Release your inner critic: how embracing criticism could make you a better, happier translator

I was recently invited to take part in a panel discussion at the Translators Association on the topic of reviewing literary translations. Having spent much of 2018 earning myself a reputation as someone who was not afraid to voice unpopular ideas, I had been asked along to ensure that the proceedings were not too sedate.

Translators Association panel discussion. Photo (c) Ian Gilles

I have to admit that I was expecting a torrid evening of being grilled for daring to criticize one of Ann Goldstein’s translations in the Guardian or for suggesting that, just maybe, literary translators shouldn’t be monstering Ben Mosner on social media because he didn’t like a book that other people had enjoyed. Perhaps I would even be forced to defend the dastardly Tim Parks!

The evening was expected to address such burning questions as the following:

“How should reviewers critique translations? Who should do the reviewing? How do you assess a translation without knowledge of the source language? When does constructive criticism become destructive? How do you identify a ‘bad’ translation? What constitutes a ‘bad’ review? Is it pedantic to cherry-pick awkward choices, or necessary to support an opinion?”

I confess that such questions leave me at best indifferent and at worst suspicious. Who are we, as translators, to start issuing guidelines for reviewers? And are these questions, just possibly, merely a thinly veiled attempt to suppress negative commentary of any sort?

My own preference would be for us to embrace criticism, both from reviewers and from colleagues. Indeed, I would actually go further and say that self-criticism, the constructive criticism of colleagues, and the disinterested criticism of reviewers are absolutely essential for our professional development, and for creating authentic relationships with our peers and with our readers. The alternative is to live in a world of puff pieces and phoney praise.

But I knew that things were going to go well when Ros Schwartz kicked off proceedings by quoting approvingly from Tim Parks’ latest article in the NYRB. (Okay. I’ll admit to a slight twinge of disappointment. I rather liked the idea that the English had become so soft that they’d been reduced to flying a Scotsman in from Spain whenever they wanted an argument. You can take the man out of Scotland…)

Instead of grappling with just where to draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism, a consensus quickly emerged that literary translators have been far too sensitive about this issue recently, that it was time to grow up a little (grow a pair, even) and not get our knickers in such a twist whenever anyone says something vaguely negative about our work. (I suspect that if we’d been holding this event in the United States we might have spent longer – or even the whole evening – wallowing around in the swamp of policing precisely what criticism is and isn’t acceptable to the powers that be; thankfully, this was London, not New York.)

My fellow panel members – translator and editor, Sophie Lewis, and book reviewer, Nick Lezard – helped ensure that the debate was not marred by the oversensitivity that so often characterizes such discussion online. And perhaps the biggest contribution of all came from the audience, who moved affairs in a rather unexpected direction, one that just happens to coincide with my own particular passion (obsession even): the importance of peer review and collaborative working, to improve not just the quality of our translations but the quality of our professional relationships.

In that spirit, I would like to suggest three ways in which literary translators could incorporate criticism into their daily practice.

1. Start a three-way collaborative partnership

For the last two years, I’ve had an ongoing collaborative partnership with two colleagues: VictoriaPatience and Simon Berrill. We take turns to review and comment on each other’s work, we get together (via Skype) for a monthly translation slam, and we share advice and support via email and WhatsApp. It’s been a source of training, professional support and deep personal friendship, all rolled into one.

If you’re interested in exploring this idea, I’d suggest linking up with a couple of like-minded colleagues in your language combination. (They need to be people who you trust and respect, people who will share their work and their opinions honestly, people who will take and receive criticism in a constructive spirit.)

I’d then suggest sharing short excerpts from early drafts of your work. (The earlier the better, before you get locked into choices and interpretations.) Comment on these in the spirit of developmental editing – basically, identifying anything that is unusual, strange, interesting, impressive, and using that as the basis for discussion (either in the form of an annotated copy of the translation – or through email or via Skype). Here is an example of the incredibly helpful comments I received from Victoria on a first draft of a sample I translated when I was pitching Potosí for translation. (If you want to see the final English version – The Mountain That Eats Men – you’ll just have to buy the book.)

And, to keep it varied – and also just because it’s great fun – choose a text for all of you to translate once a month or so, then meet in person or via Skype to discuss it. If you love translation and enjoy talking about it but perhaps suffer from the isolation that can affect us all, this is really the best remedy. And there’s nothing like explaining why you’ve made certain choices and defending them against somebody else’s choices to really hone your skills.

We co-authored an article in the ITI bullet about our partnership. And we also have a Facebook group to provide ongoing support for colleagues who’ve been inspired by our example. If you’re interested, please get in touch with me via my contact form or through social media.

2. Peer review in a safe online forum

This idea came out of the audience, and I think it probably needs a bit of collective input for it to happen. However, I guess it might operate along the following lines:

  • any literary translator working into a given target language (English for most readers of this, I guess) joins a closed online forum, which is lightly moderated and open to approved members
  • my preference would be for a closed group on Facebook, but it could also be a bespoke forum hosted elsewhere or even an email group
  • members post a translation they are working on, along with the relevant source text, and invite comments
  • I’d suggest sharing work at early (or even first) draft stage; obviously this is a question of preference, and I know some translators never share their early drafts, but against that I’d argue that it’s much easier to accept and incorporate criticism of work that is still a long way from being finalized
  • other members of the group post their comments in the form of an annotated version of the translation
  • these, together with the original translation, provide the basis for an ongoing discussion.

We’d obviously need some basic guidelines, but I think you could summarise these as follows: be respectful, be truthful, be helpful. (So no nastiness, but no empty praise either. And suggestions only if you think they would genuinely improve the translation.) Or, if you prefer the short version: don’t be an arsehole!

3. Bringing a critical edge to the translation slam

Translation slams have, quite rightly, grown in popularity over recent years, both for general audiences – at literary festivals and other events – and in more specialist contexts – within the framework of conferences, workshops and summer schools. (For anyone not familiar with the concept, a ‘translation slam’ is where two translators work on the same text, and present the results in front of a live audience, typically with a third translator chairing proceedings to keep the discussion on track. Audience participation optional.)

I think slams are a really powerful tool for engaging with members of the general public, and also provide a great platform for discussing our craft among ourselves. At such events, we generally (and understandably) avoid the notion that a translation slam is about comparison and criticism (whose translation is better, whose solutions are right or wrong), in favour of more open-ended discussion and appreciation.

But I do think that the notion of criticism, in the broadest sense, could help take translation slams to the next level. Here are a couple of suggestions:

Comparing a published translation with an unpublished alternative

When slamming for a general audience (e.g., at a literary festival), instead of just choosing an interesting piece from whatever book fits with the festival’s wider programme, what about comparing a published translation with an alternative version of the same passage? It’s quite likely that the published version (having been through more versions, editing and so on) would be better. And that in itself would be interesting and informative. And it would also be exciting for readers to see how even the ‘definitive’ translation reflects just one possible solution; to see how, in someone else’s hands, the whole book might have come out quite differently.

I know that some translators will be wary of the idea of exposing their work to this kind of scrutiny, but without such exposure it is impossible to truly engage readers. And I think we overestimate the risks. I’m pretty sure any minor loss of face caused by finding an embarrassing slip in your work or just feeling that you weren’t quite on point when producing that particular translation will be outweighed by the kudos and recognition you’ll earn from putting yourself out there in the first place. And that’s before we consider the huge benefits for your own skills and self-confidence that you get from taking part in such events. 

Thematic slams

To add a bit of focus, I’d also suggest selecting a passage that embodies a particular challenge: dialogue, physical description, cultural references or whatever. That would help take the slam beyond just observing that “these translations are different” and would allow the audience to really see how translators solve problems, how these solutions may differ widely and, yes, how some solutions may indeed be more convincing than others. (This thematic slam could be combined with the ‘published vs. unpublished’ comparison suggested above, or used in the more traditional format of two translations which have both been produced from scratch for the purposes of the event.) 

I think the thematic approach could be particularly good for events that occur within a professional context (conferences, workshops) but I also think that general audiences would appreciate it. If general audiences are already impressed by the fact that the different translations are, well, different, imagine how they’ll react if we open up the whole process a bit more, showing how we grapple with particular problems, how these problems are susceptible to different solutions – and how these solutions may vary. Hell, at this rate translators will be the new rock stars!

Some thoughts on the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize

This morning, the first thing I saw on Twitter was a new prize for emerging translators. It was being organized by well-regarded indie publisher, Peirene Press and you can find all the details here.

(Please note that the prize conditions may have changed since I wrote this article. Any such changes are not coincidental; they are the result of efforts made by myself and others, on social media and via email, to raise our concerns with the publisher.)

In summary, the prize is open to previously unpublished translators (defined as those who have never had a full work of translated fiction published). You need to translate the first chapter of an Italian novel. The prize is worth £3,500, and your translation of the whole novel will be published by Peirene Press.

Sounds great!

But let’s think about this. What they’re really saying is that the prize is a fee for performing a piece of professional work. So literary translation is no longer something that you are paid to do, but rather something that, if you are lucky enough, someone rewards with a cash prize.

And it gets worse. There is no entry fee but Peirene Press “think it is important that everyone who enters this Prize gets something out of it. So in lieu of entry fee, we have decided to ask all entrants to instead subscribe to Peirene Press.”

Or, in plain English, the entry fee consists of a subscription to Peirene Press, and we (Peirene Press) think it is important that we (Peirene Press) get something extra out of the prize, namely, additional subscribers.

And then it gets weird. Entrants must attend an obligatory writer’s retreat in the Pyrenees (no travel expenses available, although the wording on the Peirene website suggests that they think the Pyrenees are in the UK!) and there are no details of whether the retreat involves any editorial input. Apart from just feeling a bit bossy and pointless, this excludes potential entrants with commitments (family, work or whatever) , other circumstances (e.g., physical disability) or just personal preferences that might prevent them from going on the retreat.

When I commented on the prize on Twitter, someone from Peirene replied that their initiative was intended as “a celebration of translation” (preceded by the inevitable “I’m sorry you feel this way…”).

Well here’s an idea. Why don’t you celebrate translation by:

  • not presenting paid work as something that translators should compete for the privilege of performing;
  • not packaging the fee payable for that work as a ‘prize’, and;
  • not forcing translators to go on ill-defined writers’ retreats as one of the conditions for performing our work?

Ingredients for a perfect translation slam

I took part in a translation slam with Maeva Cifuentes as part of the Mediterranean Editors and Translators Meeting 2018 in Girona on 4 October 2018.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with the concept of a translation slam, the format is generally as follows: two translators present their translations of the same text, in front of an audience, and discuss the challenges of the translation, pinpointing similarities and differences, explaining the reasons for their choices and perhaps also recognising points where, in hindsight, they might have done things differently.

It’s perhaps best to think of it not so much as a competition or ‘duel’ (the other term sometimes used) but rather as an opportunity to put the translation process on show and explore in public how the same text can give rise to two different translations. I’ve been to a few slams in my time, both under the auspices of specific literary translation gatherings and for more general audiences at book festivals, and I was particularly happy with the way our slam went in Girona.

From left to right: Kymm Coveney, Carlos Mayor, Maeva Cifuentes, Tim Gutteridge.  Photo credit Cesc Anadón. (c) MET

Here, in order of importance, are what I think make the ingredients for the perfect slam:

  1. Choose the right text. This seems obvious, but if your text doesn’t provide opportunities for different interpretations and different voices, then the slam is likely to suffer. For our slam in Girona, we translated El viaje, by Cristina Fernández Cubas. This was a piece of flash fiction (a one-page short story) about a Mother Superior who briefly leaves her convent but swiftly returns. It was absolutely perfect: self-contained, so all the ‘ripple effects’ that occur in translation were contained within the text, and included lots of great talking points – physical description, cultural references, voice, ambiguity – all in a mere 274 words! Hats off to Kymm Coveney for a brilliant choice. (And to Cristina, for writing it.)
  2. Audience participation. This might seem surprising as a second choice, but for a slam to really come to life, you need an audience that is engaged – and is willing to really question the translators’ choices. We couldn’t have asked for a better audience at Girona. Fifty colleagues – bringing to bear their experience as translators from different languages and in different fields, and also drawing on their personal backgrounds, and their readings of the text. The last thing I’d want, as a slammer, would be deference or polite appreciation. What I want is people contesting my choices, offering improvements of their own, and getting their teeth into the problems of accuracy, voice, coherence and all the rest of it. That was exactly what the METM crowd gave us.
  3. Moderation. I’d never really thought about this before, but taking part in the slam made me realise just how important the moderator’s role is. You need to be gentle yet firm, making sure that the translators get a chance to explain their choices, bringing the audience into the conversation – and teasing out anything important that you think has been missed. And you need to communicate your own enthusiasm for the source text and for the translation process. I would take my hat off to Kymm, but I’ve already done that above, and we translators hate repetition, so I shall remove my headgear instead.
  4. Translators. So what do the actual slammers bring to the party? Well, to start with you have to have the guts to put your work up for discussion (in this case, for an audience of peers, many of whom were inevitably far more experienced than either of us). Beyond that, the slam participants need to take a distinctive approach to the text – one that goes beyond ‘correctly’ translating individual sentences and instead provides a coherent interpretation of the source text, told in a distinctive voice. You need to be prepared to explain and defend your choices, but also to identify points where you feel you may have slipped or where other options – either from your fellow slammer or from the audience – might constitute improvements. And you need to be able to communicate your love of translation – the joys, the frustrations, the ambiguities, the beauty – to anyone who is prepared to listen. I hope that’s what my co-slammer Maeva Cifuentes and I managed to do. If I was any good at that, it’s only because I’ve had a year’s worth of training from my colleagues Victoria Patience and Simon Berrill, with whom I’ve been doing a monthly slam via Skype as part of our ongoing collaborative professional development partnership.
  5. The support team. An event like this doesn’t happen on its own. You need a venue, publicity, coordination and printouts, to name just a few factors. Unsurprisingly, the team at MET – who put together fantastic annual conferences and organise a programme of events throughout the year – did a great job. Well done Aisha Prigann, Helen Oclee-Brown and Kelly Dickeson, among others.

The real stars of the show? MET members study the slam texts. Photo credit Cesc Anadón. (c) MET

Some people liked a book, someone else didn’t…

Am I the only one to feel uncomfortable with the rather fierce response to Benjamin Moser’s critical review of Katie Briggs’ This Little Art? I understand that people have strong feelings both about the book and about Moser’s review, but much of the response on social media reminds me of seagulls attacking a holidaymaker on the seafront.

And the ‘open letter’ to the New York Times strikes me as – frankly – rather odd: the ‘great and the good’ of the literary translation community declaring one of its members persona non grata. To my mind, an open letter is for an issue of public interest, not because some people liked a book and someone else didn’t. The invocation of status (“even after our many collective decades active in translation and translation studies”), the personal nature of the criticisms (“condescension”, “misogynistic”) and the list of signatures at the bottom all detract from rather than add to the force of the letter’s arguments.

More widely, I really worry for a community that responds to a critical review in this way. It sets up a particular approach and a particular way of writing about translation as an orthodoxy and, worse than that, raises the threat of ostracism against any individual who dares to challenge that orthodoxy. In that context, intellectual debate becomes impossible.

I have no intention of commenting on This Little Art publicly at the moment. I would, however, urge you to read it for yourselves. Support the publisher by purchasing it direct from their website:

https://fitzcarraldoeditions.com/books/this-little-art

I would also encourage people to read Benjamin Moser’s review. For what it’s worth, his review inspired me to read the book:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/28/books/review/kate-briggs-this-little-art.html

And finally, here’s the open letter:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/20/books/review/letters-to-the-editor.html

Fog in Tangier (Cristina López Barrio)

Madrid, 12 December 2015

Her breath is like crystal. She has woken up in a room with red walls. It is still night. She sighs with relief. The curtains are slightly open. The light from a neon sign outside flashes on the bed, on her naked stomach. She doesn’t dare to move. She listens to the hum of late-night traffic rising up from the Gran Vía. She remembers where she is. Who she is. What she has done. He is still by her side, alive but submerged in dreams. “What time is it?” she wonders. She feels cold. Her nipples are frozen. Her legs swollen. Her stomach blue in the neon glimmer. Her loins still retain the memory of all that has happened. There can be no doubt that it was real. But she has to leave. It must be past two. What if he wakes up? Her heart is in her mouth. He is sleeping on his front, his face turned towards her. The outline of his naked male body, his skin against the sheets, bears witness to the facts. She gets up, her thighs ache, her head is dull, her lips are burning.

Trousers, shoes, jumpers, stockings are strewn across the floor. She reaches out, feeling for the items that are hers, and dresses quickly while keeping watch on him. Each time he moves or sighs, she stops and waits until he is quiet again. She finds her handbag on the desk. She checks the time on her phone; it’s already half past three. Next to the bag is a book, unseen by her a few hours earlier; she turns on the torch on her phone and flicks through the pages. Several of them are marked with sticky notes and comments in pencil, written in French. The book is titled Fog in Tangier and the author is Bella Nur. He likes reading, she thinks as she observes him. He’s lying on his back now, his groin illuminated by the flashing neon light.

A novel within a novel, sumptuous writing, a great cross-generational cast of characters – and a protagonist who is searching for meaning in her life.

Finalist: Premio Planeta. Published by Planeta, 2017. Rights: DosPassos.

When swallows migrate: a note on the effect of relocating the action of the play as part of the translation process

The following piece was written as the introduction to the bilingual edition of La Golondrina/The Swallow (Guillem Clua), published by Ediciones Antigona. The English version of the play is on at the Cervantes Theatre, London, from 8 to 26 May, 2018.

 

If you compare the original Spanish text of La Golondrina with its English translation, The Swallow, the first thing you’ll notice is that the protagonists of La Golondrina are called Ramón and Amelia, while their counterparts  in the English version are Ray and Emily. But their names are not the only thing about them that is different: Ray and Emily don’t just speak English, they are English. That might seem obvious. What else could they be? Well, they could be American or Scottish, for a start. But they aren’t. Or they could be Spanish – after all, when we watch Lorca’s House of Bernarda Alba, we don’t have a problem with the notion that its Spanish characters are speaking English. Or they could be from anywhere and nowhere, like the tramps in Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot in its original, French version).

So why did I transfer the action of La Golondrina from Spain to England, and what effect did this have on the translation? The first thing to realise is that La Golondrina itself is based on action that has been transferred. In this case, a real world event – an attack on a gay nightclub in which those who died were the victims  not just of a terrorist atrocity but of a homophobic hate crime – is relocated from Florida, USA, to an unspecified provincial Spanish city.

In a sense, then, the original play has two locations: it is set in Spain but also in the USA. And the effect of this shift, paradoxically, is to emphasise the universal nature of the themes explored in the play (homophobia, gay love, mother–son relationships, misunderstandings, truth and lies), because the action is at once anchored in the local setting and refers to an international event. If you transfer this play to the London stage, then, it makes sense to replace the ‘local’ setting of the original script with the local setting of the English-language production.

What impact does this decision have on the translation? We’ve already seen perhaps the most obvious effect: the protagonists’ names are changed. But the decision to relocate a play, once taken, ripples all the way through the translation. Potentially, it influences every single line of the text. Here, I will identify a few of these changes.

Despite its universal feel, La Golondrina contains plenty of references to Spanish culture. Where possible, I adapted these to make them feel more ‘British’. Amelia cooks paella and cannelloni for her son, while Emily prepares roast chicken and spaghetti bolognaise; Amelia refers to watching an episode of Masterchef, while Emily watches Great British Bake-Off; Amelia and her son dance at a Verbena (a traditional Spanish open-air festival to celebrate a local holiday), while Emily and her son attend a Summer Fair, and so on.

Some of the references are more subtle. When Ramón reveals that he studied translation and interpreting before completing a master’s or two, I decided that Ray would have a degree in Spanish. I didn’t have to change his qualification, but sticking with the original had a distractingly technical ring in English. The modification also allowed me to acknowledge the Spanish origins of the text and – perhaps most importantly of all – by introducing the idea that Ray was familiar with Spanish culture, it helped me to keep one cultural reference that I had no intention of changing, an issue to which I will return at the end.

If it is fairly obvious why relocating the play will affect how the translator deals with cultural references, another effect of the decision not just to have Emily and Ray speak in English but to make their characters English is that the translator has to strive for a fully idiomatic translation. (If our characters are ‘foreigners’ speaking English – perhaps Olga, Masha and Irina in an English-language production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters – then not only do we not expect them to speak highly idiomatic English; we might find it distracting if they did so.)

Some of these differences are reasonably easy to identify. When Ramón refers to the bar as el bar de moda (literally, the fashionable bar), Ray calls it the ‘in’ place. And I deliberately opted for contractions (it’s, I’m etc.) and colloquial words and phrases – wad of cash (rather than bundle of notes), telly (and not just TV or television) – wherever possible.

Less immediately noticeable, perhaps, but arguably more important is the effort to ensure that the translation doesn’t bear the scars of the source language. For example, Ramón and Amelia use the word nineteen times in the original script. In the translation, the equivalent word – yes – appears a mere three times. Near the start of the play, when Ramón asks Amelia if she knows the play’s title song La Golondrina, Amelia answers Me es familiar, sí. (I’m familiar with it, yes.) But when Emily is asked the same question by Ray, she simply replies I’m familiar with it. I could have kept the yes or perhaps moved it to the start of the sentence, but it felt far more natural in English to omit it altogether.

And on the subject of omissions, although I changed Amelia to Emily, you wouldn’t know unless you read the programme or the script. In the original play, Ramón addresses Amelia by name no fewer than twelve times. In the English version, Ray doesn’t use Emily’s name once. Why? Because Spanish allows Ramón to protect himself against the charge of over-familiarity by prefacing the first name with Señora. I could have had Ray address his boyfriend’s mother as Mrs Emily but it would have sounded rather stilted. The more natural choice, particularly in a one-to-one dialogue, was to drop the name altogether.

I’ve talked so far about some of the many ways in which the decision to relocate the action from Spain to England influenced my translation. However, the play is still very identifiably the same: almost every line in the English matches an equivalent line in the Spanish text, in effect if not in literal meaning. And there is also one key cultural reference that remains unchanged in both versions. Without giving too much away, a key moment in the play revolves around a volume of poetry that Ramón/Ray has given to his boyfriend Dani/Danny, some years earlier. The book is by Federico García Lorca. But Lorca is there not simply as a cultural reference point to anchor the action in Spain but also because of how he lived and how he died: a gay poet and playwright who was unable to declare his sexuality in public, he was assassinated by right-wing nationalists in the wake of the military coup that brought General Franco to power in 1936. He was, in other words, the victim not just of a political assassination but of a homophobic hate crime.

 

Potosí (Ander Izagirre)

Excerpt 1

“A woman can’t enter the mine,” Pedro Villca tells me. “Can you imagine? The woman has her period and Pachamama gets jealous. Then Pachamama hides the ore and the seam disappears.”

Villca is an old miner, an unlikely combination in Bolivia. He’s 59 and none of his comrades have made it to his age. He’s alive, he says, because he was never greedy. Most miners work for months or even years without a break. Most miners end up working 24-hour shifts, fuelled by coca leaves and liquor, a practice for which they have invented a verb, veinticuatrear: ‘to twenty-four’. Instead he would come up to the surface, go back to his parents’ village for a few months to grow potatoes and herd llamas, fill his lungs with clean air to flush the dust out of them, and then go back to the mine. But he was never there when his companions were asphyxiated by a pocket of gas or crushed by a rockfall. He knows he’s already taken too many chances with death and that he shouldn’t push his luck. So he’s decided to retire. He swears that in a few weeks’ time he’ll retire.

Excerpt 2

Alicia opens her fist and shows me three stones the colour of lead, speckled with sparkling spots: particles of silver. She has pilfered them from the mine.

She wraps the stones in newspaper, puts the package in her backpack and disappears behind the canvas sacks to change her clothes. She takes off the overalls and puts on some jeans, a blue tracksuit top and a knitted hat. She grabs the backpack, and we leave the hut and walk downhill.

She’s 14 years old, and her hands are dry and tough, bleached by the dust of the mountain.

The wind sweeps the slopes: fragments of rock scatter before it, the rubble groans. The dust of Cerro Rico gets in your eyes, between your teeth, into your lungs. It contains arsenic, which causes cancer, and it contains cadmium, zinc, chrome and lead, all of which accumulate in the blood, gradually poisoning the body until it is exhausted. The dust also contains silver: between 120 and 150 grams of silver for every ton of dust. Every visitor takes away a few particles of Potosí silver in their lungs. It’s because of these particles, the need to separate them from all the others, that Alicia lives in an adobe hut on the mountain.

In Potosí, Ander Izagirre tells the story of Alicia, a 14-year-old girl who lives on the slopes of Cerro Rico de Potosí, the mineral-rich mountain in Bolivia whose silver and other metals were a key source of wealth for the Spanish Empire from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Alicia shares an adobe-brick hut with her mother and younger sister on a windswept esplanade at the entrance to the mine which dominates their lives. The mining cooperative provides Alicia’s family with their makeshift home in exchange for her mother’s work guarding the equipment that is stored in a nearby hut; although Alicia is officially too young to be employed, she supplements the family income by working shifts in the mine, pushing a trolley full of rocks through underground tunnels for 2 euros a night. The toxic dust of the mine floats in the air they breathe and seeps into the water supply.

At the foot of the mountain, the city of Potosí, for so long a source of fabulous wealth, remains a place of immense poverty. Atlhough the rich seams of the past have all been exhausted, there are still over 10,000 people working in the mines (many of them children like Alicia) in small-scale, informal operations. They remove the rock by hand and transport it to the surface, where US and Japanese-owned multinationals grind it down and process it to extract the remaining ore. The resultant damage – both to the environment and to those who live and work in or near the mines – is devastating.

Izagirre skilfully uses this intimate portrait of a single family and the place where they live to tell a larger story: how the ‘blessing’ of mineral wealth has cursed Bolivia throughout its history, attracting the Spanish conquistadores who created a system of slave labour to extract the metal, and giving birth in the 19th century to a brutal local oligarchy that ruled over one of the poorest and most unequal countries on the planet. The country’s modern history has been marked by a series of military dictatorships, often installed with US backing with the express purpose of guaranteeing the flow of raw materials, and the economy remains extremely vulnerable to any fluctuation in the prices of tin and other minerals.

At the same time, this is a narrative that is not afraid of confronting uncomfortable truths, and Izagirre shows how the terrible working conditions and appalling safety record of the mines have not only caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of miners through the centuries, but have spawned a patriarchal social system in which the miners, brutalised and traumatised by their experiences and numbed by alcohol, pass this on to their wives and children in the form of violence and physical and sexual abuse. This system has its symbolic focus in the figure of El Tío, a diabolic subterranean male counterpart to Pachamama, the Andean earth goddess, and goes hand in hand with active attempts to exclude women from the public and political spheres.

Although the story of Alicia and her family are at the centre of Izagirre’s account, he interweaves it with accounts of the lives of several other people: Pedro Villca, at 59 an ‘improbably old’ miner who is the author’s guide in the mines; Father Gregorio, an Oblate priest from northern Spain who was sent to Bolivia in the 1960s to run a Catholic radio station, and was hounded by the authorities for siding with the poor; Che Guevara, who died in a doomed attempt to light the fuse of a peasants’ and workers’ revolution in Bolivia; and Klaus Barbie, the Nazi fugitive who took refuge in Bolivia and put his skills to use by organising death squads on behalf of the CIA-backed dictator, General Barrientos.

The result is a uniquely engaging mixture of memoir, reportage, travel writing and history that is reminiscent of Ryszard Kapuściński at his peak.

Originally published by Libros del K.O. Details of UK publisher, dates and title coming shortly…

The Swallow (Guillem Clua)

RAY

What stories did you mean?

EMILY

What?

RAY

Earlier. When I recognized Danny in the photo, you said I would have heard the stories; that everyone knew about it.

EMILY

Yes, I’m afraid so. In fact, I’m surprised you don’t.

RAY

About Danny’s accident?

EMILY

It wasn’t an accident. I don’t know why I said that – actually, I do know. It was so comforting that you didn’t know anything, that you didn’t look at me in that way everyone does–

RAY

If you don’t want to talk about it–

EMILY

At church they say talking about it is good for us. And I guess you have the right to know. You were friends, after all.

RAY

What happened?

EMILY

Danny was killed in the shooting.

The English translation of The Swallow (La Golondrina) by Catalan playwright Guillem Clua, was commissioned by London’s Cervantes Theatre for its world premiere in both English and Spanish in September 2017, and returned to open the Second Season of New Spanish Playwrighting from 30 April to 26 May 2018.

IDIOTA (Jordi Casanovas)

DOCTOR EDEL

Did you hide the letters so your wife and your daughter wouldn’t find out?

TONY

Shut up.

DOCTOR EDEL

Did you hide them?

TONY

Yes. Fuck. What else do you want? Do you want me to confess? I applied for the fucking loan to open the bar. They rolled out the red carpet, and it had always been my dream. I didn’t want to end up like my old man.

(Pause.)

Ten years ago, the streets were full of people. Everyone went out in the evening. Seven nights a week. Now, I don’t even have enough money to buy new songs. Do you want to know how I feel every night when I go into the bar to be greeted by Riley singing ‘The Lady in fucking Red’ again?

(Pause.)

Do you want to know how I feel at the end of the night, after I’ve spent ten hours on my feet and the takings don’t even cover the electricity bill? So yes, then I go over to the fucking one-armed bandit and feed it every coin I’ve fucking got.

(Pause.)

Or do you want me to tell you how scared I am? How scared I am of losing my house and my family? How scared I am that they’ll turn their backs on me when they find out? Is that what you want? Is that what you fucking want?

IDIOTA by leading Catalan playwright, Jordi Casanovas, is a dark comedy that explores the limits of morality and power. It has been staged in Barcelona, Madrid, Mexico City, Rome, Buenos Aires and Costa Rica, with productions scheduled for the Basque Country, Venezuela and Chile in 2018.

Mejor la ausencia (Edurne Portela)

Literary fiction, published in Spanish in September 2017 by Galaxia Gutenberg (Barcelona), 240 pp.

Mejor la ausencia is a compelling coming-of-age story set in 1980s Bilbao against the backdrop of domestic violence, petty crime and political conflict, told through the eyes of an absolutely engaging first-person female narrator:

 

Excerpt 1 (1979)

We reach the huts where there are men with guns. Mum turns round and tells us to be quiet. I ask why. Dad takes out the little books and shows them to the man. Another man comes up to mum’s window and pokes his gun into the car. Mum says, “Please, the kids.” The man doesn’t say anything, he just looks at us. Aitor sticks his tongue out at him and the man says something to my mum and I don’t understand but it’s a nasty word because dad insults him afterwards, he says something about a bastard but the man can’t hear him because we’ve left. Mum tells Aitor off but dad says he did the right thing. We arrive at Uncle Josu’s house and dad gets lots of things out of the boot. Uncle’s very pleased and so are his friends, the men with the beards. Uncle Josu strokes my head and tells me I get prettier every day and more grown up.

Excerpt 2 (1987)

New Year’s Day. What a pain. Gran’s coming. Aitor and Kepa are in bed. Kepa came home drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. Aitor must have got in earlier. So I have to help mum lay the table and no doubt I’ll have to tidy up afterwards. I put the king prawns on the plate. Their heads are black. The door rings. Gran’s here. She comes into the kitchen.

“Happy nineteen eighty-seven!”

She stretches out the ‘seven’. And claps, as if there was something to celebrate.

“Hi, gran.”

“Give me a kiss.”

I go over and kiss her. She has hairs on her upper lip and on her chin.

“Your brothers?”

“They’re asleep.”

“At this time of day? What about your mother?”

“She’s getting ready.”

Gran sighs.

Excerpt 3 (2009)

I haven’t been back to my mother’s house since the day she said my father was returning, after God knows how many years. Ten? Fifteen? She’s stayed in touch with him all that time and never stopped taking his money. I’ll never understand their arrangement, my mother’s need to maintain the link, my father’s presence in her life despite the abuse, the neglect, the absence. For my mother, it can’t just be about money, there must be something else; and for my father, it can’t just be about controlling her. I search through my memories, and come across scenes that seem fake: the two of them smiling and complicit as they listen to me telling my grandma that the Three Kings had visited our house, when I was five; holding each other’s hands as they walk on the beach at Biarritz; my father calling her ‘lioness’ and stroking her wild red hair. I remember stories my mother told me about when they were young and in love and my father made her laugh with his antics. Yes, those memories are there, but what use are they to me?

Synopsis

The novel is set in a town on the industrial outskirts of Bilbao during the 1980s, marked by heroin, unemployment and industrial decline, where the police fight running street battles with local youths, and the walls are covered with threatening slogans. Its narrator, Amaia, is a young child at the start, and progresses through adolescence to adulthood as the action unfolds. The youngest of four siblings, she describes the gradual destruction of her family by the violence that surrounds them.

Amaia’s father begins the novel as a supporter of Basque independence (and perhaps a petty criminal as well) but when, under duress, he is ‘turned’ by the Spanish security forces, the effects on the family’s life are devastating. Humiliated by his handlers and rejected by his former comrades, Amaia’s father turns his violence inwards on his family before abandoning them, forcing them to rely on the grudging support offered by Amaia’s maternal grandmother.

Amaia’s mother retreats into alcoholism and remains dependent on her abusive and absent husband. And each of Amaia’s brothers seeks a different way out: the eldest becomes a drug addict and dies of an overdose; the next leaves for university in Madrid and cuts his ties with home; the youngest throws himself into political violence and ends up in prison. Caught in the middle is Amaia, who has to go through adolescence with little or no support from those around her, and yet is somehow expected to maintain the fragile ties between the members of this dysfunctional family.

The final section of the book takes place in 2009, by which time Amaia is an adult and is trying to make sense of her life and how it has been shaped by violence and conflict. After an absence of 17 years, she returns to her home town and seeks to make peace with her past by understanding and writing about what she been through.

Translation issues

Edurne Portela controls Amaia’s voice brilliantly, and one of the effects is to make the reader feel as if she is accompanying Amaia, not just observing events and emotions. The main challenge for the translator is to reproduce this voice, and to ensure that the translation reflects the way that the voice evolves as Amaia progresses from early childhood through adolescence to adulthood. An additional issue is the use of occasional Basque words in the original Spanish text to convey a sense of place and to communicate the atmosphere of working class Bilbao in the 1980s. The translation sample included with this proposal show how both of these challenges can be addressed successfully.

Author data

Edurne Portela (b. Spain, 1974) has written extensively about the impact of violence and trauma on women’s lives. After a successful academic career in the United States, she returned to Spain to pursue a career as a writer. In 2016 she published El eco de los disparos (The echo of gunfire), an exploration of the culture and memory of violence in the Basque Country. Mejor la ausencia is her first novel.

Reviews and press coverage

Published in September 2017, Mejor la ausencia is already in its second edition and Edurne Portela has been widely interviewed in the Spanish national media, including TVE1, Huffington Post, El País, Radio Nacional de España and Radio Tres.

“Edurne Portela has achieved an intense, multi-layered narrative which challenges the reader’s emotions and preconceptions.” Domingo Ródenas, El Periodico, 26/09/17

“A bitter, painful and challenging tale, about a Spain that was divided between the cultural awakening of the 1980s, violent nationalist struggles, European integration and the continuing influence of Francoism…” A. López, La Razón

“A generational novel about silence, fear and literature as a weapon that helps us to imagine and examine our memories, to put a face and a body to the ghosts of the past, to unnamed fears and to unformulated intuitions.” Pilar Castro, El Cultural

“One of the most striking achievements is how the sensibility and the voice of the narrator evolve from the first pages, when she is only five years old, passing through the harsh irritation of adolescence, until she reaches adulthood, in 2009, and looks back over the past in an attempt to understand it.” Santi Pérez Isasi, Un libro al día