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Na túa boca: On Translating Elvira Riveiro Tobío

By Adrian West

Imagine a Venn diagram: one circle represents the group of people who translate from Spanish. The other stands for those married to speakers of one of Spain’s minority languages. In the center—known as a mandorla or vesica piscis, for the benefit of fancy word lovers like myself—fall the husbands and wives who have been asked, “So when are you going to translate something from Euskera/Galician/Catalan?”

The spouses of Basque people have it easiest. While the actual number of speakers is a matter of highly politicized debate, its use is dwarfed by that of Spanish, even in the stronghold of Guipúzcoa. Even the most radical separatists would likely pardon one’s unwillingness to take up  a pre-Roman language with no living relatives, the torments of which include polypersonal verb agreement, nearly infinite possibilities for declining a single noun (of which, mercifully, only sixty-eight are commonly used, according to a grammar I have at hand), and an ingenious proclivity for compressing virtually all the relevant spatial information in a sentence into a system of postpositions tacked onto the end of a subject.

With Galician I did not stand a chance, particularly as my zealous courtship, conducted in part across the ocean, involved a daily reading of the newspaper Galicia Hoxe (Galicia Today) and all other sorts of random realia discoverable on the net in the hopes of impressing not only my future wife but also her father, whose nationalist sentiment I greatly feared.

My worries were silly, but acquiring a measure of facility with the language was not. Spain cannot be understood without an appreciation of its distinctive nationalities, of the multitude of cultures that were roped together and compelled into an artificial uniformity by the Catholic Monarchs, by Franco, and by a makeshift constitutional democracy whose friability is evident to anyone who has followed the ongoing struggle for Catalan independence. But apart from this, Galicia has its own special charms: a melancholy, nostalgic strain of lyricism much closer to the saudosismo of neighboring Portugal than to the main currents of Spanish literature proper; an incomparable gastronomic culture, equal parts gourmandise and gluttony; and a cornucopia of popular wisdom contained in native proverbs and folktales.

My early trips to Galicia and my growing acquaintance with its language took place alongside my transition from amateur to professional translator. During that time, I’d harbored a plan of taking a kind of sabbatical year to devote to my own pet projects, a translation from Galician among them, but paying work pushed such things aside; and virtually no one who earns a living from translating can afford the luxury of saying no when proper job offers come through.

I was, however, asked to contribute to the Words Without Borders Queer issue in June of 2014. I had appeared in it the year before as well, with an excerpt from Josef Winkler’s novel The Graveyard of Bitter Oranges; this time I wanted to do something different. I hoped to do something Spanish, but was coming up empty: the writers already had translators, or their work didn’t inspire me, or (as is sadly common, particularly in Europe) their agent or publisher would not respond to my query. It was only by chance, when my wife was talking to her father about my dilemma on the phone, that I was informed of Elvira Riveiro Tobío and her work.   

For numerous reasons, I am somewhat indifferent to so-called identity politics. Nonetheless, no open-eyed observer can fail to note that the LGBT acronym tends to shed the L, B, and T when queer issues migrate from the political field into the cultural, and especially the literary. Many people well-acquainted with Judith Butler or Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would be hard-pressed to name a single lesbian novel besides, perhaps, Stone Butch Blues (this applies to me as well). Translating Elvira’s work seemed a small way to address this imbalance, at least as regards my own lacunae.

Beyond that, poetry is a pleasure to translate. Like almost everyone, I read more fiction, but all the mundanity of fiction that gets overlooked when reading—the “grinding noises,” Sebald calls them, the mechanical arrangement of parts of speech for the mere purpose of moving a story forward—are a torment when the translator looks up and sees there are five-hundred more pages to go. Poetry, like dominoes, requires the right measure of luck and skill, yielding both measured satisfaction in a well-rendered line, and the quick bliss of the fortuitous, when the right word simply falls in one’s lap.

The haiku is thought to be one of the strictest poetic forms, but for the translator this is somewhat immaterial. For me, the ideal is a chimera: the same poem, but in English, and whatever deviates from that is a relative failure. Judging by that standard, the requirement that my words match a 5-7-5 syllable count was fairly painless (though I have since read that English syllables are longer than Japanese ones and that an English haiku should ideally have fewer syllables).

The major challenge in respecting meter while translating from Romance languages to English is the difference between what linguists call the “average information density,” or the ratio of units of meaning to units of sound. English is around 30% denser than Galician, which means that the natural mode of expressing a basic sentence will tend to be around 30% shorter in syllabic terms:

A miña mulher é galega (9 syllables)

My wife is Galician (6 syllables)    

The traditional solution has been to add some stuffing. Thus Quevedo’s “Medulas que han gloriosamente ardido” (marrows that have gloriously burned) becomes, in John A. Crow’s translation, “Bones nobly burned to mock the heart’s endeavor.” Used sparingly, the practice may be a harmless embellishment; but it is a bad habit, and often the end product is so smudged with the translator’s fingerprints that the poet’s particular nature is obscured.

I do not have a universal solution for this difficulty; like so much in translation, it is based on instinct. To use an example:


pra comer cos dedos

sempre estou lista.

“Maleducado/a” in everyday speech means impolite. Translated thus, I would be missing three syllables. But the idea of the word is that of a person improperly raised, ill-bred. Yet ill-bred in English, while an adequate term, may not necessarily suggest a person of bad behavior; how often, in period dramas, does the mother of a noble girl entranced with a commoner complain of the latter being ill-bred? By parsing the word in question, I arrived at “Ill-mannered, ill-bred” as a suitable first line, both more precise than a single term would have been and free from adventitious fluff.

Ill-mannered, ill-bred:
I am ever inclined to
Eat with my fingers.

(Incidentally, the Galician original of this poem strays from the 5-7-5 format; I preserved it here because, the selection being a short one, I thought it better to emphasize the general formal unity of the pieces than to give the impression that they varied in line-length more than they do through the course of the book.)

Beyond these formal difficulties, the challenges of translating poetry are similar to those of writing it: of finding the best word rather that the word closest to hand, the image that startles rather than bores, and a distribution of both that will hold the tension throughout the line. And then there is luck, both for the poet and the translator: one of the most charming haikus in the collection would have been impossible had antropofaxia not had five syllables in Galician. And a translator could not have respected the poem’s sudden shift of register, had the same word not existed with the same number of syllables in English.

In private, I am stern, perhaps ornery, in my literary tastes, and would often rather reread Bernhard or Shklovsky than bother with something new. But I realize my cantankerousness needs checks and balances. And while many of the translators I admire have spent decades perfecting a single author’s style (John E. Woods, with his work on Arno Schmidt, is a paragon of this type), I appreciate the departures from my private sensibility that translation imposes on me. Were there not a demand for queer literature, I would never have translated a series of erotic lesbian haikus, but I am certainly happier to have done so; and the benefit of straying from one’s customs is likely reason enough to promote minority literatures against those who believe that a single canon is somehow enough.   

Published Jul 28, 2014   Copyright 2014 Adrian West

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