The Private Lives of Trees

Over at Three Percent, Chad Post of Open Letter has been running a series of brief profiles with accomplished translators called “Making the Translator Visible.” Each post includes a photograph of the featured translator and a short Q & A. The idea was hatched by Chad and Megan McDowell, herself a translator—the first to be profiled in the series (note: that is not Megan on the right; see below).

Chad asks the translators for their favorite words (in any language) and the best translations they feel they’ve done so far. Megan McDowell’s favorite word is murcielago, Spanish for “bat” (a popular choice, it turns out), and the best translation she’s done so far, she says, is The Private Lives of Trees—which, as it happens, will be published by Open Letter in May and is excerpted in the new issue of PEN America.

The Private Lives of Trees is by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra (pictured above); it’s a beautiful, beguiling book that centers on a young, self-deprecating professor named Julián:
Lately he has started to think he should have been a dentist or geologist or meteorologist. For now, his actual job seems strange: professor. But his true calling, he thinks now, is to have dandruff. He imagines himself answering that way:

“What do you do?”

“I have dandruff.”
Julián has a stepdaughter named Daniela, and one night, while he waits for his wife Verónica to return home, he “distracts the little girl with a story about the private lives of trees.”
The poplar and the baobab are talking about the crazy people who visit the park. They agree, beforehand, that there are a lot of crazy people who go to the park. The park is full of crazies, but my personal favorite crazy person, says the baobab, is a woman with very long arms who came to talk to me one time. I remember it like it was yesterday, although it was long ago, I must have been barely two hundred fifteen or two hundred twenty when she came, you hadn’t even been born yet.

Immediately Julián realizes he has made a mistake: Daniela awakes from her doze, surprised by the poplar’s age, and especially because she thought that the poplar and the baobab had always lived together, that’s why they were such good friends, because they had spent their lives planted in the park together. To get out of it, he makes up a nervous string of dates, from which is gathered that the baobab is one thousand five hundred years old and the poplar barely forty. Daniela is still confused and Julián continues, conscious that he will have to work hard to recuperate the tale.
Zambra’s work has also been featured in Zoetrope: All Story and discussed at length in The Nation by the critic Marcela Valdes. His first book, Bonsai, won Chile’s Literary Critics’ Award for Best Novel; it was translated into English by the American writer Carolina de Robertis and published by Melville House. Zambra’s writing is lyrical and funny and smart; check it out.

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