Argentinian author Pola Oloixarac’s latest novel, Dark Constellations, is an exploration of mankind’s obsession with knowledge, control and progress. It spans 19th-century science and modern-day cyber-surveillance and even peeks forward into humanity’s likely near-future. Throughout the book, Oloixarac weaves an intricate blend of technical detail, deliberateness and evocative lyricism to create the magical realist world in which her epic saga takes place. Combining esoteric sciences, arts, technologies, cultures, philosophies and even lexicons with heightened, poetic and dreamlike scenes and descriptions, she transports readers into a reality at once entirely extraordinary and all too familiar. Effectively reproducing this linguistic alchemy in the novel’s English-language translation was, for translator Roy Kesey, “the single greatest challenge of the book.”
“It is Pola's great gift to be able to work in so many registers at once, and so many fields at once, and so many languages at once," Kesey told Spine. "Producing a parallel to all that — one that flows as well and reads as cogently as the original at each given moment — is the very heart of the project.” Rising to that challenge, as he describes it, was as much an art as a science. “I try to build a thing called Dark Constellations that can stand alongside a thing called Las constelaciones oscuras, that can house twins for all of its intents and all of its purposes.”
For Kesey, translating a work effectively, especially one so complex in its prose, is far from a mechanical exercise in replacing each word or phrase with the nearest counterpart. “My job is to build a machine that creates the same set and sequence of effects and realizations in your brain that Pola’s original created in the brains of her original readers.” That very effort, however, can cause a translator to overshoot, “to render a given passage too smoothly. The tendency to make something unlike its counterpart in the original language in the name of idiomaticness is often a vice."
This distinction became particularly germane to the process when characters in the book would profess a degree of authority over a subject that Kesey knew to be false or exaggerated. “My highest responsibility is to Pola's text, so accurately translating the authoritativeness already present in her text is absolutely necessary.” The words and phrases Kesey selected had to reflect the relevant point-of-view character’s actual authority on a subject. “What I'm actually trying to do is to get the English text to hit the same spot on the sliding scale of authority that Pola chose for each given moment.”
Not only did Kesey’s text have to convey this nuance to an English-speaking reader’s mind, but to one with the particular general knowledge and authority on these subjects that the average, or most likely, English-speaking reader would possess today. As he describes it, “I also had to be sure that my translation's content and tone triangulated away from consensus reality at the same angles as her original text did, and in the same places.”
Sometimes effectively executing this dance of accuracy, authority and authenticity, of message and meaning, required Kesey conduct his own research into the given topic. “I didn't have to become a genuine authority on, say, the precolonial Canary Islands, or Kurt Tank and the FMA IAe 33 Pulqui II, or the exact accretionary mechanisms with which stromatolites are formed, but I had to understand what degree of genuine authority to ascribe to a given character on a given topic at a given time, and that meant I had to know enough about the raw material to be able to judge each character's stance toward it.” Other times, it required conferring with the book’s editor, Soho's Mark Doten, or directly with the author herself.
Kesey approached the challenge of replicating Oloixarac’s text and her alchemy with “great trepidation.” He confessed it helped, however, that it wasn’t his first time working with her intricate prose, having penned the English translation of her previous debut novel, Savage Theories. “I wasn't starting from nothing."
Kesey is also an author, and the struggles he encountered as a translator — to convey meaning with an authenticity that’s more than literal — are no stranger to any creative writer, he noted. To explain, he quoted from Parul Sehgal's review of Mitchell S. Jackson’s Survival Math: “All literature is literature in translation... . All of it migrates out of the body, out of a tangle of sensations and intuitions, obscure rancor and desires; we hunt racks of ready-made language for words that might fit.’”
Kesey commented, “If [Sehgal's description is] an adequate representation of the struggle the author faces as she writes the original text (spoiler alert: it is) then what hope does any intra-lingual translator have?”
Roy Kesey won a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for his translation of Aurora Venturini's The Cousins. He is also the author of two novels, two short story collections, and a historical guidebook. He won a 2010 NEA Fellowship in Creative Writing, and his work has appeared in over a hundred magazines and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and Norton's New Sudden Fiction and New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. Kesey’s translation of Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations was released on April 16 by Soho Press. In addition to Kesey’s two English translations, Pola Oloixarac’s novels have each been translated into eight languages. Find Kesey online at roykesey.com and on Twitter @roykesey.
Sage Kalmus is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author, cofounder/co-CEO of Qommunity Media LLC and Senior Editor of its publishing imprint, Qommunicate Publishing. A member of the Board of Directors of the Becket Arts Center of the Hilltowns in Becket, Massachusetts, he teaches writing magical realism in Lesley University’s MFA Creative Writing program. He’s been an editorial intern for Dzanc Books and a three-time reader for Salamander Magazine's summer fiction contest. His fiction has appeared in Sanctuary, Whisperings Magazine, Carnival Online Literary Journal, and Rose Red Review. His nonfiction has appeared in The Writer Magazine and The Hampshire Gazette. He wrote and directed three plays in San Francisco, including a one-man show in which he started. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and a BS in Broadcasting and Film from Boston University. He lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts with his loving husband, fellow Qommunity Cofounder/Co-CEO & Qommunicate Editor Curry Kalmus, and their zoo-family.