“Don’t you think that when you are writing, submerged, not questioning the source text, you are both as isolated as you could possibly be from others and your surroundings and more connected than at any other time?”
A handy metaphor
Never wholly the work of a translator
I had read several Katherine Silver books before ever reading a book by Katherine Silver. An acclaimed translator of authors such as César Aira, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Horacio Castellanos Moya, for decades she has been the medium through which the words of many great authors pass into English. This is what drove my curiosity when I learned that she had a novel entirely her own coming out. What would she be like translating herself?
The result is the slim but deep Echo Under Story, a journal-like account of a woman named K., who has returned to her childhood home following her mother’s death to take charge of the house, on the one hand, and grieve on the other. The fragmented format of short, diaristic entries—many of which include translations of passages from Proust at the bottoms of the pages—is both elastic and roomy. Silver leads the reader into K.’s distant past, her always-shifting musings, her relationship with her mother, and the forest near the house where she spends so much time. If there is any plot to speak of beyond the K’s return and reckoning with her mother’s absence, it’s her mind’s constant, melancholy play along dissolving thresholds: between life and death, the natural world and the self, the need for solitude and companionship, what’s been lost and what’s still to be gained.
As K. reflects, “We grow up I in a mythical landscape and return to find the magic gone but nothing to replace it.” But she does replace it, with the words conjuring that loss.
Echo Under Story is a book that translates human longings, which merits translations in its own right. Katherine Silver and I chatted about her book when it came out this fall.
THE BELIVER: The elephant in the room I feel we should address first is that you’re best known as a prolific and celebrated translator. What is the story of your own writing, and how has translation—or even certain authors—affected your work and this book in particular?
KATHERINE SILVER: I like the image of an elephant; it has such a massive and unavoidable presence, whereas a translator is more like an elusive puppeteer, a wizard behind a curtain, someone heard but not seen. I started translating after I started writing, which was before I can remember. I was determined, from very early on, to acquire a deep understanding of the raw material used to mold the sentences I wanted to craft, needed to craft in order to… write. At some point, in my early twenties, I happened upon translation, and it seemed just the thing: a way to practice, do scales, so to speak. I thought that the most important thing was to become a master wordsmith. I still think that. And I still consider myself an apprentice.
BLVR: But then translation took over?
KS: As it turned out, I made god laugh: translation became my professional activity, and a passion in its own right; writing, my private vice. When I was translating, I didn’t question the original’s basic right to exist. It did, and I worked from there. When I was writing, I was constantly second-guessing the original, second-guessing myself, my voice, my vision, what I was hearing inside my own head. Yes, that original. It was torturous. Translating—reading a text deeply and finding a way to express that, the music and the meaning, in English—was simply more fun; frustrating, difficult, challenging, forever fascinating, but not torturous. Slowly I have been able to transfer that acceptance—deference? respect?—of the original into my own writing process. Here I could wax semi-articulate about how language-based artistic activity is not self-expression, even if it does start with that as a spark, an initial impulse, but about how it then must dive deeply into the only true commons we have, language, and from there craft something beyond the self… but I won’t.
BLVR: Well, I did like that waxing, the idea that our works leave us because they ultimately belong to shared language rather than our own minds. And works of translation belong to multiple languages, created by multiple minds.
KS: Yes. Translation begins as a conversation. Besides teaching me how to write, translating taught me how to create, and most importantly, how to enjoy doing so. It’s always difficult to return to that place, but at least I finally learned where to find it on the interior map. I also think that I am a better translator for having worked also from a different kind of original, the one that isn’t yet written down. I think it is the process of grappling with how to say something that seems, alas, untranslatable.
I also sense in your question (I’m probably projecting) a “What possessed you to publish at this point”? I ask myself that almost every day. Instead of resting on my laurels, such as they are, I’ve chosen to strike out through the understory of the bay laurel and Bishop pine and Douglas fir forests and try to find my way. But, then again, animal paths are especially wondrous things.
BLVR: I’m a bit of a square when it comes to literary categories and like to know what I’m reading. Is this a third-person memoir or autofiction, or something else?
KS: The book was slipped into the novel category, a convenience for the market and other related spheres of book production and sales, but that identity doesn’t quite sit right with me, either, even though it is probably one of the baggiest of all literary genres, one that can include the likes of César Aira and Virginia Woolf and Beckett (his trilogy). The discomfort stems from my experience of having written what I thought of as novels—three, though one has been dissected, awaiting some kind of electrical current to bring it back to life—and making concessions to that genre, to the rules that I had internalized in undoubtedly twisted shapes. In the case of Echo Under Story, I had absolutely no idea what I was writing, and actually relished breaking expectations, my own first of all, and others that arose as the work progressed. I don’t think my discomfort comes at all from the balance of fact versus fiction, for those categories are also up for grabs in the understory. I had three strands, one of which was wholly fictional, and I wanted to braid them, or tangle them up, or simply lay them out on a table side-by-side and watch them interact. Yes, many of the details are autobiographical, but that is an odd thing to claim when one of the problems in those pages is the fiction of the unified self, not asserted, but put to the test, in a way. What happens if…?
Reverse engineering the whole thing, I’m okay with autofiction, though I hope the book isn’t self-centered and inward-looking but rather an exploration of a self that is in the world, observing the world. In all sincerity, and after all these years and all the sentences (and quite a few lines of poetry, as well) I have written and translated and read, I no longer actually understand—I often say “as a translator” to qualify my bafflement, but really it’s more generalized—even the most basic literary distinctions, between prose and poetry, for instance. So much deeply poetic prose, prosaic poetry. To use a sports metaphor I also probably don’t wholly understand, I suspect such categories mark out the end lines, when where we actually play, frolic, write, is everywhere in between.
BLVR: I found it intriguing that, unless I’m mistaken, there is only one reference to translation in the entire book. Considering what a handy metaphor the idea of translation is, and how essential it is to your life, did you have to make an effort to suppress it or did it just not burble into the writing?
KS: Maybe too handy a metaphor! I definitely didn’t make any effort to suppress or reveal. Perhaps my outlook, my worldview, is so profoundly informed by translation, so imbued with translation, that I don’t need to, or even can’t, mention it directly. My impulse to write could be articulated (badly… if I could do it well, I wouldn’t need to write, right?) as a desire to write a love story without ever mentioning love, a story of woe without alluding to suffering, or in this case, about a mother and daughter without exploring the mother-daughter relationship, the way one might be expected to. While writing it, I was reading Proust in French and English, going back and forth between the revised Moncrieff and the original, based on criteria too arcane to go into here. And I translated, with the help of Andrew Wilson, translator and Proust scholar, the excerpts I included in the book. So there it is, without being mentioned. I’m going to sneak in here my current favorite quote about writing and translation by one of my touchstones, Simone Weil: “The real way of writing is to write as we translate. When we translate a text written in some foreign language, we do not seek to add anything to it; on the contrary, we are scrupulously careful not to add anything to it. That is how we have to translate a text which is not written down.” Add nothing. Translate perceptions. Translate everything that happens to and in the body.
BLVR: I’m curious about the type of vulnerability you feel when one of your translations comes out versus the vulnerability you feel publishing this book?
KS: That’s a difficult question. The first thing that struck me when I opened the box and looked at the book was that there was only one name on the cover, the title page, and the back cover. It felt so odd and almost lonely. A translation is never wholly mine, I share it with the author, so it’s easier to let it go, abandon all hope. I also share the blame and once in a while, the praise, sometimes even getting my very own adjective—derisive or dismissive or laudatory. With this book, the conversation is starting now—now, yesterday, today, also through the process of answering these questions; I am beginning to absorb the reality that Echo Under Story is out there gallivanting around, on its own, picking up accessories, feathers and pearls, decking itself out, forging its own character, forgetting its first reader—the writer—and becoming the book each reader reads. A translator is a stealth author. Here, in the understory, I’ve got nowhere to hide.
BLVR: Let’s talk about the title, which is multivalent. There is the understory of the forest, which K. spends so much time in; there is the story of Proust which is literally under K.’s story on the page throughout; and there are the active metaphorical “stories” of grief and memory and love and time running under K’s relatively uneventful story at the house. What was your thinking or feeling behind the title?
KS: You understand the title much better than I do. I honestly didn’t give it much thought, which I’ve found to be a good strategy for a lot of things (after a certain age, of course). But I like it better now with your reading. The only thing I can add is that it is pretty much untranslatable, both because of the double meaning of “story” and because of the way “under” and “story” can be a prepositional phrase as two words or a noun as one. Maybe that’s a private joke, or maybe it’s an invitation to invent a wholly different title if and when the greatest of all honors—to be translated—is bestowed on the book.
BLVR: This book seems to explore the inevitability of loneliness, but also the impossibility of ever truly being alone. On the one hand, K. is basically by herself the whole time, hardly ever interacting with anyone. On the other hand, she is always accompanied by nature and memories. As someone who I’m guessing lives a life with a lot of solitude (the literary life imposes a lot of alone time), what have been your feelings of isolation versus connectedness during the writing and the publication of this book?
KS: I like the way you put that, as a paradox, a quivering kind of paradox. Don’t you think that when you are writing, submerged, not questioning the source text, as I described earlier, you are both as isolated as you could possibly be from others and your surroundings and more connected than at any other time? What you say about loneliness can also be said about silence, which is also unsuccessfully pursued in the book… in my life! There’s always the voice in one’s head, the voice the writer tries to listen to and also wants to shut up. Publication is a different beast. I’m in the midst of it. Feels like the ego is in a storm, buffeted about mercilessly, and I keep wanting it to go below deck, get out of the way. Ego-in-the-way feeds isolation not solitude…
BLVR: What are your upcoming projects, either your own next book or translations?
KS: I’m taking a hiatus from prose translation, not pursuing or accepting any new projects at the moment. I continue to work in bursts on the translation and publication of Verónica Zondek, Chilean poet. Lines not sentences, one of the few concrete differences between prose and poetry that I understand.
I’m also beginning to assemble/gather/edit a writing project I’ve been working on since the 2016 political upheaval in the Anglo-Saxon world. It is a kind of “witnessing journal,” inspired in part by Arthur Klemperer’s journals from 1933 to 1945. One of the most salient rhetorical questions throughout my childhood was, “How could the Germans have let that happen?” Perhaps, I thought, by watching closely, witnessing, acting (mostly as an interpreter for asylum seekers/refugees), and writing down my observations, I might be able to formulate a different question. As well as a chronicle of these years, I see it taking shape as a continued exploration of journal writing as a literary form, as well as a staking out of the language that remains—if there is any—after the deafening chatter filling the globe. English spread thin, having lost its moorings in place. The leftover words, so to speak. A love story without mentioning love?