On Wednesday of this week I travelled to Bath for an unusual but very much enjoyed literary event. Hosted by Toppings Bookshop, Ariana Harwicz, author of Die My Love and Feebleminded, was there to talk about her writing and her books. These are available in English from the fabulous Charco Press who are based in Edinburgh and publish books in translation, several from South America. Born in Buenos Aires, Ariana currently lives in France and writes in Spanish. She spoke to the audience in her mother tongue and was ably translated by Carolina Orloff. Carolina is co-founder of Charco Press and co-translated both of Ariana’s books. As someone who speaks only English, I was impressed that so many in the audience appeared to understand all that was being said.
The evening opened with an introduction by Matt, one of Toppings’ booksellers, who spoke of how viscerally he had been affected reading Die My Love. Ariana then gave a reading from the original version of Feebleminded. This was followed by the same section read from the English translation by Carolina.
“if we don’t suffer there’s no passion”
“falling in love is the ultimate curse”
Matt asked a series of pertinent questions that enabled an interesting discourse on the creation of Ariana’s trilogy (the third book will be published in English next year). The following summary is produced from notes I took on the night. Some of the responses are translations of Ariana’s answers and some are additional comments from Carolina. My aim is to reflect the gist of what was said. I hope it will be of interest.
Q: What is the purpose of the trilogy?
When asked this question an author tries to go back in time. This process happens later, when the author becomes a reader of their own work. It is a deconstruction process. The more truthful answer is the writing comes from a mystery. I don’t know where it comes from.
What unites the three books is a feeling of desperation in the main character. There is a certain style, perhaps like musicians creating a triad. It is the punctuation that unites the books.
Q: How does it feel to revisit your published books that are only now coming out in English?
To write a book is a miracle. To see a translation is another miracle. It is as if I have written another book. Translation is like two people making music. It has to work together. There can be slight changes – politically, ideologically. Some authors hand over their work to a translator and don’t get involved – beyond their responsibility. I am not like that. The involvement comes from the dialectics. Writing is an act of translation.
C: Ariana was recently told her books were thought in French but written in Spanish. This was said as a criticism but she thinks it is a good thing.
Q: Has there been variation in response from Spanish and English readers?
To be here is a political act. It is expected that a Latin American author will write about certain things. I have an eight year old son who is Franco-Argentinean. All he gets from television is: sexist, stereotypical, poverty, dictatorship. I am not interested in these clichés.
It was through the English translation that Die My Love came to be translated into fifteen languages. Now it cannot be so easily pigeonholed. I write literature, not just feminist Latin American.
C: One of the biggest aims as publisher is to do away with such limitations. Charco launched with five Argentinean writers from the same generation yet all are different. It is good to break preconceptions.
A: Reactions of different readerships stems from cultural history. The Hebrew version is getting very different reactions from the English. Some regard the writing as akin to science fiction, others recognise it as realism.
C: These social constructs and clichés exist because Latin American authors are not widely read. Charco wishes to change this.
A: The true political act is to step away from expectations and write what I want.
Q: What was it about the English translation that particularly resonated?
I live in a small French village, write from the margins, produce cryptic literature. English being such a massive language it opens work up to so many readers. What I want to do is break language, undo and then remake, add new meaning. I was told when the books came out they would be impossible to translate.
The challenge of translation is to get across something of that which is broken. The translation had to be hidden, quiet, convoluted – whatever the original conveyed. To leave the bare minimum of image or colour or feeling.
I would not wish to live without writing – inventing language. It is the language that is the main character.
After a second reading, the audience were invited to ask questions.
Q: Characters are never named. Do they recur in the trilogy?
C: Ariana has a background in drama and film.
I am interested in the idea that characters have no names, that it is up to the reader to assign them. I would even prefer books to have no titles, preferring to keep things as pure as possible. There are darker elements. Each character is condoned to their role in society. It is this that defines them.
Q: The ‘mad woman’ – are they thrust into this role? Do they embrace it?
Having to name people, reducing them, creates a misunderstanding. When Die My Love came out many readers understood it was a woman suffering post partum depression. But I never thought of this pathologically. I wanted to give a wider perspective.
Q: The language moves as though alive. Does Ariana edit to achieve this?
Consider artists who paint outside, trying to find an image but the image cannot exist without surrounding sound. Feebleminded comes from an image of a female village idiot. I then saw her again on a train and realised it was not idiocy but obsession.
I also observed the relationships between mothers and daughters. I found something disturbing. There were two bodies that looked alike. What was going on there, between them?
Sound matters more than realism. I just write, uninterrupted. The language comes out.
Q: When you picture the people who love your books are you surprised that they look like me? (a young, white, male)
That they are normal? To answer I go back to my first novel. Being a foreigner is a lonely experience. I wrote for myself, out of desperation. I didn’t know it would become a novel. When I heard it was to be published I went into the forest and cried. It was a way of saving myself.
C: In Argentina the book has been adapted for the stage yet uses the same words as in the novel – it is striking.
I am interested in writing from deep solitude, sorrow, tortuous loneliness.
Matt: The power of good writers is that they evoke situations the reader has been unable to express themselves.
Indie publishers are great because they are places of discovery. And unlike some, Charco has not published a bad book.
As audience members queued to have their purchases signed by both Ariana and Carolina, I left to catch my train home. The evening offered much to consider about both the power of writing and of quality translation.
Die My Love and Feebleminded are available to buy from good bookshops such as Toppings, and direct from Charco Press.