What’s in a word?

Translators have a very intimate relationship with words. We are hypersensitive to nuance, tone, connotations, register… It’s something we are particularly aware of at those moments when we hit on that perfect translation, the word or phrase that captures the original – whether directly, because they match those of the original – or indirectly because the translation finds a different way to achieve the same effect.

But words can have deeply personal associations, too. Back in 2001, my partner was pregnant with our first child, and we attended a local antenatal class. We became friends with another couple, and our son was born a day before theirs. They were both big lads, weighing in at over 4 kg. But while our son, Sam, was contented and tranquil, our friends’ son, Robert, was of a more nervous disposition. He wasn’t keen on sleeping through the night (or at all, really), he jumped up and down when he was meant to be feeding, he puked relentlessly, and he generally did his best to use up more energy than he consumed. When the boys moved onto solids, Sam was happy to be spoonfed but Robert insisted on feeding himself, and most of his food ended up on the floor or in his hair. Predictably, by the time they were around one year old, Sam had put on a lot more weight than Robert.

Whenever I saw Robert’s father, Alan, he would greet me with the words, “How’s the behemoth?” a reference to my thriving firstborn – and a nod at his own son’s demanding approach to being parented. (When I asked Alan how he was, he would just roll his eyes and say “pretty tired!”; he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since before the birth.) “The behemoth” soon became a temporary nickname for our son. There was added irony from the fact that Alan, himself, was something of a behemoth – 6’4”, solidly built – whereas I’m 5’10” and wiry at most.

Some years later, by which time the boys had grown into hefty teenagers, I got a phone call from Alan. We’d drifted out of touch, and I was really pleased to hear from him. And then Alan told me he’d had some bad news. He’d recently been to the doctor and he’d been informed he only had months to live. It’s a cliché, but in this case it was true: I didn’t know what to say. In my defence, I should also mention that Alan had form. He was one of those people who was always making deadpan comments and, along with my sense of shock was a real doubt: was this news just another one of Alan’s jokes?

It wasn’t. Alan had an inoperable brain tumour, although palliative care gave him another year of life. We renewed our friendship but when I look back on that last year, it is always tinged with the sense that we never really spoke about the things that mattered: death, obviously, fatherhood, but also our friendship – the way it had drifted and then renewed. Perhaps that was okay. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the word “behemoth” will always make me think of Alan, of that year we shared – the first in our sons’ lives – and also of that other year we had together, his last. A few weeks ago I had to translate the phrase mole rodante (= rolling hulk) in reference to a bus. I think my translation, wheeled behemoth, captures that rather nicely. And it also allowed me to pay tribute to my friend.

Building the house on the hill: talking to Tim Parks about translation as reading and writing (2)

TG

At the end of our last conversation you suggested we might discuss syntax. It’s not the sexiest of topics, is it? I also have to admit that, although I pay a lot of attention to syntactic challenges when I’m translating, I’ve never really tried to put my finger on all the things that are going on when we grapple with structures in the source and recast them in the target text. Perhaps there’s even a reluctance to draw attention to all that hidden work; I rather like feeling that I am a duck gliding smoothly along on the water while, just below the surface and invisible from the shore, my syntactic webbed feet are paddling away furiously. Why would I point that out to anyone?

TP

No reason at all to draw attention to your wicked webbed feet weaving away underwater. But when a duck looks lame, it seems reasonable to ask why. Generally, if a translation’s stumbling from one interference to another, it’s easy enough to point at lexical problems, calques, false friends, whatever. But often things are going on with the syntax, or just the organization of the sentence in general, that make the translation feel awkward. What do you think, for example, of these three short phrases taken from an award-winning translation from the Italian?

She squeezes hard the child’s hand
His hands stroke absently the pebbles
He remembers still a cake

TG

Oh dear! If I was copy editing, I’d just fix those by moving the adverb:

She squeezes the child’s hand, hard
His hands absently stroke the pebbles
He still remembers a cake

As a translator, though, I can’t help wondering if there is something else going on. If I translate these back into Italian in my head I can imagine a source text that is perfectly natural while also exploiting Italian syntax to draw attention to the adverb.

TP

It’s entirely ordinary to put the adverb between verb and object in Italian – ricorda ancora un dolce – so it doesn’t focus attention on the adverb. But when you do it in English, it changes the rhythm and the focus. Here’s Joyce from The Dead: “He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.” Very poetic. But that’s hardly the case with the three examples I gave.

TG

I suppose the other obvious possibility is that our translator is incompetent. But you said this was a prizewinner…

TP

…of many years ago and now no longer with us. Still there’s a reason, I think, why the translator made this decision. In each of these three little phrases the objects – the hand, the pebbles and the cake – are followed by a relative clause, or a clause in apposition.

She squeezes hard the child’s hand clinging to her skirt
His hands in his pockets stroke absently the pebbles collected on another Sunday
He remembers still a cake that she and Matelda made for Easter

This is standard Italian syntax. Of course in English we have the problem, at least in the first two sentences, that if we shift the adverb where you wanted to shift it, we can’t tag on the phrase in apposition.

She squeezes the child’s hand hard clinging to her skirt
His hands […] stroke the pebbles absently collected on another Sunday

TG

So what you’re saying is, faced with the problem of sorting out what to do with the part in apposition, the translator opts for the unusual position with the adverb. Except that still doesn’t explain He remembers still a cake, since you would never move your still to after the cake.

TP

I can only suppose that after years of translating and always opting for this solution the translator has got so used to the ‘poetic’ positioning of the adverb that he does it willy-nilly. But the question is, what should he have done?

TG

The same thing occurs in Spanish: you have to make that adjustment to keep the relative clause and its referent adjacent, and you hope to find a way of doing so that is artful. It’s the sort of work I was thinking of when I talked about my feet paddling beneath the water at the start. With these sentences, only the first presents any problem. So let’s invert the order:

He still remembers a cake that she and Matelda made for Easter
In his pockets, his hands absently stroke the pebbles collected on another Sunday

That was easy enough. But in the third one something has to change. What about this?

She squeezes the child’s hand clinging to her skirt, squeezes it hard

TP

Well, you’ve removed the syntactical awkwardness, but at the expense of a lot of squeezing. The focus of the sentence is even more strongly on the adverb. Maybe a more neutral solution could use a temporal ‘as’ clause.

She squeezes the child’s hand hard as the girl clings to her skirt
or
She squeezes her hand hard as the little girl clings to her skirt

Obviously, to do that you’d have to have read enough of the book to know that we’re talking about a little girl. It’s interesting that to solve syntactical problems you often need information from elsewhere in the book.

But let’s move on to something less formulaic, where we have a mix of problems.

Here’s the opening to Cesare Pavese’s novel The House on the Hill.

Già in altri tempi si diceva la collina come avremmo detto il mare o la boscaglia.

Let me give you a word-for-word translation.

Already in other times one said/used to say/would say the hill as we would have said the sea or the wood/scrubland/bush.

What do you think?

TG

Well, I don’t generally work out of Italian, although I understand it pretty well. Then, as we’ve discussed previously, like you I prefer to read a fair bit of the text before diving in. That said, here’s my offering:

Back in the past, we used to say ‘the hills’ just like we would have said ‘the sea’ or ‘the woods’.

TP

Fair enough. I suppose by inviting you to translate the sentence without any context I’m posing the question: how much would knowing about the book change the translation and your attention to the exact phrasing? Certainly, I’ve found myself coming back to this opening sentence a hundred times as my translation progresses. In particular, that Già in altri tempi… but also, the hill, rather than the hills, and the switch from si diceva to avremmo detto. That is from one said or people said to we would have said.

Actually, we did have one bit of context, the title of the book, translated word for word, The House on the Hill. Pavese is talking about the slopes rising to the south east of Turin where much of the action, or inaction, in the first half of the book takes place. The opening words are clearly nodding to the title.

But let’s take a look at the next sentence, and see if that helps us:

Ci tornavo la sera, dalla città che si oscurava, e per me non era un luogo tra gli altri, ma un aspetto delle cose, un modo di vivere.

Again, here’s a word-for-word translation:

I returned/used to return/would return there in the evening, from the city that was darkening itself, and for me it wasn’t a place among the others, but an aspect of the things, a way of living.

So the narrator goes back to the hill every evening as the city is blacked out against bombing (it’s 1944), and we also learn that he thinks of the hill as an aspect of things, a way of living.

The novel will be about the narrator’s habit of always withdrawing from action, never really engaging in life, whether it be the war or relationships with women. His lodging on the hill outside the city, where he escapes every evening, is emblematic of this. And the question he constantly asks is, when did this mentality begin? Is it a product of the war, or does it go back further? Which takes us back to the opening words, Già in altri tempi.

Already in other times: that is in times previous to those we’re speaking of. Three periods are posited: the time of writing (now); the time we’re going to be talking about (1944); and then other times before that. The problem is to find a formula of words that will give the sense of già – meaning, earlier than you might have thought – while at the same time keeping this colloquial tone, plunging in, in media res.

TG

That puts a different perspective on things. I wonder if this generic use of la collina is standard (as one reading of the parallel with il mare and la boscaglia might suggest). Or is it a personal coinage, and the parallel is offered to help us understand it? Or is he conflating both of these things, the generic use and his personal use to refer to the particular hill where his house stands? It still feels that the generic use is in the mix, and that makes it very hard for me to see past its equivalent in English, which would be the hills.

I’d rather cheekily missed out the translation of Già in altri tempi…. I didn’t have enough information to work out what that già was doing. It helps to know that it points the reader to the first of the three time periods, prior to 1944, and this makes me think that the habit of referring to the place as la collina is both long-established and ongoing. So that rules out my version – we used to say – which suggests that we don’t say it anymore. How about this?

Even back then, we said ‘the hills’ just like we would have said ‘the sea’ or ‘the woods’.

TP

Flawless reasoning. Even back then was one of my early attempts, and even was a revelation, in that it gets the surprise and immediacy of già. But even back then suggests one time period in the past, and makes it seem we’re referring to the war period, the time of the narrative, whereas già in altri tempi suggests in other times before the times we’re talking about. Here’s my work-in-progress version:

Even before then people were already saying the hill, the same way we’d say the sea or the woods.

We have our three times, the now of writing, the then of the narrative, the ‘before then’ when people were already talking about the hill. I felt I had to leave the singular, because it’s not a personal use, but, si diceva (one said). Pavese is going to use it like that endless times, suggesting that the people of Turin had this special local addition to the categories the sea, the woods, the mountains etc. Elsewhere, when he talks about the hills in the plural he is referring to other places.

I’ve gone for the progressive – people were already saying – because it seemed to mesh well with the already. And I’ve decided to distinguish between people were saying and we’d say, as in the original. I’ll be curious, though, to hear the comments of an editor. It is hard to be certain it will pass muster. One wants it to be both colloquial and a little abrupt and unusual.

TG

I’m not sure how I feel about that verbal construction, were already saying. Is it overkill to have even and already and this slightly unusual past progressive to make the same point?

TP

Maybe. Or maybe not. What about Even before the election people were already talking of a Johnson landslide? Is that possible? And isn’t it a bit more lively than, Even before the election people already talked of a Johnson landslide?

TG

I’d need to read more of the book and to give my inner ear a rest. I’m now genuinely unsure as to whether it sounds strange and clumsy, or if it is just a bit marked in a way that is interesting.

TP

I have the same problem. I’m anxious about it. I’ll come back at the end and read through when it’s all done.

TG

Anyway, here’s my shot at the second sentence.

Ci tornavo la sera, dalla città che si oscurava, e per me non era un luogo tra gli altri, ma un aspetto delle cose, un modo di vivere.

I would go back there every evening, returning from the blacked out city, and for me it was not just one place among many but an aspect of things, a way of living.

I have to admit that I’m mystified by un aspetto delle cose. I wonder if aspetto here really means perspective but I’ll stick with the cognate for now.

TP

The reason I wanted to look at this stuff is on the one hand the apparent ordinariness of già in altri tempi which turns out to be so tricky – and of course they’re the opening words of the book, so you want to get them right. Then, amid all the colloquial media-res feel, this rather philosophical un aspetto delle cose. Here we need to know that our narrator is a country boy turned teacher and intellectual, with the narration sliding back and forth between the homely and the metaphysical. In fact, if you put the phrase into Google out pops Wittgenstein, but also a song by a band called Anon. I’m sure it’s meant to be mystifying, and by being so it creates suspense; we wonder what he’s talking about and presume the novel will eventually make it clear, which in fact it does.

Other things. Oscurarsi is not a standard use here. Literally, we have from the city that was darkening itself. There’s something ominous about it. And it’s only from the context that follows, in the next sentences, but also from the book jacket and the year of publication, that we know we’re talking about war and the blackout.

I also have trouble with for me which feels like an Italian construction. Not that you can’t use it in English, but I routinely try to avoid it.

TG

My first draft of the sentence was definitely a translation of two halves, to use the football cliché. From and for me… until the end, it is hardly a translation at all, just a literal decoding that acts as a placeholder while I gather more information.

But what you’ve said about us only being aware indirectly that the action occurs in 1944 also makes me want to reconsider blacked out. Here goes:

Ci tornavo la sera, dalla città che si oscurava, e per me non era un luogo tra gli altri, ma un aspetto delle cose, un modo di vivere.

I would go back there every evening, returning from the darkening city, and I experienced it not just as one place among many but as an aspect of things, a way of living.

The switch from blacked out to darkening changes the temporal relationship, too, so that the city is becoming dark as he leaves it. And for me has become I experienced it. I’m happier with it as a piece of meaningful English, but I’m far from confident that I’m not taking liberties with the original.

TP

It all looks fine to me: oscurarsi demands an ongoing process. Darkening sounds good. Perhaps experienced it is unnecessarily fancy. Maybe thought of it would be closer to per me. What’s interesting is how, the more context we have, the more meaningful every lexical and syntactical choice in the original becomes. In a way it’s easier to translate, because you have a better sense of what you should be doing; in a way harder because now you really have to do it. Why don’t I give you the whole paragraph, to close, the Italian first and then my work in progress. And I think I’m going to take a tip from you and cut the ‘already’.

Già in altri tempi si diceva la collina come avremmo detto il mare o la boscaglia. Ci tornavo la sera, dalla città che si oscurava, e per me non era un luogo tra gli altri, ma un aspetto delle cose, un modo di vivere. Per esempio, non vedevo differenza tra quelle colline e queste antiche dove giocai bambino e adesso vivo: sempre un terreno accidentato e serpeggiante, coltivato e selvatico, sempre strade, cascine e burroni. Ci salivo la sera come se anch’io fuggissi il soprassalto notturno degli allarmi, e le strade formicolavano di gente, povera gente che sfollava a dormire magari nei prati, portandosi il materasso sulla bicicletta o sulle spalle, vociando e discutendo, indocile, credula e divertita.

Even before then people were saying the hill, the same way we’d say the sea or the woods. I went back there in the evenings, leaving the town as the lights were going out, and it wasn’t just any old place I felt, but an aspect of things, a way of life. I didn’t see any difference, for example, between that hill and these old hills here where I played as a child and am living now: it’s the same rough, rolling land, farmed and unfarmed, everywhere roads, ravines and farmsteads. I’d climb up there in the evening as if like the others I was escaping the nightly panic of the sirens, and the roads were swarming with people, poor folk who’d left their houses to sleep in the fields maybe, carrying mattresses on their bikes or their backs, shouting and arguing, wayward, gullible, having fun.

On the sentence we’ve just looked at, I’ll only say that I liked the way the lights were going out vaguely recalls the famous remark “the lights are going out all over Europe…”, while also being a precise description. And I thought any old place got the colloquial tone. The rest is there for a sense of context. You can see, alas, that the English is quite a few words longer than the Italian.

TG

I can’t resist pointing out that the singular collina morphs into the plural colline in the third sentence! Other than that, I find myself being drawn to specific word choices. Would it be legitimate to translate selvatico (unfarmed, in your version) as fallow, for example? The meaning isn’t quite the same but I like both the alliteration of farmed and fallow – which feels in keeping with rhythms such as cascine e burroni in the original – and its slightly earthy tone. Could we translate strade as tracks rather than roads? And so on.

TP

All suggestions  are welcome! But two final remarks on la collina; the singular is used 23 times in the novel to refer to the place outside Turin. 24 with the book’s title. The plural le colline is used four times in the whole novel, always when he speaks about or compares this hill with the place where he is writing the book in the hills near Santa Maria Belbo. Also, everybody says, the hills, so to open the novel saying, People already spoke of the hills would make little sense. Nobody would have expected them to say anything else. All that said, one wishes one could talk to Pavese about it!

TG

You mention that your version is a little longer, but the question is really whether it feels unnecessarily wordy. Nothing here has me reaching for my red pen.

What you say about additional context making the task simultaneously easier and harder strikes me as true. I can feel a back and forth in your translation, you move away from the Italian formulations, then back towards them; at other times (and I’m never sure if the difference is to do with the text or my state of mind) it’s much more complex, as if the source text and the translation were performing a dance together, but one in which it’s not clear who is leading whom, and occasionally each seems to be listening to different music.

TP

I suspect the music of Italian and the music of English.

Translation check up with Tim Parks, 13-17 January, 2020.
FENYSIA, Palazzo Pucci – Via de’ Pucci, 4, 50122 Firenze, Italy.

Tim Parks’ translation of La casa in collina (Cesare Pavese) will be published as The House on the Hill by Penguin Classics.

Food for thought: talking to Tim Parks about translation as reading and writing (1)

I recently had to write a short piece to accompany a translation of mine and found myself torn between discussing the big issues I felt I “ought” to talk about (shifting narrative perspectives, cultural references, etc.) and the more nitty-gritty questions that, for me, represented the real challenges of the translation. But when I started trying to write about those nitty-gritty questions, I struggled to do more than point out some interesting word choices. I was left wondering how I could write about translation without either indulging in vague theorisation or getting lost in a mass of unedifying detail. I decided to ask Tim Parks if he could help save me from my impending writer’s block.

TP

I hear you. In fact when we read the literature on translation aimed at a wider public – I’m thinking of something like Eco’s Experiences in Translation – it often seems that translation involves providing terribly clever solutions to hopelessly thorny problems: puns, wordplay, allusive references etc. Whereas our experience of the job is quite different and has much more to do with crafting sentences and paragraphs in a way that feels effective and faithful.

Maybe one interesting way to look at it is to think of all the things you have to bring to a book – or just a sentence – to read it properly, to let it happen as completely as possible; and then the skills you need to have it happen again in the language you’re translating into. The list, or lists, would be long, but maybe worth compiling, suggesting a range and meshing of competences in both languages that rarely get mentioned in the translation discussion.

TG

A daunting task! Obviously the first thing you have to bring to a book is competence in the source language (vocabulary, grammar and so on) but also an awareness of things like nuance, connotation, pragmatics. Then there is what we might call cultural knowledge. Not an encyclopaedic knowledge, perhaps, but at least an awareness of the way a piece of writing might draw on its cultural context. Finally, there are skills I find it harder to put my finger on, interpretative or deductive.

TP

Nabokov once claimed that “Anyone who wishes to attempt a translation of Pushkin’s Onegin should acquire exact information in regard to a number of relevant subjects, such as the Fables of Krïlov, Byron’s works, French poets of the eighteenth century, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, Pushkin’s biography, banking games, Russian songs related to divination, Russian military ranks of the time as compared to western European and American ones, the difference between cranberry and lingenberry, the rules of the English pistol duel as used in Russia, and the Russian language.”

It’s excessive obviously. Perhaps he’s joking. But I suppose what he’s saying is you have to bring an awful lot of knowledge, experience and life to books to get the most out of them and then, as a translator, try to take it into another language. But why not look at one short famous sentence in English to nail this, the opening to Orwell’s 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

To read that, in the sense of getting the kick out of it the author meant us to get, you have to be familiar with April and English weather, and the idea that spring is a positive moment. You have to know what it means for a clock to strike and have experienced situations where you’re in a town and can hear more than one clock striking. You have to know that clocks don’t strike thirteen, that thirteen is an unlucky number, that in the context of 1948 when the book was written the 24-hour clock was only used in military, not civilian situations. I suppose those who’ve studied English literature will also be aware of a couple of famous English texts that start in April: The Canterbury Tales, and The Wasteland. On the grammatical side you need to know of the definite article of unique reference – “the clocks” meaning not those we have spoken of before, but the ones in the place where we are – and the particular function of the past progressive – this is something going on in background, into which very likely a particular action is about to be inserted. And maybe above all you have to be familiar with the function of irony, whereby what is actually stated is only a limited part of a more significant but unspoken communication, the fun being in the reader’s cottoning on to this. You read it and go, “uh oh, trouble coming”, even though no trouble is mentioned.

So when the first Italian translation gave “Era una fresca limpida giornata d’aprile e gli orologi segnavano l’una” (literally, “It was a cool clear April day, and the clocks indicated one”), an awful lot is being missed. In fact you notice now that that “bright cold day” has both a positive and negative side, which disappears in “cool clear”. There’s no sign of trouble in the Italian at all.

TG

But is it really necessary to bring quite so much knowledge to a translation? With your Orwell sentence, surely all one needs to capture are the militarised connotations of the 24-hour clock, the disjunction between that and the world that we normally associate with “striking clocks”, and the fact that a “bright cold day” might be double-edged? That seems enough to be getting on with in one short sentence, particularly when we also have to put it into our target language.

TP

Wait a second. Let’s distinguish between the knowledge we need to bring to read the text well, and then the business of translating it. A wide-awake English reader will grasp the ominous application of the 24-hour clock, but in Italy, which was the first country to use the system back in the 1890s and where it has never been associated with militarism, that is going to be lost. Nothing you can do. So if we’re passing now from the reading to the writing, we have to think how much of what we’ve read, what we’ve experienced, can be conveyed in the translation. We move from immersion in one world to construction in another.

TG

Point taken, but we don’t address these source text issues (linguistic or cultural) in isolation. They are part of a wider translation process that involves both reading and writing, attending to the demands of the source text as we create a version of it in another language. So while we are thinking about such things as the meaning, the connotations, the rhythm and the cultural references of the source text, we are also thinking about all of those issues with respect to our translation. And we use all of those things to feel our way towards solutions, to eliminate some options, to come up with others.

TP

I agree with this, and it does bring up the question of whether a translator ever has a reader’s experience of the book in hand, especially if they simply open the pages and start translating. I recently heard a famous translator say that this is what she does. I would like to insist that until we’ve read at least a fair chunk of the book and experienced it as readers, savoured it, relished it, got the smell of it, as all the knowledge we have meets the words on the page, then we don’t really know what we’re translating or what we’re aiming for. We’re treating language as code, just decoding and re-encoding. And that goes for any piece of translation, not just novels and fiction.

TG

Well, you often hear people say “the key to being a good translator is writing well in your target language” but that strikes me as a dreadful oversimplification. It’s true you need to have a good turn of phrase and a wide vocabulary at your fingertips, but you also need to engage in problem-solving, playing off semantics against pragmatics, you need to prioritise and you have to be adaptable.

TP

What about this formulation? Once we have read and really got close to the text, then writing well in the target language is a huge asset, but only in so far as it is at the service of the impulse to recreate the experience we had on our initial reading.

TG

Okay. In that spirit, let me share something I’m working on at the moment which, I think illustrates the way reading and translation feed into each other. This is from the opening scene of a Uruguayan thriller*, in which some women are visiting their husbands and boyfriends in prison:

Las mujeres abren viejas cajas de helado que ahora contienen guiso de fideo cucuzú o milanesas fibrosas o polenta con tuco, sacan bolsas con bananas, paquetes de yerba y de tabaco, mandarinas y limones, sobres de Jugolín.

A literal translation of this might go as follows:

The women open old ice cream boxes that now contain cucuzú noodle stew or fibrous breaded cutlets or polenta with tuco, they take out bags with bananas, packets of yerba and of tobacco, mandarins and lemons, sachets of Jugolín.

TP

No lack of tasty realia!

TG

Exactly. If I was feeling Nabokovian, I could say all sorts of things about this, but I’ll restrict myself to the following: cucuzú noodles are not noodles at all but a kind of small round pasta that is peculiar to Uruguay; tuco is mince with tomato sauce, what we might call Bolognese…

TP

But we hardly want to take Bologna to Montevideo.

TG

Right. And Jugolin is a brand name for a soluble fruit drink, but is now used generically for any such drink. The list represents the typical food of the Uruguayan poor.

TP

Got it. So we need to get that across, that this food is local, exotic to us, ordinary to them, without throwing the reader too much, but without turning it into pie and chips, as it were.

TG

Certainly the literal translation isn’t much use at all. I want my version to be accurate, I want to keep something of the Uruguayan flavour…

TP

To risk a pun…

TG

… and I need to guard against the danger that the English reader will simply find the food wholesome and excitingly exotic, and miss the way that it reinforces the predicament of the prisoners by reflecting their humble social origins. And of course the final version should reproduce the rhythm and flow of the original.

TP

That perception of the food defining the class of person in a society other than our own sounds like the tricky thing, the thing that the Uruguayan reader is going to get and appreciate and the English reader could easily miss. Let’s hear what you put. And let’s see the Spanish, or Uruguayan, again beside it.

Las mujeres abren viejas cajas de helado que ahora contienen guiso de fideo cucuzú o milanesas fibrosas o polenta con tuco, sacan bolsas con bananas, paquetes de yerba y de tabaco, mandarinas y limones, sobres de Jugolín.

The women open old ice cream containers that are now filled with cold pasta stew, tough breaded cutlets and polenta with meat sauce; they bring out bananas, packets of yerba mate and tobacco, lemons and mandarins, soft drink sachets.

I’m sure you’re going to talk us through this, but a couple of comments. You’ve done your reading and now you’re making hundreds of small decisions to have this kick off in English. The food certainly looks both exotic and unattractive. The cold pasta stew and tough breaded cutlets are enough to turn off my appetite. (Funny here, having talked about the Bolognese that the Spanish for cutlet has the Italian reference, milanesas). You’ve left us with something I don’t understand at all – yerba mate – which is fine, it’s just one thing, I can handle it. It reminds me I’m in South America. Tobacco alongside lemons and mandarins sounds very working class Latin. Soft drink sachets has a convincing sound, the alliteration helps, even if I’ve never come across them and don’t really want to.

So is this the final version, or is there stuff you’re unhappy with?

TG

It’s pretty much the final version, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the copy editor choked on my yerba mate.I still wonder if I’m overstepping the bounds by specifying that the pasta stew is cold. And I’d love to have used the word “schnitzel” to refer to the breaded cutlets but it felt geographically distracting (and then I started hearing “tough schnitzel!” as an idiom). Perhaps I’m overthinking things, though, and depriving myself of the best option.

There are also things that I’m quite pleased with, and these are the kinds of things that no reader (or reviewer) is likely to notice directly but which, one hopes, have a cumulative effect. An obvious one is the inversion of mandarinas y limones as lemons and mandarins to help the English flow.

Another is my omission of the bags. In the original, these are “bolsas con…” (bags with) and the effect is chaotic: there are lots of bags containing lots of things. That use of “with” struck me as very strange in English and I translated it as “bags of”, but that replaced the chaos with neat compartmentalisation. Then I tried to replace the preposition with a verb (bags containing, bags holding etc.) But that felt like overkill. So in the end I just got rid of the bag.

TP

All these decisions seem smart to me, cold stew included. Can I just pretend I’m the publisher’s editor and make a couple of suggestions in the first part of the sentence?

Here’s your translation again…

The women open old ice cream containers that are now filled with cold pasta stew…

The word I least liked in this very homely, busy scene is ‘containers’, which sounds a little clinical, and I wonder if we could change that for a more earthy ‘tubs’. Also, the ‘that are now’ is all redundant and since these words are not helping the rhythm of the English maybe we could let them go. So we have

The women open old ice cream tubs filled with cold pasta stew,

It feels a little chunkier. The closer the ice-cream gets to the cold pasta the more you know you don’t want to try this.

TG

I like both of those suggestions. They feel very much in keeping with what I’m trying to do with the text. And they’re a nice illustration of why the input of a sympathetic editor is so important. When you reach the Oscar Wilde stage (spending a whole day putting in and then removing a comma), it’s time to turn the text over to someone else.

TP

And time for us to close this blog, I think. But since you’ve got me going on the subject, the nitty-gritty of writing and editing, I’d love to do another, shorter perhaps, looking at a couple of passages where the main issues are not, as here, lexical, but syntactical. And questions of focusing. How do we understand where the emphasis falls in a sentence and how do we construct the syntax of the translation to get similar effects? This is something I’m planning to concentrate on in my January course in Florence so it’s very much on my mind at the moment.

Translation check up with Tim Parks, 13-17 January, 2020.
FENYSIA, Palazzo Pucci – Via de’ Pucci, 4, 50122 Firenze, Italy.

The English translation of Miserere de los cocodrilos (Mercedes Rosende) will be published as Crocodile Tears (tr. Tim Gutteridge) by Bitter Lemon Press in 2020.

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.