Argentinian literature woos the heart but sometimes taxes the mind

Argentina and China are in different hemispheres and sit on opposite sides of the globe, but the two nations still share a cultural affinity.

Straddling the divide is translator Lou Yu, a researcher at the Institute of Latin American Studies and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and an honorary member of the Argentine Society of Writers.

She spoke with Shanghai Daily about the influence that Latin American literature – especially the works of authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and Ricardo Piglia – has had on China.

Ti Gong

María Kodama (left), widow of Jorge Luis Borges, chats with Lou Yu at the Latin American Institute, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in this photo from July 2019.

Q: You noted that Chinese translations of Latin American literature are extensive, with those from Argentina featuring prominently and spanning several decades. Can you elaborate on this subject?

A: As far as I know, China has published 1,200 Latin American literary works since 1949, 65% since 2000.

Obviously, the development of Sino-Latin American relations over the past decade has given new impetus to translations of Latin American works. Nearly 500 works of this type have been published since 2013.

Q: What role did Argentina play?

A: Among Latin American countries, Argentina has 230 translations of literary works, both by classic writers and emerging authors. Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig and Ernesto Sabato remain in the spotlight.

For example, “The Complete Works of Borges”, published by Shanghai Translation Publishing House, has been in progress for several years and now comprises over 40 volumes. It is a comprehensive anthology, including works written and co-written by Borges.

Authors like Cortázar, Puig and Sabato were introduced to China starting in the 1980s and 1990s. In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to their lesser-known titles.

On the one hand, some previously little-known but important contemporary Argentine authors like Roberto Arlt, Ricardo Piglia, César Aira and Alejandra Pizarnik have been noticed here in recent years. On the other hand, the translated works of some of the most active Argentine writers are rapidly becoming available in China, including Guillermo Martínez, Eduardo Sacheri, Samanta Schweblin and Mariana Enriquez.

Argentinian literature woos the heart but sometimes taxes the mind

Lou Yu / Ti Gong

A view of the Jorge Luis Borges Museum in Adrogue

Q: What is the general perception of Chinese culture in Latin America, and in Argentina in particular?

A: During my many trips to Argentina, the two questions I often asked my Argentinian friends were: “Have you read Chinese literary works? “What is your general impression? The answers they gave suggest that most of their understanding of Chinese culture is still limited to traditional Chinese culture, often meditative or literary in nature, such as the ‘Book of Mutations’, the ‘Tao Te Ching’, Confucian teachings, poetry of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-917), or this – lyric poetry – from the Song dynasty (960-1279).

Some of them view Chinese literature through the prism of Borges’ works, which make multiple references to Chinese culture. Borges himself read “A Dream of Red Mansions”, and his most famous story, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, is full of Chinese elements.

Argentine friends say that ancient Chinese literature is exquisitely elegant and highly philosophical. Some also follow contemporary literature, such as novels by Mo Yan, Mai Jia, Ah Yi, and Liu Cixin.

Yet the number of contemporary Chinese works available in Spanish is quite limited, so many Argentines can only access contemporary Chinese literature through English or French translations.

Growing relations between China and Latin America have sparked a real enthusiasm for China, with many young sinologists taking the initiative to translate Chinese works. Most notable among them is Miguel Ángel Petrecca, who not only translated works by Lu Xun and Xiao Hong, but also played an active role in translating works by contemporary Chinese writers.

Argentinian literature woos the heart but sometimes taxes the mind

Ti Gong

Lou Yu at Ricardo Piglia in August 2016. Piglia used this typewriter to write “Artificial Respiration”.

Q: Borges is a metaphysician who speculates, among other things, on the nature of time and reality. It demands a great deal of erudition and the power of interpretation of the reader. Why does it enjoy such popular appeal?

A: Among a host of foreign writers who greatly influenced Chinese writers in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps the most impactful are Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa.

Indeed, Borges is one of those who are difficult to approach. Although his writings are not long, they are so concise but epistemically condensed that each of the words and sentences reads like a brick with which to assemble and reassemble, by chance or design, a maze. More annoyingly, Borges likes to quote Latin, German, Italian and French sources in the original language without providing translations.

As a result, when Borges was first introduced to China in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he didn’t make much of a splash. Readers of the time found the works of Márquez and Llosa more accessible, possibly due to their strong sense of realism and clearer plots.

When Borges came to prominence in the 1990s, his work had a profound influence on Chinese avant-garde literature. The perception of his works has gone from notoriously difficult to approach to rewarding to read and reread. Some readers say that re-reading his works is like making new discoveries while visiting a familiar city.

Argentinian literature woos the heart but sometimes taxes the mind

Ti Gong

Chinese writer Ah Yi attends the 2016 Buenos Aires International Book Fair.

Argentinian literature woos the heart but sometimes taxes the mind

Ti Gong

The Spanish version of “What Should I Do Next” by Ah Yi. It was translated by Miguel Ángel Petrecca.

Q: In traditional Chinese literature, there are moral messages. How do you assess Borges’ work in this aspect?

A: Borges and Piglia shared similarities, one of which was that they were both avid readers who tried to shape readers through their literary creations. In other words, both aim to inspire, educate and train readers in terms of a new approach to reading.

As Borges once observed, Edgar Allan Poe not only invented the detective novel, but also helped bring readers to the genre. Borges always intended to bring in an active readership capable of unlocking the secrets between the lines or solving the riddles deftly laid within.

The same could be said of Piglia, who asserted that “writing could create readers”. In the works of Borges and Piglia there are a host of reader characters, and through these characters the authors have tried to teach readers how to go beyond superficial history to discover the truth.

Argentinian literature woos the heart but sometimes taxes the mind

Ti Gong

The Spanish translation of “Invisible” by Ge Fei. It was directed by Miguel Ángel Petrecca.

Argentinian literature woos the heart but sometimes taxes the mind

Ti Gong

The Chinese edition of “Artificial Respiration” by Ricardo Piglia. It was translated by Lou Yu.

Q: Could you tell us about the bittersweet experience of translating Piglia’s works?

A: I have already translated his “Artificial Respiration”, and I am now working on his “Cible dans la nuit”. As a translator, there have been occasions for laborious and time-consuming deliberations over difficult diction or sentences. But for me, translation is more a source of pleasure, because I would consider it as a kind of conversation with the reader.

After establishing email communication with Piglia in 2015, I visited him in Argentina in the summer of 2016. Although he has ALS (a progressive disease of the nervous system), I was still able to communicate with him via an eye tracker. Thus, our communication was always confined to the textual realm, which meant that I never heard him speak or felt his strength in an embrace, as he was still and inarticulate.

Here, I often think of a passage from “Artificial Respiration”:

“Writing a letter is leaving a message for the future; here and now, to dialogue with someone who is not there, someone who is the addressee of the letter… the letter is a utopian way of dialogue, because by erasing “now”, it makes the future the only place of dialogue.”

Therefore, I believe his books are no different from the letters he wrote in the past, with today’s readers as the recipients of the letters. Whether reading or translating, we have a conversation with the writer in the same way.

Argentinian literature woos the heart but sometimes taxes the mind

Ti Gong

Lou Yu poses with some of Ricardo Piglia’s books.

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