Translators as Characters in Fiction

Vicente Fernández González


Strong language. Discretion is advised.

"The never-ending translation process that human beings have been inevitably subjected to, from the time they are born until their death―as it was wisely put by Lluís Duch in Mito, interpretación y cultura ("Myth, interpretation, and culture")―is a very eloquent symptom of a 'grammar instability' characteristic of the human condition. If living means speaking and speaking means translating, it is clear that living means translating."

The generalized conjecture of this "grammar instability" in our late contemporary times, so to speak, feeds our unprecedented unrest and interest before its symptom, this "never-ending translation process." Maybe that is why politicians, anthropologists, and artists have been using metaphors about translation more often nowadays...

Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of this trend in recent history is a movie with a very suggestive title: Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003). As for references of translation and movies, and translated movies, we have two other meaningful works in Spanish language: Problemas de doblaje ("Dubbing Issues," 1990), a poetry anthology by Aurora Luque, and Con problemas de doblaje ("Having Issues With Dubbing," 2003), a play by Luis Felipe Blasco Vilches.

Since ancient times, translations have been a thing of legends; translators, in turn, characters in fiction. We have two milestones in that department: Septuagint and Story of Don Quijote de la Mancha written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, a Muslim historian.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra reportedly paid "two arrobas of raisins and two bushels of wheat" for the services of the aljamiado translator, who took "a little over 18 months" to translate it from his own house. Part of the book had been supposedly written in Arabic by Cide the Historian, and the author was lucky enough to resume the narrative where he had left it off in the middle of the Biscayan's adventure by the end of Chapter 8.

Cervantes acknowledged the work of the translator he had hired and paid for the services accordingly―and the fee was not that steep, by the way. However, he later silenced the translator, so to speak. In current terms, we could say that the translator's rights as an author are not recognized, which is not enough reasons to tear off one's clothes, considering the fact that translators now have to jump through hoops to have intellectual property laws enforced to their own benefit. However, according to an analysis by Antonio Martí Alanis, the author did acknowledge his translator's contributions to the final text. Here, the translator's presence played a significant role in the author's literary artifice regarding authorship and the sources of information on which his novel was based.

In contemporary narrative―and I'm restricting myself to Spain only―translators are often actors, even protagonists, in fiction. Their worries are already expressed in the first person.

"As I put full intellectual effort into it, this curious thought suddenly crosses my mind: Why doesn't Thomas de Quincey go fuck himself? Why the fuck should I care about Thomas de Quincey, that motherfucker? It would take me hours to answer myself that question: You should care about the eighty or ninety thousand pesetas that they'll pay you for the translation. For example, this afternoon I've translated these ten lines and haven't even made thirty bucks for it. My back hurts while I'm working, so I get up and stretch my legs. I do everything I can in this cage―everything, but translate."

Those are the words spoken by Ventura, one of the main characters in Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's El pianista ("The Pianist," 1985), when Luisa tells him that whatever he is translating sounds like a "Macbethian mess."

Luisa is also the colleague and wife of the protagonist in Javier MaríasCorazón tan blanco ("A Heart so White," 1992), a novel that has translation inscribed in its very title. If one can say that interpreting and constructing dramatic reality is a crucial element to Shakespeare's tragedy―in terms of fulfilling the oracle's prophecies―this novel by Marías borrows its title from Lady Macbeth's (translated) words, which we may read as a tortuous quest for a plausible interpretation/translation. That precarious, "unstable" nature of interpretations is seen throughout the entire story, going beyond satirical anecdotes from the world of translators and interpreters. 

"I didn't want to know, but I've learned that one of the girls―who was no longer a girl and had recently returned from her honeymoon―had gone into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, taken off her bra, and searched for her heart with the barrel of her father's gun, while he himself was in the dining room with the family and three other guests." 

The entire novel is a quest for understanding (interpreting) that mysterious suicide narrated in the very first paragraph. It was the suicide of the second wife of the translator's newlywed father, and the translator learned about this mystery, even though he didn't want to.

Paying tribute to Stanislaw Lem's A Perfect Vacuum (1971), a mutating Javier Fernández offered a parody of a parody in Hacia una traducción de Gilgamesh de Patrick Hannahan (2007), which embodies the likely tribulations of the make-believe translator of a make-believe book that the author, nonetheless, admires.

"The age-old debate between literality and hermeneutics has fueled a philosophical discussion in particular, concerning translation since the very inception of this difficult and ungrateful activity. To this day, an impossible task continues to be demanded of translators: uniting two irreconcilable extremes just like magic."

In Finalmusik (2007), late translator Justo Navarro creates an affectionate parody of a translator's investigative nature and obsessions, among other features. With his final novel, Justo wrote the story of a man who translates dark detective novels―a trilogy, to be more precise―and ends up being interrogated by the author he is translating.

"How can you translate Gialla Neve literally as Yellow Snow? You should take into account the fact that giallo means 'yellow,' but it is also the color associated in Italian to 'dark' mystery novels!"

"The yellow cover of that first famous detective series from Italy would come back to haunt my work over, almost by accident, seventy years later. Yellow snow is black snow? Black as in 'black series' or 'dark novels'!"

"I believe [writing] is my way of creating a relationship with things and paying attention to them," Justo Navarro once said in an interview to Ideal, a newspaper in Granada. As a translator, you write with words that aren't always your own, but borrowed from someone else. Such is that "grammar instability" characteristic of the human condition―the instability that feeds contemporary fiction.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This text was originally written in Spanish and published by Mercurio (December 2008, pages 16-17), a monthly magazine edited by Fundación José Manuel Lara. The English version of the excerpts you've read here were provided by eWordNews and may be different from previously-published translations.

VICENTE FERNÁNDEZ GONZÁLEZ is a philologist and literary translator of modern Greek. He won Spain's National Translation Award in two separate occasions: in 1992 with Yorgos Seferis' Acrópolis and in 2003 with Zanasis Jadsópulos' Verbos para la rosa. Other Greek authors translated by him include Costas Tsirópulos, Cristos Valavanidis, and Costas Mavrudís, as well as anthologies like Once poetas griegos and Nueve maneras de mirar el cielo. He is also the author of La traducción de la A a la Z and currently teaches Greek Translation at the University of Málaga.