Sixty-Three Original Languages

Juan Villoro, José Ramón Ruisánchez Serra, Manuel Gutierrez

Juan Villoro is Mexico's foremost writer and arguably it's most important public intellectual. A significant presence in contemporary Latin American literature and culture, Villoro's work spans several genres, including journalism, short fiction, novels, and more recently, theatre. Among his better-known works are El testigo (2004) (The Witness), a novel for which he was awarded the pretigious Premio Herralde for fiction, and La Casa Pierde (1999) (The House is Dealt the Losing Hand), a collection of short stories. His work had been anthologized in many collections including the The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction (2009). His first play, Conferencia sobre la lluvia (A lecture about the Rain), premiered at the Teatro de la Biblioteca de Mexico in 2013. A prolific journalist who frequently publishes in the Mexican, Spanish, and Latin American press, Villoro has written memorable pieces or reportage about contemporary Mexican life: from a trip to the town of Tequila with Salman Rushdie, to an opening at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City with Yoko Ono, to several pieces abot narco-violence and reactions to this violence from the art world. His writing covers everything from children's fiction, to teenage novels that adults secretly (or not so secretly) read and love, to essays about fútbol and music. In collaboration with the Consulate General of Mexico, Rice University, and the University of Houston, Gulf Coast invited Juan Villoro to Houston in April 2014 for a series of public events, and we are proud to publish a transcription of a roundtable with this remarkable author alongside Saran Pollack's exclusive translation of his short story, "The Phantom Wing".

-José Ramón Ruisánchez Serra and Manuel Gutierrez


Manuel Gutierrez: Given that your work had only recently begun being translated into English: How does it feel to read yourself in another language?

Juan Villoro: Well... it's quite strange. It's lke reading another author, a foreign author. But at a certain point you realize that a story works when it becomes strange to you. I discussed this with a very good friend of mine, who died some years ago: Roberto Bolano. Once while we were discussing the difficulty of analyzing our own works, he told me that the only proof you have that you're writing well is when you re-read something and have the impression that somebody else wrote it. the strangeness of your own stuff makes you feel that the story lives by itself. And that's one of the fortunes of translation, because suddenly you read it as if someone else has written it. That can be rewarding. Sometimes it can be depressing. The main thing is that when  you can step back from your own perspective and look at your own work as if it belongs to another writer. I think that's excellent. 

Jose Ramon Ruisanchez Serra: Is that what you look for as a translator? You have translated- Goethe, Schnitzler,. Capote, Graham Greene. Is this strangeness the reaction your would look for from the authors you translate? For instance, Capote saying, "No that's something else. That's not what I wrote?"

JV: Well, most of them are dead. It would be difficult to deal with a living author. And I don't know what their reaction would be because I mainly translate from German into Spanish. It's very difficult to find a German author who speaks Spanish so well, so it would be hard for them to realize what I'm doing with their work, aside from them being dead. Nonetheless, I think one of the most generous aspects of translations is the introduction into one's own language and into one's own cultural repertoire a voice that doesn't belong there but that is inevitably enriching. That is one of the most interesting things about translation.

Consider, for example, that we can, every twenty, thirty, or forty years, have a new version of Hamlet. We can renew our Hamlet. That's impossible for the English speaker because, of course, they always have the original. Alternately, the English speaker can renew Cervantes, and that's of course impossble for us. This possibility to enhance the richness of a language through a foreign voice is one of the main assets of translation. 

That's why I keep on translating. It is also a wonderful exercise for writers, like shadowboxing: the only way to know a book from inside is to translate all the words. Sometimes you have this strange feeling. You're looking at all the decisions the author took, and you're trying to follow every single decision. It's like going inside another's mind. 

MG: It's fascinating that you work as a translator, especially given that, at least in the United States, only three percent of the books published are translations; translation does not receive the recognition it deserves. And this is despite the promises of globalization- that we would communicate more frequently, and more effortlessly, between countries. What has been your experience as a Mexican writer trying to communicate to a different audience, in the U.S. or elsewhere?

JV: We have a different reaction towards languages; I think it has to do with our knowledge that before the Spaniards came to the so-called "New World" there were many languages being spoken. In Mexico today, we have some sixty-three original languages. We are aware of a multitude of langauges living there right now- and all these languages preceded the Spanish. 

On the other hand, because we belong to the so-called "Third World", we have always had the sensation of being outcasts of progress who live on the shore of culture, who are far away forom the real cultural decisions in the world. Many Mexican writers and academics tend to learn languages in order to build bridges to other cultures. So it is only natural for us to think that our language is just one of many different possibilities of speech. This is different than, for example, in Spain. When I speak with Spanish colleagues they tend to have a stronger authority toward their language because they know they are the founding fathers of the language. If they speak in a particular way, that's the way we should speak. The use of the language is a sign of authority for them.

In Mexico, we have a weaker relationship toward the language because we know that Spanish is only one of many Mexican languages, and so we also have a more tentative and experimental relationship toward speech. I think this is better for literature becase if you are too certain in your use of language it becomes more difficult to find original ways of escaping from common speech. I think it's better to have this weak sensation of the language. 

JRRS: In several of your works, you talk about two forms of happiness. you discuss this both in your chronicles and in Conferencia sobre la lluvia. When you try to choose both forms of happiness you acheive neither. I love that idea because you practice a genre, the chronicle, that tries to partake in different forms of happiness, so to speak. How did you come up with this idea of two forms of happiness, that impossible state that literature strives for?

JV: Well, going back to the issue of language, it's interesting to recall that I studied at a German school. My father was an admirer of European schools and I am the oldest son, so I was the first one to go. At the time there were two groups at the school: the German group and the Mexican group.

Our Ministry of Culture decided that both groups should mix, in order to avoid certain Teutonic fantasies by the Germans. This was in the 1960s- a time not so far away from the Second World War. The Ministry of Culture wanted to avoid a Pan-Germanism group, so I was one of those Mexicans. I was a token Mexican. 

I was sent there and from age four, I studied everything in German. I spent nine years studying all academic subjects in German, aside from Spanish. This was the only language and the only subject in which my grades were reliable because it was my mother's tongue. And this strange education fostered in me a passion for the Spanish language. 

So what I learned at the German school was to love Spanish. At home nobody could help me with homework. All my friends were either German kids or the sons of Germans. And there I was with two other token Mexicans. It was really a strange and difficult education for me, but the contrast to my own language was so important that I decided to  use this language, no matter how. I couldn't have fathomed then that I was going to be a writer; I just wanted to say something in my own language because it was the language of exception. It was the language of freedom. 

This leads me to your question of "two happinesses." I could have been happy in German and sometimes I have been happy in German, strangely enough. Many years later, I lived in Berlin and, of course, I understood I had a wonderful opportunity to speak in a marvelous language and to translate books. What had been a punishment became an extraordinary pleasure. 

I really cherish and admire the German language, but it was difficult to get to that point. So I have been happy in German, but it's easier for me to be happy in Spanish, and there some situations in which you have to choose between two different forms of happiness. Let's take an artificial happiness, a happiness that's not meant for you but in which you can take part for a small time. And another kind of happiness, that happiness that has to do with essences, with the things you believe in, with your sense of being part of a whole that's richer than yourself. 

In daily life we always have these kinds of choices. There's a kind of happiness that is proposed to us through advertisements, propaganda, new tendencies, fashion, and so on. And we can be happy for a while, but there's another kind of happiness that has only to do with yourself. Sometimes it's difficult to know which is kind of happiness this is, because you're not sure of who you are. 

MG: Juan, in your novel El testigo, you narrate the return of a Mexican national who's been away from his country for about ten years or so. He returns to fins a different country, one very much transformed and still going through a process of change. The protagonist becomes interested in the life of Ramon Lopez Velarde and he searches for some connection to this poet as he tries to understand the changes that are occuring in Mexico. since the publication of el testigo, Mexico has changed drastically. How would you rewrite the life of that character now? 

JV: I wanted to tell a story of someone who returns to his country and, to a certain extent, he no longer belongs because everything has changed. He has changed as well, of course. He has an Italian wife. His daughters have been born abroad. He doesn't relate to his reality in the same way. This is why the novel is called "The Witness", because he's not a character; he is a witness. It's difficult for him to participate in the life that used to be his. 

I wanted to tell the story through this strangeness, and at the same time explore some characteristics of Mexican life. I wrote it over the course of four years, from 2000 to 2004. Those were the first years we spoke a lot about narco-violence and about the new power of TV and public figures. We spoke a lot about the return of Catholic influence in Mexico's daily life bcause, for the first time in seventy-one years, the PRI, our official party, lost the elections. 

we had a new government that was a right-wing government, close to the Catholic priests and the Catholic Church. for the first time the church was not in the background of our political scenario but was an actual player making important decisions. that was the country I was writing about from a journalistic point of view. the story has to fo with many other things- religous beliefs-, a love story, memories, the story of a family, and so on- but that was the journalistic backdrop for the story. 

Over the next eight years, the Mexican landscape came close to this projection, which at that time was more like a guesstimation. Mexico had become such a country in the last eight years. Now the PRI is back in power so we're back into the past.

To read the rest of this interview, purchase issue 27.1 here