A great honour

June 15, 2014

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I had a nice surprise this weekend. There was a very familiar name on the list of people receiving Queen’s Birthday Honours (the titles awarded every year by Elizabeth II to mark her official birthday). The person in question was celebrated Portuguese- and Spanish-literature translator, Margaret Jull Costa, who has been given an OBE for services to literature.

I first came across Jull Costa’s work back in the initial week of my year of reading the world when a colleague at the newspaper I was working at lent me her translation of Eça de Queiroz’s The Mandarin and Other Stories to read as my choice from her home country, Portugal.

A few months later, I encountered Jull Costa again when I read Luís Cardoso’s powerful memoir The Crossing, one of the few books available in English translation by a writer from East Timor.

On both occasions, I was struck by the clarity and beauty of the writing and, as my appreciation for the extraordinary skill that translation requires grew throughout the project, I began to realise how deserved the many accolades Jull Costa has received over the course of her career are. But it wasn’t until September of that year that I witnessed her dedication to literature first-hand.

That month, having tried and failed to find any stories in translation from the small African nation of Sao Tome & Principe, I decided to appeal to the kindness of strangers and see whether Portuguese speakers might come to my rescue to translate a short story collection especially for me. As happened so many times during my quest, the world’s literature lovers overwhelmed me with their generosity and before a week had gone by, I had more offers of help than I was able to accept.

In amongst the welter of messages, however, there was one particularly exciting email. It was a message from Margaret Jull Costa, who had heard about the venture from a student on a summer school she had taught at, and wanted to offer her assistance.

I couldn’t believe it. This was Margaret Jull Costa. The Margaret Jull Costa – translator of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, and Javier Marías and a shelf-ful of other revered writers. And she wanted to do a translation for me? As I said at the time to a friend, I felt as though I had asked to borrow a bike and been lent a Ferrari.

True to her word, along with eight other volunteers, Jull Costa translated the stories I selected and sent them back, enabling me to read Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor in its entirety. Without her work, both published and unpublished, I would not have been able to read the world as I did. Hearty congratulations to her on this latest achievement in a glittering and immensely valuable career.

Picture by marcus_jb1973

12 Responses to “A great honour”

  1. leftoverpeas said

    ‘…asked to borrow a bike and lent a Ferrari’ :-)

  2. That is so brilliant – that a translator should get an OBE and that this is clearly a person who is so passionate about building bridges between cultures.

  3. congrats on your ferrari

  4. islamcketta109108918 said

    That’s wonderful news! I think she translates Antonio Lobo Antunes too (which is no mean feat).

  5. Hello – I found your website looking for good literature from China. I have started an armchair traveler club where we travel through books, movies, music, and food. Thanks for the book recommendations from your list and I have enjoyed reading about your adventure!
    I wanted to recommend a Jamaican book –

    The Night Women by Marlon James

    This is a novel that reminds me why I love novels – it burns in your guts as you read – the characters and plot grab you so you can’t put it down, and at the end you walk around a bit dazed and confused as you adjust to being back in your own reality.

    What sort of standards must literary recommedations fit in order to make it on to your list?

    Ruth

    • Thanks – funnily enough the book I read for Jamaica was another Marlon James, John Crow’s Devil (you can check out the choices for each country by clicking on the country names on the List). He’s clearly a popular writer. The books on the List are all recommendations from readers all over the world. My main criteria are that they are disinterested recommendations (ie, not books suggested by authors themselves) and that they are by writers from (or with extremely close ties to) the country in question.

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