Many works of Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta have formed the foundations of further artistic endeavors, including and beyond their own translations. His 1985 novel,The Postman, inspired both Michael Radford’s film Il Postinoand Daniel Catán’s opera of the same name. More recently, his unpublished play,El Plebiscito,provided the basis of No, Pablo Larraín’s highly acclaimed film about the 1988 Chilean referendum to oust dictator Augusto Pinochet. Now, yet another of his works is set to receive the movie treatment: his short, intimate 2010 novel, Un padre de película. The novel appears in English translation today from Other Press as A Distant Father, and the upcoming film by Selton Mello will be called A Movie Life. I spoke to Skármeta about A Distant Father and seeing his works both in translation and on screen.
Arthur Dixon: You’re a translator in your own right—you’ve worked with books by Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others—and in A Distant Father your protagonist is a translator, too (if only part-time). How would you describe the experience of writing about a translator and then seeing his story translated?
Antonio Skármeta: Back in the days when I was young and I translated American novels into Spanish, I had already published my first book, and in the frenzy and innocence of youth, I felt that literature was the most important thing in the world and that all the writers in the world—from the classics to the child at the school on the corner who invents a poem to flatter his teacher—deserved my devotion and brotherhood.
During the time when I was translating a work, it felt like the author was a neighborhood friend or a college classmate. I was so sensitive to what the other author had written that I strove to make it sound as expressive in Spanish as it had in the original.
Translating would send me into a trance and detach me from the daily diversions of being young. But every time I finished a job, the doubt of whether or not I had found the right tone and formulation would stay on my mind for a long time.
The protagonist of A Distant Father chooses to be a secondary character. He doesn’t feel quite like a protagonist. Everything emphasizes his fragility and his modesty. He’s not a writer but a translator. In terms of love, he is as innocent as the schoolchildren he teaches. In terms of family, he has been as abandoned as his own mother. When, in one moment of the novel, Jacques sees a little child in a baby carriage who’s not with his mother, he feels intense compassion for him, and he makes a decision that I think elevates the emotional volume of the story.