Esther Allen (2011)
Several years ago, I spent a week in Argentina along with a group of translators and editors from across the world. Well before my visit I knew that Argentina is one of the most literary countries on earth. What surprised me, in those days of endless conversations about writers and books, was just how different Argentine literature looks from inside the country than it does from outside. The names that evoked the strongest emotions from the Argentine writers, editors and journalists I was talking to were often new to me. And no writer was mentioned with greater fervor than Antonio di Benedetto.
Di Benedetto was born in Mendoza, a provincial Argentine city at the base of the Andes, separated from Buenos Aires by 1,000 kilometers of pampas, and from the Chilean capital of Santiago by the Andes themselves. Not only was he born in Mendoza, he made it his base throughout most of his life, and though he died in Buenos Aires in 1986, he had only lived there during a few scattered periods, dividing his time instead between Mendoza and his travels across the world. He deliberately spent his life at the margins of Buenos Aires literary society.
One paradox of translation in the U.S. now is that a translator's work is never taken more seriously than when a book has been translated many times before. Translate a new version of a much-translated classic work by a world-renowned author, and reviewers and readers will discuss your -- the translator's -- work with great intensity. Translate something into English for the first time, and the translation vanishes into the genius of the original author -- unless you translate him or her badly, in which case that genius is unlikely ever to be acknowledged. One plausible hypothesis for the lack of any previous English translation of Di Benedetto is the difficulty of his prose. In Zama, first published more than a half century ago, he invented a style that is sui generis: choppy, oblique, veering and jolting from sentence to sentence, often rather opaque, a bit mad. Recreating this style in English is one of the greatest challenges I've faced. And I am very much aware, as I embark on the project, that this is Di Benedetto's first and best chance to make it into English -- if my translation doesn't work, he is unlikely to have many more opportunities.
excerpt from ZAMA by Antonio Di Benedetto
[translated from Spanish]
The governor remitted an incomprehensible case to me. No sooner had he asked that I consult then I complied with the request. I had no wish to ponder the question of whether he, the governor, had the authority to remove a man convicted of murder from prison and have him escorted to my office with only a single guard at his side to "explain the situation to me," in order to see "by what manner and how to proceed to the staying of the charges." It was of utmost importance that I attend to him without evincing awareness of how he had reached me, nor with what high recommendations and designs on the part of the recommender. I had to attend diligently to my stability, my post, precisely in order to disencumber myself of him, and of the post.
I was also obliged to hear the prisoner out, which very shortly revealed itself to be impossible, for it is not possible to listen to one who does not speak. On the marrow of the question, that is, the narrative of his crime, he was closed up, not with steeliness but in absence and silence.
With obliging foresight, the guard warned from behind the prisoner that we had reason to anticipate a fit of weeping or some other crisis of a sentimental order.
He was not, therefore, a fearsome individual, but a broken man.
To spare myself the scene that perhaps was triggered by the nakedness of my interrogation and the peevishness that all too rapidly overcame me, I left him alone with the guard who, more than standing sentinel over him, seemed to view him as in need of protection.
In the interval, seeking a change of mood, I believe, I went into the room where Ventura Prieto was working and recounted the case of muteness I'd left behind my door.
I did not have occasion to regret this, for Ventura Prieto, with a "That way, it will not work" spoken without disdain, requested my authorization to address the prisoner and assist me.
He offered the smile of a friend, and indeed could appear to be just that, for he bore scant resemblance to one's image of a bureaucrat. Thus Ventura Prieto was able to make this sequestered spirit briefly deliver itself up.
His gaze low, a fitting sorrow deepening the tones of his voice, the handsome and prematurely withered lad said, "I was a tremendous smoker. One night, in horror, I saw that the sting of a bat had come from me..."
With this scant declaration he had perturbed us sufficiently to make us desire him not to return to his previous state of muteness. He did not. He had perceived that his words did not correspond entirely to his thoughts and by means of mental review was seeking a more exact coordination. After a good while, he began again, and composed his discourse.
"I was a tremendous smoker. One night I fell asleep, cigar in mouth. I woke up in fear of awakening. As if I already knew: the wing of a bat had grown out of me. In disgust I groped for my biggest knife in the darkness and cut it off. It fell to the floor and by the light of day, it was a dark-skinned woman and I was saying I loved her. They took me to jail."
He said no more.
We shared his silence.
With my eyes I told the guard to take him away.
Sample in Spanish
About Antonio Di Benedetto
ZAMA (1956) is the widely acknowledged masterpiece of Antonio di Benedetto (1922-1986). Author of nine other novels, several of them equally acclaimed, as well as screenplays and journalism, di Benedetto was arrested by the Argentine military dictatorship in 1976 and spent a year in jail before being exiled to Spain. ZAMA has remained consistently in print in Spanish since its first publication; it was hailed by di Benedetto's contemporaries and is cited as a major influence by subsequent generations. "ZAMA... is comparable to the great existentialist novels such as NAUSEA and L'ETRANGER," wrote Juan José Saer, "but I believe that, given the circumstances in which it was written and the peculiar situation of the person who wrote it, ZAMA is in many ways superior to those books." ZAMA has been, to date, the subject of at least three full-length scholarly works in Spanish. Meanwhile, though ZAMA has been translated into French, German, Polish and Italian, neither it nor any of di Benedetto's other novels has been translated into English before now.
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Esther Allen was greatly encouraged to pursue literary translation when she received an NEA Fellowship in 1995 for the translation of Rosario Castellanos's Book of Lamentations, now a Penguin Modern Classic. She has since translated a number of works from French and Spanish and has worked to promote a culture of translation in the English-speaking world, most notably by directing the PEN Translation Fund from 2003 to 2010. An assistant professor at Baruch College, CUNY, she was made a Chevalier de l'ordre des arts et des lettres by the French government in 2006, in recognition of her work on behalf of translation.
Photo by Caroline White