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Tuesday 5 January 2010

Fair's Fair, Very Rare - The Value of Translators

A few days ago I saw a video of an interview with Javier Marías. The publication in English of the third part of his three part novel, Your Face Tomorrow, has finally seen widespread recognition of his very considerable talents.

It can take an extraordinarily long time for a fine writer to gain recognition in another language. If I remember correctly it took about twenty years for Gabriel García Márquez’ s A Hundred Years of Solitude to get through to a wide audience in the UK, much less time in the USA.

There are so many things to go wrong, of course. The very first of these is the translator. A great translator is as rare as a great writer. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez with Gregory Rabassa, Marías has been blessed with Margaret Jull Costa.

It is simply not enough to be enthusiastic and conscientious. The saddest case I know concerns Alfredo Bryce Echenique. Author of Un Mundo para Julius (A World for Julius) and La Vida Exagerada de Martin Romaῇa, (The Exaggerated Life of Martin Romaῇa), it is unlikely you will have heard of him or enjoyed this wonderful Peruvian writer’s books. Why not?

Well, courtesy of an American University and a grant from, I think, a phosphate company, an English translation was made of Un Mundo para Julius. At one level there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. The language is correct, it reads like a conscientious labour of love and everything about the production is well-intentioned. But somehow, in English, a very fine book reads like a flat, dull book - and consequently, it has not reached the wide English speaking audience it deserves.

The reason is that academics are not always good writers. They don’t have that extraordinary combination of empathy and skill that transfers the delight of a book in one language to another. Marías knows. He has himself translated (very well indeed) the great Tristram Shandy into Spanish.

Note that direction, English to Spanish. Javier Marías speaks excellent English but does not translate his own books because he knows that Margaret Jull Costa does it better. Translators have to know themselves, and writers when to ask for rewriters. If I can put it like this – in the interview Javier Marías speaks confident, fluent English when answering questions; when he reads extracts from his book you can hear he is Spanish.

There is also, of course, the money side of things. Translators are shockingly badly paid. I have talked to a number of translators in Spain. They often get one month to translate. And it shows. I have been there when a scout turned down a book ‘because it is too well written’ , and would take more than a month to translate.

For decades, Spanish eyes have followed and translated what they see before them. This has led to some intriguing changes in Spanish syntax and vocabulary, reinforced by the dubbing of films (where the lips have to mouth different words but in time or sync.)

I was once asked to check over a film script of a blockbuster that had been translated by a very recent graduate who suspected that her grasp of American colloquialisms was deficient. The resulting script in Spanish wasn’t just gibberish, it actually changed the plot. Bruce Willis was saved but the poor girl’s fee was derisory, well below what it costs to live for a month. Clint Eastwood by the way is dubbed by a basso profundo in Spanish. Someone told me they preferred the dubbed Clint to the real Eastwood when he was interviewed on television.

Javier Marías is intelligent enough to think differently and has, I understand, a special arrangement with his translator to reflect what she means to his books in English. In 1998 he split the Impac prize (awarded for A Heart So White) with Margaret Jull Costa straight down the middle. Why? Because the readers had been reading his work in English written by her and he wanted to pay her tribute and due. Fair’s fair but just, right.

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