Translation Notes · 09/05/2013

Under This Terrible Sun

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book of fiction into English. In this installment, Megan McDowell writes about translating Under This Terrible Sun by Carlos Busqued (Frisch & Co.).

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“Literature has saved me… This is the first time in my life that I know I’ve done something good. It never happened to me before. I’m a pretty useless guy.”
— Carlos Busqued

Carlos Busqued seemed to come out of nowhere when his first novel Bajo este sol tremendo was published by the prestigious Spanish publisher Anagrama. When E.J. asked if I was interested in translating it for Frisch and Co, I thought I would find out a bit more about this Argentine author. After reading a few interviews and articles, I came away with the image of a somewhat solitary, misanthropic man (he cites Bukowski as an inspiration, and his twitter feed is called Un mundo de dolor, or “A world of pain”). He says he is happiest when he is alone in his study, reading or writing; he also watches a lot of porn. When asked why the main characters of the book spend so much time smoking pot and watching television, he responds “I’m pretty much like that,” and adds that those kinds of characters are the most interesting to follow. “The thing is that almost everyone, when looked at up close, is morally repugnant,” he says, adding that Camus’ The Stranger made a great impression on him because it contained no moral judgment of the characters. One could say the same about Under this Terrible Sun.

(a note: this piece has a lot of negative adjectives, which may lead the reader to think that I did not like this book. Not so! It’s a very good book, and I urge you all to read it and see how entertaining and edifying depictions of moral bankruptcy can really be.)

I had an interesting experience, one that was a first for me, while working on Under this Terrible Sun: I came to a part that I couldn’t translate. Not because it was difficult or “untranslatable;” it was more that I physically couldn’t bring myself to do it, so strong was the feeling of disgust and aversion it provoked in me. I had to skip over this part and come back to it later, steeled. If by chance you’ve read the book, you know what part I’m talking about. (And if you haven’t read it, you want to now, right?) And after I did translate this part, it wasn’t over. I still had to edit it, I still had to read it out loud a couple times. I had to question my word choice and preposition use, adjectives and word order. I had to get into the scene. I’ve never before felt such visceral antipathy as I typed words, and I felt implicated.

Shocking, horrible things happen in this book. It opens, for example, with Cetarti, one of the main characters, learning of his mother and brother’s brutal murder at the hands of his mother’s lover. But even more shocking, perhaps, is how the characters react, or more accurately, how they don’t: Cetarti finishes the documentary he’s watching, rolls some joints for the road, and feeds his fish before reluctantly setting out to take care of funeral preparations. The other two characters, Danielito and Duarte, have this same detachment and indifference in their dealings with the world; there is one scene in particular involving human remains and a toilet that would make the Cohen brothers uncomfortable.

The book’s refrain is the animal kingdom: the three characters watch TV documentaries about killer elephants and giant squids; a bull, an axolotl, and a pair of mastiffs all play key roles in the book. This fascination with the animal world serves as one of many means of escape — for characters who shun human interaction, animals require little commitment. It is also the only context in which something like compassion appears — Cetarti feeds and cares for the axolotl, Danielito adopts the mastiffs rather than killing them. This compassion, though, lasts only as long as it’s convenient, and through these inter-species interactions Busqued illustrates something haunting about the limits and illusions of the human animal’s capacity for empathy. Ultimately, the humans of the book are limited almost exclusively to the sensations and emotions that drive animals. Curiosity, hunger, fear. Disgust.

Now, some “research notes” for the English reader: the decade of the 70’s was the time of Argentina’s violent military dictatorship, during which thousands of leftist dissidents were murdered or disappeared. The country’s bloody past is lurking behind every page of this book — both Cetarti and Danielito grew up in the 70’s and are children of dictatorship, and both are orphans; Danielito’s father was in the air force, as was his friend Duarte, a catalyst for evil in the book and a perverse father figure to Danielito and Cetarti. Though the atrocities committed by the parents are never directly addressed, the morally barren universe their children inhabit is their inheritance from their violent forebears, and they are reduced to subsisting like animals and escaping as best they can. Cetarti and Danielito are by no means sympathetic characters; mostly their apathy and insensibility range from off-putting to horrifying. But they are also recognizable; they lose themselves in pot and television in an attempt to escape from themselves, from their past and the legacies of their families and nation.

This is no mystery-thriller with a neatly resolved ending; it’s more of an existential horror story that leaves the reader/ translator transformed and implicated. Because translation, if you ask me, is mostly a very engaged, collusive form of reading. When you translate, you can’t turn away, you can’t skip over, you can’t ignore the parts that say something about your species that you don’t really like. So, read it with your eyes wide open.

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Carlos Busqued was born in the northern Argentinian province of Chaco in 1970. He has produced the radio programmes Vidas Ejemplares, El otoño en Pekín and Prisionero del Planeta Infierno; and he contributes to the magazine El Ojo Con Dientes. He currently lives in Buenos Aires. Under This Terrible Sun is his first novel.

Megan McDowell has translated works by Alejandro Zambra, Arturo Fontaine, Carlos Busqued, and Juan Emar. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.