My plan for the summer is a simple one. I will work during the day, look after the kids, keep house, walk the dogs. Then, when the heat has subsided, I head down to the beach in the evening with a deckchair, a good book, my goggles and a sandwich. There are almost always friends there and we hang out, go for a swim, drink cold beer. The local lager is Cruzcampo, brewed in Seville by a subsidiary of Guinness. It’s not the greatest beer in the world. And yet, after a swim on Santa María beach, in the company of friends, an hour before sunset, it’s unbeatable.
Three or four different sellers tramp up and down the shoreline, dragging trolleys stacked with huge coolers and cardboard boxes full of bags of crisps and packets of sunflower seeds. We are loyal customers of our Argentinian providers, Micki and Andrés.
The suspension of the English football season during lockdown means that the remaining fixtures are being played in July. One of my beach friends supports Leeds United, who, after a 16-year absence, are hoping to make it back into the top flight under their Argentine manager, Marcelo Bielsa. The beer sellers have adopted Leeds as their team and I decide to jump onto the bandwagon, out of friendship and also on the flimsy basis that the great Leeds team of the 1970s, which I am just old enough to remember, was built around a core of Scottish players and captained by Billy Bremner, who comes from my home town of Stirling.
It’s been a long few months, a hard year, but each evening, as I submerge my head beneath the surface of the still-cool water, I feel the tensions and anxieties slip away. They will return, I know, but the knowledge that, every evening without fail I can slough them off, makes them an easier burden to carry.
I’m quite happy with my workload; it will allow me to recoup some of the earnings I lost during lockdown but still means I can have a fairly relaxed summer. My biggest project this month is some TV development work. This consists of the full script for the first episode of a new series, along with a dossier: plot outlines, production notes, character sketches. I can’t go into details about the text itself as the project is under wraps but I can describe the trail that led to me getting the assignment.
For this job, I was approached by a Spanish TV production company who are developing the proposal to pitch to the likes of Amazon and Netflix (both of whom are keen to up their share of locally produced content). My client got my details from their legal counsel. Who heard about me from another TV production company I worked for last year (on a football-themed period drama, also under wraps…). They, in turn, heard about me from a literary agency for whom I regularly translate samples and marketing material. The literary agency heard about me from a Spanish publisher to whom I’d sent a sample translation of a novel I was interested in pitching. There was an old woman who swallowed a fly…
In other words, the trail starts with a failure: an unpaid sample of a novel I have never pitched, a Spanish publisher I have never worked for. But this initial failure has led to a series of interesting projects and regular clients. There was some luck involved, no doubt; some persistence; some people skills. But also, I hope, some good solid work, coupled with a growing reputation for versatility and reliability.
Just when everything seems to be going well, I get some nasty news. The lease on our flat is up for renewal in October and I contact the landlady to ask her to do the new contract in my name as my ex is no longer resident. A few days later I hear back from the landlady. She won’t be renewing the lease as to do so would entitle me to a five-year contract and she’s planning to sell the flat in the near future. This is a blow. It also puts a little perspective on the popular notion that literary translators are driven by a passion for the art or are engaged in a form of political activism. Those things are all good, but I work mainly to commission, to put food on the table and pay the rent.
The beach, the swimming, a steady supply of cold Cruzcampo and a tight deadline for the TV script help to keep me sane but the thought of trying to find another flat, large enough for me and the kids, dog-friendly, then organize a move, is just too much. Fortunately, after much pleading, the landlady agrees to draw up a short-term lease for me. It’s a huge relief. I’m very aware that my tank is empty. A year of separation and several months of pandemic have depleted my reserves. I’m sometimes surprised at how well I’m doing – but I’m also aware that I am never far from the possibility of breakdown.
My other major project this month is not, even by my generous definition, literary but it’s every bit as creative and challenging as anything else I’ve worked on so far this year. It is a video script for a visitor centre at a mineral water production plant, a site which also incorporates an exhibition, a small conference facility and the original wells, dating back to the early 20th century. It’s a mix, then, of local history, architecture, food technology and corporate communications. So much for specialization!
This, I think, is where theories of translation fall down. I’m drawing on my previous experience with this client, my knowledge not just of their business activity but of their corporate culture. I have to do a lot of research. I have to request photos from the client (unfortunately there’s no chance of an all-expenses paid trip to the centre itself). And I have to imagine the end users of the text and adjust my translation accordingly.
Here are a few examples:
Durante la postguerra, a consecuencia de las interrupciones en el subministro eléctrico se ralentizó la producción, pero a partir de los años setenta del siglo XX aumentó la plantilla y se instalaron máquinas automáticas para limpiar, rellenar, tapar y encajar.
DeepL machine translation renders this as:
During the post-war period, as a result of interruptions in the electricity supply, production slowed down, but from the 1970s onwards the number of staff increased and automatic machines were installed for cleaning, filling, covering and fitting.
And here’s my culturally adapted version, which unpacks the reference to the post-war period:
During the lean years of the 1940s and early 1950s, following the end of the Spanish Civil War, production was often interrupted by an unreliable electricity supply. By the 1970s, though, the company was in good health, taking on more workers and installing automatic machines to clean, fill, seal and pack the bottles.
In the following section, the original authors were keen to emphasize the brand’s longstanding connection to Salvador Dalí:
Además, cabe añadir que el agua de Vilajuïga mantiene una estrecha vinculación con Salvador Dalí. En estas fotografías de 1955 se puede ver a Ramón Margineda con Salvador Dalí, quien sabemos consumidor habitual del Agua de Vilajuïga
Here’s the machine translation version:
It should also be added that Vilajuïga water has close links with Salvador Dalí. In these photographs from 1955 we can see Ramón Margineda with Salvador Dalí, who we know is a regular consumer of Aigua de Vilajuïga.
I have to admit that the original Spanish struck me as a little clunky and I took the opportunity to improve on it:
The waters of Vilajuïga also had an illustrious fan. These photographs, taken in 1955, show Ramón Margineda with Salvador Dalí, who drank Agua de Vilajuïga on a regular basis.
Finally, a couple of more technical sections:
Es un agua de mineralización media. Esto le aporta un sabor mineral profundo, y al mismo tiempo, hace que sea ligera y fresca. Como agua rica en bicarbonatos, Vilajuïga deja en boca una sensación alcalina acompañada por un toque acídulo aportado por el gas natural.
Again, the machine translated version:
It is a medium mineralised water. This gives it a deep mineral taste, and at the same time, makes it light and fresh. As a water rich in bicarbonates, Vilajuïga leaves an alkaline sensation in the mouth accompanied by an acidic touch provided by natural gas.
And my own rendering:
Vilajuïga is moderately mineralized, giving it a distinct mineral flavour while remaining light and fresh. Rich in bicarbonates, it offers an alkaline sensation balanced by the slight acidity of the natural gas.
Las salas limpias están especialmente diseñadas para obtener bajos niveles de contaminación y han de tener ciertos parámetros ambientales estrictamente controlados, como por ejemplo la presión, que es diferente de la exterior para evitar que entren partículas del ambiente.
Clean rooms are specially designed to obtain low levels of contamination and must have certain strictly controlled environmental parameters, such as pressure, which is different from that outside to prevent particles from entering the environment.
And my version (drawing on my knowledge of cleanroom technology, garnered from years of doing translating corporate communications texts for a pharmaceuticals company…):
Cleanrooms are specially designed to ensure low levels of contamination, and must satisfy strict environmental parameters, such as having differential air pressure to prevent particles flowing in from outside.
As an aside, I hope it’s clear that, although the machine translation isn’t awful, it doesn’t offer you a route (let alone a shortcut) to my finished version. Once you set off down that hyper-literal track, there’s no way back.
I’m glad that the budget for this job includes a separate revision stage – and lucky to have a colleague who is perfect for the role of editor. One of my regular revision partners, Simon Berrill, is an all-rounder, but his specialist areas include wine and culture. Just as importantly for this job, he’s based in Catalonia. We’ve been revising each other’s work for three years now and are familiar with our respective strengths and weaknesses, our individual preferences and styles. I ask Simon to change anything that he thinks can be improved, and what I get back is extremely helpful, ranging from typical editorial tweaks for clarity and constancy, all the way through to sensitive cultural adaptation. Translation can be a lonely business at times – it’s easy to lose sight of the collaboration between author/client and translator that necessarily underpins our work. But, as we emerge (for now) from lockdown, the opportunity to work closely with a friend feels particularly valuable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve been in lockdown for six weeks now, and I can feel it taking its toll. During the weeks when I am with my kids, I focus on them. I barely work, I deliver coffee to their bedrooms in time for the first class of the day (a civilized 9 o’clock start replacing the brutal 7 o’clock call of the old days). I walk the dogs, shop, make sure there is lunch on the table, rewatch The Sopranos with my son, make supper. There is a certain comfort in this small-scale domestic life. I decide that any day on which I make scones is a success.
It’s tougher when I’m on my own. I have less work – which is both a curse and a blessing. And I have a few assignments that seemed like a good idea when I took them on but which now seem to be mocking me. One of my lockdown symptoms is that I have developed a complete inability to read fiction. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. I have always enjoyed non-fiction and am happy to put myself on a diet of memoir, travel and nature writing. Unfortunately, pre-covid, I agreed to review a couple of novels. I force myself to read them. They are both quite good, I think. But getting through them is excruciating. (A confession: I only finish one of them.) I cobble together something coherent and complimentary to say about them and retreat into James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.
Next up is a piece I agreed to co-write for the ITI bulletin. The subject is joy. something that is currently in short supply in my life. I worry that writing the piece is an act of hypocrisy. Or that it will simply prove impossible. My fears are unfounded. I am co-writing the article with Bex Elder, a former student of mine who is now a freelance translator. We write the article via email, as a dialogue and, appropriately enough, the writing of the piece is itself a joyful experience, while the context of the pandemic makes it seem more relevant rather than less and, somehow, expands our emotional range. I’m reluctant to look for silver linings but perhaps one benefit of the current situation is that it has become easier for us to acknowledge and discuss our feelings and our emotional needs.
The last of my trio of commitments is a Zoom webinar for the Spanish network of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. A few months ago, I didn’t even know what Zoom was. At the start of lockdown, it seemed like a Godsend. That lasted about two days. I don’t know how my kids do it, class after class, day after day, week after week. I can hardly bear it. Far from offering me a respite, Zoom deepens my sadness and sense of isolation. I only survive an interminable parents’ meeting at my daughter’s school by switching off the video and making progress with a 1000-piece jigsaw of some Labrador puppies. “Be kind to yourself!” is my new motto.
I am giving this webinar rather than attending it, though, so there is no question of turning off my camera so nobody can see me sorting jigsaw pieces into yellow, black and chocolate-coloured piles. I will be presenting with my colleagues Victoria Patience and Simon Berrill, about our continuing professional development partnership, a collaborative arrangement called RevClub, where we exchange feedback on each other’s translations, meet up for a monthly virtual slam (Victoria lives in Argentina and Simon is based in Catalonia) and generally share knowledge, advice and support. If Zoom felt like it was going to save my lockdown ass but didn’t, then RevClub definitely has. I feel incredibly grateful (blessed, even!) to have two close colleagues who are also friends – and with whom I already have a virtual relationship. We’re used to communicating by email, WhatsApp and Skype, so it doesn’t feel like an imposition to do so now. Preparing for the webinar gives us a focus for our conversations and I soon go from dread to expectation. Both the preparation and the webinar itself leave me with a feeling of connection and human warmth. Although I also wonder what it says about me that I am happy to give webinars but not to attend them. Actually, I don’t wonder at all. I know that it speaks to my need for attention, my low-level narcissism. In the spirit of being kind to myself, I resolve to extend that generosity to my inner narcissist.
A friend has advised me to structure my day with routines; another recommends yoga; a third suggests physical exercise. I download a beginner’s yoga course for my mornings and some keep fit sessions for the afternoons. Every morning, I roll out my yoga mat although, truth be told, mainly I just get into position and start crying. Soon, the yoga mat has become shorthand in the intimate language of lockdown. “How are you doing today?” my friend and I ask. “A bit yoga mat,” we reply, and we understand that the morning has been spent in tears. My afternoon keep-fit routine is less emotionally taxing and consistts mainly of me performing star jumps in my underpants.
I pass my childless days in my flat, drinking tea on the little balcony that overlooks a large bare concrete courtyard, occasionally venturing up onto the roof with a beer in the evening. I am glad I only do this for alternate weeks, returning to my kids for a dose of sanity and society in the intervening periods. By an odd coincidence, the protagonist of the play I am translating at the moment – Paco Gámez’s Inquilino (Numancia 9, 2º A) – is similarly constrained. The protagonist, also called Paco, is a millennial, struggling to keep his head above water in the gig economy, when he receives an email informing him of a 50 per cent hike in his rent. What follows is drama and autofiction, documentary theatre and surrealism, as Paco is simultaneously engaged with reality – pleading with the rental agency for a compromise, looking for alternative accommodation, working out how he can make ends meet – and in denial of it – fantasizing about performing a grand gesture of resistance, barricading himself into the flat, taking up arms against his oppressor.
As the play progresses, Paco spends more and more time in the flat in a futile attempt to assert his ownership of the space. His behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. In one scene, he masturbates on the balcony. This makes me feel less bad about the possibility that my neighbours may have seen me performing star jumps in my pants.
I was a little wary of embarking on this project just now, and nearly postponed it in favour of another more gregarious play about an argumentative family at a wedding. But I am glad I decided to press ahead. it feels like a form of therapy as Paco and me keep each other company. This is, anyway, only a heightened version of what draws me to theatre translation: the way it requires you to inhabit a text, to mount a virtual production of it in your head and then make whatever changes are necessary to enable the translation to work as a theatre script in its own right. This referral to something outside the text – performability but also producibility and coherence – is a constant source of dynamism and offers me a degree of creative freedom I don’t normally have with prose. Paradoxically, I am offered further freedom by the fact that this is not a paid commission. it’s a text I’ve chosen because I like it, because I hit it off with the author, because I can imagine someone wanting to produce it. And this means I am not ‘just’ a translator but also a creative partner, in some small way a promoter of the project.
I want the translation to allow readers (directors, producers) to see the potential for interpretation and further adaptation, not to give the impression that there is only one way to handle this text. And at the same time I need to make sure that the dialogue has rhythm and impact, that it switches between the poetic and the profane, that Paco’s voice comes through… This is particularly important with this piece, which is more or less a dramatic monologue. Most theatre writing relies on the energy that comes from different characters playing off one another. Take that out and there is a risk of monotony. So the energy has to come from other sources.
I’m a very intuitive translator and most of my discussion of or writing about my work is really a post-hoc commentary on pragmatic or even subconscious decisions. I go for what works on the page – or in my head – and analyse it, if at all, later. Cultural references are the exception to this rule. The street where Paco lives, Calle Numancia, is named after a Celtiberian settlement (Numantia in English) that was besieged by the Roman conquerors of the peninsula. At the end of an eight-month siege, the inhabitants committed suicide rather than surrender. Numantia, then, is a symbol of desperate resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. This is not the street’s real name. Paco has chosen it for symbolic reasons but also because he insists – out of pomposity but also out of necessity – on his cultured status. I toy (ridiculously in retrospect) with the idea of replacing Numantia with some other more familiar siege reference. In the end, I keep it and use a couple of different techniques to make it work for a new audience.
In the original, Paco simply remarks that he has changed the name “because he wants to” (porque quiero), “to raise the tone” (para elevar esto un poco):
Perdón, hago ahora un inciso. La calle real se llama Medellín, está al lado del metro Iglesia. Aquí la llamo Numancia porque quiero, para elevar esto un poco. Pero mi casa, alquilada, está en la calle Medellín, barrio de Chamberí, castizo y rancio. Ahí es donde llego ahora, ¿vale? Calle Numancia, 9, 2º A.
In my translation, I expand his explanation a little:
Excuse me but I’m going to digress for a moment. The street’s real name is Medellín, next to Iglesia metro station. I’ve called it Numantia here to give it a classical touch. You know. The siege. The heroic but doomed last stand of the indigenous people against the Roman invaders. But my rented flat is in Medellín Street, in the Chamberí district, Madrid through and through, nothing classy. So here I am, okay? Number 9, Numantia Street. 2nd Floor. Flat 1.
In the final scene I make a more substantial change. All over the city, cash-strapped tenants throw themselves from their balconies, in an act of collective suicidal defiance, while Paco declaims to the police:
Las sirenas de policía iluminan la calle Numancia. Yo estoy de pie sobre la barandilla del balcón y me sujeto con las manos contra el muro del edificio.
Queridos policías, soldados romanos que cercan mi torre, sé que don Juan Carlos Azcárate es vuestro dueño, vuestro Escipión, y que no vendrá. ¿Para qué?
I add a few lines to Paco’s play:
The police sirens light up Numantia Street. I’m standing on the balcony rail; my feet on the railing, my hands on the wall of the building behind me. I address the policemen.
Roman legionaries besieging my fortress of Numantia, I know Juan Carlos Alcaraz is your Scipio, and he won’t deign to come. And so I speak to you, his minions:
You plunder, butcher and steal
and you call these things an empire.
You make a desert
and you call it peace.
But the lines are not mine; they are the words of the Caledonian chieftain, Calgacus, speaking to his troops before they faced the Romans at the Bottle of Mons Graupius. Or, rather, they are the words attributed to Calgacus by the Roman historian, Tacitus. Who may, anyway, have invented not just Calgacus’s words but his very existence.
I like this sense of collaboration across space and time – me, Paco, Calgacus, Tacitus and whoever translated Tacitus into English. And I enjoy adding a little Scottish touch to the play, putting Calgacus’s rebellious words into Paco’s mouth as we stand on our balconies.
At the end of the play, his fantasy of resistance over, Paco meekly hands over the keys, moves out of the flat and waits for his deposit.
May comes to an end and I am still here. It’s been a hard month, one in which I have been both amazed by my resilience and terrified by my fragility. I have survived thanks, above all, to the company of my children. But also, when I have been on my own, through the strange immersive therapy of translation. I have found, if not joy, then something to hold onto, to engage with, to lose myself in, even – tentatively – to express myself through. And at the end I have something to show for it. A the end of a month in which I have wept on a yoga mat and done star jumps in my underpants, I also have a play.
We are two weeks into lockdown and I have the sense that work is slowing down around me, although for the time being I have plenty to keep me busy. For this month, I have some edits to incorporate, two more paid samples to translate, a romantic modernist poem to produce, two short stories for young readers as part of an academic project comparing the reception of bowdlerized versus “warts and all” versions of the same text, various bits and pieces for regular clients – and my big corporate copywriting job.
I’m slightly worried about immersing myself in project management and admin, given both the general circumstances (there is no end in sight for Covid19) and my own personal situation. I am aware of my ambivalence not just towards the nitty-gritty of it all (file management, endless emails, budgets and schedules) but, perhaps more than that, towards what it says about me. I am actually quite good at this activity that also makes me feel anxious and, occasionally, bored. I am like an anarchist with a guilty yearning to be a traffic warden.
As the project gets going, though, I remember why I was drawn to it. I put together a small team – a close friend and colleague who lives round the corner, and two fine Spanish translators, neither of whom I have ever met in person. I will split the English copywriting with my friend and we will review and edit one another’s work. This friend is self-taught and works almost exclusively for one client, a news service. As far as the wider translation community is concerned, he might as well not exist. And yet he is one of the very best translators I know. By contrast, last year, I did a line-by-line comparison of the first chapter of a high-profile translation (a literary novel that was also a bestseller). It was more or less readable but closer inspection revealed a mixture of clumsiness, omissions and a sprinkling of basic errors. Needless to say, it was the work of a highly-regarded translator. (One reviewer acerbically noted that the book had found the translator it deserved, although I’m not sure that any book deserves to be badly translated.) This is one of the supremely odd effects of the public/private nature of translation. It’s as if you could go to the Nou Camp to see Messi play, only to find that he is not just having an off-day but is simply not very good. And then you wander down to the local park to watch a Sunday league game and realize that the bald guy in midfield is as good as anyone on the Barcelona team (and certainly streets ahead of that overrated Argentinian bloke).
Lockdown creates a strange rhythm, heightening the polarization of my alternate weeks of being with and without my kids. When I am on my own, I have limited opportunities to leave the flat. I bring one of my dogs to the bachelor pad in order to have an excuse to break the curfew, I drink coffee on the balcony and beer on the roof. And I work. When I am with the kids, lockdown softens. I am back in the family flat, I have two dogs, plenty of shopping expeditions and, best of all, the company of my children (who are studying from home). Work is lower on my list of priorities.
This week I am going through the copy editor’s changes, suggestions and queries on the manuscript of Crocodile Tears, the Uruguayan thriller I finished translating in January. Translators seem to have mixed feelings about being edited. I don’t know if this reflects bad experiences, insecurities or their attachment to the illusion of control and the artistic endeavour as individual pursuit. I always enjoy being edited, I pride myself on the fact, even. Although it occurs to me that perhaps it is not such a virtue, that my enjoyment may draw on a certain arrogance or even reflect a deep-seated need for attention (satisfied, in this case, through being the target of copious tracked changes and extensive comments in Microsoft Word). Whatever the motive, the edits on Crocodile Tears are a pleasure to go through. Bitter Lemon Press have assigned Sarah Terry to edit the manuscript. I used to be a copy editor myself. I was bad enough that I stopped doing it. But not so bad that I can’t recognize the work of someone who is really good. Reassuringly, there are very few errors in my translation as such, just lots of points where the editor has spotted opportunities for improvement or identified possible snags.
I take most of them on board either directly, by incorporating the editor’s suggestion, or indirectly, by making some other adjustment instead. Sometimes I slice through the Gordian knot and just delete whatever word is causing the problem. It’s important to be able to let go of something in the source text if the price of keeping it is too high.
In addition to providing the chance to carry on improving the text (when I’d exhausted my capacity to improve it on my own), the editing process is really the first external read of my translation. It’s like having a long, rambling conversation about my work with an intelligent, attentive reader.
This month’s paid samples, again with that all-important public funding, are from two non-fiction titles, a category for which I much prefer the Spanish term ensayo, although I’m always slightly disconcerted when such books with a strong personal narrative are referred to as novelas, as they occasionally are. (Have I misunderstood the Spanish terms or has the reviewer not actually read the book? I am never quite sure.) I am translating the first chapter of El analista, Txema Guijarro’s inside account of the political, legal and media storm that surrounded the Snowden and Assange affairs. And I’m also working on an excerpt from El director, David Jiménez’s account of his time as editor-in-chief of Spain’s El mundo newspaper, which has since descended into the gutter and abandoned any pretence of serious journalism.
I enjoy the way that translating non-fiction requires a constant negotiation between the world of the text and the ‘real’ world outside it. How much adjustment – addition, omission, explanation – does the translator need to provide to make the book work for the target audience? Making those adjustments in an unobtrusive but effective manner requires a lot of craft, and is every bit as challenging as translating literary fiction or drama.
I’m also enjoying the stylistic demands of this particular text. The author, Jiménez, was a foreign correspondent who was unexpectedly appointed editor-in-chief of the paper, the owners presumably hoping that his political naivete would make him easy to manipulate while also providing them with cover for their plans. The style, like a lot of the best journalism, draws its energy from treading the delicate line between muscular reportage and cliché. When translating, I strive to do the same. If I obey George Orwell’s dictum (“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print”), I will flatten the text and destroy the synergy between subject matter and style. If I go too far in the other direction, reaching for fixed phrases and common collocations at every opportunity, I will produce a deadening caricature of the original.
El despacho del director de El Mundo había sido en todo ese tiempo uno de los mayores centros de influencia del país, cortejado por reyes y jueces, ministros y celebridades, escritores y cantantes, caciques y conseguidores.
Here, for decoding purposes, is the DeepL machine translation:
The office of the director of El Mundo had been in all that time one of the biggest centres of influence in the country, courted by kings and judges, ministers and celebrities, writers and singers, chiefs and procurers.
And here’s my take on it:
Throughout that time, the office of El Mundo’s editor-in-chief had been one of the country’s nerve centres, a place visited by kings and judges, ministers and celebrities, writers and singers, party bosses and men in grey suits.
El país vivía, además, el momento de mayor tensión política desde la transición a la democracia, con una economía herida, una elite que se aferraba atemorizada a sus privilegios, nuevos partidos que amenazaban el orden establecido y unos medios de comunicación en su mayoría arrodillados ante el poder, que había aprovechado nuestra fragilidad para organizar el mayor y más coordinado ataque contra la libertad de prensa desde el final de la dictadura del general Franco.
Again, the DeepL machine translation version:
The country was also experiencing the greatest political tension since the transition to democracy, with a wounded economy, an elite that clung to its privileges in fear, new parties that threatened the established order and a media that was mostly on its knees in the face of power, which had taken advantage of our fragility to organise the biggest and most coordinated attack on the freedom of the press since the end of General Franco’s dictatorship.
And my translation:
To make matters worse, Spain was in the throes of its greatest political crisis since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. The economy was floundering, the elite were clinging grimly to their privileges, new parties were threatening the established order – and most of the media were pandering to those in power, who had seized upon the sector’s weakness to launch the largest, most coordinated assault on press freedom since the death of General Franco.
Like a lot of people, I have a love–hate relationship with social media. I’ve pulled back my presence on Facebook, in particular. However, I still enjoy the way that Twitter, at its best, provides a platform for discussing translation, a place where I can share bite-sized examples of my work, ask for help, connect with colleagues. Under lockdown, I’m very much aware that Twitter is a double-edged sword. It’s a vital window onto the outside world, a place where I can have conversations on days when, perhaps, I won’t meet anyone in person. It is also, though, an unwelcome source of news and rumour and speculation, all of which overloads me and makes me feel anxious.
Doomscrolling apart, another thing I like about Twitter is that it’s a place where Spanish and English merge, and I often combine the two languages in the same tweet or thread, particularly when I’m tweeting about my work. It’s always fun to write about non-obvious translations and I really enjoy engaging with both translators and non-translators. This month, I publish a long thread on the way Spanish daily usage is peppered with (not particularly rude) references to genitalia, showing both literal and pragmatic translations.
The thread goes viral, with 12,000 likes and well over a million views. I have also picked up around 1,000 new followers. Apparently there is an audience out there keen for as much bilingual smut as they can find.
The month gets off to a good start. A longstanding client has confirmed that a big project will be going ahead. The job involves producing bilingual content for a section of the corporate website, a kind of online museum. It will be a bit different from my usual work. I will be copywriting into English from a Spanish brief, and coordinating the rest of the project: translation of English copy back into Spanish, editing in both languages, terminology etc. I’m looking forward to the variety, and to putting together a team of colleagues. And it provides me with a degree of security for the rest of the year. After a little discussion, I agree a frankly unrealistic deadline, fairly confident that the bottlenecks will be at their end rather than mine.
On 13 March we get the news we have all been dreading, expecting and perhaps hoping for. As the numbers of cases and deaths rise, Spain has declared a state of emergency in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid19. Although the epicentres are in Madrid, Barcelona and the Basque Country, a lockdown has been imposed in Andalusia too. My own feeling, I confess, is one of relief. This suspension of normality is strangely welcome. My own normality was suspended last summer when my wife and I separated. For the last nine months I’ve been living a divided existence: half of the time in the family home with my kids and my dogs, the other half unrooted, back in Scotland or in a rented flat nearby. I’m not sure what I’m doing here, in my ex-wife’s home town. I need to make plans for the future but I am still clinging to the past. Our flat has become the setting for a peculiar French farce of modern family life. Once a week I exit stage left when my ex arrives; a week later the process is repeated in reverse to mark my return. This is not so much co-parenting as part-time single parenting. I’m at my best when I’m with my kids: I feel grounded, accompanied, I know who I am, I have a purpose. But the solo periods are more difficult. I am too distraught to enjoy my freedom, a heartbroken bachelor rattling around in his pad, the space filled with the lustrous green of cheap houseplants from Lidl, my time filled with translation. Thankfully, I can translate in almost any emotional state. It is, if not therapy, then at least a soothing balm.
The suspension of time, this feeling of the rest of the world coming into synch with my own private catastrophe, has an unexpected effect. I am momentarily energized. During the first week of lockdown, I write a short story. In Spanish. The choice of language is pragmatic. My playwright friends are all writing short pandemic-themed dramatic monologues – in Catalan or Spanish – and I want to join in. But writing in this language – which is not “mine” – is constraining and thus, paradoxically, liberating. I am restricted, I have less range, a smaller vocabulary, less control over different registers, less ability to step outside of my own idiolect into the wider language beyond. I find myself in a linguistic lockdown, essential purchases and dog-walking only, a simplicity that allows my writing to flow.
I finish the piece and share it with my colleagues. Normally, I channel their writing from Spanish into English: they write, I translate. Today, I have broken the rules. I am writing, not translating. And I am doing it in Spanish, not English. In translation, I reveal very little of myself. In writing, I can reveal as much as I want.
Writing in Spanish, though, throws up another problem. Most of my writing is not published in the traditional sense. I post it on my website and then share it via social media or email. This is a piece I would normally share with friends and family but by writing in Spanish I have created a barrier. And so I must become a translator once again.
Near the start of the piece, my son jokes about how we should deal with people who have brought the virus to Cadiz from Madrid as they flee to their second homes on the coast:
Si escuchas a alguien decir ‘tronco’ por la calle, mátalo ya, quillo.
[= If you hear someone say tronco when you’re out and about, just kill them, quillo]
Quillo is short for chiquillo and is a typical Cadiz term, equivalent, roughly, to ‘mate’ in English. Tronco is a Madrid alternative, somewhat old-fashioned now, the kind of word you might hear on a TV drama set in the Spanish capital in the 1990s.
How do I translate this shibboleth test into English? I can’t leave the words in Spanish but nor can I replace them with English equivalents. In the end, I settle for a non-lexical version:
If you see someone in a Real Madrid top, just kill them.
It’s a clever solution, I think, but I can’t help recognizing that something – rather a lot, in fact – has been lost. My little story is, among other things, about a relationship to place and to language, about how identity changes but is always local. Not much of this is captured by the Real Madrid shirt.
There is more loss to come. Halfway through the story, I have come back from the newly cordoned off beach, my morning dog-walk frustrated, and decide to take the dogs up onto the roof to give them some exercise. I worry about keeping the animals under control as I make my way upstairs with the laundry, a cup of coffee and some home baking:
The bag is too big, the coffee will spill, the dogs will go crazy on the stairs.
But here, too, something has gone astray. In the original I wrote not that the dogs would “go crazy” (volverse locas) but rather, se van a desmadrar. Literally, they will become unmothered. There is no such word as “unmother” in English, which is, no doubt, one of the reasons why I like it so much in Spanish, its lack of a direct equivalent making it more vivid, more salient, a fresh image for my non-native mind. It is not, though, the dogs who are in danger of becoming unmothered but rather my children, who have been alternately unmothered and unfathered on a weekly basis for the best part of a year and for the foreseeable future.
Of the many silly things that are said about translation, perhaps the silliest of all is the insistence that nothing is untranslatable, the reluctance to acknowledge the inevitability of loss. But translation, like life, is, among other things, a process of managing loss. Sometimes, often, that loss may feel negligible or may simply be outweighed by what we add. When I translate a rambling, verbose piece of academic prose into clean, flowing English, I am confident that my version is better than the original, that I have cast the author in a better light than, perhaps, he deserves, that there is little loss and much gain.
Sometimes, I prefer to think less in terms of loss and gain than of change. I refuse on principle to produce ‘literal’ translations of stage plays. My theatre translations always invoke a version of the play, a production that takes place inside my head as I translate. I do whatever is necessary to make that work, to give the characters their voices, to mark the rhythms of the drama, to exploit the potential offered by the target language. There is loss here too, to be sure, but so much more change and transformation that I don’t need to dwell on it.
In other cases, more perhaps than we care to admit, it is the loss that dominates, at least during the process of translation. Maybe, after it is done, we will be able to look back, to appreciate the necessity of change, the inevitability of loss, to appreciate, even, the silver lining of those little gains and the new thing that has been created.
The second half of March brings news of the postponement of a couple of projects. One of these is a regular report on the state of the European Union. The client has already invested in the writing stage; translation is a small part of the overall budget and without it everything else will have been a waste of time and money. I’m fairly confident that this job will resurface later in the year; perhaps, if I’m lucky, it will coincide with a quiet spell. I’m more disappointed about the other project. It was a comic about women scientists, my first full-length comic translation, my first job for a new client. For the moment it has been put on hold but I suspect this job won’t resurface. It’s hard not to worry about the pandemic’s likely impact on work – and I feel more grateful than ever for that large copywriting project.
At the end of March, I have a reading of my translation of Jauría (the documentary drama I translated in January about the Manada gang rape case). The reading takes place under the auspices of Out of the Wings, a London-based collective for theatre translators working between Spanish and Portuguese and English.
Screenshot of Out of the Wings Zoom reading of Jauría
Out of the Wings member, William Gregory, deserves the credit (or the blame!) for getting me involved in theatre translation. It’s the least lucrative but most enjoyable part of what I do and, for the moment, I am trying to create a portfolio of work and use that to build up a network of contacts in the hope that, at some point, my addiction to translating dialogue will start to pay for itself.
The reading was originally due to take place in London but has now shifted online. The script is read, via Zoom, by a cast of professional actors, and the reading is followed by a discussion by the members of the collective and anyone else who wants to attend. Perhaps surprisingly, for me the main benefit of participating in a reading such as this is not the opportunity to revise my translation in the wake of hearing it performed. I make few if any changes at this stage; at most, the odd minor infelicity that has slipped through. I’m perfectly happy, though, for directors and actors to make whatever changes they deem necessary. Each line of translated dialogue ceases to be work in progress when I settle on a version I like. For some lines, most even, that happens at draft one; for others, it takes a little longer. But I think that this letting go is, really, a recognition of the collaborative nature of translation. The collaboration is asynchronous but it is essential to the process. What else is a translation but a collaboration between translator and author, regardless of whether the author has any direct involvement (answering queries or resolving doubts) or is even still alive?
In theatre, there is an acceptance that the finished script (whether translated or not) is merely the basis for a further collaboration, between director and actors, which has as its result a performance on the stage, in which the collaboration occurs between actors and audience.
The collaboration is less immediately apparent in written translation – there are no collective spaces to parallel the rehearsal room and the stage. But it is still there: between the translator and the author; with the involvement of publishers, agents, editors and proofreaders; and, finally, between all of these and the reader. I wonder if the translator’s (or the author’s) frequent reluctance to let go of a final text is part of a denial of this collaboration, an insistence that they and they alone have created the text, a delusion of control over how the text will be experienced and, hopefully, enjoyed.
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.
My translation year begins with Jauría, Jordi Casanovas’s verbatim drama fashioned from the statements of the victim and perpetrators of the Pamplona gang rape case that shook Spain in 2016. Although not graphic, it is nevertheless harrowing to translate, with the text offering a claustrophobic insight into the way a group of peers normalized their violent misogyny, a normalization that was mirrored in the legal system and in wider Spanish society. I produce my first draft in a strange, distanced state, protecting myself from the traumatic potential of the text. I am a little wary when I embark on the second draft – will my disengagement show through in the translation? – but the translation is fundamentally sound.
While I worked on it, I was focused mostly on how to deal with the source script, which consists of pieces of verbatim text, taken from statements, court testimony and WhatsApp conversations. Transcribed dialogue is always strange, full of repetitions, false starts, grammatical slips, incoherence. There’s no easy way to reproduce this in translation – I’d argue it’s neither possible nor desirable – and what I aim for instead is something highly naturalistic but also, perhaps, more self-consciously ‘voicey’ than the original. I don’t think it makes much sense to talk of verbatim drama in translation. Better to accept, embrace even, the necessary transformation.
En ese momento estaba totalmente en shock, no sabía qué hacer, sólo quería que pasara y cerré los ojos para no enterarme de nada y que todo pasara rápido.
At that point, I was completely in shock, I didn’t know what to do, I just wanted it to be over and I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t be aware of it, so it would all be over quickly.
Next up is a series of short texts for a longstanding client, a bioethics NGO for whom I translate press releases, newsletters and the like. I used to do more work for this client – extended academic pieces – but they cut back when they realized hardly anybody was reading these and decided, understandably, to direct their budget elsewhere. I often think back to those readerless texts. In their own way they taught me a valuable lesson about the need to appreciate and enjoy the inherent integrity of any translation assignment, the process, a job well done, regardless of feedback, recognition or public acknowledgement.
The middle of the month brings a fun little encounter. It comes to me through my website. A Canadian food writer, Taras Grescoe, is coming to Cadiz, where I live, to do some research on a piece he is writing about garum, the fermented fish sauce that Cadiz exported across the Roman Empire. It is having an unexpected revival as culinary archaeologists seek to recreate it in their labs, drawing on information in Roman cookery books and the remains of amphorae of garum recovered from Pompei, and innovative local chefs incorporate it into their cooking. Taras contacts me to ask if I can put him in touch with a local interpreter for some meetings he has scheduled. It’s short notice so instead I suggest that I accompany him and he can pay me in kind. I’m not an interpreter, I explain, but I’m au fait with the local cuisine and can handle the broadest of local accents. The next day we meet with a local chef whose accent is as thick as they come. I’m relieved to realise that my culinary vocabulary is on point, and I don’t hesitate before explaining that we are about to eat “flying-fish roe marinated in clementine juice”.
In between this assignment and the next one, I undergo some heavy duty dental work: the insertion of a screw that will eventually hold an implant in place. My jaw is swollen and I’m cursing my timing. I’m about to have a tasting menu at the best restaurant in town but I won’t be able to eat a thing. Fortunately, when I arrive, I realize that the tasting menu is also the perfect invalid food. Small servings of local fish (much of it raw), interspersed with fancy foams and mousses. The dinner ends with ice cream delicately flavoured with garum (fermented-fish ice cream, in other words). It is unexpectedly delicious.
My next project is a wodge of documentation for an invitation to tender for the contract to print biometric ID cards for a government in Central America. This is for a translation agency, the last one I work for. When I started out, agencies like this provided a large part of my income but this has changed as I’ve gradually built up a portfolio of direct clients and pursued my interest in literary translation. My rates have gone up and my availability has gone down, and our ways have slowly parted. This feels good although there is a tinge of sadness. The agency sector feels as if it’s in trouble, crushed by commoditisation, low rates, the misuse of machine translation. It’s true that it has colluded in these developments, of course, but I can’t help wondering if things could have gone differently.
My last project for the month is to finalize my translation of Crocodile Tears, a thriller by Uruguayan writer Mercedes Rosende, which will be published by Bitter Lemon Press in 2021. It’s a great piece of writing and it feels like a real privilege to be asked to translate it. I finished my first draft before Christmas, so I am revising. I try to spread the process out so I can go through several more versions with little rests between each stage, alternating between screen and paper, interspersing other jobs if possible. A lot of translators talk about doing a rough first draft that they would never show to anyone, then making far-reaching changes. I’ve even seen some translators refer to a deliberately hyper-literal first draft which is then improved. That’s not my process. For me, translation is at once both reading and writing and I strive to solve as many problems as I can first time round, chipping away until I’m more or less happy. Occasionally I leave a rough translation as a placeholder, but really this just another way of saying that I haven’t started the translation yet. And, of course, I make lots of changes as I go through versions two, three, four and more. But I don’t really see how either a genuinely rough translation or a hyper-literal one is compatible with the simultaneous attention to source and target that, for me, is the essence of translation. Each to their own, I guess.
One of the interesting things about translating from Spanish into English is that both languages operate in a transatlantic space. But it’s a mistake, I think, to get hung up on simplistic notions of British versus American English, let alone to map these onto European and Latin American Spanish. The reality, thankfully, is far more complex and interesting. Better for translators to view that variety as a resource to draw upon, something we can use to create voice, tone, contrast, rhythm…
Toma un pedazo de papa y lo sumerge en mayonesa, engulle, mira a su espalda, unta dulce de leche en dos dedos, la lengua chasquea, saborea, toma una albóndiga, salsa, devora, arroz, otra albóndiga, más salsa, mayonesa, labios, dientes, el dedo en la mermelada, chupa, sorbe, lengua, dedos, se da prisa y empuja, mira atrás, a la puerta, otro pedazo de pollo que traga casi sin masticar, dulce, puré, algo está mal, se apura, traga más, introduce todos los dedos en la salsa, paladar, lengua, labios, dientes, sorbe, traga, una vez, otra.
She takes a chunk of potato and dips it in the mayonnaise, swallows, looks behind her, smears two fingers with dulce de leche; she smacks her lips, takes a meatball, some sauce, devours it, rice, another meatball, more sauce, mayonnaise, lips, teeth, the finger in the jam, sucking, slurping, tongue, fingers; she’s in a hurry and pushes it down, she looks behind her, at the door; another piece of chicken, which she swallows almost without chewing; something’s wrong, she eats faster, swallows more, plunges all her fingers into the sauce; palate, lips, teeth; slurps, swallows, again and again.
On the last weekend of the month, I travel up to Madrid to see some theatre and meet up with some playwrights. On Friday I catch Jauría. It’s strange to see it being performed on stage in Spanish after I’ve spent so long hearing it in my head in English, but I’m also reassured. I come away with a strong sense that the English play in my head (and on the page) is true to the original version and that the differences are necessary and not a betrayal. On Saturday, I catch Inquilino, written, directed and performed by Paco Gámez, and a play I’m hoping to translate at some point this year. And on Sunday I meet up with a couple more writers and see Mariano Rochman’s Noches de hotel, another play I would like to have translated. (Realistic about the limits on my time and budget, I have instead put the playwright in touch with another translator.) On the train back to Cadiz, I resolve to visit Madrid or Barcelona every couple of months during 2020.
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
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
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:
=hello, little cunt
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 🧐
Te la van a meter doblada
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.
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
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
La donna è mobile
qual piuma al vento,
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.