Translating Treuer

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David Treuer can tell a love story. In fact, he can tell two at the same time. “The Translation of Dr. Apelles” was published in paperback Tuesday, following its hardcover release last September. In his third novel, Treuer weaves the tale of a shy, aging translator, Dr. Apelles, with a story about two young American Indians, Eta and Bimaadiz. The characters come from different times and spaces, Apelles from a modern America and Eta and Bimaadiz from an era dominated by days of hunting and trapping in the wilderness. They are all connected, stumbling around trying to figure out just who they want to be.

The Translation of Dr. Apelles, by David Treuer (Vintage Contemporaries) 315 pp. $14.95
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For Treuer, the journeys of his characters aren’t that much different from his own, and from everyone else’s.

Apelles separates himself from the world, and doesn’t discuss his American Indian upbringing with anyone, lest he become “that” American Indian, the only one that the people around him ever meet. Treuer, for his own part, identifies with Apelles’ struggle.

“I spent a life and a career trying not to be pigeonholed,” he said, “and I’ve been pretty good at it.” He’s become who he wants to be, he said, not what people want him to be like.

Treuer’s struggle, similar to Dr. Apelles’, is trying to navigate a world where American Indian stereotypes are common, but people’s first-hand experiences with American Indian people are not.

We first meet Dr. Apelles in an archive where he’s translating a piece of literature in a language that only he knows. The document tells the tale of two American Indian children, Eta and Bimaadiz, who are both rescued from death during a frigid winter in unusual ways. Both gain a connection to the natural world and survive thanks to the milk of an animal – Eta from a wolf, and Bimaadiz from a moose. They grow up together, spending most of their time in the woods. Their love story is fairly predictable, but touching and heartwarming nonetheless. It carries Treuer’s novel, which is sometimes slowed by the rich, yet convoluted, inner world of Dr. Apelles.

The narrative slips from translation to translator with relative ease. The translator’s story starts slow, as does his transformation, his own personal translation. When Apelles is not in the archive working on his translation, he works at RECAP, a place specifically designed to house the books that society no longer has any use for, and people are no longer reading. Treuer likened the place, which actually does exist in suburban New Jersey, to the land of forgotten toys in the Rudolph Christmas special. Although, Treuer said, “it’s not as weird as I make it out to be,” nor as freaky, strange or rigid.

When touring the real RECAP, Treuer spoke with the director and made her promise that she’d hide a copy of “The Translation of Dr. Apelles” somewhere in the three-story giant stacks.

If the director kept her promise, Treuer’s words may remain hidden where nearly 7 million books rest, waiting to be needed.

For Treuer, his words come easily. “But then it’s finding the vehicle, the right structure, the right story,” he said about his challenges. He doesn’t do any physical outlining, rather he maps out the story in his head, so he said, he has the sense of what the shape is going to be before sitting down to work.

Treuer has recently completed his next book, entitled “Neverland,” which he said only took him nine months to write, as opposed to the years it took him to work on previous projects – which means it could either be fantastic or fantastically bad, he admitted. While he has released a short excerpt on his blog (linked at: www.davidtreuer.com), the actual book won’t be out for a year, or a year-and-a-half.

So, for the time being, readers have Dr. Apelles and his translation, though we can be assured that there are still more stories to come.

Treuer has a high standard when it comes to books, for both what he reads and what he writes, saying that books should go after “the grand questions” as well as entertain, instruct and amaze us.

“I like books that challenge me,” he said. “I try to do what I appreciate most in writing – writers and writing that sort of tries to go for it all.”

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