Betina González is an award-winning writer from Argentina, who has studied in El Paso and Pittsburgh, the latter of which she called home for nearly a decade. While her work has garnered her praise in South America, she had yet to publish a book in English. That is, until American Delirium.
The book, translated by Heather Cleary, is about a small town filled with some rather off-putting mysteries.
I corresponded via email with González and Cleary about this book’s process; both the writing of it and the translating of it for this dual interview that takes readers behind the scenes of the English-language debut. First up is Betina González, discussing how this book came to be and place does or does not influence her writing.
Betina, while American Delirium is your English-Language debut, you’ve had a storied career and your debut Arte menor won the Clarín Annual Literary Prize. What would you say are some common themes or ideas that run through your works?
They are very different books, although I think the theme of memory and the impossibility to actually trust our own past -how we never know for sure if something really happened the way we remember it, how we are changing our past in the very act of evoking it- is in both. The main difference is that in Arte menor everything is related to one character, Fabio Gemelli, an artist that used to give the same little statue to all his lovers. By the beginning of the novel, he is already dead and his daughter finds one of these sculptures at a garage sale. The story the owner tells her differs so much from what she knew about her father, that she starts to track down all these women in an attempt to better understand him. It is a kind of intimate detective novel about memory, family and loss.
Is American Delirium similar to your other works or was it a departure in some way?
It is a departure, for sure. Although in my previous book, Las poseídas, I was already playing with genres and limits, looking for a way of really departing from realism, in American Delirium I took that to an extreme. I think writing fiction is about taking risks, about being able to look at your reality in a completely different way. What is the point of writing a novel that aims to replicate reality? A fiction writer must do more, at least must give her readers something different from the usual, anesthetizing discourses. It is about reminding ourselves of the awkwardness and the beauty of being alive in this world.
You’re originally from Argentina, then studied in America and lived here for almost a decade, and now you’re back in Argentina. Do you consider yourself more of an Argentine writer, American writer, or something in between?
Nationalisms are always suspicious, as all identity tags are. I write with my whole library in my brain and my heart, as any fiction writer does. And in that library American and British and other literatures share their space with Argentine and Latin American literature, they talk permanently to each other. That also happens to me with language: half of my days I live and think and dream in English, the other half in Spanish.
This novel was written years ago in Spanish. What was it like revisiting the novel now? Especially with how much America and the world has changed since its 2016 publication.
I find that the novel has even more resonances with our present -I mean the 2020/1 pandemic and our need to find a different way of living on this planet. It is a novel that shows a profound unbalance in the way we live, in the way we are strangers to nature and to other living creatures in our world. It speaks of the way we are destroying the earth, of the way our idea of constant economic growth is unsustainable. It is a novel about utopia and dystopia at the same time, about people who are looking for a way of going back to nature and going beyond the patriarchal family. Those are things that I feel we are all rethinking during this pandemic.
What have you been exploring with your writing since American Delirium and El amor es una catástrofe natural, which I believe was your last novel and came out in 2018?
El amor es una catástrofe natural is a collection of short stories, some of them are very related to the world in American Delirium. Right now I am revising a novel that is going to come out this year. It is about a scientist that studies fear-conditioning and learning in animals with the aim to understand what can be called “human” in humans. It happens in the 30s in Argentina, but it touches topics that were common in science everywhere during those years. It is called Olimpia and it is to be published by Tusquets Argentina this August.
What other Argentine writers that haven’t been translated into English yet should Americans be anxiously waiting for?
Esther Cross. She has the most clever and fun novel about the Argentine collapse in 2001 and she also has a book about Mary Shelley. She is simply brilliant.
Heather, when you first begin to translate a work, what is the first thing – or first few things – you do?
For fiction, the first thing I have to do is overcome my impulse to start drafting right away as I read through the text; over the course of that first read-through, I try to get a sense of the voice (or voices) involved and what I call “weight-bearing” terms or images—the ones I’ll pay special attention to as I work through the English. These may be moments of foreshadowing or words that are repeated and that I’ll want to make sure I’m rendering consistently, among other things. That’s the intellectual part of it; at the same time, I’m also focused on getting a sense of what the book feels like—what its rhythms are, its overall tone, and so on. Once I have something like a general map of the text in my head, I go back to the beginning and start translating.
What is the relationship like between the author, the text, and yourself?
It varies pretty widely… starting with whether I’m translating the work of a living author or not. If not, it pretty much comes down to seance or scholarship. But seriously, I do find that I’m more conservative when I translate works by authors I can’t discuss moments of poetic license with. Among the living, there are some writers who want to be very involved, others barely at all. It can be so fascinating to unpack a work together and think through how best to re-create it in English. I tend to save queries for the last possible moment, unless they relate to voice or tone, which is important to get straight as early as possible.
With American Delirium specifically, what was the most challenging aspect while translating the work?
I’d have to say it was finding a way to make the Vik and Berenice sections of the novel (both of which are written in the third person) distinct from one another to capture the subtle differences Betina had built in, without pushing the envelope too far and disrupting the unity of the novel as a whole. Beryl kind of stands on her own, because she’s giving a first-person monologue, essentially, but I needed to convey Vik’s misanthropy and Berenice’s youthful resolve through, mostly, little lexical tweaks.
As someone who has translated quite a few non-English books, what would you say is the biggest difference between works from around the globe and American writing?
That’s a very tough one to answer, because it covers quite a lot of ground. One difference I’ve noticed in contemporary Latin American literature, at least, is a greater receptivity to books that defy genre: Is this a scholarly book or a work of creative nonfiction? Is this a novel or a memoir? Or a prose poem? That kind of thing. I think a similar principle applies to length, particularly in works of fiction.
If you can answer, what else are you working on translating that we can look out for?
I can! Right now I’m working on another polyvocal novel, Brenda Lozano’s Brujas, which will come out next year with Catapult and MacLehose. The novel begins with the murder of a muxe curandera; through an extended conversation between a young journalist from Mexico City and the victim’s student—a renowned curandera in her own right—it explores a range of themes from love and betrayal to memory and tradition, to the continuities of gendered violence across cultures and generations.