20th International Theatre Book Fair, Madrid 2019: Meeting between authors and translators

I was lucky enough to be one of five translators invited to participate in this annual event that brings together translators and playwrights. At some point I’d like to blog about it properly. In the meantime, here’s my executive summary: Spain is absolutely brimming with playwriting talent and, as a translator, having the chance to spend three days talking to writers about their work and exploring the possibility of collaboration is incredibly inspiring! (I also have a sneaky feeling that two or three of the people I spoke to will be big names in Spanish theatre in a few years time.)

In the meantime, here are brief summaries of the works I discussed with their authors. (In Spanish for now, as this is a first offering for potential translators.)

If you’re a translator and you’d like to know more about any of these works or their authors and – particularly – if you think you might be interested in translating one, then please get in touch with me either via the contact form on this site or by email or on social media, if you already know me there. I’ll give you a bit more information, including the full script and we can take it from there.

And remember that, if you get your skates on, you might even be able to apply to the SGAE for funds to support the translation. (Deadline: 15 November 2019.)

Tras las trágicas, María Beltrán Fernández

(NOT ELIGIBLE FOR SGAE FUNDING)

Lady Macbeth, Ofelia y Desdémona conviven en el limbo de las mujeres trágicas cuando no están siendo representadas en algún lugar del mundo. En el limbo tienen libertad para ser ellas mismas y no esos personajes que les impuso el autor. Cansadas de sus obras y de vivir según los deseos de otros deciden rebelarse para cambiar sus vidas e idean un plan: no acudir a la siguiente representación. Titania, ante la rebelión de las mujeres trágicas y la posibilidad de que las obras de Shakespeare desaparezcan para siempre sin ellas, decide mandar a Puck para que medie y solucione el problema.

Un cadáver exquisito, Manuel Benito

En pleno invierno suizo, dos hombres, uno de ellos polaco y el otro búlgaro, roban el cadáver del actor Charlie Chaplin para pedir un rescate a su viuda. Ella, Oona Chaplin, les asegura que no les va a dar nada por el ataúd, ya que amaba a su marido, pero su cadáver no se lo va a devolver. Ellos intentarán por varios medios que Oona les dé dinero. El comisario que investiga el caso necesita la colaboración de Oona, para castigar a los secuestradores y dar ejemplo a toda la población inmigrante que llega a su país, pero ella, también inmigrante, no acepta. Los medios de comunicación comienzan a dar la noticia del robo, y la sociedad que rodea a Oona y a la familia Chaplin empieza a presionar para que el caso se resuelva.

Jauría, Jordi Casanovas

(TRANSLATOR ASSIGNED)

3 a.m. del 7 de julio de 2016. Fiestas de San Fermín. Ellos son cinco. Son La Manada. El más joven y miembro más reciente debe pasar por su rito de iniciación. Tras cruzarse con una chica en el centro de Pamplona, los cinco de “La Manada” se ofrecen para acompañar a la joven hasta su coche, aparcado en la zona del soto de Lezkairu. Pero, en el camino, uno de ellos accede al portal de un edificio y llama al resto para que acudan. Agarran a la joven y la meten en el portal.

Dramaturgia a partir de la transcripción del juicio realizado a La Manada, construida con fragmentos de las declaraciones de acusados y denunciante. Una ficción documental a partir de un material muy real, demasiado real, que nos permite viajar dentro de la mente de víctima y victimarios. Un juicio en el que la denunciante es obligada a dar más detalles de su intimidad personal que los denunciados. Un caso que remueve de nuevo el concepto de masculinidad y su relación con el sexo de nuestra sociedad. Un juicio que marca un antes y un después.

Historia de un monstruo, Tamara Gutiérrez

(TRANSLATOR ASSIGNED)

Este texto hunde sus raíces en el conocido popularmente como «caso Asunta»: el asesinato, por parte de sus padres, de la niña gallega de origen chino Asunta Basterra. Sin embargo, en la obra se funden y colisionan realidad y ficción deliberadamente, así como se juega con la información revelada y con aquella que permanece oculta. Lejos de querer añadir una reconstrucción más de los hechos, la obra plantea preguntas sobre el
tratamiento mediático de la tragedia.

Las voces sedientas, Sergio Villanueva

Nos encontramos a poco menos de una hora y media para que empiece a entrar el público al patio de butacas del Teatro Lyceum de Londres, concretamente la tarde del sábado 19 de diciembre de 1896. Las más altas personalidades del Londres de aquel año se encontrarán ante la reposición de RICARDO III de Shakespeare, una vez más de la mano, del genio y del inalcanzable arte de Henry Irving, el primer Actor nombrado Caballero de la Orden del Imperio Británico por su majestad la Reina Victoria.  No hay nadie en esos momentos en el Teatro. Pero se escucha el chirriar de una lejana puerta principal, seguidamente unos pasos apresurados. Y súbitamente se abre la puerta del pasillo central de acceso al patio de butacas. Entra con premura un hombre grande, con elegante abrigo oscuro y sombrero, muy preocupado. Buscando. De pronto empieza a escucharse una incoherente voz escondida, gritando, tratando de recordar el texto, ese texto que en cuestión de una hora ha de interpretar delante de aristócratas, banqueros, ministros y familiares de la realeza. Pronto averiguamos que se trata del propio Henry Irving, que en un estado psicológico crítico se niega a asumir ese estreno. Su amigo y confidente, la persona que ha dedicado toda su fortuna, tiempo, energía y amor a la carrera de ese insigne actor luchará por quitarle los miedos, las inseguridades, y prepararle para esa nueva función. 

Mitad del mundo, Pablo Díaz Morilla

(TRANSLATOR ASSIGNED)

Producción de Feelgood Teatro, estreno en febrero de 2019. Premio Jesús Campos de la Asociación de Autoras y Autores de Teatro de España, publicado por la AAT y Fundación SGAE. (Personajes: 2 hombres)

En 1987, Christopher Reeve pasó siete días en Santiago de Chile tratando de mediar con la dictadura militar de Pinochet para la liberación de 77 actores y actrices pertenecientes al sindicato Sidarte. Ésta no es la historia del encuentro entre Superman y Pinochet, ésta es la historia de amor de un hombre  que nunca pudo amar.

Inquilino (Numancia 9, 2o A), Paco Gámez

(TRANSLATOR ASSIGNED)

Un joven en una situación laboral precaria se ve obligado a abandonar su casa por una subida del alquiler salvaje. Ese incidente le hace replantearse su lugar en el mundo mientras hace cajas para una mudanza a ninguna parte y lucha por mantener su espacio.

El texto se hizo con el Premio Calderón de la Barca en el 2018 y en el 2019 se
estrena en el Centro Dramático Nacional. El género parte del biodrama, el teatro documento y la autoficción, pero pronto da un salto a lo mítico y lo irreal. A pesar del encuadre social, la obra tiene mucho de comedia.

Furiosa Escandinavia, Antonio Rojano

Erika M. conoce a Balzacman en Internet y establece con él una relación marcada por la extrañeza. La mujer acaba de ser abandonada por T. y el amor perdido se ha transformado en un hondo abismo del que no es capaz de salir. Con la ayuda del joven misterioso, un apasionado de la literatura francesa que se esconde tras un sombrero de cowboy, Erika emprenderá una huida hacia adelante enfocada en el olvido. Pero allí donde la mujer decide confrontar el agrio pasado, usando una píldora misteriosa que borra los recuerdos, Balzacman se aferra a la memoria del amor lanzándose a un demente viaje en busca de T., aquél que fue el amante de Erika y que ya sólo es la inicial de un nombre propio o, quizás, de un lugar. 

BALZACMAN.-  (…) ¿Quién dice eso de que si ella ama a T., yo estoy obligado a desaparecer?, contraria, contraria, contraria, yo quedo atrás y ella sigue adelante, claro, pero lo que digan las revistas de los aviones que explotan, porque todos explotan, me importa poco, ya que voy a seguir este viaje hasta el final, voy a transformar la geografía en destino y daré con T. y con Irene y les explicaré cómo son las cosas, y tendrá que joderse Newton, porque, aunque ella me empuje, yo seguiré para siempre unido a su cuerpo, sí, porque de eso trata el amor, de nudos y conexiones, nudos y conexiones, y porque así lo aprendí, y porque, porque…

Noches de Hotel, Mariano Rochman

(TRANSLATOR ASSIGNED)

Cuatro noches de Hotel desordenadas en el tiempo. Cuatro personajes intentando ordenar sus vidas después del fallido intento en la búsqueda de un ideal que acaba dejándolos frustrados. En “Noches de Hotel” nada es lo que parece, nadie es completamente inocente ni culpable. Aquí los encuentros acaban en desencuentros o derivan en situaciones inesperadas y absurdas, tal vez como la vida misma. Una comedia dramática o un drama muy cómico.

Correspondencia, Roberto Osa

(TRANSLATOR ASSIGNED)

CORRESPONDENCIA junta a una familia dentro de la sala de un tanatorio. Un hijo vela a su madre junto al resto de sus allegados. Todo es unión por el dolor de la pérdida, hasta que Carlos, el hijo de la difunta, encuentra en el libro de condolencias un mensaje injurioso contra su madre, lo que desencadenará una serie de acusaciones cruzadas y revelaciones de secretos que pueden dinamitar la estabilidad de la familia.

A partir de aquí, podríamos decir que CORRESPONDENCIA es un texto sobre la arquitectura emocional de una familia y cómo esa construcción a veces puede tambalearse. El autor pretende interpelar a los espectadores a través de las conversaciones –y de los silencios– de estos cinco personajes, que pasan la noche contando y escondiéndose información, tratando de saber quién es quién, entendiendo que las palabras son capaces de derribar la identidad de una persona y llegando a descubrir que esa nueva identidad puede construirse, paradójicamente, a través del silencio. Solo hay que saber edificar a partir de ese vacío.

Los mariachis, Pablo Remón

(TRANSLATOR ASSIGNED)

Tragicomedia de la meseta castellana. Obra para cuatro actores (8 personajes)

Un pueblo despoblado en plena meseta castellana, en esa tierra de nadie que se ha llamado “la España vacía”. En ese territorio mítico, se encuentran varios hombres: algunos que huyeron de la crisis económica, otros que la provocaron. Entre ellos, un político corrupto y desahuciado, al que van a juzgar, y que tiene un momento de iluminación: san Pascual Bailón, el patrón de su pueblo, se le aparece y le pide que le saque en procesión.

Un mariachi es, en la jerga financiera, cada uno de los testaferros necesarios para montar una SICAV, y tributar menos. Pero “los mariachis” también es el nombre de la peña de la infancia del político. Los mariachis es una peregrinación y una vuelta al origen, una comedia negra sobre cuatro hombres perdidos. Una obra con ecos de Harold Pinter y de Martin McDonagh, pero también de Buñuel.

TRES eran 2, Laura Aparicio

Tomando como punto de partida las Tres Hermanas de Chéjov, surge este texto ―instalado en una España, que nada tiene que envidiar a la América profunda que todos conocemos― donde el peso de la religión, el abuso y la homofobia caen a plomo sobre una sociedad que parece moderna y todavía, por desgracia, no lo es.

TRES eran 2 es un drama psicológico que camina sobre un thriller. Se apoya sobre una estructura aristotélica a lo largo de las escenas; hay soliloquios, algunos trenzados, para acercarnos a lo más íntimo de los personajes. Momentos poéticos y humor negro que se alternan en la realidad de la vida.

Yo, tu hijo trans, te habría grabado tu voz cansada, tus últimos susurros, para que resonaran siempre dentro de mí.
Yo, tu hijo trans, se habría escapado del puto internado y te habría acariciado, agarrado, apretado la mano durante las últimas horas de tu vida, hasta que se hubiese quedado fría y supiera de verás, que no ibas a volver.
Sé que para ti habría sido muy cansado ser la madre de un hijo como yo.

La medida de lo posible, Juan Pablo Heras González

(TRANSLATOR ASSIGNED)

Manuel y María dirigen una fundación benéfica. Son admirados en su comunidad porque, contando con una gran fortuna, deciden vivir de manera humilde y dedicar toda su riqueza y esfuerzos a ayudar a gente con problemas económicos o sociales, por medio de un estricto protocolo en el que se evalúan sus necesidades. Viven con su hija Susana, a la que adoptaron después de que su madre la rechazara por ser fruto de una violación.

Un día aparece por su calle Tulia, una extraña mujer mayor, que viene a pedir ayuda para su hijo. Se trata de un convicto por una agresión sexual que sufre, en la cárcel, una grave enfermedad renal. Tulia pide a Manuel que le done uno de sus riñones. No hay otros donantes compatibles y su vida depende de ello. La decisión de Manuel pondrá a prueba su altruismo y el futuro de su familia.

Las nueve y cuarenta y tres, Andrés Alemán

“Las nueve y cuarenta y tres” es una divertida comedia musical original en un acto estrenada en 2013. Tras su exitoso debut de crítica y público en el circuito de salas alternativas de Madrid en 2015 y una gira nacional, “Las nueve y cuarenta y tres” aterriza en la Gran Vía de Madrid en 2017. Consigue el galardón al Mejor Musical de Pequeño Formato de los Premios BroadwayWorld Spain, 7 nominaciones a los Premios del Teatro Musical y 7 premios Azahar de las Artes Escénicas.

Con aires de Revista y reminiscencias del vaudeville, esta comedia musical enamora tanto por su ocurrente libreto como por sus canciones con letras mordaces y pegadizas melodías. Su trama sencilla, el ritmo vertiginoso de la acción y su humor blanco hacen de esta obra un espectáculo ideal para todo tipo de público.

COMEDIA MUSICAL EN 1 ACTO

Cerdos, Pau Ruiz Bernat

(TRANSLATOR ASSIGNED)

Tras la muerte accidental de sus progenitores, Lena, acompañada de su hija Larissa, vuelve a la finca familiar ubicada en una zona rural, en busca de un “objeto” indeterminado. Para ello ha tenido que poder pasar los controles de un cerco que intenta mantener a raya una amenaza (¿una guerra?, ¿una enfermedad? ¿una peste?) que poco a poco va ganando terreno. En ese contexto aparece en la casa familiar su hermano Misha, acompañado de su mujer, Nadia, y su hijo Alex. No hay otro motivo para este encuentro que el interés de Misha por reencontrarse con su hermana a la que no ha visto esde
hace mucho tiempo. En medio de la tensión creciente que se genera a partir del encuentro de los hermanos, descubren accidentalmente a una joven desconocida metida en un zulo en la casa, lo cual obliga a los hermanos a reaccionar, quedándose solos la una frente al otro, hasta el punto final en el
que se hace necesaria la evacuación sin que Lena haya tenido ocasión de encontrar lo que buscaba, momento en el que esta abandona a su hermano encerrado en el zulo, ¿accidente?, ¿descuido?, ¿venganza?

Morderás el polvo (Roberto Osa)

Published by Fundación José Manuel Lara/Planeta, 2017 (2nd edition, 2018), 176 pages

Synopsis

Águeda has just turned thirty, she’s eight months pregnant, and lives alone in a flat furnished with cardboard boxes. She is missing one eye. She has a perfect boyfriend, and a father she hasn’t spoken to for years. Her life is monotonous: she works a night shift, sleeps little, talks less, and bottles up her rage as best she can. But this routine will be shattered when she receives a phone call. In the novel’s very first sentence, Águeda declares that she is going to kill her father. She isn’t going to wait until she’s given birth, and nor will she ask for anyone’s help. She’s going to do it alone, and she’s going to do it now.

The story takes place over the course of little more than a day. A desperate journey from Madrid to La Mancha – from a city whose streets are overflowing with garbage to a small town in the harsh, arid landscape of the Castilian plateau, in search of a past that is full of violence – will culminate in a final showdown between father and daughter.

The hostile geography of abandoned houses, empty reservoirs, out-of-hours brothels, cemeteries that look like building sites, and stones – so many stones! – is the setting for a powerful tale tinged with rural drama, drawing on the Spanish tradition of grotesque realism, suffused with the aesthetic of the western, and framed as a timeless classical tragedy.

Biography

Roberto Osa (Cuenca, Spain, 1981) graduated in Audiovisual Communication from the Complutense University of Madrid in 2004. His creative work encompasses a range of artistic disciplines. He has worked as a television scriptwriter and editor since 2007, and also contributes regularly to a number of online publications and cultural magazines. He teaches on the Master in Literary Creation at the International University of Valencia, and has given talks at literary festivals and led workshops for students.

In 2017, he was selected to participate in the CELA Programme (Connecting Emerging Literary Artists), a European Union project to promote some of the continent’s most exciting new writers, and under its auspices he has attended the Pisa Book Festival, the Hay Festival Segovia and BookFest Bucharest to publicize his work. Osa’s first novel, Morderás el polvo, won the 36th Felipe Trigo Prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2017 Nadal Prize, one of Spain’s most prestigious literary awards.

Style and benchmark texts

Morderás el polvo is a contemporary novel which draws on a literary tradition that stretches all the way back to Ancient Greece, offering a 21st-century take on myths such as the parricide of Oedipus or the return of Odysseus. The setting – Don Quixote’s La Mancha – provides a dusty small-town aesthetic with hints of the American western or Juan Rulfo’s Mexican classic Pedro Páramo, but Morderás el polvo combines this with the narrative drive of a psychological thriller.

Osa’s prose has echoes of a number of post-war European writers: the grotesque realism of Spanish Nobel laureate, Camilo José Cela, the existentialism of Albert Camus, the raw simplicity of exiled Hungarian, Agota Kristof, or the tersely moving style of Austrian novelists such as Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek. And he also shares a vision of the world that will be familiar to readers of Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff and Donald Ray Pollock.

Critical reception

“The contrast between the story’s setting and the manner in which Roberto Osa tells it is a deliberate choice. His use of language is highly visual, rapid, brutally direct, shorn of the slightest hint of ornamentation.”

Carmen Bachiller. eldiario.es

https://www.eldiario.es/clm/Morderas-Premio-Nadal-ambientada-Mancha_0_738776451.html

“A powerful image runs through Morderás el polvo, the narrative debut of TV scriptwriter Roberto Osa: the rotund figure of the story’s protagonist, Águeda. She is eight months pregnant, is missing her left eye and, despite the fact that she is soon to give birth, appears more concerned with death than with life as she returns to her roots to settle a score with the past, determined to kill her father.”

Braulio Ortiz. Revista Mercurio

http://revistamercurio.es/ediciones/2018/mercurio-198/el-ciclope-herido/

Morderás el polvo is a harrowing tale from start to finish. A story of violence between father and daughter that takes us to the very darkest corners of the human condition. A solid narrative voice, with a powerful rhythm, which has the capacity to hypnotize the reader from start to finish.”

Manuel Bravo. OkDiario

https://okdiario.com/cultura/morderas-polvo-convierte-revelacion-literaria-del-ano-prepara-segunda-edicion-1669884

“Roberto Osa’s story mixes rural drama, the western aesthetic and classical tragedy in almost equal parts. But it is not just that. Morderás el polvo is a skilfully written and carefully constructed contemporary novel. The debut from an author from whom, I am sure, we will be hearing much more in the coming years.”

Diego Álvarez. OcultaLit

Extract 1: pages 9–14

1

I’m going to kill my father this weekend.

It’s not a decision I’ve taken in a hurry, more a question of fixing some things that went wrong when I was a girl.

We’ve hardly seen each other in the last twenty years.

All this time I’ve been scraping by in Madrid, all knotted up with my memories of him, bounced from social services to support programmes that took me from one job to another until I found this night shift on a telephone helpline, which I’m going back to after seven days off.

My father still lives in Pedregal, the small town where I grew up, and I’d barely heard from him until the phone rang tonight. A number flashed green and when I took the call all I could hear was breathing, snorting almost. Nothing else. I know it’s him because nobody else snorts like that, nobody else gives me the shivers like the Ram. I’m going to do you in, I swear I am.

I swear, on this belly I’ve been dragging around for eight months, on my one good eye, on all the pain we caused each other back then. I swear on the piles of garbage that cover the city pavements, on the overflowing bins, on the rats feasting among the boxes of rotten fruit, on the bluebottles buzzing among the wine cartons and the dogshit. Sometimes, the pavement’s so dirty I have to kick my way through.

I don’t mind the rubbish, the only thing that makes me feel sick is the stench of red wine. It reminds me of my father.

When I arrive at work, I still have ten minutes before eleven o’clock comes around and my shift starts. I take the time to wipe the sweat from my face with my tracksuit sleeve, particularly around my eyelid; then I get my breath back as I have a quick cigarette. I smoke facing the opaque glass that covers the front of the building. I’m hot but I don’t remove my hood; I know those bastards on the evening shift are about to come out and I’m not going to show them my empty socket. To my left there’s a pile of cardboard boxes. I touch them to check if I could use them in the flat, but they’re dripping wet and stink of entrails. On the other side there’s a shiny black motorbike, I don’t know how anyone could have parked it there surrounded by filth, or maybe the bike was there before the boxes and the burst rubbish bags, before the rotting vegetables and the smell of vinegar.

Shadows from the previous shift appear behind the glass.

I always start on a Friday. Tonight’s too hot for May, I try to concentrate on the smoke coming out of my mouth, I have to think about how I’m going to keep my oath but I’m distracted by pressure against my leg; a Dalmatian has appeared from among the boxes, it’s holding something in its jaws and is squashing it against my leg. It’s a pigeon.

I let out a scream.

The dog’s owner calls to it from the corner but it just stands in front of me with the pigeon between its teeth. On the third call, the dog drops its prey and runs towards the woman.

I kick the pigeon away and take another draw on my cigarette.

If you’re scared by that, just wait till you see your father.

Six beeps. Correct code. The door opens and the herd starts to stream out. First come the mothers, hurrying back to their nests. The fat one’s cheeks wobble as she laughs, no doubt the guy with the moustache telling her some lie or other. Next, the ones who are my age, the hipsters as they call themselves, each of them staring at their phone screens, looking away just long enough to dodge the dead pigeon. Their conversations muddle up inside my ears, always the same, I’m going to the metro, are you coming? Sorry, I’m walking, I’m meeting someone near here. The muscly guy and the silly girl with the green stockings walk towards the bike, waiting for me to get out of the way. I stay put. I hear them muttering, ignore her, the sad freak. They get onto the bike and their reproaches are drowned out by the roar of the engine, smoke from the exhaust pipe warms my right leg, the fabric of my tracksuit caresses my ankles. The Colombian raises his eyebrows in greeting when he knows nobody is looking, and walks on down the street.

They all swirl around me, turning their backs on me, taking out their cigarettes, chatting, asking for a light. A light? I’ll set light to the lot of you. Carry on, turn your back to me, cross the road with your heads down, don’t look at the one-eyed woman, it’s bad luck, she’s already looking at you, but I don’t give a damn about you either: the fat girl, the muscly guy, the hipsters, the silly girl with the green stockings, the Colombian. Not a damn.

Ernesto – that’s what the rest of them call him – is the last to leave, with his white hair, and his gut bulging against his shirt buttons.

I can’t help remembering you, dad. I often imagine what you’ll be like after all these years but however hard I try, I just see you as you were then, when we skinned rabbits in the yard; a punch between the animal’s ears, cracking its skull like a walnut, then a trickle of blood forming a puddle on the ground. I held the hind legs while you made a slash in the rabbit’s skin with your knife and quickly stripped it naked, pulling off the pelt as if it was a jersey.

When I look up, the evening shift have all gone, and I see the top of Ernesto’s head disappearing into the distance, between the mounds of garbage.

I’m alone in the street. It’s eleven o’clock at night.

The basement is gloomy, there’s just a single point of light at the table where Tariq and me sit, next to the stairway that leads up to the entrance hall, the other tables will remain dark all night. The room is rectangular, at the far end are the toilets and Silvia’s office. When I arrive at my workstation, he’s already answering a call. The first thing I do is take off my shoes and socks. Tariq looks at me, smiling, his brown fingers keying in text as he dictates the hours of some municipal office into his headset mic. He’s unshaven, like he always is when we come to work after a few days off. I chuck my bag down next to the keyboard and drop into the seat at Tariq’s side. We sit facing the darkness, our backs to the stairs; he’s always on my right, so I can see him and he can pretend I have two eyes.

We spend a lot of hours below the ground. There are no windows in this place, it’s like working inside a tomb. We call it the coffin.

I punch my code into the keypad and answer the first call, Águeda Pacheco speaking, how can I help you? Of course, just a moment please. The closest metro station is Antón Martín, you can check this month’s events on the website. Thank you for calling. Our terminals beep, sometimes competing or overlapping, we spend a couple of hours answering calls; Tariq explains how to get to the zoo, it’s very easy madam, catch line five or ten, get off at Casa de Campo, or take a bus from Príncipe Pío, the number thirty-three drops you at the gate. Happy to help, goodnight. After all these years, we can recite most of the information from memory. Sometimes, as I listen to the complaints of some pain in the ass, I feel the fingernails scratching inside my stomach and I feel sick. That’s when I let my head fall back against the headrest and look at the ceiling, a ceiling that is nothing more than the floor of a city covered with filth that I have to kick my way through. I sit listening to the moron who’s decided to do his paperwork in the middle of the night, maybe there’s no other time but I don’t care what he’s saying, I just want him to shut up before I vomit, and I take advantage of a short pause to unleash my advice: you have to fill out the form, present your ID, your residence certificate, your driving licence and pay the fee, Monday to Friday, from nine till two at the district office, goodnight.

And I hang up.

I tear off my headset and throw it down on the desk.

I need to move, the nausea and the pain in my ankles get worse every minute of every night that I spend buried down here with Tariq. But I sit still, holding my bulging belly between my hands and staring at the rotten wood of the beams above me. A few months ago, when they were making redundancies, they decided to paint the beams blue; they sacked eighty people and they painted the beams, the skirting boards and the corners cobalt blue, and the walls a tone of yellow so sickly it’s best not to look, better just to sit in the dark like vampires. That’s what Silvia calls the night shift workers.

Silvia is… How can I put it? If she was introducing herself, she’d say she’s the coordinator but she’s just a raccoon-eyed midget, the one who kicked out all those losers who don’t work here anymore. I escaped by the skin of my teeth, and now she doesn’t know what excuse to come up with to get rid of the Cyclops. There’s just four of us left on the night shift: Tariq and me work seven days on and seven days off, when we’re replaced by two girls we never see. A few weeks ago, Tariq heard a rumour they were going to get rid of the night shift and he hasn’t left me in peace since then: the baby, Águeda, what are we going to do with the baby if we’re unemployed? I don’t usually reply. People are shouting in the streets, they want clean pavements – they want someone to give them work. I’ve got a job.

I should feel grateful that this guy, who dreams of working in a museum, has noticed this thing that I am, and I ought to fight for whatever it is I’m carrying in my belly. But I don’t care about any of it. All I can think about is my father.

Tariq takes out the potato omelette he’s so proud of. He eats it straight from the tupperware, cutting it into tiny pieces, as if for a small child. Sometimes he offers me the fork with a piece of omelette on the prongs, but I always reject it and he always eats it with a smile and goes on chewing and reading his museum studies textbook.

When he grows tired of the silence, he starts talking about all the things his parents have bought for the baby and how they’re really looking forward to coming back to Madrid to meet me.

They’re intrigued to know what their grandson’s mother is like, Tariq says; it’s better they don’t find out, I tell him, and then his eyes bulge until they’re almost touching the lenses of his glasses and he scratches his stubble and tells me I don’t appreciate myself, that I’m very pretty with my flaming hair and my white skin, although the truth is it’s actually yellowish.

And the eye, Tariq? What about the eye? And he wrinkles his nose and touches his glasses and says don’t start that again, that I should love myself a bit more.

Extract 2: chapter 7, pages 97–101

On the way out of town, the walls of the livestock pens are already covered by evening shadow. The path to the cemetery is a deep cattle track that would be unchanged were it not for the fact that the cypresses that once lined it have disappeared. In their place are holes a yard deep, the jaws of a digger have cut through the roots, which are dying inside the earth. Every four or five paces there’s a new crater. The holes run the length of the track like giant bitemarks in the earth until I come to an old metal sign with the word “graveyard”. The digger is parked at the entrance to the cemetery, the engine still running, the hazard lights flashing. Maybe Gladis wasn’t lying; to my left, instead of the cemetery wall, I see the profile of the burials against the reddish evening light. There are no walls or anything of the sort. The shadows of some workmen wander among the rubble; they’re talking, laughing, their white teeth still visible as they pile up the stones.

The digger’s engine falls silent. The driver calls the rest of the workers, it’s time to leave. When he raises the peak of his cap, I realize it’s the man we met at the petrol station, the one who helped the fat guy with the coupons to get up. I avoid his eyes, losing myself among the gravestones in the hope that he and the other workers will leave as soon as possible, but I know he’s still looking at me. After a few seconds I hear his voice among the marble crosses.

“Hurry up, they’ve been waiting for ages.”

It’s more than ten years since I visited my mother’s grave. With so many stone crosses, without the reference of the walls or the cypresses, the cemetery seems endless, I struggle to locate exactly where she was buried. A good daughter wouldn’t have this problem.

There he is, sitting on a tombstone, his feet resting on a neighbouring grave. He’s smoking, his arms are resting on his knees. His bulging eyes exaggerating his profile against the dim light of the reddish horizon. The noise of the workers gathering their tools gradually fades, or maybe it’s me who can only pay attention to this unexpected family reunion. I approach slowly. I can feel the elastic of my two pairs of socks squeezing my ankles with every step I take. When I’m just one grave away, he speaks. “You’ve forgotten the knife.”

You go to kill someone and the victim reminds you about the weapon. Typical of a daughter who’ll never live up to her father.

There we are, facing each other, separated by the tombstone that covers my mother’s remains. He looks at the grave. He has a cigar in his mouth, takes short puffs, allows the dense smoke to furl across his face. I should answer, but all I can think to do is look around me: a few yards away is a pile of empty beer bottles that the workers have left next to the statue of an angel.

“What would you know?” I say without thinking. As soon as the words have left my mouth I regret them, it’s the reply of a snotty kid.

“You don’t know how to hide. You can’t hide from me, however much you want to.”

He talks without looking at me as he rubs the sole of his shoe against the marble to get rid of the earth.

“I came. I’m here,” I say, opening my arms idiotically.

I’d like to be able to tell him that my life isn’t like he thinks it is; that I fall straight to sleep, that I don’t work in a basement answering phone calls from insomniacs or have a respectable boyfriend who irons his shirts while listening to some bloke called Bach or wealthy, cultured in-laws capable of indulging every last whim of their future granddaughter. I don’t know why everyone talks about it in the feminine, I’ve never said it was a girl, as far as I’m concerned it’s nothing right now. I’d like to have been strong enough not to answer your call.

The red line of the horizon has almost disappeared but I can clearly see his half-unbuttoned shirt and the disappointment on his deeply lined face.

He carries on smoking, lost in thought.

We stay silent, like before. Woodpigeons coo in the distance, perhaps they’re in the cork oaks on the other side of the road. The roar of a lorry helps me not to think. My father strokes the cigar with his fingertips, he paws it, returns it to his mouth, and a flame from his lighter causes the smouldering cigar stump to glow orange, illuminating his face. I remain standing. The cross on my mother’s grave can barely be made out against the black sky. I take out the pack of cigarettes I stole from Gladis. There are still three left. We both smoke in the stillness of my mother’s grave.

“What have they done to the walls?” I ask.

He glances around listlessly.

“Like this, there’s more of a breeze,” he says, blowing out some smoke.

“It would have made more sense to remove the remains before knocking down the walls,” I say.

“It’s not as if the dead are going to run away.”

He takes another draw, opening his eyes wide so they show very white in the darkness.

“The other day they took the cypresses away,” he says after a while.

“Where to?”

“How would I know? They took them away,” he points at the path to the town. “They didn’t even fill in the holes. They’ll make another cemetery. This one…”

“What do you want?”

Don’t use empty words with me, dad. Not you.

“Did you get married? You need to get married,” he says, looking at my belly.

Pain shoots through my brain, from my false eye to the nape of my neck. I want to tell him that I’ll get married far away from this sick land.

“I should pick up a rock and dash your brains out.”

“Who’s stopping you?” He spreads his arms as if he wants to be shot. His chest shows through his shirt, open almost down to his belly button. “Do it, and we’ll all be at peace.”

“I’m going to be a mother.”

“I can see that. You should have told me when I called.”

“You’ve got enough with your whores.”

He laughs, the cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth.

I hear his back creak as he stands up.

“Do you see how smart the girl is, Tránsito?” He’s looking at the marble slab as he talks. “I told you she’d go far.”

“It was you.”

“It was both of us. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now, she isn’t coming back to life.” He stubs out the cigar on the white marble. “That’s the last thing we need.”

My head is spinning. I can feel the elastic of my socks like shackles round my ankles. Don’t fall over and don’t start crying. Press your fingers hard against your belly. Don’t give in. I’d like to hurl myself at your throat but my arms are too heavy, and a few seconds later I’m sitting on the grave, trying not to collapse as I watch his feet approach.

“Help me die, Jara.”

His voice is so hoarse that I’m not sure if it’s a plea or a threat. I can’t look at you, I’m tired of pretending, I can’t take any more, dad. I’m going to fall.

“Cut your throat, then, you’ve had plenty of experience of that.”

He rests his paws on the grave, his face next to my ear, I feel his breath wheezing against my hair, he’s talking very close to me, as if he was going to swallow me. “It has to be you, Jara.”

I try not to move while he pants.

“Just die and let me live in peace.”

“Help me,” he pants. “Come to the Lagarto with me, I’ve got my car just on the edge of town. But don’t say anything to the Moor, you shouldn’t have brought anyone, this is just between me and you, Jara. It’s our business.”

You bring me to this pigsty so everyone can see my face when I give in.

“For me, you’re already dead.”

His fingers brush my face, the same face his hands hit this afternoon; a coarse hand that smells of rust strokes the swollen cheek, then he runs his fingers roughly through my hair, awkwardly, as if for the first time. I close my eyes. I feel weak.

He takes a lock of my hair between his fingers, pulls it tight, feels the roots pulling inside my scalp. I’m in his hands. Then he lets me go. I hear him disappear among the gravestones, the ground disappears beneath my feet and I fall, I fall, I fall and I burst into tears with my belly between my hands, all of the darkness of the world is here, in this cemetery without gates, with no beginning and no end, that extends into the night and mixes with life under the gloomy song of the woodpigeons, who laugh at me because I don’t know, I’ve never known, how to cry in front of anybody.

Pitch Perfect: Is Translating Publishers’ Proposals the Hardest Gig of All?

I’ve just reached the end of my first year of describing myself as a literary translator. This does not, unfortunately, mean that I’ve spent the last twelve months translating high-quality fiction for discerning independent presses. Instead, the bulk of my work continues to be non-literary: academic papers, documentation for NGOs, corporate communications. My literary work, also, has been a mixed bag. I’ve translated my first “proper” book (a piece of narrative non-fiction), had a play performed and published, and churned out a scree of samples (some paid, others speculative initiatives of my own). And sitting in the middle, straddling the literary and the non-literary worlds, is the occasional work I do for agents and publishers, translating book proposals, more commonly referred to as pitches.

There’s a widespread, if largely unspoken, assumption that literary translation in some way represents the pinnacle of the translation profession, if not for the financial rewards it offers then for the satisfaction it provides and, perhaps, the challenges it poses. To put it bluntly, people think not only that literary translation is more interesting than other forms of translation (I’d tend to agree) but also that it is more difficult. Looking back over my translation year, I’m not so sure. It’s true that I’ve faced plenty of literary challenges. In the first chapter of my narrative non-fiction text, I had to master a bewildering range of voices: from contemporary reportage to seventeenth century Spanish colonial chronicles, from the Quechua-inflected voices of Bolivian tin miners to the cadences of a liberation theologian from the Basque Country. For the play, I had to translate a song, sight unseen, to fit music that had not yet been composed, delivering the full script in a fortnight so that the theatre could cast and rehearse actors. And for a commissioned sample, for a chapter of Buenos Aires noir set in the 1930s, I found myself in a state of mild linguistic paranoia as I came to realise that every other sentence of the text concealed a tango allusion.

My non-literary work, too, has thrown up its challenges. There was the analysis of European Union migration policy that I had to rewrite on the fly as part of the translation process. Evidence of a job well done and (paradoxically) of a lot of hard work, was a target word-count that weighed in a full 25% lighter than the source. Or perhaps the delicate letter I had to translate, balancing the cultural sensibilities of Barcelona, Tokyo and Los Angeles. The addressee was unlikely to read the letter, but only because he had died a month earlier. My translation was to be included in the corporate magazine of a pharmaceutical multinational by way of an obituary.

But none of these assignments compares for sheer trickiness with the proposals I’ve translated for a clutch of agents and publishers that I’ve made contact with as a result of my relentless book-hounding. These proposals are the texts that agents and publishers put on the foreign rights section of their websites, include in catalogues for book fairs, and send out to their contacts whenever they have a title they think might work in translation. I’m going to start with a couple of caveats, though. What follows refers to the proposals of the select band of Spanish agents and publishers I work with. I’m sure that other agents do things differently. And I’d be very surprised if things weren’t done differently in other countries, too.

It’s also worth noting that agents have to take a somewhat scattergun approach. Of course there’s the odd safe bet, but most titles won’t be picked up, so agents tend to present a fairly extensive list of potential candidates in the hope that a few of these will appeal to buyers. (One of the side benefits of doing this work is that it helps me to keep abreast of the Spanish publishing industry in general, gives me insights into what agents think is likely to sell, and also allows me to develop a feeling for what does and doesn’t work, which, hopefully, I can apply to any pitching I might do on my own account.) It’s also important to realise that English is a vector language, used to sell on into other languages. And, finally, the deadlines are pretty tight, with proposals generally being put together (and then translated) at short notice.

All of this means that, far from writing bespoke pitches for the English-speaking market, agents have little choice but to cut and paste from existing material, with minimal cultural adaptation or rewriting. And the existing material may have been created for a home audience (Spain, in my case) and with a different purpose in mind (persuading booksellers to give shelf space to a title that has already been published, for example, or facilitating the work of critics and reviewers in the hope of garnering media coverage).

Those disclaimers aside, the typical proposal document I receive looks something like this: a paragraph or two about the author; a paragraph or two about the book itself; and some external validation of the text, in the form of sales figures, prizes and quotes. So, a page in total, which really consists of three rather distinct micro-texts, each of which requires a very different approach.

Author bio

Let’s see what this looks like in practice, starting with the author bio. Here’s the opening paragraph of a pitch I translated recently. (I’ve changed a few of the details for reasons of confidentiality.)

Cristina Jiménez nació en Cádiz en 1990. Es arquitecta por la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona y tiene estudios en Derecho por la UNED. Ha sido redactora en la revista especializada Arquitectura Hoy y escribe también en otros medios de comunicación y difusión cultural, como la web literaria Letras. Ha traducido textos periodísticos y libros. En 2013 obtuvo una beca de residencia literaria en la Fundación José Martínez para Jóvenes Creadores de Zaragoza, durante la que desarrolló su primera novela, Al otro lado del mar.

Here’s a faithful translation (so minimal adaptation of the content):

Cristina Jiménez was born in Cádiz (Spain) in 1990. She graduated in Architecture from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and studied law with the Spanish national distance learning university, UNED. She has been an editor at the specialist journal Arquitectura Hoy and also writes for other media and cultural outlets, such as the literary website Letras. She has translated journalistic texts and books. In 2013, she obtained a literary residency grant at the Fundación José Martínez for Young Creative Artists in Zaragoza, during which time she developed her first novel, Al otro lado del mar.

And here’s my adapted version:

Cristina Jiménez was born in Cádiz (Spain) in 1990. She holds a degree in Architecture from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and studied Law at UNED. She has worked as an editor for the journal Arquitectura Hoy, writes for some of Spain’s leading cultural platforms, including the literary website Letras, and has translated books and articles for publishers and news outlets.

In 2013 she was awarded a José Martínez Foundation grant for Young Creative Artists in Zaragoza, which funded a residency to work on her debut novel, Al otro lado del mar.

Now, if it was up to me, I’d cut this down further. I can’t imagine any commissioning editor being swayed to buy a comic novel because they are impressed by the young author’s architectural and legal background and, personally, I don’t include this kind of biographical detail in a pitch. But the nature of my relationship with the client and the constraints of time and budget mean that I prefer not to make that suggestion for now. Instead, I focus on cutting out any excess information, making the piece flow, and subtly refocusing it towards the business of writing.

Synopsis

Now it’s on to the next section: the synopsis. The following is from a different novel, which the publisher categorises as “up-market women’s fiction.”

La anodina vida de Samuel y su esposa Carmela cambia radicalmente cuando él recibe una carta anónima en la que se le dice que Rosario no es su verdadera madre y que si quiere conocer la verdad de su origen debe volar a Roma esa misma noche. Hay preguntas que necesitan una respuesta. Aunque los secretos familiares a veces son de los más temibles.

Descubrir que uno tiene a un hermano gemelo desconocido, y que este decida usurpar tu identidad en tu propio matrimonio solo puede provocar una sucesión de terribles acontecimientos… tanto como encuentros inesperados. En el oscuro Berlín de la RDA, ¿todo vale para conseguir la libertad? ¿Acaso Carmela se dará cuenta? ¿Hasta qué punto a ella misma le conviene asumir esa nueva realidad?

Here’s a rather literal translation:

The anodyne life of Samuel and his wife Carmela changes radically when he receives an anonymous letter in which he is told that Rosario is not his real mother and that if he wants to know the truth about his origins he must fly to Rome that very night. There are questions that need an answer. Although family secrets are sometimes the most frightening.

Discovering that one has an unknown twin brother, and that he has decided to usurp your identity in your own marriage can only provoke a succession of terrible events… and unexpected encounters. In the dark Berlin of the GDR, does anything go to achieve freedom? Will Carmela realise? To what degree is it convenient for her to assume this new reality?

We get the gist. There is subterfuge, romance… and melodrama galore. But the job of the synopsis is not just to summarise the plot but to sell the text. So I have to do my best to make this synopsis shine. Some of this is just the usual business of intelligent word choice, taking care not to mindlessly reproduce source structures in the target, and the like.

The mundane lives of Samuel and his wife Carmela change radically when Samuel receives an anonymous letter informing him that Rosario is not his real mother, and telling him that he must fly to Rome that very night if he wants to know the truth about his origins.

Some questions demand an answer. But family secrets can be the most terrifying of all.

And the discovery of an unknown twin brother, one who has decided to steal Samuel’s identity and supplant him in his marriage, inevitably unleashes a succession of terrible events… and unexpected encounters. For someone trapped in East Berlin, is anything fair game in the search for freedom? Will Carmela realise what’s going on? Or perhaps she has her own reasons for accepting the new situation?

I can’t change the content, obviously. Who am I to say whether a commissioning editor somewhere will be intrigued by this tale of identity theft and espionage behind the Berlin Wall? But I do need to make my translated synopsis as appealing as possible. I gently clarify that confusing first sentence by repeating the protagonist’s name, craft a punchy middle paragraph out of the final two sentences of the opening paragraph of the original, and make the final paragraph more cohesive by introducing a hunting theme (“unleash”, “trapped”, “fair game”).

Quotations

And so, fresh from crafting a piece of micro-fiction, I move on to some quotations. These are always tricky. Quotations make people nervous. Understandably, the general rule is to privilege word-for-word accuracy over fluency. I guess that’s why it’s now so common to see Google-translated quotes dropped into newspaper articles. I can see the thinking: who am I to change the speaker’s words? (Although, of course, you’ve already changed them by turning them into English. And happily incorporating the unedited output of Google Translate into your carefully crafted article strikes me as the journalistic equivalent of trailing a pair of muddy boots across an Afghan rug.) But in this context, the quotes are not courtroom evidence, to be tampered with at the translator’s peril. Rather, they are there to demonstrate the credentials of the text, to show that it has been read and appreciated by discerning readers.

Here are a few examples of fulsome praise for a Spanish crime series:

«¡Qué maestría para convertir a Goya en el protagonista de una novela negra del siglo XXI! El lector se emborracha de felicidad leyendo esta novela.»

«La comisaria Figueroa es el mejor ejemplo de novela de procedimiento con ritmo, pulso narrativo, creación de personajes y acción.»

«Ana Cristina Sánchez pinta un Barcelona de espacios míticos y nuevos fantasmas de la ópera. Una novela para el placer y la reflexión.»

«Sánchez ha sabido entender un talante tan peculiar como el de los policías y convertir todo lo que sabe por su oficio en ficción y literatura.»

Here, for what they’re worth, are the direct translations:

“What mastery to convert Goya into the protagonist of a thriller novel of the 21st century! The reader becomes drunk on happiness reading this novel.”

“Commissioner Figueroa is the best example of a procedural novel with rhythm, narrative pace, creation of personalities and action.”

“Ana Cristina Sánchez paints a Barcelona of mythical spaces and new phantoms of the opera. A novel for pleasure and reflection.”

“Sánchez has known how to understand the very particular character of police officers and convert everything she knows from her craft into fiction and literature.”

I hope we can all agree that these are somewhere between unusable and incomprehensible in this form. They certainly aren’t going to help convince a wavering commissioning editor that this is the title they need to add to their list. And here are my adapted versions:

“What a touch of genius to make Goya the protagonist of a thriller set in the 21st century! The reader is in for an absolute treat.”

Harbour of Death is a brilliant police procedural, narrated with rhythm and pace, packed with action, and full of characters who are all too believable.”

“Ana Cristina Sánchez’s Barcelona is a city of timeless spaces inhabited by modern-day phantoms of the opera. A novel that provides both pleasure and food for thought.”

“Sánchez has drawn on her experience as a journalist, transforming her detailed knowledge of the police into fiction and literature.”

Some of this is fairly standard mildly creative translation, so that maestría becomes “a touch of genius” (rather than “mastery”) and espacios míticos are “timeless spaces” (rather than “mythical” ones). But in other places I’ve had to engage in full-blown transcreation, transforming the happily drunken reader of the first quote into one who is in for an absolute treat, or specifying the title of the book in the second quote or, in the final quote, informing the English reader that the author—a well-known Spanish journalist—draws on this experience in creating her fiction.

And there’s one more factor to consider. I already mentioned the tight deadline, which means there’s no question of sitting on these texts for days and going through multiple revisions while you wait for inspiration to strike. But to make this job pay (and I don’t do it just for the love of it), I have to get through about 2,000 words a day. In practice, that means that the work I’ve just walked through here has to be turned around in about 30 minutes, from rough draft to finished product, including any background research.

I think those practical constraints, combined with the conflicting challenges of information transfer, creative translation and cultural adaptation, make this the hardest work I do as a translator. Now could someone please just commission me to translate a big fat novel?

This article originally appeared in In Other Words (Issue 53, Summer 2019), the journal of the Translators Association, published by the National Centre for Writing.

Bad Joke (Jordi Casanovas)

Do you remember, Ernesto asks his best and oldest friend, Oscar, do you remember that time back in our university days when we broke into Felix Goluda’s room and woke him up by slapping him across the face with our cocks, do you remember the look on his face, the surprise, the shock, the fear, that was a laugh, how we fucking laughed, they agree, it was a laugh, a fucking laugh.

Now imagine someone shows up at your dad’s funeral, the body still stiff in the casket if you’ll excuse the pun and this guy, this visitor, a mourner if you like, he whips out his cock, his schlong, and he slaps your old man, your dear dead dad, across the face with his wedding tackle, not so fucking funny, is it? and Anna, Oscar’s wife and Ernesto’s friend, agrees that it’s not funny, not funny at all.

Fuck’s sake, Oscar says, some people have no sense of humour, they’re always looking for reasons to take offence, ruling things off limits or declaring them to be in poor taste, a Bad Joke even, like a misplaced cock at a funeral obviously but they don’t stop there, the list of things you can’t make jokes about is endless: terrorism, feminism, child abuse, and honestly if you can’t joke about those then what can you make a joke about, what is humour even for, next thing you’ll be telling me I can’t make a joke about murder either…

You can see Bad Joke (Mala broma) by Jordi Casanovas, translated by Tim Gutteridge and directed by Dadiow Lin at the Omnibus Theatre, 2 August 2019. Click here for information and booking. Cast: Edwin Nwachukwu Jr., Dilek Rose and David Ahmad.

Out of the Wings Festival 2019

Bad Joke is part of the Out of the Wings Festival 2019, a celebration of theatre from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, held at the Omnibus Theatre, London. This year’s festival includes six dramatised readings of new English translations, a one-day conference, and three workshops.

Out of the Wings is supported by King’s College London with Goldsmiths University of London and Language Acts and Worldmaking.

Aeolian harps and alien trinkets: talking to Tim Parks about translating style

It often seems as if there is only one debate in literary translation, despite our ingenuity in coming up with new terms to describe it. Is translation a discipline or an art? Are we “text-oriented” or “reader-oriented”? Are we literalists or activists?

Sometimes, this dichotomy is expressed in metaphorical terms. You can choose old-world sexism: “Translation is like a women. If it’s beautiful, it’s not faithful. If it’s faithful, it’s not beautiful.” Or Marina Warner’s recent (and oddly one-sided) musical simile: “Should a translator respond like an Aeolian harp, vibrating in harmony with the original text to transmit the original music, or should the translation read as if it were written in the new language?”

However, while I think there’s a tendency these days to emphasise the creative aspects of what we do and play down the question of language competence, I’ve yet to see the phrase “reader-oriented translator” on any of my colleagues’ business cards.

Aside from which, I’m not entirely convinced by this dichotomy as a description of the translation process. Right now I’m working on the opening sentences of En el cuerpo una voz (In the Body, a Voice) by Bolivian novelist, Maximiliano Barrientos, and have gone through five drafts. At first glance, draft three looks the most ‘creative’ (in the sense of being furthest from the source) while draft five is the most literal. But it’s this last version that has benefited from all the effort of the previous drafts; the original Spanish strains at the boundaries of what Spanish ordinarily does, and I’ve had to attempt something similar to reproduce that effect in English.

In short, the literal versus creative opposition doesn’t strike me as offering a helpful way of classifying translations or of explaining translation as a process. I decided to inflict my musings on Tim Parks, and see if he had any other thoughts about how to describe what’s going on.

TG

What about this distinction between literalists and activists? Are there any other metaphors or frameworks that you feel provide a better starting point for talking about our work?

TP

Let’s avoid metaphors; they tend to take on a life of their own, which is distracting. I’m more intrigued by the five drafts you describe, particularly your rejection of what you felt was the most fluent and savvily English version. It might seem creative, you say, but actually it ignores the specific creativity of the Spanish. And presumably that creativity is integrated with the content of the book, it’s not just a random ‘style element’. I’d really like to see the two versions you mention and the Spanish and have you talk us through them. But before we do that, let me throw in a couple of comments that stuck in my mind recently reading through an anthology of older translation theory to prepare for a teaching course.

Commenting on his translation of Aeschylus, Humboldt remarks: “With every new revision I sought to eliminate more of what was not stated plainly in the text – since the impossibility of rendering the original’s unique beauties tempts one to embellish it with alien trinkets that give it overall a divergent colour and sound.”

That makes sense to me. We come at the original. We’re frustrated that our version doesn’t sound as good. We throw in some tricks to liven it up. Then we realize that we’ve actually written something completely different in feel from the original, and that maybe in the long run it might be better to look for ways to stay closer to it. In general, especially where the prose is unusual, we should remember that, as the pages turn, readers can be drawn into a different kind of fluency. A writer knows this. Translators shouldn’t lose their nerve just because the first sentence sounds odd. Imagine a Spanish, or French or German translator tackling the opening of Henry Green’s masterpiece, Party Going:

“Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed flew flat into a balustrade and slowly fell dead at her feet.”

If we turn that into standard fluent French or Italian or whatever, we’re going to miss the whole point of the way the fog seems to have seeped into the syntax so that readers like pigeons are in danger of bumping into things, or having other things fall at their feet. The whole book is going to go on like that. The translator has to take a risk, wait, write quite a few pages, see if some kind of different enchantment can be conjured up. That’s where the creativity lies.

The other thing your musings reminded me of was Dryden’s division of translators into the ‘word-for-word’ brigade, the ‘paraphrase’ brigade and the ‘imitation’ brigade, the last being the ones who simply go for it ‘creatively’ without worrying too much about the original. He remarks: “Imitation of an author is the most advantageous way for a translator to show himself, but the greatest wrong which can be done to the memory and reputation of the writer.”

In short, I suspect Dryden would be with your fifth draft rather than your third, but can we see them?

TG

Here are those opening sentences in Spanish:

Cada vez más pálido, observó por la ventanilla cómo el paisaje se pulverizaba en la velocidad.

Ya no duele, dijo mi hermano.

Literally:

Ever more pale, he observed through the window how the landscape pulverized itself in the speed.

It doesn’t hurt any more, said my brother.

My ‘fluent’ translation came out as follows:

My brother grew paler and paler as, through the car window, he observed the speeding landscape turn to dust.

“It doesn’t hurt any more,” he said.

But by the time I’d reached the fifth draft, it had turned into this:

He was growing paler and paler. Through the car window, he watched the landscape crumble in the speed.

It doesn’t hurt any more, my brother said.

TP

So the problem really is understanding what’s standard and what’s non-standard in the original, where the author is surprising the reader. I’m no expert in Spanish but that cómo el paisaje se pulverizaba en la velocidad looks interestingly odd. Then maybe you want to know why the author went for that non-standard usage, whether there’s going to be more of it, how it fits in with the book’s vision, whether you can do something similar in English. I expect you’d want to translate quite a lot more before you go back and finalize your opening lines.

TG

Absolutely. Sometimes there’s a key word that you just have to resolve for the rest of the translation to work. In this case, it’s the verb se pulverizaba, right in the first sentence. It’s tempting just to get the meaning and then translate that in the most ‘normal’ way possible: ‘turned to dust’, for example. But that shifts the focus of the sentence from the process (the crumbling of the landscape) to its result (dust). If you read on in the novel, you notice the author uses a lot of ergative or reflexive verbs, creating an open-ended atmosphere where nothing is resolved, which is also true of the plot itself. As a theme, then, this issue of disintegrating landscapes is clearly one that interests the author; in fact his latest novel is titled La desaparición del paisaje (The Disappearance of the Landscape).

TP

A good question to ask is how the unusual aspects of the style are linked to each other, how they are working together. For example, in the Spanish we don’t identify the protagonist as ‘my brother’ until the second paragraph, after an unpunctuated piece of dialogue. Even then we can’t be sure that it’s the same person as in the first paragraph because we’ve gone from an undeclared subject to ‘my brother’ rather than vice versa. This disorientation then meshes with the experience of the person watching the landscape dissolve or turn to dust or whatever en la velocidad. We’re launched into the book at speed without any fixed points of reference. That sensation has worked its way into the language.

TG

Yes. Disorientation and loss of reference points occur at every level: it’s a story about a country that has disintegrated, descending into chaos in the wake of a military coup.

TP

In any event, for the purposes of our discussion, what you referred to as your most ‘creative’ version actually only entailed the ‘creativity’ of finding a standard delivery in the English, which would be fine if the Spanish was standard, but it isn’t. So often this ‘radical domestication’ as they now call it is just a way of giving us déjà vu, things like other things we’ve read before.

Two lessons we could draw maybe: first, your Spanish has to be good enough to distinguish the standard from the non-standard, the ordinary from the not. And this means knowing the language so well that you really feel the surprise when there’s something exciting going on. When I ask a class of Italian translators to read Hemingway’s “He thought about alone in Constantinople that time having quarrelled in Paris…” and they aren’t shocked by the odd use of ‘alone’, or don’t even notice it, I know they aren’t going to be able to translate the book’s flavour.

TG

This is probably the hardest thing for people reading in their second language. How do you develop that sense of what is ‘normal’ and what isn’t? Especially since the two shade into each other. There’s no easy solution, though I think active use of your source language, really living in it, probably helps develop that sensitivity. And I agree that it’s not just about identifying it but, as you say, feeling the surprise.

TP

Second lesson. You have to become aware of your own bias toward writing in this or that style and resist it, or at least not mistake it for creativity. I have heard translators talking about their ambition to write “beautiful sentences” when they translate. But what is a beautiful sentence? The attraction of the writing is in relation to the content and the overall project. What works in Proust won’t work in Camus. Your Bolivian author is trying to create a certain feel. We have to trust, at least initially, that when we’ve strung a few paragraphs together the reader will be drawn into this world, even if we find ourselves writing sentences we never expected to. Because the translator – and I think this is crucial – is both server and performer.

TG

I hear so many variants of that attitude: “writing elegant sentences”, “setting aside the source and working on the translation” and so on. It’s easy to get distracted from the original and its style. Aside from my Bolivian project, I’m also working on a historical novel at the moment. It’s set in the 19th century and narrated by a retired slaver with a highly distinctive voice, at once deranged yet sane, inhumane and deeply human. Sometimes I find myself departing from that into a generic ‘nautical novel’ style, but whenever I do, that disturbing voice softens. A reader probably wouldn’t notice. They’d certainly find my generic mode less brutally jarring than the original and might even prefer it. So it’s a problem.

The notion of translator as both server and performer makes sense in a situation like this. Without that commitment to serve, however pleasing the performance, the reader is deprived of something in the original. Of course, a degree of loss or distortion is inevitable, but that seems all the more reason not to advocate approaches that lead to more loss.

TP

To return to your opening question – Can we avoid the “text-oriented” or “reader-oriented” dichotomy? – I think we can now say that that formulation is based on a condescending attitude that assumes we know what readers want, what ‘reader-oriented’ means; essentially we assume they don’t want anything too challenging, and that hence we must give them our ‘generic mode’, as you call it, which in the end is easier for us too, since it frees us from reading the original too closely or worrying whether we’ve really got it. This approach also fits perfectly with publishers’ anxieties that translations be easy to read and hence easy to sell. The danger is that the whole project of bringing people to foreign literature begins to look like an empty piety. As a teacher these days, I must say my focus is all on reading more intensely, in fact I’ll be doing another course at the Fenysia School in Florence soon, this time directed at Italian translators and considering how to read English texts more closely when translating to Italian. My belief is that when one is really immersed in the original and really has it, feels it, then one wants to give that to the reader; at which point the famous dichotomy just dissolves. You trust the original to seduce the reader and you trust the reader to want the challenge.

ITI Scottish Network summer workshop: collaborative professional development for translators

Aberdour, 1 June 2019

Three years ago, Victoria Patience, Simon Berrill and Tim Gutteridge were looking for ways to improve the quality of our work. We realised we couldn’t afford to have each and every one of our texts professionally revised by another translator, so we decided that, instead of focusing on improving individual translations, we would focus on how to become better translators all round.

There was only one small obstacle. Victoria lives in Buenos Aires, Simon’s home is in Barcelona and Tim is based in Cádiz, so whatever we did had to work remotely. The result was a collaborative professional development group, which goes by the name of Revision Club. We started simply by taking turns giving each other feedback on our work, sending back heavily annotated Word documents via email. But the arrangement quickly flourished and we now do a monthly translation slam (by Skype), we communicate regularly by email and WhatsApp, we share the occasional assignment, and we have presented our ideas at workshops and conferences.

Our ScotNet summer workshop, presented by Simon and Tim, is designed to give participants a feel for how Revision Club works, and an insight into the many benefits it can offer, which range from clearing up those little niggly-naggly doubts about false friends and punctuation all the way up to life-coaching and superpowered professional networking.

We have designed our workshop with multilingual groups in mind.

Session 1 consists of a short presentation of how Revision Club works, followed by a discussion of what collaborative professional development involves, the key elements, and the potential benefits of such an arrangement.

For session 2, participants will need to bring an example of one of their own translations, along with the corresponding source text, which will then provide the basis for working in pairs or small groups. For this activity, there will need to be at least one other participant working into the same TARGET language.

For session 3, participants will need to complete a short translation, which will then provide the basis for working in pairs or small groups. For this activity, participants may be grouped either according to SOURCE or TARGET language depending on numbers, so as long as all participants work either into or out of English (which we’re assuming they do), there are no further participant requirements.

Session 4 has two elements. During first 60 minutes, the presenters will do a translation slam using the same text as the one participants translated and discussed in session 3. The slam is designed to give participants a feel for how we conduct our monthly Skype slam and will be framed as wider discussion between the presenters and all of the workshop participants. The final 30 minutes of session 4 will provide an opportunity to discuss practical aspects of establishing, organising and maintaining a collaborative development partnership.

For further information, including booking please contact ITI Scottish Network.

“In the blacksmith’s house…”: linguistic border guard or linguistic nomad?

Translators like to think that we facilitate communication, building linguistic bridges between the speakers (or readers) of one language and those of another. But that’s only half the story. In this job of mediating between two languages we are – we must be – almost neurotically aware of what belongs where. More specifically (although it’s not a word we like to use) we are terrified that our translations, in our target language, might be ‘contaminated’ by elements from the source language: by words, phrases and structures that have slipped through while our guard was down. As I work, scanning my writing for false friends, calques and phrases whose subtle clunkiness might reveal their foreign origins to the finely tuned ear, I resemble not so much a facilitator of cultural exchange as a sentinel, obsessed with ensuring that my text remains free of illegal linguistic aliens.

It is true that, as a literary translator, I can allow myself the occasional exotic flourish, a Spanish word to signal to the reader that, “hey, we’re all nice liberal types, no prejudices here”. But, if I am honest, what such gestures most resemble are the distracting tactics of the magician, the high fluttering fingers of the left hand that draw the spectator’s attention away from the sleight being performed by the right.

At home, there is none of this vigilance, none of this policing. I am Scottish. I speak English. And Spanish. I live – for now – in Spain. With my Spanish wife. And our teenage children. But this brief description only hints at the ways in which we constantly cross and re-cross the frontier between our two languages. Here there are no guards, no walls. Instead, every relationship, every conversation even, has its own combination.

I should clarify, before I go any further, that I am not talking about ‘Spanglish’ – by which I mean the deliberate combination of both Spanish and English words or phrases within a single sentence or utterance, which appears in communities where everyone – to a greater or lesser degree – masters both languages (Puerto Ricans in New York or Gibraltarians in Andalucia, for example). Indeed, Spanglish only works, can only exist, because of this dual mastery, because its speakers can combine the languages in ways that respect the internal logic of each, that draw on their strengths and on the effects that come from making those switches in mid-utterance. It is not something people do out of confusion or laziness.

We could do that. After all, our family is a little bilingual community of its own. And many families in our situation do. But we don’t. Of course, we sometimes use Spanish words in our English and vice versa. My children have a grandma (my mother) and an abuela (my wife’s mother) whatever language we are speaking. And sometimes, when a field is very strongly associated with a language, its terminology remains unchanged. When we talk about school, recreo never becomes break timebachillerato never becomes baccalaureate (or whatever the English term would even be) and so on.

But what happens in my house is different again. It looks a little like this:

So… there are four people in our family, making six two-way linguistic relationships, each of which is different. Let’s start with the simple ones.

My daughter (C) and I talk to each other in English (I’m ‘T’ in the diagram). My wife (G) and our son (S) talk to each other in Spanish. My daughter talks to her brother in English. He generally (but not always) talks to her in Spanish.

My son generally speaks to me in Spanish. I go with his linguistic flow – when I remember – but default into English otherwise. My wife talks to our daughter in Spanish a lot of the time, but my daughter (almost) always talks to her mother in English.

My wife and I use both languages with each other with, I think, a mild preference on both sides for English. (Her English is better than my Spanish.) We often chop and change within conversations, usually for no obvious reason, although sometimes the motives can be guessed at: staking out the moral high ground is best done in your partner’s language while sulking is performed more effectively in one’s mother tongue.

And, of course, this diagram would have looked quite different two years ago – and may well look quite different two years from now. The point being that relationships between individuals are dynamic and shift over time, and where there is the option of choosing languages to express those relationships, then the choice of language will reflect some of those underlying dynamics.

By contrast, the relationship between two languages, at least for a translator, must be kept as stable as possible, so that Spanish is always Spanish and English is always English. And so I am a linguistic border guard in my work but a restless nomad with my family. Or, as the Spanish proverb has it: “in the blacksmith’s house, a wooden knife.”

This is not a beauty contest: some thoughts on the challenge of translating style

Anyone who knows me or is familiar with my work will know that I am not a paid-up member of the literal translation school. I’m also (despite rumours to the contrary!) not a fan of picking over translations in search for what may either be minor errors or sensitive adjustments to carry the original into the target language. However, I worry that the understandable emphasis on producing a translation that is a thing of beauty in its own right can lead to translators depriving readers of some of what is most essential in the source text.

This came home to me last week when I was working on a sample translation of La desaparición de paisaje, a novel by Bolivian author Maximiliano Barrientos. At first sight, the style is plain and the meaning is fairly clear. The following paragraph gives a reasonable taste. (Skip forward if you don’t read Spanish – translations and explanations are provided.)

Horas más tarde, ya bien entrada la noche, no podía dormir. Entré en el cuarto de María, me senté en una silla frente a su cama. Ella respiraba con dificultad por todos los cigarros que fumaba. La observé sin despertarla: la boca estaba entreabierta, las arrugas bordeaban sus ojos. Se ahogó pero luego volvió a respirar sin dificultad, por los movimientos continuos de sus labios. Se podía deducir que sus sueños eran violentos. Acerqué mi cara y sentí su respiración, el aire caliente que exhalaba. La saliva se escurrió por una de las comisuras y manchó la almohada. Había una fiesta en una de las casas del barrio. Las canciones llegaban apagadas hasta el dormitorio de María, hasta el dormitorio que muchos años atrás había sido de mi madre. Observé por la ventana los autos estacionados en la calle. Las risas de toda aquellla gente se mezclaron con las voces de los cantantes mexicanos de cumbias que siempre cantaban sobre amores no correspondidos, amores que acaban mal, amores perdidos.

Before I show you my initial attempt at this passage, I’m going to highlight three of the salient features of Barrientos’ style:

  • the combination of short, grammatically complete sentences into lists that are separated only by commas
  • the deliberate use of ambiguity, as a result of concise – at times almost cryptic – phrasings
  • a description of physical phenomena that is at once very concrete and at the same time slightly abstract: as if the person experiencing them does so at one remove.

As a translator, I always try to get input from colleagues, and I find it particularly useful for this kind of stylistically challenging text. So I sent my first draft to fellow translator Nat Paterson for developmental editing, and here’s what I got back (comments below):

HSeveral hours later, long after night had fallen,I couldn’t get to sleep. I went into María’s room and sat on a chair next to her bed.Her breathing was laborious because of all the cigarettes she smokedHerbreathing was laboured because of all the cigarettes she smoked. I watched her without waking herup: her mouth was slightly open,there were wrinkles all around her eyeswere surrounded by wrinkles. She choked, then began to breathe easily again[JIWP1] , and from the way her lips moved continuously, I could tell she was having disturbing dreams. I brought my face close to hers,let myself feelingher warm breathas she exhaled. Saliva dribbled from the corner of her mouth, leaving a damp patch on the pillow. There was a party in one of the neighbouring houses. The music was a muffled noise  here, ofthe music could be heard in María’s bedroom, the bedroom that – many years before – had also[JIWP2] been my mother’s many years before. I looked out of the window,at the cars parked in the street outside. The laughter of the partygoers mixed with the voices singing Mexican cumbias[JIWP3] , telling as always of unrequited love, of love affairs that ended badly, of doomed love.


 [JIWP1]Not clear when she was breathing easily before.

 [JIWP2]Or by ‘also’, do you mean that they used to share the room? I take it the music is only muffled here, not where it is being played?

 [JIWP3]The voices of the partygoers or of other people? Are the songs or the voices ‘telling’? Is there any significance to Mexican music in a Bolivian novel?


As you’ll see, Nat picked out a few bum notes in my translation, and also unfailingly put his finger on everything that sounded odd. (That’s exactly what I asked him to do – and I specifically told him not to worry about the source text or attempt to second-guess points where an unnatural phrasing might be justified by the source text.)  He also had a few queries of the sort that will hopefully occur to the intelligent reader when they encounter an unusual or unfamiliar text.

But this left me with a dilemma. Should I attend to these comments and adjust the translation to make it sound less ‘strange’, more ‘flowing’, more ‘natural’? Should I resolve some of the ambiguities? Should I ditch some strange phrasings in favour of more natural ones?

Here’s my final version (draft 5):

Several hours later, well into the night, I couldn’t sleep. I went into María’s room, I sat on a chair next to her bed. Her breathing was laboured because of all the cigarettes she smoked. I watched without waking her up: her mouth was slightly open, wrinkles surrounded her eyes. She choked then began to breathe more easily again, from the way her lips moved continuously I could tell she was having disturbing dreams. I brought my face close to hers, feeling her warm breath as she exhaled. Saliva dribbled from the corner of her mouth, making a damp patch on the pillow. There was a party in one of the neighbouring houses. The muffled songs reached María’s bedroom, the bedroom that many years before had also been my mother’s. I looked out of the window at the cars parked in the street. The laughter of the partygoers mixed with the voices of the Mexican cumbia singers who always sang of unrequited love, love that ended badly, doomed love.

In some places I simply took Nat’s advice on board, but generally his comments prompted me to look back at the source to see what was going on there. And as I did that, I realized there were a number of points where I’d drifted away from the source text in a desire to make my translation sound a bit more ‘natural’ but where I was, as a result, losing the style of the original.

Let’s start with some minor changes in wording:

long after night had fallen

well into the night

her eyes were surrounded by wrinkles

wrinkles surrounded her eyes

saliva… leaving a damp patch

saliva… making a damp patch

she … began to breathe easily, and from the way her lips moved…

she … began to breathe easily, from the way her lips moved…

In each of these, I’ve replaced something more natural with something that it is more unusual. I wouldn’t die in a ditch for any of these translations, but cumulatively I’d argue that they are actually a better reflection of the style and feeling of the source text – or, to put it another way, choosing the more conventional options would in some sense betray the original.

The following example involved slightly more extensive rewording but the principle is the same. 

the muffled noise of the music could be heard in María’s bedroom, the bedroom which…

the muffled songs reached María’s bedroom, the bedroom which…

The original was “las canciones llegaban apagadas” (literally, “the songs arrived muffled” – although there’s nothing particularly odd about the Spanish structure here). My initial draft was an attempt to find the most natural way to say this in English, while also avoiding a repetition of “song”, which appears in a later sentence. I think it’s not bad at all: a nice example, if you like, of not getting too hung up on the source language structure.

However, I decided to cut it back for two reasons. Firstly, Barrientos’ style is quite laconic, and to capture it one really has to keep the English as concise as possible. Of course, sometimes a bit of expansion is inevitable – but in this case I think it is unnecessary. More importantly, though, my initial version refocuses the sentence, directing the reader’s attention towards the music, introducing an unspecified listener (who hears the music), and distracting the reader from the bedroom, which is actually the real focus of the sentence. So here, my ‘natural’ translation introduces a series of minor shifts which, taken together, significantly alter the focus and feel of the sentence.

In the following example, I had again introduced some stylistic tweaks at first draft – “telling” to avoid repetition of “sang”, omission of the singers (ditto), addition of “affairs”, and repetition of the word “of”:

the voices singing Mexican cumbias telling as always of unrequited love, of love affairs that ended badly, of doomed love

the voices of the Mexican cumbia singers who always sang of unrequited love, love that ended badly, doomed love

Again, I was quite pleased with my initial translation, and in one sense it’s more natural: it avoids repetition (“singing” + “telling” rather than “singers” + “sang”), the addition of “affairs” arguably helps to make “love [affairs] that ended badly” feel a little more at home in English, and adding “of” again helps to clarify that there are different kinds of “loves” (ones that are unrequited, ones that end badly, and ones that are doomed) not one single kind (which simultaneously is unrequited, ends badly and is doomed). But the cumulative impact of this is to rob the original of some of its feeling. There is a repetition of “canciones”, “cantantes” and “cantaban” in the original; if I replace this (as I did at first draft) with “noise”, “singers” and “telling” then the effect is lost.

Now all of these might seem quite minor. Until we remember that this is a short paragraph in a full-length novel. The impact of applying all these naturalizing tweaks throughout the text would undoubtedly be to transform the style of the original (laconic, unusual, occasionally dissonant) into something much more ‘natural’ and flowing. And that brings me onto my main point.

There is an understandable tendency among literary translators to stress the importance of target language writing skills, to argue that the translated text must stand on its own two feet, even – perhaps – to be somewhat dismissive of the whole issue of accuracy or fidelity. That’s all fine, but only up to a point. As translators, we also have a duty to the source text (obviously) and that duty must surely extend to seeking to find ways to carry the style of the source into the target language. But we can only do that if we attend very closely to the author’s specific choices, and at times that must mean that we should reject translations that are natural, flowing or simply ‘prettier’ in favour of ones that are not. Literary translation is not a beauty contest.


Please contact me if you would like to see an extended sample of this translation.


You can find out more about La desaparición del paisaje, and read an interview with the author here.

Entrevista con Maximiliano Barrientos

Maximiliano Barrientos es autor de La desaparición del paisaje (Periférica, 2017). Hablé con el sobre su novela, la traducción y la literatura en general.


TG: La desaparición del paisaje es uno de esos libros que parece sencillo: la historia de un hombre de 32 años, que vuelve a Bolivia después de 12 años en EE.UU. Pero cuando intento describirlo a amigos y compañeros me aturullo. Me doy cuenta de que, a pesar de ser relativamente corto (unas 270 páginas) y tener una trama más o menos sencilla, toca muchos temas. ¿Me lo puedes resumir en pocas palabras?

MB: El más explícito de todos es el del regreso, lo que significa volver al lugar en el que sucedieron las experiencias importantes y también el lugar de donde el personaje huyó, ya que la novela parte de esa huida no narrada. Hay una problemática en todo regreso porque uno vuelve al espacio físico pero no al espacio mental, emocional, donde sucedieron esas cosas. Uno vuelve al lugar, pero no al pasado (este aparece todo el tiempo como un espectro). Por lo tanto, el pasado es otro de los temas importantes de la novela. El tercer gran tema, a mi parecer, es la familia, especialmente la relación entre padres e hijos, y la lucha que los hijos emprenden cuando se ven amenazados por los demonios de los padres. En esa lucha creo que se aborda la construcción de la masculinidad, de cierto tipo de masculinidad, que procesa la pérdida desde la rabia y desde la violencia.

TG: Una de las cosas que me encanta cuando me pongo a traducir un texto -que en este caso solo consiste en una muestra hasta ahora- es que me obliga a leer con mucha atención. Confieso que no soy un lector particularmente atento por naturaleza (¡dicho de otra manera, soy vago!), pero cuando empiezo a traducir me fijo en todo: la puntuación, las ambigüedades, los pequeños silencios, el ritmo de los diálogos. Es como si, por arte de magia, me hubiera convertido de repente en una especie de lector superdotado. Al traducir las primeras 15 páginas de La desaparición del paisaje, me di cuenta de que tu estilo -que a primera vista parece sencilla- también es bastante idiosincrático. ¿Me puedes comentar como concibes tu estilo, en qué consiste?

MB: Concuerdo. Es interesante como traducir nos obliga a ser lectores puntillosos, yo he tenido una experiencia muy discreta y totalmente amateur traduciendo algunos cuentos de autores como Peter Orner, Aimee Bender, Mary Gaitskill y Rick Bass para un taller de creación literaria que imparto desde hace algunos años. Como quería comentar algunas cuestiones estructurales de ciertos relatos, y como no había traducción al español, yo les pasaba el original y adjuntaba la traducción que había hecho.

Creo que el estilo no se escoge, siguiendo a la gran Flannery O’Connor, es un don, algo innato, con lo que uno se topa en algún momento después de innumerables fracasos, después de innumerables lecturas en las que intuyes lugares por los que no querés irte como narrador. Ayuda más al estilo descubrir qué cosas detestas en ciertos escritores que descubrir qué cosas adoras. La educación literaria es un campo de batalla en el que hay que tomar partido por un bando o por otro, no hay neutralidad.

El estilo es un descubrimiento, pero sin el aprendizaje del oficio queda amorfo. Se lo potencia con el oficio, y supongo que ese es el aprendizaje del escritor. A mí me interesa que el lenguaje produzca la ilusión de la experiencia, induzca una vivencia en el lector, y para ello tiene que invisibilizarse y convertirse en una cadencia, en un ritmo, en una respiración que esté al servicio de ciertas imágenes claves. Lo primero y más importante para mí es la imagen: el lenguaje trata de traducirla.

TG: Que yo sepa, antes de leer La desaparición del paisaje solo había leído una novela boliviana en mi vida: Los afectos, de Rodrigo Hasbún (traducido al inglés con el título Affections, por Sophie Hughes y publicado por Pushkin Press). ¿Te sitúas dentro de una tradición literaria boliviana, o más bien dentro de algo más amplio: la literatura latinoamericana o incluso en lengua española, sencillamente? ¿Hay algún escritor en particular que ha tenido mucha influencia en tu trayecto como autor?

MB: Creo que es difícil hablar de una tradición boliviana o latinoamericana ya que bajo esa etiqueta se asocian a escritores que no tienen nada que ver entre sí, que tienen poéticas muy distintas, contrapuestas. Yo me siento en deuda con ciertos escritores bolivianos, latinoamericanos, norteamericanos y europeos. Si tuviera que hacer algo así como una tradición, las puntas de lanzas serían poetas como Jaime Saenz, Viel Temperley y Zbigniew Herbert. Novelistas como William Faulkner, J.G. Ballard, Vladimir Sorokin, Cormac McCarthy y Juan José Saer. Cuentistas como Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson y Mariana Enríquez.

El concepto de tradición estrictamente literario no puede mapearse por territorios sino por afinidades con el imaginario y con la sensibilidad, y por lo tanto no hablamos de estructuras sólidas sino de estructuras movedizas. Un escritor no siempre pertenece a un mismo linaje: se producen rupturas en el tiempo.

Si lo pensamos desde una perspectiva territorial, la tradición funciona más en términos de lobby. Si un escritor mexicano o argentino publica una novela la tendrá mil veces más fácil que uno ecuatoriano o boliviano, eso por el mismo sistema de producción, por la misma infraestructura. ¿Se aborda con la misma expectativa una novela escrita por un paraguayo que una escrita por un colombiano? Sería absurdo pensar que sí. Todo el sistema está montado para favorecer a las tradiciones fuertes.


Este es el texto original de la conversación que mantuve con Maximiliano por email. Figura en inglés en este artículo, que ofrece una reseña La desaparición del paisaje, acompañada por una traducción de las primeras 12 páginas de la novela.

Y aquí escribo sobre el reto que supone intentar captar el estilo de Maximiliano Barrientos al traducirlo al inglés.