The Rumpus Book Club chats with author Mariana Dimópulos and translator Alice Whitmore about the innovative novel, All My Goodbyes (forthcoming from Transit Books on February 5, 2019), relativism, investigating our ideas about lies and truth, and translation as an important cultural and political act.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Esmé Weijun Wang, T. Kira Madden, Maylis de Kerangal, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Trisha Low, Ayse Papatya Bucak, Jeannie Vanasco, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi! Welcome to the Rumpus Book Club chat about All My Goodbyes with author Mariana Dimópulos and translator Alice Whitmore!
Eva Woods: Hi everyone!
Mariana Dimópulos: Hello everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
Marisa: Hi Mariana! Thank you for being here. We’re so excited to discuss All My Goodbyes! Translator Alice Whitmore will be joining us just a little bit after we begin.
Eva Woods: Thanks so much for coming! I loved All My Goodbyes!
Mariana Dimópulos: Thanks, Eva.
Eva Woods: I really enjoyed having the narrator be somewhat unreliable, and questioning whether the story she was telling was the entire truth. Can you talk a little about writing a hero that’s likable and compelling, but maybe not strictly believable always?
Ann Beman: I’ve just now finished and I’m already wanting to go back and re-read it.
Mariana Dimópulos: Well, it’s part of the mystery constructing such a character. And I wanted to discuss this subject of truths and lies. It was important for me.
Jerri: I felt as though I was putting a puzzle together while reading the book. It was very compelling, I always wanted another piece and had a difficult time putting the book down.
Mariana Dimópulos: This was a real challenge, writing the book in many fragments.
Marisa: Mariana, I’d love to hear more about investigating the subject of truth and lies, and why it was important for you. It was one of my favorite things about the book, that we couldn’t assume anything was entirely true or false.
Mariana Dimópulos: Well, the book was intended to be a work about relativism in some ways. That’s why her father is an important figure. It’s difficult to live with the relative truths that science gives us as well. I’m not sure if it’s clear enough. Relativism was important too for the main character: all places are the same: a nowhere!
Eva Woods: I think it was very clear! It also showed in the nonlinear story telling. It was almost as if she was out of time as well as out of place everywhere
Mariana Dimópulos: Exactly. The nonlinear way of telling the story was a way of underling that the most important thing in the book were places and changes.
Eva Woods: Her father’s death was clearly shadowing her decision making through most of the book. Can you talk about how you see the father’s role in the story, especially as a work about relativism?
Mariana Dimópulos: Well, I don’t like books that explain a theory to you. The father, a physicist, was an narrative instrument to talk about relativism of places and times without explaining anything to obviously.
Eva Woods: That makes sense! Sort of making sure it was on your mind without holding your hand.
Mariana Dimópulos: Yes. I went to interview a physicist in order to obtain some clues.
Mariana Dimópulos: About re-reading: many people have told me they read it twice. I hope it was not too hard reading.
Eva Woods: I didn’t think so. Marisa and I, I know, both read it in a sitting because it was so hard to put down.
Eva Woods: How did you choose the cities to set the story in? Are they places you’re familiar with personally?
Jerri: It wasn’t too hard to read, but there is so much to absorb and it was lovely to read, making it a prime candidate for reading twice.
Mariana Dimópulos: Great. Thanks for your comment.
Jerri: Also, I’m still searching for answers.
Ann Beman: I want to go back and revisit the “clues”—the building blocks.
Alice Whitmore: Hi from Melbourne everybody! Sorry I’m late.
Eva Woods: Hi Alice! Thanks for coming!
Marisa: Hi, Alice! Thanks for being here. I know there must be many questions about translation for this book.
Ann Beman: What were the greatest challenges in translating this book, Alice? (Jumping right in ::wink::)
Alice Whitmore: Well, in some ways it was a very difficult book to translate, and in some ways it was an easy one. When I read the book I felt the voice right away. I felt I could channel the narrator easily. So the translation often flowed; I would spend hours at a time just engrossed in it.
Alice Whitmore: But there were some parts—sometimes sentences, sometimes entire paragraphs—that I knew would involve a lot of work. This is where Mariana came in! She helped me a great deal, elucidating different shades of meaning, explaining where I had interpreted things the wrong way, etc.
Eva Woods: Mariana, I’d also love to hear from you what the process of translation was like from your end. There were so many gorgeously crafted sentences that were astounding to think of being written twice. One that got me in particular was how the narrator referred to her heart as “no good.” That’s such a gentle way to say something very rough.
Mariana Dimópulos: That was a long discussed phrase indeed.
Alice Whitmore: Yes, the editor also weighed in on the “no good” part.
Mariana Dimópulos: I’m a translator, too, so I was very interested in the making of the translation. And it was very nice to work with Alice. I think we connected very easily. We were just lucky, and we worked nicely together. Not too long, but long enough.
Alice Whitmore: Yes, it was very easy working together. Mariana understands the task of the translator!
Mariana Dimópulos: And Alice understood very well the main character.
Eva Woods: The phrase, “our complicity beneath the sheets when, in silent agreement, we avoided love at all cost” made me gasp. It’s so delicate and says exactly what she means still.
Alice Whitmore: Yes, I think the best sentences are the ones that I felt a similar love for in the Spanish. And they kind of… formed themselves naturally…
Mariana Dimópulos: Well, I think that was an accurate translation from the Spanish.
Alice Whitmore: I think it’s important to be a writer as well as a translator.
Eva Woods: Do either of you recall any particularly challenging parts?
Alice Whitmore: The most challenging parts… Let me think…
Mariana Dimópulos: Ellipsis is always difficult!
Alice Whitmore: Indeed. I think fine-tuning is the hardest part. Every sentence is potentially impossible, if you think about it too much.
Marisa: Since you both work in translation, can you talk a little about what brought you to that work? I’ve had many conversations in the last two years about how, especially in political times like these, translation is so important and we need to bring more attention to the craft of it and to works in translation. Do you feel like that is true?
Alice Whitmore: I think translation is so important, Marisa.
Mariana Dimópulos: Oh, I started translating as a way of living. But afterwards I really understood that it was a cultural-political act as well.
Mariana Dimópulos: And I specialized myself in German philosophy, because I thought these works were worth and should be read by anyone.
Alice Whitmore: Here in Australia, at least, many people are ignorant about the complexity of other languages, their cultures and literature. I think for me it was never going to be a way of living!
Alice Whitmore: I very much felt it as a cultural-political act, and a research interest, more than a livelihood.
Mariana Dimópulos: In Argentina, it’s a subject of discussion what and where books are translated. How is it in the US?
Marisa: I think here in America both are true: we discuss what and where with regard to translation, but there is also a lot of ignorance about the complexity of other languages (and cultures). I think the more Americans reading foreign literature right now, the better.
Marisa: I love the work Transit Books does toward making this possible, too.
Alice Whitmore: It’s seen a quite risky [to publish works in translation], financially speaking.
Eva Woods: It’s not as discussed broadly as I wish it were. I think we’re used to reading translations of old, famous books that everyone knows about, but there’s a hesitancy about work written in languages other than English that reveals our xenophobia.
Mariana Dimópulos: Oh, I think big cultures and successful ones tend not to translate a lot.
Alice Whitmore: It’s a shame that we have to actually sell books! I wish we could just publish them… Haha.
Eva Woods: Haha. Art for art’s sake is the dream.
Alice Whitmore: Yes, the anglophone publishing industry is very self-sustained. Unlike Germany or France, for example. Even though there are huge creators of culture! It’s an attitude I suppose.
Mariana Dimópulos: I think one has to be curious; that helps.
Marisa: Mariana, were you nervous at all about having a book translated into English? Are you hoping to have more work translated going forward?
Mariana Dimópulos: A new one is coming this year in Australia. Translated by Alice, too.
Mariana Dimópulos: Nervous? No, I’m kind of skeptical person. I don’t expect too much of anything… But I was really happy to hear that some other people in the world would read my book. I was fortunate, I think.
Mariana Dimópulos: I think you write because you believe in reading as a postponed dialogue. It’s like a letter in a bottle. What’s happing right now is the exception. Thanks for that!
Alice Whitmore: I like the idea of translation as a dialogue, too. It’s a very personal thing.
Eva Woods: What are you both working on now? Anything exciting coming up?
Marisa: I’m also very interested in what you’re both reading right now, and Mariana, whether there are books and writers you feel influenced All My Goodbyes?
Mariana Dimópulos: A new novel coming this year in Spanish. About a young woman who gets involved in a political movement.
Alice Whitmore: I’m working on a few manuscripts, as always, in between other jobs. I’m working with a few Mexican writers on projects. And of course Mariana’s Imminence will be launched this year, in March (or April?), in Australia.
Alice Whitmore: I’m reading Gerald Murnane at the moment. The Plains. Very appropriate for the dry Australian summer.
Mariana Dimópulos: Reading? Let me think… I’m an essay reader in the first place right now. But I have some authors I would like to recommend: Agota Kristof and Herta Müller (she won the Nobel Prize some years ago). These are great writers I discovered in the past years.
Eva Woods: Thank you!
Mariana Dimópulos: Talking about books is a passion. Oh, and Jenny Erpenbeck. I hope she is translated into English.
Eva Woods: Were there other books that you drew from or had to mind when you were writing? In other words, if you were to recommend a book to someone who love All My Goodbyes, what would you pick?
Mariana Dimópulos: Thomas Bernhard. I would recommend him, although his wonderful writing style is very different from mine. What else? Dostoevsky!
Mariana Dimópulos: I’m just talking about what I like to read. I wouldn’t say it was an influence. Have no idea about that.
Eva Woods: I love coming away from these with a reading list! Thank you both so much!
Marisa: Mariana, I would recommend Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew to you. I think you’d like it very much.
Mariana Dimópulos: Thanks!
Marisa: Thank you both for joining us this evening, and thank you to all the members who participated! This was such a wonderful conversation about a really amazing book!
Mariana Dimópulos: Thank you all for your questions. Regards from Buenos Aires.
Alice Whitmore: Thanks everyone! So glad you enjoyed the book.