Bolivar Biographer Explores the Challenges of Choosing Foreign Subjects

With the publishing of her Bolivar: An American Liberator, BIO member Marie Arana has won glowing reviews and been featured in many media outlets. Born in Peru, Arana is the former editor-in chief of the Washington Post’s Book World and is currently a writer-at-large for that paper, as well as a biographer and novelist. TBC asked Arana about her new book and some of the challenges a biographer might face when dealing with a subject who is not from the English-speaking world. 

Marie Arana

Arana is a John W. Kluge Distinguished Scholar at the Library of Congress.

How do you make a foreign subject relevant for an American audience?
That, of course, is the question for all time. Throughout my writing career, I have tried to explain Latin America to an English-speaking audience. The effort is not without its challenges. James Reston, past editor of the New York Times, famously said that America was willing to do anything for Latin America except read about it. I’ve been trying to turn that prediction on its ear. With time, I learned it wasn’t I who would make the subject of the southern hemisphere relevant to readers, but the subject itself. South America is traveling north, and that hemispheric force that has been pressing north for more than two centuries stands to redefine North America in surprising ways. I haven’t had to make the subject relevant for an American audience; the subject is doing that for itself.

How do you handle sources in another language? Did you do translations yourself?
I did all the translations myself. Perhaps it was because of the lack of accuracy in the translations I had read. Bolivar’s Spanish and that of his contemporaries was far more vivid than any English equivalent I could find. I decided that the only way for a reader to understand the Bolivar I knew was to see him as I did. Every source—be it Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese—I translated myself. I realize I’m lucky in this, being a multilingual writer, but I also realized that my agility across languages was something I could offer that perhaps other biographers could not.

Do you think there is less of a market for foreign subjects (excluding English-speaking ones) with U.S. publishers? Or are there foreign subjects you think might have more appeal for U.S. publishers?
For decades, U.S. publishers have been reticent to bring foreign authors and foreign literature across the divide and into the bosom of an American readership. The market is too lean, the readers too focused on homegrown subjects. At certain moments, nevertheless, the outside world has broken through: This happened, famously, in the 1960s and 1970s with the Latin American “boom.” The works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, and a few others were received with great enthusiasm. In recent years, there has been a burst of interest in Scandinavian fiction. But much of the public response is faddish and lacks a clear-cut pattern that U.S. publishers can reasonably follow. Speaking for myself, I would say that it all depends on the quality of the translation. But in truth, the language divide is a major leap for most Americans. We are far better at exporting our creative output than at listening, and importing the works of others.

Were there any particular challenges you faced when writing about Bolivar?
The record on Bolivar is deeply tendentious. There is either too much hagiography or too much animus about the man. I quickly found that I had to put many of the secondary sources aside. Bolivar, a liberator who had accomplished much but left much undone, had inspired great love and great hatred among historians and biographers. Sticking to the primary sources—to the words that Bolivar himself wrote, or to the words of his contemporaries—I found I was on safer ground. The fascinating thing for me was to learn that Bolivar continues to inspire great passions. I will not soon forget a women’s book club gathering on the beach in Peru, where every person present had fervid opinions about the Liberator—not always rational. Getting past those passions to the real man was my greatest challenge.

Any general advice for someone interested in pitching a foreign subject to publishers, or in doing research on them? 
What I found useful was the fact that I was writing the biography of “an American founder,” and therefore producing a work that was viable in an existing American market. I also found that the bits I had written about the United States’ role in Bolivar’s career were important anchors for American reviewers. In other words, the Latin American story might be compelling, but it was especially so in its relation to the United States. So I would urge any writer on foreign subjects to make those subjects relevant to an American public. Readers want to know how a seemingly alien subject might relate to their lives.

For more information about Arana and her book, visit her website.