Tending a Bonsai or How to Read a Translated Text without Knowing the Original — by Mubashir Karim
October 1, 2022
In this commentary on two translations of Alejandro Zambra’s novel “Bonsai”, Mubashir Karim performs an exercise in “literary appreciation” that functions equally well as a concise comparative study of the two translations—one by Megan McDowell and the other by Carolina de Robertis. As the commentary progresses, the linguistic expression of the original novel (in Spanish) permeates into the style of writing employed by professor Karim in his deep engagement with the two translations into English by McDowell and de Robertis.

Writing all the way from Kashmir about the two translations of a celebrated novel by a Chilean writer and poet, Mubashir Karim’s commentary directly or indirectly prompts a comparison with Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “I See Chile in My Rearview Mirror” as a second instance where Kashmir salutes Chile and Latin America by extension—perhaps because there is a similitude to be found in the experience of multiple histories by multiple subjects whose contemporaneity converges in the study and appreciation of the literary craft, linguistic barriers notwithstanding (“no obstante”).

Given the references to explicit uses of language in the novella, reader discretion is advised.

In the end Julio meanders frantically in a taxi that moves through places, while Emilia, this time true to her character as dead, continues to remain dead, probably as a dismembered body, probably in a coffin-shaped automobile that scoots through the underground foliage amid mud and rocks. At several intersections of the road, one can imagine Julio, passing through the words of certain passages, as structures, of the novels they used to read together, to then indulge in feverish lovemaking. He could be imagined roaming in a taxi through certain bonsai nurseries, which ironically look more like brains than a heart. As the narrations progress, Julio traverses the stratosphere while as Emilia ploughs through the subterranean. “The rest is Literature:”, the text pronounces.

This is a ‘literary’ appreciation of the two English translations of Alejandro Zambra’s Spanish novella Bonsai. The two translations of the novella, in my view, expend the language and expand the literariness of the text by providing varied versions of the text. These versions, varieties, interpretations, then need not be read as distinct from the text but as a comprehensive part of the narrative per se. It is through these readings that Emilia and Julio meet once, and then again in the same book at yet another time. While in the ‘original book’, Julio and Emilia converse in Spanish, in these translations, however, they communicate in English, and in a vocabulary that the translator/writer deems fit. Their conversations, therefore, are same yet different from the original. It is as if Emilia, in the novella, does not want to make love, but follar, as the Spanish say, with a person. In almost the same way the translators, much less Zambra, follan with the original text: “si follaramos” as the writer puts it in the first-person plural imperfect subjunctive of the verb follar.

In one of her recent interviews, while talking about the retranslation of Bonsai, Megan McDowell says:

This is the first time I have done a retranslation, and I do have to say that I have not read Carolina’s version, I have only read Bonsai in Spanish. It was important to me to do my translation without hers in my head, so I translated the book as if it were any other. I didn’t compare it to hers. Actually, at the very end, as we were going through the edits, I did spot-check some things. I wanted to know what she had done, but for the most part I did it totally independently. This is the first retranslation I have done, and I’m not really sure how much it will be compared to the original, or if anyone will really care or notice.[1]

Clearly, one does care and notice the differentiated use of language and the variation in nuances, as shown in the following:

Carolina de Robertis’ Translation (hereon “Translation A”):

“In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was alone some years before her death . . . ” [2] (the emphasis is mine)

Megan McDowell’s Translation (hereon “Translation B”):

“In the end she dies and he is alone, although really he had been alone for some years before her death . . . ” [3] (the emphasis is mine)

Truth-telling is something that constantly romances with the act of lying throughout the novella and vice versa. The characters lie to each other so as to lie beside each other. Because “[t]he rest is Literature” (a sentence both the translators agree upon), therefore ‘Literature as a lying-machine’ would work quietly, within the text, so as to make us, the-readers-of-the-outer-real-world, conscious, alert, aware that these are nothing but figments of the mind, mere characters we are dealing with. Their names thus could vary in the imagination of the reader but not in the translations. As such, whether a puny character—in opposition to a solid, real Human being—is really alone or in truth alone, doesn’t really matter at all. It nevertheless, does matter, at least at some level, because these are characters exactly, yet again, like us, who crave love, possess desires, and ultimately die—sometimes even at the very beginning of life or of the novella. Given that death is inevitable, either for a character or for a living person, does it all really matter in truth? Is truth-telling about characters more sacred, moral, conscientious than lying about real people? Is one, then, really narrating a true series of events or in truth lying gracefully?

Translation A:

“…seriousness would arrive and settle in his life forever.”

Translation B:

“…seriousness would come to settle in his life for good.”

Julio avoids seriousness for good in the translated texts—in both the texts he thwarts it stubbornly, exactly the way Zambra does in all his original as well as in his translated texts. This, however, tells us something about the nature of languages itself: one always has the choice to avoid seriousness, at least in language if not in Life. If at all, seriousness, in the form of History, Dictatorship, Coup, Tortures, Killings etc. does settle in Ways of Going Home, even if by mistake, it needs to be purged, expunged, thereafter, in a Multiple-Choice form where “you try to go from general to specific, even if the general is General Pinochet.” However, to avoid seriousness forever is an anomaly—it cannot forever happen, cannot forever be performed. One cannot just avoid seriousness every time. One can reduce it, diminish it, lessen it—but not for forever. Eventually, any novella and short-story writer feels compelled to proceed further in order to assert seriousness. He needs to write a long story of 350 plus pages, in the form of a Chilean Poet, and authorize himself as a Novelist of the Regular Order. He must choose to surrender the juvenile idea of writing something as bonsaiesque as the length of forty-pages that are “in fashion.” One cannot for forever, like Borges, just keep summarizing the books one intends to write. Because stories are everywhere except, probably, in Novels—where Life is, at least for Julio and Emilia, if not for everyone. Seriousness, then, would arrive forever and settle for good in Zambra.

Translation A:

“…This is the story of two students who are enthusiasts of truth, of scattering sentences that seem true…and of closing themselves into the intense complacency of those who think they are better, purer than others, than that immense and contemptible group known as the others.”[4]

Translation B:

“…This is the story of two student enthusiasts of the truth, aficionados of deploying words that seem like truth… and of enclosing themselves within the violent complacency of those who believe themselves better and purer than others, than that immense and detestable group called everyone else.”[5]

Zambra is continuously etching something—even when the original and the translated texts have ended, and turned blank. This time, once again then, the text recounts a story of two students who employ scattering sentences that seem true or deploy words that seem like truth against the larger fictional lives of those confident, self-assured, purists who actually live, and continue to go on living beyond the horizons of the text—Life not Literature, life but as Life that shall possess enough material, events, happenings, episodes, which at some stage, has the potentiality to be turned into Literature but not long before one has exhausted living it in the first place. These texts then are heavy stories that turn light—and not the other way round. The unmediated fictionality of people’s lives that is driven by society, and not through books, then materializes as “a light story.” As such, it becomes a story that doesn’t need one to be a character but a Real person—convincing enough to be performing the role. The role, the story, the character—a cliched life—a Life not as Literature.

Translation A:

“…that life only had purpose if you found someone who changed it, who destroyed your life.”

Translation B:

“…that life only made sense if you found someone who would change it, who would destroy your life as you knew it.”

Are Julio and Emilia in the literary business of making sense of Life or finding its purpose? Is this the reason why Emilia kills herself? Did she die by suicide for lack of a better purpose or to furnish her life with a purpose by killing herself in the first place, while Julio doesn’t get the opportunity, to find purpose, as the novel ends? Or would Julio try to live what Emilia couldn’t? Is Death by suicide better than Life as suicide? Does Life make sense, if at all it does, only when one’s idea of Life gets transformed? Or is it that, this in itself is the purpose of Life—the destruction of your idea of Life—no matter whether the exchanged sense and purpose, received from the other one, is more detrimental than the one you called your own.

Translation A:

“What’s the purpose of being with someone if they don’t change your life?

Translation B:

“Why would you want to be with someone if they didn’t change your life?”

Does Life have any purpose, or is it that one only wants it to have one? If one, in the first place, believes that life does have a purpose, one is then letting somebody else in their Life only to change, to shift, to switch—and not erase—the Purpose. The purpose of Life, then, is to keep changing the purpose without letting one know. If, however, one doesn’t want to be with someone who doesn’t possess the capacity to change one’s life, then it would seem that one is in that relationship basically for the necessity of wants, desires—the purpose thus ceases to be. Is it that we want purpose or that the purpose, as such, wants us? Is the purpose then an ‘abyss’? Probably, Zambra might quip about it with risqué humour and lewd remarks.

Translation A:

“He repeats it, he explains and even gives the money to the driver in advance: go in any direction…it’s all the same…”

Translation B:

“He repeats it, explains, and gives the money to the driver up front: go any direction…doesn’t matter.”

Julio gets to know about Emilia’s death at the end of the novel, although she is already dead at the very beginning. After this event, the novel goes blank, the novelist ceases to write, the novelist ceases to be, while the character roams around and continues to roam ad infinitum. The hard-earned money, the simple purpose of the complex Real Life, is all given to the driver—by the character himself, for whom, going in any direction is all the same, it actually doesn’t matter to him now. Julio here seems to be in two minds, if not many—(to each translator the translated character). Either it is all the same or it doesn’t matter. Actually it doesn’t matter because it’s all the same. Or Maybe, because it’s all the same therefore it doesn’t matter at all. Probably that’s why Translation A ends as: “He doesn’t hear him” and translation B as: “He doesn’t even hear them.” Julio doesn’t answer any of the driver’s questions. Both the texts agree on this. Why does one then end in them (with emphasis on the questions) and another in him (emphasis on the driver). Probably because both the translators, like Zambra, agree, that, at this moment in Julio’s narrative there’s no distinction between the questions, the questioner, the questionee and the answers. It is all the same. Because, probably, it does not matter at all.



Zambra, Alejandro. Bonsai. Trans. Carolina de Robertis. Melville House: New York, 2008. Print.

Zambra, Alejandro. Bonsai. Trans. Megan McDowell. Penguin Books: United States of Amrica, 2022. Print.

Zambra, Alejandro. Multiple Choice. Trans. Megan McDowell. Penguin Books: New York, 2016. Print.



[1] ‘Interview: Translating New Worlds with Megan McDowell.’ Published 8 August 2022. Sydney Review of Books. The interview can be retrieved here

[2] From here on, this English translation of Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai (2008) shall be referred to as Translation A.

[3] From here on, this English translation of Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai (2022) shall be referred to as Translation B.

[4] Italicised by the translator.

[5] Italicised by the translator.

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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/mubashirkarim/" target="_self">Mubashir Karim</a>

Mubashir Karim

Mubashir Karim was born in Srinagar, Kashmir and completed his Masters in English from the University of Kashmir. He went on to pursue his M.Phil and PhD from Jamia University. Mubashir is currently working as an assistant professor in the Higher Education Department, Jammu & Kashmir. His work has been published in the Transnational Literature Journal, Café Dissensus and Muse India, among many others. He is a regular blogger at http://poiesismubashirkarim.blogspot.com/