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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 [JIWP1]Not clear when she was breathing easily before.

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

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


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

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

Here’s my final version (draft 5):

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

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

Let’s start with some minor changes in wording:

long after night had fallen

well into the night

her eyes were surrounded by wrinkles

wrinkles surrounded her eyes

saliva… leaving a damp patch

saliva… making a damp patch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

La desaparición del paisaje (Maximiliano Barrientos)

Published by Periférica (Cáceres, Spain). 272 pages.

The process by which some books make it into English and others don’t has always struck me as a bit of a mystery. I’ve read a lot of great novels in Spanish over the last year and I’m reluctant to choose favourites but if you allowed me to choose one text that I think really ought to be translated into English, then La desaparición del paisaje by Maximiliano Barrientos would be my selection.

I spoke to Maximiliano about his work, and also about translation and writing in general. The interview is followed by a synopsis of the novel and a brief sample translation. A longer sample is available on request.


TG: La desaparición del paisaje is one of those books that seems fairly straightforward: the story of a 32-year-old man who returns to Bolivia after 12 years in the United States. But whenever I try to describe it to friends and colleagues, I get tongue-tied. I realize that – although it’s fairly short (270 pages) and doesn’t have a particularly complicated plot – it touches on a lot of different issues. Could you sum it up in a few words?

MB: Perhaps the clearest theme is return: what it means to go back to the site where one’s formative experiences occurred, the place from which the character has escaped – and this escape forms the starting point for the novel, even though it is not actually recounted. Returning is always problematic, because the person who has left comes back to a physical location but cannot return to the mental and emotional space where these events took place. You can return to a place but you can’t return to the past (and it is this past that haunts the entire novel). So the past is another of my novel’s key themes. The third major theme, in my view, is the family and, in particular, the relationship between fathers and sons, and the struggle that sons embark upon when they are threatened by their fathers’ demons. This struggle is one of the sites where masculinity is constructed: or rather, a particular type of masculinity, one that processes loss through a prism of rage and violence.

TG: One of the things I love when I sit down to translate a text – which, in this case, is just a short sample so far – is that I am forced to read much more closely. I have to admit that I’m not a particularly attentive reader by nature (to be blunt, I’m lazy!), but when I translate I suddenly notice everything: the punctuation, the ambiguity, little silences, the rhythm of the dialogues. It’s as if I’d been magically transformed into some kind of super-reader. When I translated the first 15 pages of La desaparición del paisaje, I realized that your style – which at first impression might strike the reader as quite plain – is actually full of idiosyncrasies. Can you tell me about your style, what characterizes it?

MB: You’re right. The way that translating a text forces you to become a more attentive reader is interesting. I’ve experienced this even as an amateur, translating short stories by authors such as Peter Orner, Aimee Bender, Mary Gaitskill and Rick Bass for a series of creative writing workshops that I’ve been running for a number of years. I wanted to discuss some structural aspects of several short stories, but they hadn’t been translated into Spanish, so I gave participants the original text along with my own translation.

I don’t think style is something you choose. I’d agree with the great Flannery O’Connor who described it as a gift, something innate, something you eventually discover after countless failures, after countless readings in which you intuit the existence of places that you don’t wish to explore as a narrator. To be honest, it’s more helpful to identify what it is you loathe about some writers than to identify things that you love. A literary education is a battlefield, one where you have to choose sides, where there’s no such thing as neutrality.

Style is something you discover, but if you never learn your craft then your style remains baggy and shapeless. You strengthen it as you practise. I guess you can think of it as an apprenticeship that writers need to serve. I’m interested in how language can produce the illusion of experience, so that the reader feels they have actually lived it, and to achieve this the language has to become invisible, to convert itself into a cadence, a rhythm, a breath which is at the service of certain key images. For me, the image is what comes first, what’s most important: language seeks to translate it.

TG: As far as I know, before I read La desaparición del paisaje I’d only ever read one Bolivian novel in my life: Los afectos, by Rodrigo Hasbún (translated into English with the title Affections, by Sophie Hughes, and published by Pushkin Press). Would you place yourself within a Bolivian literary tradition or within something wider: Latin American literature, for example, or simply literature written in Spanish? Are there any individual writers who’ve influenced you heavily as an author?

MB: I don’t think we can really talk of a Bolivian tradition – or even a Latin American one, in fact, because that’s a label which is applied to writers who really have nothing in common, whose style and poetics are very different, diametrically opposed even. I owe a debt to certain writers, whether they are Bolivian, Latin American, North American or European. If I had to identify with a particular tradition, it would be with poets such as Jaime Saenz, Viel Temperley and Zbigniew Herbert. Novelists like William Faulkner, J.G. Ballard, Vladimir Sorokin, Cormac McCarthy and Juan José Saer. Short story writers such as Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson and Mariana Enríquez.

You can’t map a strictly literary tradition geographically; instead, such traditions are based on affinities around imagery and sensibilities, so we’re not talking about solid structures but ones that are in constant flux. Because a writer doesn’t belong to a single lineage: over time, the line breaks.

And if we look at it in geographical terms, then tradition really operates more like a lobby. If a Mexican writer or an Argentine writer publishes a novel, it will be a thousand times easier for them than it would be for an Ecuadorian or a Bolivian writer, because of the production system and the infrastructure. Does a novel written by a Paraguayan arouse the same expectations as one written by a Colombian? It would be ridiculous to think that was the case. The whole system is constructed to favour strong traditions.


Synopsis

La desaparición del paisaje  (The Disappearance of the Landscape) is set in the city of Santa Cruz, and is narrated by Vitor Flanagan, recently returned to Bolivia at the age of 32, having left his homeland when he was 20. Vitor’s mother died when he was still a child, and as he grew older Vitor gradually realized that leaving was the only way to avoid turning into his father, a violent alcoholic who was overwhelmed by his wife’s death.

However, by the time Vitor returns to Bolivia, after 12 erratic years in the United States, he has lost contact with everyone who loved him: María, his father’s widow, a kind of substitute mother, and a silent witness to the family’s gradual disintegration; Fabia, Vitor’s sister, who harbours a profound resentment towards her brother for disappearing from her life, for having forgotten about the rest of them; Laura, his former girlfriend, who is married to another man; and Alberto, his best friend at school.

Upon returning to Bolivia, Vitor seeks to undo the effects of the past: taking justice into his own hands and exacting vengeance on a rapist whose attack he failed to prevent many years earlier; reviving an old affair only to be abandoned, in turn, by his former lover; and trying to care for the ageing alcoholic uncle who was in love with Vitor’s mother. But the past can never simply be forgotten or undone, emotions cannot simply be overcome, wounds may heal but the scars remain.

Author data

Maximiliano Barrientos was born in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, in 1979. His short story collection, Diario (2009), received the Santa Cruz National Literature Prize. His first two books – Los daños and Hoteles – were subsequently edited, revised and transformed into the short story collection Fotos tuyas cuando empiezas a envejecer and the novel Hoteles. Both titles were published by Periférica in 2011.

In 2015 he published La desaparición del paisaje, also with Periférica, as well as the collection of short stories titled Una casa en llamas, published by El Cuervo in Bolivia and by Eterna Cadencia in the rest of Latin America and in Spain. His most recent novel is En el cuerpo una voz, a dystopic fable set in a post-civil war Bolivia that has collapsed into chaos and violence. He lives in Santa Cruz. Maximiliano Barrientos is represented by Indent Literary Agency

Sample translation

I hugged María and looked at the armchairs and I realized that it was in one of these that she had found my father dead one morning in 2003.

Your room’s just the same, take your things through and then come and we’ll have something to eat, she said.

I don’t want you to tell Fabia I’m back.

Leave your things and come through here, I’ll cook you up some jerky with rice, you can’t have had majao for years.

I’ll go and see my sister, I said, just not right now.

There’s no hurry, get yourself settled in and then we’ll have some lunch. You must be starving.

I took my bags and went through to the room that had been mine as a kid. The house was in good condition, there were no damp stains on the walls, no peeling paint falling off at the slightest touch, no termites in the timber. Lying on the single bed I listened to María coughing and moving things about, getting the plates out and cooking, doing what she always did, as if this day was no different from any other. I closed my eyes and wished for sleep to come, to blot out everything for a few hours.

The first afternoon following my return to Santa Cruz, when María was out doing the weekly shopping, I let myself into her room and looked through my father’s things. She had kept his clothes on the wardrobe shelves, she hadn’t given them away. There were also bottles with dregs of whisky in his old hiding places. I opened them and sniffed. They smelled of my father. He died of a heart attack. María called me in Chicago to give me the news, I hadn’t spoken to him for two years because of a stupid argument. She said she’d found him dead one morning in the living room. She said my father looked like he was asleep but when she saw him she knew he was dead. I was twenty-one and I’d arrived in the Windy City fifteen months earlier. I didn’t go to the funeral. Instead, I stayed in the States and didn’t talk about his death to anyone. I didn’t speak to María again until a week before I returned, almost ten years after I’d heard the news of my father’s demise.

I lay on the bed and stayed there for a few hours until María found me asleep. She was carrying bags from the supermarket. She said my name. I stood up and apologized.

It doesn’t matter, she said.

I saw his clothes, you didn’t give them away.

I don’t have to, it doesn’t bother me.

And the bottles.

It doesn’t matter, she repeated.

Did he carry on drinking so much, right to the end?

He drank but he didn’t fight anymore. He was old.

When I didn’t reply she said:

Why don’t you try on the clothes? I’m sure they’ll fit, you’re the same size.

His clothes and his bottles were still there. The shoes he wore, his wallets, his cigarette lighters, his old razor. Things that could be piled up, collected, put away in a chest. The same thing happened when my mother died in 1989, when I was nine and Fabia was six.

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


If you’re interested in reading about how I approached the challenge of trying to reflect Barrientos’ distinctive style in my English translation, please take a look at my blogpost – This is not a beauty contest: some thoughts on the challenge of translating style.

“Teaching style”: talking to Tim Parks about teaching translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients for a perfect translation slam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fog in Tangier (Cristina López Barrio)

Madrid, 12 December 2015

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

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

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

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