My year in translation: April

October 30, 2020 4:45 pm

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.

My year in translation: March

October 25, 2020 10:19 am

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.

Moomin and Ronia on the roof

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.

La azotea (original version)

Up on the Roof (English translation)

My year in translation: February

October 21, 2020 2:52 pm

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.

Madrid metro map, 2020

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 year in translation: January

October 11, 2020 6:54 pm

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.

Sea urchin roe with samphire

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.

Spanish genitalia

April 14, 2020 9:47 am

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


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


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

Oda a Carrefour

March 22, 2020 10:52 am

Up on the Roof

March 19, 2020 11:24 am

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

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,
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

March 14, 2020 8:00 pm


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?

December 18, 2019 3:32 pm

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)

December 18, 2019 2:27 pm


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?


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


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.


It’s entirely ordinary to put the adverb between verb and
object in Italian – ricorda ancora un
– 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.


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


…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
– 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


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.


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?


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


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
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

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?


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

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


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
to avremmo detto. That is from one said or people
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

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

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.


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’.


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

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
(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
– 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.


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?


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


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.


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.


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

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
. I wonder if aspetto here really means perspective but I’ll stick
with the cognate for now.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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
, 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!


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.


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.

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