Javier Marias on Translations

Javier Marias on Translations

I’ve fallen utterly and deeply in love with the books of Javier Marias, a Spanish writer and translator you may have heard of (if not, go to the library or order his novels or short stories right now!). I recommend: A Heart So White, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, Dark Back of Time, Your Face Tomorrow, and When I was mortal. I admire his style: long, complex, nicely flowing sentences, which never bore you or leave you puzzled, but I’m thinking he can’t be easy to translate.

I’ve recently found this beautiful interview with him, from which I’ll only quote a few lines, regarding his own translation work and its influence on his literary style.

THE WHITE REVIEW — How has your work as a translator influenced your own work?

JAVIER MARÍAS — What I can say is: yes, probably, if you are a translator and a writer as well and you do translate very good things – and almost everything I translated was excellent, from Browne to Sterne to Conrad to Thomas Hardy, poetry by Faulkner and Nabokov and Stevens and Auden and Ashbery and Stevenson, prose by Yeats, and Tennyson, great authors – you are heavily influenced, whether you like it or not, by what you translate. You learn a lot and you spend a lot of time with the work. What is most important of it all, and it has been said many times, is that a translator is a privileged reader, but also a privileged writer. What you do is re-write in a completely different language something that was written by a great writer. The wording is yours – of course you try to be faithful – but you have to choose, always.

When I was teaching theory of translation at Oxford, in the US, and in Madrid, I said to my students: ‘Everyone thinks they know how to translate “I love you” in English. You know, people have it on their shirts and all that. But there are about seven or eight different possible translations of that into Spanish.’ The most common words, the words common to everyone, are different in different languages. For instance, muerte, death, can’t be the same for a German, because in German death is masculine, whereas in French or Spanish or Italian, death is feminine. Of course they are represented: in German paintings and etchings, death is a man, and she is an old woman in southern Europe. Even the most common thing of all – death being the most common thing, besides life – you have to translate literally, bearing in mind that it’s not the same thing. You have to choose – you have to rewrite.

Borges said that translation was a very modest miracle, but one of the greatest on earth. That the text, having lost everything that made it possible – that is, the original language – could still be the same. You can say, yes, this is the same, having lost the rhythm, the pace, the alliteration – if it’s poetry, the rhyme, the meter, everything – but it’s still the same thing. It’s quite miraculous. If you do that acceptably in your own language of course you’re influenced by that work. I learned a lot from the authors I translated, that’s evident in my works. The big influence of Sterne, in the treatment of time in the novel, or Sir Thomas Browne – some of them did have an influence of which I’m aware.

You can read the entire interview (which is very interesting) in the The White Review.

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