We asked five of our translators from the Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue for a peek on to their desks. Here is a glimpse of their current projects – bringing burn victims, horse-drawn trams and plant names from Spanish into English.
Margaret Jull Costa
I’ve just begun translating an anthology of stories about Madrid and, since I also made the selection, I’m haunted by the fear that I will have omitted some crucial story or, indeed, stories. I have made my ‘final’ selection, but still keep dipping into anthologies and collections, just in case. My starting point is a story by Benito Pérez Galdós set on a horse-drawn tram. I love nineteenth-century literature and, after a longish break, it’s lovely to be back. First question: what did horse-drawn trams in 1871 Madrid look like? As usual, the internet comes to my rescue. And today I’ve been tackling a particularly long, elaborate description – the narrator has a complicated dream in which the tram goes first underwater and then up in the air – which has been difficult, but also presented a rather delicious challenge to my writing skills and my marine vocabulary – cetaceans, crustaceans, molluscs, bivalves, madrepores, sponges, corals…
I am currently translating a novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina, a Spanish novelist whose work I admire very much. The tentative English title is The Depths of Time. It is a love story that takes place during the Spanish Civil War, the romance and the politics intertwining in a compelling way.
The novel is a hefty one – close to 1,000 pages; that number of words requires a huge investment of time in the translation. Since it’s a wonderful piece of writing, and completely absorbing, I believe the time is well spent.
Mara Faye Lethem
I’m translating a passionate family saga about a line of cursed women who, one after the other, are left pregnant and broken-hearted and then only give birth to girls who in turn suffer the same fate. The House of Doomed Loves brings magical realism to the usually dry Castilian plateau, which in this case is quite floriferous, as semen tossed from a brothel’s window nourishes a lush garden. Translating flora can be difficult, as, when well used to evoke place, it’s highly local. A research trick for plant names is to find the Latin, then use that to get the common name in English. Unfortunately this can turn up something like ‘Shrubby Gromwell or ‘Birdfoot Deervetch’, which doesn’t really set the romantic tone I’m looking for.
I’m also writing a story about online dating after the apocalypse, to be published in translation in a Spanish anthology.
Alfred Mac Adam
A New York literary magazine asked if I’d care to submit a translation to their Spanish-language issue (sound familiar?), and I immediately thought of Federico Falco, one of the writers I translated for Granta. So I’m busily working on a Falco translation as I despair about the imminent start of the new academic semester.
I’ve just finished the translation of the latest posthumous work by Roberto Bolaño, a novel called The Third Reich. The book was a joy to translate, mostly because Bolaño seems to have had such fun writing it. It’s a buoyant novel, ominous at moments but mostly just funny. I am, however, left with one lingering translation problem. One of the main characters, a South American pedal boat attendant on the Costa Brava beach where the novel is set, is covered with burn scars. Everyone calls him El Quemado, which literally means The Burned One. I’ve tried all kinds of solutions from the near literal (Burned Man) to the derivative (Scarface – OK, OK, I know I can’t use it) to the silly (El Scorcho) to the catchy-but-wrong (Scabs). My clever editor suggested Burn Victim, and that’s the placeholder for now, but I’m still not satisfied. Names are so tough. And so critical.