From an email conversation between Mikaël Gómez Guthart and Ariana Harwicz after meeting at a book launch for their works in Paris last year. The discussion was published in the Winter 2021 issue of Brick. Translated from the Spanish.
ariana harwicz: My first experience with translation was when I was fourteen years old. My best friend was in love with a guy I liked who didn’t like me back. She asked me to write him a letter declaring her love. I agreed to pretend to be her. I remember how I suffered the night I wrote the letter and at the same time the pleasure of it, though at fourteen I hadn’t yet experienced sexual pleasure. He loved the letter, and he and my friend started dating. To this day, I think about the power of having written something as another, how this won a person over. Ever since, I’ve tried to make use of the spell that is being someone else in writing. I remember the feeling, which was so strong, of being able to bring two people together or break them apart, and something even better: that writing could give rise to desire, invent desire, create it.
mikaël gómez guthart: The translator is unfaithful by nature, and I think that’s just fine. Max Brod knew a lot of composers and began to translate—he said “adapt”—operas for Leoš Janácek. Apparently, he didn’t just translate the Czech’s librettos into German; he “advised” Janácek on his compositions. He added his own ideas, changed titles, cut sentences he didn’t like. In this case, he had a direct influence on the construction and dissemination of the work.
harwicz: I have a theory that entails three ways of regarding translation: You can be a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist. Believers would think you can read Shakespeare in Russian or Spanish and it’s Shakespeare. Agnostics would obviously have their doubts: When I read Shakespeare in Portuguese, it is him and it isn’t. And finally, there are the Schopenhauers of translation, the atheists, who would say: We’ll never get to know Anton Chekhov if we don’t read Russian. I’m sorry, but we’re all going to die without reading Uncle Vanya.
gómez guthart: I must be an atheist, and yet I also believe that regardless it’s absolutely necessary for works to circulate in other languages. In The World-Fixer, Thomas Bernhard writes, “Translators disfigure originals. What is translated only ever arrives on the market as a deformation. It is the translator’s dilettantism and filth that make a translation so repulsive. What is translated is always revolting.”
harwicz: I think of all the literature at the limit of the word, such as the writing of Maurice Blanchot, who was always at the edge of silence, and of nullifying, of resisting, the writer figure and the identity of the so-called author. Blanchot said something that I’ve always liked: “The drama, and the strength, in all ‘true’ confessions is that one begins to speak only in view of the moment in which one cannot continue.” And I think of Aharon Appelfeld, of his mutism, his stutter—the speech disorders that shaped his writing. With Appelfeld the whole drama of a native language and an adopted one involved the physical effort of learning Hebrew and casting aside his native language. He told it well: He was a part of the generation for whom abandoning one’s native tongue wasn’t only a question of politics but of existentialism. For me, this is the crux of the statement that writing makes. I remember reading in the diary of a prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto, “No more words, no more words, no more words.”