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.