A translation joust

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One of the most popular suggestions during my year of reading the world was that I should read Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote for Spain. Although I didn’t choose it for the project (I felt tackling Ulysses for Ireland was challenge enough given the average pace I had to maintain of reading one book every 1.87 days), I did tuck into the 1,000-page classic the following year, while on holiday in Priorat – near some of the regions through which the would-be knight-errant passes on his adventures.

I read Edith Grossman’s translation and very much enjoyed the book, finding the descriptions surprisingly fresh and vivid. Still, full of derring-do though the narrative is, I never imagined it would lead me to witness a real-life battle. Until yesterday.

Last night, in a packed room at the British Library’s Conference Centre, award-winning translators Margaret Jull Costa (who generously volunteered to help translate a book from São Tomé and Principe for me during my quest) and Peter Bush met for a ‘translation joust’, the latest in a series of such duels that various translators have staged in recent years. The pair had produced rival English versions of the famous windmill scene from Cervantes’ masterpiece and, with the prompting of chair and fellow translator Daniel Hahn, set out to defend their choices.

The results were fascinating. Going line by line – and sometimes comma by comma – the wordsmiths challenged one another’s decisions, revealing some powerful insights into their working methods as they did so.

As a comparison of the opening lines of the translations shows, the two versions were strikingly different:

Just then, they spotted thirty or forty windmills on that same plain, and the moment Don Quijote saw them, he said to his squire: ‘Fortune is directing our affairs far better than we could have wished, because look, friend Sancho, there before us stand thirty or more fearsome giants, with whom I intend to do battle and to slay each and every one of them.

And with their spoils we will begin to grow rich, for this is a just war and we are doing God a great service in removing such a plague from the face of the Earth. MJC

With that they spotted thirty or forty windmills in the nearby field and Don Quixote immediately said to his squire: “Sancho, my friend, Lady Luck has sorted things better than we could have ever hoped.

Just take a look at those thirty or so humungous giants I shall attack and obliterate in a moment and the ensuing spoils will be the start of good times for us, because mine is a just war, and I’m doing God a great service by wiping such an evil horde off the face of this earth.” PB

What emerged from the discussion was that, while Jull Costa had endeavoured to get as close to Cervantes’ original as modern English would allow and wanted to preserve Don Quixote’s high-flown way of speaking, Bush had set out to create a version that would be different from all previous translations. In part as a reaction against what has gone before, his Don Quixote is not above slang and colloquialisms.

It was, as one audience member observed, as though Jull Costa had built the sense of the absurd inherent in the original, whereas Bush had reflected the novel’s humour by taking a more directly comic approach. This sort of distinct character to a text, Jull Costa said, was essential for a translation to live.

An interesting insight into the process came when the pair considered how they had arrived at rather different descriptions for the location of the windmill-giants – Jull Costa has them ‘on that same plain’, whereas Bush situates them ‘in the nearby field’. It transpired that, rather than seeking a literal translation of the Spanish ‘en aquel campo’, each had pictured what they read the original to mean and then found a way to render the image in English.

The questions did not only come from the chair. At several points, audience members pitched in with sometimes rather passionate objections or challenges. The word ‘desaforados’ proved particularly controversial. Although both translators had focused on its connotations of scale – rendering it as ‘fearsome’ (MJC) and ‘humungous’ (PB) – one native Spanish speaker felt that it would have been more appropriate to translate it as ‘rampaging’.

‘I don’t know what it means in any dictionary. I tell you what it means to me!’ she said.

For me, as a writer, it was also fascinating to hear the translators talk about their approach to creating a finished written piece. Peter Bush revealed that he had produced 10-12 drafts of his extract, while Margaret Jull Costa said that for a joust like this she would normally do nine or 10. These would include a careful first draft, a second draft read against the original, a period of leaving the text, and a session of reading the translation out loud to catch any repetitions and clunky rhythms.

Though not everyone in the room may have agreed on the interpretation of ‘desaforados’, there can be no doubt that our enjoyment of the evening was unanimous. With last week’s good news that translations made up five per cent of printed fiction sales in the UK in 2015 (a 96 per cent rise in volume on the figures from 2001), let’s hope we will see many more such events.

Picture by Oren neu dag (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons