Translating César Aira: A Q. & A. with Rosalie Knecht

by Alicia Kennedy

In 2006, Rosalie Knecht graduated from Oberlin and flew to Argentina on a Fulbright scholarship to work on a translation of César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind, out this week from New Directions. The novel is Knecht’s first as a translator, and working on Aira places her in the company of such respected names as Chris Andrews and Katherine Silver.

This is the fifth Aira novel that New Directions has brought out, and last year Barbara Epler, the publishing house’s editor in chief, told GQ that after Roberto Bolaño, Aira would be the next big success-in-translation.

It’s hard to argue with that prediction when you know a little about Aira and his vast output of very short, exceptionally weird novels. The exact number he’s published since starting his career in 1975 is unknown — he purposely publishes them with tiny presses, forcing his readers to seek them out — but it’s probably around 70. The ones available in English are also among the most original books you could hope to pick up.

To be this productive, one obviously needs a method, and knowing Aira’s is essential to understanding his work: He goes to cafes in Buenos Aires daily to write a few paragraphs by hand, and he never edits. The process has been called a “flight forward,” and it’s a good description. Reading Aira you’re on that trajectory, propelled by his audacity and playfulness. His writing lacks self-consciousness, though he is always present in the novels — whether as a character named after himself or through the inclusion of lengthy philosophical non-sequiturs. Each book is set to destruct around the 100-page mark, after taking numerous, fitful turns across genres.

In The Seamstress and the Wind, the author is more present than ever. The novel begins with Aira in a Paris cafe, discussing his desire to finally write the novel with this great title that’s stuck with him. He moves on to the nature of memory and travel before steering into what could be a traditional narrative about the mother of his childhood friend following her supposedly lost child into “the land of the wind,” Patagonia. The wind initially seems to represent fate, but as the action moves south, it becomes more of a presence until it is speaking and then suddenly a character. It’s clear in the novel that Aira considers himself a literary seamstress moved by the wind, but then what does that make his translator? To get some insight, I interviewed his engaging translator, Rosalie Knecht, by email.

Literary translation is kind of mysterious. Your name gets printed very small on the title page, and the general perception is that you’re supposed to be invisible. What attracted you to it?

It actually seemed kind of glamorous to me. It allows you to participate in someone else’s work in a very intimate way. By the end of it, you know the meaning of every single word. You’ve pictured every single object.

I met César Aira a few times while working on the translation, and I remember using words in conversation that I had learned from his book. So I wanted to do translation because it’s another way to participate in fiction. A more literal answer is that I majored in Spanish in college and I was applying for a Fulbright and didn’t know what to propose for my project, and a professor suggested translation. I hadn’t thought of it myself because it seemed kind of audacious. It involved sending a letter to this literary figure, trying to strike the right tone of confidence and extreme, cowering politeness. And then Aira wrote me back all casually, like “Yeah, sure, whatever. When are you going to be in town?”

In interviews and in his work, he comes across as someone who would respond like that and just be totally open. So why did you choose him, and why this novel?

I read How I Became a Nun first, and loved it. For those who haven’t read it (spoilers!), it’s about a six-year-old girl whose father murders an ice cream vendor and is sent to prison. At the end of the book, the child is drowned in a vat of strawberry ice cream by the vendor’s widow. Taken like that, the book sounds just kind of whimsical, or maybe a little too clever, but actually it’s extremely weird, for two main reasons: 1) it’s in first person, but the protagonist dies at the end at only age six, thereby never becoming a nun, negating not just the title but the general tone of wistful adult remembrance that the whole novel is told in; and 2) the child switches genders halfway through, first referring to herself and being referred to by those around her entirely in female terms (which is pervasive, this being a language where every adjective confirms the gender of its object) and then in male terms, and no one refers to this change at all, including the narrator. Also, the little girl/boy is named César Aira, but that’s not such an unusual ploy these days.

I liked it because it seemed genuinely, profoundly weird. A lot of literary fiction feels defensive about whether it’s interesting enough plot-wise, so it overcompensates by being all about flashy genre set pieces and talking frogs that solve mysteries and that kind of thing, and all very IRONICALLY. Whereas this seemed sincerely weird. In the original Argentine edition, How I Became a Nun was published as a two-novella volume with The Seamstress and the Wind. I read it on the plane on the way to Argentina and thought it was great. A lot of the book is set in Patagonia, which is huge and flat and empty with extremely high (titular) winds. Several characters on different missions are searching for each other. There’s a propulsiveness to the plot that I think comes partly from the fact that Aira isn’t really worried about continuity, like when kids go, “Okay, let’s pretend we’re in a cave, and you’re a bear, and I have a rock, no wait it’s a magic rock, and actually you’re a wizard pretending to be a bear, and I’m a wizard too, we’re two wizards in a cave…” Which is not to say that it’s chaotic or nonsensical, just that there’s a bubbly inventiveness that keeps things moving.

We arranged to meet in a café. We sat there for about an hour and he never made eye contact with me. I remember at one point he was rolling a straw wrapper up into a little tube on the table, very slowly, not talking, and I thought, “Jesus, please kill me.”

How did having access to Aira work? What was the process of translation like?

I wrote him a letter in care of New Directions, asking if I could translate his book and if he would meet with me if I got this grant I was applying for, and he graciously agreed. When I got to Buenos Aires I called him — I remember I had to ask the desk clerk at the hotel for help, as I had been in Argentina for about two seconds and couldn’t figure out how to work the pay phone in the lobby. We arranged to meet in a café. We sat there for about an hour and he never made eye contact with me. I remember at one point he was rolling a straw wrapper up into a little tube on the table, very slowly, not talking, and I thought, “Jesus, please kill me.” I asked him if I could translate The Seamstress and the Wind or if he thought another one would be be more appropriate, and he said, “People are not good judges of their own work.” So I took that for a go-ahead.

The grant was a teaching assistantship with a project component, and I’d been assigned to a teachers’ training college in Santa Fe, a small city in a very flat, agricultural, flood-prone province. It was about six hours on a bus from Buenos Aires, and I had coffee with him two more times and emailed him drafts to look at as I finished them. He warmed up over time and was really charming. The last time I saw him I came prepared with a list of the knottiest problems in the book, the ones I had been trying to solve for months, and he went over them and explained them, except for one. I showed him a sentence from the third or fourth chapter of the book and said, “What does this mean?” And he looked at it for a minute and said, “I have no idea.”

He read the final draft and approved it, and said I could talk to Barbara Epler, his editor at New Directions. He was really nice to work with, though his reticence is well documented. Rivka Galchen has an awesome essay about spending a few days with him in the June Harper’s.

What did you find most challenging about the project as a whole?

I think, on the whole, the hardest thing might be what’s hard about any creative project — the worry that you’re putting all this work into something that’s never going to matter to anybody else. Literary translation in particular, at least in the U.S., is a teeny little niche. There are only a few publishers that are really open to it. Also, puns. And curse words! It’s so hard to find an equivalent that’s not either too weak or too strong. Which brings up a lot of childhood anxiety about sounding unconvincing with your swears.

A tiny niche, definitely, but Aira is relatively high-profile — he’s been reviewed in the Times, all his books are “blurbed” by Bolaño. Did you feel any special pressure translating him, being new to it?

When I proposed the project in 2006, his profile was a bit lower. But yeah, overall it did feel like a pretty presumptuous move to embark on a translating project with no credentials whatsoever. Most literary translators are academics. I owe a lot of gratitude there to my college adviser for thinking it was a perfectly reasonable idea.

What should be the next novel of his to be translated?

Well, the one I’m most excited to read now is already being translated and will be out next year with New Directions, Varamo, with Katherine Silver. It’s about a Panamanian bureaucrat who writes one great poem. I’d like to do some of Aira’s short stories, like “Mil Gotas,” where the main character is the drops of paint that make up the “Mona Lisa.”

Any other Spanish-language writers you’re hoping to translate?

Two great Argentine writers I’ve been reading lately are Pola Oloixarac and Lucía Puenzo. Oloixarac has a debut novel out called Las Teorías Salvajes that got a lot of attention in Argentina, and Puenzo is a filmmaker — she directed XXY a few years ago, and she’s written four or five novels, only one of which has been translated. I’d love to work with either of them.

Alicia Kennedy is a copy editor, yogi and amateur baker. She is maybe not as boring as that makes her sound.