06 March 2011

who translates the translator

There is a funny moment in the version I am reading of 'Your Face Tomorrow' by Javier Marías where the veneer of the translation thins, twice in one page, and the translator seems to be glimpsed at work.

#1 is in the 3rd part of the book's middle section,'Spear':'He felt once more in control of the situation after a brief moment of disequilibrium.' Spot the odd word out. Desequilibrio in Spanish, well, you can probably guess what it means -- wordreference.com has it as 'imbalance' or 'inequality'. The fact that an English speaker might guess what it means is evidence of the languages' shared roots, and perhaps accounts for why it was allowed to remain, rather than being replaced by something less weirdly archaic/ un-English in feel -- like 'imbalance', or a re-ordering of the sentence into something like: 'after a brief, unbalanced, moment.'

#2 'Wheeler did not reply directly. The truth is that he rarely did.' In Spanish you often use 'la verdad es que' as an emphatic preface, but how often do you do that in English? Really, you just say 'Really'. Right?

I had a sense of the translator at work. I felt I glimpsed her between the text and me, whereas so much of the time she, like any accomplished translator, achieved the illusion of not having done the work at all. I had a sense of Margaret Jull Costa maybe having pushed herself a bit hard one day, and ending up translating more literally than she had up until then or would after; an idea of her, in a space, at a computer or with printouts late at night, translating loosely, saying to herself, 'that's too loose', going and making tea and coming back to it refreshed, but just starting up again after those two slips, by accident, or finding her linguistic reservoir dry, and for some reason skipping this part.

Also interesting is that I don't feel you can say the translations are 'too' literal, or uniformly 'too' loose, but what they certainly can be accused of is deviating from the standards the translator has set up; they mirror the Spanish to an extent at odds with the standards of transparency, of the illusion of transcription, already set.

I could be wrong and Jull Costa could have intended both of these -- Marías himself could have sanctioned this imposition of Spanish-isms into English, for all I know. But it was just fascinating -- like a typo on subtitles, like the programme you're watching on iplayer glitching -- suddenly to be removed from the flow, the sense of sequence, the immersion in the rhythm of the text, and to be made aware of the translator, there, in between the text and the reading you.

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