PEN America is thrilled to showcase the work of recipients of the 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. For the next few weeks, we’ll feature excerpts from the winning projects introduced by the translators themselves. The fund awards grants of $2,000–$4,000 to promote the publication and reception of translated world literature in English.

Today we feature an excerpt from Sophie Hughes’s grant-winning translation from the Spanish of The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán, an elegiac debut novel about post-dictatorship Chile.

Hughes writesThe Remainder was recommended to me by the writer Carlos Fonseca, who urged me to read “one of his favorite books of 2016,” saying: “I really think you’re going like this.” He was right. Every now and then a book makes my fingers itch to translate it from the very first pages. Thomas Bernhard, Vladimir Nabokov, and Natalia Ginsburg have this effect (alas, they are already expertly translated … what’s more, from languages I don’t speak …). Other just as brilliant writers don’t. Probably, it boils down to how clearly you hear their characters’ or narrators’ voices, and I suppose translator–author chemistry is as unpredictable as that between two strangers across a crowded bar.

To me as a translator, Alia Trabucco Zerán’s novel presents several wonderful challenges, but none more irresistible than the voice presented in this excerpt: that of Felipe. Felipe and Iquela (who narrates other chapters) are twentysomething-year-old friends living in modern-day Santiago and plagued by the shadows that Chile’s military dictatorship has cast over their lives. The neurotic Felipe aspires to a perfect number, a sum that might give him closure after his father’s “disappearance,” helping him to answer a pivotal question prompted by Pinochet’s infamous torture mechanism: “How do we square the number of dead with the number of graves?” Felipe sets himself the task of achieving that number, that perfect zero, convinced that his particular brand of morbid math will close the book on his grief. Prowling the streets of Santiago in this extract, this disturbed young man begins an alternative death toll to the official count.

Trabucco Zerán’s language and imaginative technique are at times virtuosic. The musicality and idiosyncrasies in the original Castilian are not arbitrary, but rather are symptoms of her characters’ struggles to find their voices, and they present the translator with brilliant linguistic problems. Beyond the aesthetic impulses that led me to want to translate The Remainder, I am interested in (and my doctoral research relates to) literature that interrogates the suitability of the novel form to recount traumatic national pasts in Latin America.


Excerpt from Chapter III of The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán

Someone has to die and it falls on me to find them, body after body, ever since my first unforgettable Sunday cadaver, that trailblazing corpse who changed everything, yes, the one waiting for me to subtract him, staring up at me from the ground with his big eyes, and I stared back and it was love at first sight: I knew that body in the Plaza de Armas was for me, sure, but that’s not to say I go around looking for stiffs, hell no, it’s they who find me, despite what others might say, my grandma Elsa, for instance, who was always harping on that people see what they want to see, Felipe, and by the looks of things I want to see corpses, because from that day on they’ve kept cropping up, without fail and always uninvited, be it weekdays or holidays, not even respecting New Year’s, because at first it was Sundays, that’s true, but now they don’t keep a schedule, they just appear one after the other: so I’m strolling through Yungay minding my own business, dragging my ass in the heat, when I see some guy doubled up like a contortionist on the curb, head slumped between his knees, neck twisted, and looking like that anyone would assume he’s a drunk, the dregs of the weekend’s party, or just another poor fool done in by this damn heat, but no, it’s a corpse; and then it’s only a matter of getting on the bus and spotting that the man sitting behind you, the one with his cheek pressed against the window, isn’t leaving any breath on the glass, no, he’s dead too; and then you only have to sharpen your focus a little, to be hawk-eyed, cow-eyed, owl-eyed to see them everywhere, it’s just a matter of getting off the bus, dilating all those eyes on your skin and clocking that the man waiting at the bus stop sure is gonna be late, yes, he’s kicked the bucket too; because that’s how they appear, with no warning, no fuss, and I make a note in my pad like they count the votes in elections: in fives I subtract them, and have been ever since that first one, the one who appeared as night fell, me drifting around the Plaza de Armas, watching the rats eat leftover peanuts, that’s what I was doing, smelling the black flowers in the black night, trying to shake off the day’s thoughts, when suddenly I saw something strange in the middle of the square, there where the gallows used to be, where they used to hang the nonbelievers, the thieves, the traitors, right there I spotted something strange and I moved in, yes, and for a moment I thought it was a napping stray and I sidled up to say hello, but once next to it I realized it was something else, a man or a woman, or maybe a man and a woman at once, that’s what I thought, and I noticed that the poor soul was lying on his back like only a dead soul would: all dislocated, stiff, silent as the grave that tall, tall dead man with a red handkerchief on his head, a thick chequered skirt, some argyle socks and blue rubber flip-flops, there he was with his wide face, but faceless, as if his eyes had shrunk back into his skin to hide there, that’s it, and I stood there staring at him and at the pigeons, because there were twelve pigeons holding a vigil for him, cooing dirges in unison, and there were also bedbugs all over his socks and rats and strays sniffing about him and whimpering, and then I, a little shocked but, you know, alright, I settled down reminding myself that at least it was nighttime and not the middle of the day, because everyone knows we think differently at night, and I was thinking about how that square wasn’t such a bad place to die, the place where it all begins and ends, that’s what I was thinking, but then I got distracted remembering how, when I was a kid, at least they warned you on the TV if a dead body was coming on the screen, when the blond on Channel 7 would say: the following images are not suitable for sensitive people or minors, that’s what that skinny thing would say, and my grandma Elsa must have been real sensitive because she would cover her eyes with her wrinkly hands, cover her entire face with those tree-trunk hands and rock herself back and forth until the horridness had gone away, but she didn’t say a word to me, no, and I would stay there crouched in front of the TV gawping at dead people on the ground, or rather gawping at their bones, a mille-feuille of bones at the bottom of a hole: hundreds of skeletons keeping each other company, keeping each other warm, rubbing up against each other; and me with my big eyes, I thought they were lovely, those beautiful white bones, because I loved the color white, osso buco-white, of course, because I loved osso buco, all that gelatinous marrow, the same greyish-white as the bath in Chinquihue, the filthy tub I would climb into after the news to turn myself white and disappear; I would open the cold water full blast, take off my clothes and get in butt naked to study my toes, waiting for my nails to go white, but they never went white, no, they went blue, my toes blue under the icy water, my skin all goose pimply and after a while, my skin wrinkly like dates, like elephants, like old tomatoes, my own shell about to shed itself, my skin trying to peel away, and that’s exactly what I wanted under that cold water there in Chinquihue: I wanted to peel away from myself, but I couldn’t, because my grandma Elsa would turn up just in time barking what on earth d’you think you’re doing in there, boy, give me strength, you get more feral by the day, and then she’d pull me, all shaky, out of the water, and as she did I’d feel cold needles stabbing me all over and I’d be numb and my grandma would squeeze me and rub me down with a white towel, them bones, them bones, them dancing bones, all the while warning me that if I didn’t stop playing up she’d take me to Iquela’s in Santiago, and in Santiago that sticky heat and stench of sadness was waiting for me, and also spiteful Consuelo and Rodolfo and the scar wrapped around his waist, and then, despite the white towel, those nighttime ideas would come flooding back, mad ants all over my scalp, yes, and my grandma would get rid of them with the towel, thrash them, shoo them away and she’d say you feral child, that’s what my grandma Elsa would say, rubbing me all over to smoothen my skin, to iron out the skin rolled up over my bones, those skinny bones which you could see under my clothes and also in the graves in the ground, those bones that appeared over and over again on the TV, yes, but with prior warning at least, not like now when they just turn up out of nowhere, one after the other they appear, the dead of Santiago, this mortuary city which I’m sure as hell isn’t sensitive or a minor.