Translation Notes · 10/10/2013

Trafalgar

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book of fiction into English. In this installment, Amalia Gladhart writes about translating Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer (Small Beer Press).

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Empurpled and Bedamasked: Reading through Trafalgar

Like many businessmen — at least a broad-strokes, half-mythical version of “the salesman” — Trafalgar Medrano, title character of Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar (Small Beer Press, 2013), has a lot to say about the people he meets and the places he visits; he’s a little arrogant, a bit of a womanizer, and a keen, sometimes sardonic, observer. And he travels not to the far-flung corners of his native Argentina, but to other planets and parallel worlds.

At home in Rosario, Trafalgar spends a good deal of time in the Burgundy, a bar Gorodischer insists is her own invention, though she met me for coffee in several similar spots — quiet, traditional, good service, room and time to talk. I spent several months in Rosario while I was working on the translation, and I met with Gorodischer regularly. I tested some of my parallel wordplay on her; she clarified local terms and obsolete slang. Like Trafalgar, she tells a fine tale over a cup (or two) of coffee.

Collaboration (where author and translator agree) seems to confer a degree of permission or authorization, but I’m not sure that sense of “authorization” accurately reflects the circumstances of every translation. But translation is always collaborative, and if things go smoothly, collaborating live as well as on the page can certainly add to the fun.

Angélica Gorodischer is the author of numerous novels and story collections, among them Bajo las jubeas en flor (1974), Mala noche y parir hembra (1983), Kalpa Imperial (1983), Doquier (2002), Tumba de jaguares (2005), Tres colores (2008), and Las señoras de la calle Brenner (2012). She began publishing in the mid-sixties, and is well-known in Argentina as an writer of speculative and science fiction, as well as narratives that resist strict categorization. Gorodischer’s work has been widely studied in its relation to feminism, science fiction, post-modernism, crime fiction, and other Argentine writers.

Knowing that I would be teaching in Rosario for a quarter, I looked for a project that would allow me to make the most my location. Being in Rosario allowed me to visualize parts of the novel more precisely — to choose a possible house for Trafalgar’s friend Ciro from those I passed on my Sunday jog on Boulevard Oroño or to have a sense of the rhythm of service in a café. But the stories were already written — translation being a kind of rewriting — so I’m not sure how much that local knowledge affected my word choice. It did help me read the novel more fully, and that reading in turn became the translation, but I can’t pinpoint what I might have done differently in other circumstances.

First published in 1979, Trafalgar is the second of Gorodischer’s books to be published in English. (Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, appeared in 2003.) The crux of the novel is the juxtaposition of far off, far out worlds and the absolutely local and everyday. Even more important is the centrality of storytelling, including the listener’s capacity to shape the story, even to distort or derail it. Trafalgar likes to spin his tales at a certain speed, with a certain ceremony. Interrupt him at the wrong time and he’ll cut you off completely. Translation challenges presented by the novel included Gorodischer’s use of a compact, indirect summary style of dialogue, the need to withhold information from the reader at certain points, and the use of Argentine slang. Repetition, wordplay, and attention to the sound of words also played their parts.

Some of the wordplay was easy: Gonzwaledworkamenjkaleidos in Spanish became Gonzwaledworkamenjkaleidos in English. That mouthful is the name of a planet, one that shows Trafalgar wrestling with his own translation issues and enacting some of the translator’s dilemma (highlight the exotic, or make the strange and distant more familiar to the reader?) as he shortens the lengthy family (and planet) name to González, which he notes is “a very common name in my country.” Other times, I needed something new. Pozorfogo, for instance, became Fireweller, an attempt to pull together notes of depth, well, pool, flame, and firepower in a word that would sound invented, yet possible.

And then there was the court of the Catholic Monarchs (not the one we know from Spanish history, but one almost the same), where Trafalgar views, with some trepidation, the appearance of the elegant, stuffy, clearly powerful members of the court. In Spanish: entorchados, empurpurados, endamascados y enmedallados. I tried to find English words that would keep the sound, the repetition; embroidered was right there, as if custom stitched; empurpled worked, too. But endamasked and enmedalled seemed too hard to say, more alien than playful; working off the model of bedecked, I settled on bedamasked and bemedalled.

When I returned to Rosario recently for a public presentation with Gorodischer — an author-translator dialogue hosted by the Colegio de Traductores de la Provincia de Santa Fe — I found myself thinking about the idea of reading a translation as “reading through,” drawing the sense of that phrase from both English and Spanish. Leer a través de — to read “by means of” but also “through,” in both languages, as in reading or seeing through a window, lens, or veil. English offers as well the theatrical read-through, when actors first read the script together out loud in rehearsal.

Once translated, a text becomes a new text, producing distinct effects in a different context (I am, of course, hardly the first to say this). The Argentine reader of Trafalgar in Spanish will read within a different network of associations and connections than a North American, reading in English. A translator is always writing a new text, and could always do it differently. Translation is inevitably multi-vocal, and notably so in a novel like Trafalgar that highlights the storytelling aspect. To the extent that I am telling any of these stories, I am telling them through the character of Trafalgar. But readers of the translation read Gorodischer through Gladhart. They are Gorodischer’s stories — or perhaps they belong to Trafalgar — but they are retold in my words.

Translation involves constructing a new voice — not just assuming a new voice, as if it were close at hand in a costume closet, but building that voice. In a sense, it is a matter of finding or establishing a third voice, one that is no longer the author’s (no longer that of the original text) but neither is that of the translator (the voice the translator would use in writing a text from scratch). How that third voice differs from the translator’s own is largely hidden from the reader, who may have no occasion to read anything else written by that translator. The third voice may speak with great immediacy, yet does so at an indeterminate remove; that inescapable distance or divide must be recognized or accommodated, because it will not be resolved. Translating is reading (and writing) through. And to read in translation means to read that third voice.

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Angélica Gorodischer, daughter of the writer Angélica de Arcal, was born in 1929 in Buenos Aires and has lived most of her life in Rosario, Argentina. From her first book of stories, she has displayed a mastery of science-fiction themes, handled with her own personal slant, and exemplary of the South American fantasy tradition. Oral narrative techniques are a strong influence in her work, most notably in Kalpa Imperial, which since its publication has been considered a major work of modern fantasy narrative. She has received many awards for her work including most recently the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Amalia Gladhart is the translator of two novels by Ecuadorian novelist Alicia Yánez Cossío, The Potbellied Virgin (2006) and Beyond the Islands (2011). Her chapbook Detours won the 2011 Burnside Review Fiction Chapbook Contest. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Iowa Review, Bellingham Review, Stone Canoe, and elsewhere. She is Professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon.