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.