Adrian Althoff went to Bolivia to research a college thesis on popular uprisings. He came back with a book, a surrogate uncle, and a big project: translating a Bolivian novel.
The book is American Visa, a 1994 black-comic nouveau noir that follows a paranoid La Paz writer on his quest for the titular papers—and a prostitute named “Blanca.” The surrogate uncle is Juan De Recacoechea, the book’s author and, arguably, Bolivia’s most well-known living writer.
“My professor said, ‘Why don’t you bring back the novel that’s selling the most, so we can learn about what’s hip in Bolivia?’” says Althoff, then a 21-year-old senior at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “I went to all the main bookstores in Bolivia in the capital and asked them which book sells the most, and they all had the same answer: ‘American Visa,’ ‘American Visa,’ ‘American Visa.’” When he returned, De Recacoechea’s novel in hand, Althoff’s professor suggested that he translate the book.
It was an undertaking that Althoff, now a 25-year-old Rockville resident, thought impossible at the time. “[De Recacoechea] is 72 years old. This is his best novel,” says Althoff. “He didn’t know who I was; he didn’t know how old I was; he didn’t know anything about me. I was very afraid that he would think I was vastly underqualified—because I was.”
But the prominent Bolivian author didn’t hesitate to hand his bestselling book over to the American college student. “I thought he was already 40 or 50,” De Recacoechea says in a phone interview regarding his initial phone conversations with Althoff. “When I saw him, I thought he was the youngest translator I had seen in my life…[but] he knew many things about Bolivia, and he spoke Spanish, and I thought it was a good idea.”
“A translation in English is always good,” De Recacoechea says. “Or even French.”
With more than 13,000 copies sold, De Recacoechea’s American Visa is a wild success in Bolivia. “In a country with almost 15 percent illiteracy rates, where 60 percent of the population makes $2 a day or less, and where the population is only 9 million, 13,000 copies is historic,” says Althoff. Although De Recacoechea’s novel—part gritty Bolivian street story, part American immigration tale—has all the makings of a viable U.S. import, Bolivian works are rarely exported to even neighboring countries. “People in Peru don’t read Bolivian novels, people in Brazil don’t read Bolivian novels, people in Chile don’t read Bolivian novels. People in Bolivia barely read Bolivian novels,” explains Althoff.
Actually translating the book was challenging, too. “You have to replicate the experience the Spanish reader has in English,” says Althoff, who was raised by multilingual parents and whose first word was agua. “You have to translate culture.” Not to mention the difficulty of selling a Bolivian novel to New York publishers: Althoff has collected the “15 or so” rejection letters he received before being signed with Akashic Books, which published the English version last April.
The project took two years—and required a good deal of support from De Recacoechea. “The joke he makes is that I called him 5,000 times,” says Althoff. “But seriously, I did call him two or three times a week.” Along the way, De Recacoechea sent Althoff postcards from La Paz and got him a job writing the subtitles for the 2005 film adaptation of the book. Now, says Althoff, “He’s like an uncle to me. He’s one of my best friends.”
In Althoff, meanwhile, De Recacoechea has found an American promoter (they’re currently on a nationwide book tour), an official translator (Althoff just started work on De Recacoechea’s 2000 novel, Andean Express), as well as a chauffeur; after this interview, Althoff headed off to pick up De Recacoechea from the airport.
“He can’t wait to be here,” says Althoff. “He’s gonna stay at my house.”
De Recacoechea and Althoff discuss and sign copies of their work at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW. Free. (202) 387-7638.