Since the debut of our Passport to Crime department in 2003, EQMM has been regularly featuring translated crime fiction. In that time, we’ve been pleased to publish the work of a number of talented translators, and we’ve discovered, through them, how creative translation can be—and how skilled the translator must be as a writer. Peter Bush has been translating for us the stories of his wife, Catalan crime writer Teresa Solana, the most recent of which, “The Importance of Family Bonds,” will appear in our September/October issue. His work in the field of crime fiction also includes the translations of five Mario Conde thrillers by Leonardo Padura and Teresa Solana’s three Martínez brothers satirical noir novels. He will be in the U.S. starting March 17th to help launch his translation of Josep Pla’s twentieth-century Catalan masterpiece, The Gray Notebook. —Janet Hutchings
When I met Teresa Solana in a castle in Budmerice, Slovakia, I never imagined that within a few years, I’d be living with a woman who liked to kill—if only on paper. I directed the British Centre for Literary Translation in Norwich and Teresa was director of the Spanish Translators’ House in Tarazona. We were in the castle with colleagues from Europe to plan joint activities and the perennial assault on the EC Cultural Funding program. A voluble Russian dramatist and his entourage joined us at the barbecue by the bonfire and pursued me around the oak trees waving a manuscript of a play already translated into English. I never did find a stage for his drama, but soon we had shifted to Barcelona, quixotically resigning our full-time posts, to return to the life of the freelance translator. Teresa was about to give birth to our daughter and we could no longer live between two countries. In the run up to the big change she translated a French philosopher’s take on Plotinus and an American tome on how to deal with cancer, variety being the spice in a freelancer’s life.
Diaper-changing and breast-feeding were interspersed not by bouts of postnatal depression but by hours on the computer. Teresa had written at least three novels and a couple of short stories that I’d seen, narratives that had otherwise never shifted from her desk drawer: a family saga about a fruit and veggie seller near the market of Sant Antoni in central Barcelona, the tale of a girl working at a department-store check-out till that lurched into disquisitions on Homer’s Iliad. . . . Nothing to prepare me for Un crim imperfecte (A Not So Perfect Crime) that I was soon reading. In the three years I’d known her, I’d glimpsed no sign of any interest in noir, apart from the volumes of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle resting on the shelves in her parents’ home. Borja and Eduard, her twin detectives, were thus born in Catalan, Teresa’s mother-tongue, and I insisted she take the book to Carmen Balcells who soon sold rights to Catalan, English, French, German and Italian publishers. So the translator would be translated, into Spanish by herself and into English by me.
Translating your wife has its advantages (I’ve yet to encounter any disadvantages). Before you ever get a contract, you have seen the novel come into shape, from first ideas and chapters to final revisions: they have been the subject of table-talk. All fiction has a very personal side, words, incidents and characters with specific resonances that are often lost on the reader and some of these I can pick up in Teresa’s fiction.
I begin when she has already translated the novel into Spanish. In the process she makes frequent changes, particularly in dialogue, because what works—wordplay and humor, especially—in Catalan doesn’t necessarily work in Spanish, so I have the advantage of being able to see these changes when I compare her two versions at a final stage in revising mine.
I’m currently translating a short story, “A Death in Barcelona”, by Josep Pla, about a death from typhoid in a boarding house. The story has an aura of mystery mixed with comedy in the most drab of places as the lodgers react to the death. It’s clear that some of the characters’ names have a symbolic import. The landlady, Esperanza Paradís, and later her pregnant daughter, is courted by three penniless boarders. Can I assume that my American readers will get the joke about their particular hopes of paradise? Maybe I can. But what about the two Swiss men who behave as orderly Swiss watch sellers should, except when they are drunkenly playing their violins in the early hours of Sunday morning. One goes by the name of Bransom and the other Pickel. Now is this Pla having a joke, naming his characters after Branston Pickle the famous English relish? I think it probably is—Pla had been in London, Leeds, and elsewhere and written about the peculiar eating habits of the English. I can again imagine that my readers will pick up the reference. But then why the spelling changes? Is this part of the fun—Pickel sounds more Swiss—or mistakes by Pla or his editor/typesetter? I feel it is part of the fun, so they can stay. Then what about the characters called Verdaguer and Albert, the surnames of two well-known Catalan writers? Is that a coincidence? Or aren’t they just common Catalan surnames? Unlikely, given Pla’s attention to detail, despite his professions of artlessness. . . . All considerations and choices in the everyday life of a literary translator! Here do I have any choice but to let the references ride? Footnotes are unwieldy and are not fun. Could I introduce something explanatory (but humorous) into the text? After all, the narrator is apparently the writer himself as student. Translators can do that kind of thing. Oh, let it ride! What I can’t do, is ask my dead author. Maybe my editor will have an opinion.
Meanwhile with Teresa, we can mull such matters over with the help of a glass of Rioja and a plate of jamón serrano . . .
Take her story “The First (Pre-historical) Serial Killers” where cavemen and women suffer a spate of killings. Who is wielding the club? The story has its Solanaesque comic twists and anachronisms with references to Sherlock and Sigmund and all the characters are named after medieval Catalan royalty. Simple translation of the latter might have been the answer. After all, Wilfred the Hairy would go down well, but not all are equally amusing and the inevitable crop of Berenguers (even another Verdaguer) wouldn’t mean much in Ohio. So I decided to move the story to England and name the characters and places after English royals and towns—Harry, Charles, Elizabeth, Philip, cannibals from Canterbury etc—and I even did an American trial run with Benjamin and Abraham but then decided that the English royals are always good for a laugh in the US. Did I consult the writer? Yes, I did and she agreed. In any case, translators should never be too reverential towards their authors . . .