November 2009

Megan Doll


An Interview with Margaret Jull Costa

Reading Spanish novelist Javier Marías, whose narrators wrestle exhaustively with interpretation, my thoughts cannot help but turn to his real-life English translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Through Costa, whose translations have been praised by various critics as “smart,” “resourceful,” and “impeccable,” English-speakers have come to know some of the greatest living writers (such as Marías and Nobel Laureate José Saramago) as well as overlooked old masters (notably Portuguese realist Eça de Queiroz). In addition to critical acclaim, Costa has received numerous awards for her work, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for her translation of Marías’s A Heart So White, two Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prizes (one for Saramago’s Death at Intervals, the other for Eça de Queiroz’s The Maias) and the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize (also for The Maias).

Her latest translation, the conclusion to Marías’s three-part spy novel Your Face Tomorrow, is due out November 30th and with a Saramago rendering in the wings, she remains busy as ever. Costa recently took a break from translating Teolinda Gersão’s The Word Tree at her home office in Leicester, England to discuss the secret lives of translators over a cup of peppermint tea.

Where did you learn Spanish and Portuguese?

After leaving school at 18, I worked as a secretary in London and spent my summers in Spain, where I learned Spanish. When I was 23, I decided it was time I went to university and opted for a degree in Spanish and Portuguese at Bristol University, learning Portuguese from scratch there. I later lived in Portugal for two years.

When did you first conceive of becoming a professional translator?

When I decided at age 23 to study Spanish, I didn’t have A-Level Spanish (A-Level is the exam you normally take at 18 in the UK in order to study at university), so I began studying one afternoon a week at a London college. Translation from and into Spanish was part of the course, and that was my first introduction to translation. It was love at first sight. Later, at university, I had a wonderful teacher, Philip Polack, and he encouraged me to think of becoming a professional translator. However, I only really began pursuing translation as a career after I had done a few translations for Granta magazine in the 1980s and its then editor, Bill Buford, gave me the names and addresses of various British publishers to write to.

What was your first literary translation?

Watching the rain in Galicia’ by Gabriel García Márquez for Granta magazine, but my first novel translation was The Hero of the Big House by Álvaro Pombo for Chatto & Windus in 1987.

Marías and Saramago both share a penchant for sprawling sentences, littered with commas and clauses. Is it ever difficult to replicate their sentence structure while maintaining the flow of their prose?

I’ve been translating Marías since 1991 and Saramago since 1998, so I’ve had plenty of practice tackling those long sentences. The difficulty lies, of course, in getting every bit of the sentence to connect syntactically and coherently without losing the rhythm or the reader. It is difficult and requires a lot of re-reading and rewriting, but it’s very satisfying when one of those page-long or two-page-long sentences really works in English with no loss of cogency.

How does your own imagination and interpretation play into reinventing a Marías or Saramago in English?

I revise my translations about nine or ten times and that, for me, is part of the process of reimagining the text, of allowing the language of the text to become part of my imagination. It takes a long time to tunnel your way into that other person’s mind.

How do you arbitrate between an author’s intention/intended meaning and the direct, literal translation of their written words?

I assume this is the old letter versus spirit debate. I don’t take a hard line on this one since it seems to me that a translator is constantly moving between the two positions. The ideal is to capture letter and spirit, I suppose, but you have to be very pragmatic and decide on the basis of context and what is important and what is possible in your own language as to which prevails.

How much contact do you have with the living writers whose work you translate, like Javier Marías and José Saramago?

Both Marías and Saramago are very helpful in answering any queries I might have, although I do try not to bother authors too much, especially authors who are translated into many languages and might therefore get so overwhelmed by translators’ queries that they wouldn’t have time to write! But I think it is important to have some contact with the authors you translate, simply because it is such a relationship of trust. The reception of the book in English depends so much on the quality of the translation, and I need the author to trust that I will do a good job. I’m currently translating a novel by Teolinda Gersão, The Word Tree, and I’m working with her in a way I’ve never worked with an author before. I’ve translated many of her short stories in the past and because her English is excellent and because she enjoys participating in the translation process, I’ve always sent her my final draft for comment. Now I send regular batches of my finished translation (about ten pages per batch) for her to comment on. Her changes are usually just a matter of taking out a word here or there, picking up on unwanted repetitions and even making alterations to her original text if she doesn’t feel that it works in English. This is a very unusual and very pleasing experience, and one that requires great trust and respect on both sides.

Most of Marías’s narrators are translators or interpreters in one sense or another, the point being that they are made to renounce their own voice. Is this how being a translator feels to you?

A translation is a strange paradox. It can’t be the original, nor can it be an original piece of writing (unless you’re doing a ‘version’ as distinct from a ‘translation’ of a poem or a play and even then…), and yet it has to work as a text in its own right and have a life of its own, because if it doesn’t, it’s dead. A bad translation is one in which the translator has failed to breathe life into every sentence. A good translation is a truly bilingual text, one that combines the writer’s and the translator’s voice. So, no, I don’t feel that I’m renouncing my own voice, although, having said, that, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by all those other voices, and it’s important, I feel, to do your own writing and be reminded that you do have a voice and an imagination personal to you. I don’t write fiction, but I do write poetry, not in order to publish, but to keep in touch with my own feelings and vision of the world.

What are the secret struggles of a translator?

I do a lot of translation work and the biggest struggle is keeping up the standard and never allowing myself to slide into thinking ‘Oh, that’ll do.’ I’m always aiming to create a perfect translation that requires no editing, but so far my editors continue to find small things that could be improved. But perfection is what I aspire to, otherwise what would be the point?

And their secret pleasures?

Oh, when a sentence suddenly clicks into place, or when I find the perfect solution to a pun or a proverb (Saramago is full of them). There is, above all, the pleasure of working so closely with a text that it almost becomes mine and of working almost inside the mind of an author whose work I love.

Is there, in this respect, one book of which you are most proud to have taken part in?

Oh dear, there are so many, but I do take a special pleasure in translating the novels of Eça de Queiroz, perhaps especially his masterpiece The Maias.

What makes a translator good?

Most important I would say is having read widely in your own language from childhood on and having a love of both reading and writing. Then, of course, you need to know the original language or languages very well. Above all else, though, is a command of your own language, an ability to shift between registers and styles and to allow another writer’s voice to speak through you. I also worked for three years as a copy-editor for Cambridge University Press and that experience has proved invaluable.

What kinds of concerns do contemporary translators have about the field?

I think the main concern is that publishers will one day stop publishing translations because they tend not to sell well, although, up until now, there have always been brave and noble publishers who care enough about world literature and about the art of translation to carry on regardless. One of my own concerns is that publishers -- seduced by sales figures -- will publish only the kind of foreign fiction that sells and ignore books which they perceive as ‘difficult’ or -- perish the thought  -- ‘literary.’  Translators do also, of course, moan about the lack of recognition and the lack of money, although we British translators are much better paid than our American and European colleagues.

Are translators viewed differently in other languages? Do certain cultures consider it a more prestigious profession than others?

Translation used to be the preserve of accomplished writers, who practiced translation as a way of improving and stretching their command of their own language, e.g. Milton, Pope, Dryden. It then became the preserve of the amateur who had a reasonable command of the original language but no pretensions necessarily to being a writer.

Now, with a few honourable exceptions -- mostly poets, Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage, David Constantine -- there are not that many writers who also translate and a lot of professional translators whose expertise in their own language, inevitably, varies considerably.

I can’t think of any culture where literary translators are greatly respected. This is partly to do with the predominance of the English language, which means that non-English-speaking countries translate vast quantities of contemporary fiction from Britain and America. Publishers in those countries are not always that choosy about translators as long as they can work quickly. My colleagues in Spain and Portugal have to work to ridiculous deadlines and for very little money.

I can’t help but associate you with the writers you’ve translated -- is it important that there be a shared sensibility between author and translator?

I think so, yes. It’s painful and dull to translate authors whose style or voice or ideas hold no interest for you, and such a joy to translate a writer whose mind you feel happy to inhabit for a while.

You seem to translate European writers more than Latin American writers. Is this purely by chance or is there a reason for this?

It’s chance really, although I don’t consider myself to be a Latin Americanist, and wouldn’t feel comfortable translating a novel that depended upon an in-depth knowledge of a particular country. Also Latin American novels tend to be translated by American translators, presumably because of the close ties between the Americas.

When reading for pleasure, what writers and kinds of book do you gravitate toward?

I don’t read a lot of contemporary British or American authors. I tend to read and re-read the classics -- for example, Conrad, Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Henry James, George Eliot, Mark Twain (in Huck Finn mode), Flannery O’Connor. I belong to a literature group here and we meet once a week to discuss and mull over books we read thirty or more years ago or haven’t read but feel we should have. It’s a real joy to spend ten weeks discussing, say, the poetry of Emily Dickinson (although reading Emily requires a whole lifetime!) or Joyce’s Ulysses. That continued close examination of texts is very important and very illuminating. I’m also -- with my French teacher -- reading Proust in French very, very slowly. Looking at that list of names, I realize that I seem to be drawn to writers who are doing something interesting with language, and that what I enjoy most is the pleasure of a beautiful sentence or line of poetry or the word that has never been used in quite that way before.

Which translators do you admire?

Seamus Heaney, David Constantine, Margaret Mauldon (I’ve just read her excellent version of Madame Bovary) and Robert Fagles. I loved Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation of War and Peace and I’m currently reading the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky of Anna Karenina, which is superb.

How (under what conditions) do you work?

I have an office at home. I get up in the morning, have breakfast and start work at about 8 a.m. or 8.30 a.m. I usually go for a swim at lunchtime (and often find the solution to a seemingly insoluble problem while ploughing up and down the pool), and work until six o’clock in the evening. 

What work would you most like to translate into English?

There are lots. Bernardo Atxaga’s latest novel Siete casas en Francia; more Eça de Queiroz (fortunately, I’m engaged on a long-term project to do just that with the British publisher, Dedalus); Al volver la esquina by Carmen Laforet; some of Sofia de Mello Breyner Andresen’s children’s fiction; anything by Manuel Mujica Lainez; and Rosinha, minha canoa by José Mauro de Vasconcelos.

Have you advocated for certain texts to be translated?

Yes, but I have an unerring eye for the non-bestseller!