Jacqueline Buswell outlines some of the conundrums in translating a highly political speech

Jacqueline Buswell outlines some of the conundrums in translating a highly political speech




On translating Juan Goytisolo’s speech accepting the Cervantes award

imageJuan Goytisolo’s speech in acceptance of the 2014 Cervantes award, the highest literary award in the Spanish language, was described by the newspaper El País as one of the shortest and most political speeches given in acceptance of the prize. It promised to be that right from its title: A la llana y sin rodeos (To the point, no detours).

Having left Spain during the Spanish civil war, Juan Goytisolo has lived mainly in France and Morocco and rejected his native country, though not its language. But he said in the speech in April this year that he is happy to accept and indeed embrace what Carlos Fuentes called the “Cervantine identity”. And when Juan Goytisolo thinks of Cervantes, he thinks not just of a great writer, but of a common man who had a hard life. This is from my translation:

Instead of insisting on digging out Cervantes’ poor old bones and even perhaps selling them to tourists as holy relics – probably manufactured in China – wouldn’t it be better to bring to light some of those dark episodes in his life after his laborious rescue from Algiers? How many readers of Quixote know about the financial difficulties and misery he suffered? About the denial of his application to migrate to America, his failed business enterprises, his time in a debtor´s prison in Seville? About his penurious lodgings in the disreputable slums of Rastro de Valladolid with his wife, daughter, sister and niece in 1605? This was the year when he wrote the first part of his novel, living on the most promiscuous, lowest margins of society.

Goytisolo imagines a modern-day Quixote tilting at windmills seen in the high fences built to keep African migrants out of Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish territories in Africa. Such sympathy for fence jumpers “whose only crime is their instinct for life and desire for freedom” seems so far from our current national discourse that the translator wondered how to convey it for her imaginary readers in Australia.

In fact, I had no readers. I was translating this for fun, I knew the speech would have been translated into many languages already, and probably into English by the translator of many of his books, Peter Bush, as well as by a throng of journalists. Depending on their public, these translators would have had different solutions for questions of context, such as recent news items about the discovery of Miguel de Cervantes’ bodily remains, and the constant attempts by African migrants to scale fences in Ceuta and Melilla.

As you all know, in the language game a single word can cost an hour or a day, and such was the case with presbyter, a word I found in the dictionary though I must confess it meant nothing to me in Spanish or English. Not being sure of what a presbyter was in Spain at the turn of the 20th century, I didn’t want to use “priest” and settled for “pastor”. Only when I was rereading the translation did I realise that one of the surnames of the personage in question was … Pastor. So then I had to do some research about the esteemed church elder and scholar, who certainly was a lot more than a simple priest!

One sentence that I found challenging to translate was this one: La vejez de lo nuevo se reitera a lo largo del tiempo con su ilusión de frescura marchita.

Goytisolo is talking about the agelessness of great works, and about the lack of recognition that an author might suffer in his/her lifetime. The true work of art is in no hurry, he says.

Vejez is old age, but I thought my sentence didn’t work with The old age of the new … or with The age/The antiquity/The oldness of the new. I decided upon The new is old, this is reiterated across time with age’s illusion of withered freshness. And then: The age of the new is reiterated across time with all the freshness of new wrinkles.

This might not be the perfect translation, but one has to scale a few fences, leap across the barriers of literal meaning.

Jacqueline Buswell from the translating and interpreting agency Language Professionals has worked as a writer, editor, translator and interpreter in Australia and Mexico.

First published in In Touch, quarterly publication of the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators (AUSIT), Vol 23, No. 2 – Winter 2015


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