Image by John Kazior

The Translation Trap | Latin American Literature and the International Market

Julia Kornberg

The unnamed narrator of Valeria Luiselli’s 2011 novel Faces in the Crowd is a young Mexican woman living in Brooklyn and working, as many F-1 literary types do, at a small translation press. She spends half of the week visiting libraries around the city, carrying huge backpacks full of books while she searches for Spanish-language writers worth translating or reissuing. The rest of her time is spent in the press’s dark office in Washington Heights. There, she sits at a small desk next to her boss, a character of ambiguous morals and the fitting surname White, who asks her in the first few pages if she happens to have known Roberto Bolaño. When she admits to never having met the Chilean writer (we can assume she was a child when he died), White announces to the rest of the office, mockingly, that they have the “honor of working with the only Latin American woman who wasn’t a friend of Bolaño.”

She doesn’t seem to mind the joke. Like many of Luiselli’s characters, the narrator of Faces is subdued. Her life is small, precarious, and inhabited by ghosts — a series of silhouettes, from the books she reads, that haunt her at home and on the subway. In the first half of the novel, the narrator becomes obsessed with the idea of translating and reviving the work of Gilberto Owen, a Mexican poet who was born in 1904 and briefly lived in New York. Her boss is unconvinced of Owen’s value and turns down the idea without much thought. Ignoring the rejection, Luiselli’s protagonist retraces Owen’s steps in New York, frequenting his favorite bars, visiting his house, and manically reading his letters and papers. In a last-ditch effort to persuade her boss, she falsely claims that Owen was a friend of White’s idol, the fictional American poet Zvorsky. (In the original Spanish, the poet is a real person, Louis Zukofsky.) She even forges a translation of Owen’s poems by Zvorsky. She justifies her deception as endemic to the publishing industry. “That’s the way literary recognition works, at least to a certain degree,” she explains. “It’s all a matter of rumor, a rumor that multiplies like a virus until it becomes a collective affinity.”

The small universe of Latin American literary translation is also the subject of Mona, the Argentine writer Pola Oloixarac’s new novel. A Stanford PhD student from Peru, the title character travels to Sweden for the prestigious Swedish Basske-Wortz prize, “the most important literary award in Europe,” for which she is a finalist. At the conference that precedes the award ceremony (and determines its result), she competes with a dozen other international nominees in what devolves into a zoo of identity fetishes. It soon becomes clear that, in order to be considered for the prize, the writers are expected to enact their differences as pre-determined by the European committee. Half-drunk and always on Xanax, Mona attends lectures in which the Russian writer comments on Nabokov, the Israeli woman talks about Auschwitz, the Iranian refugee recalls his experience immigrating to Copenhagen, and an overweight Spanish woman professes her right to be what she calls a “monster.” 

While the American and Swedish authors are allowed to discuss death, love, and other universal themes, Mona is pigeonholed by her cosmopolitan peers. She understands she is expected to play a circumscribed role, “the part of an overeducated Latina adrift in Trump’s America,” and she sneers at the “intellectuals who got rich writing about the poor in Miraflores, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, or Santiago.” In order to achieve international literary success, Mona argues, Third World writers are incentivized to mine their homelands for “the local stories that their target markets wanted to consume.” And on the international market, poverty is what sells. 

Granted, Mona itself is not about a slum in Latin America; it takes place almost entirely in the world of the global elite. Rather than presenting a “local story,” Oloixarac gives us a critique of how such stories are marketed internationally. Mona, in other words, remains mired in a problem her creator has transcended. Oloixarac and Luiselli can afford to be scathing — both write from positions of relative power. Neither had to worry, for instance, about whether or not their works would appear in English: Mona was translated from Spanish after the success of Oloixarac’s earlier works, and Luiselli is a member of the Mexican ruling stratum and lives in New York. But for most Latin American writers, translation remains a monumental stumbling block — a prospect that not only enlarges a work’s renown, but sometimes even dictates the content of the work itself. 

While being translated might be a small victory for a writer working in English, it is a kind of consecration for a writer from the Global South. The market for foreign works is so slim that what gets translated is usually tailored to a particular kind of American reader — one who reaches for Latin American literature to encounter difference, or maybe to feel morally righteous for reading about the misfortunes wrought by an American government she doesn’t support. Such a reader is not looking for “universal” subjects, but for “authentic” representations of poverty, cartels, and border crossings. As a result, Latin American writers find themselves straining to cater to demand — putting on the poncho, adjusting the sombrero, and talking about the agrarian revolution or the narcos, as Mona puts it. Throughout its history, Latin American literature has been molded by translation, marketing, and distribution in the U.S. and Europe. Its waves of popularity in the mid-20th century crystallized a logic that persists today: Latin American literature can be popular overseas, but only if it closely tracks how an American reader sees, or does not see, the region’s political significance. 

 

What we have come to know as Latin American literature made its way onto the global literary scene during the so-called “Boom” of the 1960s. In that decade, Latin American writers reached an international Spanish-speaking audience through magazines like Sur (published in Argentina by Victoria Ocampo) and Mundo Nuevo (CIA-funded and run by Emir Rodríguez in Paris) and presses such as Casa de las Américas (sponsored by the Cuban government) and Seix Barral (headquartered in Spain). From there, a small, tight-knit team of agents, translators, and publishers undertook a marketing strategy to funnel writing from south of the Río Grande to an Anglophone audience. Gregory Rabassa, a U.S.-based descendant of Cuban immigrants, translated many works by Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and José Lezama Lima and won the inaugural National Book Award in Translation for Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. In Spain, meanwhile, the literary agent Carmen Balcells has been credited with the wild international commercial success of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, and Cortázar. 

Those names comprise the core group associated with the Boom, and the ur-texts they produced were formally similar — long, epic stories blending American modernism with the local elements. That contrast — between old and new, Latin and international — is the subject of many of the Boom’s most popular works. Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude tracks the arrival of industrial modernity in Colombia through the lens of a multi-generational drama. In The Death of Artemio Cruz, Fuentes laments the history of capitalism in Mexico through the deathbed ideations of the eponymous hero. The Time of the Hero, by Vargas Llosa, is a coming-of-age story that follows a group of teenagers as they endure the new military education Peru had recently implemented, and that was fundamental to its restructuring as a modern state. 

Despite its name, the Latin American Boom was not entirely based in Latin America, and its key players wrote from plum perches among the European and North American elite for a good part of their lives. Cortázar spent most of his life in France, the same country where Fuentes served as Mexico’s ambassador in the 1970s. While García Márquez largely wrote from Bogotá, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires, he had permanent residency in Paris and worked as a foreign correspondent in New York. Vargas Llosa still splits his time between Europe and Peru. His current partner is Isabel Preysler, a Filipina socialite and television host and the mother of Enrique Iglesias. 

The great literary innovation of the Boom is generally understood to be “magical realism,” but that, too, is more European than American. As the scholar Mariano Siskind explains in Cosmopolitan Desires, the term was coined by the German art historian Franz Roh in the 1920s and spread to Latin America through a cohort of writers (including Alejo Carpentier, Arturo Uslar Pietri, and Miguel Ángel Asturias) who lived in Paris in the 1930s. From there, the concept was adopted by the writers of the ’60s in a bid for what Siskind calls “aesthetic emancipation”: the Boom generation wanted to construct a mode that felt at once regionally specific and capable of participating in a global literary modernism — a mode that could encompass Latin America’s rapid transition into industrial modernity. And the hunger for “emancipation” was not only aesthetic: one factor often used to contextualize the Boom is the Cuban Revolution. Auguring not only Communism in the Americas but also economic and cultural independence for the Spanish-speaking former colonies, Cuba opened up a new political frontier for a countercultural, global Left. All of the major writers of the Boom visited Cuba, met Castro, and supported the Revolution. 

Revolutionary anti-imperialism would not last long, and neither would the Boom. As U.S.-backed military dictatorships and neoliberal reforms swept Latin America, even Cuba turned repressive and censorious. One by one, Castro’s champions became his detractors. In 1971, the writers Heberto Padilla and Belkis Cruza Malé were imprisoned after Padilla’s public reading of a text in which he declared that the Revolution had reneged on its promises. The international outcry, known as el caso Padilla, included many voices from the Boom generation, who urged his release. By publicly criticizing Castro’s regime, García Márquez, Cortázar, Fuentes, and Vargas Llosa distanced themselves from the Revolution. Without solidarity, the group’s comradery faded, too. Aesthetic emancipation, it seemed, made more sense during revolutionary times. In 1975, Vargas Llosa punched García Márquez in the face in the Palacio de Bellas Artes of Mexico City, possibly over a woman; it was the “fist-fight that ended the Boom,” a pedestrian fizzle to a movement of epic dimensions.

 

After the Boom, Latin American literature in translation received less and less attention from international readers, as American publishers sought, largely in vain, to replicate their earlier successes. A new cohort of authors like Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel took up the mantle of magical realism, putting out a series of more commercial novels that lacked the cultural and political complexity of the Boom works. The House of the Spirits and Like Water for Chocolate, their best-known novels, reconfigure magical realism into formulaic, telenovela-style family stories featuring political violence, feel-good prose, and happy endings. 

Other authors strained against the demand for magical realism among a gringo audience. A few renegades formed the “McOndo” movement, which eschewed magical realism and instead engaged with early internet culture, punk music, and teenage rebellion. In the prologue to their first anthology, published in 1996, the Chilean McOndo writers Sergio Gómez and Alberto Fuguet relate an anecdote in which a famous American writer at the Iowa Writers Workshop discards stories by Latin American writers because they “lack magical realism” and “might as well have been written in the First World.” “We got to the point,” Gómez and Fuguet conclude, “of thinking that Latin America was an invention of Spanish Departments in American Universities.” A similar resentment animated the young writers of the Crack generation — a 1990s Mexican movement which one of its founders, Jorge Volpi, described as a “kind of revolt against the principles of Latin American literature.” Volpi added, “We were against magical realism, understood as an obligation for the Latin American writer.” But even as these movements tried to exorcise the ghost of the Boom, they anxiously chased after its success — a success that, for them, never arrived. For a while, it seemed inconceivable to recapture the interest that North America and Europe had once displayed for Latin American work. The possibilities for Latin American literature felt limited. And then came Bolaño.

A hit between the ’90s and the early 2000s, Bolaño is perhaps the last great Latin American author to make a wide impact in the global market. His two epic novels, The Savage Detectives, published in 1998, and 2666, released posthumously in 2004, were sensations when translated to English. Bolaño crafted an aesthetic that both recognized the Boom’s influence and challenged it. His characters are poets, writers, critics, and translators spread throughout the world, moving seamlessly from Mexico to Europe to Chile with the ease with which you might take the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In the U.S, he was sold as a kind of James Dean from the Global South, a figure who offered what American literature was no longer producing: originality, global experience, and a thumb in the nose of academia. Nonetheless, even that manufactured persona was delimited by the post-Boom market. Bolaño’s friend, the Honduran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, described the constraints of the industry even for a literary celebrity in a 2009 article: “Behind the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation,” Castellanos Moya wrote, “but also a redefinition of the image of Latin American culture and literature that the U.S. cultural establishment is now selling to the public.” To him, Bolaño was a puppet, with international publishers pulling the strings. “The market has its landlords, like everything on this infected planet,” he wrote, “and it’s the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance.” 

 

Nowadays, it is Bolaño’s shadow that haunts young Latin American writers — but in a considerably narrower market. In the U.S. today, translations make up a meager three percent of total book publications. According to the Publishers Weekly translation database, only 79 books written in Spanish were translated into English in the year 2020 — a decline from the 100 Spanish-to-English translations in 2019. Also in 2020, almost twice as many books were translated from French into English; only 20 were translated from Chinese. Even within Latin American literature, the market for translation reflects geopolitical realities. In the past decade, U.S. publishers have shown the most interest in works from Argentina and Mexico (with 216 and 164 translated authors, respectively). Books from smaller, less economically central countries in the region receive far less attention from American translators: 32 works from Peru, 34 from Colombia, eight from Bolivia, and three from Nicaragua have been translated into English over the last ten years. 

Still, there are bright spots in small corners of the market, and outside the mainstream publishing houses, a new generation of translators has been quietly gaining traction. Presses like Other Stories, Charco Press and Archipelago consistently publish major works translated from Spanish, including Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel and Hebe Uhart’s The Scent of Buenos Aires, and even smaller shops like Deep Vellum and Eulalia Books have been translating less prominent writers who might never have gotten the opportunity to appear in English a decade ago. Brazilian literature, formerly relegated to a thin space in the bookshelf of Latin Americanists, has received more attention in recent years, too, with classics such as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas re-translated. Awards have followed the trend, with Lizzie Davis’s translation of Juan Cárdenas a 2020 PEN America finalist, and Bejamín Labatut and Mariana Enríquez on the shortlist for the International Booker Prize. New translations have helped bring Clarice Lispector’s complete works to new acclaim, though the process of repopularizing a dead female writer is not without its pitfalls.

But for the most part, American publishing houses seem to imagine their readers as dull and unimaginative — willing to consume Latin American literature insofar as it will afford them cosmopolitan street cred and a gold star for sympathizing with Third World struggles. Where writers were once rewarded for expressing an anti-imperialist stance, they now tone down the political complexity of their work to appease liberal gringo institutions. Writers from wealthy backgrounds, often educated internationally or based in the U.S., consistently win awards and acclaim by positioning themselves as representatives of working-class identities and their traditions, much like Mona’s “intellectuals who got rich writing about the poor in Miraflores, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, or Santiago.” Their appropriation of Indigenous stories is rarely questioned. (Imagine, by contrast, a white, American writer who based his novels on Navajo creation myths and received no pushback.) One writer from a wealthy background, whose central subject is the favela, recently admitted, “I only know the slums laterally.” And publishers know how to spruce up works that aren’t written with the market for poverty tourism in mind. Pantheon, for instance, slapped the somewhat arbitrary subtitle “A City Called Mexico” onto its 2021 translation of Juan Villoro’s collection Horizontal Vertigo, which is advertised as “a uniquely eye-opening tour of one of the great metropolises of the world, and its largest Spanish-speaking city.” On Amazon, it’s currently categorized under the header “General Mexico Travel Guides,” where it is the #1 New Release.

The leading book in Amazon’s Hispanic American literature category is, almost too tellingly, the white author Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt. The 2018 novel, which was instantly canonized by the Oprah reading group, caused a literary scandal. As critics commented, the book was an embarrassment — an attempt to deal with the complexities of narcoviolence and a broken immigration system in the style of fanfiction — but Flatiron had gone all-out, marketing it as “one of the most important books for our times” and an answer to the Trump administration’s border crisis. “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas,” read one blurb, which also called American Dirt “the international story of our times.” The fallout pushed American readers still further in their hunt for “the authentic” in Latin American literature. USA Today quickly churned out a list of “8 Books by Latin American Authors to Read Instead,” at the top of which is Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli’s most recent novel. 

In the years since Faces in the Crowd, Luiselli has switched from Spanish to English, and her writing now bears the influence of the literary market she once satirized. Lost Children Archive is an explicit, timely intervention in the discourse around family separations at the border. While Luiselli drafted the novel, the Democratic party was busy attacking the Trump administration for dividing migrant children from their parents in detention centers at the border. In the novel, Luiselli intersperses oral histories about the border crossing, as if taken from a library’s collection, with the story of a family driving west across the country from New York. We encounter the voices of the migrants, but Luiselli embeds them in archival materials that can be read and retold by educated, middle-class characters — a choice that seems predicated on the impossibility of telling the stories directly. The book was celebrated in liberal, elite circles in the United States; it even earned a place on Barack Obama’s 2019 “reading list” — Obama, whose administration recorded more deportations than any other in history. Luiselli’s characters share the hopelessness of a liberal American audience in the face of the Trump-era border crisis, and she delivers that audience a form of absolution. Reading about the inaccessibility of the suffering of their government’s victims, they can comfort themselves that they are “doing the work,” shedding the responsibility to contend with the wrongs perpetrated by their state, in their names. 

 

There is another path for contemporary Latin American writers, one held out to us by Jorge Luis Borges. Distinct from the Boom but often read in tandem with it, Borges refused to sate the market’s appetites. Instead, he trusted his readers, refusing to capitalize on his identity or difference. He worked with the gaucho landscape while citing Schopenhauer and Thomas De Quincey; drew from Kabbalah and Buddhist tradition; irreverently misquoted it all. In his lecture “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” Borges refutes the existence of an externally defined regional aesthetic and contests the notion that an essential “Argentineness” or “Latin-Americanness” animates his work. “The idea that Argentine poetry must abound in Argentine differential traits and in Argentine local color seems to me to be a mistake,” he declared. This idea, he explained, was “new and arbitrary,” a distinctly modern invention: 

 A few days ago, I discovered a curious confirmation of the way in which what is truly native can and often does dispense with local color; I found this confirmation in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon observes that in the Arab book par excellence, the Koran, there are no camels; I believe that if there were ever any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this lack of camels would suffice to prove that it is Arab. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were particularly Arab; they were, for him, a part of reality, and he had no reason to single them out … he knew he could be Arab without camels. I believe that we Argentines can be like Mohammed; we can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.

In literature that is truly authentic, local color can exist organically, without being filtered through national caricatures. It is radical to comment on the perils of the translation market, as Luiselli and Oloixarac do, but more radical still to develop narratives beyond the marks of its cultural difference. The desires of the market are usually rhizomatic, and readers are capable of more than publishers expect. Look no further than the Boom, Bolaño, and Borges for proof that cultural masterpieces don’t need to follow statistics, marketing trends, or focus groups. Rather, they create markets anew.

Julia Kornberg is a writer from Buenos Aires living in New York. Her first novel, Atomizado Berlín, was published in Argentina by Club Hem and is forthcoming in Mexico by Scaraboquio. 

Copyright © The Drift 2021