YFTS: Margaret Jull Costa Interview

Here are the questions I posed to Costa for our reading group for Your Face Tomorrow. Please add your own questions in the comments, and hopefully Costa will be able to drop by later in the week and offer some responses.

Scott Esposito: Marias has a great knowledge of English–in fact, he’s translated many of the great English-language writers into Spanish. So two questions: can you give us some idea of how Marias’s translations are regarded in Spain, and if he’s thought of simply as an author, or as more of an author/translator. And second, knowing how much he’s been influenced by some of the great English-language writers, did you use this knowledge at all while working on Your Face Tomorrow?

Margaret Jull Costa: His translations are obviously held in high regard in Spain, but he hasn’t really done much translating in the last twenty years. After he published his second novel, when he was 21, he devoted himself to translating some of the great names in British and American literature, partly, he says, as an essential training in becoming a writer. Then he resumed novel-writing. I would say that now, in Spain, he is thought of simply as a novelist and a columnist (he publishes a weekly column in the Sunday edition of El País).

As for the second part of your question, yes, Javier’s work and language is full of literary references, particularly to English-language writers, notably Shakespeare, Conrad, Nabokov and Eliot. He has also translated that most Baroque of writers, Sir Thomas Browne, and one can clearly see the influence of the latter’s long, looping sentences in Javier’s novels. Another of his most notable translations is of Tristram Shandy, and I think Sterne’s gleefully digressive style and love of absurdity had a huge impact on Javier’s way of writing, and he does take (a possibly very English) delight in choosing words for comic effect. I love many of the same writers that Javier loves, and in a way, I suppose, I do use my knowledge of their work when translating his books, but it’s very much an unconscious thing. I think probably anything that writers and translators read inevitably feeds into their own work.

SE: Marias has been writing since the 1970s, and his style has evolved considerably in the 30+ years he’s been writing. How would you characterize Marias’s style in Your Face Tomorrow with regard to the rest of his career?

MJC: The long sentence that is so characteristic of Javier’s style first occurs in The Man of Feeling. The sentences and the novels have grown longer and longer since then, mainly, I suspect, because his novels have moved away from plot (although there always is a plot) towards the dissection of ideas, feelings, words, motivations. His sentences have the shape of a thought, full of buts and perhapses and then agains. The style in Your Face Tomorrow is the latest stage in that development–less plot and more thought.

SE: As we’ve been reading, we’ve noted how much Marias likes to make use of lengthy sentences. We’ve also discussed how this changes the reading experience of this book, and, in fact, Andrew Seal did a very nice post for the group on how the syntactical unit of Marias’s sentences compares to that of Thomas Bernhard, and what this means for each man’s objectives as a writer. As a translator, how did you deal with these long sentences? Did you try to preserve the order and cadence and length of each? Did you feel the need to break some up, or join others?

MJC: I’ve never read Thomas Bernhard and so can’t comment on his style versus Javier’s, and I’ve probably dealt in my previous answer with the significance of Javier’s style as regards his objectives as a writer. As to how I deal with those long sentences, I very rarely, if ever, break them up into shorter sentences, that would be a complete betrayal of his style. I keep pretty much to the same word order and, insofar as it’s possible, given the differences in the two languages, the same cadence too. I translate the books one sentence at a time and go back over that sentence again and again until it makes syntactic sense and has the right, convincing rhythm, then I move on to the next one. The moment when all the parts of a sentence click into place is very pleasurable–and a relief! Students of English tend to be taught that short sentences equal good style, but English is such a wonderfully flexible language, it seems to me a shame not to use every sinuous inch of it.

SE: We’ve already been noticing how the two words used in the title of volume 1–fever (fiebre) and spear (lanza)–have been popping up in various ways throughout this first book. I assume that the case will be the same for the two words that grace the cover of each of the two remaining volumes. Knowing how crucial these words were to each book, as well as how they have to function in a varieties of capacities throughout each book, did they present any particular translation difficulties to you?

MJC: Obviously, with the title of the first volume, I had to decide whether it should be spear or lance and then stick with my final choice throughout the novel. The title of the next volume–Baile y sueño/Dance and Dream–proved more problematic because sueño means both sleep and dream, and within the novel, I do tend to move between those two translations depending on context. As regards the title, though, Dance and Dream simply sounded better than Dance and Sleep! And, of course, Deza is living a kind of dream existence from which he only wakes at the end of the final volume. With Veneno y sombra y adiós/Poison, Shadow and Farewell, there were similar problems. sombre can mean shade or shadow, but shadow like sombre has some usefully dark connotations, which shade lacks. adios can, of course, be translated as goodbye and farewell, but farewell seemed to me to strike the more appropriate note, especially as that is the word I used when translating Cervantes’ wonderful lines: “Farewell, wit; farewell, charm; farewell, dear, delightful friends,” which occur and reoccur throughout all three volumes.

SE: In your translation, Marias comes across as a very careful wielder of adjectives, and a very subtle hand with word order. For instance, this description of Tupra, the first time Deza sees him: “In the first instance and at a party, Tupra turned out to be a cordial man, smiling and openly friendly, despite being a native of the British Isles, a man whose bland, ingenuous form of vanity not only proved inoffensive, but caused one to view him slightly ironically and with an almost instinctive fondness.” [45] Several aspects of this sentence strike me as noteworthy, perhaps most so the passage “a man whose bland, ingenuous form of vanity not only proved inoffensive . . .” Do you find it significantly more difficult to translate Marias than other authors, and can you compare Marias’s use of word choice and word order to some other Spanish-language authors you’ve translated?

MJC: I’ve just checked my translation against the original sentence, and it does follow Javier’s word order, except that I’ve placed ‘In the first instance and at the party’ at the beginning of the sentence, whereas in the Spanish, those words come after the verb resultó ser [turned out to be]. I think (it’s several years since I translated the book) that I did this to avoid additional breaks and commas in the opening sentence of the chapter. Otherwise, as I said earlier, I do try to keep as close to his word order as I can. And, yes, Javier does like adjectives and uses them, I feel, as ways of getting closer to the meaning that he wants, often using apparent synonyms, as if each additional word might have just the nuance he needs. As for difficulty, his books are, of course, difficult to translate and certainly more difficult than any of my other Spanish-language authors, but he’s such a precise writer I know I can trust his choice of word and sentence shape. Translating a poor stylist is much harder than translating a very good one.

SE: Lastly, I remember hearing that after Marias had finished the second volume of Your Face Tomorrow, he declared the book complete, and then later caused a bit of a surprise when he wrote a third volume. Is this correct? And if so, did that choice surprise you, and do you consider the work complete now?

MJC: It was always clear that volume 2 could not be the end of the story, because it closes on a “cliffhanger,” as does volume 1. And there are all those loose ends waiting to be tied up!

My understanding is that Javier intended the “trilogy” to appear as one volume (it has recently come out in Spain in the one-volume format he originally wanted). He published it in segments so that the dedicatees–his father, Julián Marías, and Peter Russell (the model for Peter Wheeler)–both in their late eighties at the time, would be able to read the novel as it evolved. Both, alas, died before volume 3 was published. Javier has commented that volume 3 was much longer than he expected it to be, and that the deaths of his father and Peter Russell influenced the way he wrote about them in the final volume (i.e. he wasn’t sure he could have written of their deaths in the novel if they had still been alive in reality).

When I had completed the final version of my translation of volume 3, I wrote to Javier, saying that it was finished and added “always assuming a translation can ever be said to be truly finished,” and he replied–most consolingly–that it was the same with novels. There always comes a point where you simply have to stop. But, yes, I do consider the work to be complete now, and will be most intrigued to see what he writes next. Something quite different I suspect.


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Thanks for this interview – I had forgotten that Marias was also a translator and that makes his focus on words and their multiple and possibly deceptive meanings even more understandable and intriguing. I like Costa’s comment about his sentences having “the shape of a thought”, even though she also admits how concise in terms of words, their order etc. he is.

Great interview.

One of the many pleasure of reading the novel was how there seemed to be a constant translation taking place in Deza’s head between English and Spanish and back to English. How did translating a character who already is constantly translating and playing with both languages affect your work on the novel? Did it add another layer to your translation? How was it different translating this than other books that may not have been as concerned with the differences and respective peculiarities of English and Spanish?

My question is kind of a more technical one and less about the book per se, but since I do so much copyediting in my professional life, it keeps striking me as I’m reading that the usage and spelling throughout is British — “realise” as opposed to “realize,” “colour” rather than “color,” decisions are “taken,” not “made,” double l’s in certain words, and so forth. Given that New Directions is an American publishing house, I was curious whether this usage choice was a conscious decision and therefore an integral part of the translation, given that what action there is takes place in London amongst Europeans, or if the choice was more of a circumstantial thing — you know, the first publication in English was a British edition and that’s the text ND used, or maybe you are British and those choices are just the choices that are most natural to you, or whatever. Thanks!

[…] coming later this month from Viking: The Dead Republic. Lots of reviews already. The… »YFTS: Margaret Jull Costa InterviewHere are the questions I posed to Costa for our reading group for Your Face Tomorrow. Please add […]

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