PREVIOUS FEATURE ARTICLES
By Denise Rose Hansen
On the evening of the final meeting judging this year’s New Spanish Books, I felt like I was being followed. Walking through the gates of Victoria Park, I turned around: no one was there.
As I kept on walking, I realised that I wasn’t haunted by someone, but by a feeling. When a book makes it into translation, it starts casting long shadows. There’s the hope of what might happen; a dream of reaching a new readership, of recognition by literary prizes in other countries. And in particular for work making it into English translation, the prospect of reaching more language areas through the cultural prominence of the English. As judges of the initiative, we were negotiating the international potential of a large quantity of books. We were assessing which books were most likely to cast long shadows.
A phrase kept repeating in my mind; a phrase which an editorial director had used when discussing a novel at the London Book Fair: ‘We think it can travel.’ Would the books we, the five judges of this year’s edition of New Spanish Books, had selected, indeed go on to be picked up by acquiring editors, either here in the UK or elsewhere? Using the best of our pooled knowledge and experience, while putting a great deal of faith in the professional readers’ reports we’d commissioned, we chose the books that we believed if not would, then ought to – ‘travel’.
The expression had somehow irked me, perhaps, at first, due to its tony commercial connotations. But more than that, as I kept thinking about it, listening to different languages and accents being spoken by people I passed in the park, it was the way it blanketed the complex set of sociocultural, linguistic, artistic, and financial considerations that come into question when considering writing for translation; as an assessment, it didn’t really tell me anything. Surely some books lend themselves to translation with more immediacy than others, such as when winning a widely recognised national prize. But at the end of the day, local sales numbers and accolades are not guarantees for a work’s success or even passage abroad, and particularly not in the notoriously testing landscape of British trade publishing. In the meeting, we had discussed the challenge posed by a book relying on existing knowledge of local phenomena; the difficulty of another containing a lot of Spanish slang. Or, how to show in English that both Catalan and Spanish are being spoken? None of these attributes could be taken as immovable obstacles, however. They were debatable and entirely subjective. A gifted translator would be able to bring slang into the translation. I thought of Hunter Simpson’s English translation of Danish author Stine Pilgårds Meter i sekundet (Gutkind, 2020), published as The Land of Short Sentences (World Editions, 2022). In this novel, a young mother follows her partner to a rural community in West Jutland. She finds herself bewildered by the inscrutable vernacular of the locals, and yet Pilgård’s prose – and inclusion of folk songs – is rendered brilliantly – albeit, and necessarily, differently – in the English.
That was it, I thought, pausing for a woman with a child on the back of her bike to cycle past. What bothered me about ‘it can travel’ was the notion that a book moves smoothly from one language to another as an integrous unit, when really what happens is that it shifts, metamorphoses; it becomes something else, casting new shadows. I remembered something Jonas Eika once told an interviewer about his International Booker Prize longlisted After the Sun, which we published at Lolli Editions in 2021: he loved Sherilyn Hellberg’s translation, but After the Sun was no longer ‘his’ book only. Eika had written a book in Danish titled Efter solen, and the new book in front of him was no longer that. This taught me that experiencing your writing take on a life in another language inevitably means accepting that it has – that it will – become something else.
I felt a little dizzy, my mind full of these thoughts and with the books we had selected. I took a seat on a bench by the Burdett Coutts drinking fountain. Again I looked over my shoulder, just to check. This feeling of being followed around the park made me think of Enrique Vila-Matas’s book Because She Never Asked, translated from Spanish by Valerie Miles (New Directions 2015). The first section of the book tells the story of the artist Rita Malú, who appears as a character in several of Vila-Matas’s works. Rita Malú looks uncannily like the French artist Sophie Calle, only, should they ever stand directly next to each other, a difference of a few centimetres in height sets them apart. Rita Malú is a Sophie Calle imitator. And like Calle does in much of her art – as in The Shadow (1981), for which she had her mother hire a private detective to tailgate her – Malú sets out to follow Calle, imitating her as well as she can to convincingly assume her identity, thereby making art from life. When that doesn’t prove wholly fulfilling, Malú sets up a detective agency and tries to help a woman locate her ex-husband, an author who since writing a novel staging his own disappearance has not been paying his alimony.
It occurred to me, taking in the Gothic Revival granite columns of the fountain, that the art of translation is not unlike performance art; and that it tends to call for some detective work as well. Tracing the movements of an author – who is either present or absent in the process – the translator becomes something of a Rita Malú locating the most convincing ways to emulate an artist they rate highly. Yet despite the artistry that translation entails and demands, as Edith Grossman writes in her seminal Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, 2010), ‘astonishingly, it is still possible to find reviews that do not even mention the translator’s name, let alone discuss the quality of the translation’. Thirteen years on, this continues to be the case. Sometimes critics forget, or are remiss about the fact, that they are not experiencing Sophie Calle. They are experiencing Rita Malú’s performance of Sophie Calle. I thought there on the bench: translation is a Malú-Calle relationship. It was getting dark; the blue peering through the arches of the red columns was dimming, the surrounding voices growing few and far between.
Back in my flat, I found Because She Never Asked on my shelf. It took a while, as the book is so slight, its slim white spine hiding amongst other white spines. Feeling its lightness in my hands, I was reminded that a book moving into other languages might take other forms than was originally intended. My New Directions ‘Pearls’ edition of Because She Never Asked is less than a hundred pages, while the Spanish text is part of a larger collection that, I imagine, places the text in a different context, literally so: sitting together con other texts. In the meeting, we had spoken about word counts, white space, paper and printing costs, fees, abridged versions. About funding bodies, subsidies, samples, reports, polyglotism, live interpreting. For each of the books, I had thought about who might translate it. Who might be the Malú to the Calle. And I thought that at the heart of things, all practicalities aside, that is what enables a book’s rightful passage: the artists who devote themselves to tracing the footsteps of another, creating art based on art made by another. Not an imitation, but something that trails behind it, faithfully and considerately, casting new, and hopefully long, shadows.