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Memories of Hadrian

I have just started reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien (Paris, 1951) in Julio Cortázar’s Spanish translation, Memorias de Adriano (Buenos Aires, 1955). It is a beautifully written book, and doesn’t seem to have suffered too much in the transition from French to Spanish. Of course, Cortázar was living in Paris when he made it, which helps, as does the fact that he was one of the greatest Argentinian authors of the Twentieth Century.

He would have been writing his masterpiece Rayuela (Hopscotch) around the time he was working on Adriano, and there is a palpable fraternity between the narrators of the two books. Both are pensive, rather self-involved philosophers given to musing on melancholy subjects, both verging on a sort of lucid madness. Here we have the classic chicken-and-egg question of literary influence: did Cortázar choose to translate Mémoires d’Hadrien because it corresponded to his own tastes and preoccupations, or did his ‘day job’ as a translator impact on his own writing?

In considering this question it occurred to me that translations undertaken by great authors often furnish insights into their own work. Javier Marías has translated Ashbery, Faulkner and Nabokov. Haruki Murakami was the first Japanese translator of Raymond Carver. And a nine-year-old Jorge Luis Borges translated Oscar Wilde so expertly it was thought to be the work of his father.

But this ready-made genealogy of influence is rarely available in the case of writers in English, for the simple reason that there isn’t a huge demand for translations. A young, penniless writer in Spanish and French can always rely on there being a market for translations of the latest novels from around the world. Not so in the USA, however, where only 3% of the books published each year are translations. This of course means that much of the market is ‘sewn up’ by professional literary translators – Natasha Wimmer, for example, who has translated almost the entire oeuvre of Bolaño.

This is a shame. I would love to know which books the parallel-universe-versions of Jack Kerouac or Don Delillo decided to translate…

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