Reviewing the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño's posthumous masterpiece 2666 in the New York Times Book Review this past November, Jonathan Lethem echoed much of the book press, noting, “[I]n the literary culture of the United States, Bolaño has become a talismanic figure seemingly overnight.” Bolaño, who died in 2003 at age 50, has become more than a talismanic figure—in America, he is nothing less than the first true literary sensation of the new millennium. The buzz around Bolaño, who has long been hugely important in the Spanish-speaking world, had been building for years, as New Directions had been publishing Chris Andrews's translations of the author's shorter novels. But it took something else to turn the buzz into a craze, as James Wood pointed out in his review of The Savage Detectives, which, when it was released in 2007 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, really broke Bolaño for American readers: “The pleasure we take in this, as readers of English, owes everything, of course, to the book's talented translator, Natasha Wimmer.”
So who is this talented translator? An aging professor with a dozen big books on her résumé? Not at all. She's pretty young, actually, and Bolaño was the first project to win her major recognition. Jokingly, she says, “This'll probably be the peak of my translation career.” Which is not to say she's closing her Spanish-English dictionary. At the moment, Wimmer is waiting to hear whether she'll be doing some more Bolaño, plus she's translating magazine pieces for an important Mexican historian, among other projects. But how did a young translator get the job of a lifetime, and what do the Bolaño phenomenon and Wimmer's part in it promise for international literature in the U.S.?
Like so many big breaks, Wimmer's success was a combination of luck and ambition. Wimmer learned Spanish in Spain, where she spent four years growing up. She studied Spanish literature in college and spent some more time in Spain. After college she worked at FSG from 1996 to 1999 as an assistant and then managing editor, where she contributed to various translations and got to know rising FSG editor Loren Stein, who would, a few years later, throw The Savage Detectives her way. After FSG, she did a turn as an editor at PW, a job she kept until the Bolaño books demanded all of her time. “My reason for going into publishing in the first place,” says Wimmer, “was that I had decided in college that I would never be a fiction writer, but I knew I wanted to be as close to books as I could. Publishing was one way, and translating turned out to be a better way for me.”
Although the market for translated literature is usually marginal in the U.S., Wimmer says there is a place for the right book at the right time. “An editor I know said something that made sense to me: 'you have to choose the right books, and once you do, it's as easy to publish as anything else.' And I think that's really difficult for U.S. editors,” Wimmer continues. “Publishing translation requires a lot of expertise, and luck. It's also expensive because you have to pay the translator. And you can't just depend on buying a book that was a bestseller in another language.”
Wimmer's at the top of her game, and translating is putting food on the table right now, though she's not sure that it's a viable full-time career for her, or anyone. “I think to make a living I would have to translate three books a year, and that would not be a good living,” she says. But whether or not translating will pay all the bills, Wimmer has doubtlessly opened up some new possibilities for international literature in the U.S. and for its translators.