Correspondence (Roberto Osa)

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

Everyone rushes to view the deceased. SILENCE.

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

EUGENIO:    She looks a bit stern.

JUAN:       She always looked a bit stern.

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

JUAN:       She looks dead.

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

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

JUAN:       Closed?

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

MARTA:      Glue?

CARETAKER:  Yes, madam. Glue.

JUAN:       It must have been the strong stuff.

CARLOS:     Uncle Juan, please, not now…

Jauría (Jordi Casanovas)

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

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

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

Tenant (Paco Gámez)

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

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

Spanish genitalia

A couple of weeks ago I did a Twitter thread on how Spaniards (and Gaditanos in particularly) pepper their informal speech with reference to genitals. The thread went viral (over 2 million views when I last checked) so I thought I’d reproduce it here. But do take a look at the original thread, too, as there are lots of entertaining side comments and discussions that aren’t included here.

The other day, I came across the following phrase:

Y encima tú, con todo tu coño…

= And, what’s more, you, with your whole cunt…

Here’s the whole sentence for context:

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.

= And, what’s more, you, with your whole cunt, not content to meet a stranger about whom the only thing you know is he’s as weird as hell, you go and tell him the plan.

So, the speaker is expressing frustration with her friend’s naivete:

= And there you are, Jesus 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.

So coño (=cunt) in that phrase is used to emphasize the friend’s naivete.

The general idea is one of inertia, of insisting on being one’s predictable frustrating self, regardless. If the object of your frustration is male, you can replace coño with huevos (balls).

It’s probably worth noting at this stage that coño is actually a fairly mild expletive and can be uttered, for example, to express frustration and is similar to “shit!” or even to “damn!”

Your teenage son has gone out (pre-lockdown) failing to take keys, despite constant reminders. He turns up at 3 in the morning and you get out of bed to let him in. As you open the door, you greet him with a resigned:

¡con tus huevos!

=with your balls

=bloody hell!

Or your mother can’t remember where she parked the car and you spend half an hour searching for it. As you recount events to a friend you might say:

mi madre, con el coño

=my mother, with her cunt

=my mum, she’s so absent-minded

So, there is an element of (more or less) indulgent frustration that comes from the fact that the huevos/coño here represent an essential feature of the person’s character. It may annoy us but it is part of who they are.

And, talking of frustration:

estar hasta los huevos/el coño de algo/alguien

=to be up to one’s balls/cunt with something/someone

=to be completely fed up with something/someone

Or:

deja de tocarme los huevos/el coño

=stop touching my balls/cunt

=stop annoying me

Genitals don’t have to be frustrating. They can be celebratory or affirmatory too. E.g., if someone does something good, asserts themself, takes a big risk etc., you could say:

¡Ole tus huevos/cojones!

Or if speaking to a woman:

¡Ole tu coño!

=Well done!/Go for it!

My favourite instance of this was when a friend of mine was teaching a flamenco workshop in Edinburgh. At one point, she was demonstrating an arm movement.

To explain to the students the spirit in which she wanted them to perform the movement, she said (in a strong Spanish accent):

Like this. For you, for your cunt!

(así, pa’ ti, pa’ tu coño)

Genitals can also be used as a form of address. I live in Cadiz, and it’s fairly standard to address men or boys as pisha (=cock)

It’s roughly equivalent to “mate”, e.g.:

Qué de tiempo, pisha

=I haven’t seen you for ages, mate

“chocho” (=cunt) can also be used as a term of address for women, although I think it’s slightly less neutral, and seems to be used when there’s some impatience, teasing or whatever.

venga, chocho, que nos vamos

=come on, cunt, we’re leaving

=hurry up, we’re leaving

For neutral or affectionate use of chocho, it’s safer to add a dimunitive:

Hola, chochete

=hello, little cunt

=hi

Sticking in Cadiz for a moment, a variant of this is to affectionately address* a small boy as pishita de plata and a small girl as chochete de oro.

= silver cock/golden cunt

*Not a casual greeting between strangers, even in Cadiz, it must be said.

I also have a fondness for a couple of allusive phrases.

Me la suda

Pragmatically, I’d generally translate this as:

I don’t give a damn

But the la in that phrase actually refers to la polla (cock)

= S/he makes my cock sweat 🧐

And finally:

Te la van a meter doblada

Sunset over Cadiz

Up on the Roof

A man, about 50 years old. He speaks Spanish with an accent that is at once identifiably local and non-native

Christ! Here I am at the fucking beach and it’s closed. It’s over there. On the other side of some crappy barriers and some plastic tape. Is it because of all those people from Madrid, the ones who came down to Cadiz, fleeing from the plague? Yesterday my son joked: “If you see someone in a Real Madrid top, just kill them.” I think he was joking. We only moved to Cadiz a couple of years ago but he’s already gone completely native. Some things get into your blood.

What am I going to do? The dogs are looking at me with that typical Labrador expression. Love betrayed. Disappointment. Hunger. Should we jump the barrier? I think about it. And then I rule it out. Not out of a sense of responsibility or from fear of the authorities. More because I’m afraid of the embarrassment. I can see myself on the front page of the local newspaper. “The police have caught a middle-aged man, of Scottish nationality, on Santa María beach, in flagrant violation of the lockdown order…”

We turn around. The dogs are confused. “Now what?” they ask. Or, rather, I ask myself. Should we just hole ourselves up in the flat – me, the two dogs, and my two teenage kids? I don’t know if I should be happy because the lockdown coincides with the week when I’m with the kids and the dogs, and my ex is away. Okay, I admit it. I’m happy. The world is going to hell in a handbasket but I can look after my people. The end of the world is nigh but so long as I can play the cool, recently-separated dad, I’m fulfilled. Hundreds of thousands of people can die but so long as I can fill the fridge with stewed artichokes, Chinese aubergines, fried chicken, hamburgers, pork cheek curry, I’m fine. I don’t know if I’m incredibly selfish or just a bit of a dickhead. I’m going to make scones in the morning and bake bread in the afternoon.

We’re nearly home when I have an idea. I’ve got to hang up the laundry anyway. Our building has an azotea, a flat roof with clotheslines strung across it. I’ll make myself a coffee, grab some muffins and take everything up to the roof: the laundry, my breakfast, the dogs. And, why not, a portable loudspeaker, to make a party of it. We go into the flat, and the dogs look at me again. They’re waiting for their breakfast. Normally, I give them breakfast when we get back. So how do I explain it? “Look, babies, everything’s up in the air. There are going to be some changes to our routines.”

I take the clothes out of the washing machine. That’s me. I’m a man who puts the washing machine on the night before so he can hang the clothes out to dry first thing in the morning. A modern man. A man capable of facing the end of the world without losing his mind. I put the clothes in a big bag, one of those blue ones from Ikea. I grab the basket with the pegs. I put the kettle on.

The dogs are still looking at me, expectant, hungry. And I stop. How am I going to do it? I’ve got to take the laundry, the dogs and my breakfast up to the roof. I can’t take everything at once. The bag is too big, the coffee will spill, the dogs will go crazy on the stairs. What can I do? What’s more, there are seagulls up there. Lots of them. Normally, they leave me in peace. They haven’t got any chicks yet this year; they’re not nesting. But I suspect the dogs will set them off. And if I take my breakfast up first, then the seagulls will definitely eat my muffins. Fuck! Suddenly, I’m in that riddle about the guy who has to get from one side of a river to the other in a rowing boat with a fox and a chicken and something else, I can’t remember what. A cabbage? Could it be a cabbage? Foxes don’t like cabbage, I’m sure. But Labradors like everything. Absolutely everything. The question is: what order should I take the stuff up in?

I start with the laundry. I go up the stairs, unlock the door onto the azotea, leave the bag and the basket with the pegs, and go downstairs. I go up again, this time with the coffee, the muffins and the loudspeaker. Great. But I can’t leave the muffins out in the open. Because of the seagulls. There are only two or three of them in the building across the street just now, but I don’t trust them. I put the muffins inside the basket and put the basket inside the laundry bag.

I go down for the dogs. They’re still gazing at me, their eyes asking: “…and our breakfast?” I get their leads, a couple of tennis balls and some bone-shaped biscuits. The dogs forget about their breakfast and follow me. I open the door onto the azotea, the dogs go out, I take my muffins, pick up my coffee, and breathe in. I’ve made it to the far shore with my fox and my chicken and my cabbage or whatever it was.

I look at the building across the way. There are more seagulls now. Lots of seagulls. There must be at least ten, just watching us. But those aren’t the ones I’m worried about. Because suddenly the air is full of seagulls. As if every fucking seagull in Cadiz was right here, above my azotea. This isn’t a riddle anymore. This has turned into that Hitchcock movie. I don’t remember the film or its plot, just that there were a lot of birds and it ends badly.

I hold my breath. The seagulls circle above us but for now they’re not attacking. Fortunately, there are some sheets and towels already hanging on the lines and they act as a kind of screen, and the dogs are occupied with their tennis balls. I take a sip of my coffee and put on some music. Gradually, things calm down. The seagulls seem to have understood that the dogs can’t jump from our rooftop to theirs. That this isn’t an invasion and is, instead, something new but inoffensive. We can share this space up here, without fighting. The dogs seem to have accepted this rather unconventional walk. It seems like everything’s going to be alright. I take a bite out of my muffin, take another sip of coffee, turn the volume up to maximum. And I sing at the top of my voice:

La donna è mobile
qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensiero.

(c) Tim Gutteridge. This text was translated by the author from the original text in Spanish – La Azotea – written and shared as part of the #Coronavirusplays initiative.

La azotea

#Coronavirusplays

Un hombre, de unos 50 años. En su acento se mezcla lo gaditano con lo extranjero

¡Coño! Llego a la puta playa y me la han cerrado. Allí está. Al otro lado de unas vallas cutres y una cinta de esas de plástico. ¿Será por los madrileños? ¿Los que han bajado a Cádiz, huyendo de la peste? Me lo dijo mi hijo ayer, de broma. “Si escuchas a alguien decir ‘tronco’ por la calle, mátalo ya, quillo.” Creo que estaba de broma. Desde que nos vinimos a Cádiz se ha vuelto super-gaditano. Hay cosas que se te meten en la sangre.

¿Qué hago? Las perras me están mirando con esa cara que solo tienen los labradores. Amor traicionado. Decepción. Hambre. ¿Saltamos la valla? Lo pienso en serio. Y luego lo descarto. No por sentido de responsabilidad ni por miedo a las autoridades. Más bien para temor a la vergüenza. Me veo en la portada del Diario de Cádiz. “La Guardia Civil ha pillado a un hombre de mediana edad, de origen escocés, en la Playa de Santa María, en contravención de la orden de confinamiento…”

Damos la vuelta. Las perras están confundidas. “¿Ahora qué?” me preguntan. O, más bien, me pregunto yo. ¿Nos metemos directamente en el piso, las dos perras, yo, mis dos niños adolescentes? No sé si alegrarme porque el confinamiento nos ha pillado la semana que estoy yo con los niños y las perras, y mi ex está fuera. Confieso. Me alegro. El mundo se va al carajo pero yo me encargo de mi gente. Llega el fin del mundo y con tal de poder hacer el papel de padre guay recién separado me siento realizado. Se pueden morir cientos de miles de personas pero con poder llenar el frigorífico con alcachofas guisadas, berenjenas chinas, pollo empanado, hamburguesas, curry de carrillada, estoy bien. No sé si soy tremendamente egocéntrico o solo gilipollas. Haré muffins por la mañana y pan por la tarde.

Ya estamos llegando a casa y se me ocurre una idea. Tengo que tender de todas maneras. Tenemos azotea. Me preparo un café, cojo unas magdalenas y lo subo todo: la colada, el desayuno, las perras. Y, porque no, un pequeño altavoz, ya que estamos de fiesta. Entramos en la casa y las perras me miran otra vez. Esperan su desayuno. Normalmente, volvemos y les pongo el desayuno. ¿Como se lo explico? “Mirad, queridas, está todo patas arriba. Va a haber cambios de rutina.”

Saco la ropa de la lavadora. Soy así. Soy un hombre que pone la lavadora la noche anterior para poder tender temprano al día siguiente. Un hombre moderno. Un hombre capaz de enfrentarse al fin del mundo sin perder su cordura. Meto la ropa en una bolsa grande, una de esas azules de Ikea. Cojo la cestita de las pinzas. Pongo la kettle.

Las perras me siguen mirando, expectantes, hambrientas. Y me paro. ¿Cómo hago? Hay que subir la colada, las perras y el desayuno a la azotea. No puedo con todo. La bolsa es grande, el café se va a derramar, las perras se van a desmadrar por la escalera. ¿Cómo hago? Además, arriba hay gaviotas. Muchas. Normalmente me dejan en paz. Todavía no tienen críos este año, ni están anidando. Pero sospecho que con las perras se van a alterar. Y si subo primero el desayuno, seguro que las gaviotas se comen las magdalenas. ¡Joder! De repente me veo en la adivinanza del tío que tiene que pasar de un lado a otro de un río en un barquito con un zorro y una gallina y algo más, ya no recuerdo qué. ¿Un repollo? ¿Puede ser un repollo? A los zorros no les gusta el repollo, seguramente. Pues, a los labradores les gusta de todo. Da igual. La cuestión es, ¿en qué orden subo las cosas?

Empiezo con la colada. Subo la escalera, abro la puerta que da a la azotea, dejo la bolsa y la cestita con las pinzas allí arriba y bajo. Subo otra vez, ahora con el café, las magdalenas y el altavoz. Bien. Pero no puedo dejar las magdalenas a la intemperie. Por las gaviotas. Que, bueno, por ahora solo son dos o tres en el edificio de enfrente pero no me fío. Meto las magdalenas dentro de la cesta y meto la cesta dentro de la bolsa de la ropa.

Bajo a por las perras. Me siguen mirando con esa mirada de “¿y nuestro desayuno?” Cojo sus correas, un par de pelotas de tenis y unas galletitas con forma de hueso. Las perras se olvidan del desayuno y me siguen. Abro la puerta a la azotea, las perras salen; saco mis magdalenas, cojo mi café y respiro. He llegado a la otra orilla con mi zorro y mi gallina y mi repollo o lo que fuera.

Miro el edificio de enfrente. Ya hay más gaviotas. Muchas gaviotas. Tiene que haber por lo menos diez, mirándonos, simplemente. Pero no son ellas las que me preocupan. Porque de repente el aire está lleno de gaviotas. Como si todas las putas gaviotas de Cádiz se hubieran concentrado justo aquí, encima de mi azotea. Ya no hay adivinanza. Esto se ha convertido en la película de Hitchcock. No recuerdo como es la película ni su trama, solo sé que hay muchos pájaros y que acaba mal.

Aguanto la respiración. Las gaviotas nos sobrevuelan pero por ahora no atacan. Afortunadamente hay sábanas y toallas ya tendidas que hacen de mampara, y las perras están entretenidas con sus pelotas de tenis. Tomo un sorbo de café y pongo música. Poco a poco, la cosa se va calmando. Parece que las gaviotas han entendido que las perras no pueden saltar de nuestra azotea a la suya. Que no se trata de una invasión sino de algo nuevo pero inofensivo. Podemos compartir este espacio aquí arriba, sin pelearnos. Parece que las perras se han reconciliado con este paseo poco convencional. Parece que todo va a estar bien. Le pego un mordisco a la magdalena, bebo mi café, subo el volumen al máximo. Y canto a pleno pulmón:

La donna è mobile
qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento
e di pensiero.

(c) Tim Gutteridge, 2020

What’s in a word?

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.

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

TG

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

TP

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

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

TG

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

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

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

TP

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

TG

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

TP

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

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

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

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

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

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

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

TP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

TG

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

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

TP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TG

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

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

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

TP

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

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

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

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

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

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

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

TP

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

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

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

TG

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

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

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

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

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

TP

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

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

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

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

TG

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

TP

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

TG

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

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

TP

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

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

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