Translated from an interview by Moctezuma Quistian Ollin Tecandi, originally published on babab.com.
BABAB: You were born in Alexandria, and then moved to Italy and later Mexico. How did this continuous and involuntary moving around affect your life and work?
FABIO MORÁBITO: It affected my life by giving me a persistent feeling, not of rootlessness—that’s a very harsh, tragic word—but at least foreignness, of feeling like I belong to two different worlds and I’ve been marked by each one. This hasn’t caused any serious split in my personality, but it has made me unable to feel totally Italian or totally Mexican, if those terms even mean anything.
In my work, apart from being a theme I return to a lot, it helped me express myself in a language that isn’t my native tongue, which has many implications. Those of us who write in a foreign language tend to be more conscious of the importance of style, because ultimately, literary language is a foreign language, maybe the foreign language par excellence.
B: Marcel Proust said, “Style, for the writer, no less than color for the painter, is a question not of technique but of vision.” Do you agree?
F.M.: Sure. It’s such an unconscious thing; it all depends on the temperament, the education, the experience of each person. It’s kind of inexplicable, I mean, it’s impossible to explain why this writer has one style, and the other, a different one.
B: It’s indivisible from his being…
F.M.: It is, yes, it’s indivisible from his being, but one’s being is constructed in a lot of ways, not just based on genetic, biological, or life experiences, but also what you’ve read. Some books make an impression on you because they show you what you really wanted to say and how to say it. Being influenced is something we all have to do and go through; by “go through,” I mean soaking influences up, but at the same time, you have to go beyond them and find a niche. For example, one mosquito may look identical to another; but they’re two different species and each one has its biological niche, with its own specific prey, specific customs, specific biological calendars, and style is where that may come across. In other words, finding your own stylistic niche. Or not finding it, but letting yourself fall into it. It’s something inevitable.
B: Why write in Spanish and not in Italian?
F.M.: Because a person writes along with other people. He writes together with the writers around him, those he knows personally; and he’s especially always involved in a sort of dialogue with older writers or his contemporaries. If I had written in Italian, I wouldn’t have had this community, this rapport, or at least I wouldn’t have had it in such an obvious way. In Spanish, I was able to find that. It was a very natural way of being able to dialogue. If I had written in Italian, I would have felt foreign two or three times removed. There’s no doubt writing in this language [Spanish] also helped me to feel like part of a world which, for better or for worse, is the one I live in.
B: Tell me about the works that had an effect on you as a child.
F.M.: I read a lot of things as a child. And I did it in a very random way, because my mother was an indiscriminate reader. Deep down, I’m glad for that disorder. Deep down, I’m grateful I wasn’t born into an intellectual environment that gave me very clear quality guidelines from the start.
Reading in a disorderly way helped me understand that every book has something salvageable, somewhere. I had to learn it on my own, and I think that, like all lessons you learn the hard way, was more important than if my readings had been suggested to me or even imposed on me. I prefer that rather than having been a snob who rejected lesser literature a priori. In that sense, I’m thankful for that kind of voracious example of reading that forced me to really find my authors on my own.
One absolutely incredible book for me was Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I went back and read that little novel again later and I still liked it. Of course, with a bit more experience, you can also see the defects, limitations, but at that time I felt like literature was showing me the sort of deep emotion it’s capable of producing. It was very important to me. I was in a state of confusion and I think in a way that has persisted in me. I think I still write in the shadow of that first book that truly affected me.
B: Talk to me about the role of the translator. How does it show up in the translated work?
F.M.: I think the first lesson we learn from translation is that every reading is unique and unrepeatable. The translator, ultimately, is reading the work and giving us his own personal vision of it. Since we notice right away just how different his interpretation is, we see that all of us are translators. When we read a book in our native language, we’re translating it into another language: our own intimate language, made up of experiences, of our particular universe. So in this way, there is no original text, a text written once and for all, unalterable. Rather, it exists in such a way that it must be distorted by each person who approaches it. Translation is the most discernible example of this.
As far as the actual work involved in translation, going beyond the obvious, the pragmatic activity, the fact that we live in a world with many languages and for that reason there must be people who create bridges between one and another, beyond all that, translation is the proof of our need to interpret. Seen from that perspective, the phrase “traduttore traditore” takes on greater relevance. Why, for example, has T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland been translated by so many people in Mexico? I don’t think any of those authors translated Eliot’s poem again because they thought that the previous translations were a failure. But in some way, they did feel this, because there were points, shades, that they didn’t perceive and which they thought were necessary.
And that brings up the issue of generations. Each generation rereads the classics and interprets them differently. It sees things that other generations didn’t, and so it retranslates the cultural capital or heritage it has been entrusted with and it always does this in its own peculiar manner. I think one of the clearest forms of the self-definition of a generation is precisely through its translations: how it translates, how it rereads past authors.
B: They say art is a form of predicting the future.
F.M.: It predicts it because in some ways it invents it. Meaning, I personally don’t think there’s a future that has already been predetermined. Art itself, because it works with materials like desire, our deepest longings, the subconscious, goes about constructing the future that we are going to live, maybe not in our own generation, but further along.