“The first of Uruguayan writer Mercedes Rosende’s novels to be published in English tells the unlikely tale of how a cowardly kidnapper, a psychotic jailbird, a sleazy lawyer, a superstitious cop and a bulimic killer get involved in a disastrous armed robbery.”
“The guy is chewing something. He smiles, shows the gum between his teeth, walks around Diego, almost dancing, like a boxer circling his rival, bobbing and weaving; he rolls up his sleeves, reveals his black tattoos, letters that spell out names, skulls with glowing eyes, red bloodstains gushing across his skin.”
“Crocodile Tears occupies Elmore Leonard/Patrick Hoffman territory, with a cast of amoral characters observed intimately and ironically, and here with a certain amount – but not an overdose – of playful commentary.”
“The translation by Tim Gutteridge is a pleasure to read.”
“There’s an undercurrent of energy that suits the mayhem of the events that unfold. There’s also something of a voyeuristic quality to the way Rosende takes readers into these characters lives, while commenting on them here and there. We’re like Ursula, peering into the lives of others, fascinated. “
“Rosende, ably translated by Gutteridge, has some pizazz to her prose.”
“The plot is devilishly clever, meshing disparate characters, outrageous situations and improbable coincidences with an off kilter logic that is convincing. The dysfunctional underbelly of Uruguayan society, be it the corporate boardroom or the crowded prison cell, is exposed to ridicule by a series of sharply observed vignettes.”
“Tim Gutteridge conveys the sardonic wit of this screwball adventure in his English translation.”
“A book that introduces us to an entire range of weird and wonderful characters who all jumble together to attempt a heist which goes anything but smoothly along with fantastically dark humour and comedy that makes it a cracking, unique read.”
“The translation of the book by Tim Gutteridge is great.”
“The delivery of these characters’ portraits, containing difficult societal observations but presented with a good dose of dry wit and intelligence, shows great skill on part of translator Tim Gutteridge too.”
“If you’re a fan of crime fiction, and you’re open to a fresh new take on this brilliant genre, then you shouldn’t miss Crocodile Tears.”
“Wow! If anything was lost in the translation (Mercedes is Uruguayan) then Crocodile Tears certainly isn’t the poorer for it: the plot flows well, the prose and syntax are spot-on, and humour crosses the cultural divide seamlessly.”
“The language is gritty and urban, with a transatlantic use of words such as patsy and shiv yet there are also illumining descriptions that must have been a joy to translate, whether it’s the secret late night trips to the refrigerator or the priest’s confession”
“…adeptly translated by PEN Translates Award winning Scotsman, Tim Gutteridge”
“What makes this sing is the wonderful prose which demands that you leave no paragraph, or perhaps no sentence, unread. Many translated works are simply awkward in a new language. Here, the translation is so good you might think it was originally written in English.”
The last major day-to-day restrictions are being lifted and we are entering la nueva normalidad, the new normal. Another neologism I would be happy never to hear again. My main concern focuses on the beach. It was completely off limits for a while; I wasn’t even allowed to take the dogs there. Then we were gradually released from lockdown, and we were allotted time slots when we could take the air. I went to the beach that first evening and found myself marching along the shoreline, masked, surrounded by a mass of my fellow gaditanos in a bizarre ritual: Mediterranean paseo meets government-directed exercise. I didn’t go back.
The promise, though, is that the beach will be more or less normal, give or take a few restrictions on capacity, some social distancing, reduced facilities (no showers, for example). This reassures me. I have already ruled out the idea of international travel for the time being and, really, there are worse places to be stuck during a pandemic than Cadiz. I already see, stretching ahead of me, a summer of warm days, working to a gentle rhythm, evenings on the beach with friends. Any restrictions, I suspect, will work in the favour of the locals, deterring the usual summer visitors who come down from Seville and Madrid, ensuring there will be plenty of space for the regulars. On its little peninsula jutting out in the sea, Cadiz is privileged: the surrounding Atlantic protects us from the worst extremes of an Andalusian summer. We are at the end of the line: visitors won’t come if they are worried at the prospect of being turned back before they reach the sea.
I don’t feel any urge to travel just now. Quite the opposite. I’m happy to stay put, to wait until the world sorts itself out. I have always been a sedate traveller. I have scarcely left western Europe, I’ve spent a good chunk of my life abroad but mostly in Spain or Italy. This month, though I am to be an armchair traveller, translating a sample from Los sótanos del mundo by Ander Izagirre, in which he visits some of the lowest-lying places on earth.
The excerpt I’m working on is an account of his visit to Astrakhan and the Caspian Sea. This is exactly the kind of travel that has never appealed to me, and even less so now: the sort of trip where extreme discomfort is taken for granted and there is an outside chance of injury or even death. None of which detracts from the pleasure of translating Ander’s writing – if anything, the reverse. There’s a purity to working on his descriptions of the physical, a mode of translation that demands craft and technical skill but also some artistry, looking for solutions at the level of word, phrase and sentence, attending closely to the meaning of the source text while refusing to be constrained by it, triangulating between the source text, the scene it describes, and the target translation. It may be necessary to rearrange things, to clarify, to omit. Certainly, verbs will turn into nouns and adjectives will be swallowed by adverbs. Often, the key to getting it right lies in selecting a single word – perhaps one that is not quite equivalent to the source but whose effects will ripple through the rest of the translated sentence. Indeed, it sometimes feels as if these non-obvious word choices are what it is all about, the difference between a good translation and a bad one, the source – if you’re lucky – of the energy that should flow and crackle through the text. But these choices are hard to write about, difficult to politicize, tricky to theorize.
In the passage below, Ander and his travelling companions are exploring Astrakhan, discovering the gap between map and the reality.
El plano también engaña cuando pinta una zona verde con estanque.
Here’s the literal version (sticking as close as possible to source structure and with obvious word choices):
The map is also misleading when it paints a green area with a pond.
And here’s my translation, with some syntactic tweaking and lexical licence:
The map’s depiction of a green area with a blue pool is also misleading.
A solo quinientos metros del kremlin, la zona verde resulta un cañaveral fiero en el que reinan gatos y perros asilvestrados.
Just 500 metres from the kremlin, the green area is a wild reed bed in which feral cats and dogs rule.
Just half a kilometre from the kremlin, the green turns out to be a mass of reeds that is the domain of feral cats and dogs.
Y el estanque no es azul: descubrimos un gran pozo turbio donde nadan tortugas y aletean cuervos.
And the pond is not blue: we discover a large murky well where turtles swim and crows flap their wings.
And the pool is not blue. We discover a turbid pond in whose waters turtles swim while crows flap overhead.
Tenemos que ponernos de cuclillas junto a la ciénaga y achinar los ojos para convencernos de que ese bulto peludo que flota es un jabalí en descomposición.
We have to squat next to the swamp and squint our eyes to convince ourselves that that hairy lump floating there is a rotting wild boar.
We squat beside the swamp and squint at a hairy, floating lump that reveals itself to be a decomposing wild boar.
Una racha de viento mueve las aguas, el jabalí oscila y su pezuña alzada nos saluda.
A gust of wind moves the water, the boar sways and its raised hoof greets us.
A gust of wind stirs the water, the corpse bobs, its raised hoof salutes us.
Here’s the finished paragraph.
The map’s depiction of a green area with a blue pool is also misleading. Just half a kilometre from the kremlin, the green turns out to be a mass of reeds that is the domain of feral cats and dogs. And the pool is not blue. We discover a turbid pond in whose waters turtles swim while crows flap overhead. We squat beside the swamp and squint at a hairy, floating lump that reveals itself to be a decomposing wild boar. A gust of wind stirs the water, the corpse bobs, its raised hoof salutes us.
This is the last month that I will be in transit, shuttling between our rented family flat for my weeks with the kids and the dogs and my temporary bachelor pad, alternating with my ex, who is also shuttling but with whom I rarely coincide as we slip in and out of the home like actors in a French farce. From July I will resume full-time residence in the family flat, my ex will move into her own place, the kids will shuttle. My son is 18 and will, anyway, be going to university in Seville in the autumn. My daughter is about to enter her final year at school and is making noises about studying in Scotland. Each step forward comes, at best, with a mix of good and bad, bittersweet as the cliché would have it. At least, as I stumble reluctantly forward, I put a little more distance between myself and my worst fear: that the separation from my partner will somehow also separate me from my kids. It’s not a rational fear but it still has emotional weight and only the gradual creation of a new reality will fully displace it.
If the children are to shuttle, though, what will the dogs do? It would be ridiculous, my ex says, for us to share the dogs now we are no longer together. I guess she is right although after the last year I am not sure I have any sense of what is ridiculous and what is not. It turns out to be a moot point as my ex’s new landlord won’t allow her to have dogs in the flat, so both Ronia and Moomin will be staying with me full-time. My feelings are mixed. I’m delighted to have both dogs all the time, of course, but my happiness is tinged with other emotions. I’m hurt and sad – ostensibly on behalf of the dogs who, it feels, have been cast aside quite casually. Or, worse still, not casually at all, part of the price my ex felt she had to pay to obtain n her freedom. I feel angry, like a proud parent – or an abandoned lover. I feel morally superior. And I feel obscurely guilty, aware that the hurt and the sadness and the moral superiority can’t tell the whole story here.
In addition to the sample, I have some more copywriting work and some other ongoing translations but, even so, I’m probably only at about 50 per cent capacity. I’m not too worried – I feel that I have weathered the worst of any downturn, I have ongoing projects, queries coming in, the possibility of postponed work being rescheduled. In the meantime I decide to translate another play, La boda de tus Muertos by Pablo Canosales. This is a surreal black comedy of a family held together not by love but by resentment, disappointment and loathing.
Pablo’s dialogue demands a very different approach from Ander’s prose. Where narrative non-fiction is all about attention to detail, careful choices, syntactic dexterity, translating stage dialogue requires a looser, more freewheeling approach. I would say it’s more creative although I’m not sure that’s quite right. Creativity takes different forms in translation and the apparent distance from or proximity to the source text is only one measure.
If my translation of the descriptions of Astrakhan involved a process of triangulation between source text, translation and my visualization of the scene being described, there is a parallel process when I translate a theatre script. Except here I am not referring to my visualization of a physical scene but, instead, to the dramatic action that the translation invokes. This sense of action is liberating; responding to its demands gives me the confidence to play around with my translation, to be true to the spirit rather than the words of the source text.
It’s really hard to find little excerpts from a theatre script: out of context, they make no sense. However, here are a couple which, I hope, show what I mean.
JESÚS: Se pensará que me la voy a machacar viendo vídeos de gente follando. SOFÍA: ¡Ay, por favor! MARI TERE: ¡Qué asco! JOSETE: ¡De verdad! ¿Qué necesidad tenemos de escuchar eso? JESÚS: ¡Hablo como me da la gana! ¡Que yo también soy joven aunque sea tu padre! JOSETE: Pues que sepas que desde fuera sorprende. Y es raro. Y da grima.
So far, so good. I translated that as follows:
JESÚS: She thinks I’m going to sit on the sofa wanking off while I watch videos of people shagging. SOFÍA: Please! MARI TERE: Don’t be disgusting! JOSETE: Do we really have to listen to this? JESÚS: I’ll talk how I like. I might be your father but I’m still young! JOSETE: Well, it’s news to the rest of us. And a bit weird. And icky.
Usually, when I have a character called Jesús, I consider changing it to something less distracting in English. This time though, I decide to keep the name and make a feature of it. The dialogue continues as follows:
JESÚS: ¡Me cago en mi puta madre! SOFÍA: Deja a la pobre de tu madre tranquila que bien descansada que está.
A hyper-literal translation might be:
JESÚS: I shit on my whore of a mother! SOFÍA: Leave your poor mother in peace, now that she’s resting.
I could have just skated over the wordplay. That’s often the best option, particularly if the alternative is forced. And you can always compensate with a pun or whatever elsewhere in the text. But I decided not to do that. This is quite a high energy text – omitting the wordplay here felt as if it would slightly deflate the dialogue. And, anyway, I was quite happy with this strange hybrid solution, a ‘translation’ that isn’t a translation at all but only works because I have decided not to translate the character’s name:
JESÚS: Jesus fucking Christ! SOFÍA: Please, Jesús! Leave your poor namesake out of it for once in your life.
Theatre translation, perhaps more than other modes, is about being aware of the opportunities that the text throws up. You still have to attend to the source text, of course, but in a rather different way, I think, than is the case when translating prose.
MARI TERE: Papá tiene sangre en las manos y en la boca. Vamos. Debemos huir de aquí o nos comerán. JOSETE: Se enfadarán si no volvemos. MARI TERE: ¿Prefieres que te coman? Te comerán si vuelves con ellos. JOSETE: No. JESÚS: ¡Tengo hambre! ¡Mucha hambre! [I’m hungry! Very hungry!]
MARI TERE: Dad has blood on his hands and around his mouth. Let’s go. We’ve got to get out of here or they’ll eat us alive. JOSETE: They’ll get angry if we don’t go back. MARI TERE: Would you rather they ate you? They’ll eat you if you go back. JOSETE: No. JESÚS: Fee, fi, fo, fum!!
I’m not sure I’d do this in a novel – I’m invoking something very English: the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk, whose next words would be “I smell the blood of an Englishman” (taken from a text, what’s more, that people will be most familiar with via the pantomime). But here, I think, it works.
Despite hopes that it might go ahead as scheduled in October, Madrid’s annual theatre book fair fell victim to the second wave of the Covid19 pandemic. However, with some last-minute funding, the meeting of writers and translators went ahead online. I received around 50 plays over the weekend of 21-22 November, and had a full schedule of online author interviews from 24 to 27 November. Here are brief summaries of the plays I discussed. If you think you might be interested in translating one of them, please contact me and I will give you some more information and send you a PDF of the full script. There should be some SGAE funding for these translations although I don’t have any details of that yet.
La orilla también duele, Sebastián Moreno
En 1991, la transexual Sonia es asesinada en el Parque de la Ciudadela (Barcelona) en manos de un grupo de skins. Ella y su amiga Doris, pretendían dormir allí una noche de tormenta, que acabó por inundarlas. Era una década convulsa. Surgían nuevas voces fascistas que se alimentaban de la pobreza y la juventud. Ahora un escritor decide contar su historia, acercarse a la orilla de sus recuerdos perdidos. Una epopeya de cantos de sirenas (varadas, escupidas por las olas de las grandes ciudades). El crimen fue considerado el primer delito de odio en nuestro país, y actualmente una placa conmemorativa, recuerda el hecho y manifiesta el rechazo del ayuntamiento, en el lugar donde murió. Se construye esta alegórica tragedia, para que el rubor de las olas no empañe los gritos de tantas muertes silenciadas, y para que la espuma del mar no borre el sufrimiento y la brutalidad, que no debemos olvidar.
Capullo, quiero un hijo tuyo, Javier Durán
Diana y Mamen son una pareja de mujeres que quieren ser madres, pero no tienen dinero para una inseminación privada ni tiempo para esperar en la sanidad pública, así que deciden disfrazarse y seducir a un hombre para quedarse embarazadas. El elegido es Lucas, un atractivo donjuán que no debería dar problemas. Sin embargo, lo que prometía ser una aventura puntual se acaba prolongando y empiezan a aflorar sentimientos inoportunos.
Un Eduardo más, Miguel Signes Mengual
“Un Eduardo más es una tragedia convertida en drama, que no renuncia a su compromiso y que, sin proponer una catarsis, presenta ante la conciencia de los espectadores no tanto una crítica como una profunda reflexión moral. En esa reflexión se siente, sobre todo, la angustia, la impotencia, la imposibilidad”. La obra no es ninguna adaptación ni reelaboración del Eduardo II de Christopher Marlowe, sino una obra enteramente diferente en su concepción y desarrollo que se sirvió de manera respetuosa pero no fiel de los mismos hechos históricos que el autor inglés nacido en Coventry, para dar una particular visión sobre el uso del poder.
Prohibido autolesionarse, Mariam Budia
El poder de los medios de comunicación ha crecido tanto que estos acaban detentando el Gobierno de Occidente. En su sistema gubernamental, la vida nada vale, los índices de audiencia rigen el devenir de los miembros de la comunidad. Los integrantes de un clan, cuyas vidas han sido creadas mediante el Plan de Generación Laboral del Ministerio de Gracia y Justicia, deberán asumir el protagonismo ante las cámaras de televisión: o imponen condena o serán ajusticiados. “Prohibido autolesionarse, el clan es propiedad de los mass media”.
Un inocente decir sí, Pedro Montalbán Kroebel
Cuatro personajes sufren con todo aquello con que la historia y una vida rutinaria y pequeño burguesa los ha ido cargando –la moral, el sentimiento de culpa, la conciencia, la ideología–. Para emanciparse, romperán primero con sus vidas, tratando de buscar una falsa libertad basada en lo extraordinario y exótico. Pero pronto descubrirán, que para destruir sus fundamentos morales y desenmascarar los principios invisibles que los atan a la conciencia común de los bienpensantes, requerirán no solo un pensamiento revolucionario, sino también librar una violenta batalla contra sí mismos. Tras la muerte de esos dos contrarios –moral y pensamiento crítico– serán capaces de renacer con una libertad inédita.
Requiem, Raúl Hernández Garrido
Un proyecto interdisciplinar: Lo que aquí se refleja es simplemente la formulación escrita de un proyecto que no quiere quedarse solo en el teatro de texto, sino unir bajo el formato musical, litúrgico y de Requiem la música, la danza y el videoarte.
El peso de Judas, Borja de Diego
Luna llena. El frío araña los huesos. En mitad de un jardín, aunque esta noche podría parecer un huerto, un hombre reza desesperado. Aprieta las manos hasta sentir las uñas. Murmura y escucha, necesitado de Dios. Como quien huye y a la vez pidiera consuelo. Como si en cualquier momento pudiera ahogarse o romperse. Se llama Judas y viene de Kerioth.
D’ençà que el món s’ha embrutit…, Pau Ruiz Bernat
Què té a veure una companyia de teatre independent amb un immigrant abandonat al camp on ha treballat tot el dia amb els seus companys? Què té a veure un Turboliberal amb Ifigenia? I un grup d’antics alumnes erasmus amb un jutge de l’audiència nacional i un comissari corruptes? Per què és important comprendre com opera el llenguatge del feixisme? Què escrigué Goebbels a l’última pàgina del seu dietari? Què és el projecte 2083? Què tenen a veure llocs com el camp de refugiats de Mória i un camp de futbol? Qui són col·lectius vulnerables sistemàticament agredits? De quina manera ens informen els mitjans de comunicació sobre el botxí i la víctima? Existeix el feixisme institucional? Hi ha quelcom racisme positiu?
En tránsito, Laura Rubio Galletero
Alex cumple 18 años y decide visitar a su padre en el invernadero donde trabaja. Va a pedirle que le apoye en su transición de género. Le acompaña Xela, reflejo de los modelos femeninos con los que se construye la identidad actual. Ernesto rechaza la petición de Alex, teme que sufra por sus elecciones. Y el desencuentro generacional se precipita.Esta es una historia entre padres e hijas, entre madres e hijos, entre mujeres, entre hombres, entre personas.
Crónico, Mariano Rochman
Luego de romper con su pareja, Daniel decide pedir ayuda a una terapeuta con técnicas innovadoras para superar su problema crónico con el desamor. Sesión tras sesión él irá metiéndose en una terapia desconcertante donde tendrá que entregarse al ciento por ciento a las extravagantes propuestas y pedidos de la terapeuta, quien a su vez oculta una extraña actividad que impregnará la terapia situaciones absurdas y disparatadas.
La soledad de la náufraga, Vicente Marco Aguilar
La soledad de la náufraga que habita en su isla desierta tras muchos años de relaciones fracasadas, se interrumpe con la llegada de un paracaidista quien, tras un gran batacazo, cae en una pequeña isla en el océano donde todo le resulta extraño. Una comedia entre el absurdo y la lógica, que profundiza en la soledad de la convivencia humana, en la incomunicación de la pareja y en las grandes dificultades que acarrea soportar a los demás, incluso muchas veces a uno mismo. La obra obtuvo el primer premio del Certamen Internacional de Requena en el año 2017 y el accésit del Premio Lope de Vega en 2013.
El hijo de Bean Nighe, Javier del Barrio
En pueblo costero de Escocia, durante un tiempo lejano, habita Angus, un niño de 6 años, cuyo imaginario está estimulado por la mitología de su tierra que le cuenta su abuela. Su obsesión por aquellas historias será causa de conflictos con su padre y los demás niños del pueblo. Angus se precipitará hacia un mundo inhóspito, con seres sobrenaturales, que lo llevará a encontrarse por primera vez con su madre, o la mujer que fue su madre. Este suceso hará que Angus realice acciones cuyas consecuencias tendrá que asumir. La obra explora la toma de conciencia en la infancia de la idea de la muerte en su círculo más cercano. En este caso cuando un niño se tiene que enfrentar a un hecho inminente del empieza a tomar conciencia a través de las leyendas del Otromundo.
Texto ganador del XXVII Concurso de textos teatrales dirigidos a público infantil, organizado por la Escuela Navarra de Teatro en colaboración con el Ayuntamiento de Pamplona en el año 2018.
Control remoto, Miguel Ángel Jiménez Aguilar
Ambientada en la España de 2008, justo cuando el país acaba de despertar del sueño de abundancia y dinero fácil procedente de la especulación inmobiliaria, Contro remoto dramatiza la historia de Amanda, una mujer con síndrome de Diógenes que no comprende las reglas de juego de una sociedad consumista y utilitaria. Con un hijo que pretende desahuciarla para especular con su vivienda y la visita de otro que le fue robado al nacer, tendrá que luchar por proteger su casa, discernir la realidad y preservar sus ideales anclados en el imaginario de mayo del 68.
Friday, Irma Correa
Friday es un niño nigeriano de 10 años que quiere ser como Messi. Practica con su balón de trapo mientras ayuda a su tío a recoger cacahuetes y madera. Quiere ahorrar dinero para comprarse un balón de reglamento. Hasta que un día su tío les vende a él y a su hermano como esclavos en una plantación. Comenzarán entonces una huida hacia Europa, la tierra prometida, sorteando toda suerte de peligros, el tráfico de personas, la noche. Friday terminará escondido en el hueco del timón de un petrolero junto con otros dos polizones, compartiendo su deseo de alcanzar la tierra de la libertad. Pero los kilómetros que separan las costas africanas del faro de la Entellada, en las isla de Fuerteventura, se convertirán en muros de agua, que harán que la luz del faro se convierta en un espejismo, quizá una irrealidad. Una irrealidad atrozmente inalcanzable.
Impulsos (bpm), María Prado
bpm: beats per minute: pulsaciones por minuto: unidad empleada para medir el ritmo en música, la frecuencia cardíaca, y la velocidad en mecanografía.
Una autora se (auto)censura la obra que va escribiendo. Distintas escenas breves componen un mosaico de violencias, de impulsos, que la autora escribe y reescribe, donde las/los hablantes se mueven entre la palabra que golpea y el silencio que se atraganta. Las palabras pueden liberar o dañar. Las palabras vibran en los cuerpos y los hacen vibrar. ¿Hay límites a la libertad de expresión? ¿Qué es la violencia en el uso del lenguaje? Impulsos (bpm) parte de estas preguntas para escarbar en la pulsación de la palabra violenta, en las (auto)censuras que se incorporan en nuestra vida cotidiana desde la infancia, en las fronteras entre lo dicho y no dicho, en la libertad y la responsabilidad de decir. Actuar, escribir, decir, como la necesidad desesperada de elocuencia en un mundo fracturado, violento, incoherente.
La casa crecía, Jesús Campos García
Una gran señora alquila un palacio por una módica cantidad y el compromiso de cuidarlo, a una pareja de funcionarios que lo que pretendía era alquilar un piso. Y cuando se las prometían muy felices limpiando obras de arte, el hijo –un joven financiero de la city– con el pretexto de que su madre no está en posesión de sus facultades mentales trata de invalidar el contrato. La pareja se niega; y el financiero, acogiéndose a una cláusula que le permite seguir incorporando enseres de todo tipo a las colecciones del palacio les abruma con más riqueza de la que pueden soportar. La historia, por razones insostenibles en el marco de una sinopsis, culmina con un conflicto bélico. Es lo que pasa cuando se mezcla una comedia burguesa con el teatro del absurdo que la verosimilitud hay que cocerla en su propia salsa.
As a literary translator from Spanish, I often cast envious glances at colleagues working from northern European languages. The Scandinavians, in particular, seem to provide generous funding not only of samples but also, if rumour is to be believed, of whole books. It’s always been hard to imagine Spain providing public funding of that sort but this year, in anticipation of Spain being guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2021, that is exactly what has happened. The Spanish Ministry of Culture, through Acción Cultural Española, is funding the translation of promotional samples and complete works. As a result, I have a little slew of paid samples to translate in February, with more, hopefully, to follow later in the year.
I have occasionally seen translators declare that you should only translate a text if you have fallen in love with it. The politically engaged version of this is the styling of translation as an act of resistance, translations as a means of changing the world. I certainly wouldn’t complain if I could make a living from either of these approaches (or, even better, both at once) but realism dictates that I work primarily on commission and that I only turn down work if I really think I am incapable of doing it justice. I’m not complaining. A text doesn’t have to be earth-shattering (or world-changing) to be enjoyable to translate. The real intrinsic pleasure of translation, for me, comes from the process of grappling with words and phrase and sentences, trying to capture meanings, do justice to voice and style, create something that has integrity.
The first sample I’ve been asked to translate is from Tres maneras de inducir un coma, by Alba Carballal. It’s a mix of social satire and surreal dark comedy, in the long Spanish tradition of the picaresque and the esperpéntico, which translates more or less (but not quite) as “the grotesque”. I actually read this book for pleasure last year, which feels like a good sign, and I get huge pleasure from translating snatches of dialogue like the following:
Y encima tú, con todo tu coño, no contenta con quedar con un desconocido del que sólo sabes que es un rarito que te cagas, vas y le cuentas el plan.
According to DeepL machine translation:
And on top of that, you, with all your pussy, are not content to meet a stranger who you only know is a weirdo you shit on, you go and tell him the plan.
Don’t give up the day job, darlings!
And in my version:
And there you are, Jesus fucking Christ! You meet up with some total stranger – the only thing you know about him for sure is that he’s as weird as hell – and you go and tell him the whole plan.
Next up is El sueño de la razón, the new literary thriller by Berna González Harbour. Like Tres maneras… it’s set in Madrid, and it’s an extra bonus to be able to immerse myself in the city as I work, trawling Google, dredging up my own memories from the year I spent there when I first came to Spain, merging with more recent visits.
El Manzanares era un río cutre y escaso en medio del secarral castellano, contaba Ruiz, nada que ver con el Támesis o el Sena, pero tenía sus muertos. Cada año aparecía alguno y no precisamente ahogado, porque no había profundidad suficiente, sino en trozos, golpeado o acuchillado y arrojado al pasto de juncos y mosquitos. Los suicidios y asesinatos podían no ser efectivos en el río, pero seguían teniendo una épica irresistible para los chapuzas. Incluso hubo un serbio troceado en Thermomix, hacía ya algunos años.
The Manzanares was a meagre river, trickling across the dry Castilian plain, María was saying, nothing like the Thames or the Seine, but it had its dead. Every year, a few of them would show up, and they hadn’t exactly drowned because the water wasn’t deep enough for that. Instead, they appeared – beaten or stabbed, dismembered and left to rot among the reeds and the mosquitoes. The river might not offer the most effective means of committing suicide or murder but it remained irresistibly attractive to cack-handed assassins. There had even been a Serb chopped up in a food processor, a few years back.
The third sample is from Las gafas negras de Amparito Conejo, a novella by Argentinian writer, Guillermo Roz, with wonderful illustrations by Oscar Grillo. The worldly teenage narrator recounts the story of a murder in which everyone, including her, is a potential suspect.
Los asesinos, en este tipo de acontecimientos, no se pierden ninguna escena del teatro general del dolor, porque gozan más del camuflaje posterior que del momento mismo en el que hunden sus dagas. Como en el sexo, dicen los que saben, el momento de mayor satisfacción se consigue al final. No obstante, esa gloria resulta tan breve que se hace necesario reincidir.
The murderer, in such situations, is careful to capture every scene of this theatre of pain, deriving more pleasure from his subsequent concealment than from the instant at which he plunges his dagger into his hapless victim. As with sex, or so I am led to believe, the moment of greatest satisfaction arrives at the end. However, this triumph is so fleeting that the criminal is forced to reoffend.
After the samples, my next assignment is a publisher’s catalogue. What is it with publishers? Everything is always so urgent. The Frankfurt Book Fair is mentioned, as if the very words have magical time-bending properties. (“That’s in October,” I think to myself.) Clients never say, “Look, we cocked up and forgot to include the translation stage in the schedule. We’re idiots. Please help us!” I agree to a tight deadline and get to work.
Book marketing material is particularly challenging. There are always cultural adjustments. The flowery quotation from a household name (unknown abroad) has to be completely rewritten if its author is not to sound both terminally pretentious and clinically insane. Notions of what is and isn’t relevant seem to vary wildly. Spanish blurbs are surprisingly keen to tell you that the novelist once attended a weekend touch-typing course in Cuenca. This particular catalogue contains an alarming number of self-help titles by Argentinians whose main claim to fame appears to be that they have a moderate number of Instagram followers.
There is another reason why these blurbs are so hard to translate. All texts, to a greater or lesser degree, invoke a world beyond the text. Each 300-word blurb has, as its hinterland, an entire book. I can’t read the books, obviously (I have to get through a couple of blurbs an hour to hit my deadline – and my financial target). But I do have to imagine what the book might be like, draw on that for my translation, then forget it all and start over again for the next blurb. Twice an hour. I have 40 blurbs to translate in total. It’s challenging, satisfying, exhausting. I feel as if I am trapped in some bizarre Borgesian storeroom of imaginary books. Amid all the self-help, the comprehensive guide to the perfect asado (Argentinian BBQ) starts to exert its appeal. Even though I’m a vegetarian.
Taken together, the catalogue and the samples are a reminder that publishing is very much a “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” industry. Partly because they can get books on the cheap: the risk is taken by the author (who invests time that probably won’t be repaid). And partly because it’s hard to predict which books will succeed and fail. (The Harry Potter series was rejected 12 times, for example.) That knowledge, of course, doesn’t make it feel any better when you’ve produced your very best work, poured heart and soul into a book, then had to sit and watch as the publisher does precisely nothing to promote it…
My final assignment for the month is the annual activity report for a health NGO. Translators are always told to specialize, and it’s generally sound advice. You’ll get better and faster, will be better placed to build good relationships with clients, will command higher rates. But there’s much to be said for generalism, too. I enjoy variety. I love researching and learning about – and then forgetting – new subjects: an amnesiac Renaissance man. I enjoy switching between registers, adapting to the needs of different audiences. This text, anyway, defies easy classification. The projects encompass primary health care in Ecuador, social projects in Spain, and cutting-edge immunology research. The scope of the report includes the foundation’s partnership programmes in the developing world, but also finance and management structures at head office in Spain. In other words, it’s a mix of health, finance and social affairs. I research chagas disease, the demographics of Papua New Guinea, the applications of convalescent plasma, and homework clubs in Murcia. I make the rookie mistake of doing a Google search for filarial lymphoedema without hiding behind a pillow. Some things, once seen, cannot easily be unseen. Despite my minor psychological trauma, the job is an interesting one and, perhaps, after all, even represents my own small contribution to making the world a better place.
Translators have a very intimate relationship with words. We are hypersensitive to nuance, tone, connotations, register… It’s something we are particularly aware of at those moments when we hit on that perfect translation, the word or phrase that captures the original – whether directly, because they match those of the original – or indirectly because the translation finds a different way to achieve the same effect.
But words can have deeply personal associations, too. Back in 2001, my partner was pregnant with our first child, and we attended a local antenatal class. We became friends with another couple, and our son was born a day before theirs. They were both big lads, weighing in at over 4 kg. But while our son, Sam, was contented and tranquil, our friends’ son, Robert, was of a more nervous disposition. He wasn’t keen on sleeping through the night (or at all, really), he jumped up and down when he was meant to be feeding, he puked relentlessly, and he generally did his best to use up more energy than he consumed. When the boys moved onto solids, Sam was happy to be spoonfed but Robert insisted on feeding himself, and most of his food ended up on the floor or in his hair. Predictably, by the time they were around one year old, Sam had put on a lot more weight than Robert.
Whenever I saw Robert’s father, Alan, he would greet me with the words, “How’s the behemoth?” a reference to my thriving firstborn – and a nod at his own son’s demanding approach to being parented. (When I asked Alan how he was, he would just roll his eyes and say “pretty tired!”; he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since before the birth.) “The behemoth” soon became a temporary nickname for our son. There was added irony from the fact that Alan, himself, was something of a behemoth – 6’4”, solidly built – whereas I’m 5’10” and wiry at most.
Some years later, by which time the boys had grown into hefty teenagers, I got a phone call from Alan. We’d drifted out of touch, and I was really pleased to hear from him. And then Alan told me he’d had some bad news. He’d recently been to the doctor and he’d been informed he only had months to live. It’s a cliché, but in this case it was true: I didn’t know what to say. In my defence, I should also mention that Alan had form. He was one of those people who was always making deadpan comments and, along with my sense of shock was a real doubt: was this news just another one of Alan’s jokes?
It wasn’t. Alan had an inoperable brain tumour, although palliative care gave him another year of life. We renewed our friendship but when I look back on that last year, it is always tinged with the sense that we never really spoke about the things that mattered: death, obviously, fatherhood, but also our friendship – the way it had drifted and then renewed. Perhaps that was okay. I don’t know.
What I do know is that the word “behemoth” will always make me think of Alan, of that year we shared – the first in our sons’ lives – and also of that other year we had together, his last. A few weeks ago I had to translate the phrase mole rodante (= rolling hulk) in reference to a bus. I think my translation, wheeled behemoth, captures that rather nicely. And it also allowed me to pay tribute to my friend.
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.
Three years ago, Victoria Patience, Simon
Berrill and Tim Gutteridge were looking for ways to improve the quality of our work.
We realised we couldn’t afford to have each and every one of our texts
professionally revised by another translator, so we decided that, instead of
focusing on improving individual translations, we would focus on how to become
better translators all round.
There was only one small obstacle. Victoria
lives in Buenos Aires, Simon’s home is in Barcelona and Tim is based in Cádiz,
so whatever we did had to work remotely. The result was a collaborative
professional development group, which goes by the name of Revision Club. We
started simply by taking turns giving each other feedback on our work, sending
back heavily annotated Word documents via email. But the arrangement quickly
flourished and we now do a monthly translation slam (by Skype), we communicate
regularly by email and WhatsApp, we share the occasional assignment, and we
have presented our ideas at workshops and conferences.
Our ScotNet summer workshop, presented by
Simon and Tim, is designed to give participants a feel for how Revision Club
works, and an insight into the many benefits it can offer, which range from
clearing up those little niggly-naggly doubts about false friends and
punctuation all the way up to life-coaching and superpowered professional
We have designed our workshop with
multilingual groups in mind.
Session 1 consists of a short presentation of
how Revision Club works, followed by a discussion of what collaborative
professional development involves, the key elements, and the potential benefits
of such an arrangement.
For session 2, participants will need to
bring an example of one of their own translations, along with the corresponding
source text, which will then provide the basis for working in pairs or small
groups. For this activity, there will need to be at least one other participant
working into the same TARGET language.
For session 3, participants will need to
complete a short translation, which will then provide the basis for working in
pairs or small groups. For this activity, participants may be grouped either
according to SOURCE or TARGET language depending on numbers, so as long as all
participants work either into or out of English (which we’re assuming they do),
there are no further participant requirements.
Session 4 has two elements. During first 60 minutes, the presenters will do a translation slam using the same text as the one participants translated and discussed in session 3. The slam is designed to give participants a feel for how we conduct our monthly Skype slam and will be framed as wider discussion between the presenters and all of the workshop participants. The final 30 minutes of session 4 will provide an opportunity to discuss practical aspects of establishing, organising and maintaining a collaborative development partnership.
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 time, bachillerato 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.”
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):
Several hours later, long after night had fallen,I couldn’t sleep. I went into María’s room and sat on a chair next to her bed.Herbreathing was laboured because of all the cigarettes she smoked. I watched her without waking herup: her mouth was slightly open, 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, 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 muffled noise ofthe music could be heard in María’s bedroom, the bedroom that – many years before – had also[JIWP2] been my mother’s . I looked out the window,at the cars parked in the street . The laughter of the partygoers mixed with the voices singing Mexican cumbias[JIWP3] , telling as always of unrequited love, of love affairs that ended badly, of doomed love.
clear when she was breathing easily before.
[JIWP2]Or by ‘also’, do you mean that they used to share the room? I take it the music is only muffled here, not where it is being played?
[JIWP3]The voices of the partygoers or of other people? Are the songs or the voices ‘telling’? Is there any significance to Mexican music in a Bolivian novel?
As you’ll see, Nat picked out a few bum notes in my translation, and also unfailingly put his finger on everything that sounded odd. (That’s exactly what I asked him to do – and I specifically told him not to worry about the source text or attempt to second-guess points where an unnatural phrasing might be justified by the source text.) He also had a few queries of the sort that will hopefully occur to the intelligent reader when they encounter an unusual or unfamiliar text.
But this left me with a dilemma. Should I attend to these comments and adjust the translation to make it sound less ‘strange’, more ‘flowing’, more ‘natural’? Should I resolve some of the ambiguities? Should I ditch some strange phrasings in favour of more natural ones?
Here’s my final version (draft 5):
Several hours later, well into the night, I couldn’t sleep. I went into María’s room, I sat on a chair next to her bed. Her breathing was laboured because of all the cigarettes she smoked. I watched without waking her up: her mouth was slightly open, wrinkles surrounded her eyes. She choked then began to breathe more easily again, from the way her lips moved continuously I could tell she was having disturbing dreams. I brought my face close to hers, feeling her warm breath as she exhaled. Saliva dribbled from the corner of her mouth, making a damp patch on the pillow. There was a party in one of the neighbouring houses. The muffled songs reached María’s bedroom, the bedroom that many years before had also been my mother’s. I looked out of the window at the cars parked in the street. The laughter of the partygoers mixed with the voices of the Mexican cumbia singers who always sang of unrequited love, love that ended badly, doomed love.
In some places I simply took Nat’s advice on board, but generally his comments prompted me to look back at the source to see what was going on there. And as I did that, I realized there were a number of points where I’d drifted away from the source text in a desire to make my translation sound a bit more ‘natural’ but where I was, as a result, losing the style of the original.
Let’s start with some minor changes in wording:
long after night had fallen
well into the night
her eyes were surrounded by wrinkles
wrinkles surrounded her eyes
saliva… leaving a damp patch
saliva… making a damp patch
she … began to breathe easily, and from the way her lips moved…
she … began to breathe easily, from the way her lips moved…
In each of these, I’ve replaced something more natural with something that it is more unusual. I wouldn’t die in a ditch for any of these translations, but cumulatively I’d argue that they are actually a better reflection of the style and feeling of the source text – or, to put it another way, choosing the more conventional options would in some sense betray the original.
The following example involved slightly more extensive rewording but the principle is the same.
the muffled noise of the music could be heard in María’s bedroom, the bedroom which…
the muffled songs reached María’s bedroom, the bedroom which…
The original was “las canciones llegaban apagadas” (literally, “the songs arrived muffled” – although there’s nothing particularly odd about the Spanish structure here). My initial draft was an attempt to find the most natural way to say this in English, while also avoiding a repetition of “song”, which appears in a later sentence. I think it’s not bad at all: a nice example, if you like, of not getting too hung up on the source language structure.
However, I decided to cut it back for two reasons. Firstly, Barrientos’ style is quite laconic, and to capture it one really has to keep the English as concise as possible. Of course, sometimes a bit of expansion is inevitable – but in this case I think it is unnecessary. More importantly, though, my initial version refocuses the sentence, directing the reader’s attention towards the music, introducing an unspecified listener (who hears the music), and distracting the reader from the bedroom, which is actually the real focus of the sentence. So here, my ‘natural’ translation introduces a series of minor shifts which, taken together, significantly alter the focus and feel of the sentence.
In the following example, I had again introduced some stylistic tweaks at first draft – “telling” to avoid repetition of “sang”, omission of the singers (ditto), addition of “affairs”, and repetition of the word “of”:
the voices singing Mexican cumbiastelling 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.