My year in translation: June

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.
SOFÍA: Please!
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.