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Author Eduardo Halfon in Conversation with Daniel Medin

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On Thursday, November 14, 2019, the Center for Writers & Translators (CWT) hosted Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon for a discussion of his literary works with Professor Daniel Medin, the CWT’s Associate Director. Halfon is the author of 14 books, which blur the line between fiction and autobiography. Prior to the event, he interacted with students as part of Professor Medin’s FirstBridge class on autobiographical writing. Halfon’s works, both in the original Spanish and in translation, have received numerous accolades, including, in 2018, the Guatemalan National Prize in Literature – the country’s highest literary honor.

Halfon grew up Jewish in a Catholic country; he describes much of his childhood as “being allowed to watch but never allowed to play.” His career trajectory isn’t typical of a writer; he came to the craft late, training first as an engineer. He admitted to not discovering reading as a passion until later in life. “I found books by accident,” he explained, describing how, as an adult, he spent years devouring literature in order to make up for lost time. After returning to Guatemala after finishing an engineering degree in the US, he eventually planned to study philosophy. The only option to do so was by taking a joint degree with literature – a common situation in Latin American universities. He quickly fell in love with literature.

Following this introduction to Halfon’s life and works, Professor Medin brought the discussion around to format. Two of Halfon’s books take the form of letters: Saturno, his first published book, was a letter to a father. “A father who looks a lot like my father,” added Halfon, though the story evolves over its 40 pages to have less autobiographical elements. Much of Saturno was also inspired by Kafka’s father and the fathers of literary figures who committed suicide, including Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway. “It was written in a frenzy,” Halfon explained. “It’s a tantrum almost.”

When Saturno was first published, several reviewers assumed that it was a work of nonfiction. “The literary community thought I needed help,” said Halfon. “My entrance into literature was with this yell.” Because he gave the character the semblance of himself, the assumption was that the work was autobiographical. With his second book, The Polish Boxer, Halfon pushed this feeling further, giving the character his own name – something he has continued to do in his last six books.

Several of Halfon’s works tackle the idea of intergenerational relationships. In The Polish Boxer, the protagonist makes regular references to his grandfather’s experience in Auschwitz. The second letter that Halfon published – titled Halfon, Boy – took the form of a father writing to his unborn child. The father is, at the same time, translating the stories of William Carlos Williams. Halfon read from the English translation of the text, choosing a section in which he asks whether a perfect translation is one that is word-for-word (including, therefore, any awkwardness and errors) or rather a beautiful paraphrase of the original. This thought process is interwoven with the protagonist’s fears of parenthood; when translating one’s lived experience into raising a child, should the errors be translated too?

In keeping with the spirit of the CWT, the discussion turned to translation in a broader sense. Halfon acknowledged that he writes in his own form of Spanish: “There’s a lot of English in there,” he noted. Though he writes in Spanish, he thinks in English – so the English translations of his work are “translated back” into the language in which they were originally conceived. Is he ever tempted to do the English translations himself to solve this problem? “It would mean I stop writing for a few months,” explained Halfon. “That’s what I want to avoid.”

He noted that, as well as translating between languages, publishing houses in different countries put his books together in different ways, removing stories from certain compilations while, at other times, adding them, even going as far as combining multiple books into one publication. “The only pressure I’ve felt is to write longer books,” he explained, though, in contrast, his French publishers shortened The Polish Boxer from five stories to two. “In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful of all of them: a short, intimate book about a grandson and a grandfather.”

The event concluded with a Q&A, in which students asked further questions to Halfon about his views on translation and about the bilingual space in which he feels he resides.