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One Lange leads to another: on finding and translating Norah Lange’s People in the Room Charlotte Whittle

When I was doing graduate work in Hispanic Studies, I met and became friends with a writer whose name was Nora Lange. Nora Lange had just moved into an apartment with some upstairs neighbors from Argentina, who were delighted to be living above someone called Nora Lange, and asked her if she was familiar with the work of the Argentinean writer, Norah Lange. When Nora Lange asked me about Norah Lange, I had never heard of her, but I was intrigued, since as a student of literature in Spanish, I was all too aware of how male dominated the Hispanic literary canon can often seem. I was even more intrigued when I began to learn of Norah Lange’s background: she had been closely associated with a number of major male writers, including Borges and Girondo, both of whom I’d read, without ever coming across the woman who was allegedly at the heart of their rivalry. I remember asking my advisor at the time – a scholar of Latin American literature – about her, and his reply that she had been “totally forgotten.” This was soon after Edwin Williamson’s biography of Borges had been published, in which Norah is described as a flame-haired Scandinavian beauty who tormented the young Borges and went on to “inspire” some of his most essential writings. But there was no exploration of Norah’s work. Indeed, everywhere I looked I found her referred to as the “Muse of the Avant Garde,” rather than as a significant writer. Nora Lange and I began to co-translate some of Norah’s early poems, written in the Ultraísta mode championed and later abandoned by Borges, who wrote a patronizing prologue to Norah’s first book. But it was on a trip to Buenos Aires a few years ago that I was able, with some difficulty, to find Norah Lange’s complete works (put out in 2005-6), and began to be seduced by her unique authorial gaze and her eccentric prose. I came to realize that in Argentine literary mythology, Lange is a figure familiar to many, but read by few, and I was truly surprised she hadn’t been translated. Personas en la sala/People in the Room is the first novel I tackled (and the first one finished!); I began translating the first few chapters in my spare time while I was teaching Spanish, and, as an early subscriber and fan of And Other Stories, it occurred to me that And Other Stories might be interested in Lange’s writing, so I pitched it, and here we are.

One of the biggest challenges has been teasing out the subtle meanings from long, labyrinthine sentences, and resisting the temptation to break them into sections to make them more “manageable.” I think the endless layering of clauses and the twists and turns of a sentence that goes on for many lines really are part of Lange’s style, even though, in general, sentences can be longer in Spanish and are often shortened in English. The challenge has been to preserve some of the eccentricities of the prose, without sacrificing clarity. When Lange writes something like, “on the verge/at the edge of night time,” or “on the verge of lightning,” (al borde le la noche, etc.), it’s tempting to think that, since we wouldn’t say that in English, we should find another solution. But such usages are unusual and unexpected in Spanish, so to respect the uniqueness of her style I often felt I was treading a thin line between readability and respect for eccentricity. But the difficulty of this book has also been what has made it pleasurable and rewarding.

People in the Room is a profoundly visual novel. Often while translating I tried to put myself in the place of the voyeur, to see what she was seeing, while also trying to see her as she is watching. As Carola Moreno writes, there are two visual layers at work: “Lange manages to transform the reader into a spy of the voyeur.”

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