Books

Translating Roberto Bolaño into English

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Translator Natasha Wimmer, the book cover for “The Spirit of Science Fiction” and the author Roberto Bolaño.

Translator Natasha Wimmer, the book cover for “The Spirit of Science Fiction” and the author Roberto Bolaño.

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Courtesy of the author/Penguin Press/Agence Opale/Alamy Stock.

In 2012, The New York Times described Roberto Bolaño as “the most significant Latin American literary voice of his generation,” but when he died in 2003, he was still largely unknown in the English-reading world. What changed within the span of that decade and what catapulted him onto the world stage was the English-language release in 2007 of his book "The Savage Detectives," translated by Natasha Wimmer. 

In the dozen years since, Wimmer has been hard at work bringing more of Bolaño’s work to English-speaking readers, including his dark epic “2666,” for which she won the PEN Translation Prize in 2009. And now her eighth Bolaño translation is coming out, a novel called “The Spirit of Science Fiction.”

More than just translating a work word by word, Wimmer has to bring the text to life for new readers and capture the spirit of the original. “Oftentimes to be faithful to the spirit of the book means being unfaithful to the letter," she says. "And in order to give the new sequence of words some integrity you have to bring something of your own to it.”

To illustrate her approach to translation, Wimmer shares two selections from the new book, “The Spirit of Science Fiction,” comparing a Google translation of the original Spanish against her more artful final version.

“It is maybe hard to see how Google Translate could ever do exactly the same work as a literary translator,” Wimmer says, “just because the whole point of literary language is that you're trying to write in a stylistically unexpected way. And Google Translate is sort of lost when it comes to something that is intentionally new and different.”

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