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, said that I had "too much ego" to be a translator. I took the statement as a compliment even though I still don’t know if it’s true.  What I do know is that author and translator both need to be writers. To begin at the beginning: I read somewhere:

[T]he greatest human yearning is to recover the sense of belonging and possibility that attaches to childhood, that ghostly sensation of how it felt when life was most promising, simpler but more mysterious, at a time when things were vivid because they were first impressions. It is the memory of expectation that lies at the bottom of all our lives. That is what I love, what I am forever seeking.

Childhood is where my relationship with authors and translation began, in those first impressionable encounters with books like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  As a young girl who loved escaping into books as well as playing with foreign words or imitating accents, I daydreamed, like Emma Bovary, that the adventure of life was elsewhere, beyond our marginal modest immigrant neighborhood in upper Manhattan—a home to refugees from all over Europe—where I grew up and lived until age sixteen. 

I wrote in my book about translating Latin American fiction, The Subversive Scribe: "You often seek in the foreign what you are drawn to, perhaps unknowingly, in the familiar. I was born and raised in New York City, in a culture within a culture, in an ‘assimilated’ Jewish family in which my mother spoke Yiddish to my father when she didn’t want me to understand the conversation—obviously not meant for the ears of a child. I made my first entry at age twelve into another language, French."

My first French teacher had a British accent and also British wit, and he somehow made conjugations fun: French became wordplay, and learning a foreign language was more fun than any other course I was taking.

Translation, as we know, is synonymous with metaphor and means movement from one place to another.  Just as the young me desired access to my mother’s secret code, Yiddish, I also desired to be translated, to travel, which also meant—as it has for many writers—finding myself. We translate to be translated.

To speak about how authors are translators and how translators are authors I need to reimagine once again how I felt at age twenty-two when I met the then new and as yet unknown-in-English Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, in London. By then I was already in graduate school at Columbia University, and my first partner in life, with whom I was traveling to England for the first time, was a gifted literary critic from Uruguay who taught at Yale University, Emir Rodriguez Monegal. I had already switched from French to Spanish as my major in college and had mastered spoken Spanish.  I had lived as an undergraduate in Spain for a year and as a grad student in Colombia for a summer, where I immersed myself in the everyday life of work at an underwear factory in Cali.

While in Colombia in 1968, I made a discovery, as great for me as Hispaniola was for Christopher Columbus.  I made this discovery in the same country that produced Nobel prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  A young poet acquaintance gave me a book I couldn’t put down: it would become in English One Hundred Years of Solitude—soon to be translated by my professor at Columbia University, the eminent translator Gregory Rabassa.   This exuberantly strange novel convinced me that Latin American literature was the path I wanted to follow.   Garcia Marquez and Emir led me to an even more amazing writer, whom Vargas Llosa has referred to as "the father of the Latin American novel": Jorge Luis Borges.

In the still swinging London, in February 1969, I met the first of several Borgesian Latin American new novelists, the author of the first book I translated, a recently exiled Cuban, an innovative writer of the new Latin American Boom—Cabrera Infante hated the term "experimental."  (He felt it should be reserved for scientists.)   John Updike would, in a derogatory manner, describe Guillermo Cabrera Infante as the Cuban Joyce when he reviewed our translation in the New Yorker, ignoring the fact that it was a translation.  This book, Three Trapped Tigers, was a brash and brilliant satire filled with literary and filmic allusions, a carnevale to the Cuba Cabrera Infante knew, a collage of voices and narratives and puns exploding with subversive intent.

Updike’s thesis was: why do we need a Cuban Joyce? What we need is to learn about everyday life in Cuba because it’s an important country now that it’s had its revolution.  For me that review was symptomatic—maybe it still is on some level—of the Anglo-American literary establishment’s bias against Hispanic culture (with a few exceptions), that it basically had only an anthropological or political, not a poetic or aesthetic, value.

Cuba on the eve of the revolution was almost a bilingual country, colonized since the late nineteenth century by the United States, and a good deal of what was not only innovative but relevant in the deepest sense in Cabrera Infante’s babelic book was that it was written in a Spanish invaded by English, as well as wordplays in various languages, in which nonsense made more sense than most anything else.  Cabrera Infante came to fiction writing, or fictional memoir writing, as a film critic in Havana before the revolution; he was also the son of the founders of the Communist party in Cuba.  At first an important literary collaborator of the revolution, he had been sent into exile, in 1964, after he participated in a protest against censorship, for not supporting Fidel’s cultural policy inside the island.  He was now a gusano, as the Cuban exiles were called.It was curious that Fidel used the same term that Hitler used to condemn the Jewish people: gusano means vermin or worm—or, in this case, a traitor, a Trotsky to Fidel’s Stalin.

Fidel banished him in a—literally—diplomatic way, by appointing Cabrera Infante to a minor post in the Cuban Embassy in Brussels. In this dreary place he heard about the tragic death of one of Cuba’s greatest musicians, a bolero singer named Freddy Rodriguez, and this is where the real writing of Tres tristes tigres began.

When explaining his explosive book on Havana as a city of the night, Cabrera Infante especially emphasized to critics that the novel was a "betrayal"—traduttore traditore—a failed translation of Petronius’s Satyricon, translating the fauna of ancient Rome’s nightlife into the night-owls of Havana on the eve of Revolution.

The driving theme of this novel was translation, as its epigraph announces, a quotation taken from Lewis Carroll: "And she tried to imagine what the flame of a candle looks like after the candle is blown out." Memory was Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s translator of Cuba’s music and living speech into writing, which was what remained of his country, for him, for the rest of his life, in exile.

In our first conversation Guillermo and I quickly learned that we had Marx in common—Groucho Marx.  We not only shared Lewis Carroll, but we were fellow film buffs and could talk for hours about Hollywood films, recalling dialogues and imitating actors. I met Cabrera Infante when he was in the process of co-translating Tres tristes tigres with the English poet Donald Gardner. The book is written in Cuban, as the author notes in his original preface, and the publisher, then Harper & Row, now HarperCollins, engaged me to render the idiomatic language into "American" English. (Donald Gardner and I share credit for the translation.)

This book was driven by the desire to show how language conceals as much as it reveals meaning; how, in the realm of social life, as well as romantic life, in politics as in history, lies are accepted as truth, and truth as lies.  And so the first message I was imparting as a translator/co-author was quite self-reflective: a writer must explore what is not said.  She must become an interpreter, a translator, must look through what is said to see the secret design. 

Some translators from Spanish envied me this book; it was so funny and playful, and I could be free to invent as I was collaborating with the author in this adventure.  What was lost in spoken Cuban was gained in literary English.  The English version was, indeed, thirty pages longer because of our "closelaboration."  Words kept begetting other words in babelic fashion: indeed we wanted the title page to say instead of translated, "closelaborated" by us, but the publisher put his foot down.  (Alas, we—author and translator—were invading sacred editorial territory by fussing with the title page.)


Many poets have spoken this way about translation, but I think my book—which came out in 1991—was one of the first to pin, systematically, such "transcreational" ideas to works of prose.  (This has much to do with the fact that I began translating during the boom of the Latin American novel, which was also the boom of poststructuralist theory.) The writers I translated early on were not social realists but radical meta-fictionists—Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers, Severo Sarduy’s Cobra, Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth.  For them the subject of narrative was a fragmented subject, the self as constituted by a discourse that it never completely masters. 

Barthes had already spread the news that the Author was Dead—to the relief of many academics—which places the translator along with other readers.  By trying to take the author’s place, the translator subverts the figure of the author whose creative product has now become a relationship between perceiver and perceived.  Translation, like the modernist novel, is by necessity a self-conscious act, an attempt to bring fragments together in a whole that can never be completed.  Translating with a writer like Cabrera Infante confirmed for me early on that translation is an "act of writing," never finished and no different, philosophically, than the task of the original writer.

So when it comes to collaborating with an author, whether or not the author is physically present, the real boss for both author and translator is, ultimately, the text itself.  

My first work with Cabrera Infante and Manuel Puig actually made other writers I translated want to follow my path of "closelaboration," writers like Carlos Fuentes, Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, and Jose Donoso.  Not only did I feel more free about consulting and working with them; but also, they said: "Look what she and Cabrera Infante did together, look at that translation, I want to do that too."

With the exception of Borges, almost all the writers I translated were in some ways on the margins of the Latin American Boom.  Cabrera Infante and Puig shared commonalities in their use of spoken language of their regions, and in the dynamic role of popular culture in their works.   Both writers had a great command of English vocabulary, even though they spoke with accents, because they were avid moviegoers and fans of American movies since childhood. (Historically, as well, English was an important element in both those cultures for various political, social, economic reasons.) Both Puig and Cabrera Infante could write in English (although not at the level of their Spanish).  Working with them was interesting from that perspective: their level of English and their free and creative approach to the translation of their texts.


I have been speaking here of author and translator almost as one, but there is of course a difference.  More often than not, in a collaboration, the translator consults, while the author is consultant. The French translator Albert Bensoussan spoke of the unequal roles of author and translator in terms of gender and sex:

The translator renders in his language the author publishable but he is forgettable. The author creates himself, the translator remains secret. The translator is only a voice of passage. The translator is female, even if she is sometimes a male. [My translation]

In my case, even though I have translated poetry and stories by numerous women writers, I am still known mostly for translating male writers.  I tried to de-sex this traditional perspective—in part by making note of the borderlessness or continuity between translation and original.  As I wrote in Subversive Scribe: "perhaps we can begin to see the translator in another light, no longer bearing the stigma of servant, of handmaiden. Translation, straddling the scholarly and the creative, can be a route through which a writer/translator may seek to reconcile fragments: fragments of texts, of language, of oneself."

Anne Malena, a Canadian translator, concurred. In her essay "A Translator’s Apologia," she writes:

[In The Subversive Scribe, Levine] "briefly ponder[s] the feminized translator, traitor:  me as self-betrayer fallen under the spell of male discourse, translating books that speak of woman as the often treacherous or betrayed . . . .” Levine’s apologia then is to "take her own back," so to speak, to subvert the notion of the translator and female betrayer, in fact to embrace betrayal and the pleasures of "transcreating." She explains: "What drew me as a translator to these writers [Puig, Sarduy and Cabrera Infante] was the playful, creative possibility of self-betrayal, or re-creating (in) language." Levine’s discretion about her dealings with writers is not only professional but a deliberate turning away from the nightmare of traditionally female associations with the craft of translator because, like Bensoussan, she’s aware of the necessity to recognize the gender tension in writers and translators but, unlike Bensoussan, she chooses to celebrate, while striving to match it, the creative genius of writers such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig, Severo Sarduy and others . . . Through her collaboration with the author, Levine discovers and celebrates the cultural richness of American English while transcending the usual inhibitions about propriety of language and respect of conventions, literary and social.


When I worked on Mexican Carlos Fuentes’s novel Holy Place during the summer of 1971, we went on to correspond in the fall.  In a letter to me (November 1971), Carlos told me that I made him "read like Henry James."  To me that was a compliment.  We became friends over the course of our collaboration, and our correspondence is a source of insights into the process, revealing Carlos’s sophistication in English, as in this letter he wrote to me from Mexico City, in November 1971.  He was concerned about the dialogues of Claudia, a character based directly on the famous Mexican actress Maria Felix: 

I have only one basic desire: that the Claudia-Mito dialogs should be a lot harder, rougher, biting, more vulgar. As long as he narrates in the first person, the Jamesian tone with baroque overtones is just perfect; when the mother and son engage in verbal battle, there should be (as in the Spanish original) a marked difference; Claudia, particularly, should be much more bitchy and almost gangsterlike in her speech: like something out of Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald.

Carlos’s guidance was invaluable: by suggesting that I make Claudia’s snap-diva remarks more Raymond Chandleresque, he was setting the translation in the direction it needed to take, because in the original dialogue he was doing a takeoff on the hardboiled American roman noir; as we know, one of the books that most influenced him and other writers of that era in its style and treatment of social and political corruption was Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.

There was also Argentine Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges’s most constant collaborator: together they actually produced a third writer who didn’t resemble either of them.  The Selected Stories of Adolfo Bioy Casares, which I edited and translated for New Directions in 1991, was the result of a collaboration over many years with Bioy as well as with Emir Rodriguez Monegal, the seminal literary critic of the Boom era of the 1960s and ’70s, who died in 1985. Commissioned in the early ’70s by Emir to translate a story by Bioy called "The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice," about a Peronist incident in 1953 in Buenos Aires, I sent the translation to Bioy in hopes that he would approve.

The letter came all the way to New Haven where I lived then, from "Rincon Viejo, Pardo," the Casares "Old Corner" family ranch in the town of Pardo where in the late 1930s he had written his famous novella The Invention of Morel; here is an excerpt (in my translation, as we corresponded in Spanish):

Rincon Viejo, Pardo, March 8 1972

My Dear Jill:

…..Back, finally, to your translation. I wouldn't like to be unfair with anybody but I think, Jill, that it's the best that's been done with a text of mine. In general, the task of the translator consists in simplifying a text by weakening it, so that a mystery remains in evidence: Why did someone write (of course for this question there is never any answer) and why did someone else take the trouble to translate? Any author who doesn't want to abandon right there and then his profession should abstain from such depressing readings. With "The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice" the danger, for me, is one of pride. I assure you that I have caught myself in the mirror, reading your pages with a beatific smile (from ear to ear), which could only correspond to the phrase: "How well I write!" "The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice" does not read like a translation but as an original written with confidence, with intelligence and with grace.

As if I believed that those merits were also my own, your translation stimulated me to confront the continuous difficulties that fetter me in the composition and writing of The Disappeared....

The novel referred to here—The Disappeared of Villa Urquiza—became a tragicomic love story with a parodic sci-fi subplot titled Dormir al sol, which I would translate a few years after the publication of Plan for Escape, the first book of Bioy’s I translated.  It is interesting to note here how translation stimulated his own writing—particularly in terms of Bioy’s sense of himself as a somewhat invisible writer.  The fact of being recognized through translation was in itself a stimulus to a man who was a consummate practitioner of courteous criollo modesty.


When I gave a lecture in Spain some years ago, the image of the translator had become a nostalgic figure, lost in a limbo between past and present, between one culture and another. The nostalgic figure made sense to me after reading about cineaste Henri Langlois, who started the famous Cinémathèque in Paris. He spoke about how the film buff is a nostalgic person, who lives with a sense of loss or exile, of childhood’s lost paradise, of the past as another country, because the images we become enamored of are already in the past, are ghosts.  Nostalgia is what I feel now for most of these writers I knew and translated who are now gone to the other world.  Indeed, one of my recent projects, The Lizard’s Tale, a translation of a posthumously published novel by the Chilean Jose Donoso, seemed like an effort at reincarnation, particularly since it was an unfinished book.

I visited the Firestone Library, retracing the pilgrimage of the talented editor and poet Julio Ortega, who had turned those found manuscripts into a publishable work.  Here among Pepe Donoso’s papers I found some answers to the initial enigma of how to approach this unique project. One of the answers concerns the title: among his original titles was "The Lizard’s Tail" (La cola de la lagartija).  Because another 1970s novel from Latin America (by Luisa Valenzuela) bears this title, Julio made a slight change, giving the title a more explicit image related to a significant motif in the novel.

In a 1973 journal entry about this work-in-progress, which actually consisted of three related book manuscripts—the titles of the other two were, respectively, "Pap Test" and "The Visa"—Donoso spoke of wanting to achieve a "classical effect" stylistically.  He wanted to write the book in a complex way but to have it still flow for the reader.  Donoso, who learned English in a private school in Chile where his classmate was Carlos Fuentes, spoke English fluently with a somewhat British accent, and in the novel he includes phrases or words in French, Italian, and especially English.  What most impressed me in his notes was expressed in the midst of complaining that Spanish wasn’t easy to "conquer":  "I would give my life to write in English."   I have tried to follow his wish in giving his book a life in English he hopefully would have welcomed, and, in this spirit, I have given the title, to cite his beloved Henry James, another turn of the screw: "The Lizard’s Tale."


I feel a certain affinity for one of Borges’s more philosophical pieces on translation, "The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald." It pays homage to the curious fate of the eponymous minor Victorian poet whose fame stemmed from his translation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, the quintessential love poem from old Persia.  For Borges, FitzGerald was a kindred spirit—but more, a precursor of his English father Jorge Borges, an anarchist lawyer and frustrated novelist who also translated the Rubaiyat (into Spanish).  Like Pierre Menard, FitzGerald was an avid reader of Don Quixote; the Englishman was separated by seven centuries from the Persian poet and was "less intellectual than Omar, but perhaps more sensitive and sadder," Borges writesAnd yet, a kind of miracle occurred in the textual encounter between these two dissimilar beings:

From the fortuitous conjunction of a Persian astronomer, who condescended to write poetry, and an eccentric Englishman, who peruses Oriental and Hispanic books (perhaps without understanding them completely), emerges an extraordinary poet who resembles neither of them.

The transmigration of Khayyam’s obscure quatrains into FitzGerald’s great "English poem with Persian allusions" becomes, in Borges’s recounting, almost identical to the odyssey of the "Nights"—an obscure book from the East that turns into a canonical work in the West.   Borges seems to reflect a sympathetic sense of communion in this tale of FitzGerald and Khayyam—a nostalgic communion with phantoms sought throughout his life as reader, writer, and translator, seeking the spirit through letters.  His communion with writers included not only those he read and rewrote, but also those friends he collaborated with, most notably Bioy Casares, with whom he created a third writer, Bustos Domecq (and other pseudonyms). Emir Rodriguez Monegal nicknamed this third writer, who did not resemble Borges or Bioy Casares, "Biorges." In Borges’s world, collaboration and translation were two sides of the same coin, as he concludes in his meditation on FitzGerald: "All collaboration is mysterious.  That of the Englishman and the Persian was even more so, for the two were quite different, and perhaps in life might not have been friends; death and vicissitudes and time led one to know the other and make them into a single poet."

I couldn’t have said it better: when a translation "works" it is because translator and author in that moment have become a single poet.

Adapted from the keynote address at the conference "Beyond Transfiction: Translators and (their) Authors" given on May 7, 2013, at Tel Aviv University, Israel. © 2013 Suzanne Jill Levine. All rights reserved.

Read more from the July 2013 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.