Antonio Muñoz Molina is one of Spain’s leading authors today, and one of my personal favorites anywhere. He is always adding to his long list of award-winning novels, and he publishes regularly in the Spanish newspaper El Pais. I translated this exquisite piece about my profession, which appeared on September 29th, 2012.
From El Pais 9/29/12
ANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA
The most fundamental in life tends to go unnoticed. As for the work of the translator, it is so fundamental and omnipresent that it often just disappears. The best quality work betrays the fewest traces of the translator’s labor, to the point at which it seems he or she has not intervened at all. We notice, of course, when a translation screeches at us, like the sound of a gearshift in the hand of a novice or hesitant driver. A strange word or a phrase may leap from the page and strike us as foreign, and only then do we truly reflect on the fact that we are reading a translation. That we think of the translator almost exclusively when she makes a mistake testifies, simultaneously, to the value of the translator’s work and to the scant recognition that, as a rule, she receives for it. This is especially true today when texts circulate the internet without the slightest proof of origin, and many readers don’t differentiate between an automatic translator and a spell checker program.
Perhaps this has always been the case. It occurred to me late in life that most of the books I read were translated by someone, about when I realized that each movie had a director. I am eternally grateful to the books of Jules Verne (whose name I like to spell in the Spanish, Julio, more familiar to me) for their effect on my imagination and my vocation. I never gave a thought, however, to those who translated the works, most likely anonymously and for little compensation, for publishers like Bruguera, Sopena, or Molino. The first time I learned the name of one of Verne’s translators was during my years of voracious reading in college when I discovered new translations of some of his better novels, entrusted to Miguel Salabert by the publisher Alianza. Salabert had also translated L’Éducation sentimentale and Madame Bovary about that time. Yet, what about the others? Without my knowing anything about it, someone had translated for me The Count of Monte Cristo, Daniel’s Journal, Papillon, and The Tale of Sinuhe, among the most exquisite of my reading memories, not to mention those select lines of The Plague which I felt impelled to underline, perhaps so that somebody, preferably a female, would notice my intellectual acuity.
One poet and editor, phenomenally learned and a very dear friend, recently told me that he had stopped reading translations because he had concluded that it is far more worthwhile to concentrate on literature written in languages he knows. Granted, he does not strike me as a typical case because his repertoire includes, as far as I know, Spanish, Catalan, French, German, Italian, Latin, and English. The rest of us need, to a greater or lesser extent, the constant intercession of the translator. The poor recognition and compensation awarded even the best translators, as well as the haste or inattention with which mediocre or downright unacceptable translations are permitted to pass, highlights the extent of our intellectual impoverishment in these times of cut-backs and cheap products. Surprisingly, poor translations have their admirers and literary influence: with increasing frequency, one finds newspaper articles or even pages of original novels that are written like amateur translations from English, or lines from an atrociously dubbed movie. Clearly, we are on a path of gullible ignorance headed back to my teenage days, to when our pop stars, knowing no English, faked American accents when singing in our native Spanish.
The one who relies most on the translator, of course, is the writer. In the second language, you are exactly what the translator makes of you. In most cases, and, with the exception of my polyglot friend who may know even more languages that I think, or may have learned a new one since we last spoke (I believe he may be even more adept at the telephone than at picking up languages), as a writer, you are tied hand and foot to the translator. One day, you receive a book that, by rights, is yours because your name is on the cover, and perhaps your picture on the inner flap. However, it is only yours because its contents are very close to something you wrote some time earlier and that is now illegible to you, sometimes as though it were written in the indecipherable letters of an ancient, dead language. It involves a leap of faith: anyone who knows how many times you have enjoyed, learned, or been brought to tears while reading translations from Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, or Greek, can see that now the same is happening in reverse. Thanks to the translator, a miracle takes place: something you have written will resonate in the mind of a person in a another language far from you in a part of the world you will never see. People who are as alien to you as residents of the moon turn out to be just like you. I can testify to the fact that Elvira Linda gets letters from teenagers in Iran who are addicted to the adventures of Manolito Gafotas in Farsi. The unique, without ceasing to be so, becomes intelligible anywhere. Something is always lost, even in the best translation, but something is also gained, or enhanced, perhaps that kernel of universality always present in literature.
Once, I shared a home for a couple of days in Amsterdam with a group of those who translate my books into Dutch, into French, and into German. Some, after several years of working with me, had become my friends: Philippe Bataillon, Willi Zurbrüggen; the others I was getting to know at the time: Jacqueline Hulst, Ester van Buuren, Adri Boon, Erik Coenen, Frieda Kleinjan-van Braam, Tineke Hillegers-Zijlmans. One book becomes a slightly different book in the mind of each reader: but that manipulation, that metamorphosis, is even more pronounced in the mind of each translator. The translator is the ultimate reader, a reader so complete that he ends up writing, word for word, the book he is reading. He or she is the one who finds the errors or careless blunders that the writer missed and the publisher did not correct. He is burdened with evaluating the weight and meaning of each word even more painstakingly than the writer himself. Willi Zurbruggen used a musical term to describe his work: what most closely approaches a translation, especially between such disparate languages as Spanish and German, is the transcription of a musical score.
I listened to these people talk, so different from one another, so similar in their devotion to their work, and I felt grateful and somewhat guilty: a word that I chose haphazardly or by instinct, a phrase to which I might dedicate a few seconds, could cause them hours or days of worry. Learning the limits of what can be translated makes us conscious of the fact that there are also limits to what words, themselves, can express.