El Cuaderno Perdido: An Interview with José Luis Amores

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Earlier this month, I reached out to José Luis Amores, who is the founder and chief translator for Pálido Fuego, a publishing house based in Malaga, Spain, which is the birthplace of Picasso and one of the oldest cities in the world, established by the Phoenicians in 770 BC. Pálido Fuego means Pale Fire, a tip of the hat to Nabokov (and Shakespeare) that also telegraphs Amores’s desire to tackle bold and audacious works. Four years and change after launching its first title, a translation of Conversations with David Foster Wallace, they’ve managed to make their mark with an impressive catalog of innovative fiction, including William Vollmann’s The Royal Family, Mark Danielewski’s The House of Leaves, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, and Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity, among others.

In April of 2015, Pálido Fuego published the first translation of Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook, called El cuaderno perdido, and its success has generated a fresh wave of interest in Dara’s work. I wanted to learn about the genesis of this project and hear how Amores approaches his craft as a translator and a publisher.

Editor’s note: Some passages were edited for clarity.

Q: What do you like about translating challenging works of literature?

José Luis Amores: I think it’s more about why I like reading challenging works of literature versus, let’s say, normal works of literature. I’m 48 right now, not a youngster at all, and I’ve read many normal books, and translated a ton of normal documents and works, operating as a business consultant for many years. I’ve also watched an enormous amount of bad TV and shitty movies and listened to loads of terrible music. And one day, you run into a book—or a movie, or a song— which is in some way different: not silly, or easy in a negative sense, but it’s beautiful. Probably for me it was something by David Foster Wallace or a story by William Vollmann, I can’t recall it well. After that, books I once considered pleasurable became insipid and boring; it was like when you taste a good foie after years of eating fast food: you’ll never want to go back to your previous diet.

So, translating them is all the same. I approach each book as a sort of rereading, so it’s a real pleasure to go and build sentences into my language from English, trying to retain their essence as much as possible. I see this job as a sort of restoration, you know, like those guys who work perched on a scaffold, applying layers of paint with a variety of brushes. This is the kind of care I take.

Q: Who are your favorite writers to translate? Who would you like to tackle in the future?

JLA: My favorite authors are Vollmann, Dara, Robert Coover, Wallace, Thomas Bernhard, Tom McCarthy, Lars Iyer, Stephen Dixon, Steve Erickson, Ryan Boudinot, Nabokov, and more. I’ve been lucky enough to translate works by a bunch of them, and I hope to continue translating them (at least those that aren’t already in Spanish). Some people think Spanish is a good language to translate works into, because its wide potential audience makes it easier to sell books, even those that are hard or challenging. However, since the different Spanish-speaking countries are very far from each other, and have their own particularities, it’s hard to disseminate something from, let’s say, their cradle in linguistic terms. There are a ton of countries which could be potential markets, but they are either small in terms of reading audience, or large but mostly uninterested in literature. And our books are, in general, challenging—literary foie—while most people are used to reading banal stuff. So, it’s hard and, at the same time, exciting to publish authors who somehow go against the dumb tide, those who struggle with the real and urgent questions with true art and without cheap tricks.

Q: What sparked your decision to translate The Lost Scrapbook?

JLA: Our first book was a collection of interviews with David Foster Wallace, edited by Stephen J. Burn. We became friends, and he told me about The Lost Scrapbook, in such terms that I had to contact Aurora—Evan Dara’s publisher—to get a copy. My decision to translate a book is based on a very personal feeling. Usually, I begin to read a lot of books but I give up after a few pages. It’s not necessarily because they are bad or something like that—many of them are considered to be masterpieces— but they just don’t come to feel alive to me, so I drop them. In a few cases, the book sparkles, and I keep on reading. The Lost Scrapbook was certainly one of them. If this spark doesn’t happen, I might continue reading it, but I won’t try to publish it.

Q: How many times do you generally read a book before you begin your work? Did it alter your appreciation of The Lost Scrapbook?

JLA: Well, usually, my second reading of a book is when I decide whether to translate and publish it, and of course this rereading is a very thorough one, with lots of second thoughts, deeper appreciations, and even new findings. And I’ll reread parts of it while I’m still translating it, like gloating in it, and thinking, “Wow, now I realize this little thing here, which I missed in my first reading and even after I translated it.” And then I’ll reread the full work over and over again. In some cases, I don’t know how many times I’ve read a book published by my press (Pálido Fuego), but there are some I’ve read six, seven, or even eight times. Even after publishing them, I’ll find myself pulling a book down and reading paragraphs, and then pages and full chapters. And enjoying them. So, actually, I don’t know how many times I’ve read each one of these great books.

Q: How long did it take to complete the draft and finalize your edits? Was Dara involved in the process, or were you left to your own devices? Did he offer suggestions along the way?

JLA: In this case, with The Lost Scrapbook, I think it was two months working hard, translating and editing it. Then I put it to rest a few weeks, before rereading it to proofread it. By the way, the last proofreading was done by my partner, who reads very carefully, with two glasses and a load of pencils, markers and stuff like that. And at one point I had to go to Dara, with a few questions and suggestions about punctuation, which he solved nicely. Except for the translating phase, which I handle on my own, Dara was a great example of a helpful author, offering precious insights and making smart remarks.

Q: What parts of the novel did you find to be the most challenging to translate into Spanish? Which portions of the book left you scratching your head the most?

JLA: The Lost Scrapbook, as I see it, is not a very hard book, except for the changes of narrator. A funny detail: Dara sent me a copy of the book, which I started to read immediately. As I began to read it, I noticed this aspect of the changing narrator, the change of character and situation. And I enjoyed it a lot, because as someone said in a review of El cuaderno perdido, “Dara has an incredibly powerful ability to tell stories.” But at some point, a guy is speaking about his teenage son and the conflict they’re having over a set of drums that the boy has his heart set on, and just then someone is struggling with some sprinkler, and it was like “What?”

I wrote to Dara, asking him whether maybe my copy was incomplete. He was very understanding with me, and explained the situation, but probably became a bit nervous. But because I hadn’t read any reviews of the book, and neither Stephen nor Dara had warned me about the nature of the thing, I had started to read happily, was completely caught off-guard, and boom! The first blow, right on the chin, ha ha! So, except for this initial misunderstanding, I think the book reads like silk. It’s like watching TV, channel-surfing, but every station you find is interesting, all of them, and it’s the remote control that decides when it’s time to change channels. In the end, you have a beautiful and terribly smart mosaic of stories and characters and feelings, like an Indra’s net, tens of interconnections that form a kind of powerful narrative that takes you back to the epigraphs of the very first page. And then you think that there will never be another book which can achieve that.

Q: Dara uses some narrative techniques in which he threads multiple, unattributed voices for long stretches. Did you need to make any accommodations for El cuaderno perdido? What are the problems you faced when translating the dialogue?

JLA: Obviously, the main problem was figuring out the narrator’s gender in each case, because in Spanish you need to accommodate the adjectives for female and male persons. But, as you keep reading, it becomes clear who is who, and who is a she or a he. And the same applies to dialogue, where Dara is careful to give clues and to repeat linguistic tics that allow you to know key details about who is speaking. As I said before, when I’m translating, I don’t read quickly, and it’s not only because I want to do it right; it’s also because I work for myself, and I don’t have any clients or chiefs breathing down my neck. The same applies when I’m reading for pleasure, too, because reading books as if something were burning, or you were in a contest with someone, doesn’t make sense. That would be like swigging a glass of expensive and fine wine, instead of tasting it and rejoicing in it. For me, reading has all kinds of culinary and sensual connotations, and I feel sad when I see people who read like gluttons, guzzler readers who are vainglorious about their numbers, and quickly forget their feelings, if they have any at all. Anyway, to answer your question, I didn’t have many problems with unattributed voices, and I didn’t need to change or accommodate anything in the translation.

Q: How did you handle the unique punctuation and typographical patterns in The Lost Scrapbook?

JLA: Dara uses punctuation in a manner much like the Spanish do, perhaps due to some European influence in his readings. So, except for his semicolons instead of periods (which I kept as in the original), almost everything was similar to Spanish.

Q: I believe that you are working on translations of The Easy Chain and Flee. Are readers of El cuaderno perdido excited about digging deeper into Dara’s catalog?

JLA: We want to translate The Easy Chain and Flee. In fact, I want to publish The Easy Chain as soon as possible, maybe this fall. I keep a lot of notes and comments about it, made while I was reading it, and I think the process will be very similar to El cuaderno perdido. But, sincerely, I don’t know about excitement from our readers. We do have some very faithful readers, who get everything published by our press, and they are precisely the people who keep this working. I truly hope that The Easy Chain will achieve relative success in this time of skonky politicians.

Q: Where do you feel El cuaderno perdido sits within the ranks of American literature over the past 25 years?

JLA: In terms of ranking, I put El cuaderno perdido very high on my mental list, within the first few positions. When I started Pálido Fuego (my press, named after Pale Fire, by Nabokov), I wanted to publish a lot of books, but above all The Royal Family, and Pinocchio in Venice. Then I learned about The Lost Scrapbook, and a novel by Ryan Boudinot (Blueprints of the Afterlife) which, for me, is the epitome of contemporary sci-fi. So, after publishing these four, I feel like my job is done: it will be difficult to find books that reach the same heights.

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