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2015 Man Booker International Prize Questionnaire: Katherine Silver

By Eric M. B. Becker

Katherine Silver is an award-winning translator of literature from Spanish and is the co-director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre (BILTC) in Alberta, Canada. Her most recent translations include works by Martín Adán, Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, César Aira, Rafael Bernal, Jorge Luis Borges, and Marcos Giralt Torrente. 

Words without Borders: It must be gratifying to see the writer you translate honored as a finalist for the Man Booker. What is it that drew you, as a translator, to the writer's work?

Katherine Silver: Indeed. It’s wonderful to know that readers in a position to influence many other readers enjoy and appreciate Aira’s work. It was not I who was initially drawn to him as a translator. It was my unparalleled good fortune that the editors at New Directions offered me one of his novels to translate. Apparently, the wonderful Chris Andrews couldn’t keep up with their demand, and they honored me with the request. But I didn’t hesitate for a moment. He is an author I wish I had discovered myself. In his case, not as much for his style or use of language—though this, too, is intriguing to me as a translator for what only seems to be straightforwardness and simplicity—but because I get a real kick out of following the twists and turns of Aira’s mind. I always get that “Aha!” feeling when I am inside the literature he is making. You never really know where you’re going to end up, not even in the course of a single sentence. Though, to make clear: his narrative wildness and outlandish sensibility doesn’t mean he’s not extremely precise and in total control of his material.

WWB: Can you tell us about a particular challenge/problem you've come across translating your writer's work and how you resolved it? Alternately, what's something you learned from translating this writer [that has stuck with you to this day]?

KS: As I’ve said before (at least I still know when I’m repeating myself), translating is like love: what often draws you to a person (or a text) is what gives you the most trouble once you’re there. With Aira, it can be about figuring out what does and does not “make sense” in pre-Airaian terms. This either on the concrete level—the Macuto Line [in The Literary Conference], for instance, is clearly not a physical possibility, but I had to make certain of that to translate it well—or when he gets to those grand metaphors, as in The Miracle Cures, when “reality” (or is that “real reality”?) can be divided up by an infinite number of screens unfolding. Not to mention the narrative leaps and displacements. The translator has to know when to stop in her unfolding of meaning, when to resist the urge to neaten things up, overexplain, airbrush out the mystery. Though that’s true in any great literature.

In an Aira book, there’s often one key word, and once I get that, I’m anchored, as it is, in English. If I remember correctly, in Miracle Cures it was “blunder,” and in the last one translated and not yet published, it’s “slurp.” I hope that whets your appetite…

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: César Aira's "The Literature Conference" (WWB's February 2004 Issue)

More interviews with 2015 Man Booker International Prize finalists

Published May 18, 2015   Copyright 2015 Eric M. B. Becker

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