Bedside table #77. Carlos Marrodán Casas: I have no idea when and what translators read
Carlos Marrodán Casas, an eminent Spanish translator, tells us how, thanks to a shattered shoulder, he translated Octavio Paz, his love for texts translated for translation’s sake, his work as a translator in communist Poland, in the 1990s and today, his collaboration with eminent editors, as well as about the great prose writers he has translated, from Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa to Marías and Bolaño.
The first thing that caught my eye when I looked through your bibliography was the Nobel Prize winners.
I don't think there are that many of them.
I counted four: Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa...
…and Octavio Paz. That’s three!
And Pablo Neruda?
Neruda too, though I did not translate him much. But so be it, four.
Definitely, though I obviously owe a lot to them, and probably most to Octavio Paz. His poems followed me for many years, I just couldn't find the courage to tackle them. But then one day, I had a car accident and shattered my shoulder. I was working at the Spanish embassy at the time, or rather wasn't working because I was sitting at home with my arm in a plaster cast. I felt this was the only opportunity to get down to translation. I remember that it was technically very complicated: I didn't have a computer yet, and I was trying to hold a pen in my plastered hand. Nevertheless, I have completed quite a few poems.
From the Piedra de Sol collection?
I think other ones, as I have previously published excerpts from this volume in the ‘Twórczość’ monthly.
Which year was it?
The same one in which Paz received the Nobel Prize. 1990, maybe 1991? Who knows, maybe even the same month, because I was at home with the radio on and I think I heard, while working on the poems, that Paz got the Nobel Prize. A few days later, the phone rang - Wacław Sadkowski from 'Literatura na Świecie' (“World Literature”) monthly asked if, by chance, I had anything.
And, by chance, you did.
I did. Two volumes of Paz came out shortly afterwards. One was translated by me and the other by Krysia Rodowska. It was then that I received my first award for translation, precisely from 'Literatura na Świecie'. It is interesting, by the way, that the debuting Ewa Zalewska was honoured at the time for Vargas Llosa.
Spanish-language literature's time of popularity?
I think it was more of a decline, although I was just getting started. At the time, I had already done a couple of Llosas, a few Márquezes, Manuel Scorza - a Peruvian writer, forgotten, I think, even in his own country – plus some plays and some poetry. Not so much, because when I started working at the embassy in 1981 and was still lumbered with a part-time job at the university for a few years, it turned out that I had too little time to translate. It was because of Paz that I got back into translation for good. I undertook it with such enthusiasm that in the 1990s, I probably translated most of the books I can brag about today.
Did you also translate before working at the embassy?
In fact, I have always translated, just alongside my paid work. It was impossible to make a living from translation. I don't know if anyone in those days was a professional translator. Perhaps Zosia Chądzyńska?
What about Maria Skibniewska? Or Anna Przedpełska-Trzeciakowska?
Except that they worked full-time in the Czytelnik Publishing House. You need to remember that working on translations in communist Poland looked very different from now. No one was in a hurry; you worked slowly, ponderously. The translation was handed in and it ended up on a shelf and left to rest so that one could take a break from it. Sometimes it took a year, sometimes longer. Today's avalanche production would have been unthinkable then.
Was this pace better?
Better, of course. Although there were other problems: less money, paper shortages....
Maybe not so troublesome. Technical issues consumed the most attention, as everything had to be approved by the ministry - first the selection of the book, then the translator, and finally there was the time-consuming procedure of exchanging Polish zloty for foreign currency to pay for the rights. To put it simply, it was a whole series of bureaucratic and economic problems that meant that work sometimes came to a standstill before it even got off the ground.
Have you experienced this first-hand?
Not immediately. I translated Vargas Llosa's The Cubs - my 1973 translation debut – and kept it in a sock drawer, for myself.
There is nothing more enjoyable! This is how I collected Octavio Paz's poems, and even today, I occasionally translate without any necessity, even though I do not complain about an excess of free time. I even kept some texts in a sock drawer for so long that someone else eventually published them.
But why make such an effort?
It's simple: because you love the text you are translating.
And don't you feel that you are wasting your time?
It is clear that the greatest joy is when a writer close to me gets into the hands of readers. But publication is sometimes just the icing on the cake. For example, I have now given the Filtry publishing house a book that I translated for myself. I took on the job purely because I absolutely loved the novel. And it was short.
You don't bother with thicker books?
I used to throw myself at them without hesitation, today I am more sceptical. After I translated The Cubs, I started writing in-house reviews for the PIW (State Publishing Institute) and the Czytelnik Publishing House - and there was a lot to write about, as both were getting a staggering number of books from Spain and South America. During one visit to the Czytelnik, the head of the Romance editorial department brought out Vargas Llosa's The Green House from a drawer, over half a thousand pages in the original. I was sure someone was already translating it, so I was strongly surprised when my boss said she couldn't find a translator, and even more surprised when she asked me if I would undertake the job.
Except that The Cubs was seventy pages long.
Indeed. It took me over a year to translate The Green House. A year! At the time, it seemed like an infinity to me, although, on the other hand, I had a contract and was getting paid all the time. Today, no publisher could afford to do so. Recently, a friend called me and said that she had been approached by a publishing house with a proposal. A book of the 'bestseller' kind, four hundred pages. Deadline? Three weeks.
If they can find a cyborg or a group of students, they might succeed. Anyway, in the nineties, this is supposedly how the translation was done - a few, a dozen students, piece by piece, and then it was combined by one editor. Well, everyone wanted to make money. When the fashion for harlequins burst onto the scene, they were translated by distinguished academics from the Institute of Literary Research. Or even not so much translated as rewritten, and used as they wished - in addition, for money incomparably better than the monthly salary of an academic.
What was the process of translating The Green House like?
At the time, I was working at 'Nowe Książki’ (“New Books”) monthly. I would get up at four in the morning and translate for a couple of hours. I would go to the editorial office, read, and proofread the reviews, then go home and work on the book. I very much did not want to fail. Incidentally, I am doing it in my old age.
This is a beautiful time of day. One can concentrate solely on work. No one and nothing distracts you from it. Now, I get up later and take breaks constantly because I'm browsing the internet. That's why I remember this time fondly.
And the effects?
After a year, I turned up at Czytelnik with a typescript in hand. I translated by hand, then edited this translation - also by hand - and only then typed the edited text. I was very proud of myself, and when, after a few months, I received the novel after editing and looked at the typescript, I thought I would have to say goodbye to my profession. It was a palimpsest. Ms Kalina Wojciechowska - an excellent translator and editor who handled my translation - must have had the patience of a saint, although she pointed out my mistakes in the Polish language with undisguised joy. That is when I learned to be humble. I kindly made all the corrections. I insisted to keep literally a few sentences that were left the way I wrote them. I have since said that I have been extremely lucky with editors. Of course, there's the other side of the coin - these days, I get lazy and think that an editor will definitely help me with a difficult passage.
And they do?
Yes. This is why I fear that this profession - no, not a profession, rather a skill - will soon disappear. No one will want to bother editing.
Given the ridiculous wages of editors, this is rather certain. And on top of that, calculated per sheet.
It used to be that editors had full-time jobs and time for every book, so I used to get Márquez translations back even after a year. I do actually have a story with Márquez too. His short stories – The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother - were given to me for translation I think just after The Green House. I was sure that after Ms Kalina's training I was ready for anything; besides, I felt a surge of power because Henryk Bereza called my translation 'masterful’. I have translated this prose with a mixture of Bruno Schulz and Tadeusz Nowak, encrusting the translation with baroque insertions.
Did it end with a second lesson in humility?
Absolutely. The head of the Czytelnik's Romance editorial team at the time was Ms Donata Eska. A kind, beautiful, and highly competent translator. When she read this translation, she took me aside and said, "Mr Carlos, this translation is going to need a lot of work. Because you’ve gone a little wild here."
But she didn't give up either?
We started meeting at her house. She read my translation very meticulously and showed me what I had done wrong. I realised then that I was falling from one extreme to the other. It took many weeks to work on the book, but I had the chance to explain in the process how I understood Márquez, how I envisioned translating his prose. Of course, we already had his books translated into Polish by then. One Hundred Years of Solitude was done by Ms Kalina Wojciechowska, and it was exemplary, In Evil Hour by Jan Zych, and Big Mama's Funeral by Zosia Chądzyńska. Except that none of these books were folk-baroque Márquez, Márquez reminiscent of Father Baka. He had yet to be invented. This helped me a lot when working on his subsequent novels, in particular The Autumn of the Patriarch, where I went wild again.
Because Márquez himself went wild. In The Autumn of the Patriarch, narratives and voices intersect, and this polyphony has to be rendered on different levels. An arduous job, especially for an editor who has to follow all the tone changes, but also analyse and understand the original.
Did it work this time?
I think this is one of my best translations. Admittedly, The Autumn does not have many fans and is probably Márquez's least-read book, but, in my opinion, it is his most successful.
Márquez has fallen into disfavour in general.
We got jaded with him - as a generation. And will the new one reach for him? Perhaps. After all, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a cult novel, as is Love in the Time of Cholera. Both regularly appear on various lists and rankings.
After all these years, do you still like Márquez?
Yes, and very much so.
And is there anything you no longer like?
I used to think that Vargas Llosa would be my author, but it was a stroke of luck that I started translating Márquez. These are two incompatible worlds. Vargas Llosa is an exploratory writer who seeks to find new means, new languages, to somehow recount the world in a different way, whereas Márquez seeks what once existed in us and in our culture. I have the impression that Vargas Llosa's modernity has not stood the test of time. I cannot say the same about Márquez and his idea of literature. At the same time, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't refused the offer to translate Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World... Perhaps I would look at him differently today?
Why didn't you do it?
I didn't have time, and the stuff was thick. I worked in an embassy. But it is Llosa's best book. In Poland, however, it was lost, and no one had heard of it.
And who did it?
Dorota Iwanowska. A good translation, although it took her a good few years, also influenced by the uncertain end of the 1980s. It was then that my adventure with Vargas Llosa came to an end. I translated two more of his books - In Praise of the Stepmother and The Storyteller - and that was it.
Short and clear. Unfortunately, also, I think, run-of-the-mill.
Is this a later Llosa?
Middle. But each of his subsequent books looked the same, which pushed me even harder towards Márquez. Some people even think I translated all his novels, yet I was far too young to translate One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Is there anything left to be done?
Of the significant stuff, nothing - a poor play and a bunch of journalistic texts. I think it's better to skip them.
Márquez in your rendition was the nineties. And then?
Then I bowed out of the embassy, started translating for publishing houses, and finally got involved with the Muza publishing house. I then took to Javier Marías and Carlos Ruiz Zafón. And also,Robert Bolaño.
How did you find translating Zafón?
Zafón is a strange case because he writes popular literature, but good popular literature. When I read The Shadow of the Wind, I suddenly felt younger; it was like returning to the literature I had been fascinated with as a twelve-year-old. I think younger readers don't have that reference point because they haven't read Dickens, Thackeray, Dumas. And Zafón draws heavily from them.
You translated it as a duet.
I couldn't cope with the deadlines, so I had to ask for help. I translated the first novel with Beata Fabjańska and the subsequent ones with Kasia Okrasko. With Beata, we worked remotely - each of us would translate our own parts, and I would edit the whole thing to maintain linguistic consistency. With Kasia, we sat at the same keyboard.
Is it possible to work like this?
Surprisingly. We even met the deadline, although it was not far off. We swapped at the computer, made suggestions to each other, outdoing each other in coming up with words and sentences. Zafón doesn't cause much trouble with translation, it's just sometimes hard to forgive his kitsch.
Bolaño is something entirely different.
Bolaño is hard work. One has the impression of communing with something not fully fathomable, intangible.
Is that what you value him for?
For the ambiguities, for the stylistic and thematic twists, but above all - that it is never clear what he really means. There is always a second layer hidden in his stories, and probably a third and a fourth. Which makes me even more upset that he has not been successful in Poland.
And yet isolated copies of The Savage Detectives cost a small fortune online... Perhaps it's a matter of translation, though? Maybe Bolaño is simply untranslatable?
Something always escapes in translation. Who knows, maybe in this case more has escaped? Anyway, this is the case not only for Bolaño. Javier Marías has not crossed a certain barrier of popularity in Poland either, while in Germany, his novel A Heart So White has sold more than a million copies.
Bolaño, on the other hand, has won the hearts of readers in the United States.
And this is despite his resistance. Or is that precisely the reason? Anyway, in the States his writing was probably not as exotic as in Poland.
Which of Bolaño's books do you like the most?
Distant Star. Maybe because I understood what it was about.... Unfortunately, Bolaño wrote at an alarming pace: he felt he had a lot to say and very little time to get it off his chest. I suppose this was also compounded by another problem: the lack of a good editor. And even two problems: a publisher who allowed him to do everything. After all, 2666 was created as five separate books.
Marías is a different case.
Quite the opposite. Every word is there in its place and stimulates reflection, digressions, and divagations. Bolaño is no essayist. The story layer is sometimes important in Marías's work, but the very essence of this prose are linguistic games and meta-reflections on literature. This type of prose has fallen out of favour today. Bestsellers are, after all, based on a fast-paced plot, and Marías' novelistic treatises offer something quite different. Besides - who reads The Magic Mountain these days? Or Thomas Mann in general?
Probably no one.
Writer-philosophers have ceased to interest us. The problem is, of course, much wider, and the yearly declines in readership are just one symptom of it. Although there is a paradox in this: we don't read, yet never have so many books been produced as today and never have there been so many people in the world making a living from writing. Same with the translators. But those who make their living solely from translations must have a pretty good average - several books a year each. In addition, they have to translate things suggested by publishers.
Did you choose all your books?
Probably all of them. Anyhow, I have never translated out of financial necessity, which I consider to be a great comfort.
It is also a responsibility.
True, after years, the translator has to review their decisions. Llosa - despite the Nobel Prize - means little today. Little or nothing. Which is evident, for example, by the fact that it is not selling at all. But such is the life of literature: fashions, values, readers' tastes change.
Is it the same with translations?
I am not sure. It makes me sad when I think that, at some point, someone will consider my translations obsolete. It means I have done something wrong. I read Dickens in the old translations - because nobody translated him anew - and I think he still sounds great.
But there are things that are jarring today.
When I was younger, I tried to take on Conrad many times. His novels belonged to the literary canon, and a few decades ago every young educated person felt they should know the canon. However, something about Conrad bothered me - so much so that I decided not to return to him. But a few years ago, I got a new translation of Lord Jim from Michał Kłobukowski. I decided I would read it, for Michał. And so I soaked it in. I immediately reached for the other titles and consumed them too without difficulty. So, I wonder whether it was a question of Aniela Zagorska's translations...? Or maybe it just wasn't my world? Of course, translations get old, the question is just whether they get old so quickly.
Another thing is that when you're a teenager, you don't pay attention to translations.
This is true. Any possible jarring is attributed to the strangeness of the world described. Maybe that's a good thing, because a lot of bad translations are circulating on the market, especially in the case of cheap editions for young people.
For example, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, censored by the translator, Barbara Beaupré, who saw the book as indecent.
This is why I admire translators who choose to bring a new translation to the world - they get virtually nothing out of it, and their hard work is most often silently overlooked. Sometimes it is hard to believe that they take on such a challenge at all. The Master and Margarita was translated brilliantly by Irena Lewandowska and Witold Dąbrowski, yet Andrzej Drawicz re-translated the novel in the 1990s.
And then there were Grzegorz, Leokadia, and Igor Przebinda. And then Jan Cichocki, and then Barbara Dohnalik. All this in the last six or seven years.
The biggest risk is that each translator will want to leave their mark on Bulgakov - to show that they did it better than their predecessors, that they had an idea for the book.
The same is probably true of Heart of Darkness. This sometimes verges on the absurd, as in the case of Jacek Dukaj's 'polonisation”, where he actually rewrote the book.
Andrzej Drawicz was asked why the effort. He didn't really know how to answer. Anyway, some reviewers reproached him for changing only a conjunction in a few places, for example.
Good question: if the previous translator did something well, should we still redo it?
I was asked why I wouldn't take on Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. But Kalina Wojciechowska's translation is great. Whenever I look into it, I reassure myself every time that there is no point in touching it.
And have you ever translated after someone?
Yes, I translated Frederic García Lorca's Blood Wedding (“Krwawe Gody” in Polish) as a second translator. In the end, I decided on the same title, although I initially came up with Wesele krwi (“The Wedding of Blood”) because I wanted to differentiate myself from my predecessor. It was pure coincidence: the director of the play asked me to review the translation. So, I reviewed it. While the dialogue was fine, the poetic parts - and there are quite a few of them in Lorca's work - needed a major overhaul. And when I re-translated the poetic passages, I started with the dialogues. I did the same with another play by Lorca, Yerma.
Have you used previous translations?
I did some reconnaissance - in the case of Blood Wedding, it was combined with a careful reading of the most troublesome areas - but I did not return to them while I was working. I didn't want to be influenced. I have only compared the two translations from time to time, which, by the way, was sometimes frustrating. Because how else to translate the phrase "Bring water". "Water, bring it"? "Maybe you could bring water"? It is possible to rustle something up, but it sounds less and less natural. Of course, in the case of poetry, I had no such dilemmas.
Are these two different elements?
The poem is a completely different space-time - some kind of closed whole that I can immediately see, although, at the same time, it seems less graspable. Besides, I can try to translate the poem in hundreds of ways. In prose, each sentence pushes me to the next, giving me no room to manoeuvre. Novels also take a lot more time.
Which, I understand, takes time away from your own reading.
I have no idea when or what translators read. I read the most in my life as a young person, when I was not yet translating. And when I started translating, I stopped reading.
Did you read Polish literature at the time?
In high school and university solely Polish. So much so that during my Polish studies, I recommended Wiesław Myśliwski and Tadeusz Nowak to my friends, and they tried to make me realise that there was someone like Julio Cortázar or Alejo Carpentier. Today, I read a lot less Polish literature.
What was your encounter with Ibero-American literature like?
I would say it was shocking, but I was fascinated by Teodor Parnicki at university, so few things were able to surprise me. Ibero-American literature, however, is a very different way of writing from, say, Edward Redlinski. It seems to me that I lived between these two elements: Polish and Spanish-speaking. Besides, I have always been intrigued by the avant-garde, while, on the other hand, I have been strongly attached to traditional poetics and forms - hence my great love for Nowak.
Nowak, Mysliwski, Redlinski. Earlier you also mentioned Henryk Bereza. Was that your kind of thing? Have you read - let me take a risk - Drzeżdżon?
I even got a typescript of an unpublished book from Drzeżdżon once, but I can't remember which one. He wrote in the vein of magical realism and Ibero-American literature. Magical realism, moreover, exists in every culture if there is any folklore, attachment to territory, myths, and legends.
But as a translator you didn't reach for Cortázar? Nor for the magical realists?
It always puzzled me. And I've always joked that I have trouble with Argentinian writers. It seems to me that their literature is too... fanciful - as if each of them felt compelled to do something different, to show their erudition, their literacy. To write something athwart. Perhaps it stems from a Borges complex? In any case, this kind of tinkering has never convinced me.
Same with Borges?
In fact, yes, because he mostly wanted to put his own book in the library he was designing. But there are translators who don't mind that. I think Basia Jaroszuk only translates Argentinian writers, and she lives in Argentina anyway. Other translators read and translate only Mexican literature. The Spanish-speaking world is vast and diverse - everyone can find a niche for themselves in it.
These cultural differences do not hinder the translator's work?
I will answer in this way: when I translated The Cubs, I went to PIW to ask whether they would be interested in publishing it. They said yes, but it is Ms Zofia Chądzyńska who is working on the translation. Oh well, I thought, it's gone. It so happened, however, that not long afterwards I went to see her - we had an interview arranged for ‘Nowe Książki’ - and during the conversation, I asked about The Cubs. To which Chądzyńska says it's true, she is supposed to translate it, but she hasn't got down to work yet. I asked why, and she replied, "You know what... I'm afraid to translate this novel. After all, I've never been to Lima!".
But also tormenting. When the aforementioned Basia Jaroszuk was preparing the Argentine issue of 'Literatura na Świecie', she asked me to translate one piece of prose. The thing takes place in the future - probably in the middle of this century - in the slums of Argentina, a world that is completely exotic to me. Basia edited my translation and kept pointing out, "It doesn't look like that. It's not Argentina." Well, yes, of course. Because, after all, I had never been there.
And even more so in the future.
I am consoled by one thing – the translators of Dante were not in Hell either.
Interviewer: Maciej Libich
Translated by Justyna Lowe