George Henson: “I refuse to anglicize a text just to make readers’ lives easier” — Frank Garrett

Literary translator George Henson has made a name for himself tackling the task of bringing Mexico’s genre-bending writer Sergio Pitol to English readers at long last. It is a task that has elevated him, according to one reviewer, “to the status of one of the most important literary translators at work in the United States today.” In addition to Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, consisting of The Art of Flight (2015), The Journey (2015), and The Magician of Vienna (2017), his other book-length translations include Elena Poniatowska’s The Heart of the Artichoke (2012) and Luis Jorge Boone’s The Cannibal Night (2013). His translation of Pitol’s Mephisto’s Waltz, a selection of short stories, was recently published by Deep Vellum.

This interview was conducted via email during winter 2019.

Frank Garrett: How did you become a translator?

George Henson: Every time someone asks me this question, my answer changes, because I remember something I translated earlier than I previously remembered. I first began to translate, I guess, in college. As an undergrad, I took an independent study and translated, of all things, medieval poetry. Then I met the great Spanish translator Margaret Sayers Peden at the Puterbaugh Symposium in honor of Carlos Fuentes. I became fascinated with the notion of translating novels, so I played around with it, but nothing came of it.

Then at Middlebury, where I did my MA, I translated some stories by Cortázar, which still do not exist in translation, by the way, and I became a little more enamored with the idea of becoming a translator. Then nothing happened for years.

I was teaching Spanish at Southern Methodist University, with an MA, destined to remain an un-tenured lecturer for the rest of my life, and someone told me about the University of Texas at Dallas, which has a Center for Translation Studies. Long story short, I applied to the PhD program, was accepted, took classes in literary translation, began to translate in earnest, started submitting, finished my PhD, and now six books and dozens of short stories later, here I am.

FG: It seems that you started becoming better known as a translator because of your Pitol translations. If you could have translated anyone else first, with which author or text would you have liked to have made your career-defining translation?

GH: Before translating Pitol, I had translated a collection of stories by Elena Poniatowska, which went largely unnoticed because the publisher did little promotion. It’s an important book, I think, and I’d love to reissue it with another press, which would allow me to do some edits (every translator’s dream). After that, I translated, for the same publisher, another collection of short stories by a young Mexican author, Luis Jorge Boone, very talented, and that book went even more unnoticed. I was beginning to worry that I would become known as the short story translator who never translated a novel.

Then Pitol came along, and even though the first three books aren’t novels, they are important books that had a very good publisher, Deep Vellum, who was just starting out, but doing amazing things. So, yes, Pitol put me on the radar, to the extent I’m on anyone’s radar. I’m happy that Pitol is now on the English-readers’ radar. He’s what matters most. The writer and the text always matter more than the translator. That’s somewhat of an unpopular position today considering how much translators are working to be recognized, which is as important, admittedly, but I’m not looking to become a superstar, something I can’t say about all translators.

But back to your original question, I want to translate more Poniatowska. I’m very fortunate in that we’ve developed a friendship over the years. I’ve visited her twice in her home in Mexico City. We email regularly. And I’ve translated a few things here and there, including a text dedicated to Pitol, a lifelong friend of hers, which The Paris Review published online. I had been trying to get published there for years, and it took the death of Pitol for it to happen.

Elena has said that I can translate anything of hers I want, so if there’s an editor out there, please contact me. I would also like to translate Lorca, poetry or plays. I also would really love to translate Andrés Neuman and Carmen Boullosa, both of whom are friends and tremendous writers. Oh, I would have loved to be Manuel Puig’s and Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s translator.

I could say what Latin American masterpiece I think has been badly translated, but I’d get myself into even more trouble than I’m already in. But for now, I’m perfectly happy being known as Pitol’s translator, and I have three novels to come.

FG: How has translating Pitol’s fiction been different from translating his ostensibly nonfiction Trilogy of Memory?

GH: Translating anything by Pitol is hard. His lexis and syntax present a myriad of challenges. His prose is long and subordinated, but also interrupted by parentheticals, asides, detours. His diction is high. And although like any writer, he had words that he was fond of repeating, he also loved to use unusual noun-adjective pairs. His fiction has all that plus a very complex narrative structure. He was fascinated by embedded narratives, a Russian-doll structure. And he’s a master of weaving in and out of one narrative into the other.

I can’t tell you how many times I became lost, as if I were in a maze, where each turn led to another turn. The prose in his fiction, especially in his longer stories, the title story [“Mephisto’s Waltz”], for example, is dense, far denser than his nonfiction. Keep in mind, I resist with all my being the temptation to simplify his syntax, to break up the sentences, to untangle them. His syntax is part of his style. I refuse to anglicize a text just to make readers’ lives easier. Pitol is difficult for Spanish readers. He, then, must also be difficult for English readers.

I could say what Latin American masterpiece I think has been badly translated, but I’d get myself into even more trouble than I’m already in.

FG: Because of my background in Central and Eastern Europe, one of the things that struck me about reading Pitol was his insight into the culture and literature of that part of the world. And it’s not only that part of the world, but China, North and South America, and Western Europe as well. I can imagine that an entire dissertation could be done over each of his chapters. How much research outside of the actual translation process did you have to do?

GH: In my Translator’s Note to The Art of Flight, I wrote, “Translating Pitol, then, requires being—or becoming—familiar not only with such arcane literary references but also the breadth of Mexican and Spanish culture, as well as American, British, Polish, German, and Russian literatures. Translating Pitol requires reading philosophy, theology, drama theory, and the Italian Renaissance. Translating—and reading—Pitol provides an incomparable humanistic education.” And this became even truer after translating The Journey and The Magician of Vienna.

In all, I ended up consulting dozens of books, many times just to track down a single line, and buying at least fifty others, probably more, to complete the translation of the Trilogy of Memory, and some in more than one translation. I have, for example, two English and one Spanish translations of The Good Soldier Schweik/Švejk [by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek], both the Spanish and English translations of Mann’s diaries. I have English and Spanish translations of Tsvetaeva, as well as various biographies and memoirs that Pitol referenced. In one instance, I even called a friend in another city and asked her to go to such-and-such library because I needed to track down a one-line quote by a certain writer.

Pitol quotes dozens of writers in the Trilogy, without citation, and often the translations into Spanish were his own. My goal, when possible, was to use the existing English text, in the case of English-speaking writers, or an already existing English translation for writers from other languages, which meant I had to try to divine what the English would be and find that sentence or passage, which meant leafing through books page by page or by doing word searches in Google Books or Kindle editions.

Pitol was a notoriously free translator. On one occasion, I was searching for a single word, which Pitol had translated, and could not find it in the English translation anywhere, or even in the original Italian. It turned out that Pitol, who was quoting the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio, had translated “mite” [meek] as “civilized,” and it took me quite a long time to figure out what was going on: he needed the word “civilized” to make his larger point, so he just fudged, shall we say, the translation. This sort of thing happened often.

FG: Now to move away from the books for a moment and look at the man himself. It’s not as if Pitol was necessarily closeted, but there seems to have been little overt discussion about his sexuality before being translated into English. Reading his Trilogy, certain telltale scenes stand out. I started to assume his homosexuality when I read about the Polish cultural figures he spent his time with during his post in Warsaw. How do you account for this public intellectual with a wide-ranging career in public service being able to maintain his privacy as a “confirmed bachelor”?

GH: Pitol was, in fact, gay. His sexuality was an open secret, but not so secret to his closest friends. It was confirmed to me by one such friend that “there was a young Polish boy who broke his heart.”

In my dissertation I employ a hermeneutics of suspicion of sorts to tease out his sexuality. Because Pitol never speaks directly about his own “sentimental life,” as they say in Spanish, we have to read this absence against his queering of others. This happens in all three books of his Trilogy of Memory. In The Art of Flight, there’s the episode in Barcelona with his strange attraction to Ralph, a hippy, whom he feminizes. There is the episode at Arreola’s house, where he essentially outs Arreola. In The Journey, there is the episode in Moscow where he recognizes the Tom of Finland magazine cover, an episode in which he seems to be outing someone else, but is, in effect, outing himself. In The Magician of Vienna, the episode in Havana where he inexplicably wakes up wearing another man’s shoes.

These are all in addition to the essays on Waugh and other gay writers, many of whom he translates. Last, but I believe not least, there is his intimate friendship with Carlos Monsiváis, who was openly gay. A mutual friend told me, “Sergio was very discreet about his personal life. He was very gentlemanly in that regard, unlike Monsi, who telegraphed all of his escapades to everyone.”

FG: So many of the great Latin American writers also served in the diplomatic corps. If such a thing were possible for translators and scholars in the United States, in which country would you want to serve?

GH: Paz and Pitol come immediately to mind, also Fuentes, Neruda, Mistral, and Castellanos. But none of these served as long and in as many diverse places as Pitol, and in as many capacities: France, Poland, China, Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, and finally as ambassador to the former Czechoslovakia.

I can’t even imagine the United States allowing a writer, much less a translator, to be an ambassador, but since we’re playing pretend, I’d have to say Cuba, because I love the country, I love the ocean, and, in addition to an embassy on the Malecón, we need to normalize relations with the country. Crickets be damned! After Cuba, Malta. Are you seeing a pattern? I love islands. Oh, and Morocco, not an island, but on the coast nonetheless.

FG: I find it curious that your top choice is Cuba, a country I know you have visited frequently over the past several years, and yet all of your book-length translations are from Mexican authors. As a frequent visiting scholar and translator, what is the state of contemporary Cuban literature? Will your research and translation take a Cuban turn?

GH: I very much want to translate a book by a Cuban author. To date, I’ve had the good fortune to translate shorter works by some very important Cuban authors, two short stories by Miguel Barnet, the president of the UNEAC (Union of Cuban Writers and Artists), a short story by Leonardo Padura, a handful of short stories by Yoss, and another handful by Emerio Medina, all writers who are well known in Cuba and, with the exception of Medina, in the United States. Padura and Yoss already have translators for their novels; Barnet isn’t producing any more work; which leaves Medina, and I would like to translate one of his books, but I’ve not been able to interest anyone.

I would really like to translate Carlos Manuel Álvarez, a really good young writer who was on the last Bogatá39 list, and whom I met on my last trip, but whose two books have been purchased by Fitzcarraldo. Frank Wynne is doing his novel Los caídos [The Fallen], which leaves his collection of crónicas, La tribu [The Tribe]. I spoke to Carlos about the possibility of translating it, and he said he would speak to Fitzcarraldo, so we’ll see.

To answer your question about the state of contemporary Cuban literature, the best I can say is that it’s finally coming out of a long morass. There is no book industry in Cuba. All the presses are subsidized by the government, and the UNEAC essentially determines what gets published. Cubans can’t afford books even at heavily subsidized prices. And there is no system of literary criticism.

Padura spoke about what he called “the disastrous state of the Cuban novel” in a speech he gave at the Casa de las Américas, “Writing in Cuba in the Twenty-first Century,” which I translated for World Literature Today. In short, he points to the following problems: books are printed in small runs, a few hundred copies, and are allowed to go out of print; there is no system of distribution or marketing; writers are paid in national currency, which is essentially worthless; and books are not reviewed, so there is no system that ensures quality. He concludes by saying, “The sum of these elements has created, against the very validation of the literature that is being written in the country, the feeling that for two generations the island has scarcely produced—or simply has not produced—writers of importance, creating a false image of a vacuum.”

All of this having been said, there are a few novelists who are being published abroad: Padura, for example, who publishes with Tusquets in Spain, Wendy Guerra, who has published with Anagrama and Alfaguara, and Carlos, whose books are published by Sexto Piso in Mexico. Yoss is probably better known in the U.S. than in Cuba, thanks to Restless Books. With the exception of Padura, all of these writers are relatively unknown in Cuba, and Padura only because he’s a journalist and is on TV a lot. His books are not published in Cuba, and used copies are only available in the book stalls in Plaza de las Armas in Old Havana. And even those are out of the reach for the average Cuba. In a country where the average monthly salary is $27, who can afford even a $3 or $4 used copy?

Another example is Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, author of the Dirty Havana Trilogy, who publishes with Anagrama, and who was only just published in Cuba for the first time. I’m missing someone I’m sure, but I dare anyone to mention another writer, other than these four or five, who is known to more than a handful of readers in English. Oh, I should probably mention Zoé Valdés, who lives and publishes outside Cuba. 

This situation is a shame, considering Cuba produced so many wonderful writers in the twentieth century: Carpentier, Cabrera Infante, Sarduy, Lezama, Arenas.

The good news: it’s changing. Cuba is hot right now, and agents are interested, not so much in selling their books in Spanish as much as in translation. So if an agent is reading this, I’m your guy in Havana. At least I’ll be there later this month. I’m taking a group of students from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where I teach, and I’ll likely be there again in November for the biannual International Symposium of Literary Translators. 

Cuba is hot right now, and agents are interested, not so much in selling their books in Spanish as much as in translation.

FG: Besides the host of Cuban writers you just mentioned, who are the most important least known Latin American authors in the English-speaking world?

GH: Well, I would have said Pitol. Until I translated The Art of Flight, only two or three short stories existed in English translation. He very well may be the only Cervantes laureate who had never had a book translated into English. Right now, it’s hard to say. There are so many great writers who have gone unnoticed.

The translation/publishing world is so fickle. Everyone seems to be chasing the next Bolaño. Before that, it was the next García Márquez, whom Bolaño was replacing, but he died early, so the hunt continued. Shortly before his death, though, Bolaño seemed to have anointed Andrés Neuman his heir apparent. There seems to be a fascination with Argentina and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Mexico. The Bogotá39 has been good, in some ways, for introducing new young writers, but it’s more about finding the next big Latin American writer than discovering under-translated writers. Once the publishing world has “discovered” someone, everyone seems to jump on the bandwagon. I’m not a fan of bandwagons for bandwagons’ sake.

Alberto Chimal is an incredible and prolific Mexican author, but because the majority of his production has been largely in short speculative or experimental fiction, he’s gone unnoticed. His novel La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden] was a finalist for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, and it’s a significant Latin American novel, but it remains untranslated. I’d love to translate it, and he has given me permission, but I need a press that’s willing to consider it. I am translating, however, his short novel Los esclavos [The Slaves]. Fernando Vallejo isn’t sufficiently known in English. I’d love to translate him.

Fernando Vallejo isn’t sufficiently known in English. I’d love to translate him.

FG: What has been the most rewarding part of serving as Translation Editor for Latin American Literature Today?

GH: It’s been a great honor to work with Latin American Literature Today, to be part of a new project and watch it become as successful as it has. And the staff is incredible. We’re all friends. The magazine has done some incredible things and will only continue to get better. I must admit, though, that I’m not terribly good at being an editor. It can be tedious, time-consuming work, and my new job at the Middlebury Institute is very demanding. I guess what I like most is interacting with other translators, reading their work, and helping introduce new translators and translation to the world, especially students.

FG: Kiss, Marry, or Kill but with movements of Latin American literature. And you must include Magical Realism.

GH: Full disclosure: Much like many of the writers Pitol references or quotes, I had to look up Kiss, Marry, or Kill. I am a pop culture luddite. But I’m glad to be able to join this game.

Something tells me you want me to say I’d kill Magic Realism, which the Crack Generation tried to do, but it’s the cockroach of Latin American literary movements. It could survive a literary nuclear bomb, which means I can’t kill it, and I’m not sure I’d want to. I think I’d have to say I’d marry it.

It’s the literature I came of age with. I was a Spanish major in the early 80s, and it was required reading. I met Carlos Fuentes personally, for God’s sake, not once but twice. And I had a professor who knew Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, and others. It was at the University of Oklahoma, which through the Puterbaugh Conference and Neustadt Prize had brought all of these writers to campus. To kill Magic Realism would be to kill a part of me. And I feel like it was much more intimate than just a kiss, so marriage it is.

So, which movement would I kiss? Probably the avant-garde poets. Vallejo is one of my top three poets of all-time. And if not the avant-garde, Cuban neo-baroque. Oh, to have met Lezama, Carpentier, and Sarduy!

I guess that leaves what movement I would kill. I could say late modernismo—the Mexican poet Enrique González Enríquez wrote a sonnet titled “Tuércele el cuello al cisne” [“Twist the Swan’s Neck”]—but I love modernismo too much. So, I guess I’ll say any movement that pretends to exist outside or separate from the language, conditions, and geography in which it is produced, which, I think, indicts a lot of young writers today.

George Henson is a literary translator and assistant professor of translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. His translations include Cervantes Prize laureate Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, The Heart of the Artichoke by fellow Cervantes recipient Elena Poniatowska, and Luis Jorge Boone’s The Cannibal Night. His translations have appeared in The Paris Review, The Literary Review, BOMB, The Guardian, Asymptote, and Flash Fiction International. He serves as a contributing editor for World Literature Today and as the translation editor for its sister publication Latin American Literature Today.

Writer and translator Frank Garrett lives in Dallas. @limmoraliste