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.

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.

ITI Scottish Network summer workshop: collaborative professional development for translators

April 5, 2019 5:06 pm

Aberdour, 1 June 2019

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

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

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

We have designed our workshop with
multilingual groups in mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 23, 2019 7:36 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2018 5:25 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

clear when she was breathing easily before.

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

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

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

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

Here’s my final version (draft 5):

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

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

Let’s start with some minor changes in wording:

long after night had fallen

well into the night

her eyes were surrounded by wrinkles

wrinkles surrounded her eyes

saliva… leaving a damp patch

saliva… making a damp patch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entrevista con Maximiliano Barrientos

December 12, 2018 11:35 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching style: talking to Tim Parks about teaching translation

November 22, 2018 9:36 pm

During the course of this year, I’ve blogged on a range of topics, including translation criticism, collaborative development, theatre translation and client queries. But always, when writing, I’ve had in my mind former translation students from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Although I only taught there for three years, that experience made a huge impact on me, and much of my subsequent writing and collaboration with colleagues is to some degree an attempt to fill the gap that was created when I moved to Cadiz in the south of Spain (which would have made for a rather long commute).

Another inescapable feature of my year in blogging has been Tim Parks. Whenever I’ve talked about translation criticism in particular, his name has cropped up. In fact, sometimes one gets the impression from fellow translators that all Tim Parks does is criticize other people’s translations. I know that’s not true. He also praises them, writes about the business of literary translation in general and reviews both fiction and non-fiction, translated and otherwise. He writes novels and non-fiction of his own. And, of course, he’s translated some of the biggest names in Italian literature: Calvino, Moravia, Leopardi, Machiavelli and, right now, Pavese. He teaches at IULM University of Milan, and I see that in January he’s going to be teaching a new ‘check-up’ course, whatever that might mean, for translators in Florence.  

 So it seemed appropriate to round off my blog for this year by talking to Tim Parks about teaching translation: what can and can’t be taught, how he approaches it, whether it makes any difference…

TG: In your writing about translation, it’s obvious that you set great store by a close reading of the source text, one that pays attention to register, style and nuance. How much of this, I wonder, can be taught?

TP: Well, I wonder that too, just as I always wonder how much one can teach a person to write in a creative writing class. What you can do is invite people to read texts more carefully, with method, being aware of the kinds of pleasure they give the reader and how they deliver them. I’ve always felt it was crucial when translating to have a strong sense of why the work you’re translating is good, why it makes sense that someone wants this in my language. Over twenty and more years of doing this with students in Milan, I’ve noticed that some get the point and learn rapidly, others slowly, others not at all. So although close reading is only a starting point, I think at least that can be fostered in a class. Of course then there’s the problem of how the reading you’ve done is going to drive the writing you have to do when you actually start translating.

TG: I’m intrigued by how that works in practice. Let’s take a concrete example. I’m assuming one of the things you ask your students to do is to translate extracts from novels. Do you talk about the source text independently, requiring students to read the whole book first? Or do you jump straight into the translation but then discuss it, and the challenges it poses, in relation to a close reading of the text? In other words, what is the relationship between reading the source text and writing the translation?

TP: In the second year course I’m teaching now in Milan, second year postgrad that is, I’m alternating between genre and ‘serious’ fiction. We start with chick lit, since after they graduate this is the kind of thing young translators in Milan get asked to do. We read the opening pages of the book we’re looking at. We think about the genre and how it works, above all the relationship of complicity it sets up between narrative voice and reader, the kind of humour, how local or otherwise it is. We translate a page or so and discuss the various versions. Then we look at the first pages of three or four famous chick lit books (on PowerPoint) and see how they’ve been translated and what the publishers want, what the criteria seem to be when it comes to choices about realia and idioms and so on. Then we translate a bit more of our book and go back over what we’ve already done. Each week they do a bit more and send it to me for homework. I put all their versions side by side and send them back to all of them. So they can all see what the others are doing and how I reacted. So they get used to criticism, my famous criticism. I put examples up on a PowerPoint of different versions. And so on. In general, we have fun.

After about a month, that is four or five lessons (three hours each), we shift to a different book, this time literature, but literature dealing with the same issues as the genre fiction. For example, after the chick lit, we look at Letty Fox, Her Luck by the wonderful Christina Stead about a young woman in New York in the late 1940s. Again the same process. But with the added intrigue now of establishing the differ­ence between this and the chick lit: above all, Stead’s far more sophisticated use of irony, far more complex relationship with the reader. We look at a published trans­lation after we’ve done our own version, and think about whether it is as good as it could have been. And the student begins to sense, or some of them do, how their writing strategy has to adapt to the nature of the text they’re working from. For example, maybe they’ve really enjoyed getting the voice of the chick lit, finding the right colloquialisms in their Italian, the right feel, then they try to do the same thing with Christina Stead and it just muddies the waters. It’s still a colloquial voice, but the register and the relationship with the reader is quite different. It’s a different aesthetic. So they have to think again.

TG: I’m going to come back to some of that in a moment. But before we get onto the issue of how students (or any translators) put things into their target language, I’d like to probe you about the role of the source language. My Spanish is pretty good. I’m not fully bilingual but I occasionally ‘pass’ and I’m generally very comfortable in the language. Even so, I’d say that some of the things you mention here – narrative voice, humour, irony, register – are the trickiest things to pick up. (Even native speakers sometime miss them.) How do you address that in your teaching? Obviously you can explain these things for texts you’re working on in class, but you won’t be able to hold students’ hands once they graduate.

TP: Going right back as far as St Jerome or Roger Bacon or Leonardo Bruni, commentators on translation have always pointed out the problem posed by the need for deep competence in the source language. You think you know the language, but you don’t. There are things you’re missing. And yes, of course, even in our native language we miss things; literature is so much less important in our culture now that many readers are only competent up to a point. For sure I can’t give my students in seventy hours of lessons the English they need to translate well. But I can show them some exciting text, let’s say the opening of Middlemarch, and look at a few Italian translations. And they can see who’s got what, who’s missing what and where they’re trying to place the work in the Italian literary context. And they’re alerted to the immense and wonderful problem of language complexity, which is what makes literature so exciting, of course, its depth, subtlety, nuance. Once alerted, it’s up to them. Some of them will run with it, and grow much more aware, learn what they need to learn, others will be daunted. Thinking back on my own years in Italy, nearly forty now, I’m aware of how little at the beginning I really felt or grasped the tone of this or that. Translation is something you grow into.

TG: This is a slight digression, but I have to say I’m envious of the amount of time you seem to be able to dedicate to teaching and feedback. When I was teaching I had to really make a case for the need for individual feedback on everything my students did. And the amount of hands-on translation practice could have been doubled, even tripled, and I still would have wanted more. But I felt I was in competition – a losing battle, even – against institutional pressures, the demands of other courses, theory, research methods…

TP: I hear you. Young people come out of a first degree, do a Masters in translation, hoping to work in the field, and the universities hit them with ‘translation studies’, much of it interesting but a lot of it mere ideology, and very little of it practical. Perhaps this is because they have students from many different countries and it’s hard to work with all of them on the same translation, from this language to that. Plus there’s the fact that it takes a long time to work through your students’ homework. For years I had both first- and second-year classes (all Italian students) and was correcting – yes I’m going to use that word – and giving feedback on around fifty students’ work over the weekend. But it’s the only way.

And it’s important that they see the other students’ work too, and what I said about it. Because that way they begin to see how other people translate in different ways, how each of us has a sort of signature in the way we translate. They understand each others’ strengths and weaknesses. With students obsessively close to the structure of the original, I’ll be suggesting they experiment with something more flexible; with students who love to change everything, I’ll be inviting them to make sure they’ve said exactly what the source text said, and so on. I should say that this degree also has courses in technical and commercial translation. So the students work with a wide range of texts. And this is crucial. It’s a mistake to focus entirely on the literary, at least at the beginning. You want to be exposed to the language across the board. Certainly, the ten or so years when I was translating everything from fashion shoe promos to diesel filter manuals was incredibly useful to me.

TG: Going back to the issue of close reading…  Particularly among literary translators, it’s commonplace to hear people saying “it’s the ability to write in your target language that really matters” or something along those lines. When you teach translation, do you also see yourself as a ‘creative writing’ teacher in any sense?

TP: A translator has the task of reading a foreign text for the home audience and delivering to them what he or she has read. Not creating something ex nihilo. So the creativity of the translator’s writing is not in finding anything new, but in finding a way of getting that original text to happen in the target language. As we all know, when translating, the biggest obstacle to writing well (Luther said this wonderfully) is the syntax, structure and lexical segmentation of the other language. We know that the text won’t go ‘straight’ into our own language. So we have our work cut out. On the other hand, everything we decide to put down, we should do so with our experience of the original in mind. That’s our job. My impression is that many translators write poorly because they haven’t really grasped what the original is saying, or how it is saying it. It’s not easy to write if you don’t know quite what you’re supposed to be doing, if you’re filling in, papering across the cracks in your knowledge.

This was the burden of my famous, perhaps infamous, article on Stuart Woolf and Ann Goldstein’s translations of Primo Levi. Because they didn’t really grasp the idiomatic nature of what they were translating, they were writing poorly too. Once you’ve really understood, it might not be easy to get the text into English, but it’s a lot easier. At least you know what you’re doing. And that’s the kind of writing I’m trying to teach. Let’s focus on what the original deeply means, and the flavour of how it was said, and let’s experiment with different ways of having that come out in our language. Above all let’s avoid adopting a style that we think suits our publisher and our market, regardless of what’s actually in the original. This is all too common today and makes a mockery of the pieties of bringing cultures together.

TG: You probably know from my blog and elsewhere that I’m passionate about collaborative arrangements, with translators critiquing each other’s work, sharing ideas, getting together for workshops and so on. Some of the benefits of that are obvious: you receive constructive input that helps you to improve your translations and hone your skills. But there are also other less obvious benefits. I actually learn a lot from reviewing my colleagues’ work, not just because I’m lucky to work with some very talented translators but also because the whole process of thinking about what does and doesn’t work in someone else’s translations gives you a different perspective. Do you have any thoughts about the less immediate benefits of translation teaching, both for students and for teachers?

TP: For sure it’s good to have a few people you can rely on when you run into trouble with a translation, and you can always learn from looking at other people’s work and seeing what they’re up to. I’ve learned an immense amount from teaching; partly from the need to analyse the texts when I’m preparing lessons – that’s where the book Translating Style came from after all – but also from the students themselves, who often see stuff I’ve missed, and who naturally write far better Italian than I do. Which is chastening! One problem with seeking help from others, though, particularly when you’re translating a difficult author, is that you can’t expect the other person to be as deeply into the text as you are, and you can end up losing evenness of style if you start accepting suggestions left, right and centre.

In this sense it’s a good idea to distinguish between class­room or workshop situations where you’re learning and a situation where you have a serious job to do and you have to be the expert yourself. It’s hard, for example, to ask for help trans­lating Pavese because his style is so strange, so knotty and allusive, that people who don’t know it really can’t help. Then there’s a great difference between collaborating with native speakers of the language you work from and collaborating with native speakers of your own language. I’m used to teaching Italians, but I must say I’m rather excited to see what’s going to happen with this new course in Florence, where I’ll be working with professional translators into English. Hopefully, I’ll have much to give, but also lots to learn. One’s never too old to learn a new trick or two. And it’s only fresh learning that keeps you excited about your work.

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