The World's Best Unknown Books
09 09 2012

Parent book: Pere Calders - Chronicles of a Hidden Truth

Translating Pere Calders

Lawrence Venuti

Why translate Pere Calders?

Although tempting and certainly applicable, I will resist the reply, “Because Pere Calders is a good writer.” It ultimately begs too many questions, not only about the contentious issue of literary value, but about the nature and function of literary translation, still grossly misunderstood and suffering from widespread neglect. Countless good writers exist in languages other than English, but they are unlikely ever to be translated, especially given the relatively low volume of translation in Anglophone cultures.

My reasons for translating Pere Calders hinge on long-standing practices in publishing translations. A publisher tends to focus on an individual foreign writer, removing his or her work from the foreign cultural traditions that gave life to it and thereby diminishing the ability of readers to appreciate the translation with any knowledge of the foreign culture. If the lone work fails on the book market, an author and a culture fail too: the publisher will not be inclined to continue investing in that author, and eventually questions will arise about whether cultural differences are so insuperable as to make failure inevitable.

Catalan literature has largely been excluded from English translation, except for a handful of isolated writers. Mercè Rodoreda, among the greatest of modern Catalan novelists, has been the most frequently translated from the late 1960s onwards, so that English-language readers might well be familiar with her experimental narratives about the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s regime, especially The Time of the Doves and Death in Spring. Recently, attention has focused on such contemporary fiction writers as Albert Sánchez Piñol (Pandora in the Congo) and Quim Monzó (A Thousand Morons), who likewise experiment with genres but are much more inclined to irony and satire.

To deepen the reader’s appreciation of these writers, past and present, a fuller context must be created through strategically selected texts. Calders, who debuted in the 1930s and published several novels and story collections during the 1950s and ’60s, can be viewed as a missing link. An ironic humorist given to flights of fantasy, he helps to sketch the tradition that feeds into contemporary narrative trends.

Why translate Calders’s story, “Invasió subtil”?

The translation strategies that have long prevailed in the Anglophone world (as elsewhere) work to efface the translator’s intervention by striving for the utmost readability. The more familiar the language, the more invisible the translator. The foreign text comes to seem untranslated, a text originally written in English, or the translation is received as if it were the foreign text itself, not a copy that inscribes its own interpretation. Calders’s story resists these mystifying effects, although any translation that would aim to re-create them can be made eminently readable.

On even a cursory reading, “Invasió subtil” comes off as a very Catalan story. From the very first sentence, the reader is situated in Catalunya. The setting, Tossa de Mar, is a resort town on the Costa Brava. The narrator identifies his tablemate’s meal as characteristically Catalan, describing each dish. Mention is made of Olot, a northern village in the province of Girona, where religious images began to be manufactured in the late nineteenth century. The world-renowned Barcelona Football Club enters into the narrator’s tale.

Yet what is perhaps most Catalan about the text is the theme. “Invasió subtil” reflects the reemergence of ethnic and cultural self-consciousness that marked the Spanish transition to democracy after the Franquista dictatorship (1939–1975). The collection in which the story appeared was published in 1978, the year when Catalunya regained the political autonomy that it had lost under the regime. Calders’s irony is far from uncritical in its treatment of the chauvinism that later became the Catalan nationalist movement.

How is “Subtle Invasion” translated?

In the act of translating, verbal choices are interpretive moves. When the text to be translated is a work of fiction, the words and phrases chosen by the translator nuance and even substantially alter formal features like style, narrative point of view, and characterization. Variation is inescapable, even when a strict semantic correspondence is maintained. Any source text can support multiple and conflicting meanings in its own language and culture. When translated, these meanings proliferate with a transformative difference.

Calders’s Catalan text is cast mostly in the standard dialect, although when the narrator tells his wife about his encounter with the so-called Japanese man the language becomes more colloquial, even slangy. Adhering to the Catalan can suggest this shift, but it also raises the register of the English. The opening sentence, for instance, admits of various translations. Here are two possibilities.

vaig conèixer un japonès desconcertant, que no s’assemblava en cap aspecte a la idea que jo tenia formada d’aquesta mena d’orientals. I met a disconcerting Japanese man who bore not the slightest resemblance to the idea that I had formed of this group of Orientals. I met a disturbing Japanese man who didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the idea I’d formed of the Japanese. In the first version, the rise in register creates a stuffy tone that can easily appear condescending. With the use of the word “Orientals,” the condescension might seem laced with racism. Yet I wanted my reader to make an effort to understand the narrator, not to dismiss or excoriate him. In my view, he is a Catalan everyman, circa 1978, acutely aware of his own ethnicity, which was suppressed under Franco, but lacking the sort of cosmopolitanism that can avoid or question ethnic stereotypes, in this case of the Japanese. A conversational tone best communicates this idea of the narrator, along with an informal lexicon that reverts to colloquialisms when he must defend himself to his wife. This strategy set the linguistic parameters within which I wrote the translation.

See more at: Subtle Invasion