With his newly published translation of Argentinian author Pola Oloixarac’s first novel Savage Theories, Roy Kesey ’91 approaches the intricacies and challenges of the written word on a whole different level.
The act of writing literary fiction is largely a labor of love, poor in the promise of financial gain but rich in the hopefulness of bringing something fresh and thoughtful into the world. As a translator of literary fiction, Roy Kesey ’91 takes that labor of love one step further by bringing another writer’s voice to a new culture, language, and audience.
Kesey, a visiting lecturer in English and the 2015 Literary House writer-in-residence, has just published to strong reviews his first book-length translation: upcoming Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac’s debut novel, Savage Theories (Soho Press, 2017).
“It’s a fascinating process, and not one I ever want to give up,” he says. “There’s the idea that you’re bringing a book you love to a new market, and that that will do something positive for the author, and for the people who are reading the work. Good things happen when different cultures read each other’s work, and translation is often the only way for that to happen.”
In the January 2017 issue of Words Without Borders, reviewer David Varno credits Kesey with a masterful translation of a complex, wild ride of a book: “The perversions of language is one of Oloixarac’s central themes, and this, along with the nuanced references to Argentina’s Dirty War and the country’s political history following Peronism, plus the characters’ tenuous interpretations of various philosophers expressed in murky academic syntax, must have made the book particularly challenging to translate,” Varno writes. “Roy Kesey succeeded in creating a text that is immersive, multilayered, sensual, and cerebral, and it captures Oloixarac’s wicked brand of humor, which often triggers bark-like laughs followed by pangs of guilt.”
Kesey calls the book “very dense, very complicated, very layered. This was slow work.” Kesey, whose book of short stories Any Deadly Thing was published in 2013 and his novel Pacazo in 2011, did not set out to be a translator. But after living in Central America for a time so that he could learn Spanish to read Latin American authors in their own language, he ended up teaching in Peru for 11 years. It was there that he began doing commercial and academic translations.
“They weren’t particularly interesting texts, but I realized it was something I could do,” he says. He became familiar with Oloixarac’s work after seeing her mentioned in Granta as an emerging Spanish-language writer, and through a publisher from a small press in Peru who also suggested her novel, which had already been published in Spanish.
Dzanc Books, which has published several of Kesey’s works, contacted Oloixarac after seeing the write-up in Granta, “so that was how the whole project started. We’ve gone through a couple of agents and a couple of publishers, but my relationship with her has remained steady and my relationship to the book has remained steady.” Kesey says working with Oloixarac has been a joy. She has a beautiful grasp of English, he says, and quickly understood what he was trying to achieve with the translation.
Although it sounds straightforward, literary translation is anything but. Translators, he says, are essentially rebuilding an already completed work into something new. Their approach can range from extremely literal to really quite radical in terms of interpreting the text. What they can’t do is be both at once.
“Most of us fall somewhere in the middle: some translate more loosely, some cling to the original a little more tightly,” he says. “And you’re constantly fighting to stay in the position you’ve chosen for a given text. The one thing that’s fatal to a project is if you’re sliding on the spectrum in the middle of the project. You can’t decide to do a more literal translation and then invent a new character, or treat the source language as one you don’t actually speak.”
Kesey says 5,000 words a week is “a good week, and that’s the first draft. Depending on how complicated it is, the second draft can take me just as long.” And although it’s intensely creative in its own way, it is not the same as writing.
“It’s a radically different experience,” he says. “It’s this deconstruction-reconstruction process. You’re making constant creative decisions like you are when you’re writing your own work, but it doesn’t feel quite as front and center. You make a decision how you’re going to translate a certain word, and the next time it comes up it’s in a different context, so you have to decide if you’re going to be loyal to the way you have already translated this word or loyal to the new context or find some compromise. So, obviously it has its own challenges, but it’s not a blank page, and there are some days when the blank page is too much.”
Now that he’s finished this first novel translation, he’s at work on Oloixarac’s next book, Dark Constellations, which has already come out in Spanish.