Playing With Words: Heather Cleary on the Pleasures of Translating the Unfamiliar
“We often learn the most from texts (and friends) with which we have little in common.”
“Examine how your Humour is inclin’d,
And which the Ruling Passion of your Mind;
Then, seek a Poet who your way do’s bend,
And chuse an Author as you chuse a Friend.
United by this Sympathetick Bond,
You grow Familiar, Intimate and Fond;
Your Thoughts, your Words, your Stiles, your Souls agree,
No Longer his Interpreter, but He.”
I first read these lines from An Essay on Translated Verse (1684) by Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon back in grad school, and for a long time they seemed pretty reasonable. Why wouldn’t I choose an author like I would choose a friend? Doesn’t it make sense to translate someone who is, at least in part, on the same wavelength? And that final melding of minds sounded, well, exciting—if a bit intense.
It didn’t occur to me until much later that my identification with a given author might be pure projection, or that assuming affinity is taking a blithe step down the slippery slope of interpretive irresponsibility: when we think we have it all figured out, we tend to get sloppy. Though there are many ethical considerations to take into account when selecting any translation project, it turns out that a bit of distance can actually be a great way to gain the perspective needed to see a text from different angles. Not to mention the fact that we often learn the most from texts (and friends) with which we have little in common.
Martín Solares and I “met” back in 2017, when I started working on Don’t Send Flowers, though it would be another year before I made his acquaintance in the traditional sense. I had been thrilled by the invitation to translate the novel because it gave me a chance to connect with a part of me inhabited by the gritty procedurals my father loves to read and the film noir I couldn’t get enough of during college.
My experience with Don’t Send Flowers was like running into a friend from grade school and discovering that, though your lives had taken different directions, you still remembered many of your private jokes and could slip easily into the shared language of another time. But the pleasure I found in the world of that novel wasn’t only a matter of nostalgia: Solares is an expert in detective fiction (as he amply demonstrates in How to Draw a Novel), and it was a delight to be led into the darkest corners of the criminal underworld by his steady hand.
Our next encounter centered on a very different kind of book: a collection of essays titled How to Draw a Novel, which is part craft lesson, part reading diary, part Pictionary. A voracious reader who just happens to have studied drawing before dedicating his career to the written word, Solares has compiled between its covers an illustrated guide to the plot of a vast array of canonical and contemporary novels.
A short chapter titled “A Theory of Evolution,” for example, compares the structure of the novel over the course of three centuries with three different types of cars, each represented with a whimsical line drawing. According to Solares, nineteenth-century novels—and many first attempts at fiction—start out with beginnings “as long as the hood of a 1970s car” and “ostentatious” endings.
The next phase in this evolution gives us more compact vehicles for visiting fictional worlds, while many writers in the early years of the twenty-first century—like César Aira and Alejandro Zambra—have “stripped their novels down to the bare minimum, to the point that their story is pure motor.” In another chapter, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch is depicted as two connected spirals covered with spikes: the invitation to jump out of the narrative at one point and re-enter it at another. The Great Gatsby is a looped line that ascends toward the peak of a large heart and then loops, or lopes, downward into the abyss.
Though only about one third the length of Don’t Send Flowers, How to Draw a Novel presented an array of new translation challenges. One of the biggest: tracking down the hundred-or-so quotations that Solares included in his musings. This part of the process returned me to the stacks of a library where I had spent countless hours while being trained in a very different, which is to say strictly academic, way of engaging with literature. In so doing, it revealed to me an even greater challenge that lay in store—rediscovering a sense of play in reading—and the great gift that would represent.
It wasn’t a gift I received easily. If I found myself relating to Solares like long-lost pals while translating Don’t Send Flowers, it might be fair to say that I inhabited my relationship to the text of How to Draw a Novel like Felix Unger of The Odd Couple: obsessively documenting and polishing each quotation, gnashing my teeth each time a reference sent me on a wild goose chase or the English version of a text didn’t align with the version Solares had quoted—and based his interpretation on—in Spanish. Reader, I made a spreadsheet.
But it quickly became clear that this book needed something different from me. It needed me to relax and have fun: to revel in the wild associations that reading can spark, to be playful in my thinking and my language. Rather than reinforcing my literary habits, as the author-friend praised by Dillon might have done, these essays invited me to step out of the familiar. As true friends often do.
And though the spreadsheet did ultimately remain, so too did the effect this translation had on me. I think this is something that many readers of this collection will feel: How to Draw a Novel offers not only a fresh approach to classic novels and to the act of writing, but also a chance to reimagine ourselves in relation to a practice of reading we thought we understood.
How to Draw a Novel by Martín Solares, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary, is available from Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic.