The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts December 8, 2006

Zaritzky, OC 00, Releases Probable Lives

Aaron Zaritzky, OC ’00, 3the guest translator at the annual Translation Symposium last Thursday, began a translation project his senior year at Oberlin that may well have made him crazier than the average Oberlin student.

The project was the book Probable Lives by Felipe Benitez Reyes, a contemporary Spanish poet from the province of Cadiz.

Why crazy? Well, here is one of the things Probable Lives, or Vidas Probables, is not: It is not an autobiography. It is, in fact, a biography, or a series of biographies, all of them one hundred percent fabricated. 

The book, from which Zaritzky read last Wednesday, is actually a collection of literary heteronyms — invented authors and their invented poems. The genre has a long tradition in Spain, practiced perhaps most famously by Fernando Pessoa, whose four “characters” each wrote in a different style. 

Heteronyms are certainly not limited to poetry, either — composer Robert Schumann was also known to sign his later compositions with more than one name, but he also may have had multiple personality disorder.

Zaritzky had his work cut out for him in Reyes’ book, which required him to translate the biographical notes for each “poet” as well as the poems and notes from an imaginary editor.

The poems themselves were not merely stylistically different — they reflected the personalities of the poets. One poet, a “fraud,” had done Spanish translations of falsely attributed Emily Dickinson and John Keats poems, which made it necessary for Zaritzky to invent “original” Dickinson and Keats poems in English. 

“I think I read every Keats ode for three weeks,” Zaritzky said. 

After graduating from Oberlin’s Creative Writing program, but before selling his book to Boa Editions, Zaritzky completed the M.F.A. program at the University of Arizona in poetry. Asked if he had written any of his own heteronyms there, he answered yes, but that they weren’t very good. He had tried to write them equally from male and female perspectives, he said, and that was just too hard. 

“I think if I were to do it over again I would do more research…read a lot of women authors, do a lot of drag.” he said. 

Benitez Reyes is celebrated within his native Spain, especially in his home province of Cadiz, but Zaritzky’s translation will bring his work into English for the first time.


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