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.
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.
Formas de estar lejos is the second novel by Edurne Portela, following on from Mejor la ausencia. You can read my translation of the opening chapter and short introductory essay at the online edition of The Common. Rights are handled by her publisher, Galaxia Gutenberg. Contact details available on request.
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
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
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:
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
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.
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
cose. 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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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
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.
I was lucky enough to be one of five translators invited to participate in this annual event that brings together translators and playwrights. At some point I’d like to blog about it properly. In the meantime, here’s my executive summary: Spain is absolutely brimming with playwriting talent and, as a translator, having the chance to spend three days talking to writers about their work and exploring the possibility of collaboration is incredibly inspiring! (I also have a sneaky feeling that two or three of the people I spoke to will be big names in Spanish theatre in a few years time.)
In the meantime, here are brief summaries of the works I discussed with their authors. (In Spanish for now, as this is a first offering for potential translators.)
If you’re a translator and you’d like to know more about any of these works or their authors and – particularly – if you think you might be interested in translating one, then please get in touch with me either via the contact form on this site or by email or on social media, if you already know me there. I’ll give you a bit more information, including the full script and we can take it from there.
Lady Macbeth, Ofelia y Desdémona conviven en el limbo de las mujeres trágicas cuando no están siendo representadas en algún lugar del mundo. En el limbo tienen libertad para ser ellas mismas y no esos personajes que les impuso el autor. Cansadas de sus obras y de vivir según los deseos de otros deciden rebelarse para cambiar sus vidas e idean un plan: no acudir a la siguiente representación. Titania, ante la rebelión de las mujeres trágicas y la posibilidad de que las obras de Shakespeare desaparezcan para siempre sin ellas, decide mandar a Puck para que medie y solucione el problema.
Un cadáver exquisito, Manuel Benito
En pleno invierno suizo, dos hombres, uno de ellos polaco y el otro búlgaro, roban el cadáver del actor Charlie Chaplin para pedir un rescate a su viuda. Ella, Oona Chaplin, les asegura que no les va a dar nada por el ataúd, ya que amaba a su marido, pero su cadáver no se lo va a devolver. Ellos intentarán por varios medios que Oona les dé dinero. El comisario que investiga el caso necesita la colaboración de Oona, para castigar a los secuestradores y dar ejemplo a toda la población inmigrante que llega a su país, pero ella, también inmigrante, no acepta. Los medios de comunicación comienzan a dar la noticia del robo, y la sociedad que rodea a Oona y a la familia Chaplin empieza a presionar para que el caso se resuelva.
Jauría, Jordi Casanovas
(UPDATE: TRANSLATED BY TIM GUTTERIDGE; ONLINE DRAMATISED READING, OUT OF THE WINGS, LONDON; ONLINE DRAMATISED READING AND POST-SHOW DISCUSSION, INTERNATIONAL VOICES PROJECT, CHICAGO)
3 a.m. del 7 de julio de 2016. Fiestas de San Fermín. Ellos son cinco. Son La Manada. El más joven y miembro más reciente debe pasar por su rito de iniciación. Tras cruzarse con una chica en el centro de Pamplona, los cinco de “La Manada” se ofrecen para acompañar a la joven hasta su coche, aparcado en la zona del soto de Lezkairu. Pero, en el camino, uno de ellos accede al portal de un edificio y llama al resto para que acudan. Agarran a la joven y la meten en el portal.
Dramaturgia a partir de la transcripción del juicio realizado a La Manada, construida con fragmentos de las declaraciones de acusados y denunciante. Una ficción documental a partir de un material muy real, demasiado real, que nos permite viajar dentro de la mente de víctima y victimarios. Un juicio en el que la denunciante es obligada a dar más detalles de su intimidad personal que los denunciados. Un caso que remueve de nuevo el concepto de masculinidad y su relación con el sexo de nuestra sociedad. Un juicio que marca un antes y un después.
Historia de un monstruo, Tamara Gutiérrez
UPDATE: TRANSLATED BY KYMM COVENEY; ONLINE READING, OUT OF THE WINGS, LONDON)
Este texto hunde sus raíces en el conocido popularmente como «caso Asunta»: el asesinato, por parte de sus padres, de la niña gallega de origen chino Asunta Basterra. Sin embargo, en la obra se funden y colisionan realidad y ficción deliberadamente, así como se juega con la información revelada y con aquella que permanece oculta. Lejos de querer añadir una reconstrucción más de los hechos, la obra plantea preguntas sobre el tratamiento mediático de la tragedia.
Las voces sedientas, Sergio Villanueva
Nos encontramos a poco menos de una hora y media para que empiece a entrar el público al patio de butacas del Teatro Lyceum de Londres, concretamente la tarde del sábado 19 de diciembre de 1896. Las más altas personalidades del Londres de aquel año se encontrarán ante la reposición de RICARDO III de Shakespeare, una vez más de la mano, del genio y del inalcanzable arte de Henry Irving, el primer Actor nombrado Caballero de la Orden del Imperio Británico por su majestad la Reina Victoria. No hay nadie en esos momentos en el Teatro. Pero se escucha el chirriar de una lejana puerta principal, seguidamente unos pasos apresurados. Y súbitamente se abre la puerta del pasillo central de acceso al patio de butacas. Entra con premura un hombre grande, con elegante abrigo oscuro y sombrero, muy preocupado. Buscando. De pronto empieza a escucharse una incoherente voz escondida, gritando, tratando de recordar el texto, ese texto que en cuestión de una hora ha de interpretar delante de aristócratas, banqueros, ministros y familiares de la realeza. Pronto averiguamos que se trata del propio Henry Irving, que en un estado psicológico crítico se niega a asumir ese estreno. Su amigo y confidente, la persona que ha dedicado toda su fortuna, tiempo, energía y amor a la carrera de ese insigne actor luchará por quitarle los miedos, las inseguridades, y prepararle para esa nueva función.
Mitad del mundo, Pablo Díaz Morilla
(TRANSLATED BY BETH FOWLER)
Producción de Feelgood Teatro, estreno en febrero de 2019. Premio Jesús Campos de la Asociación de Autoras y Autores de Teatro de España, publicado por la AAT y Fundación SGAE. (Personajes: 2 hombres)
En 1987, Christopher Reeve pasó siete días en Santiago de Chile tratando de mediar con la dictadura militar de Pinochet para la liberación de 77 actores y actrices pertenecientes al sindicato Sidarte. Ésta no es la historia del encuentro entre Superman y Pinochet, ésta es la historia de amor de un hombre que nunca pudo amar.
Inquilino (Numancia 9, 2o A), Paco Gámez
(TRANSLATED BY TIM GUTTERIDGE; ONLINE VIDEO PRODUCTION, CERVANTES THEATRE LONDON)
Un joven en una situación laboral precaria se ve obligado a abandonar su casa por una subida del alquiler salvaje. Ese incidente le hace replantearse su lugar en el mundo mientras hace cajas para una mudanza a ninguna parte y lucha por mantener su espacio.
El texto se hizo con el Premio Calderón de la Barca en el 2018 y en el 2019 se estrena en el Centro Dramático Nacional. El género parte del biodrama, el teatro documento y la autoficción, pero pronto da un salto a lo mítico y lo irreal. A pesar del encuadre social, la obra tiene mucho de comedia.
Furiosa Escandinavia, Antonio Rojano
Erika M. conoce a Balzacman en Internet y establece con él una relación marcada por la extrañeza. La mujer acaba de ser abandonada por T. y el amor perdido se ha transformado en un hondo abismo del que no es capaz de salir. Con la ayuda del joven misterioso, un apasionado de la literatura francesa que se esconde tras un sombrero de cowboy, Erika emprenderá una huida hacia adelante enfocada en el olvido. Pero allí donde la mujer decide confrontar el agrio pasado, usando una píldora misteriosa que borra los recuerdos, Balzacman se aferra a la memoria del amor lanzándose a un demente viaje en busca de T., aquél que fue el amante de Erika y que ya sólo es la inicial de un nombre propio o, quizás, de un lugar.
BALZACMAN.- (…) ¿Quién dice eso de que si ella ama a T., yo estoy obligado a desaparecer?, contraria, contraria, contraria, yo quedo atrás y ella sigue adelante, claro, pero lo que digan las revistas de los aviones que explotan, porque todos explotan, me importa poco, ya que voy a seguir este viaje hasta el final, voy a transformar la geografía en destino y daré con T. y con Irene y les explicaré cómo son las cosas, y tendrá que joderse Newton, porque, aunque ella me empuje, yo seguiré para siempre unido a su cuerpo, sí, porque de eso trata el amor, de nudos y conexiones, nudos y conexiones, y porque así lo aprendí, y porque, porque…
Noches de Hotel, Mariano Rochman
(TRANSLATED BY ROSE JONES)
Cuatro noches de Hotel desordenadas en el tiempo. Cuatro personajes intentando ordenar sus vidas después del fallido intento en la búsqueda de un ideal que acaba dejándolos frustrados. En “Noches de Hotel” nada es lo que parece, nadie es completamente inocente ni culpable. Aquí los encuentros acaban en desencuentros o derivan en situaciones inesperadas y absurdas, tal vez como la vida misma. Una comedia dramática o un drama muy cómico.
Correspondencia, Roberto Osa
(TRANSLATED BY TIM GUTTERIDGE)
CORRESPONDENCIA junta a una familia dentro de la sala de un
tanatorio. Un hijo vela a su madre junto al resto de sus allegados. Todo es
unión por el dolor de la pérdida, hasta que Carlos, el hijo de la difunta,
encuentra en el libro de condolencias un mensaje injurioso contra su madre, lo
que desencadenará una serie de acusaciones cruzadas y revelaciones de secretos
que pueden dinamitar la estabilidad de la familia.
A partir de aquí, podríamos decir que CORRESPONDENCIA es un texto sobre la arquitectura emocional de una familia y cómo esa construcción a veces puede tambalearse. El autor pretende interpelar a los espectadores a través de las conversaciones –y de los silencios– de estos cinco personajes, que pasan la noche contando y escondiéndose información, tratando de saber quién es quién, entendiendo que las palabras son capaces de derribar la identidad de una persona y llegando a descubrir que esa nueva identidad puede construirse, paradójicamente, a través del silencio. Solo hay que saber edificar a partir de ese vacío.
Los mariachis, Pablo Remón
Tragicomedia de la meseta castellana. Obra para cuatro actores (8 personajes)
Un pueblo despoblado en plena meseta castellana, en esa
tierra de nadie que se ha llamado “la España vacía”. En ese territorio
mítico, se encuentran varios hombres: algunos que huyeron de la crisis
económica, otros que la provocaron. Entre ellos, un político corrupto y
desahuciado, al que van a juzgar, y que tiene un momento de iluminación: san
Pascual Bailón, el patrón de su pueblo, se le aparece y le pide que le saque en
Un mariachi es, en la jerga financiera, cada uno de los testaferros necesarios para montar una SICAV, y tributar menos. Pero “los mariachis” también es el nombre de la peña de la infancia del político. Los mariachis es una peregrinación y una vuelta al origen, una comedia negra sobre cuatro hombres perdidos. Una obra con ecos de Harold Pinter y de Martin McDonagh, pero también de Buñuel.
TRES eran 2, Laura Aparicio
Tomando como punto de partida las Tres Hermanas de Chéjov, surge este texto ―instalado en una España, que nada tiene que envidiar a la América profunda que todos conocemos― donde el peso de la religión, el abuso y la homofobia caen a plomo sobre una sociedad que parece moderna y todavía, por desgracia, no lo es.
TRES eran 2 es un drama psicológico que camina sobre un thriller. Se apoya sobre una estructura aristotélica a lo largo de las escenas; hay soliloquios, algunos trenzados, para acercarnos a lo más íntimo de los personajes. Momentos poéticos y humor negro que se alternan en la realidad de la vida.
Yo, tu hijo trans, te habría grabado tu voz cansada, tus últimos susurros, para que resonaran siempre dentro de mí. Yo, tu hijo trans, se habría escapado del puto internado y te habría acariciado, agarrado, apretado la mano durante las últimas horas de tu vida, hasta que se hubiese quedado fría y supiera de verás, que no ibas a volver. Sé que para ti habría sido muy cansado ser la madre de un hijo como yo.
Las nueve y cuarenta y tres, Andrés Alemán
“Las nueve y cuarenta y tres” es una divertida comedia musical original en un acto estrenada en 2013. Tras su exitoso debut de crítica y público en el circuito de salas alternativas de Madrid en 2015 y una gira nacional, “Las nueve y cuarenta y tres” aterriza en la Gran Vía de Madrid en 2017. Consigue el galardón al Mejor Musical de Pequeño Formato de los Premios BroadwayWorld Spain, 7 nominaciones a los Premios del Teatro Musical y 7 premios Azahar de las Artes Escénicas.
Con aires de Revista y reminiscencias del vaudeville, esta comedia musical enamora tanto por su ocurrente libreto como por sus canciones con letras mordaces y pegadizas melodías. Su trama sencilla, el ritmo vertiginoso de la acción y su humor blanco hacen de esta obra un espectáculo ideal para todo tipo de público.
COMEDIA MUSICAL EN 1 ACTO
Cerdos, Pau Ruiz Bernat
(TRANSLATED BY LEYRE BASTYR; ONLINE READING, OUT OF THE WINGS, LONDON)
Tras la muerte accidental de sus progenitores, Lena, acompañada de su hija Larissa, vuelve a la finca familiar ubicada en una zona rural, en busca de un “objeto” indeterminado. Para ello ha tenido que poder pasar los controles de un cerco que intenta mantener a raya una amenaza (¿una guerra?, ¿una enfermedad? ¿una peste?) que poco a poco va ganando terreno. En ese contexto aparece en la casa familiar su hermano Misha, acompañado de su mujer, Nadia, y su hijo Alex. No hay otro motivo para este encuentro que el interés de Misha por reencontrarse con su hermana a la que no ha visto esde hace mucho tiempo. En medio de la tensión creciente que se genera a partir del encuentro de los hermanos, descubren accidentalmente a una joven desconocida metida en un zulo en la casa, lo cual obliga a los hermanos a reaccionar, quedándose solos la una frente al otro, hasta el punto final en el que se hace necesaria la evacuación sin que Lena haya tenido ocasión de encontrar lo que buscaba, momento en el que esta abandona a su hermano encerrado en el zulo, ¿accidente?, ¿descuido?, ¿venganza?
Águeda has just turned thirty, she’s eight months pregnant, and lives
alone in a flat furnished with cardboard boxes. She is missing one eye. She has
a perfect boyfriend, and a father she hasn’t spoken to for years. Her life is
monotonous: she works a night shift, sleeps little, talks less, and bottles up
her rage as best she can. But this routine will be shattered when she receives
a phone call. In the novel’s very first sentence, Águeda declares that she is
going to kill her father. She isn’t going to wait until she’s given birth, and
nor will she ask for anyone’s help. She’s going to do it alone, and she’s going
to do it now.
takes place over the course of little more than a day. A desperate journey from
Madrid to La Mancha – from a city whose streets are overflowing with garbage to
a small town in the harsh, arid landscape of the Castilian plateau, in search
of a past that is full of violence – will culminate in a final showdown between
father and daughter.
hostile geography of abandoned houses, empty reservoirs, out-of-hours brothels,
cemeteries that look like building sites, and stones – so many stones! – is the
setting for a powerful tale tinged with rural drama, drawing on the Spanish
tradition of grotesque realism, suffused with the aesthetic of the western, and
framed as a timeless classical tragedy.
Osa (Cuenca, Spain, 1981) graduated in Audiovisual Communication from the
Complutense University of Madrid in 2004. His creative work encompasses a range
of artistic disciplines. He has worked as a television scriptwriter and editor
since 2007, and also contributes regularly to a number of online publications
and cultural magazines. He teaches on the Master in Literary Creation at the
International University of Valencia, and has given talks at literary festivals
and led workshops for students.
he was selected to participate in the CELA Programme (Connecting Emerging
Literary Artists), a European Union project to promote some of the continent’s
most exciting new writers, and under its auspices he has attended the Pisa Book
Festival, the Hay Festival Segovia and BookFest Bucharest to publicize his
work. Osa’s first novel, Morderás el polvo, won the 36th Felipe Trigo
Prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2017 Nadal Prize, one of Spain’s
most prestigious literary awards.
Style and benchmark texts
el polvo is a contemporary novel which draws on a
literary tradition that stretches all the way back to Ancient Greece, offering
a 21st-century take on myths such as the parricide of Oedipus or the return of
Odysseus. The setting – Don Quixote’s La Mancha – provides a dusty small-town
aesthetic with hints of the American western or Juan Rulfo’s Mexican classic Pedro
Páramo, but Morderás el polvo combines this with the narrative drive
of a psychological thriller.
prose has echoes of a number of post-war European writers: the grotesque
realism of Spanish Nobel laureate, Camilo José Cela, the existentialism of
Albert Camus, the raw simplicity of exiled Hungarian, Agota Kristof, or the
tersely moving style of Austrian novelists such as Peter Handke and Elfriede
Jelinek. And he also shares a vision of the world that will be familiar to
readers of Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff and Donald Ray Pollock.
contrast between the story’s setting and the manner in which Roberto Osa tells
it is a deliberate choice. His use of language is highly visual, rapid,
brutally direct, shorn of the slightest hint of ornamentation.”
powerful image runs through Morderás el polvo, the narrative debut
of TV scriptwriter Roberto Osa: the rotund figure of the story’s protagonist,
Águeda. She is eight months pregnant, is missing her left eye and, despite the
fact that she is soon to give birth, appears more concerned with death than
with life as she returns to her roots to settle a score with the past,
determined to kill her father.”
el polvo is a harrowing tale from start to finish. A story of violence
between father and daughter that takes us to the very darkest corners of the
human condition. A solid narrative voice, with a powerful rhythm, which has the
capacity to hypnotize the reader from start to finish.”
Osa’s story mixes rural drama, the western aesthetic
and classical tragedy in almost equal parts. But it is not just that. Morderás
el polvo is a skilfully written and carefully
constructed contemporary novel. The debut from an author from whom, I am sure,
we will be hearing much more in the coming years.”
Diego Álvarez. OcultaLit
Extract 1: pages 9–14
I’m going to kill my father this weekend.
It’s not a decision I’ve taken in a hurry, more a question of fixing some
things that went wrong when I was a girl.
We’ve hardly seen each other in the last twenty years.
All this time I’ve been scraping by in Madrid, all knotted up with my
memories of him, bounced from social services to support programmes that took
me from one job to another until I found this night shift on a telephone
helpline, which I’m going back to after seven days off.
My father still lives in Pedregal, the small town where I grew up, and I’d
barely heard from him until the phone rang tonight. A number flashed green and
when I took the call all I could hear was breathing, snorting almost. Nothing
else. I know it’s him because nobody else snorts like that, nobody else gives me
the shivers like the Ram. I’m going to do you in, I swear I am.
I swear, on this belly I’ve been dragging around for eight months, on my
one good eye, on all the pain we caused each other back then. I swear on the
piles of garbage that cover the city pavements, on the overflowing bins, on the
rats feasting among the boxes of rotten fruit, on the bluebottles buzzing among
the wine cartons and the dogshit. Sometimes, the pavement’s so dirty I have to
kick my way through.
I don’t mind the rubbish, the only thing that makes me feel sick is the stench
of red wine. It reminds me of my father.
When I arrive at work, I still have ten minutes before eleven o’clock
comes around and my shift starts. I take the time to wipe the sweat from my
face with my tracksuit sleeve, particularly around my eyelid; then I get my
breath back as I have a quick cigarette. I smoke facing the opaque glass that
covers the front of the building. I’m hot but I don’t remove my hood; I know
those bastards on the evening shift are about to come out and I’m not going to
show them my empty socket. To my left there’s a pile of cardboard boxes. I
touch them to check if I could use them in the flat, but they’re dripping wet
and stink of entrails. On the other side there’s a shiny black motorbike, I
don’t know how anyone could have parked it there surrounded by filth, or maybe
the bike was there before the boxes and the burst rubbish bags, before the
rotting vegetables and the smell of vinegar.
Shadows from the previous shift appear behind the glass.
I always start on a Friday. Tonight’s too hot for May, I try to
concentrate on the smoke coming out of my mouth, I have to think about how I’m
going to keep my oath but I’m distracted by pressure against my leg; a
Dalmatian has appeared from among the boxes, it’s holding something in its jaws
and is squashing it against my leg. It’s a pigeon.
I let out a scream.
The dog’s owner calls to it from the corner but it just stands in front
of me with the pigeon between its teeth. On the third call, the dog drops its
prey and runs towards the woman.
I kick the pigeon away and take another draw on my cigarette.
If you’re scared by that, just wait till you see your father.
Six beeps. Correct code. The door opens and the herd starts to stream
out. First come the mothers, hurrying back to their nests. The fat one’s cheeks
wobble as she laughs, no doubt the guy with the moustache telling her some lie
or other. Next, the ones who are my age, the hipsters as they call themselves,
each of them staring at their phone screens, looking away just long enough to
dodge the dead pigeon. Their conversations muddle up inside my ears, always the
same, I’m going to the metro, are you coming? Sorry, I’m walking, I’m meeting
someone near here. The muscly guy and the silly girl with the green stockings
walk towards the bike, waiting for me to get out of the way. I stay put. I hear
them muttering, ignore her, the sad freak. They get onto the bike and their
reproaches are drowned out by the roar of the engine, smoke from the exhaust
pipe warms my right leg, the fabric of my tracksuit caresses my ankles. The
Colombian raises his eyebrows in greeting when he knows nobody is looking, and
walks on down the street.
They all swirl around me, turning their backs on me, taking out their
cigarettes, chatting, asking for a light. A light? I’ll set light to the lot of
you. Carry on, turn your back to me, cross the road with your heads down, don’t
look at the one-eyed woman, it’s bad luck, she’s already looking at you, but I
don’t give a damn about you either: the fat girl, the muscly guy, the hipsters,
the silly girl with the green stockings, the Colombian. Not a damn.
Ernesto – that’s what the rest of them call him – is the last to leave,
with his white hair, and his gut bulging against his shirt buttons.
I can’t help remembering you, dad. I often imagine what you’ll be like
after all these years but however hard I try, I just see you as you were then,
when we skinned rabbits in the yard; a punch between the animal’s ears,
cracking its skull like a walnut, then a trickle of blood forming a puddle on
the ground. I held the hind legs while you made a slash in the rabbit’s skin
with your knife and quickly stripped it naked, pulling off the pelt as if it
was a jersey.
When I look up, the evening shift have all gone, and I see the top of
Ernesto’s head disappearing into the distance, between the mounds of garbage.
I’m alone in the street. It’s eleven o’clock at night.
The basement is gloomy, there’s just a single point of light at the
table where Tariq and me sit, next to the stairway that leads up to the
entrance hall, the other tables will remain dark all night. The room is
rectangular, at the far end are the toilets and Silvia’s office. When I arrive
at my workstation, he’s already answering a call. The first thing I do is take
off my shoes and socks. Tariq looks at me, smiling, his brown fingers keying in
text as he dictates the hours of some municipal office into his headset mic.
He’s unshaven, like he always is when we come to work after a few days off. I chuck
my bag down next to the keyboard and drop into the seat at Tariq’s side. We sit
facing the darkness, our backs to the stairs; he’s always on my right, so I can
see him and he can pretend I have two eyes.
We spend a lot of hours below the ground. There are no windows in this
place, it’s like working inside a tomb. We call it the coffin.
I punch my code into the keypad and answer the first call, Águeda
Pacheco speaking, how can I help you? Of course, just a moment please. The
closest metro station is Antón Martín, you can check this month’s events on the
website. Thank you for calling. Our terminals beep, sometimes competing or
overlapping, we spend a couple of hours answering calls; Tariq explains how to
get to the zoo, it’s very easy madam, catch line five or ten, get off at Casa
de Campo, or take a bus from Príncipe Pío, the number thirty-three drops you at
the gate. Happy to help, goodnight. After all these years, we can recite most
of the information from memory. Sometimes, as I listen to the complaints of
some pain in the ass, I feel the fingernails scratching inside my stomach and I
feel sick. That’s when I let my head fall back against the headrest and look at
the ceiling, a ceiling that is nothing more than the floor of a city covered
with filth that I have to kick my way through. I sit listening to the moron
who’s decided to do his paperwork in the middle of the night, maybe there’s no
other time but I don’t care what he’s saying, I just want him to shut up before
I vomit, and I take advantage of a short pause to unleash my advice: you have
to fill out the form, present your ID, your residence certificate, your driving
licence and pay the fee, Monday to Friday, from nine till two at the district
And I hang up.
I tear off my headset and throw it down on the desk.
I need to move, the nausea and the pain in my ankles get worse every
minute of every night that I spend buried down here with Tariq. But I sit
still, holding my bulging belly between my hands and staring at the rotten wood
of the beams above me. A few months ago, when they were making redundancies,
they decided to paint the beams blue; they sacked eighty people and they
painted the beams, the skirting boards and the corners cobalt blue, and the
walls a tone of yellow so sickly it’s best not to look, better just to sit in
the dark like vampires. That’s what Silvia calls the night shift workers.
Silvia is… How can I put it? If she was introducing herself, she’d say
she’s the coordinator but she’s just a raccoon-eyed midget, the one who kicked out
all those losers who don’t work here anymore. I escaped by the skin of my
teeth, and now she doesn’t know what excuse to come up with to get rid of the
Cyclops. There’s just four of us left on the night shift: Tariq and me work
seven days on and seven days off, when we’re replaced by two girls we never
see. A few weeks ago, Tariq heard a rumour they were going to get rid of the
night shift and he hasn’t left me in peace since then: the baby, Águeda, what
are we going to do with the baby if we’re unemployed? I don’t usually reply.
People are shouting in the streets, they want clean pavements – they want
someone to give them work. I’ve got a job.
I should feel grateful that this guy, who dreams of working in a museum,
has noticed this thing that I am, and I ought to fight for whatever it is I’m
carrying in my belly. But I don’t care about any of it. All I can think about
is my father.
Tariq takes out the potato omelette he’s so proud of. He eats it
straight from the tupperware, cutting it into tiny pieces, as if for a small
child. Sometimes he offers me the fork with a piece of omelette on the prongs,
but I always reject it and he always eats it with a smile and goes on chewing
and reading his museum studies textbook.
When he grows tired of the silence, he starts talking about all the
things his parents have bought for the baby and how they’re really looking
forward to coming back to Madrid to meet me.
They’re intrigued to know what their grandson’s mother is like, Tariq
says; it’s better they don’t find out, I tell him, and then his eyes bulge
until they’re almost touching the lenses of his glasses and he scratches his
stubble and tells me I don’t appreciate myself, that I’m very pretty with my
flaming hair and my white skin, although the truth is it’s actually yellowish.
And the eye, Tariq? What about the eye? And he wrinkles his nose and
touches his glasses and says don’t start that again, that I should love myself
a bit more.
Extract 2: chapter 7, pages 97–101
On the way out of town, the walls of the livestock pens are already
covered by evening shadow. The path to the cemetery is a deep cattle track that
would be unchanged were it not for the fact that the cypresses that once lined
it have disappeared. In their place are holes a yard deep, the jaws of a digger
have cut through the roots, which are dying inside the earth. Every four or
five paces there’s a new crater. The holes run the length of the track like
giant bitemarks in the earth until I come to an old metal sign with the word
“graveyard”. The digger is parked at the entrance to the cemetery, the engine
still running, the hazard lights flashing. Maybe Gladis wasn’t lying; to my
left, instead of the cemetery wall, I see the profile of the burials against
the reddish evening light. There are no walls or anything of the sort. The
shadows of some workmen wander among the rubble; they’re talking, laughing,
their white teeth still visible as they pile up the stones.
The digger’s engine falls silent. The driver calls the rest of the
workers, it’s time to leave. When he raises the peak of his cap, I realize it’s
the man we met at the petrol station, the one who helped the fat guy with the
coupons to get up. I avoid his eyes, losing myself among the gravestones in the
hope that he and the other workers will leave as soon as possible, but I know
he’s still looking at me. After a few seconds I hear his voice among the marble
“Hurry up, they’ve been waiting for ages.”
It’s more than ten years since I visited my mother’s grave. With so many
stone crosses, without the reference of the walls or the cypresses, the
cemetery seems endless, I struggle to locate exactly where she was buried. A
good daughter wouldn’t have this problem.
There he is, sitting on a tombstone, his feet resting on a neighbouring
grave. He’s smoking, his arms are resting on his knees. His bulging eyes
exaggerating his profile against the dim light of the reddish horizon. The
noise of the workers gathering their tools gradually fades, or maybe it’s me
who can only pay attention to this unexpected family reunion. I approach
slowly. I can feel the elastic of my two pairs of socks squeezing my ankles
with every step I take. When I’m just one grave away, he speaks. “You’ve
forgotten the knife.”
You go to kill someone and the victim reminds you about the weapon.
Typical of a daughter who’ll never live up to her father.
There we are, facing each other, separated by the tombstone that covers
my mother’s remains. He looks at the grave. He has a cigar in his mouth, takes
short puffs, allows the dense smoke to furl across his face. I should answer,
but all I can think to do is look around me: a few yards away is a pile of
empty beer bottles that the workers have left next to the statue of an angel.
“What would you know?” I say without thinking. As soon as the words have
left my mouth I regret them, it’s the reply of a snotty kid.
“You don’t know how to hide. You can’t hide from me, however much you
He talks without looking at me as he rubs the sole of his shoe against
the marble to get rid of the earth.
“I came. I’m here,” I say, opening my arms idiotically.
I’d like to be able to tell him that my life isn’t like he thinks it is;
that I fall straight to sleep, that I don’t work in a basement answering phone
calls from insomniacs or have a respectable boyfriend who irons his shirts
while listening to some bloke called Bach or wealthy, cultured in-laws capable
of indulging every last whim of their future granddaughter. I don’t know why
everyone talks about it in the feminine, I’ve never said it was a girl, as far
as I’m concerned it’s nothing right now. I’d like to have been strong enough
not to answer your call.
The red line of the horizon has almost disappeared but I can clearly see
his half-unbuttoned shirt and the disappointment on his deeply lined face.
He carries on smoking, lost in thought.
We stay silent, like before. Woodpigeons coo in the distance, perhaps
they’re in the cork oaks on the other side of the road. The roar of a lorry
helps me not to think. My father strokes the cigar with his fingertips, he paws
it, returns it to his mouth, and a flame from his lighter causes the
smouldering cigar stump to glow orange, illuminating his face. I remain
standing. The cross on my mother’s grave can barely be made out against the
black sky. I take out the pack of cigarettes I stole from Gladis. There are
still three left. We both smoke in the stillness of my mother’s grave.
“What have they done to the walls?” I ask.
He glances around listlessly.
“Like this, there’s more of a breeze,” he says, blowing out some smoke.
“It would have made more sense to remove the remains before knocking
down the walls,” I say.
“It’s not as if the dead are going to run away.”
He takes another draw, opening his eyes wide so they show very white in
“The other day they took the cypresses away,” he says after a while.
“How would I know? They took them away,” he points at the path to the
town. “They didn’t even fill in the holes. They’ll make another cemetery. This
“What do you want?”
Don’t use empty words with me, dad. Not you.
“Did you get married? You need to get married,” he says, looking at my
Pain shoots through my brain, from my false eye to the nape of my neck.
I want to tell him that I’ll get married far away from this sick land.
“I should pick up a rock and dash your brains out.”
“Who’s stopping you?” He spreads his arms as if he wants to be shot. His
chest shows through his shirt, open almost down to his belly button. “Do it,
and we’ll all be at peace.”
“I’m going to be a mother.”
“I can see that. You should have told me when I called.”
“You’ve got enough with your whores.”
He laughs, the cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth.
I hear his back creak as he stands up.
“Do you see how smart the girl is, Tránsito?” He’s looking at the marble
slab as he talks. “I told you she’d go far.”
“It was you.”
“It was both of us. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now, she isn’t coming back
to life.” He stubs out the cigar on the white marble. “That’s the last thing we
My head is spinning. I can feel the elastic of my socks like shackles
round my ankles. Don’t fall over and don’t start crying. Press your fingers
hard against your belly. Don’t give in. I’d like to hurl myself at your throat
but my arms are too heavy, and a few seconds later I’m sitting on the grave,
trying not to collapse as I watch his feet approach.
“Help me die, Jara.”
His voice is so hoarse that I’m not sure if it’s a plea or a threat. I
can’t look at you, I’m tired of pretending, I can’t take any more, dad. I’m
going to fall.
“Cut your throat, then, you’ve had plenty of experience of that.”
He rests his paws on the grave, his face next to my ear, I feel his
breath wheezing against my hair, he’s talking very close to me, as if he was
going to swallow me. “It has to be you, Jara.”
I try not to move while he pants.
“Just die and let me live in peace.”
“Help me,” he pants. “Come to the Lagarto with me, I’ve got my car just
on the edge of town. But don’t say anything to the Moor, you shouldn’t have
brought anyone, this is just between me and you, Jara. It’s our business.”
You bring me to this pigsty so everyone can see my face when I give in.
“For me, you’re already dead.”
His fingers brush my face, the same face his hands hit this afternoon; a
coarse hand that smells of rust strokes the swollen cheek, then he runs his
fingers roughly through my hair, awkwardly, as if for the first time. I close
my eyes. I feel weak.
He takes a lock of my hair between his fingers, pulls it tight, feels
the roots pulling inside my scalp. I’m in his hands. Then he lets me go. I hear
him disappear among the gravestones, the ground disappears beneath my feet and
I fall, I fall, I fall and I burst into tears with my belly between my hands, all
of the darkness of the world is here, in this cemetery without gates, with no
beginning and no end, that extends into the night and mixes with life under the
gloomy song of the woodpigeons, who laugh at me because I don’t know, I’ve
never known, how to cry in front of anybody.
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
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.
Let’s see what this looks like in practice, starting with the
author bio. Here’s the opening paragraph of a pitch I translated recently.
(I’ve changed a few of the details for reasons of confidentiality.)
Cristina Jiménez nació en Cádiz en 1990. Es arquitecta por la Universidad
Autónoma de Barcelona y tiene estudios en Derecho por la UNED. Ha sido
redactora en la revista especializada Arquitectura Hoy y escribe también en
otros medios de comunicación y difusión cultural, como la web literaria Letras.
Ha traducido textos periodísticos y libros. En 2013 obtuvo una beca de
residencia literaria en la Fundación José Martínez para Jóvenes Creadores de
Zaragoza, durante la que desarrolló su primera novela, Al otro lado del mar.
Here’s a faithful translation (so
minimal adaptation of the content):
Jiménez was born in Cádiz (Spain) in 1990. She graduated in Architecture from
the Autonomous University of Barcelona and studied law with the Spanish
national distance learning university, UNED. She has been an editor at the
specialist journal Arquitectura Hoy and also
writes for other media and cultural outlets, such as the literary website Letras.
She has translated journalistic texts and books. In 2013, she obtained a
literary residency grant at the Fundación José Martínez for Young Creative
Artists in Zaragoza, during which time she developed her first novel, Al
otro lado del mar.
And here’s my adapted version:
Jiménez was born in Cádiz (Spain) in 1990. She holds a degree in Architecture
from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and studied Law at UNED. She has
worked as an editor for the journal Arquitectura
Hoy, writes for some of Spain’s leading cultural platforms, including the
literary website Letras, and has translated books and articles for
publishers and news outlets.
In 2013 she was awarded a José Martínez Foundation grant for Young Creative Artists in Zaragoza, which funded a residency to work on her debut novel, Al otro lado del mar.
Now, if it was up to me, I’d cut
this down further. I can’t imagine any commissioning editor being swayed to buy
a comic novel because they are impressed by the young author’s architectural
and legal background and, personally, I don’t include this kind of biographical
detail in a pitch. But the nature of my relationship with the client and the
constraints of time and budget mean that I prefer not to make that suggestion
for now. Instead, I focus on cutting out any excess information, making the
piece flow, and subtly refocusing it towards the business of writing.
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?
rather literal translation:
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.
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
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:
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.”
Sánchez paints a Barcelona of mythical spaces and new phantoms of the opera. A
novel for pleasure and reflection.”
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
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
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?
Do you remember, Ernesto asks his best and oldest friend, Oscar,
do you remember that time back in our university days when we broke into Felix
Goluda’s room and woke him up by slapping him across the face with our cocks,
do you remember the look on his face, the surprise, the shock, the fear, that
was a laugh, how we fucking laughed, they agree, it was a laugh, a fucking
Now imagine someone shows up at your dad’s funeral, the body still stiff in the casket if you’ll excuse the pun and this guy, this visitor, a mourner if you like, he whips out his cock, his schlong, and he slaps your old man, your dear dead dad, across the face with his wedding tackle, not so fucking funny, is it? and Anna, Oscar’s wife and Ernesto’s friend, agrees that it’s not funny, not funny at all.
Fuck’s sake, Oscar says, some people have no sense of humour, they’re always looking for reasons to take offence, ruling things off limits or declaring them to be in poor taste, a Bad Joke even, like a misplaced cock at a funeral obviously but they don’t stop there, the list of things you can’t make jokes about is endless: terrorism, feminism, child abuse, and honestly if you can’t joke about those then what can you make a joke about, what is humour even for, next thing you’ll be telling me I can’t make a joke about murder either…
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
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
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.