By Nora Méndez
In What is World Literature, David Damrosch argues that one of the reasons that ‘global’ readers demand world literature is because these foreign works “serve as windows into foreign worlds” (15). The problem with this, though, as he argues in reference to the US, is that “even today, foreign works will rarely be translated at all in the United States, much less widely distributed, unless they reflect American concerns and fit comfortably with American images of the foreign culture in question” (18). In her article “The Translation Trap,” Julia Kornberg, the author of Atomizado Berlín, talks about the negotiations that Latin American writers must undergo to get published elsewhere:
While being translated might be a small victory for a writer working in English, it is a kind of consecration for a writer from the Global South. The market for foreign works is so slim that what gets translated is usually tailored to a particular kind of American reader — one who reaches for Latin American literature to encounter difference, or maybe to feel morally righteous for reading about the misfortunes wrought by an American government she doesn’t support. Such a reader is not looking for “universal” subjects, but for “authentic” representations of poverty, cartels, and border crossings. As a result, Latin American writers find themselves straining to cater to demand — putting on the poncho, adjusting the sombrero, and talking about the agrarian revolution or the narcos. (3)
It seems ridiculous that publishers would insist on marketing those caricatures that are held of a region by others foreign to it. But these publishers cater to the demands of a certain type of reader, one that drives the literary market at a global scale.
Not only does the global literary market cater to the needs of this ‘global’ reader, it also expects so little from them. Kornberg remarks that “for the most part, American publishing houses seem to imagine their readers as dull and unimaginative — willing to consume Latin American literature insofar as it will afford them cosmopolitan street cred and a gold star for sympathizing with Third World struggles” (6), but quickly losing interest if the text is too complex, ambiguous, or different from the information and topics that they understand as significant. In this essay, I investigate how Julia Kornberg writes a novel that challenges and subverts this ‘lazy’ reader with stylistic, formal, and thematic innovations, and think about how a translation of her text, though difficult or precisely because of that, has the ability to support and communicate across another language her careful mediation of the demands of the global literary market.
A writer from Buenos Aires who now lives in New York, Julia Kornberg’s first novel, Atomizado Berlín, published in March 2021 by Club Hem in La Plata, Argentina, is now being translated into English in collaboration with Jack Rockwell. A book that cautions against the effects of modernity, it is challenging and innovative in many ways. Set initially in the affluent neighborhood of Nordelta outside of Buenos Aires, the narration alternates between two of the Goldstein siblings (Nina and Jere), as well as briefly between two other characters, while they slowly fall out from their family and friend circles. They embark on a sort of exile as they migrate to a Europe that’s railing with large-scale conflict (in a fictitious near future for the reader), whilst chased by collective traumas, obsessions, and restless freedom. From Nordelta they go to Punta del Este, to Paris, Berlín, Jerusalem, Normandy and Brussels, not always at the same time, and not always at the same place. And as Europe seems to be on its last legs, somehow through all the mess they find a semblance of a support net among each other.
In many ways, the subject matter of the novel is not what usually circulates very far beyond the borders of the local, especially the US, where Kornberg lives now. The narration is difficult for a non-local, containing many regional expressions and different references to historical events and socio-cultural realities of Buenos Aires in the 2000s, as well as others that, though realistic, are set in a near future in a Europe slightly changed—a hyperbolic reading of the present, Kornberg explains. In an article about Kornberg’s book, Carla Chinski thinks about how these may affect the novel’s stand to the test of time:
La pregunta es si una novela como Atomizado Berlín va a resistir el paso del tiempo. Quizás sus referencias culturales queden obsoletas dentro de solo un par de años. Pero, precisamente, su resistencia es ésa: ser una novela de su tiempo.
The question is whether a novel like Atomizado Berlín will stand the test of time. Perhaps its cultural references will be outdated in just a couple of years. But its resistance is precisely that: to be a novel of its time.
This essay focuses on how aspects of the novel that make it difficult or complex actually serve to push back against the expectations of the literary market. In Atomizado Berlín, characters, storylines, time, space, narration, and context are never clear-cut, always sidestepping the expectations that would make it a comfortable — and marketable — reading experience. Instead, Kornberg seems to be writing for a new kind of reader, one who is active and open to work through a text that, by subverting expectations, opens itself up to new and different literary experiences. In what follows I pay specific attention to how Kornberg utilizes the novel’s topic-choice, ambiguity of context, and inclusion of words in English, French, and other languages, to challenge the reader that the global literary market caters to reclaim their agency and individuality as able and active readers.
Atomizado Berlín is the story of three siblings who are faced with a need to get away from their lives in one way or another and find a home in a Europe fragmented by political, social, and religious conflicts. It initially takes place in the affluent neighborhood of Nordelta in Buenos Aires where the Goldstein family lives, and continues in the scattered escape of its members to other cities in the world. The choice to write about Nordelta, described by Kornberg as “un no-lugar absoluto” (“an absolute non-place”), is already interesting for what it represents. Nordelta was founded in 1999 and built to the north of the city, in a rather unsustainable way (problems with floods and land invasions of indigenous populations), as an urban project to accommodate affluent families in gated communities. From the beginning of the novel, the precarious artificiality of the place sets an uneasy tone, establishing the background for the slow disintegration of the Goldstein family.
Certainly, writing about the high-class Nordelta neighborhood and its instability is not something that is expected of a “Latin American novel” in the global literary arena. As Kornberg explains in her article, writers like her are encouraged to mine the local stories that their target market wants to read (2), and when reading about the Global South, they do not look for universal subjects that they can find in canonized literature. They look for an authentic otherness which they cannot find in their own modern neighborhoods. Kornberg assures: “on the international market, poverty is what sells” (2). Between the characterization of the initial location in Nordelta—the home of the Goldstein family—as a non-place, and the staggered flight and foreshadowed disintegration of this family nucleus, Atomizado Berlín opens up the space by undermining what is expected of this Latin American “local”: exoticism, authenticity, or poverty. Nordelta, instead, is represented as an unsustainable, artificial project, encouraged by economic efforts that model American and European capitalistic urban planning, and from where the instability ends up encouraging the Goldsteins’ escape. The Nordelta neighborhood, a product of modernity, is uninhabitable and problematic.
Spaces and time, moreover, are not always clear in the novel. It takes place in a time that wavers between the recent past (from 2004, with references to the financial crisis of 2001 and the decades of dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s) and the near future (between some point in the current decade and the year 2068 referenced in the prologue), without having a clear and decipherable present. The spatial location, although it begins strongly in the affluent neighborhood of Nordelta, dissolves in the scattered escape of the Goldstein family members to other cities in the world. Chapters usually are divided according to who is narrating (Nina, Jere, Ossip, or Anshi), and where they are (Nordelta, Punta del Este, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Tokyo), but we are frequently not told where exactly the narrators are, and we have to eventually deduce through the references they make. This works as a sort of geographical in medias res at the start of each chapter that certainly keeps the readers’ wheels turning and perhaps has them looking up some of the references. More to the point, we are never told who narrates what chapter, and have to figure that out as well as we go along. This ambiguity of time, space, narration, and context, though complicated, encourages a more involved attitude of reading. Without clear markers and explanations of what is going on, it is for the readers to imagine, reason, and believe their own understanding of the text. Each person’s reading will thus be unique, self-crafted, and ultimately subjective, challenging a reader who is too often expected to be a passive receiver of ‘objective’, paradigmal, or canonical writing in the literary market.
Another feature of interest in Kornberg’s novel is the use of multiple languages in the narration and in the dialogue (mainly English, sometimes French). We assume this plurilingualism reflects how people in the environment of the Nordelta of the 2000s and 2010s communicate, suggesting perhaps the influences of US pop culture or French ‘chicness’ on Argentinian middle and high class day-to-day. Plurilingualism, or switching and mixing languages in everyday speech, differs from how it is used in the US, for example. At a conversation at Oberlin College with Julia Kornberg and Jack Rockwell (current collaborator in translating Atomizado Berlín), Kornberg spoke of the rarity both historically and globally of monolingual populations, referencing the United States’ lack of necessity to learn another language since English is the global lingua franca. Perhaps a product of modernity and the invention of national borders and globalization, she argues, monolingualism is a characteristic of dominant cultures, and not the case in most places and for most people.
A reflection or not of the language dynamics between people like Nina and Jere in their various contexts, Kornberg’s frequent use of words and phrases in English and French is a conscious choice to bring attention to existing (and common) plurilingual realities. To translate this plurilingualism into a language like English, which in many ways spearheads the campaign for monolingualism in a global world, we should not want to translate everything, and may also consider inverse-translating, that is, translating the parts originally in English into another language, paying attention to the global hierarchy of languages. In line with Emily Apter’s theory expounded in her essay “What is Just Translation?,” we would look for a translation that captures the intention of the language and resists the dynamics of the global literary market the translation would enter. A conscious decision to include plurilingualism in the translated text would look into how to communicate the function it has in the original as well as how this can challenge the monolingual reader.
Atomizado Berlín is a novel about the fragmentation and atomization of the Goldstein family in the Nordelta neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and their subsequent escape to a Europe that is also disintegrating, and where, despite everything, the Goldstein brothers find a — albeit still fragile — network of support between them and their closest friends in the midst of chaos and individual and collective trauma. Neither the theme, nor the style, nor the message of this novel gives it many points to compete in the global literary market, if it is translated from the intention of conforming to the stylistic or literary demands of the big international publishers.
If we think about a fair, loyal, and purposeful translation, we must think about the context of the novel and its author’s intention, the context of the linguistic resources used, and the identities that inhabit inside and outside the text. Leaving things untranslated, encouraging the search for information about the specifics of a place that we later have to abandon to move to Paris, to Berlin, to Israel, to the non-places of those cities, to the outskirts; or insisting on the non-description, on the focus of the banished nucleus of the Goldsteins and the eccentricities of their habits, rituals, and obsessions, all located in an unspecified place, would constitute some of the strategies of such a translation. Considering different possible contexts in the near future, leaving room to imagine outcomes of the ambiguous, being aware and critical of the positions occupied by those involved in the circulation, reproduction, and reception of the text whose narrated world wants to teach something, for “what counts as a good translation of a literary text — which is to say a taught text — is that it should preserve for us the features that make it worth teaching” (Appiah 816): with all this a translation can experiment and apply itself into a finished work that is worthwhile. The new reader that Kornberg looks to write for is one who seeks to learn and challenge their own position in the market of literary ideas. This reader who will receive what is worth teaching, through translation or across contexts, has the same power to “create markets anew” (Kornberg).
Nora Méndez is a recent graduate from Oberlin College, with degrees in Comparative Literature and Mathematics and a minor in Hispanic Studies. She translates from Spanish.
 As an elusive concept (and so he admits as he asks in his essay’s introduction “Which literature, whose world?”), Damrosch looks at the life and uttered words of the man who initially circulated the term “world literature” elite circles: Goethe. Damrosch interprets that for Goethe world literature, as a subset of all literatures, was “less a set of works than a network” with a “fundamentally economic character, serving to promote “a traffic in ideas between peoples, a literary market to which the nations bring their intellectual treasures for exchange” ”(3). Later, Damrosch gives his own definition that understands world literature “to encompass all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language” (4).
- Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Thick Translation.” Callaloo, The Hopkins University Press, vol. 16, no. 4, 1993, 808-19.
- Apter, Emily. “What is Just Translation?” in Public Culture 33:1 (2021), 89-111.
- Chinski, Carla. “atomizado berlín, el libro del desarraigo.” escrituras.idie.
- Damrosch, David. What is World Literature? Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Kornberg, Julia. Atomizado Berlín. Club Hem, La Plata, 2021.
- Kornberg, Julia. “ “Atomizado Berlín”: de las tragedias políticas al country como refugio y como cárcel.” Infobae, 16 Mayo 2021.
- Kornberg, Julia. “The Translation Trap.” The Drift, issue 4, 6 May 2021.