Syntax, Sound, Sensations

Cherilyn Elston discusses translating Jorge Consiglio’s Southerly

Jorge Consiglio, Southerly.
Translated by Cherilyn Elston.
Charco Press. £9.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Cherilyn Elston researches Latin American history, culture, and politics, with a particular focus on Colombia, at the University of Reading. She is the managing editor of Palabras Errantes, a collaborative online project that publishes contemporary Latin American and Spanish literature in translation, and she’s also an experienced translator. Her most recent work is a translation of Jorge Consiglio’s Villa del Parque, published in English as Southerly, for Edinburgh-based Charco Press.

In reviewing Southerly for Splice, Anna MacDonald called it a “remarkable” collection of stories, depicting an eerie world “distinguished by strange doublings and the insinuation of dreams into reality”. Throughout January 2018, Cherilyn Elston generously gave her time to discuss Southerly via email with Daniel Davis Wood, describing her experience of translating Consiglio’s short fiction and some of the challenges it presented.

How did you first come across the work of Jorge Consiglio?

My introduction to Jorge Consiglio’s work was in fact when I was approached by the director of Charco Press, Carolina Orloff, to translate his short story collection Villa del Parque. I have known Carolina professionally for some years — we have a shared passion for challenging the lack of contemporary Latin American voices in the English-language literary marketplace and have collaborated many times through the online translation journal, Palabras Errantes, which I founded and currently edit. In recent years I have edited and translated a number of contemporary Argentinean writers and have become familiar with the country’s diverse and exciting contemporary literary scene. When I was sent Consiglio’s stories, I was struck by the originality of his prose and was keen to be the first translator to bring his writing to an English-speaking audience.

Consiglio is quite a prolific and celebrated writer of novels, short stories, and poetry, but he’s virtually unknown in the Anglophone world and Southerly is the first of his books to be translated into English. Can you elaborate on the stature he holds in Spanish-language literature?

Whilst he is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world (like many excellent contemporary Latin American writers!) Consiglio is a very well-known and well-respected literary figure in Argentina, and in the Southern Cone in general, and he has won several prestigious awards in Argentina as well as Spain. He won particular acclaim for his most recent novel, Hospital Posadas (2015), which could be defined as a political novel — its title derives from the name of a hospital outside Buenos Aires that was used as a torture centre during the last military dictatorship. In this work, Consiglio actively engages with the after-effects of the political events of the 1970s and 1980s, and in particular the legacy of impunity.

What is his body of work like? Does he have some key interests, concerns, themes, or some signature aesthetic tendencies? And in what ways is Southerly representative of his other books, or not?

As you’ve mentioned, Consiglio has published numerous works — four novels, three collections of short stories, as well as collections of poetry. Southerly is his most recent work, and is an excellent introduction to his narrative style, which is defined by a certain lyricism, a non-sequential logic, and a subtle evocation of the violence and danger that threaten to disrupt daily life.

The short stories of Southerly were published after his acclaimed and ambitious novel, Hospital Posadas (2015). Despite being a more political work, the novel is narrated through the perspective of an outsider character — who could form part of Southerly’s cast of marginalised protagonists — and is similarly written from a liminal space, confronting Argentina’s history through an intense focus on the tiny details that make up the fabric of violence. Consiglio has defined himself as a writer who seeks to reject a purely realist work without abandoning realism; all his work infuses the world with a slight distortion of perspective or a sense of estrangement.

The stories in Southerly aren’t connected to one another in a narrative sense, but there’s a tonal consistency to the volume and some recurrent concerns. Southerly repeatedly depicts situations that develop acute imbalances in power between two people, usually a man and a woman. In these situations, the narratorial perspective becomes very alert to the threat of injury and even outright violence, very attuned to provocations that could result in bodily harm. There’s a lot of tension to some of the stories, including in situations where the action is more or less static or conversational, and there’s often an undercurrent of real malice that runs through the prose without necessarily breaking through to the surface.

What challenges did you face as a translator in retaining this quality of the stories, rendering so much of their power only through implication? Or are there features of Consiglio’s style that made it not so great a challenge?

This was one of the features that attracted me to the stories, but it was also a real challenge. The language of the stories is very delicate, yet at the same it expertly builds this tension and underlying violence without resorting to conventional narrative techniques. Gabriela Cabezón Cámera, one of Consiglio’s contemporaries (and also now published in translation by Charco Press) has referred to this as the Consiglian narrative logic, a logic which goes against the tide and challenges the conventional sequential logic of a story. As Consiglio himself says, he constructs his narratives through careful attention to syntax and sound as generators of meaning. Therefore, the sense of each sentence, each paragraph, is constructed via a complex logic related more to imagery or qualities that we would consider poetic or lyrical. This partly reflects Consiglio’s background as a poet and is also what I think makes his narrative work so original.

Faced with this challenge, I felt the only way I could begin replicating these features in English was to treat the prose as if it were poetry, paying particular attention to syntax and sound and working through the imagery and sensations evoked by the stories. Nevertheless, at times I did struggle with the intricacy of the prose. The wonderful thing about translation, however, is that it involves a very deep reading of a text and even though it is a very solitary activity, it also allows you to enter into a dialogue with both the author and your editor. Jorge was very receptive to my questions about the stories and I benefitted from the insight of wonderful editors, who helped me recreate Southerly’s Consiglian logic.

Are there any subtleties of Consiglio’s style that simply escape faithful translation into English? Anything he tends to do with his prose that can’t avoid being damaged or impeded when it moves away from his own language?

As syntax and sound are so important to Consiglio’s work, and the sounds of English and Spanish are so different, we inevitably lose some of the rhythm of the prose when translating his work into English. One of the key features of the stories is that, atypically for a Spanish text, which would normally use longer sentence structures than in English and can include multiple clauses, the sentences in Southerly are very short. Whilst this was fairly easy to replicate in English, at times it sounded harder, blunter than it did Spanish, and we decided to modify the syntax or integrate some of the shorter lines into longer sentences. I worked hard, however, to ensure this didn’t damage the intricate logic of the stories but instead made their lyricism clearer to English-language readers.

Is there anything else you think readers should be aware of, or pay attention to, in order to get the most out of Southerly?

Whilst the stories that make up Southerly speak to universal themes — of violence, perversity, eroticism, intimacy, illness — they also draw upon specific cultural references. Readers will notice that the English title of the collection is not a literal translation of the Spanish title, Villa del Parque, which refers to the neighbourhood in Buenos Aires where Consiglio was born. We felt that a literal translation, Village of the Park, would sound awkward and generic in English, failing to translate the Spanish name’s crucial connotations of returning to origins, or the experiences of childhood and adolescence — things that inform the atmosphere evoked in many of the stories. Likewise, in the Spanish collection, the first story is called ‘Diagonal Sur’, the name of a main road in Buenos Aires which is simply untranslatable into English road terms and would be incomprehensible to an English-speaking public. My solution to both translation conundrums was the word “southerly”, referring to a southward direction or a wind blowing from the south, which I felt conjured up the key theme of transition that appears in the stories, as well as the changing climates that affect the characters and help create narrative tension. I also liked this as an analogy, with the southerly wind reflecting the act of translation from the Spanish-speaking south (Argentina) to the English-speaking north.

These stories also draw upon Argentina’s rich literary history and there are many intertextual references that readers should be aware of. Consiglio has expressed how the collection’s first story ‘Diagonal Sur’/‘Southerly’ engages with and rewrites Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story ‘El Sur’/‘The South’. His narrative style, in particular the way in which the prose is based upon what is left unsaid, reveals the influence of another important twentieth-century Argentinean writer, Juan José Saer, as well as the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti. The collection’s intense focus on the threat of violence lying within the minutiae of daily life, and its constant displacements, also evokes Argentinean writer Antonio di Benedetto, who is not well-known in the English-speaking world.

For readers swept up by the book, what next? Which translated authors would you recommend?

Obviously all of Charco Press’ first catalogue, which showcases some of the most innovative work being produced in Argentina today! Their next catalogue expands beyond Argentina and will publish other brilliant Latin American writers, including Margarita García Robayo, Julián Fuks, Renato Cisneros, and Daniel Mella.

I think we are currently experiencing a real shift in English-language translations of Latin American writers, with excellent small presses publishing some really exciting authors. A number of other Argentinean writers have achieved enormous success in English translation in recent years. I’m thinking of writers such as César Aira, Mariana Enriquez, and Samanta Schweblin, alongside Chilean contemporaries such as Alejandro Zambra and Lina Meruane.

And which untranslated contemporaries of Consiglio do you think deserve to find an Anglophone readership?

Too many to name! I’d personally like to see more works by women (which make up less than a third of all literary translations published in the UK and US). As an academic, I’d also like to see more translations of writers who are crossing the boundaries between the literary essay, theory and politics, in the style of Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends (2017), as well as genres that we normally don’t associate with Latin American writing. On Palabras Errantes we have published a number of projects showcasing Latin American fantastic writing, speculative fiction and horror, which reveal a rich tradition in ‘genre writing’ that is generally unknown in the Anglophone world.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.