Translation Notes · 09/26/2013

The Swimmers

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book of fiction into English. In this installment, Lucas Lyndes writes about translating The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre (Frisch & Co.).


The kinds of books that most interest me in my role as translator are the ones written in a type of Spanish that doesn’t sound like English. This isn’t as oxymoronic as it seems: given the pervasive influence of the last fifty years of English-language literature on writers around the world, the sort of prose I’m talking about isn’t as common as you might assume. Being the cofounder of Ox & Pigeon, a digital publisher of translations, has been a major plus in this respect, allowing me to choose authors specifically suited to my tastes. But when E.J. Van Lanen of Frisch & Co. contacted me about translating Spanish poet and novelist Joaquín Pérez Azaústre’s The Swimmers, I was given the privilege and challenge of tackling a novel full of beautiful, highly personal, and distinctly un-English-sounding prose — a work I might not otherwise have had the pleasure of even reading because of my focus on Latin America.

As I say, Joaquín’s writing is highly personal and seems to me very influenced by his work as a poet (he recently won the Gil de Biedma Prize for what he refers to as a (punctuation-free) “poem-river”). In The Swimmers there are many instances where he pairs certain concepts, especially in descriptive passages, that might not seem to make perfect sense at first, but which are intended to break beyond typical narrative constraints and give readers an intuitive sense of the abstract ideas he’s trying to convey. In my conversations with him, he said that he often “stretched” meanings (especially of adjectives) in order to get at some poetic impression which he felt could be better captured that way. My job, in such cases, was to translate these ideas into English in a way that seemed purposeful and thought-provoking, and not like I had failed to consult a dictionary. I’ve often thought (and heard other translators complain to similar effect) that if a translator ever turned in a manuscript that read like Faulkner, it would be seen as “unidiomatic” and those “kinks” would be edited out in short order. It’s a daunting but often necessary task to translate creatively, and one of the things that helps legitimize unidiomatic language is consistency of use throughout any given work. Luckily for me, Joaquín is quite a meticulous writer: every detail in the novel, from diction and syntax to structure, is there for a reason, and this helps the unusual language blend more seamlessly into its surroundings.

While such meticulous writing made some things easier, it also presented its own set of challenges. The novel’s protagonist, Jonás, goes to the pool almost every day, where he swims 2,500 meters. The book is broken up into 50 chapters, representing laps in the pool; as I learned during the translation process, an Olympic-size pool is 50 meters long, so essentially the book (50 laps x 50 m) is the equivalent of one swimming session. I read the prose, and especially the rhythm, as an imitation of the act of swimming. Most chapters start off a bit slow, with short(er), sharp(er) sentences, like diving in or kicking off from the wall, and then the sentences start flowing into one another, like strokes and kicks. This became the greatest challenge of all, because the sentences in Spanish just got so long and unwieldy, separated only by commas, that I was unsure they’d end up making any sense to a reader of the translation. In the original, these run-on sentences are noticeable and obviously intentional, but they don’t distract or force the reader to go back over things several times to make sense of them. So I tried to strike a similar balance in English. I had to divide sentences in two (or three, on rare occasions) in many places, but I also tried to let them run on as long as I could by playing with punctuation: commas, colons, semicolons, em dashes. There are some colons in the original, but no semicolons or em dashes. I tried to reserve the use of em dashes for long tangents which are essentially separate clauses, but where the narration comes back to the original point afterward. In my opinion, the pause implied by the em dash doesn’t interrupt the flow too much, and more than anything, I felt it was important to maintain the order of the events being narrated, the clauses, etc., because all of that is so closely tied in to the rhythm of the narration/swimming.

As I worked on the translation and revision of the novel, I tried to focus my personal reading time on some of the more notable stylists of the English language. The most helpful of these to me was Faulkner, specifically Light in August. Obviously, the risk inherent to this time-tested technique is that the tone might subconsciously filter into the translation, but The Swimmers is so different from Faulkner that this wasn’t much of a problem. I do think that Faulkner’s syntax in particular provided some useful approaches to the long, complex sentences, encouraging me at times to switch up the word order a bit (especially when it came to adjectives and adverbs) for rhythmic effect, and to preserve the original sentence structure. In the end, I felt it was possible to use these tricks consistently enough to make them work without sounding unidiomatic, instead reflecting the personal qualities of Joaquín’s prose.

During his 2,500-meter swims, Jonás reaches a sort of “higher consciousness” as he progresses, blocking out the world and withdrawing into himself by the time he’s finished. In keeping with the novel-as-swim-session, this arc is repeated in the plot of the novel, though not always in overly obvious ways. Joaquín does an incredible job of playing with the passage of time, depicting the rush of Jonás’s thoughts and his “inner life” at points while very little is happening outwardly. These aspects were easier to capture, more or less falling into place as a result of my approach to rhythm and sentence-level detail outlined above.

There were also a few “domestication” issues that had to be taken into account for English speakers. Normally, I think most contemporary translators will opt to leave names as they are, and I certainly don’t see any harm in reminding readers that the story was not originally written in English. However, I did have to change the names of a couple characters: two brothers named Mario and Sila, who became Marius and Sulla in order to maintain the reference to the Roman generals they were named after. In the case of Jonás, I didn’t feel that leaving the diacritical mark would create any doubts as to the allusion being made there. One trickier example was that of a fellow swimmer who Jonás and his friend call the “Hombre-Pez,” or “Fish-Man.” This literal translation grated on my ear, not to mention the fact it’s also a last name in English. A friend suggested “Frogman,” but Joaquín pointed out the association of this term with military divers. The symbolism also suffers a bit in the transition. After discussing several possibilities, we finally settled on “Aquaman” as the closest and least-problematic substitution in English.

For all its meticulousness, The Swimmers incorporates many elements that leave it wide open to interpretation, something that seems to me an admirable feat. It’s a book that benefited greatly from the repeated in-depth readings necessary to translate it, yielding vital new details with each pass — things I certainly didn’t get my first time through. With The Swimmers, Joaquín Pérez Azaústre offers us a highly ambitious work with a particular vision, and, most welcome of all, a new voice truly worth listening to.


Lucas Lyndes is one of the founders and editors of Ox and Pigeon, a digital publisher of literature in translation.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre (Córdoba, 1976) has published several poetry collections, a collection of short stories, and several novels, including La suite Manolete, for which he was awarded IX Premio Fundación Unicaja Fernando Quiñones in 2007. A journalist and columnist, he has also been awarded the Premio Adonáis de Poesía, the Premio Loewe and the Premio Loewe a la Creación Joven, among others.