MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.3 (2001) 259-283
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Ethics and Aesthetics North and South:
Translation in the Work of Ricardo Piglia
Ningún problema tan consustancial con las letras y con su modesto misterio como el que propone una traducción [There is no problem as essential to literature and its modest mysteries as that raised by a translation].--Jorge Luis Borges, "Las versiones homéricas" [The Homeric versions]
La nación es un concepto lingüístico [The nation is a linguistic concept].--Ricardo Piglia, La ciudad ausente [The absent city]
The point of departure for this article is a paradox that I became aware of while translating two books by the Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia, Nombre falso [Assumed name] (1975) and La ciudad ausente [The absent city] (1992): I was translating texts that were themselves translations, inasmuch as they were full of citations, references, allusions, and characters borrowed from other writers; yet Piglia's texts were also undoubtedly original. On further reflection, I found that this apparent contradiction was an excellent point of entry into the most important aspects of Piglia's literary production: a rearticulation of the Argentine literary tradition, and the relationship between literature and politics in Argentina.
Born in Adrogué, in the province of Buenos Aires, in 1940, Piglia is one of the foremost Latin American writers of the "post-Boom" generation. His first book, a collection of short stories titled La invasión [The invasion], received an important prize in 1967 from the Casa de las Américas, which republished it as Jaulario [Cagery]. Since then Piglia has published three collections of stories--Nombre falso, Prisión perpetua [Perpetual prison] (1988), and Cuentos morales [Moral stories] (1994)--and three novels, Respiración artificial [Artificial respiration] (1980), La ciudad ausente, and Plata quemada [Burnt money] (1997). He has also published numerous critical articles, including three editions [End Page 259] of the collection Crítica y ficción [Criticism and fiction] (1986, 1990, 1993). His latest book is Formas breves [Brief forms] (1999), a collection of short critical pieces.
Assumed Name, a collection of five stories and an eponymous novella, marked an important point in Piglia's trajectory and established his international importance. 1 In the novella a character named Ricardo Piglia attempts to solve the mystery of an unpublished manuscript allegedly written by the Argentine Roberto Arlt. In the first part of the novella, "Homage to Roberto Arlt," fiction doubles as literary criticism as Piglia reworks a genre best exemplified by the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. The second part then produces the mysterious manuscript, "Luba."
Piglia's first novel, Artificial Respiration, was one of the most widely discussed Latin American novels of the 1980s and was perhaps the most important one from Argentina's "dirty war" period. 2 It contains many levels of irony and double entendre. The narrator, Emilio Renzi (who appears in many of Piglia's texts), is searching for his vanished uncle, and the search leads to a series of revealing conversations about history, exile, and literature. Written under Argentina's most repressive military dictatorship, when the government "disappeared" thousands of citizens, Artificial Respiration displaces the focus toward the first half of the nineteenth century. The novel includes discussions of the political turmoil associated with Juan Manuel de Rosas's dictatorship, as well as a reexamination of Argentina's foundational texts and their implications for the present. Artificial Respiration thus serves as a reconsideration of the relationship between Argentine literary and historical traditions. Published during a period of active censorship by the military regime, the novel features a character who is a censor trying to [End Page 260] decipher supposedly coded letters and other messages; by doing so, it provides added layers of mediation at a time when life itself in Argentina was mediated by the nightmare of dictatorship.
Piglia has consistently been a politically and culturally committed writer, an important voice during Argentina's difficult, violent recent past. At the same time, his work has always pushed against aesthetic limits, keeping him...