A Conversation with Translators Frank Wynne and Peter Bush
It is more or less agreed in the literary community that there are no steadfast rules to writing -- authors can invent styles, voices, languages and worlds, write only on typewriters or seven cups of coffee, consult their editor every step of the way or stay huddled in a silent cocoon until an entire draft is done.
Many people are surprised to learn that the same freedom applies to translators, Frank Wynne explained in his recent conversation with Peter Bush: "There are so many possible variables in a single sentence, let alone a whole novel, that it is impossible to make rules. I sometimes paraphrase Valéry: a translation is never finished, only abandoned."
And Frank and Peter would know -- Frank has won the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Premio Valle Inclán for his translation work, and has translated Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder and Ahmadou Kourouma, among others. He is an honorary member of the Irish Translators' and Interpreters' Association, and has been the translator in residence at the Villa Gillet Lyon (2007) and at the Santa Maddalena Foundation (2011).
Peter, meanwhile, is an award-winning literary translator who was born in the UK and now lives in Barcelona. Previously he was Professor of Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, the Vice-President of the International Translators Federation and was founding editor of the literary translators' journal In Other Words.
While both the combined quantity and quality of their works-in-translation are staggering, Frank and Peter came together in late June specifically to discuss their most recent works to come to the United States -- Seven Ways to Kill a Cat by Matías Néspolo and Desolation Island by Adolfo García Ortega.
The two books couldn't be more different -- Seven Ways to Kill a Cat is a gritty right-of-passage tale following two young adults desperately trying to escape the teeming, gang warfare-ridden slums of Buenos Aires in the early 2000s, and Desolation Island is an allusive, mesmerizing metafiction that weaves together a sixteenth-century robot, a man obsessed with an island, mysterious Balkan castles, and the cinematic version of The Invisible Man. In spite of this (and perhaps because of it), Wynne and Bush are able to find some common ground in their opinions on translating practices, authenticity and author pet peeves. And the translation of slang -- brah does not sound natural coming out of the mouth of an Argentine twenty-something.
Frank Wynne: Can you tell me a little bit about how you discovered García Ortega and came to translate Desolation Island?
Peter Bush: I met Adolfo when he was literary editor at Seix Barral in Barcelona and I was translating Nuria Amat and Juan Goytisolo, whom he was publishing at the time. However, I hadn't read any of his fiction at the time. Then, I received an email from Rebecca Carter at Secker Harvill asking me if I would like to translate El Autómata. I read it, liked it and so then started the translation about a year later.
It's curious how and when authors are translated -- Adolfo has published several critically acclaimed novels and is only now being translated, whereas Seven Ways to kill a Cat is Matías Néspolo's first novel. Do you find it frustrating that the selection made by US and UK editors sometimes feels scattershot?
There is often a curious time lag between publication in Spanish and English. I reckon that forty percent of the books I translate are a result of ideas I take to publishers in the UK or USA and sixty percent straight commissions. Publishers usually don't read Spanish and rely on reports, suggestions of like-minded publishers in Europe, and there is an element of hit-and-miss and vogue. I tried to drum up interest in Juan Marsé in the early '90s, and he really began to be translated ten years later! How did you come to Néspolo?
Rebecca at Harvill Secker asked me to read the book with a view to translating it. I loved the electric crackle of the prose, but I simply didn't have time to fit it into my schedule and told her so. She was disappointed, but resigned -- then two weeks later, having found I was constantly talking about the book to other people, I rushed up to her at the London Book Fair and said that I would somehow find a way to make things work, that I had spent far too much time talking about the book not to claim it for myself.
Although both books are (at least in part) set in Argentina, the only thing they share is a love of Melville's Moby-Dick, which runs like a thread through both novels... Seven Ways to kill a Cat is a rites-of-passage novel set in the slums on the fringes of Buenos Aires -- a tale of drugs, guns and disaffected youth that draws its power from Matías brilliant command of vernacular, and his extraordinary empathy. Desolation Island, by contrast, is a metafiction -- densely allusive, utterly aware of itself as fiction, it spans centuries and includes historical characters and events, and fantastical people and automata...
Yes, Desolation Island is much less immediate and more of a necklace of stories that the protagonist, Oliver Griffin, recounts to a complete stranger he meets in bars and hotels in Funchal on the island of Madeira. And this stranger who remains nameless is the narrator. Oliver is recounting his hunt for the truth about an automaton that his grandparents saw in the museum in Punta Arena on their honeymoon. That quest leads him to board a container-ship en route for the Straits of Magellan, but at the same time into a string of fascinating life stories from James Whale, the Hollywood director of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, hero being one Jack Griffin... to Santiago de Gamboa, a conquistador, who took the automaton to Desolation Island and established two communities on the Chilean mainland. Philip of Spain's idea had been to set an army of automatons on the side of a hill on Desolation Island to frighten off the English... Griffin tells us about Melvicius the Prague alchemist and inventor of the automata, Baudelaire's foray into the Tropics and his own affair with a Chinese transvestite, Li Pao, in Barcelona. An Arabian Nights of his own because he has sympathy for the myriad characters in these different worlds whose search for happiness or escape from ghosts of the past leads to death, suicide and madness. In that sense, though our translations re-create very different social and historical worlds, in opposed registers of language and narrative pace, both are rocked by the desire to move on to an unknown that may be better and the harsh violence of reality. Matías's narrator clutches a copy of Moby Dick in the shantytown. Griffin is immersed in such fictions and had voyaged far and wide...
There is something else, I think that they share: both Gringo in Seven Ways to Kill a Cat and Griffin are acted upon rather than acting. Try as they might, they are never quite in control of their destinies. Like Coleridge's ancient mariner, Griffin needs someone to listen because it is in the telling of his tales that he exists. The narrative styles, of course are very different. While I had considerable difficulty wresting porteño slang into English without making the book sound like an episode of The Wire, or making it seems as though it was set in Brixton, you have -- magisterially -- succeeded in transporting Ortega's long, sinuous, meandering sentences, which are the pulsing heart of the narrative
Yes, Griffin seems to have life only in the stories that fill the void of his present. Yes, I thought you succeeded in creating a great world of slang that manages to be at once authentic and not overly specific. But also to recreate Gringo's narrative that is very physical, fast and compelling. I think your preface initiates the readers into what's going to hit them. Was that your idea? And how did you go about constructing the language? Did it involve lots of drafts? Do you have lots of slangs as part of your lived experience of English? I thought your choices and imaginative transformations brilliant and completely sustained. Readers of translations -- or especially critics -- often forget that the fiction they are reading is the fruit of hundreds of thousands of choices that may be inspired but cannot be random. And continual acts of imaginative transformation to recreate the narrative movement of the original. I'd like to give a couple of examples. There's the line "Estoy harto de la polenta hervida" that you could have rendered word for word as "I'm fed up of boiled polenta" but that you transform into "I'm fucking sick of cornmeal mush." "The word-for-word version would have seemed very tame in English from the lips of a youngster from the shanty town. Your translation gets to the energy and latent violence in that world.
I very much wanted to include a translator's note. Usually, I avoid such things like the plague and allow the text to speak for itself, but in this case I felt I needed to give the reader a sense of the world s/he was entering. In order to avoid making the book sound as though it was set in Baltimore or Tottenham, I decided to calque a lot of Spanish words. To my ear, it would have sounded absurd if Gringo, Chueco and his freinds called each other bro, brah, buddy, mate, blood, etc., so I wanted to preserve the many ways Argentineans address each other (pibe, socio, compadre, loco). I also calqued a number of slang words relating to drugs and guns, being careful to gloss them in the text the first time they appear to constantly remind the reader that however familiar, this world is truly foreign. I have travelled a lot, so I do have a broad rang of slang forms to draw on -- something that came in handy since it was important the slang sound neither American nor British, and I also did something I have never done before, which is to translate idiomatic expressions literally: for example the Spanish expression "como culo y calzón" could translate straightforwardly as "as thick as thieves" or simply "tight," but the English expression is hackneyed and I love the imagery of the original, so I refer to two friends being "as tight as arsecrack and underpants"
One of the problems you faced in Desolation Island was place names -- those which actually exist, you leave in Spanish, but there are so many invented cities and towns whose names like Nombre de Jesús have meanings the reader needs to understand... Did you consider preserving them?
There are so many different worlds in the novel, but Adolfo has the art of the story-teller in managing to include enough detail so the reader doesn't have to rush to Google to find out who R.C. Sheriff or Antonio Pigaferra are. While translating I did, just to help myself trace possible hidden connections, even come up with the language. I read, for example, a sailor's account of navigating the Straits in 1823 and he used Port Famine and I felt that would have more of an effect on the reader that Puerto Hambre given that all but one of those poor Southern men, women and children Gamboa took to start new lives and new Catholic communities drowned, starved or were killed. For similar reasons, I translated place names like Nombre de Jesús to communicate the full, tragic irony of those dashed hopes. I don't think there are any magic formulas in terms of whether to translate names of places or people. I don't rush to do so, but if there is a humorous or symbolic charge I often do. If you don't, then readers lose out, even if you think they might guess what the name means. Lots of readers throughout the world don't know even simple Spanish! Similarly, with titles. I thought Automaton sounded weak in English and that Desolation Island was more dramatic and gave a better sense of the book: Griffin is obsessed with islands and with Desolation Island in particular. There is an additional slant. In an earlier novel, The Birthday Buyer, that I am currently translating, Adolfo imagines the pre-history of the baby Hurbinek that Primo Levi cared for in his last weeks in Auschwitz. In The Periodic Table, Levi intercalates a story set on a Desolation Island that may in fact be Tristan da Cunha. However, the reference is there and Desolation Islands are as many as Oliver Griffin's tales.
I agree that there are no hard and fast rules in translating. It's something that often seems to come as a surprise to readers and even to editors. Not only would two different translators necessarily produce wildly different things, but the same translator at different times might make different choices. There are so many possible variables in a single sentence, let alone a whole novel, that it is impossible to make rules. I sometimes paraphrase Valéry "a translation is never finished, only abandoned."
How closely do you usually work with authors, and how much did you discuss with Adolfo about your decision making on Desolation Island?
I always give authors the possibility of seeing the final draft and will consult at the end if there is anything I don't grasp or I feel there might be an underlying allusion or intertextual reference that I can't identify. I've worked a lot with Juan Goytisolo, and he reads English extremely well and likes to work with the translations. That was a great help especially when I started translating him. When I translated Juan Carlos Onetti, I went to Madrid for weekends and worked mainly with his wife Dolly, particularly on slang and political and cultural references from the 1930s! Adolfo answered a few questions I had, but doesn't read English. He is himself a renowned translator from French -- Raymond Queneau, among others -- and said he was pleased to translated by Juan Goytisolo's translator.
I find authors vary widely as to how much they want to be involved (and there are one or two I wish would be less involved!). Some writers -- like Michel Houellebecq, whose novel The Elementary Particles was among my early translations -- feel the need once they have written the book to move forward and are less interested in the process. Of course, an author translated into dozens of languages could not possibly be involved with all his/her translators. I have had authors who ignored my emails, and others (well, only one, thankfully) who all but tried to rewrite passages in a mangled, literal pidgin.
I generally save any queries until I have more or less finished and send them I've been particularly lucky with Hispanic authors, perhaps because many of them (Marcelo Figueras, Enrique de Hériz) were either educated in English or are translators in the own right and understand that a translation -- any translation -- is an act of rewriting, one possible version of a text. I find the greater command the author has of English, the more s/he leaves me alone, trusts me to find his or her voice.
I did talk to Matías quite a bit when translating Seven Ways, but mostly bantering emails because we had worked together on a story he wrote for Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and had a rapport. There were some small things I needed to check with him. Interestingly, the Spanish edition of the novel had a glossary at the back because lunfardo (Buenos Aires slang) would be incomprehensible to Spanish speakers elsewhere in the world.
Perhaps the single most important thing that Desolation Island and Seven Ways to Kill a Cat have in common with each other, is their ability to illuminate places of desolation and despair, to conjure worlds that -- however alien to readers -- teem with life, with hope, with a wild, pulsating linguistic joy (which we have both had the privilege and the pain of trying to convey.
Yes, great vitality in places of great danger as our narrators grapple with the White Whale. Let's hope that we and our respective publishers have initiated literary lives in English for these writers from Argentina and Spain that will now go from strength to strength...