The translator for The Neruda Case, Carolina De Robertis, discusses the fine details of translation within the context of the book's missing person mystery, starring none other than Pablo Neruda himself.

Translation is exhilarating. It is a ride across the roaring rapids of an author’s consciousness, bent close to the waters, listening for the deeper currents of his thoughts. It is the closest we can get to slipping into that room where the author sits in solitude, and peering over her shoulder as she works.

Such a task is not only a pleasure for an incurable word nerd like myself; it also helps me be a better novelist. Translation sharpens the very tools I need for my own writing. It forces me to hone in to the subtleties of language, its limits and reverberations, its meaning and rhythms and sound. It forces me to weigh each word, turning it around and around in search of unintended connotations or effects on the musicality of the text. It is difficult, during such a labor, to avoid falling in love with language, even if you’ve done so already many times in your life.

But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of literary translation, especially when bringing work into English, is knowing that you’re doing your teensy part to make international literature more accessible across borders and cultures. In the United States, where only 3% of the books we publish are in translation from any language, even the best and most successful authors all too often find themselves against a linguistic glass ceiling that keeps their work from being known and enjoyed by the U.S. public.

There are few better examples of this than Roberto Ampuero. For almost twenty years, his books have been lauded bestsellers in various languages; now, he is finally poised to make his English-language debut next week with The Neruda Case.

Set in 1973 Chile, in the months leading up to Pinochet’s coup, the book follows Cayetano Brulé, a young Cuban expatriate reluctantly ensnared by the aged and ailing Pablo Neruda to solve a mystery that has long plagued him. Unemployed and adrift, Cayetano takes the dying poet’s assignment as his first-ever detective case. He roams from Valparaíso to Mexico City, Havana, East Berlin, and the high plains of Bolivia in search of clues. The fast-paced plot unfolds against the backdrop of social upheaval in 1970s Latin America. Along the way, we are exposed to the inner workings of the German Stasi, the circumstances of Che Guevara’s death, Salvador Allende’s final days, and a secret weapon that involves Cuban rum. Literary references abound, enriching the text with glimpses of Virgil, Dante, Conan Doyle, Walt Whitman, Alfred Hitchcock, Georges Simenon, Bertolt Brecht, and, of course, the true and actual poems of Pablo Neruda.

As hidden details of the case are brought to light, Cayetano finds himself grappling with the sticky details of Neruda’s private life, in particular with his complicated romantic and sexual past. U.S. readers who have admired Neruda’s sensitive love poetry without knowing about his life may be surprised to learn the more sordid parts of the poet’s history with women—the abandonments, betrayals, and callous double standards. Not everything in Ampuero’s portrait of Neruda is easy to like. Ampuero’s goal is neither to idolize nor demonize the poet, but to paint a full-blooded picture that wrestles with everything Neruda was, not just as a poet, but as a man—a brilliant, beloved, flawed, and deeply human man. The result is more revealing, and a truer homage, than any idealized version could be.

Translating this book was a blast. Its exuberant tone and warm satire, the gripping action juxtaposed with lyrical passages, made for dynamic company, day after day. And then there’s the sweeping beauty of Ampuero’s sentences, with those long, almost circular sentence structures that flow so naturally in literary Spanish (and in Portuguese, for that matter—hello, Saramago). The tricky part, of course, is that sentences of such complexity rely on a specific word order to link one clause smoothly to the next. You can’t use the same word order in English without breaking grammatical rules or, at the least, sounding quite awkward. And so the translator must stay limber with syntax, so that meanings stay clear and rhythms buoyant. But what a joy to ride these sentences. Talk about roaring rapids.

One of the challenges of this text is its richness with figures of speech, witticisms, and regional phrases that cannot be translated directly. I had no choice but to surrender all hopes of producing a precise replica, and settle for recreating the meaning in an English that hopefully reflects some of the vivid, subtle colloquialism of the original. After all—if I may be so brazen as to introduce another metaphor—translating literature is like transposing music from one instrument to another: there are things the violin can do that the piano cannot, and vice versa. The same goes for Spanish and English. For the translators among us, our job to be intimate with the limitations and potential of our instrument, and to honor our instrument’s nature along with the composer’s intentions. How would the composer have written the piece if he had been a violinist? He would have made it sing—and so should we.

It is my humble hope that, with the arrival of The Neruda Case, Ampuero’s inimitable song will finally be heard by U.S. readers, and that they will take delight in it, as so much of the world already has.