We spoke to author Benjamín Labatut and translator Adrian Nathan West about the International Booker longlisted book 'When We Cease to Understand the World'
Hi Benjamín, what has it been like to be longlisted?
It is like being hit by an earthquake, but, at the same time, being very, very far away from its epicentre. You feel a slight tremor beneath your feet, and you imagine that buildings have crumbled, that people are caught in the wreckage, while others are desperately looking for a lost pet among the rubble. And yet you know that you are safe from it all, a world away, even though you are also aware, from personal experience, that there might be aftershocks, and that the next one, god forbid, might bring your house down on top of you.
How would you summarise When We Cease to Understand the World in one sentence?
This is a book about the limits of science and the borders of thought, a strange book, neither a novel, nor a short story collection, nor an essay, that walks the thin line between fact and fiction, and that uses science as an excuse to speak about those aspects of the human experience that neither words nor equations can tame.
What inspired you to have science as a key theme in your book?
What fascinates me is not so much science per se, but the limits of science: those ideas and discoveries that we are unable to fully comprehend. Science is a theme, but the larger theme is mystery. What I believe is captivating about these stories is not just their information content, but the enigma which lies at the heart of them. They seem to point past us, towards what is incomprehensible, or marvellous, or, indeed, monstrous. What I admire most about science is that it is completely unwilling to accept the many mysteries that surround us: it is stubborn, and wonderfully so. When it comes face to face with the unknown, it whips out a particle accelerator, a telescope, a microscope, and smashes reality to bits, because it wants - Because it needs! - to know. Literature is similar, in some respects: it is born from an impossible wish, the desire to bind this world with words. In that, it is as ambitious as science. Because for us human beings, it is never enough to know god: we have to eat him. That's what literature is for me: putting the world in your mouth.
You say that ‘the quantity of fiction grows throughout the book’ – why is that?
Several reasons: the ideas become increasingly complex and abstract as the book moves along, so it was necessary to increase the fictional content to captivate the reader, and to make very complicated (and usually very boring) ideas come to life. Another reason is that I was not merely interested in the outward development and impact of science, but on the personal cost of these strange epiphanies, and only fiction can delve into that particular void, the inside of the human mind. There is a lot of fiction in all the texts of the book, except the first, where there are only six lines. But it is a very specific type of fiction, one that tries to approach what non-fiction cannot achieve. I use it reluctantly, not merely as an ingredient to sugar the pill, but as a chemical fix, a shot in the arm that allows the reader to crawl into the strangest areas of reality, those deranged landscapes that, even if where to bump into them head-on, in plain daylight, with both your eyes wide open, you would have a hard time believing they are real.
Adrian, how do you feel about being longlisted?
Well, it’s a thrill, obviously. The list this year is remarkable for its diversity of provenance, subject, and form, and it’s pleasing to see When We Cease to Understand the World in such company. Then again, there are quite a few very talented translators in the running, and I’m honoured to be placed alongside them.
What did you enjoy about translating When We Cease to Understand the World?
This book was an unusual one for me in that the translation was far more collaborative than any I had done before. I received the book in manuscript, long before it was published in Spanish, and once it was decided that the author and I were a good fit for each other, he and I went over many parts of the book in detail together before a final draft was produced. Benjamín in turn was deeply involved in the editing; his English is excellent, and he wanted the translation to have its own touch––to be, that is, its own book in English.
Described as a ‘nonfiction novel’, did you have to do a lot of research into scientific history for the translation?
I double-check everything, perhaps sometimes to the point of being an annoyance to some of my authors (I will never forget the irritation of once whose novel contained a quote from “the Bible” that I found on deeper investigation to be a bit of dialogue from the film Once Upon a Time in America!). Some of the material Benjamín covers I knew well––particularly in the parts pertaining to the Second World War––some of it was new to me, and naturally I tried to get as good a grasp on it as I could. More than research into scientific history per se, I spent a lot of time seeking out original documents; I try to avoid relay translations, and so when he cited a text from French, German, or English, I always tried to find the original source, and this led to some fruitful collaborative moments, particularly in the Alexander Grothendieck section.
The Spanish title of the book is Un Verdor Terrible, roughly translating to “A Terrible Greening” - were there any phrases in the book which were particularly hard to translate?
I have seen this repeated a few times; I believe the source is John Banville’s review; but I have to say “A Terrible Greening” is not really right. Greening in Spanish would be enverdecimiento or verdecimiento (the dropped prefix is common among Galician speakers), though you’re just as likely to see a nominalized verb, as in Rafael Alberti’s “remonta hasta mi alcoba un verdecer de espumas.” Verdor is verdure or, if you like, greenness. Before the book was published, there was a lot of discussion about the title, with the general feeling that verdure was a bit stilted and greenness just flat. Again, Benjamín made clear that he considered the translations into various languages to be books in their own right, each deserving of its own idiosyncrasies: the German edition, for example, is called Das blinde Licht, Blind Light. Moving on: in truth, the book was a pleasure to translate. We often talk about the difficulty of translating dialect or concepts like saudade or Aufheben but often enough, what’s hardest to translate is a prose that doesn’t quite gel, with mixed metaphors or stylistic deficiencies that you as a translator try to finesse while still respecting the original. Benjamín’s writing in contrast is very tightly woven, and he took great care in preparing the text. A translator can only be grateful.