Granta online has a lovely interview with Natasha Wimmer, the translator of Roberto Bolaño into English, about visiting the cities where his books happen ("‘El Santo’??? for example, was one of the notes scribbled on my first draft of the translation; he is, of course, Mexico’s most famous masked wrestler, as I soon discovered") and translating his many—and varied—sex scenes.
She describes Bolaño's writing about sex perfectly: "As you say, his work is full of indifference and black humour, which means that there is a sense of remove even when he’s at his most graphic. And that layer of coolness is what makes his sex scenes at once unromantic and curiously realistic and touching."
And a little nuts-and-bolts talk about translating:
Metió los dedos hasta el fondo, la chica gimió y alzó la grupa, sintió que sus yemas palpaban algo que instantáneamente nombró con la palabra estalagmita.
"He pushed his fingers all the way in, the girl moaned and raised her haunches, he felt the tips of his fingers brush something to which he instantly gave the name stalagmite."
I don’t keep early drafts of translations, but do I remember some of the decisions I made. The word that gave me most trouble was ‘grupa’, which literally means a horse’s hindquarters. I wanted to preserve the farmyard connotations, which give the sentence an extra jolt of dirtiness. Another possibility might have been ‘rump’, but there’s something more suggestive and sexual about ‘haunches’. The rest was fairly straightforward, once the decision had been made (at the start of this short chapter) to respect the often ungainly length of the sentences. Reading it over now, it occurs to me that the effect is almost of breathlessness, or panting, which is certainly appropriate in the context.
Read the whole thing here.
And talk about breathless? I'll never forget the first time I read this passage, from 2666, which must have given Wimmer fits. (Just typing it has nearly killed me.) The scene: WWII Europe, where a Romanian general is fucking a baroness in a castle, surrounded by candles in big holders, and a couple of his soldiers watch through a peephole in the wall.
"Then Wilke came on the wall and mumbled something too, a soldier's prayer, and soon afterward Reiter came on the wall and bit his lips without saying a word. And then Entrescu got up and they saw, or thought they saw, drops of blood on his penis shiny with semen and vaginal fluid, and then Baroness Von Zumpe asked for a glass of vodka, and then they watched as Entrescu and the baroness stood entwined, each with a glass in his hand and an air of distraction, and then Entrescu recited a poem in his tongue, which the baroness didn't understand but whose musicality she lauded, and then Entrescu closed his eyes and cocked his head as if to listen to something, the music of the spheres, and then he opened his eyes and sat at the table and set the baroness on this cock, erect again (the famous foot-long cock, pride of the Romanian army), and the cries and moans and tears resumed, and as the baroness sank down onto Entrescu's cock or Entrescu's cock rose up into the Baroness Von Zumpe, the Romanian general recited a new poem, a poem that he accompanied by waving both arms (the baroness clinging to his neck), a poem that neither of them understood, except for the word Dracula, which was repeated every four lines, a poem that might have been martial or satirical or marmoreal or even anti-German, but whose rhythm seemed made to order for the occasion, a poem that the young baroness, sitting astride Entrescu's thighs, celebrated by swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia, digging her nails into her lover's neck, scrubbing the blood that still flowed from her right hand on her lover's face, smearing the corners of his lips with blood, while Entrescu, undeterred, continued to recite his poem in which the word Dracula sounded every four lines, a poem that was surely satirical, decided Reiter (with infinite joy) as Wilke jerked off again."