September 20, 2012

Q&A with Carolina de Robertis, translator of Bonsai


Junot Diaz recently called Alejandro Zambra’s novella Bonsai “a total knockout.” Below, we talk with Carolina de Robertis, the translator responsible for helping to bring the book to the English-language market.

What were the biggest challenges translating this title?

Alejandro Zambra’s prose is generally limpid, lean, and deceptively simple, so much of the translation process was very smooth. The biggest challenges lay in particular word choices that simply do not have exact equivalents in English. One example is the word follar, a slang word for the sex act in Spain. In Bonsai, Emilia insists that she will not screw or make love to or much less fuck her new boyfriend; she only wants to follar. This insistence is both humorous and laden with cultural connotations, revolving around a rejection of things Chilean and an idealization of Spain, which in turn speaks to her generation’s sense of irrelevance, of inhabiting a global periphery. All of this is contained in the word follar. My solution was to keep the word follar, gently explaining it to English-language readers, and to also use a British term for the sex act, namely, to shag, to mirror this sense of importing a colloquialism from Europe.

Another example is the word ilusiones, a classic translation conundrum. In Bonsai, Zambra writes that this is a book of ilusiones. But in Spanish, that word means both “illusions” and “hopes.” Which one does he mean here? He leaves this for readers to interpret — a beautiful ambiguity that’s impossible to replicate in English, where we have no single word to hold both meanings. I couldn’t bear to render the word as only “illusions” or only “hopes,” as it felt that half the book’s secret themes would be left behind. My imperfect compromise was to reach for both meanings, even if it meant using more words: “This is a book of illusory hopes.”

How did translating Bonsai enhance your understanding of the text?

This novella’s beauty lies in its subtleties: the delicate word choice, the ringing silence between the lines, the restraint of the characters themselves even in moments of despair. Like an actual bonsai tree, the text is finely pruned, so that what is not there seems to speak as much to the whole as what remains present. Translating this book allowed me to come so close to these subtleties that they shone out all the more. The more I sank into the prose, the more resonance I found in it.

Can you talk about some of the unique experiences you may have had with this particular title? As a reader and translator, do you feel closer (or further away) to the characters and/or plot of this book?

Inevitably — and luckily for me — I feel much closer to Bonsai’s characters than I would have if I’d only read the book. As a novelist myself, I’d say translation falls somewhere in the spectrum between reading a book written by someone else, and writing one of your own. That is to say, it’s a deeply intimate process. It is the closest we can get to slipping into that room where an author sits in solitude and peering over his shoulder as he works.



Translator CAROLINA DE ROBERTIS was raised in England, Switzerland, and California by Uruguayan parents. Her fiction and literary translations have appeared in ColorLines, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of The Invisible Mountain and Perla.