My year in translation: March

The month gets off to a good start. A longstanding client has confirmed that a big project will be going ahead. The job involves producing bilingual content for a section of the corporate website, a kind of online museum. It will be a bit different from my usual work. I will be copywriting into English from a Spanish brief, and coordinating the rest of the project: translation of English copy back into Spanish, editing in both languages, terminology etc. I’m looking forward to the variety, and to putting together a team of colleagues. And it provides me with a degree of security for the rest of the year. After a little discussion, I agree a frankly unrealistic deadline, fairly confident that the bottlenecks will be at their end rather than mine.

Moomin and Ronia on the roof

On 13 March we get the news we have all been dreading, expecting and perhaps hoping for. As the numbers of cases and deaths rise, Spain has declared a state of emergency in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid19. Although the epicentres are in Madrid, Barcelona and the Basque Country, a lockdown has been imposed in Andalusia too. My own feeling, I confess, is one of relief. This suspension of normality is strangely welcome. My own normality was suspended last summer when my wife and I separated. For the last nine months I’ve been living a divided existence: half of the time in the family home with my kids and my dogs, the other half unrooted, back in Scotland or in a rented flat nearby. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, in my ex-wife’s home town. I need to make plans for the future but I am still clinging to the past. Our flat has become the setting for a peculiar French farce of modern family life. Once a week I exit stage left when my ex arrives; a week later the process is repeated in reverse to mark my return. This is not so much co-parenting as part-time single parenting. I’m at my best when I’m with my kids: I feel grounded, accompanied, I know who I am, I have a purpose. But the solo periods are more difficult. I am too distraught to enjoy my freedom, a heartbroken bachelor rattling around in his pad, the space filled with the lustrous green of cheap houseplants from Lidl, my time filled with translation. Thankfully, I can translate in almost any emotional state. It is, if not therapy, then at least a soothing balm.

The suspension of time, this feeling of the rest of the world coming into synch with my own private catastrophe, has an unexpected effect. I am momentarily energized. During the first week of lockdown, I write a short story. In Spanish. The choice of language is pragmatic. My playwright friends are all writing short pandemic-themed dramatic monologues – in Catalan or Spanish – and I want to join in. But writing in this language – which is not “mine” – is constraining and thus, paradoxically, liberating. I am restricted, I have less range, a smaller vocabulary, less control over different registers, less ability to step outside of my own idiolect into the wider language beyond. I find myself in a linguistic lockdown, essential purchases and dog-walking only, a simplicity that allows my writing to flow.

I finish the piece and share it with my colleagues. Normally, I channel their writing from Spanish into English: they write, I translate. Today, I have broken the rules. I am writing, not translating. And I am doing it in Spanish, not English. In translation, I reveal very little of myself. In writing, I can reveal as much as I want.

Writing in Spanish, though, throws up another problem. Most of my writing is not published in the traditional sense. I post it on my website and then share it via social media or email. This is a piece I would normally share with friends and family but by writing in Spanish I have created a barrier. And so I must become a translator once again.

Near the start of the piece, my son jokes about how we should deal with people who have brought the virus to Cadiz from Madrid as they flee to their second homes on the coast:

Si escuchas a alguien decir ‘tronco’ por la calle, mátalo ya, quillo.

[= If you hear someone say tronco when you’re out and about, just kill them, quillo]

Quillo is short for chiquillo and is a typical Cadiz term, equivalent, roughly, to ‘mate’ in English. Tronco is a Madrid alternative, somewhat old-fashioned now, the kind of word you might hear on a TV drama set in the Spanish capital in the 1990s.

How do I translate this shibboleth test into English? I can’t leave the words in Spanish but nor can I replace them with English equivalents. In the end, I settle for a non-lexical version:

If you see someone in a Real Madrid top, just kill them.

It’s a clever solution, I think, but I can’t help recognizing that something – rather a lot, in fact – has been lost. My little story is, among other things, about a relationship to place and to language, about how identity changes but is always local. Not much of this is captured by the Real Madrid shirt.

There is more loss to come. Halfway through the story, I have come back from the newly cordoned off beach, my morning dog-walk frustrated, and decide to take the dogs up onto the roof to give them some exercise. I worry about keeping the animals under control as I make my way upstairs with the laundry, a cup of coffee and some home baking:

The bag is too big, the coffee will spill, the dogs will go crazy on the stairs.

But here, too, something has gone astray. In the original I wrote not that the dogs would “go crazy” (volverse locas) but rather, se van a desmadrar. Literally, they will become unmothered. There is no such word as “unmother” in English, which is, no doubt, one of the reasons why I like it so much in Spanish, its lack of a direct equivalent making it more vivid, more salient, a fresh image for my non-native mind. It is not, though, the dogs who are in danger of becoming unmothered but rather my children, who have been alternately unmothered and unfathered on a weekly basis for the best part of a year and for the foreseeable future.

Of the many silly things that are said about translation, perhaps the silliest of all is the insistence that nothing is untranslatable, the reluctance to acknowledge the inevitability of loss. But translation, like life, is, among other things, a process of managing loss. Sometimes, often, that loss may feel negligible or may simply be outweighed by what we add. When I translate a rambling, verbose piece of academic prose into clean, flowing English, I am confident that my version is better than the original, that I have cast the author in a better light than, perhaps, he deserves, that there is little loss and much gain.

Sometimes, I prefer to think less in terms of loss and gain than of change. I refuse on principle to produce ‘literal’ translations of stage plays. My theatre translations always invoke a version of the play, a production that takes place inside my head as I translate. I do whatever is necessary to make that work, to give the characters their voices, to mark the rhythms of the drama, to exploit the potential offered by the target language. There is loss here too, to be sure, but so much more change and transformation that I don’t need to dwell on it.

In other cases, more perhaps than we care to admit, it is the loss that dominates, at least during the process of translation. Maybe, after it is done, we will be able to look back, to appreciate the necessity of change, the inevitability of loss, to appreciate, even, the silver lining of those little gains and the new thing that has been created.

The second half of March brings news of the postponement of a couple of projects. One of these is a regular report on the state of the European Union. The client has already invested in the writing stage; translation is a small part of the overall budget and without it everything else will have been a waste of time and money. I’m fairly confident that this job will resurface later in the year; perhaps, if I’m lucky, it will coincide with a quiet spell. I’m more disappointed about the other project. It was a comic about women scientists, my first full-length comic translation, my first job for a new client. For the moment it has been put on hold but I suspect this job won’t resurface. It’s hard not to worry about the pandemic’s likely impact on work – and I feel more grateful than ever for that large copywriting project.

At the end of March, I have a reading of my translation of Jauría (the documentary drama I translated in January about the Manada gang rape case). The reading takes place under the auspices of Out of the Wings, a London-based collective for theatre translators working between Spanish and Portuguese and English.

Screenshot of Out of the Wings Zoom reading of Jauría

Out of the Wings member, William Gregory, deserves the credit (or the blame!) for getting me involved in theatre translation. It’s the least lucrative but most enjoyable part of what I do and, for the moment, I am trying to create a portfolio of work and use that to build up a network of contacts in the hope that, at some point, my addiction to translating dialogue will start to pay for itself.

The reading was originally due to take place in London but has now shifted online. The script is read, via Zoom, by a cast of professional actors, and the reading is followed by a discussion by the members of the collective and anyone else who wants to attend. Perhaps surprisingly, for me the main benefit of participating in a reading such as this is not the opportunity to revise my translation in the wake of hearing it performed. I make few if any changes at this stage; at most, the odd minor infelicity that has slipped through. I’m perfectly happy, though, for directors and actors to make whatever changes they deem necessary. Each line of translated dialogue ceases to be work in progress when I settle on a version I like. For some lines, most even, that happens at draft one; for others, it takes a little longer. But I think that this letting go is, really, a recognition of the collaborative nature of translation. The collaboration is asynchronous but it is essential to the process. What else is a translation but a collaboration between translator and author, regardless of whether the author has any direct involvement (answering queries or resolving doubts) or is even still alive?

In theatre, there is an acceptance that the finished script (whether translated or not) is merely the basis for a further collaboration, between director and actors, which has as its result a performance on the stage, in which the collaboration occurs between actors and audience.

The collaboration is less immediately apparent in written translation – there are no collective spaces to parallel the rehearsal room and the stage. But it is still there: between the translator and the author; with the involvement of publishers, agents, editors and proofreaders; and, finally, between all of these and the reader. I wonder if the translator’s (or the author’s) frequent reluctance to let go of a final text is part of a denial of this collaboration, an insistence that they and they alone have created the text, a delusion of control over how the text will be experienced and, hopefully, enjoyed.

La azotea (original version)

Up on the Roof (English translation)

A Wedding to Die For (Pablo Canosales)

In A Wedding to Die For (La boda de tus muertos) by Andalusian playwright Pablo Canosales, the López family – the parents Jesús and Sofía, and their two children Mari Tere and Josete – attend the wedding reception of the oldest of the three children, Pablo.

Time stands still – as they drive towards the reception through the baking countryside, as they arrive, are seated humiliatingly at the back of the room, are treated to the bizarre ‘service’ of their dedicated waiter, Aurelio, it is always 7 o’clock.

The action moves from tragedy to farce to comedy, and back again. And one thing is clear. This family is held together not by love but by resentment and disappointment and loathing. Can they break free? What will happen if they do?

Poster for “La boda de tus muertos”, Pablo Canosales, Teatros Luchana

MARI TERE: Think. You’re the one who suggested the game. You must have something to say.

Pause. Abstraction. Silence. Wind. A strong wind engulfs SOFÍA. A mother who flies with the wind. The wind takes possession of her. She takes possession of the wind. A rising apocalypse.

SOFÍA: I like the bride. I mean, she doesn’t look so great but, well, she’s still the bride. And we always say the bride looks beautiful. Even if it’s a lie. Even if she’s stealing your son forever. And I like my Pablo; he’s so handsome. But then he’s handsome whatever he wears, and even more so dressed as the groom. And even though we’re a long way away, I like to see him smiling with joy like only he does. Although I keep losing sight of him, with all these people in the way. I also like the dress the bride’s mother is wearing. If it’s uglier than mine, I laugh. But if it’s prettier, I get really pissed off. I can’t help it.

The wedding ceremony. When people read at the altar. The priest with his goblet of wine. I like the bit when he says: “Speak now or forever hold your peace.” There’s always the possibility that somebody will ruin the moment. The organ. The photographer. People crying. People singing. The food. What is it with food at weddings? It never ends. The decorations. They’re so important. Everybody loves them. And I like asking people, “How are you? How are you? How are you?”

And explaining what it was like, organizing all of this, even though I haven’t organized anything. But I would like to have done it for my son. And I like the music at weddings. Music that allows you to let yourself go, even if it’s only on the inside. And the centrepieces. Real flowers. I don’t like the plastic ones, they look cheap, you can tell they’re plastic. And the tableware, which doesn’t seem so important and people don’t think about it, but it is important because you eat your food from it. It has to be white. And pretty. And simple.

I like simple weddings. And I like elaborate ones. I like weddings. I like all kinds of weddings! Because they’re all happy. Or they should be. And I like prawns. There have to be lots of prawns. Local, not imported. And a free bar. There has to be a free bar. For the young folks, above all, but for the older ones too. I like the guests. They make me feel good. The guests should be happy. More than a hundred but less than five hundred. With people smiling, even if they don’t want to or they can’t. I like that too. Because weddings are for smiling.

Envelopes with money. Envelopes without money. Envelopes with the name of the person who’s given it written on them. And envelopes with no name. Full of intrigue. And disappointment. And disaster. It doesn’t matter. If you can at least cover the costs. Agreeing among friends how much money to give to the happy couple. I like the way, the more money you give, the more love it seems to show.

Stag nights and hen parties. I like people losing control at stag nights and hen parties. The money from the wedding paying for the honeymoon. The smokers’ area. The cigars. I don’t like cigars but the smell of cigar smoke at a wedding makes me happy. Who knows why? Even though I don’t smoke. The condom machines in the bathrooms. The way the floor ends up all slippy and slidy.

Impossible high heels. Uncomfortable dresses. People changing their shoes halfway through. Perfume. Wedding make-up and wedding hair-dos. Flamboyant ties and ridiculous bow-ties. The crazy hairstyles at weddings. Layers and layers of make-up at weddings. People getting all dolled up to go to weddings. People getting drunk at weddings. People eating things at weddings that they’d never eat at home. People who say they go hungry at weddings.

People dancing without a care in the world at weddings. People dancing on their own at weddings. People complaining at weddings. People who do lines of coke at weddings. People who go crazy at weddings. People who fight and swear at weddings. The lovers of the bride and the groom at weddings.

People feeling each other up beneath the table at a wedding. Cheating on somebody at a wedding. The bride’s garter, I know it’s tacky, but I like it. The expensive bouquet that gets thrown in the air so that four tarts can fight over it without a scrap of dignity. The bloody kids running all over the place, knocking the waiters over and ruining everything.

The stupid stains on everyone’s wedding clothes. People who come to the wedding because they can’t get out of it. I like it when the wedding invitation doesn’t feel like an obligation. People who think they’re better than you at weddings. People you don’t know at weddings. Those people? Why the hell are they here, anywhere? The relatives who have to come to the wedding even though you don’t speak to them. I love the gossip at weddings. People with their mouths full who spit on you when they talk at weddings. People who shout at weddings. The sad single people at weddings. The divorcees at weddings. The virgins at weddings. The widows and widowers at weddings. The wife-beaters who pretend they’re nice at weddings. The ones who have filthy sex in the bathrooms at weddings. The karaoke at weddings. If only there was a karaoke with an infinite selection of songs so we could all drown in music.

Ah! There should be a photographer at every table at this wedding. I’d love that. I’d go mad! Mad! If there was a photographer at every single table and he could capture every moment of happiness at this wedding! Are you listening to me? Every single moment of happiness! Just the happy moments! Here! I wish there was a photographer here! Right here. Next to me. (She sighs) But I’d need a different family for that.

Silence.

MARI TERE: Can we change the game?

JESÚS: Please! Let’s change the game and maybe that way your mother will stop talking shit.

Lapland (Marc Angelet and Cristina Clemente)

Lapland is a play about truth and lies, knowledge and illusion, home and exile, identity and loss, innocence and maturity.

The action takes place on Christmas Eve. Monica and Ramón, and their son, Pablo, have travelled from Spain to spend the holidays with Monica´s sister, Nuria, her Finnish husband, Olavi, and their daughter, Ana. They want to give Pablo the best Christmas possible, in the land of Santa Claus.

There is only one problem: Ana has just informed Pablo that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.

As the evening develops, the characters struggle to find a way through the clash of cultures, their shared histories, the lies they have told each other – and the lies they have told themselves.

Father Christmas

RAMÓN: Ana didn’t just tell him Father Christmas doesn’t exist; she also gave him evidence. The number of children in the world, the time it would take him to visit each house… She proved it was scientifically impossible for him to reach everyone. And she told him that the man who was going to bring the presents tonight wasn’t Father Christmas but her neighbour Toivo in disguise.

MONICA: Christ, what a brat!

RAMÓN: Basically, we’re screwed.

MONICA: We’ve got to find a way to save it!

OLAVI: But what is it that you want to save?

MONICA: My son’s childhood!

OLAVI: Do you really think it’s so important?

MONICA: JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! I HAD KIDS SO THAT I COULD CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS, FOR FUCK’S SAKE!

OLAVI: See how you shout when it’s not necessary?

MONICA: It certainly is bloody necessary, Olavi! Pablo is only five! There was no need for him to find out yet. I want him to carry on feeling that tingle of excitement I used to get on Christmas Day, a feeling I hadn’t had again until he was born! I want him to believe there’s a little bit of magic in this world of ours. Yes: magic. That just because you can’t see something, can’t touch it…

Lapland was originally written in Catalan by Marc Angelet and Cristina Clemente. The translation was based on the authors’ own Spanish version of the text. It is promoted by Hause & Richman.

My year in translation: January

My translation year begins with Jauría, Jordi Casanovas’s verbatim drama fashioned from the statements of the victim and perpetrators of the Pamplona gang rape case that shook Spain in 2016. Although not graphic, it is nevertheless harrowing to translate, with the text offering a claustrophobic insight into the way a group of peers normalized their violent misogyny, a normalization that was mirrored in the legal system and in wider Spanish society. I produce my first draft in a strange, distanced state, protecting myself from the traumatic potential of the text. I am a little wary when I embark on the second draft – will my disengagement show through in the translation? – but the translation is fundamentally sound.

While I worked on it, I was focused mostly on how to deal with the source script, which consists of pieces of verbatim text, taken from statements, court testimony and WhatsApp conversations. Transcribed dialogue is always strange, full of repetitions, false starts, grammatical slips, incoherence. There’s no easy way to reproduce this in translation – I’d argue it’s neither possible nor desirable – and what I aim for instead is something highly naturalistic but also, perhaps, more self-consciously ‘voicey’ than the original. I don’t think it makes much sense to talk of verbatim drama in translation. Better to accept, embrace even, the necessary transformation.

En ese momento estaba totalmente en shock, no sabía qué hacer, sólo quería que pasara y cerré los ojos para no enterarme de nada y que todo pasara rápido.

At that point, I was completely in shock, I didn’t know what to do, I just wanted it to be over and I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t be aware of it, so it would all be over quickly.

Next up is a series of short texts for a longstanding client, a bioethics NGO for whom I translate press releases, newsletters and the like. I used to do more work for this client – extended academic pieces – but they cut back when they realized hardly anybody was reading these and decided, understandably, to direct their budget elsewhere. I often think back to those readerless texts. In their own way they taught me a valuable lesson about the need to appreciate and enjoy the inherent integrity of any translation assignment, the process, a job well done, regardless of feedback, recognition or public acknowledgement.

The middle of the month brings a fun little encounter. It comes to me through my website. A Canadian food writer, Taras Grescoe, is coming to Cadiz, where I live, to do some research on a piece he is writing about garum, the fermented fish sauce that Cadiz exported across the Roman Empire. It is having an unexpected revival as culinary archaeologists seek to recreate it in their labs, drawing on information in Roman cookery books and the remains of amphorae of garum recovered from Pompei, and innovative local chefs incorporate it into their cooking. Taras contacts me to ask if I can put him in touch with a local interpreter for some meetings he has scheduled. It’s short notice so instead I suggest that I accompany him and he can pay me in kind. I’m not an interpreter, I explain, but I’m au fait with the local cuisine and can handle the broadest of local accents. The next day we meet with a local chef whose accent is as thick as they come. I’m relieved to realise that my culinary vocabulary is on point, and I don’t hesitate before explaining that we are about to eat “flying-fish roe marinated in clementine juice”.

In between this assignment and the next one, I undergo some heavy duty dental work: the insertion of a screw that will eventually hold an implant in place. My jaw is swollen and I’m cursing my timing. I’m about to have a tasting menu at the best restaurant in town but I won’t be able to eat a thing. Fortunately, when I arrive, I realize that the tasting menu is also the perfect invalid food. Small servings of local fish (much of it raw), interspersed with fancy foams and mousses. The dinner ends with ice cream delicately flavoured with garum (fermented-fish ice cream, in other words). It is unexpectedly delicious.

Sea urchin roe with samphire

My next project is a wodge of documentation for an invitation to tender for the contract to print biometric ID cards for a government in Central America. This is for a translation agency, the last one I work for. When I started out, agencies like this provided a large part of my income but this has changed as I’ve gradually built up a portfolio of direct clients and pursued my interest in literary translation. My rates have gone up and my availability has gone down, and our ways have slowly parted. This feels good although there is a tinge of sadness. The agency sector feels as if it’s in trouble, crushed by commoditisation, low rates, the misuse of machine translation. It’s true that it has colluded in these developments, of course, but I can’t help wondering if things could have gone differently.

My last project for the month is to finalize my translation of Crocodile Tears, a thriller by Uruguayan writer Mercedes Rosende, which will be published by Bitter Lemon Press in 2021. It’s a great piece of writing and it feels like a real privilege to be asked to translate it. I finished my first draft before Christmas, so I am revising. I try to spread the process out so I can go through several more versions with little rests between each stage, alternating between screen and paper, interspersing other jobs if possible. A lot of translators talk about doing a rough first draft that they would never show to anyone, then making far-reaching changes. I’ve even seen some translators refer to a deliberately hyper-literal first draft which is then improved. That’s not my process. For me, translation is at once both reading and writing and I strive to solve as many problems as I can first time round, chipping away until I’m more or less happy. Occasionally I leave a rough translation as a placeholder, but really this just another way of saying that I haven’t started the translation yet. And, of course, I make lots of changes as I go through versions two, three, four and more. But I don’t really see how either a genuinely rough translation or a hyper-literal one is compatible with the simultaneous attention to source and target that, for me, is the essence of translation. Each to their own, I guess.

One of the interesting things about translating from Spanish into English is that both languages operate in a transatlantic space. But it’s a mistake, I think, to get hung up on simplistic notions of British versus American English, let alone to map these onto European and Latin American Spanish. The reality, thankfully, is far more complex and interesting. Better for translators to view that variety as a resource to draw upon, something we can use to create voice, tone, contrast, rhythm…

Toma un pedazo de papa y lo sumerge en mayonesa, engulle, mira a su espalda, unta dulce de leche en dos dedos, la lengua chasquea, saborea, toma una albóndiga, salsa, devora, arroz, otra albóndiga, más salsa, mayonesa, labios, dientes, el dedo en la mermelada, chupa, sorbe, lengua, dedos, se da prisa y empuja, mira atrás, a la puerta, otro pedazo de pollo que traga casi sin masticar, dulce, puré, algo está mal, se apura, traga más, introduce todos los dedos en la salsa, paladar, lengua, labios, dientes, sorbe, traga, una vez, otra.

She takes a chunk of potato and dips it in the mayonnaise, swallows, looks behind her, smears two fingers with dulce de leche; she smacks her lips, takes a meatball, some sauce, devours it, rice, another meatball, more sauce, mayonnaise, lips, teeth, the finger in the jam, sucking, slurping, tongue, fingers; she’s in a hurry and pushes it down, she looks behind her, at the door; another piece of chicken, which she swallows almost without chewing; something’s wrong, she eats faster, swallows more, plunges all her fingers into the sauce; palate, lips, teeth; slurps, swallows, again and again.

On the last weekend of the month, I travel up to Madrid to see some theatre and meet up with some playwrights. On Friday I catch Jauría. It’s strange to see it being performed on stage in Spanish after I’ve spent so long hearing it in my head in English, but I’m also reassured. I come away with a strong sense that the English play in my head (and on the page) is true to the original version and that the differences are necessary and not a betrayal. On Saturday, I catch Inquilino, written, directed and performed by Paco Gámez, and a play I’m hoping to translate at some point this year. And on Sunday I meet up with a couple more writers and see Mariano Rochman’s Noches de hotel, another play I would like to have translated. (Realistic about the limits on my time and budget, I have instead put the playwright in touch with another translator.) On the train back to Cadiz, I resolve to visit Madrid or Barcelona every couple of months during 2020.

Correspondence (Roberto Osa)

Winner of the City of Malaga Prize 2019, Roberto Osa’s latest play, Correspondencia, is a dark comedy set before and after a funeral in small-town Spain. As the wake progresses, a family’s secrets are gradually revealed.

Everyone rushes to view the deceased. SILENCE.

MARTA:      They’ve done a good job with her.

EUGENIO:    She looks a bit stern.

JUAN:       She always looked a bit stern.

CARLOS:     She doesn’t seem… She doesn’t look… She looks odd.

JUAN:       She looks dead.

MARTA:      I think she looks beautiful. A bit stern, maybe, but beautiful.

CARLOS:     Her mouth is… I don’t know…

JUAN:       Closed?

CARETAKER:  We put a touch of glue on their lips to prevent the evacuation of fluids during the wake.

MARTA:      Glue?

CARETAKER:  Yes, madam. Glue.

JUAN:       It must have been the strong stuff.

CARLOS:     Uncle Juan, please, not now…

Jauría (Jordi Casanovas)

My translation of Jauría, Jordi Casanovas’ play about the Manada case (a gang rape at the Pamplona Bull Running Festival, and subsequent trial, and social and political fallout) opened the Chicago International Voices Project 2020 on 2 September 2020.

The original play, directed by Miguel del Arco and produced by Teatro Kamikaze in Madrid, won the Premio Contra la Violencia de Género 2019, and won the prizes for Best Theatre Adaptation and Best Theatre Show in the Premios Max 2020.

The script is a documentary fiction, composed entirely from fragments of the statements of the victim and the accused.

Tenant (Paco Gámez)

My translation of Paco Gámez’s Inquilino (Premio Calderón de la Barca 2018) was produced by Cervantes Theatre, London, as part of its 2020 season of New Spanish Playwriting. It was directed by Paula Paz, and starred Sebastián Capitán Viveros.

Tenant is the drama of a citizen who is forced to leave his apartment due to a disproportionate rent increase. It is an epic comedy of these times of crisis: the economy will be destiny; the villain, a landlord we don’t know; the hero, a young man raised in abundance who comes of age when the housing bubble explodes.

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

TG

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

TP

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

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

TG

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

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

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

TP

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

TG

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

TP

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

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

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

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

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

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

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

TP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

TG

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

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

TP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TG

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

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

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

TP

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

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

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

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

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

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

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

TP

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

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

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

TG

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

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

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

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

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

TP

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

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

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

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

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

TP

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

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

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

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

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

TP

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

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

TG

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

TP

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

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

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

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

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

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

A literal translation of this might go as follows:

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

TP

No lack of tasty realia!

TG

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

TP

But we hardly want to take Bologna to Montevideo.

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

TP

To risk a pun…

TG

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

TP

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

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

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

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

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

TG

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

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

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

TP

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

Here’s your translation again…

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

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

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

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

TG

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

TP

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

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

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