|On a short trip to
Barcelona for the presentation of the Spanish and Catalan translations of his latest
novel, Anils Ghost, Michael Ondaatje expressed interest in meeting with his
translators - Isabel Ferrer (Spanish) and Melcion Mateu (Catalan) - who were delighted
with the opportunity to discuss their work with the author. What follows is an excerpt
from the conversation, which was held during breakfast at the Hotel Condes in Barcelona.
So why was it a difficult book or was it a difficult book to translate?
Isabel Ferrer: Very. (Michael laughs)
Melcion Mateu: Its the chopped syntax you use, very short sentences at some points. It probably works better in English than in a Romance language. And its difficult to find a rhythm that fits.
MO: So its because of that kind of informal-formal and back-and-forth thing that happens in the book.
IF: No, thats part of the book, but its mostly the syntax, especially for me, because Catalan and Spanish are different languages and maybe in Catalan it's different. The difficulty in Spanish lies mainly in how you use language, how you play with the meanings of words; its almost as if you break through language. And there are images that work perfectly well in English but the exact equivalent translated into Spanish simply doesnt work, so you have to convey that same image but with different words.
MO: So you have to add more to the image.
IF: You have to play.
MM: Yes. Thats one of the main problems when translating: what do you do with metaphors or with images? Do you have to translate a metaphor? Youre not supposed to, but some metaphors just dont work in another language. And sometimes they may work in Catalan, but not in Spanish.
The authors use of short sentences and chopped-up statements - which have been mostly kept in both translations - can be perceived from the very beginning of the book, as in the underlined passages:
When the team reached the site at five-thirty in the morning, one or two family members would be waiting for them. And they would be present all day while Anil and the others worked, never leaving; they spelled each other so someone always stayed, as if to ensure that the evidence would not be lost again. This vigil for the dead, for these half-revealed forms.
(...) One morning Anil found a naked footprint in the mud. Another day a petal.
The Catalan translator has chosen to omit the "And" of the second sentence of the passage above, because of a rhythmical and phonetic problem in the Catalan text: «I hi serien presents...» [literal translation] has been simplified into «Hi serien presents...».
There are also slight differences in the way the following description has been translated into Spanish and Catalan:
"Just the sentence. Not his name or the years of living, just a gentle sentence once clutched by her, the imprint of it now carried by water around the lake" (p. 105). In the Spanish translation, this passage seems to need more elements than the original: «Sólo escribió la frase. No puso su nombre ni los años en que vivió, sólo una delicada frase a la que en su día ella se aferró y cuya huella ahora el agua arrastraba por la laguna.» [Literal translation: "She just wrote the sentence. She didnt write down his name or the years of living, just a subtle sentence once clutched by her and whose imprint now the water carried along the lagoon."] The Catalan is slightly different: «Tan sols la frase. No el seu nom ni la seva edat, tan sols una frase amable que va copsar en una ocasió, i la seva emprempta ara voltava amb laigua per la vora del llac.» [Literally: "Just the sentence. Not his name or the years of living, just a gentle sentence which she grasped on one occasion, and its imprint was carried by water around the lake."]
IF: There are also so many ways to interpret things, its all very subjective. I didnt want to read Melcions translation because of that. You dont state plain facts, like "he opened the door and walked into the room", in which theres no way you can interpret something different.
MM: There is a problem with reference, a kind of vagueness.
MM & IF: Yes, its a language of suggestion.
MM: I think its a book that you have to read very carefully before translating. Its not a book that you can go straight into and translate, you have to read it very closely and understand how things work first, because sometimes you can find the answer to these ambiguities within the book, things you may lose in a superficial reading.
MO: So its a question of discovering a habit of style, is that it?
IF: Its not only that, because Ive done other books of yours and Im already familiar with your style and Ive always had the same problem. Its not only a matter of habit - but of course it helps when you know the author and you are familiar with his style - its rather that when we translate, we have to put ourselves in the authors skin, and with you thats very difficult. (Laughs) Thats why I ended up dreaming of two of your books, Running in the Family and Anils Ghost, because you really have to get into them.
MO: You see, I think its kind of hard for me to understand this, because I can see that happening in earlier books like Coming Through Slaughter or Billy the Kid where you are inside that head and that state of mind, but Id thought the later ones, including The English Patient had a perspective that was clearer, although skewed to a certain extent. We look through Hanas eyes and then Kips. The narration is shared. And those juxtapositions create the tension; before, the tension was there in the single voice of Billy the Kid.
IF: Its true that Running in the Family and Anils Ghost were far easier than the other two, but still...
MM: But for me thats one of the things that I enjoy in my job as a translator: I like these kinds of challenges, the creative aspect of translating, trying to find how to pursue the same effect in one's own language. Its difficult but for me its more enjoyable.
MO: But this must be very easy after translating John Ashbery, isnt it?
MM: Yes, its a piece of cake. (Laughs)
IF: But to what extent does this way in which you use language stem from the fact that English is really an adopted language for you?
MO: I dont think it was that adopted. As a child in Sri Lanka I could speak English, I learnt English alongside Sinhala, and then later on I was learning Tamil. When I left Sri Lanka I could speak English okay, with a very bad accent, obviously, and Sinhala reasonably well and Tamil so-so. I didnt move from Sinhala to English, it wasnt that, but there was some kind of dual thing going on, and what happened was that I lost Sinhala and maybe it slipped subliminally into English. Maybe a sound thing or some kind of mongrel act took place between the two languages and the two became one in some way. I dont know, this is a fantasy of mine.
MM: But obviously English is your language; you think in English, you dream in English...
IF: But at the same time its not.
MO: It may or may not be, we dont know for sure. The Indian writer R.K.Narayan was asked why he wrote in English and he answered "you know, Im eighty years old and I havent got the time for any other language. I could learn this one properly." And Im a poor learner; I half learnt French in school, so Im really a person with one language only.
IF: But you left Sri Lanka when you were eleven, more or less at the same age that I left Uruguay, and I feel that I dont belong to either place.
MM: That happens to me also. My family is from Majorca and I was born here. I have an in-between accent, and when Im here people think Im from Majorca and in Majorca they think Im from Barcelona.
MO: You all have this kind of double language thing happening here.
MM & IF: Yes.
MO: Going back to the metaphors, one thing that interests me about it is that, in the state Im in as a writer or the way I use it, its almost something to be shied away from because its too hokey or too underlined or too cumbersome. You can write a metaphor the way a conceit was written in early poetry so that the swan and the moonlight are referred to all the way down , there will be ten lines of it but I am interested in just a glance at it, a hint, almost like an oblique reference, a metaphoric reference, and obviously there are quite straightforward metaphors, but at times its almost an intimate joke between two people who are talking. Im just wondering if that is one of the reasons why the metaphors seem to be half there, in some cases, why they need to be filled in.
MM: Theres one particular image in the book that struck me, when Anil is dancing and you say shes a thief in oil.
MO: A thief in oil is an image from Sri Lanka, where everyones house has metal bars to keep the thieves from coming in and they are this far apart [about 15 inches]. But if the thief covers himself in oil, he can slip through, so its the complete freedom of my use of such a local metaphor. Its one of those glances that anyone from Sri Lanka will probably pick up but nobody else would. Because the scene was written in a kind of frenzy, to stop and explain it would have slowed it down terribly.
MM: Another thing that surprised me was your use of paragraphs, like vignettes, with different scenes. I think that contributes a lot to the rhythm. Most of the novel is built on short scenes, short paragraphs, even the chapters tend to be short. That contributes a lot to the rhythm.
MO: I think spacing and therefore pacing is very important in the making of a book. I was involved in a small press and I learnt how they typeset. The Canadian visual poet Barrie Nichol, in helping me to write The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, showed me how to use white space. I gave him a copy of Billy the Kid. I said that where the poem "Ill send you a picture of Billy the Kid made with a perry shutter" was that I was going to include the one photograph of him. But Barrie Nichol told me: "Why dont you take the picture out and just leave a sort of a rectangle in blank and we can imagine it?" And I said okay, lets erase it, not say anything. So at the press I kind of learnt how to use space, especially in Billy. So I think that by the time I get to these books, whats interesting to me is how space is another element of the narrative.
IF: (browsing a set of the original proofs of Anils Ghost). Here I have an example of a metaphor: "They were hungry in their search for a pose".
MO: So you have to try to make the book truly available to your readers, not to me. You need to translate but sometimes not be utterly faithful to the book. I think thats important.
IF: There is also, besides your specific use of language, the idiosyncrasy of the English and Spanish language. English is much more synthetic.
MO: What do you mean by that?
MM: In English you can say more things with fewer elements than in Spanish. In Catalan there is less difference.
IF: In English, what you say in three words may take ten words in Spanish.
MM: And also, in Spanish words are much longer. In Catalan they are shorter, but they are still longer than in English.
IF: For example, in Spanish its impossible to say this in a short sentence (reads): "He creased away the pain around her eye". So here I had to reduce and to suggest the image so that the reader can imagine it.
MM: Yes, in English with fewer elements you can say much more.
IF: In English by just adding a preposition to a verb you give it a completely different meaning, whereas in Spanish you cant do that; in many cases you have to explain the meaning of the preposition.
MO: Are Catalan and Spanish both languages in which the sound is more important to the art of the language?
IF: Not as much as in English, at least in Spanish. English is much more sonorous.
MM: I think Catalan phonetics are quite similar to English. I dont think we have a problem there. Among the Romance languages Catalan is probably the closest to English...we have similar sounds.
MO: Is Catalan pretty much understood in the rest of Spain?
MM: Not really, in the Catalan-speaking regions, of course, but I wouldnt go to Madrid, speak in Catalan to anyone and expect to be understood.
MO: So its quite a different language.
IF: Yes, if you speak French, you sort of understand it, but not completely. (Pause) Theres one thing we were speaking about yesterday and its that you dont give any kind of physical descriptions. All we know about Anil is that she has black hair and dark skin. Sarath also has dark skin and a broad chest, but the longest description you give of him is when hes dead.
MM: Theres a picture of Anil and all the family sees it, all her relatives from overseas, but you dont describe the picture. I think that makes it more interesting for the reader.
MO: Well, I wasnt really conscious of that until I was half-way through and then I realised that I was writing the characters from the inside out. Obviously I know exactly what Anil looks like and its almost like I would recognise her if I saw her in the street, but it seems very limiting for the reader to be told that, this way it allows the reader to participate in some way in the creation.
IF: I read In the Skin of the Lion and The English Patient a long time ago and I cant remember. Are there any physical descriptions there?
MO: Not very much, no. I think theres a scar near Alices mouth, thats all really. Its like a theatre with just one chair to suggest a room.
MM: I think this has to do with what we were speaking about before, about reference, this ambiguity you have in your use of language.
IF: You suggest, you are continually suggesting without stating.
MO: Maybe because at first I dont really know about the characters, I dont know what the characters are like, physically, and by the time I do know about them its almost too late to put that in.
MM: Did you have the whole novel in your head before writing it or was it a process?
MO: It was a process; I knew absolutely nothing. I came to work with no knowledge about what the story was going to be about. And with Kip in The English Patient I didnt know he was going to be there until he just turned up in that scene, and I had to deal with the fact that he would be staying or leaving. And in this book, Gamini was the surprise.
IF: Yesterday we talked about you saying in an interview that the character you mostly identified with was Gamini. Was that because of his non-political position, because he didnt take a political stance, he just wanted to work and help people out?
MO: I dont think it was that, I dont think it was the politics, it was just the manner of him. And I dont think I would say I identify with him; I think hes quite different from me, but its a character I enjoyed when he was there. I enjoyed them all, because they are permanently interesting for me and if they are not interesting I could make them interesting in some ways, but for me Gamini is the lost soul.
IF: The Mouse.
MO: In The English Patient I had a sequence where Hana makes a list of all the characters in fiction books she liked and the ones she would marry, and wouldnt marry and her favourite was Ezra Jennings from The Moonstone, a drug addict who ends up dying off-stage. He was absolutely not a good choice. (That passage was later dropped.) But theres an attraction to people who are lost, while in reality there isnt. So Gamini interests me, but he was unexpected and I think that might be why also it gives the book a kind of boost when he comes in.
IF: But each of the characters is some kind of a lost soul: Ananda, the teacher...
MM: For me the relationship between the two brothers is very interesting, not only Gamini but also Sarath. Their relationship is difficult, with a lot of tension, but theres also strong sympathy.
MO: The reason Gamini got invented began when they were driving to the hospital and as I got to the hospital, in the car with them, Sarath says "Well Ive got a brother here", and it was this wonderful opening of a door into a new sub-plot, after 150 pages. Its a book about these two people and their debate in a way, but it was a way of saying, well, well have to add something else, and so Gamini joins them,and then Ananda comes in later on. When they go into the hospital, and shes pissed off because Sarath hasnt told her he has a brother until right now, the dynamic of that, in terms of Sarath and Anil, is really interesting.
MM: Wasnt it a trick for you to show shes angry because she didnt know that Sarath had a brother, but you didnt know either, right? You had to find an excuse to explain Gaminis sudden appearance in the novel.
MO: Well, she never says that, she just needles him and only talks to Gamini, and the moment I liked the best in the book is when they get in the car and Gamini, without even thinking, gets in the front seat, so shes left outside this clan, and she says something like "Oh well, Ill be able to watch them from the back", but shes obviously annoyed, and this just allowed Anils story to continue at this tense space, and it also allowed another voice to the story.
IF: Theres also a woman the two brothers share.
MO: Yes, which comes later on. It was almost too much to bring that whole story into it, you have to decide how many stories you can bring in. Its emotionally very important, shes a ghost in a way.
MM: Did you start the book at the beginning?
MO: Not with the scene of Guatemala. It began when she lands in Sri Lanka, and in fact that was there as a beginning for a long time, and the opening scene in Guatemala had originally been somewhere in the middle of the book, and I wasnt quite sure if it was Sri Lanka or Guatemala or at what stage it was going to take place. I thought it was too confusing and I dropped it for about six months, and finally someone said to me "The book starts off too fast", Anil hits the ground running and shes angry at everyone, and I thought about it and I went back to that passage again and put it in the beginning and it seemed to solve a lot of problems. It gave her a career, a landscape, described her as nomadic, this was just another job, and the distress and compassion in her, it meant that element was in her; she wasnt just barking at people for the first ten pages. Its interesting how things like that can help.
I havent read anything about writers talking with their translators.
IF: There are things, but I cant think of anything now, but if you are interested I can find out.
MM: I know some authors like to be behind their translators.
MM: Kundera isnt very happy with the translations of his works.
IF: The problem is that he knows French. Hes had problems with the French translations. Im sure that any writer who sees a translation of their work done by somebody else will not like it, because, as I said before, a translator has to get into the writer's skin - and who knows if hes really thinking the same as the author did. Its impossible.
MM: Its an interpretation, at some point, any translation is really an interpretation.
IF: Just reading is interpreting.
MM: You have to choose, and maybe in some cases...
MO: Its amazing when you think about it. In these books there are large decisions made in a space as delicate and fine as a razor blade. Its that kind of nuance.The whole thing of Sarath deciding at the tunnel at the end what hes going to do, everything is there.
IF: He hadnt already decided it?
MO: Well, he sort of acted and then was working out what he had decided. But its almost in the wrong order - he should have thought about it first.
MM: I know Günter Grass meets his translators and gives them the scientific names of plants, things he thinks might be difficult, he gives them clues.
MM: There is a level in which it really doesnt make a difference, like when we were working on the proofs and then you added a few corrections to the definitive version, and most of them really didnt make a difference...
MO: Are there character traits that you both see in translators?
MM & IF: Yes.
MO: And what would they be?
IF: Well, first of all, we have to be obsessive, thats the first requirement, and then also solitary.
MO: But youre not solitary because you are with someone else, right? You are with the book and with the author, theres a constant dialogue, in a way.
IF: Yes, but you are physically by yourself, you have to make all the decisions by yourself.
MM: I think that a translator might be a traitor to the book, but also its best reader, but you need to have a good feeling for the book.
IF: What also happens is that when Im doing a book, I get into it
completely and my whole world revolves around that book, that subject - and then when it's
finished, thats it, its like a tabula rasa.
|©The Barcelona Review 2001
Photo © Dominic Sansoni
This interview may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
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|Interview||Michael Ondaatje meets his translators|
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