Translation Spotlight: Mark Sees Red

Article by mark

One of the great things about working in the world of books is the advance copies—books by amazing writers that you can’t wait to share with the rest of the world. Often these are books by authors I’ve never heard of, which makes the surprises all the more satisfying.

This was the case with Lina Meruane’s SEEING RED, published this month by Dallas’ Deep Vellum. Meruane is a Chilean author who lives and teaches in NYC. The novel—short, visceral and semi-autobiographical—is profound in its focus and artistry, in having nothing superfluous among its buoyant 155 pages. SEEING RED is so unadorned and concise, so propulsive and poetic, I’ll read anything by Meruane (and hope more is translated in the future).

I was particularly moved by the intensity of the story, which deals with illness and identity, with navigating the inner world of illness and the outer world of semi-blindness, all while traveling from New York City to Santiago, Chile, and back. The first-person narrative is beautiful and intense, while dealing with themes of relationships under stress, the failings of one’s body and the solitude of illness. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I’ve been counting down the days to share this one with the world, and Meruane was kind enough to answer some questions over email.

Mark: There is a real intensity to SEEING RED. The reader is at once inside the protagonist’s thoughts while also experiencing outside events. This approach is ideal in a story where the character is living (and suffering) in their own mind as well as trying to navigate the outside world. Was the novel dictated by your style of writing or was the style dictated by the story?

Lina Meruane: A little of both, and also time constraints. While some themes (illness, the body and, in general, a visceral approach to reality) have been with me since my first book, published in 1998, my style has slowly changed with each one. I think my style has acquired a combination of dramatic intensity and emotional detachment, of rawness and poetry. But I also think each book I’ve written (and its style) has also been influenced by the material conditions of writing. For SEEING RED I had very little time; I was in the middle of writing my doctoral dissertation (which is now a book called, in English, VIRAL VOYAGES), so I had no more than two or three hours each morning under huge stress: the structure of the book was decided by very real time limitations. I discovered that if each fragment had its one-punch effect, I would be able to finish each scene in the time I had and would be able to keep the book going. And that’s where some of the intensity comes from.

Mark: SEEING RED is beautiful and visceral and the writing is very poetic; did you work with your English translator Megan McDowell and if so, how closely?

Meruane: I was lucky to have Megan McDowell as a translator of this novel. She’s a young but experienced translator who moved to Chile in order to enhance her understanding of the culture and the nuances of the language (she has translated other Chilean authors, such as Alejandro Zambra). Megan is a very talented translator who, most importantly, has an exceptional literary style in English, which is what matters the most. I don’t think this novel was easy to translate, not only because the imagery is very specific, but also because at the level of language there’s many puns and alliteration in the writing plus a variety of Spanish-es—part of the book is set in New York City where a number of characters who speak different varieties of Spanish come together. That said, she worked on the novel on her own and I only got to read a final draft that included some 300 questions: some Megan’s, some the copy editor’s (Sal Robinson). I only answered questions and tried to remain on the side.

Mark: Illness is intensely personal. No one can feel—at least physically—what the sufferer feels. One can sympathize and try to help, but the sense of frustration and solitude that comes with being sick is isolating. Was it difficult to convey that in the story?

Meruane: I completely agree with you. Illness is a lonely experience because even if others have experienced the same condition, the fears and anxieties it creates are always very personal. There is an interesting paradox, too, with illness: those who suffer often want to share the details with others who don’t want to hear them. So I had to decide how much to describe and what to leave to the imagination. I felt all along that a visual description of going blind needed to be there in order to create some sort of connection with the reader.

Mark: The novel is described as semi-autobiographical yet it is also fiction; is the reader expected to connect any of the events in the book directly to you?

Meruane: I did throw my own name in the book, so there is some expectation that the reader will ask him or herself whether the author lived through that experience herself. I am playing with that expectation, and with the reader here in order to complicate the idea of truth. I wanted to challenge the reader to examine the borders of fiction, the strategies of reading and the idea that literature makes people better, or happy...I think literature should always delve into the complexities of the human condition.

Mark: Are you working on anything new? Are there plans to have more of your work translated into English?

Meruane: No. There are no plans yet to publish any of my current or previous work in English. I guess it will depend on how this novel goes. But I am not thinking about it much. My mind is now set on a new novel about—very generally speaking—war. I have written only essays since SEEING RED and it feels refreshing to be back immersed in fiction.

Mark: Could you name some literary influences or writers that you enjoy reading?

Meruane: Over the years I have realized the impact that some writers have had on my idea of literature. Just to mention a few early readings which I have sometimes returned to and who are completely different from each other although all extremely intense: Virginia Woolf’s entire body of work, Susan Sontag, the Hungarian Agota Kristof (THE NOTEBOOK in particular). Yukio Mishima’s novels and Boris Vian (HEARTSNATCHER is my favorite). I admire the work of the Cuban writers Severo Sarduy and Reinaldo Arenas, and late Chilean novelist Carlos Droguett, whose work, for some mysterious reason, has not been translated into English.

Seeing Red Cover Image
By Lina Meruane, Megan McDowell (Translator)
ISBN: 9781941920244
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing - February 23rd, 2016

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