To What End: Translating Liliana Heker's El Fin de la Historia and Related Narratives of the Argentine Proceso

Andrea Graubart Labinger is Professor of Spanish at the University of La Verne, California, where she also directs the University Honors Program.

She is the translator of Bubbeh (La bobe) by Sabina Berman; Musicians and Watchmakers (Músicos y relojeros) by Alicia Steimberg; To Die in Berlin (Morir en Berlín) and Una casa vacía (An Empty House) both by Carlos Cerda; and Clara (Hay que sonreír) by Luisa Valenzuela. Latin American Literary Review Press also published her translation of Mempo Giardinelli's El décimo infierno (The Tenth Circle); her translation of Alicia Steimberg's Cuando digo Magdalena (Call Me Magdalena), received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition.

Her forthcoming publications include Alicia Steimberg's The Rainforest (La selva), and “Casablanca” by Edgar Brau, to be published in Casablanca and Other Stories, co-translated with Donald and Joanne Yates..

Recently I completed translating a highly polemical novel by Argentine author Liliana Heker, El fin de la historia (The End of the Story). The novel, published in Argentina in 1996, deals with betrayal, friendship, patriotism, relationships – all set against the background of the Proceso of the 1970s. Heker is a very well regarded prose fiction writer who remained in Argentina during the Dirty War and who was never a political prisoner, two facts that cause her novel to be looked upon with suspicion by a number of her peers. The controversial subject matter of the novel also contributes to the rather passionate reaction this work has generated in Argentina and among Argentine expatriates abroad. One of the novel's protagonists is a political prisoner, Leonora Ordaz, a Montonera who, after being subjected to physical and psychological torture, defects and becomes not only an agent of the junta, but also the lover of one of her torturers. While this type of behavior strikes us as implausible and horrifying, it's been documented that such things did occasionally take place at the time. Nevertheless, reading about them, even several decades later, leaves many readers angry and bewildered. But more perplexing than understanding why a political prisoner would collaborate with the enemy is why anyone – particularly an Argentine and self-proclaimed socialist – would want to write about it, and furthermore, why a North American would undertake translating something so potentially distasteful.

A great many factors conspired to make the translation of this book not only an ethical dilemma for me, but also an artistic challenge. Beginning with the title itself, the novel presents linguistic and moral ambiguities. As more than one critic has pointed out, 1 historia means both “story” and “history,” while “fin” denotes “end,” in the sense of “conclusion” as well as “purpose. Deciding whether to call it “The End of the Story,” “The End of History,” “The Purpose of History,” et cetera, was just the beginning of the confusion. Not incidentally, I was also compelled to think about the word fin as it applied both to the protagonist, Leonora, and to me. Does the end justify the means? There are two questions here, obviously: Did Leonora's desire to save her daughter's life and that of her aging parents justify her betrayal; and on the more personal level, did my embracing this translation because I found – and continue to find – it so compelling justify my associating my professional reputation with a text that I know has incensed people whose politics I respect?

Adding to the complication is the fact that the novel is a piece of metafiction with three narrative voices, making it difficult for the reader to determine whose story is being told: that of Leonora Ordaz, the idealistic, young Montonera who becomes an agent of the junta; that of Diana Glass, Leonora's childhood friend, an aspiring writer who tries to reconstruct her disappeared friend's fate in novelistic form but who fails to make sense of a life that has dramatically diverged from its original path; or finally the third voice: that of Hertha Bechofen, an elderly writer and Austrian refugee whose own experiences as a survivor of totalitarian brutality make her view the entire situation with cynicism and moral detachment. Diana Glass is myopic, a fact that Heker emphasizes in order to explain the apparent haziness of the information presented in telling Leonora's story. For as we discover, Diana is extremely reluctant to acknowledge certain facts that seem evident enough (Leonora has turned her back on her comrades and on the idealism that drove both her and her Diana, as students, to want to change the world; Leonora has prostituted her principles in order to save herself and her young daughter; Leonora has become an instrument of the military; Leonora has betrayed her murdered husband), but which are rendered implausible in the telling. Again and again, Diana begins to record her account – on paper napkins, in yellow-paged ledger books, on the backs of receipts – only to destroy what she has written because the words are so intolerable. These ephemeral bits of paper become emblematic of a fractured friendship and a splintered society, at a point where historia and Historia -- story and History – coincide.

The inconclusiveness of the text makes many people uncomfortable, especially when it deals with such a traumatic period in Argentine history. When I discussed this translation project with a couple of Argentine writers I know and with whom I've worked, I was astonished at their reactions. Both were critical of the novel, albeit for entirely different reasons. One of the writers, herself a former political prisoner of the junta, later released and forced into exile, was angry with me for undertaking a project that she felt portrayed her fellow revolutionaries in an unfavorable light. “Les hace el juego a los milicos” (She's playing right into the military's hands) was her comment about Heker, referring to the fact that Leonora's defection occupies such a prominent place in the narrative. When I argued that the solidarity of the resisters is well represented by another character, an elderly gay man who is taken away and killed when he refuses to confess under torture, she replied (correctly) that nobility of this minor character is insufficient to counteract the negative impression Leonora, a major character, gives of the Montoneros as opportunistic, self-serving, and cowardly, when the majority of the revolutionaries were righteous and should be depicted as such.

Conversely, another Argentine writer, one who, like Heker, continued to reside in Argentine throughout the 1970s and 1980s and still lives there, although a close family member was threatened by the junta and was forced to flee the country, was disappointed in the novel for quite a different reason. According to her, Heker was unjustified in judging her protagonist so harshly when she (Heker) herself never experienced the anguish of imprisonment and torture. This writer, unlike the first one, didn't suggest that didacticism should invariably be a part of the chronicles of this national nightmare.

Where did this leave me? I completed the translation, and I've thought about my role in doing so ever since. There are so many questions that go unanswered. I chose to translate this novel, as yet unpublished in English, because I was attracted to its complexity as well as to the originality of Heker's style. As a non-Argentine, I can't expect my reaction to the book's polemical nature to be the same as that of a native son or daughter. I don't agree that the depiction of one fictional revolutionary as a sellout casts aspersions on the multitudes of others who upheld their principles to the end, nor do I think such an individual fictional portrayal reflects badly on the author. To me, as an outsider, a nuanced depiction of people on both sides of a political divide doesn't detract from the esthetic quality of the prose or the ethical qualities of its author. Yet, at the same time, I strongly identify with the cause of los subversivos and wouldn't want readers to think that my translation of what I consider to be a balanced, thoughtful text identifies me as a supporter or sympathizer with the monsters who terrorized a nation and destroyed an entire generation.

I've translated other political books before, specifically two novels by Chilean writer Carlos Cerda, 2 a committed Socialist who fled Pinochet's Chile for East Berlin, but who returned home years later, disenchanted with the bleakness and oppressive bureaucracy of that city. Here too lies controversy. A few readers have criticized Cerda for his departure from orthodox Soviet ideology, even though both his political and literary credentials are impeccable, as far as I'm concerned. And currently I'm working on a non-fiction book called Poder y desaparición (Power and Disappearance) by Pilar Calveiro, 3 one of the very few “disappeared” to re-emerge alive and write dispassionately of the experience. Calveiro currently resides in Mexico City, where she is a university professor. Hers is a theoretical book, one that eschews all reference to the personal in order to study the institutionalized abuse of power in Argentina and what Hannah Arendt has called “the banality of evil” in general. Translating Calveiro's book is a sort of expiation for me: her authority on the subject is unimpeachable, after all, and her message is crucial, especially today. If my translation of this book is ever published and if it helps even one reader to understand how insidiously totalitarianism can install itself in a society – any society – then I may feel more at ease about this whole business of selecting books to translate. And if people eventually read The End of the Story in my English translation, I hope they, too will have some unanswered questions, among them: How should we as readers, translators, and citizens of the world, react to the voice of authority (authorial or otherwise) when we recognize that it can't be trusted? Liliana Heker's fin (finality or purpose) is to challenge us to re-examine our assumptions and, above all, to avoid facile conclusions.