June 25, 2012

Exercises in translation, the Spanish edition


A parade participant in Spain imagines what it's like translating Albee

We saw last week week that writers (Ed Albee, we’re looking at you) have exacting standards when it comes to translation. Granted, you earn a bit of clout when you’re one of the best working playwrights, but still, the burden placed on translator Joan Sellent must have been heavy when Albee’s agent sent instructions stating “any deviation from the exact English words and the explanation why this couldn’t be directly translated into Spanish, and why the words that were chosen were used” must be explained. Talk about restrictions!

I’m no translator, and so can only comment on this from the outside looking in, but translation to me seems like a kind of dance, a partnership that works best when one individual compliments an other’s strongest attributes. Certainly Albee is not doing his translator much good if, instead of letting him feel the music, he insists on the translator following his lead, and only his lead.

Here at Melville House, we recently received from the printer some early copies of Off Side, by Manuel Vazquez Montalban, which is the fourth title in the Pepe Carvalho series. Translated by Ed Emery, Off Side is a gripping mystery about the reckless excesses — and limits — of power. Here, Montalban does for the game of soccer what he has done in the past for food. It’s an exquisite portrait of Spain’s most beloved sport, and shows what happens when sports and politics collide.

The opening paragraph displays Montalban’s distinctive voice and Emery’s elegant translation:

The room still smelt of medicine, or whatever it was, she thought irritatedly, and her nose became a kind of mobile proboscis as she tried to identify the source of the offending aroma. I don’t like my house smelling like that. A decent house doesn’t smell like that. She made the bed and flicked through the sports magazines that were lying round the room. The pockets of her lodger’s suits offered no enlightenment. Nor did his underwear, where it lay tidily arranged in the chest of drawers. The flashing of the neon sign of her boarding house threw into chiaroscuro the torment which was evident on Dona Concha’s face. The light found her irritated and perplexed, while the dark sank into her deep suspicion. He’s probably on drugs. That’s all we need. There’s enough shit in this barrio already. But he hadn’t looked like the drugs type. In fact she’d already taken him for a clean-living sort of person, because he seemed to have his feet on the ground, always kept himself clean and tidy, and was always polite to her.

When translation works well, it is a beautiful achievement. As readers, we get to sit back and enjoy the magic without being exposed to the complications and struggles of turning one language into another.

Those struggles, which anyone who has ever travelled to a foreign-speaking location can attest, are frequently frustrating and occasionally amusing, and they remind me of a story a friend emailed not too long ago.

This friend, man by the name of Charlie Geer, teaches English in a small village in Spain, Puente Genil. Since he moved there, he’s been sending funny dispatches about his experiences, the language challenges he encounters on a daily basis, and a kind of overall sketch of what it’s like living and working in a country where English is not the native language.

Here’s one he calls “Another Existential Crises.”


In Spain when people answer the phone they usually say Diga?, which means Speak? If you say Hola? when you answer the phone, you will throw things off completely. If you say Diga?, the caller will then properly identify himself. To properly identify himself, a Spaniard named Pedro will say, Soy Pedro, which means I am Pete. So that most telephone conversations, translated, begin like this:

Ring ring.


“I am Pete. Hello.”

This I am Pete routine takes some getting used to. To an American, I am Pete can sound curious, like Pete is A) a talking toy whose next sentence will be something along the lines of “My favorite color is blue”; B) a man with identity issues practicing his prescribed affirmations; or C) simply a nutjob. But before we get to feeling all high and mighty, we might consider what we normally do in the States, which is to identify ourselves with an It’s Pete. If you do this in Spain (Es Pedro), you will throw things off completely—and rightly so. For Pete to say It is Pete just doesn’t make much sense. When Pete says It is Pete, he is referring to himself not only as an inanimate object, an it, but as an entity separate from himself. When Pete says It is Pete, he is referring to himself in the third person. Now who’s having an existential crisis?

Ring ring.


“Hey. It’s Pete.”

? ? ?

“Hello? Anybody there? It’s Pete.”

“What is?”

“Huh? What’s what?”

What is Pete?”

“Do who? It’s Pete. This is Pete.”

“This? What this? What is Pete?”

“Pete is a person. Calling you on the phone. Pete is me. I’m Pete.”

“You? You are Pete?”

“I am Pete.”

“Pete! Why didn’t you say so? What’s happening, bud? Have you been drinking?”

It’s not hard to imagine the who’s-on-first havoc we might wreak if we were to use the American It’s me identifier in Spain. (What is you?, etc.) In Spain a familiar will not say Es yo (It’s me) to identify himself. He will say Soy yo, which means I am me. Though I am me states the obvious, and sounds like the title of an especially awful self-help book, it is perfectly clear, and absolutely true, and may help explain why Spaniards are not especially prone to identity crises.


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.