Writers of the World: On Sergio Pitol and the Art of Translation

Article by mark

Most of us take translation for granted. When we’re assigned CRIME AND PUNISHMENT or THE METAMORPHOSIS or LES MISÉRABLES in high school, we aren’t thinking about the act of translation. It’s written in English, and that’s good enough. And the teacher isn’t thinking about translation either. Teaching Dostoyevsky is hard enough; to try and discuss the importance of translation—never mind the minutiae—is another course (or career) entirely.

Dr. George Henson, the wonderful translator of Sergio Pitol’s THE ART OF FLIGHT and THE JOURNEY, was no different. “I took world literature in high school,” he tells me over the phone, “and we read classic world literature. It just never dawned on me, like most high school students, that those novels were not written in English.”

Of course Henson is different in that, for him, Spanish came easily. “Everyone always complimented me on my Spanish from a very young age, but one of the reasons my Spanish was so good is that I read a lot.” Reading is essential to translating. This seems obvious, but what I mean is Serious Reading: gauging the tone, the cadence, the turns of phrase, capturing the nuance and the register, or perhaps some obscure alliteration—in short, attempting to express the ideas and words of another person in an entirely different language, and making that authentic.

Was translation something he’d always wanted to do? “I did some translation as an undergraduate,” says Henson, “I did my master’s degree in one year in Spain. My entire experience with Hispanic literature up until about eight years ago was always in Spanish. I mean, I read everything in Spanish. And of course, I knew that translation existed, but I had never read a piece of Hispanic literature in English.”

Henson remembers the first time he was exposed to Hispanic literature in translation. It was in 1983 at a panel discussing Carlos Fuentes. Henson heard one of Fuentes’ translators, Margaret Sayers Peden, speak. “I thought, Oh, this woman translates. I’ve read Carlos Fuentes in Spanish and this woman translates him into English. And I remember specifically going and buying a book, one of Carlos Fuentes’ novels that Margaret Sayers Peden had translated.”

Now, Henson is a popular translator himself, most recently known for translating Mexican author Pitol for Deep Vellum, the independent literary publisher based in Dallas (where Henson also lives). Before I’d ever read Pitol—before he’d even had a book translated into English—my Spanish-speaking friends had told me about this writer, a recipient of both the Juan Rulfo Prize and the Miguel de Cervantes Prize. They raved about his coveted place in Mexican letters, his brilliance and originality. Thus, there was already a sense of anticipation, even an expectation, when I finally held THE ART OF FLIGHT in my hands this past March. I expected to like the book, but I didn’t expect to find a library of authors contained inside a single novel, one that combines travelogue, essay, memoir, and literature effortlessly—in other words, I didn’t expect to love Pitol. Reading him feels like sitting beside your favorite uncle, the one who has traveled the world and read everything, yet wears his intelligence loosely and comfortably. Now, with THE JOURNEY, Pitol’s newest book translated into English, the author looms even larger.

Pitol spent entire decades of his life abroad, so to call him a “Mexican writer” doesn’t quite cut it

The pressure to be the first to translate Pitol into English must have been enormous, but Henson was up to the challenge. For him, the job felt like an honor—albeit one that instilled a healthy dose of self-criticism. To talk to Henson on the phone, even briefly, feels like a master class in translation—especially as he describes the nitty-gritty details of working with Pitol’s language in two separate books. The first of the two, THE ART OF FLIGHT, was challenging to work with because of Pitol’s stylized voice, which ranges from memories of travel to dreams to ideas for novels. “I had to constantly worry about the register and the voice that he was writing in,” Henson says, whereas THE JOURNEY, the newer of the two books, was a little simpler. “In THE JOURNEY, the voice tends to be a little less formal, a little less stylized, and it was just much easier to find one voice and stick with it.”

Nevertheless, translating THE JOURNEY posed its own difficulties—especially when it came to working with Pitol’s copious references to Russian literature. “Some of the texts Pitol cites are very, very obscure,” Henson says. “And another big problem is [that the] Spanish have one way of spelling Russian names and the English have another. But fortunately, because Will [Evans, publisher of Deep Vellum] has a Master’s Degree in Russian, he was able to fix a lot of those things.”

Indeed, THE JOURNEY is a very Russian book. Much of it takes place in Moscow amidst the Cold War. Pitol discusses at length the life of tragic Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, as well as countless other Russian authors both known and sadly forgotten. Politics are never in the forefront, but they’re always at the periphery, sitting silently beside the reader. Pitol spent entire decades of his life abroad, so to call him a “Mexican writer” doesn’t quite cut it—he’s more like a “world writer.” Pitol has lived, as both a translator and diplomat, in Rome, Beijing, Barcelona, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Moscow, to name a few (or a lot).

Because of the global worldview of an author like Pitol, the work that translators like Henson and publishers like Deep Vellum are doing is not only thoughtful and discerning, it’s important. To gain access to other cultures, as well as understanding and empathy, requires knowledge of their beliefs and struggles, their customs as well as their art, many of which mirror our own. And literature is an ideal entryway.

In addition to Sergio Pitol’s THE ART OF FLIGHT and THE JOURNEY, George Henson is the translator of Elena Poniatowska’s THE HEART OF THE ARTICHOKE and Luis Jorge Boone’s THE CANNIBAL NIGHT. His translations have appeared in The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review, The Buenos Aires Review, Bomb, Literal, Flash Fiction International, and World Literature Today. Henson holds a PhD in Literary and Translation Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, an MA in Spanish from Middlebury College, and a BA, also in Spanish, from the University of Oklahoma. He currently teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas and taught previously at Southern Methodist University.

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The Art of Flight By Sergio Pitol, George Henson (Translator), Enrique Vila-Matas (Introduction by) Cover Image
By Sergio Pitol, George Henson (Translator), Enrique Vila-Matas (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781941920060
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing - March 17th, 2015

The Journey By Sergio Pitol, George Henson (Translator), Álvaro Enrigue (Introduction by) Cover Image
By Sergio Pitol, George Henson (Translator), Álvaro Enrigue (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781941920183
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing - August 18th, 2015

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