Roberto Bolaño and translation in context

Three Percent has posted a link to a thoughtful and provocative essay by Quarterly Conversation editor (and blogger) Scott Esposito, who uses the recent American publishing success of Roberto Bolaño to raise questions about how the lack of context can make it difficult for American readers to fully appreciate and understand the work of a foreign literary star in translation.

Esposito is a great admirer of Bolaño, and has been happy to see all the acclaim that his work has recently enjoyed. But at the same time, he worries that American readers are unlikely to be well-equipped to place Bolaño’s work in context, especially given the fact that so very little of the writings of his contemporaries have been made available in English for an American audience.

I loved The Savage Detectives myself—I was floored by the way that Bolaño managed to create dozens of distinctive, memorable, and utterly convincing first-person narrators, whose widely varied voices and stories together create a grand polyphonic whole. The novel struck me as infinitely rich, and worth returning to again and again in order to try to tease out a few more of its marvels. But I don’t doubt for a moment that Esposito is right: I’m sure that my reading of the novel was handicapped by my scanty knowledge of Latin American literature. I perfectly match Esposito’s description of a typical American Bolaño reader, who’s read a smattering of Borges and Marquez, but not much else. I’ve been striving this year to try to read more international fiction, and especially fiction in translation—does anybody out there have any suggestions? I’d particularly like to hear recommendations for relatively contemporary Latin American literature, so I can work myself up for the forthcoming release of the English translation of Bolaño’s 2666.

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