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From the Translator: Jethro Soutar on Translating José Pérez Reyes’s “In Hock”

By Jethro Soutar

In this installment of our "From the Translator" series, translator Jethro Soutar talks about the process of translating José Pérez Reyes's "In Hock,"  from the January 2011 issue of WWB.

When reading in a foreign language, the translator can’t help but be constantly thinking: “How would I translate that?” It can be a fun game, if you like that sort of thing, but it can be tortuous if you’re reading something you know you will have to translate.

Reading “Pignorar,” by José Pérez Reyes, for the first time was fun and tortuous in equal measure. I didn't know I was going to translate it when I started reading, but halfway through I realized I would like to. It is a lovely piece of writing and a large part of its appeal is its wordplay. The challenge of conveying his linguistic felicity in English appealed to the translator in me. The problem was, I'd thought, “How on earth would I translate that?” a dozen times.

It's an unwritten rule that all opening lines should be troublesome for translators. “Pignorar” begins thus: Me levanto algo cansado. Cansado de algo, por no decir de todo . . . literally, “I wake up somewhat tired. Tired of something, if not everything,” but in Spanish the same word (algo) means “somewhat” and “something.” An equally versatile word simply doesn’t exist in English. When it's impossible to replicate the original in the translation, I aim to at least echo the word sounds. In the end I plumped for the following: “I wake up somewhat tired. Tired somewhat, or of something, if not everything.” It's not as nice as the Spanish but hopefully still gets the reader in a playful mood.

At this point it is worth mentioning that there tend to be two schools of thought when it comes to literary translation. One is to remain as faithful as possible to the source material, the other to freely transform the prose into the new language. In my humble opinion, the first philosophy is that of the linguist, the second that of the writer, and the reason so many translations turn out badly is because they are linguistic translations rather than a writer's interpretation. My approach is to try to reproduce the piece imagining how the author might have written it had he or she been English- speaking, all the while protecting the spirit and cultural character of the piece. Hence I am comfortable straying from the original structure in pursuit of a text that reads as though it was originally written in English.

The next play on words to cause major trouble was the following: Urnas funerarias y urnas de votación, tienen tanto en común . . . In Spanish, urna can mean a box or an urn, or in this case a coffin or a ballot box; tienen tanto en común means they have so much in common. This is the classic translator’s nightmare: a play on words that not only doesn't work in English but advertises itself as a play on words and therefore cannot be ignored. The challenge was to find a word or phrase associated with funerals and with elections. I played around with putting crosses in and above boxes, with funeral urns and voting earns (the sentence refers to selling your vote), but eventually settled on pallbearers and poll booths, because it kept the sound association without sounding too clever or forced.

I was lucky enough to be able to count on the support of the author for this translation. It’s always incredibly useful to be able to ask the author questions and clear up doubts. In Reyes’s case, he provided me with an annotated version of the text, highlighting things he thought I might struggle with. There was also a footnote in the original Spanish text explaining that in Paraguay peajero (which to non-Paraguayan Spanish speakers means toll collector) means hold-up.

De pasajero a peajero sólo hay un paso, says that it's a small step from pasajero (passenger) to peajero (hold-up/toll collector). Again, the wordplay announces itself. The challenge was to think up similar-sounding words to do with taxis and muggings. After failed attempts spanning “from cab fare to fair cop” to “from cabby to stabby,” the “pick-up/stick-up” combination came in a flash of inspiration.

“Stick-up” also sounded suitably transatlantic; the fact that I am British and Words Without Borders is American added another layer of idiomatic challenge. (A final edit was required to iron out my taxi ranks, car boots and “doing a runner.”)

The biggest challenge of all was the title, Pignorar, taken from a passage a third of the way into the piece. It is a Spanish verb I was unfamiliar with, and indeed one unfamiliar to many native Spanish speakers. It's a legal term (Reyes is a trained lawyer) which means to pledge. In Spanish it also suggests ignorar, to ignore or be ignorant of. And it also makes fun of the fact that any Spanish reader familiar with English will know the word pig. Thus it jokes that pignoración (a pledge) might mean the migration of a pig.

So I needed an English word that meant pledge, began with “pig,” had “ignore” in the middle and ended, when turned into a noun, with “ation.” Of course, there isn't one.

In English we say "pig ignorant," so I tried to work something with that, but drew a blank. I tried to reverse the pun and experimented using the Spanish word for pig, cerdo, but to no avail. Alternatives to pledge are pawn, hock, mortgage or give security. The latter could become securitization, but was otherwise useless. Pawn sounds like porn which has vulgar potential and is a bit like pork . . . but already we're stretching things.

“In hock” seemed to offer some hope, if only because ham hock could get us back to the pig theme. I wondered if I could get away with “ecinhockic migration” as a variation on economic migration, followed by “the migration of a piece of ham.” But the beauty of pignorar-pignoración—the migration of a pig, was its simplicity; coming up with complicated wordplays was missing the point.

Yet there was room to be playful. Indeed the narrator himself says: “I play with the words in my head.” I found that whenever I read “in hock,” the term “ad hoc” always came to mind. If you do something ad hoc, you do it off the cuff, which suggests ignoring the future, or at least not giving it proper consideration. In hock, ad hoc, ham hock: a chain of thought could easily run like that.

This left the problem of pig migration. It was impossible to use hoc or hock to make a word that sounded like migration, so I gave myself room to breathe. In the end, “flying pig migration” seemed the obvious choice, suitably absurd while also contributing, via the English idiom “pigs might fly,” to the idea of ignoring reality.

Reyes is a great writer and one of the reasons he’s a great writer is the craft of his wordplay. Pignorar is a great short story and translating it was great fun and a challenge I enjoyed immensely. No translation is ever perfect and I can only hope my version managed to convey some of Reyes’s skills as a wordsmith while producing a fluid and engaging read.

Published Jan 17, 2011   Copyright 2011 Jethro Soutar

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