Have you ever read a piece you’re about to translate and thought, “OK, no problem. I see what’s going on here.” But then you read it again, scratch a couple of notes, ponder this or that, look up a simple little word to discover its nuances, scrawl more notes, sit back and consider possibilities, raise your hands to the keyboard and realize, nope, there’s so much going on here, you’re not ready to even start the first sentence.
That just happened to me. And it’s not the first time! (Please tell me you know what I’m talking about…)
As you might have seen in my newsletter, I’m translating a book for Spanish author Luis Sanz Irles. The novel is Una callada sombra [title in English yet to be determined], a literary noir-ish novel of ideas. It’s smart and intriguing.
Many aspects of Luis’s style are immediately apparent. Who wouldn’t notice that sentences can be twelve, thirteen, fifteen lines long? That’s not always easy to portray in English. But in this novel there’s usually a reason for such length. For example, right at the start, the protagonist is fleeing through the hills, Franco’s secret police hot on his heels. What may be a run-on sentence in English will work just fine because it reflects/creates mood.
Then we see the narrator weaving thought and speech into the prose. It’s a technique called free indirect style or free indirect discourse. You’ve seen it in works by Austen, Joyce, Woolf. Though in third person, this technique allows readers inside a character’s thoughts. There are no qualifiers or dialogue tags, the narrator just slips into a character’s consciousness. I initially wondered about the need to set this off in some way, like with italics, but the Spanish doesn’t do that, and it would draw undue attention to what is a seamless transition. So stet.
There’s also vocabulary specific to the time (1970s) and the place (Spain). Some research will have to be done to make sure, for example, that swear words or epithets fit the era. Most dictionaries indicate when a word came into use, so that should be relatively easy to handle.
But what about something like a mesa camilla, a (round) table, usually with a heater in the middle, covered by a cloth. How important is it to get this precise description across? Or is it enough to know there was simply a table in the middle of the room? I don’t think the solution will be the same in every case.
Sanz Irles is a very well-traveled, learned man, weaving poetry and prose and lyrics into his novel. There’s a line from Virgil’s Aeneid followed soon after by lyrics from the rock band Lone Star—not the Welsh band, but the group from Barcelona. Luis used the Latin, so I can leave that, too, and the song, well, that should probably stay in Spanish, perhaps with a slight descriptor following both so English readers get the gist. Then there’s an unidentified literary reference. I eventually trace it back to a novel by Heimito von Doderer. In German. That hasn’t been translated into English. OK, my translation it is.
My next conundrum is a play on words using an assassin’s code name. Pájaro Grifo. Pajarogrifo. There’s a change in pronunciation, in accented syllables in Spanish, and the protagonist riffs on this. Can I do something similar in English? I think so. But let me ponder a bit more before I see what Luis thinks about my approach.
OK, I’ve got 5+ pages of notes, and have spent several hours pondering these issues—and many more—plus possible approaches, only tentatively bringing fingers to keyboard to see what I can do with the first fifteen pages. Two hundred and fifty more after that, each with just as many complexities! But I’m not complaining. I’m in heaven.
What sort of complexities are you facing in what you’re translating now? Do you work through the conundrums before translating? Or while translating? Or does your approach sometimes change? I’d love to hear!