Things I’m learning while trying to translate Horacio Quiroga.

I have two more Horacio Quiroga translations up on the Ephemera blog:

That’s four stories so far, and I hope to put up more as time allows.

Girl with a Book - Jose Ferraz de Almeida Jr.
Girl with A Book, Jose Ferraz de Almeida Junior (1850). Source: WikiArt

Though my translations are amateur attempts, I’m really enjoying the challenge. Other than The Feather Pillow, these are the first literary stories that I’ve attempted without a previous translation to reference. I’ve translated other things without reference, like this and this, but in those cases I was concerned mostly with meaning. With a literary work, one wants to convey not just meaning, but something of the work’s voice and tone.

When I translated Family of a Vourdalak and The King’s Son-in-Law, I had read the stories before in English. This really helped with the 19th century idiom (and vocabulary), which aren’t always so easy to figure out via online translators or dictionaries. It also gave me additional hints about how the piece should sound. Obviously, some of what
I read is the translator’s voice and tone, but they’re professional literary translators. I trust that they’ve conveyed as much of the author’s intended voice and tone as is possible. With most of the Quiroga pieces that I’ve attempted, I’m on my own.

And, of course, one wants the final piece to read well in English. This requirement can feel at odds with the previous one.

Translation is a beautiful and tragic act of ongoing compromise.

— Stant Litore
Woman with a book 1923 -- Fernand Leger
Woman with a Book, Fernand Leger (1923). Source: WikiArt

For example, I couldn’t help noticing how long and convoluted some of Quiroga’s sentences seem. Do I keep that, or do I render it less awkwardly?

Part of it, I think, is simply that Spanish isn’t as rigid about word or clause order as English is. Usually I take “odd” orderings of words or clauses as just something Spanish can do that English can’t (at least not gracefully), and I automatically “english” it as I read and re-render. With Quiroga, some of the sentences were convoluted enough to confuse or provoke me, convoluted enough that I felt more like it was Quiroga’s style rather than just the differences between customary Spanish and English syntax. I wanted to preserve that: when a paragraph consisted of a single sentence with multiple strangely ordered subordinate clauses, I tried to keep it that way. But sometimes it read so awkwardly I felt I had to try and smooth it out.

In these translations I have not attempted to improve upon Quiroga….I have tried to stay close to his Spanish…. In the process, I have no doubt stretched the capacities of English a bit…in the conviction that a translation should not conceal its origin, not read as though written directly in the receptor language, but rather exploit the rich possibilities of the bilingual encounter, while respecting the norms of that second language.

— J. David Danielson

Other professional translators (most, perhaps?) believe that the reading experience should be seamless in the second language; that a translation into English shouldn’t wear its non-Anglophone origins on its sleeve. Certainly, I myself prefer translations that read like fluent and idiomatic English; they distract less from the narrative. But I don’t usually compare a translation with its original, so I’m never aware of all the aspects of the work that the translator has had to set aside or let go of, in the practice of their “beautiful and tragic” vocation. It’s hard to let go of all those beautiful details. Amateur translators tend to err on the side of transliteration, and I’m sure I have, too.

Few activities are as fruitful for a writer as translation. Translation allows access to the most hidden corners of a work, opening it up and then seeing how it takes shape before our eyes.

— Sergio Pitol
The Book (1913) -- Juan Gris
The Book, Juan Gris (1913). Source: WikiArt

After the narrator of “El perro rabioso” gets bitten, he says Yo creía muy restrictivamente en la rabia del animal. That transliterates to something like I believed very restrictedly in the rabidity of the animal. I like that. I like the idea that it expresses. But I couldn’t quite get it to render gracefully in English, and go with the rest of the paragraph (the best I could come up with was: I believed the animal was rabid only in a very limited way, which isn’t quite the same, and, in my opinion, didn’t flow well with the rest of the paragraph). So I gave up and went with I didn’t really believe the animal was rabid, which conveys the same general sense, and flowed into the rest of the paragraph more naturally. But it still isn’t the same.

Here’s another one, from “El solitario.” This is Maria, screaming at her husband Kassim (emphasis mine):

¡Me has robado mi vida, ladrón, ladrón! Y creías que no me iba a desquitar… cornudo! ¡Ajá! Mírame… no se te había ocurrido nunca, ¿eh?

Cornudo in this context means cuckold. It literally means horned, as a man having horns is a metaphor for the man having been cheated on by his wife. This was true in English, too, at least around Shakespeare’s time, but I’m not sure it is anymore. Horny means something completely different in American English. Anyway, how to translate cornudo? I could just use cuckold, but I have a hard time imagining someone just screaming that in the middle of a fight. Especially not a relatively uneducated “child of the streets,” like Maria is supposed to be. There is no everyday English epithet for cuckold. The closest, maybe, is fool, but that’s too general. In the end, I went with:

You have stolen my life, you thief…thief! And you thought I wouldn’t get even… fool! There’s someone else! Aha! Look at me… it never occurred to you, eh?

That works locally, but still doesn’t feel quite right in the overall story: what Maria screamed (¡cornudo!) was either an impulsive lie, or something that slipped out in the heat of the moment. Fool, there’s someone else! or Fool, I’m sleeping around! doesn’t have that same impulsive, it just-came-out quality to it. But it’s the best I could think of.

Sometimes in translation you cannot always have an absolute equivalent, but you can add something with which you compensate for what you miss.

— Javier Marías

Actually, now that I’m thinking about it more, I realize I could have done something like this:

You’ve stolen my life, you thief…thief! And you thought I wouldn’t get even… you thought I wouldn’t find someone else! Aha! Look at me… it never occurred to you, eh?

Yes, that’s much better. I’ve just gone back and changed it, now. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of it before. But that’s the point of this exercise, isn’t it? To attempt and to learn, and to get better at it.

…translation is one of the best possible exercises for a writer. If you know two languages and you can translate, I think that’s the best way to learn how to write….if you can renounce your own style, if you have one, and adopt someone else’s…and if you can rewrite that in your own language in an acceptable way, let alone if it is in a very good way, you are sharpening your instruments, and your writing will improve tremendously.

— Javier Marías

The Stant Litore quote is from Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible, Stant Litore. Westmarch Publishing, 2019. I’m using the quote in a different context from Litore, and about a different aspect of translation, but the sentiment is the same. And I love the quote.

The J. David Danielson quote is from the introduction to The Exiles and Other Stories, Horacio Quiroga, selected and translated by J. David Danielson with Elsa K. Gambarini. University of Texas Press, 1987. No, I haven’t read it yet, but I’m sure I will.

The Sergio Pitol and Javier Marías quotes are from A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction, Valerie Miles (Editor), various translators. Open Letter Press, 2014. Highly recommended!!

Featured Image: Piles of Books, Hercules Seghers (c. 1615 – c.1630). Source: WikiArt

2 thoughts on “Teaching Myself How to Write, by Teaching Myself How to Translate

  1. This was a good read. I have generally thought that translation was just getting the words right. You bring up a good point that the tone / feeling / context is just as important. People use certain words for a purpose and that purpose is just as important in the translation as the words……

  2. Dave! Good to “see” you again (recognize your avatar from Ello).

    Yes, for literary translation, it’s more than just the meaning. It’s trying to convey how the author writes in their original language. Quiroga’s style is fairly convoluted (or it seems that way to me) — so it seems best to try to convey that, while still sounding like grammatical English.

    For things like translating folktales, I worry about it less, because part of telling a folktale is giving it your own storytelling voice, anyway. When I retell folktales I’ve read in English, I have no problem with changing things around a little, so it’s no different with folktales from Spanish… in my opinion, at least.

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