Kate Griffin. New Spanish Books

I named my daughter, Alba, after a character in Isabel Allende’s novel, ‘The House of the Spirits’, translated by Magda Bogin. ‘They searched for a name in a thesaurus, where they found hers, the last in a chain of luminous words. Years later, Alba tormented herself with the thought that when she had a daughter there would be no other word with the same meaning to use as a name, but Blanca gave her the idea of using foreign languages, which offer a wide choice.’

Kate GriffinTurning to Spanish literature for inspiration seemed appropriate; I found out I was pregnant while spending the long university holiday in Catalonia, working at a summer school on a farm outside Lerida. By then I had realized that I wasn’t exactly a gifted teacher – the high point had been teaching the children the lyrics to the Madonna song ‘La Isla Bonita’ – so I took advantage of my newly-discovered condition to return home and sort out my life.

Back in Cambridge I was a student – not a very diligent one, admittedly – reading French, Spanish and Catalan, the course a heady mix of culture, history and literature. Although I didn’t appreciate it fully at the time, it was an amazing opportunity. While reading ‘A Change of Skin’ and ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’ we were enjoying a series of lectures by Carlos Fuentes himself. Every time I would sit there with notebook and pen poised but fail to write a single thing, carried away by Fuentes’ eloquence and story telling. I could blame this on my extreme youth, but the same thing happened in 2004 when Carlos Fuentes gave the Sebald Lecture on the Art of Literary Translation.

My university course covered Catalan literature and culture, and included a visit to the second Catalan Language Congress in 1986 (the first one having taken place in 1906). My favourite Catalan novel remains ‘The Time of the Doves’ by Mercè Rodoreda, translated David H Rosenthal. Born three years after the first congress, Rodoreda’s luminous novel is the story of Natalia, or Colometa, who observes in simple yet precise language all that’s going on around her – marriage, children, the Civil War – without really understanding any of it. Colometa’s epiphany in the Plaça del Diamant has stayed with me for years. It’s good to see US publisher Open Letter now publishing and promoting Rodoreda’s work.

Another lasting influence on me was ‘Hopscotch’ by Julio Cortazar, translated by Gregory Rabassa. Although I was never quite sure I entirely understood the novel, I was drawn to the idea of random encounters, drifting and improvisation, looking for order yet letting life take its course. Returning from Spain, I let my unexpected but not unwelcome pregnancy take its course, then went back to university to finish my studies.

Twenty years later, I was amused to see Alba borrowing my battered copies of Cortazar and Fuentes for her own university studies. Fortunately she’s turned out to be a better student than me so I’m not yet a grandmother. Meanwhile I had returned to Spanish literature, not as a linguist, but as a reader, judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize from 2005 until 2010. In the very first meeting I attended (as an observer), the judges – led by the Independent’s literary editor Boyd Tonkin – awarded the 2004 prize to ‘Soldiers of Salamis’, Javier Cercas’ fascinating novel about history and memory, translated by Anne McLean.

Judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was an honour and a wonderful opportunity to bring myself up to date with contemporary writing from Spain and Latin America: as part of the process each year I read around a dozen submissions translated from Spanish. Over the years many of those novels reached the long and short lists, including ‘The Past’, by Alan Pauls, translated by Nick Caistor; ‘Delirium’, by Laura Restrepo, translated by Natasha Wimmer; and ‘Montano’, by Enrique Vilas-Matas, translated by Jonathan Dunne.

One of the pleasures of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is that it covers the spectrum of literary genres – from experimental writing to historical novels to crime fiction. Although the thrillers published by specialist publishers such as Bitter Lemon are generally enjoyed by the panel – in particular the stylish Havana novels by Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush, exploring contemporary life in Cuba for a police officer with a literary bent – they rarely make it onto the longlist. So in 2010 I was pleased to see recognition given to the entertaining Argentinian crime novel ‘Thursday Night Widows’, by Claudia Piñero, translated by Miranda France. Ostensibly a thriller explaining how three bodies come to be at the bottom of a swimming pool one Thursday night, this psychological novel is more a darkly humorous dissection of a middle-class gated community outside Buenos Aires, living beyond its means in the face of economic recession.

A regular on our list was Javier Marías, for ‘Your Face Tomorrow’, his long and complex trilogy about Jacques Deza, who works for a shadowy outfit charged with interpreting people and assessing what they might do in the future. Beautifully written, taut and compelling (despite the long, looping sentences and meanderings), the trilogy deals with an array of subjects including morality, loyalty, betrayal, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, and explores the consequences of actions, always unforeseen. Marías delights in the use of literary language, both English and Spanish, and many of his digressions explore meaning and translation between the two languages – a challenge that his own translator, Margaret Jull Costa, met fully, and for which she was rewarded with the 2010 Premio Valle Inclán.

Colombian literature led the field in 2009, when we awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to Evelio Rosero and (for the second time) translator Anne McLean, for ‘The Armies’. This intense novel moves quietly from the opening comedy of the narrator, a voyeuristic old man, picking oranges and peeping over the wall at his neighbour sunbathing naked, through rural war, kidnapping and disappearance, and massacre, to the horrifying last scene when violence has taken over the village. In the mind of the narrator, the armies – guerillas, military, paramilitary – blur into one ferocious ‘they’. What stood out for me were the small acts of humanity; the scene in which the old man gets rid of an abandoned grenade before it kills the village children is heart-stopping.

On that same shortlist was another Colombian writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, for his novel ‘The Informers’, also translated by Anne McLean, a careful construction of tales within tales set in Bogota in the 1940s and 1990s, dealing with fathers and sons, memory, history and betrayal. This year I was pleased to see that Vasquez is back on the longlist with his latest novel, ‘The Secret History of Costaguana’, again translated by Anne McLean. He is joined by three other writers from Latin America – the Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo for his novel ‘Red April’, translated by Edith Grossman; Argentinian Marcelo Figueras for ‘Kamchatka’, translated by Frank Wynne; and from Venezuela, Alberto Berrera Tyszka for ‘The Sickness’, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

In the Independent newspaper, Boyd Tonkin commented: ‘The Latin Americans have roared back. A new generation of novelists – the grandchildren, if you like, of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and the patriarchs of the 1960s "boom" – is restoring the continent to its vanguard role in international fiction.’ However, the joy of the prize is that, not only does it bring such writers to prominence, but also it rewards the role of the translator in this process.

The British Centre for Literary Translation, where I now work, is dedicated to recognition of the art of literary translation and to raising the profile of literary translators. We do this through public events, liaison with publishers and the industry (including the Literary Translation Centre at London Book Fair), and collaboration with festivals, schools, libraries and a range of like-minded organizations. We also offer support to translators themselves, from guidance and advice to a mentoring scheme linking aspiring and established translators. And every year BCLT runs the annual International Literary Translation Summer School, at the University of East Anglia, devoted to nurturing the next generation of talented literary translators in a range of languages.

For the past few years I’ve sat in on the Spanish workshop at the BCLT Summer School, during which authors as diverse as José Luis de Juan, Eduardo Cozarinsky and Brenda Lozano have spent the week locked in a room with a group of translators dissecting their text. It’s an intense time – the authors find themselves asked endless detailed questions, about context, word choice, even punctuation – but often by the end of the week the author and translators seem to have become life-long friends. This coming July, we are delighted to be working with New Spanish Books to bring over to the Summer School the Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon (featured in a previous issue of New Spanish Books) for a workshop led by the inimitable Anne McLean.

It’s been a pleasure and an inspiration to take part in the New Spanish Books panel and to update my acquaintance with contemporary Spanish writing. I hope that you will be as intrigued as we have been by the fine mix of novels, stories, essays and children’s books included our spring selection.

Kate Griffin
March 2011