Perspective, Translation


On October 7, the Center for the Art of Translation began its 2008-09 “Lit & Lunch” series with a reading by Katherine Silver. BY ANDREA BINDEREIF

Katherine Silver, a renowned translator of some of Latin America’s leading contemporary authors, read from her latest translation, Senselessness, a novel by Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya. This is Moya’s first novel to appear in English. Silver received grants from the PEN translation fund and the National Endowment for the Arts to complete this translation and she has since been recognized with an NEA award for her outstanding work.

About 50 people appeared for this first Lunch reading of the 2008-09 season. Olivia Sears, both founder and president of the CAT, was particularly proud to welcome Katherine Silver. She is yet another highly acclaimed translator to read and discuss her work at the “Lit & Lunch” series. Some famous authors she has previously translated include Pedro Lemebel and Jorge Franco. However, she is probably best known for her translation of The Postman by Antonio Skármeta, the acclaimed novel based on the life of Pablo Neruda. It served as the basis of the 1994 hit film Il Postino.


In her introductory remarks Silver noted that the original novel, which first appeared in 2004 under the Spanish title Insensatez, was given to her. She was so captured by it that she decided to provide a sample translation, something she no longer does as she is considered to be among the best known translators of Latin American literature. Her sample was accepted and the translated novel was published by New Direction Publishers.

The novel is about a boozing, sex-obsessed writer who finds himself employed by the Catholic Church to proofread a 1,100 page report on the army’s massacre and torture of thousands of indigenous villagers a decade earlier, including testimonies of the survivors. The writer becomes mesmerized by the poetic phrases written by the indigenous people and becomes increasingly paranoid and frightened, not only by the spellbinding words he must read, but also by the murders and by the generals that run his unnamed Latin American country.

A Disturbing Work

Working on the translation of Senselessness proved to be a challenge in many ways, Silver confessed during the discussion that followed the reading. This disturbing novel, with its grueling details of violence, frequently forced her away from the desk and to her garden where she would find inner peace and could clear her mind.

Like so many other literary translators, she found the translation as difficult as writing a new book. The main task of a literary translator, she said, is to transfer the mind of the author from the original to the translated work. In Senselessness the most important task was to keep the syntax and the rhythm and to transfer the flow of the original text which changes throughout the book.

Asked about how she sees herself as a translator of South American literature, she said she thinks of it as a “subversive act” because Americans in general don’t know much of what is happening south of the border. Silver’s message was that Spanish is considered to be a language outside of mainstream North American culture as well as a language of people “who do the kind of work that we don’t want to do” so introducing Spanish language literature undermines established perceptions.

CAT events

The Center for the Art in Translation had another “Lit & Lunch” on November 11, featuring Valzhyna Mort. The series continues in February and throughout June, on the first Tuesday of each month. It takes places from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at 111 Minna Gallery, located on 111 Minna Street at Second Street in San Francisco. Lunch is provided upon reservation. AB

For more information go the CAT’s website at