This is the last column that Javier Marías wrote for EL PAÍS, as a tribute to translators. The novelist had left it written in July, to be published after his usual holiday in August. This September, his health prevented him from returning to his weekly meeting with the readers of El País Semanal. We had hoped to start the new season with this column when he recovered, but with the writer’s death this Sunday, it becomes the final installment of The Ghost Zone, number 939 since Javier Marías began writing for the paper in February 2003.
If there’s one activity I miss, it’s translation. I abandoned it decades ago, with few exceptions (a poem, a short story, quotations from English and French authors appearing in my novels), and nothing would stop me from returning to it except my own books and how poorly paid they are. to be an essential work, undoubtedly one of the most important in the world, not only for literature; also about the news that arrives, the sloppy subtitles of movies and series, today’s bastard dubbing, the progress of medicine, scientific research, conversations between rulers… But what I miss is the literary, to which I devoted almost all my efforts. I’ve always argued that it’s so similar to writing that it’s exhausting to combine them. The “only” difference is the presence of an original text to which one must be faithful—but not enslaved. This original offers disadvantages and advantages. Among the former, this one is never a lot free—but quite sufficient—because he must reproduce as best he can in his own language what Conrad or James, Proust or Flaubert, Bernhard or Rilke wrote in theirs; that is, it cannot be invented. In the novel, yes, from the first line to the last, until the moment when you sometimes don’t know how to continue and that’s when you wish you had an original to guide you and always dictate what you should write. The original text, like the sheet music, is there and unmoved, although both translator and pianist have wide choices. The diction, the preference for a word or its rejection, pace, the rhythm, the pauses are their responsibility. And they can destroy a masterpiece, that too.
I often think back in a cold sweat and with great pleasure to my months or years spent translating the three most difficult texts of my life: the mirror of the sea written in the fantastic but strange English of a Polish; Tristram Shandy, a monumental work of the eighteenth century no less labyrinthine than well-worn Odysseus of Joyce; The religion of the doctor Y urn burial, by Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th-century English scholar whose prose was as majestic, as lofty, as it was intricate, and which commanded the unqualified admiration of Borges and Bioy. I surrendered to her: I did not feel able to continue. After a few months I decided it was a shame that Spanish-speaking readers were left without knowing it, and with renewed enthusiasm I renewed and completed the task. Why was I so interested in the knowledge of these readers, who would by no means be numerous? I do not know either. I simply decided that this miracle deserved to exist in my language, even if only for the pleasure and benefit of a few curious people.
Some translators don’t make a living translating—those who do, the poor ones, are forced to bundle bad, mediocre, and good work together and finish it at great speed. The former possess a superfluous and disinterested sense of duty to their countrymen. If we think about the first translation of Quixote, of the Dubliner Thomas Shelton, and from 1612, only seven years after its publication in Spanish, what was to induce this man to undertake a Spanish novel, long and not easy, for a complete stranger? I don’t know, but it’s possible to imagine that Shelton was so generous that he didn’t want to deprive other Irish or English people of the pleasure he would have had while reading in Spanish. If ever the expression “a labor of love for art” was apt, it is for the work of these translators. After all, a writer harbors the hope, however remote, of selling a lot and succeeding. Such fame never awaits the translator, and even today many publishers take the liberty of not putting their name on the cover, as if Ali Smith or Zadie Smith needed no contest. And if we talk about rewards, it is to burst into tears. How will a version of Dickens be billed as one of the ten current American gossips? And yet it happens. There are publishers who have struck gold thanks to the work of a translator who is paid a measly fee per page and that’s as long as the title in question has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Spanish.
I don’t know, yes: the daughter can also take care of her mother because of the love she professes for her, but this does not prevent her great dedication from being rewarded, just so that she does not starve while she earns a living by working. From this point of view, I cannot feel nostalgia for my years as a translator. I did much better with my novels. I have enjoyed a tremendous amount of luck that has little to do with merit or talent. And yet, even so… I remember how pleased and excited I was to “rewrite” in my language a text better than any I could have produced, as was the case with my three translations mentioned. Read, correct, and reread each page and think (always subject to error, one does not judge what one is doing): “Yes, yes, that’s how Conrad, Sterne, or Brown would have written it if they had expressed themselves in Spanish.”
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