Monday, April 6, 2020

Translation as amateurism - Roberto Arlt's The Flamethrowers - a cranny in his flesh where it could be safe from his horror

Caravana de Recuerdos is for some reason encouraging people to read some literature from Argentina this year – a “full year of “’the strain of doom’” that characterizes so much Argentinean literature from its beginnings.  What, now, who needs it, you might say, loudly.

Regardless, I took a run at doomy Roberto Arlt’s The Flamethrowers (1931), not really a novel on its own but rather part two of the perfectly titled Seven Madmen (1929).  A bunch of anarchists, nihilists, and lunatic gangsters jitterbug around Buenos Aires as part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government by means of poison gas, funded by and manufactured at a chain of brothels.  This plan somehow does not work, and the first part of the novel jerks to a halt with the shattering of the conspiracy.  Someone is murdered, maybe?  I find crazy stories hard to remember.

Seven Madmen is available in two good, professional translations, but for some reason no one published The Flamethrowers until 2017, when the tiny, deconstructionist River Boat Books released it.  The translator is either Larry Riley, who learned Spanish solely in order to read and then translate this book, or is possibly the oddball novelist Rick Harsch under a complexly-maintained pseudonym.  Please see Steve Holt on Twitter for the plausible evidence.  “Riley’s” translation is amateurish in both the better and worse ways.

The Astrologer’s hands remained in the pockets of his shirt.  He listened to Hipólita contemptuously scrutinizing her with a grimace that left his eyelids half closed, so as to filter through his eyes the possible intentions of his visitor. (22, the second page if you want to check the Spanish)

Some of the prose, especially in its more functional mode, has this kind of strain in the English, an awkwardness that a professional translator would relax.  Where exactly do the adverbs go in the sentence; “shirt pockets,” or just “pockets”; drop “so as”; do something with “filter through his eyes,” something.  The tone ought to be more informal.

Having said that, the entire novel, in conception, characters, incidents, meaning, and of course prose, is completely insane, written by the eighth madman.  The novel had better have some awkwardness, some pieces that just ain’t right, where there is no way to know who is to blame, the translator, the author, or the metaphysics.

Sometimes “Riley” gets the voice right, especially in sections that are more interior or extreme, like “The Death Agony of the Melancholy Ruffian” or “The Curtain of Anguish,” a piece of tormented late-night mad scientist existentialism:

The voice shrank and retracted.  Erdosain felt that it was searching for a cranny in his flesh where it could be safe from his horror.  It filled up his belly as if it wanted to make him explode.  And Erdosain’s body vibrated as if it had been placed upon a chassis supporting a supercharged motor.  (75)

Elegance and efficiency are beside the point in scenes like this.  And these are the best parts of the novel, easily, the important parts.

The good side of amateurism is that the translation is an act of love, and I am glad to have it.  I finally know how the dang story ends (in a bloodbath, as I could have guessed).  And parts of the translation are pretty good.  Someday someone will do a better one, but now I have this one.

I once thought that blogs and the like would lead to a lot more amateur translation.  On this very website there is a short piece by César Aira that as far as I know has still not been translated anywhere else.  My Spanish is a lot worse than “Larry Riley’s.”  Let’s get it all out there, then fix it up.


  1. I picked up a copy of Seven Madmen (NYRoB edition tr. by NIck Caistor) last year when it appeared at my local remaindered book store. This sounds interesting. May have to move the one I have higher in the TBR stack...

  2. If you like the kind of book that can't sit still, Seven Madmen is the one. Both herky and jerky.

  3. I clicked on the "deconstructionist" link and was very annoyed to find this:

    We do not believe in the “well-constructed story,” and so we do not believe in the New Critics or the Structuralists or Leonard Bloomfield. We actively oppose their ideas about the nature of meaning both in literal and linguistic terms.

    You can bash the New Critics all you like, but what the hell could you possibly have against Leonard Bloomfield? He was one of the greatest of American linguists; he studied Native American languages and wrote excellent grammars of them and based his general linguistic principles on how actual languages work as opposed to the Chomskybots who base theirs on English plus crackpot ideas of how language *must* work based on their ideas of how brains must work. To attack Bloomfield is to attack the very idea of science, which is probably what they're doing, which simply heightens my prejudice against all flag-waving "poststructuralists" and "deconstructionists" et hoc genus omne. If anyone from River Boat Books happens to read this: shame on you, you are adding to the fog that hides reality in this most deconstructionist of ages.

    That said, I'm glad they published a translation, however lousy, and gave you a sense of an ending!

  4. God knows what fight they are fighting. Or more likely "he is fighting," since I suspect this press is a one-man show. I detect more than a little crackpottery there on the Upper Mississippi.

  5. Looking through my notes, I found amazing quotations that I forgot to use. I will store them here:

    "Oh, the poetry of gas warfare!" (211)

    "Behind the rat were two more rats." (192)

    If those don't give a sense of this novel at its best...

  6. "Behind the rat were two more rats" is the best line I've read in a long time.

  7. I can't believe I forgot that. Better late etc.

  8. I literally had a hard time doing my editing yesterday after reading this post because I kept thinking "Behind the rat were two more rats" and losing track of the prose I was being paid to improve.

  9. "Behind the rat were two more rats" is like a line from a lost Lewis Carroll poem. It's really great.

    I love the idea of amateur translations. Someone has to start the ball rolling. The professionals will come in to "correct all the errors" and then fight amongst themselves until the end of time. (No offense to professional translators, but, you know, dissing previous translations is the primary sales pitch of a new translation.)

    I've done some poetry translations on my blog, and I keep hoping someone with better German will come along and do a proper job of it.

    I'm between books, so I should dig out my copy of Seven Madmen.

  10. I have this sense that I used to find more amateur or pro-am translated poetry, sometimes with dedicated websites, now lost to the Wayback Machine, which is obviously even more of a labor of love than a novel, since there is never any money in poetry. And poems almost demand multiple versions.