Interview with Cooper Renner: Translating Mario Bellatin
Angela Woodward

Cooper Renner is the translator of Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions by Mario Bellatin, out this year from Ravenna Press. One of the three pieces, My Skin Luminous, appeared in the May edition of elimae. Bellatin is a Mexican writer who began publishing in the mid-1980s and came out with a slew of interesting novellas in the 1990s and 2000s. These have been published by various houses in Mexico, Spain, and Latin America, along with translations into German and French. But this is the first collection of this fascinating and unsettling writer for the English-speaking world. I interviewed Renner to learn more about how he came across Bellatin, and what it was like rendering these unusual works into English.

AW: What attracts you to Bellatin?

CR: Bellatin is a very interesting writer, not least because of his devotion to the novella form. Apparently the economics of publication in Spanish-speaking countries are more humane than ours. His publishers are willing to issue slim books of under 100 pages. His focus, in the works included in Chinese Checkers as well as in others I have read, seems to be on exploring the ins and outs of specific situations. He is not plot-driven, nor do his characterizations seem to function in the normal way -- that is, to create a sympathetic character whom the author leads through some sort of growth process to a sort of epiphany. Any given one of his sentences, isolated from its context, might seem like an ordinary narrative sentence in a traditional work. But Bellatin's contexts don't work that way: situations and thought repeat and recur in an apparently random fashion; he refuses to orchestrate climaxes and artificial excitements, even where a conventional writer would immediately do so.

AW: We were talking about running out of things to read. I've almost stopped expecting, at this point, to come across more great books I know nothing about. But I only read in English. Yet you've been reading more and more in Spanish. How did that come about, and how did that lead you to translating Bellatin?

CR: Going into Spanish was almost unconscious for me, I think. Because I was working in El Paso, surrounded by Spanish, it probably just kind of started seeping in: if not the language itself, the desire to use it. This links into the issue of not having enough good material to read in two ways: first, because there are plenty of Spanish language books not available in English translation; and second, because switching into Spanish required a great deal more concentration from me and therefore changed the way I read. The forms in which Spanish sentences operate were still often "foreign" to me, and there were still lots of words I didn't know. There are STILL lots of words I don't know. And I stumbled across writers whose works were not easily, or at all, available in English. I have read four, I think, of Manuel Rivas's books, only two of which have been translated into English, most notably The Carpenter's Pencil. I found Ignacio Padilla's Las antipodas y el siglo in a bookstore in Dallas and got very excited by the Borgesian nature of those stories. I went on to his novels Amphitryon and Espiral de artillería, a short section of which I have translated and published in Anemone Sidecar.
Bellatin is an author I also stumbled across in the bookstore. Perros héroes is the work I found first, and of course my version of it appears in Chinese Checkers. I believe I read Jacobo el mutante next, then Salón de belleza. I initially contacted his agent about doing a two-in-one collection of Perros héroes and Salón de belleza, but they [Bellatin and his agent] weren't willing to release the latter, which has been published internationally, because the edition Ravenna Press and I were proposing was a fairly small first edition. They proposed pairing Perros héroes with Damas chinas, to which I readily agreed. Bellatin e-mailed me revised texts of the two, which he had prepared for a Spanish collected edition, and I got to work. A while later, he sent me the text of a new work, which had not yet appeared in Spanish, though it may have by now, which he suggested would make a nice third for the book. The text was, of course, Mi piel, luminosa (My Skin Luminous).

AW: Did you ever think you might be wrecking Bellatin by taking him out of Spanish? Are there aspects of his prose that don't cross borders well?

CR: I got really worried, sort of panicked, when it was time for the book to be released, thinking I might have done a terrible job, might have misrepresented Bellatin, and so forth. He had already told me that he and some of his friends liked the translation, but I worried that maybe their grasp of English wasn't strong enough and maybe my translation had horrible flaws they couldn't see.
And who knows? Maybe I have misreprented Bellatin. I hope not, but how do I know? I come to Spanish as a foreigner; it's not suffused in my cells. It's acquired. I gather, from the few responses I've gotten from fellow writers, that "my" Bellatin is at least an acceptable work in English, though that again doesn't address the issue of its faithfulness to the Spanish. I did have to make the kind of choice you and I have already discussed -- sticking with the more accurate "immobile" man [in Hero Dogs] instead of an equivalent that would feel more normal in English, such as "paralyzed" or "quadraplegic," which would connote more or less what Bellatin seemed to me to be doing in Spanish. And I did, at one point or another, decide not to get too colloquial, a decision that may have been wrong, to be sure, since Spanish by its very nature looks more formal, at least to me, than English does. But Bellatin's work simply felt more reserved that the sort of talky prose that features in most contemporary English fictional prose.
I don't know how much of a connection there may be, psychologically, between Bellatin's work and my own mind. The central idea of My Skin Luminous -- the mother's exposure of the boy/youth's genitals -- is, I think, immediately fascinating to any male, in some way perhaps a fascination of the abomination, to use Conrad's term. It's so outré. Could that really happen? Could there really be a culture which has this practice? I think this is a hook that men could hardly resist. What would it mean to be that boy? But Bellatin doesn't pursue any of the sensational aspects of the situation in the way that most US writers would, I think. The exposure is part of the boy's life, but not all of it; it's part of Bellatin's tale, but not all of it. I imagine an American agency saying, "But where is the drama? Where is the big scene? Shouldn't he kill his mother at some point? Wouldn't this trauma make him a psychopath?"
But Chinese Checkers and Hero Dogs are so different. The methodical, discreet doctor ruminating, but not toward any apparent conclusion, on his own life and its apparent tragedies while entwining it with the odd tale of the boy and the old woman; the immobile man, who is an (unexplained) emblem of Latin America. What really moves these novellas forward, since they are clearly not plot-driven, is Bellatin's skill with words, his refusal to be cheesy and Hollywood-ish, his determination to say well what he needs to say, rather than to follow the traditional, conventional paths to commercial success. I think it's very well worth noting that each of these three novellas holds at its heart the clear elements of either a sensationalized thriller or a thoughtful, serious, literary novel -- but in each case Bellatin refuses to take the easy way.