Spanish genitalia

April 14, 2020 9:47 am

A couple of weeks ago I did a Twitter thread on how Spaniards (and Gaditanos in particularly) pepper their informal speech with reference to genitals. The thread went viral (over 2 million views when I last checked) so I thought I’d reproduce it here. But do take a look at the original thread, too, as there are lots of entertaining side comments and discussions that aren’t included here.

The other day, I came across the following phrase:

Y encima tú, con todo tu coño…

= And, what’s more, you, with your whole cunt…

Here’s the whole sentence for context:

Y encima tú, con todo tu coño, no contenta con quedar con un desconocido del que sólo sabes que es un rarito que te cagas, vas y le cuentas el plan.

= And, what’s more, you, with your whole cunt, not content to meet a stranger about whom the only thing you know is he’s as weird as hell, you go and tell him the plan.

So, the speaker is expressing frustration with her friend’s naivete:

= And there you are, Jesus Christ! You meet up with some total stranger – the only thing you know about him for sure is that he’s as weird as hell – and you go and tell him the whole plan.

So coño (=cunt) in that phrase is used to emphasize the friend’s naivete.

The general idea is one of inertia, of insisting on being one’s predictable frustrating self, regardless. If the object of your frustration is male, you can replace coño with huevos (balls).

It’s probably worth noting at this stage that coño is actually a fairly mild expletive and can be uttered, for example, to express frustration and is similar to “shit!” or even to “damn!”

Your teenage son has gone out (pre-lockdown) failing to take keys, despite constant reminders. He turns up at 3 in the morning and you get out of bed to let him in. As you open the door, you greet him with a resigned:

¡con tus huevos!

=with your balls

=bloody hell!

Or your mother can’t remember where she parked the car and you spend half an hour searching for it. As you recount events to a friend you might say:

mi madre, con el coño

=my mother, with her cunt

=my mum, she’s so absent-minded

So, there is an element of (more or less) indulgent frustration that comes from the fact that the huevos/coño here represent an essential feature of the person’s character. It may annoy us but it is part of who they are.

And, talking of frustration:

estar hasta los huevos/el coño de algo/alguien

=to be up to one’s balls/cunt with something/someone

=to be completely fed up with something/someone


deja de tocarme los huevos/el coño

=stop touching my balls/cunt

=stop annoying me

Genitals don’t have to be frustrating. They can be celebratory or affirmatory too. E.g., if someone does something good, asserts themself, takes a big risk etc., you could say:

¡Ole tus huevos/cojones!

Or if speaking to a woman:

¡Ole tu coño!

=Well done!/Go for it!

My favourite instance of this was when a friend of mine was teaching a flamenco workshop in Edinburgh. At one point, she was demonstrating an arm movement.

To explain to the students the spirit in which she wanted them to perform the movement, she said (in a strong Spanish accent):

Like this. For you, for your cunt!

(así, pa’ ti, pa’ tu coño)

Genitals can also be used as a form of address. I live in Cadiz, and it’s fairly standard to address men or boys as pisha (=cock)

It’s roughly equivalent to “mate”, e.g.:

Qué de tiempo, pisha

=I haven’t seen you for ages, mate

“chocho” (=cunt) can also be used as a term of address for women, although I think it’s slightly less neutral, and seems to be used when there’s some impatience, teasing or whatever.

venga, chocho, que nos vamos

=come on, cunt, we’re leaving

=hurry up, we’re leaving

For neutral or affectionate use of chocho, it’s safer to add a dimunitive:

Hola, chochete

=hello, little cunt


Sticking in Cadiz for a moment, a variant of this is to affectionately address* a small boy as pishita de plata and a small girl as chochete de oro.

= silver cock/golden cunt

*Not a casual greeting between strangers, even in Cadiz, it must be said.

I also have a fondness for a couple of allusive phrases.

Me la suda

Pragmatically, I’d generally translate this as:

I don’t give a damn

But the la in that phrase actually refers to la polla (cock)

= S/he makes my cock sweat 🧐

And finally:

Te la van a meter doblada

Sunset over Cadiz

Oda a Carrefour

March 22, 2020 10:52 am

Up on the Roof

March 19, 2020 11:24 am

A man, about 50 years old. He speaks Spanish with an accent that is at once identifiably local and non-native

Christ! Here I
am at the fucking beach and it’s closed. It’s over there. On the other side of
some crappy barriers and some plastic tape. Is it because of all those people
from Madrid, the ones who came down to Cadiz, fleeing from the plague?
Yesterday my son joked: “If you see someone in a Real Madrid top, just kill
them.” I think he was joking. We only moved to Cadiz a couple of years ago but
he’s already gone completely native. Some things get into your blood.

What am I
going to do? The dogs are looking at me with that typical Labrador expression.
Love betrayed. Disappointment. Hunger. Should we jump the barrier? I think
about it. And then I rule it out. Not out of a sense of responsibility or from
fear of the authorities. More because I’m afraid of the embarrassment. I can
see myself on the front page of the local newspaper. “The police have caught a
middle-aged man, of Scottish nationality, on Santa María beach, in flagrant
violation of the lockdown order…”

We turn around. The dogs are confused. “Now what?” they ask. Or, rather, I ask myself. Should we just hole ourselves up in the flat – me, the two dogs, and my two teenage kids? I don’t know if I should be happy because the lockdown coincides with the week when I’m with the kids and the dogs, and my ex is away. Okay, I admit it. I’m happy. The world is going to hell in a handbasket but I can look after my people. The end of the world is nigh but so long as I can play the cool, recently-separated dad, I’m fulfilled. Hundreds of thousands of people can die but so long as I can fill the fridge with stewed artichokes, Chinese aubergines, fried chicken, hamburgers, pork cheek curry, I’m fine. I don’t know if I’m incredibly selfish or just a bit of a dickhead. I’m going to make scones in the morning and bake bread in the afternoon.

We’re nearly
home when I have an idea. I’ve got to hang up the laundry anyway. Our building
has an azotea, a flat roof with clotheslines strung across it. I’ll make
myself a coffee, grab some muffins and take everything up to the roof: the laundry,
my breakfast, the dogs. And, why not, a portable loudspeaker, to make a party
of it. We go into the flat, and the dogs look at me again. They’re waiting for
their breakfast. Normally, I give them breakfast when we get back. So how do I
explain it? “Look, babies, everything’s up in the air. There are going to be
some changes to our routines.”

I take the
clothes out of the washing machine. That’s me. I’m a man who puts the washing
machine on the night before so he can hang the clothes out to dry first thing
in the morning. A modern man. A man capable of facing the end of the world
without losing his mind. I put the clothes in a big bag, one of those blue ones
from Ikea. I grab the basket with the pegs. I put the kettle on.

The dogs are
still looking at me, expectant, hungry. And I stop. How am I going to do it?
I’ve got to take the laundry, the dogs and my breakfast up to the roof. I can’t
take everything at once. The bag is too big, the coffee will spill, the dogs
will go crazy on the stairs. What can I do? What’s more, there are seagulls up
there. Lots of them. Normally, they leave me in peace. They haven’t got any
chicks yet this year; they’re not nesting. But I suspect the dogs will set them
off. And if I take my breakfast up first, then the seagulls will definitely eat
my muffins. Fuck! Suddenly, I’m in that riddle about the guy who has to get
from one side of a river to the other in a rowing boat with a fox and a chicken
and something else, I can’t remember what. A cabbage? Could it be a cabbage?
Foxes don’t like cabbage, I’m sure. But Labradors like everything. Absolutely
everything. The question is: what order should I take the stuff up in?

I start with
the laundry. I go up the stairs, unlock the door onto the azotea, leave
the bag and the basket with the pegs, and go downstairs. I go up again, this
time with the coffee, the muffins and the loudspeaker. Great. But I can’t leave
the muffins out in the open. Because of the seagulls. There are only two or
three of them in the building across the street just now, but I don’t trust
them. I put the muffins inside the basket and put the basket inside the laundry

I go down for
the dogs. They’re still gazing at me, their eyes asking: “…and our
breakfast?” I get their leads, a couple of tennis balls and some bone-shaped
biscuits. The dogs forget about their breakfast and follow me. I open the door
onto the azotea, the dogs go out, I take my muffins, pick up my coffee,
and breathe in. I’ve made it to the far shore with my fox and my chicken and my
cabbage or whatever it was.

I look at the
building across the way. There are more seagulls now. Lots of seagulls. There
must be at least ten, just watching us. But those aren’t the ones I’m worried
about. Because suddenly the air is full of seagulls. As if every fucking
seagull in Cadiz was right here, above my azotea. This isn’t a riddle
anymore. This has turned into that Hitchcock movie. I don’t remember the film
or its plot, just that there were a lot of birds and it ends badly.

I hold my
breath. The seagulls circle above us but for now they’re not attacking.
Fortunately, there are some sheets and towels already hanging on the lines and
they act as a kind of screen, and the dogs are occupied with their tennis
balls. I take a sip of my coffee and put on some music. Gradually, things calm
down. The seagulls seem to have understood that the dogs can’t jump from our
rooftop to theirs. That this isn’t an invasion and is, instead, something new
but inoffensive. We can share this space up here, without fighting. The dogs
seem to have accepted this rather unconventional walk. It seems like
everything’s going to be alright. I take a bite out of my muffin, take another
sip of coffee, turn the volume up to maximum. And I sing at the top of my

La donna è mobile
qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensiero.

(c) Tim Gutteridge. This text was translated by the author from the original text in Spanish – La Azotea – written and shared as part of the #Coronavirusplays initiative.

La azotea

March 14, 2020 8:00 pm


Un hombre, de unos 50 años. En su acento se mezcla lo gaditano con lo extranjero

¡Coño! Llego a la puta playa y me la han cerrado. Allí está. Al otro lado de unas vallas cutres y una cinta de esas de plástico. ¿Será por los madrileños? ¿Los que han bajado a Cádiz, huyendo de la peste? Me lo dijo mi hijo ayer, de broma. “Si escuchas a alguien decir ‘tronco’ por la calle, mátalo ya, quillo.” Creo que estaba de broma. Desde que nos vinimos a Cádiz se ha vuelto super-gaditano. Hay cosas que se te meten en la sangre.

¿Qué hago? Las perras me están mirando con esa
cara que solo tienen los labradores. Amor traicionado. Decepción. Hambre. ¿Saltamos
la valla? Lo pienso en serio. Y luego lo descarto. No por sentido de responsabilidad
ni por miedo a las autoridades. Más bien para temor a la vergüenza. Me veo en
la portada del Diario de Cádiz. “La Guardia Civil ha pillado a un hombre de
mediana edad, de origen escocés, en la Playa de Santa María, en contravención
de la orden de confinamiento…”

Damos la vuelta. Las perras están confundidas. “¿Ahora qué?” me preguntan. O, más bien, me pregunto yo. ¿Nos metemos directamente en el piso, las dos perras, yo, mis dos niños adolescentes? No sé si alegrarme porque el confinamiento nos ha pillado la semana que estoy yo con los niños y las perras, y mi ex está fuera. Confieso. Me alegro. El mundo se va al carajo pero yo me encargo de mi gente. Llega el fin del mundo y con tal de poder hacer el papel de padre guay recién separado me siento realizado. Se pueden morir cientos de miles de personas pero con poder llenar el frigorífico con alcachofas guisadas, berenjenas chinas, pollo empanado, hamburguesas, curry de carrillada, estoy bien. No sé si soy tremendamente egocéntrico o solo gilipollas. Haré muffins por la mañana y pan por la tarde.

Ya estamos llegando a casa y se me ocurre una idea. Tengo que tender de todas maneras. Tenemos azotea. Me preparo un café, cojo unas magdalenas y lo subo todo: la colada, el desayuno, las perras. Y, porque no, un pequeño altavoz, ya que estamos de fiesta. Entramos en la casa y las perras me miran otra vez. Esperan su desayuno. Normalmente, volvemos y les pongo el desayuno. ¿Como se lo explico? “Mirad, queridas, está todo patas arriba. Va a haber cambios de rutina.”

Saco la ropa de la lavadora. Soy así. Soy un
hombre que pone la lavadora la noche anterior para poder tender temprano al día
siguiente. Un hombre moderno. Un hombre capaz de enfrentarse al fin del mundo
sin perder su cordura. Meto la ropa en una bolsa grande, una de esas azules de
Ikea. Cojo la cestita de las pinzas. Pongo la kettle.

Las perras me siguen mirando, expectantes,
hambrientas. Y me paro. ¿Cómo hago? Hay que subir la colada, las perras y el
desayuno a la azotea. No puedo con todo. La bolsa es grande, el café se va a derramar,
las perras se van a desmadrar por la escalera. ¿Cómo hago? Además, arriba hay gaviotas.
Muchas. Normalmente me dejan en paz. Todavía no tienen críos este año, ni están
anidando. Pero sospecho que con las perras se van a alterar. Y si subo primero
el desayuno, seguro que las gaviotas se comen las magdalenas. ¡Joder! De repente
me veo en la adivinanza del tío que tiene que pasar de un lado a otro de un río
en un barquito con un zorro y una gallina y algo más, ya no recuerdo qué. ¿Un
repollo? ¿Puede ser un repollo? A los zorros no les gusta el repollo,
seguramente. Pues, a los labradores les gusta de todo. Da igual. La cuestión
es, ¿en qué orden subo las cosas?

Empiezo con la colada. Subo la escalera, abro la puerta que da a la azotea, dejo la bolsa y la cestita con las pinzas allí arriba y bajo. Subo otra vez, ahora con el café, las magdalenas y el altavoz. Bien. Pero no puedo dejar las magdalenas a la intemperie. Por las gaviotas. Que, bueno, por ahora solo son dos o tres en el edificio de enfrente pero no me fío. Meto las magdalenas dentro de la cesta y meto la cesta dentro de la bolsa de la ropa.

Bajo a por las perras. Me siguen mirando con esa mirada de “¿y nuestro desayuno?” Cojo sus correas, un par de pelotas de tenis y unas galletitas con forma de hueso. Las perras se olvidan del desayuno y me siguen. Abro la puerta a la azotea, las perras salen; saco mis magdalenas, cojo mi café y respiro. He llegado a la otra orilla con mi zorro y mi gallina y mi repollo o lo que fuera.

Miro el edificio de enfrente. Ya hay más gaviotas.
Muchas gaviotas. Tiene que haber por lo menos diez, mirándonos, simplemente.
Pero no son ellas las que me preocupan. Porque de repente el aire está lleno de
gaviotas. Como si todas las putas gaviotas de Cádiz se hubieran concentrado
justo aquí, encima de mi azotea. Ya no hay adivinanza. Esto se ha convertido en
la película de Hitchcock. No recuerdo como es la película ni su trama, solo sé
que hay muchos pájaros y que acaba mal.

Aguanto la respiración. Las gaviotas nos
sobrevuelan pero por ahora no atacan. Afortunadamente hay sábanas y toallas ya
tendidas que hacen de mampara, y las perras están entretenidas con sus pelotas
de tenis. Tomo un sorbo de café y pongo música. Poco a poco, la cosa se va
calmando. Parece que las gaviotas han entendido que las perras no pueden saltar
de nuestra azotea a la suya. Que no se trata de una invasión sino de algo nuevo
pero inofensivo. Podemos compartir este espacio aquí arriba, sin pelearnos. Parece
que las perras se han reconciliado con este paseo poco convencional. Parece que
todo va a estar bien. Le pego un mordisco a la magdalena, bebo mi café, subo el
volumen al máximo. Y canto a pleno pulmón:

La donna è mobile
qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensiero.

(c) Tim Gutteridge, 2020

What’s in a word?

December 18, 2019 3:32 pm

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)

December 18, 2019 2:27 pm


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?


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


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.


It’s entirely ordinary to put the adverb between verb and
object in Italian – ricorda ancora un
– 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.


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


…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
– 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


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.


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?


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


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
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

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?


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

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


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
to avremmo detto. That is from one said or people
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

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

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.


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’.


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

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
(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
– 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.


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?


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


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.


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.


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

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
. I wonder if aspetto here really means perspective but I’ll stick
with the cognate for now.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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
, 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!


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.


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)

December 12, 2019 9:54 am

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.


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.


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.


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
, 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


No lack of tasty realia!


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


But we hardly want to take Bologna to Montevideo.


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.


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.


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


To risk a pun…


… 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.


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?


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.


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

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.


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.


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

October 21, 2019 3:11 pm

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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.

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.


Cerdos, Pau Ruiz Bernat


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?

Pitch perfect: is translating publishers’ proposals the hardest gig of all?

July 26, 2019 12:53 pm

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
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):

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
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,
otro lado del mar.

And here’s my adapted version:

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
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.


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

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.

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.

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

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”).


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.”

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

“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

“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.

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

April 23, 2019 4:45 pm

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.


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?


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?


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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