My year in translation: May

We’ve been in lockdown for six weeks now, and I can feel it taking its toll. During the weeks when I am with my kids, I focus on them. I barely work, I deliver coffee to their bedrooms in time for the first class of the day (a civilized 9 o’clock start replacing the brutal 7 o’clock call of the old days). I walk the dogs, shop, make sure there is lunch on the table, rewatch The Sopranos with my son, make supper. There is a certain comfort in this small-scale domestic life. I decide that any day on which I make scones is a success.

It’s tougher when I’m on my own. I have less work – which is both a curse and a blessing. And I have a few assignments that seemed like a good idea when I took them on but which now seem to be mocking me. One of my lockdown symptoms is that I have developed a complete inability to read fiction. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. I have always enjoyed non-fiction and am happy to put myself on a diet of memoir, travel and nature writing. Unfortunately, pre-covid, I agreed to review a couple of novels. I force myself to read them. They are both quite good, I think. But getting through them is excruciating. (A confession: I only finish one of them.) I cobble together something coherent and complimentary to say about them and retreat into James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small.

Next up is a piece I agreed to co-write for the ITI bulletin. The subject is joy. something that is currently in short supply in my life. I worry that writing the piece is an act of hypocrisy. Or that it will simply prove impossible. My fears are unfounded. I am co-writing the article with Bex Elder, a former student of mine who is now a freelance translator. We write the article via email, as a dialogue and, appropriately enough, the writing of the piece is itself a joyful experience, while the context of the pandemic makes it seem more relevant rather than less and, somehow, expands our emotional range. I’m reluctant to look for silver linings but perhaps one benefit of the current situation is that it has become easier for us to acknowledge and discuss our feelings and our emotional needs.

The last of my trio of commitments is a Zoom webinar for the Spanish network of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. A few months ago, I didn’t even know what Zoom was. At the start of lockdown, it seemed like a Godsend. That lasted about two days. I don’t know how my kids do it, class after class, day after day, week after week. I can hardly bear it. Far from offering me a respite, Zoom deepens my sadness and sense of isolation. I only survive an interminable parents’ meeting at my daughter’s school by switching off the video and making progress with a 1000-piece jigsaw of some Labrador puppies. “Be kind to yourself!” is my new motto.

Labrador puppies

I am giving this webinar rather than attending it, though, so there is no question of turning off my camera so nobody can see me sorting jigsaw pieces into yellow, black and chocolate-coloured piles. I will be presenting with my colleagues Victoria Patience and Simon Berrill, about our continuing professional development partnership, a collaborative arrangement called RevClub, where we exchange feedback on each other’s translations, meet up for a monthly virtual slam (Victoria lives in Argentina and Simon is based in Catalonia) and generally share knowledge, advice and support. If Zoom felt like it was going to save my lockdown ass but didn’t, then RevClub definitely has. I feel incredibly grateful (blessed, even!) to have two close colleagues who are also friends – and with whom I already have a virtual relationship. We’re used to communicating by email, WhatsApp and Skype, so it doesn’t feel like an imposition to do so now. Preparing for the webinar gives us a focus for our conversations and I soon go from dread to expectation. Both the preparation and the webinar itself leave me with a feeling of connection and human warmth. Although I also wonder what it says about me that I am happy to give webinars but not to attend them. Actually, I don’t wonder at all. I know that it speaks to my need for attention, my low-level narcissism. In the spirit of being kind to myself, I resolve to extend that generosity to my inner narcissist.

A friend has advised me to structure my day with routines; another recommends yoga; a third suggests physical exercise. I download a beginner’s yoga course for my mornings and some keep fit sessions for the afternoons. Every morning, I roll out my yoga mat although, truth be told, mainly I just get into position and start crying. Soon, the yoga mat has become shorthand in the intimate language of lockdown. “How are you doing today?” my friend and I ask. “A bit yoga mat,” we reply, and we understand that the morning has been spent in tears. My afternoon keep-fit routine is less emotionally taxing and consistts mainly of me performing star jumps in my underpants.

I pass my childless days in my flat, drinking tea on the little balcony that overlooks a large bare concrete courtyard, occasionally venturing up onto the roof with a beer in the evening. I am glad I only do this for alternate weeks, returning to my kids for a dose of sanity and society in the intervening periods. By an odd coincidence, the protagonist of the play I am translating at the moment – Paco Gámez’s Inquilino (Numancia 9, 2º A) – is similarly constrained. The protagonist, also called Paco, is a millennial, struggling to keep his head above water in the gig economy, when he receives an email informing him of a 50 per cent hike in his rent. What follows is drama and autofiction, documentary theatre and surrealism, as Paco is simultaneously engaged with reality – pleading with the rental agency for a compromise, looking for alternative accommodation, working out how he can make ends meet – and in denial of it – fantasizing about performing a grand gesture of resistance, barricading himself into the flat, taking up arms against his oppressor.

As the play progresses, Paco spends more and more time in the flat in a futile attempt to assert his ownership of the space. His behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. In one scene, he masturbates on the balcony. This makes me feel less bad about the possibility that my neighbours may have seen me performing star jumps in my pants.

I was a little wary of embarking on this project just now, and nearly postponed it in favour of another more gregarious play about an argumentative family at a wedding. But I am glad I decided to press ahead. it feels like a form of therapy as Paco and me keep each other company. This is, anyway, only a heightened version of what draws me to theatre translation: the way it requires you to inhabit a text, to mount a virtual production of it in your head and then make whatever changes are necessary to enable the translation to work as a theatre script in its own right. This referral to something outside the text – performability but also producibility and coherence – is a constant source of dynamism and offers me a degree of creative freedom I don’t normally have with prose. Paradoxically, I am offered further freedom by the fact that this is not a paid commission. it’s a text I’ve chosen because I like it, because I hit it off with the author, because I can imagine someone wanting to produce it. And this means I am not ‘just’ a translator but also a creative partner, in some small way a promoter of the project.

I want the translation to allow readers (directors, producers) to see the potential for interpretation and further adaptation, not to give the impression that there is only one way to handle this text. And at the same time I need to make sure that the dialogue has rhythm and impact, that it switches between the poetic and the profane, that Paco’s voice comes through… This is particularly important with this piece, which is more or less a dramatic monologue. Most theatre writing relies on the energy that comes from different characters playing off one another. Take that out and there is a risk of monotony. So the energy has to come from other sources.

I’m a very intuitive translator and most of my discussion of or writing about my work is really a post-hoc commentary on pragmatic or even subconscious decisions. I go for what works on the page – or in my head – and analyse it, if at all, later. Cultural references are the exception to this rule. The street where Paco lives, Calle Numancia, is named after a Celtiberian settlement (Numantia in English) that was besieged by the Roman conquerors of the peninsula. At the end of an eight-month siege, the inhabitants committed suicide rather than surrender. Numantia, then, is a symbol of desperate resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. This is not the street’s real name. Paco has chosen it for symbolic reasons but also because he insists – out of pomposity but also out of necessity – on his cultured status. I toy (ridiculously in retrospect) with the idea of replacing Numantia with some other more familiar siege reference. In the end, I keep it and use a couple of different techniques to make it work for a new audience.

In the original, Paco simply remarks that he has changed the name “because he wants to” (porque quiero), “to raise the tone” (para elevar esto un poco):

Perdón, hago ahora un inciso. La calle real se llama Medellín, está al lado del metro Iglesia. Aquí la llamo Numancia porque quiero, para elevar esto un poco. Pero mi casa, alquilada, está en la calle Medellín, barrio de Chamberí, castizo y rancio. Ahí es donde llego ahora, ¿vale? Calle Numancia, 9, 2º A.

In my translation, I expand his explanation a little:

Excuse me but I’m going to digress for a moment. The street’s real name is Medellín, next to Iglesia metro station. I’ve called it Numantia here to give it a classical touch. You know. The siege. The heroic but doomed last stand of the indigenous people against the Roman invaders. But my rented flat is in Medellín Street, in the Chamberí district, Madrid through and through, nothing classy. So here I am, okay? Number 9, Numantia Street. 2nd Floor. Flat 1.

In the final scene I make a more substantial change. All over the city, cash-strapped tenants throw themselves from their balconies, in an act of collective suicidal defiance, while Paco declaims to the police:

Las sirenas de policía iluminan la calle Numancia. Yo estoy de pie sobre la barandilla del balcón y me sujeto con las manos contra el muro del edificio.

Queridos policías, soldados romanos que cercan mi torre, sé que don Juan Carlos Azcárate es vuestro dueño, vuestro Escipión, y que no vendrá. ¿Para qué?

I add a few lines to Paco’s play:

The police sirens light up Numantia Street. I’m standing on the balcony rail; my feet on the railing, my hands on the wall of the building behind me. I address the policemen.

Roman legionaries besieging my fortress of Numantia, I know Juan Carlos Alcaraz is your Scipio, and he won’t deign to come. And so I speak to you, his minions:

You plunder, butcher and steal
and you call these things an empire.
You make a desert
and you call it peace.

But the lines are not mine; they are the words of the Caledonian chieftain, Calgacus, speaking to his troops before they faced the Romans at the Bottle of Mons Graupius. Or, rather, they are the words attributed to Calgacus by the Roman historian, Tacitus. Who may, anyway, have invented not just Calgacus’s words but his very existence.

I like this sense of collaboration across space and time – me, Paco, Calgacus, Tacitus and whoever translated Tacitus into English. And I enjoy adding a little Scottish touch to the play, putting Calgacus’s rebellious words into Paco’s mouth as we stand on our balconies.

At the end of the play, his fantasy of resistance over, Paco meekly hands over the keys, moves out of the flat and waits for his deposit.

May comes to an end and I am still here. It’s been a hard month, one in which I have been both amazed by my resilience and terrified by my fragility. I have survived thanks, above all, to the company of my children. But also, when I have been on my own, through the strange immersive therapy of translation. I have found, if not joy, then something to hold onto, to engage with, to lose myself in, even – tentatively – to express myself through. And at the end I have something to show for it. A the end of a month in which I have wept on a yoga mat and done star jumps in my underpants, I also have a play.