Monday, August 31, 2009


I've been reading "Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians," a 1972 account of a Paraguayan tribe by French ethnographer Pierre Clastres. It's not the contents of the book itself I want to recount, but the saga of Paul Auster's translation of the book into English, which he describes in the translator's note.

At the time of the book's publication in the original French, in 1972, Auster was "desperately poor," working as a freelance translator, taking whatever gigs he could find, often with books he did not even like. But he loved "Chronicle," and proposed a translation to countless American publishers, until finally being accepted by a fledgling press around 1976. After the "thoroughly enjoyable experience" of translating the book, Auster gave his editor the one and only copy of his translation -- he was too broke to photocopy it.

In 1977, months before the translation was set to be published, Clastres was killed in a car accident. But at least the book he birthed would find new life in English. Or so it seemed. But years passed as the publication was delayed, the publisher became insolvent, the rights for the translation were sold to another press which in turn lost the sole copy of it. "No one had ever heard of it," Auster writes. "For the next dozen years, that was where the matter stood. Pierre Clastres was dead, my translation had disappeared, and the entire project collapsed into a black hole of oblivion."

Finally, in October 1996, after he gave a reading in San Francisco for his new book ("Hand to Mouth"), Auster was approached by a man who gave him a set of bound galleys. It was the uncorrected proofs to his translation, which this passionate collector of books had bought for $5 from a remainder bin at a used bookstore. Nearly twenty years after Auster released the translation from his grasp, it was returned to him. The author is dead, but "at least there is the small consolation in the thought that Pierre Clastres's book has survived." (Auster says in his note that the tribe has vanished as well, though an reviewer claims they still exist and prefer to go by the name "Aché").

The book still exists in French, of course, but I'm struck by how contingent was the delivery of this story into English; and by how many other precious stories have been lost to time or chance. 

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