The Comedy of Errors
Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book into English, or to offer perspectives on global literatures from which they translate. In this installment, Sophie Hughes writes about Umami by Laia Jufresa from Oneworld Publications.
In translation, there are mistakes and then there are mistakes.
Last year, I translated a short story by Laia Jufresa for an anthology and misread plumón (marker pen) for pulmón (lung). I was actually disappointed when my glaring gaffe was spotted and the best piece of fudging I’d ever pulled off…
Outside the water, overseeing the proceedings on the other side of the leg, was the instructor. He was a scrawny man who played the trumpet. By the time I turned up at the pool, the worst hours of his day had come and gone. You could tell because the whiteboard would be covered in diagrams of colorful lungs for the early-bird crew, whose regimes were far more complicated than my ten laps of backstroke, fourteen of crawl.
…was corrected before publication:
Outside the water, overseeing the proceedings on the other side of the leg, was the instructor. He was a scrawny man who played the trumpet. By the time I turned up at the pool, the worst hours of his day had come and gone. You could tell because the whiteboard would be covered in notes he’d made in colorful marker pens for the early-bird crew, whose regimes were far more complicated than my ten laps of backstroke, fourteen of crawl.
But there are subtler, slipperier mistakes to be made. In the Los Angeles Review of Books Multilingual Wordsmiths series, Lydia Davis describes her frustration when coming across sentences she’s translated that read like “translationese.” If you’re unsure what translationese sounds like, try to imagine the reading equivalent of this scenario: One night, as you sleep, someone slips into your bedroom and moves every object in it half an inch to the left. You wake up, it’s all there, supposedly where it’s meant to be, but something’s not right. You can’t put your finger on it: it is your bedroom and it is categorically not your bedroom.
If, as Adam Thirlwell states in the introduction to his 2013 translation project Multiples, “the history of literature is a world history… the history of literature necessarily exists through translations”, then translationese is the archenemy of literature, and the greatest threat to its survival. It is truly a terrifying thought: if translators began to employ a style of language characteristic of translations (just as journalists slipped into journalese, the style of language characteristic of newspapers), literature would be doomed.
A major part of the translation process of a polyphonic novel like Laia Jufresa’s Umami was to avoid translationese: to maintain five different styles of language characteristic to each of its five narrators. It would be an unforgivable mistake to homogenize the voices of, say, a world-weary, grieving retired anthropologist and an insatiably curious five-year-old girl.
It was precisely the voice of this five-year-old girl named Luz that enlightened me (and now I think about it, how appropriate her name is) to a different kind of translation mistake altogether: the intentional repetition of your author’s attempt to show the perspective of child characters who are not wholly in control of their language: or as I call it, “childese.”
While it often sounds wrong, childese, unlike translationese, doesn’t jar; it jolts, in the Bretchian sense of the word (it jolts us as readers out of passivity and gets us to see things in new ways). Unlike translationese, childese is not an anti-language: it is language in the making, language in bloom. In Umami, three of the novel’s five narrators are children or teens, and Laia is a master at laying bare the building blocks of their developing language. Luz is always half-catching the adults’ and her siblings’ conversations, and as such her narrative brims with half-neologisms, half-malapropisms. I discovered the trick to translate Luz the right way was to translate Laia the wrong way.
So, for example, “hermanos”, the non-gender specific plural noun for “siblings” (a word that would unlikely feature in a small child’s vocabulary) became “ziplings” (“brothers and sisters” is a bit wordy). Or, in the case of Luz’s very long sentences where her little mind is going ten to the dozen, rather than cutting them into neater phrases—as often feels like the correct thing to do when translating from Spanish, precisely to avoid translationese—I left them running breathlessly on in dizzyingly digressive clauses.
What I have always liked about child narrators is the way they question the things adults take for granted. Laia employs different techniques to give an “inside-the-head” view of how her characters perceive language. As an author in general, but particularly in Umami, she delights in pronunciation and rhyme play. In the case of young Luz, this often involves homonyms and homophones; a focus on the sound of the words rather than the meaning.
I just learned the word ‘camuflash’. It means no one can see me […] You have to go everywhere in the car here, and everything is camuflashed. For example, Granddad is camuflashed in the lake. Well, his ashes are. And Grandma chats to them when she goes walking along the shore, and she flicks her cigarette ash in the water, to keep him company.”
Most ingeniously, Luz’s naïve interpretation sheds new light on the grief that will come to touch those left behind after her death (no spoiler). Luz’s irreverent response to serious events is developed through her constant misinterpretation of or failure to understand others: it is precisely through this irreverence that Laia achieves pathos (this chimes with what Valeria Luiselli has called Laia’s “wisdom of the oldest of souls and endearing spontaneity of a child”). I can’t say much more about the upshot of Luz’s (or rather Laia’s) purposeful misuse or misunderstanding of language without giving away one of the most quietly powerful plot “reveals” I’ve read in recent years. I will say I am reminded of Arundhati Roy’s child characters in The God of Small Things and their rule- and heart-breaking coinages: for instance, their capitalized proper noun “Love Laws” (“The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.”)
Given this has turned into an apology for certain kinds of translation errors, now is probably the time to make a confession: in my first draft of Luz’s section I repeatedly—and obliviously—, used the incorrect plural noun “carps”. When Oneworld’s editor rightly pulled me up on it, I did the translation equivalent of styling out tripping up on the street: I told him I’d purposefully translated it wrong, to imitate the common children’s mistake. I pointed it out to Laia, and in the end we did the same to the fish, turning them into “fishes” in the plural. The neologisms kids come out with as they muddle their way through the labyrinth of their language are often so ingeniously wrong they create a new kind of right: “Charactress isn’t a word,” the teenage Ana ponders as she reads a book with a female character, “but it should be.”