issue 25: July - August 2001 

 spanish translation | author bio

Michael Ondaatje


Isabel Ferrer and Melcion Mateu

On a short trip to Barcelona for the presentation of the Spanish and Catalan translations of his latest novel, Anil’s 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.

Michael Ondaatje: So why was it a difficult book or was it a difficult book to translate?

Isabel Ferrer: Very. (Michael laughs)

Melcion Mateu: It’s the chopped syntax you use, very short sentences at some points. It probably works better in English than in a Romance language. And it’s difficult to find a rhythm that fits.

MO: So it’s because of that kind of informal-formal and back-and-forth thing that happens in the book.

IF: No, that’s part of the book, but it’s 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; it’s 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 doesn’t 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. That’s one of the main problems when translating: what do you do with metaphors or with images? Do you have to translate a metaphor? You’re not supposed to, but some metaphors just don’t work in another language. And sometimes they may work in Catalan, but not in Spanish.

The author’s 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 didn’t 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 l’aigua 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, it’s all very subjective. I didn’t want to read Melcion’s translation because of that. You don’t state plain facts, like "he opened the door and walked into the room", in which there’s no way you can interpret something different.

MM: There is a problem with reference, a kind of vagueness.

MO: Suggestion.

MM & IF: Yes, it’s a language of suggestion.

MM: I think it’s a book that you have to read very carefully before translating. It’s 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 it’s a question of discovering a habit of style, is that it?

IF: It’s not only that, because I’ve done other books of yours and I’m already familiar with your style and I’ve always had the same problem. It’s not only a matter of habit - but of course it helps when you know the author and you are familiar with his style - it’s rather that when we translate, we have to put ourselves in the author’s skin, and with you that’s very difficult. (Laughs) That’s why I ended up dreaming of two of your books, Running in the Family and Anil’s Ghost, because you really have to get into them.

MO: You see, I think it’s 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 I’d thought the later ones, including The English Patient had a perspective that was clearer, although skewed to a certain extent. We look through Hana’s eyes and then Kip’s. The narration is shared. And those juxtapositions create the tension; before, the tension was there in the single voice of Billy the Kid.

IF: It’s true that Running in the Family and Anil’s Ghost were far easier than the other two, but still...

MM: But for me that’s 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. It’s difficult but for me it’s more enjoyable.

MO: But this must be very easy after translating John Ashbery, isn’t it?

MM: Yes, it’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t move from Sinhala to English, it wasn’t 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 don’t 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 it’s not.

MO: It may or may not be, we don’t know for sure. The Indian writer R.K.Narayan was asked why he wrote in English and he answered "you know, I’m eighty years old and I haven’t got the time for any other language. I could learn this one properly." And I’m a poor learner; I half learnt French in school, so I’m 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 don’t 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 I’m here people think I’m from Majorca and in Majorca they think I’m 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 I’m in as a writer or the way I use it, it’s almost something to be shied away from because it’s 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 it’s almost an intimate joke between two people who are talking. I’m 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: There’s one particular image in the book that struck me, when Anil is dancing and you say she’s ‘a thief in oil’.

MO: A thief in oil is an image from Sri Lanka, where everyone’s 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 it’s the complete freedom of my use of such a local metaphor. It’s 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 "I’ll 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 don’t you take the picture out and just leave a sort of a rectangle in blank and we can imagine it?" And I said okay, let’s 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, what’s interesting to me is how space is another element of the narrative.

IF: (browsing a set of the original proofs of Anil’s 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 that’s 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 it’s 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 wouldn’t go to Madrid, speak in Catalan to anyone and expect to be understood.

MO: So it’s quite a different language.

IF: Yes, if you speak French, you sort of understand it, but not completely. (Pause) There’s one thing we were speaking about yesterday and it’s that you don’t 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 he’s dead.

MM: There’s a picture of Anil and all the family sees it, all her relatives from overseas, but you don’t describe the picture. I think that makes it more interesting for the reader.

MO: Well, I wasn’t 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 it’s 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 can’t remember. Are there any physical descriptions there?

MO: Not very much, no. I think there’s a scar near Alice’s mouth, that’s all really. It’s 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 don’t really know about the characters, I don’t know what the characters are like, physically, and by the time I do know about them it’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t take a political stance, he just wanted to work and help people out?

MO: I don’t think it was that, I don’t think it was the politics, it was just the manner of him. And I don’t think I would say I identify with him; I think he’s quite different from me, but it’s 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 wouldn’t 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 there’s an attraction to people who are lost, while in reality there isn’t. 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 there’s 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 I’ve got a brother here", and it was this wonderful opening of a door into a new sub-plot, after 150 pages. It’s a book about these two people and their debate in a way, but it was a way of saying, well, we’ll have to add something else, and so Gamini joins them,and then Ananda comes in later on. When they go into the hospital, and she’s pissed off because Sarath hasn’t told her he has a brother until right now,  the dynamic of that, in terms of Sarath and Anil, is really interesting.

MM: Wasn’t it a trick for you to show she’s angry because she didn’t know that Sarath had a brother, but you didn’t know either, right? You had to find an excuse to explain Gamini’s 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 she’s left outside this ‘clan’, and she says something like "Oh well, I’ll be able to watch them from the back", but she’s obviously annoyed, and this just allowed Anil’s story to continue at this tense space, and it also allowed another voice to the story.

IF: There’s 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. It’s emotionally very important, she’s 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 wasn’t 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 she’s 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 wasn’t just barking at people for the first ten pages. It’s interesting how things like that can help.


I haven’t read anything about writers talking with their translators.

IF: There are things, but I can’t think of anything now, but if you are interested I can find out.

MM: I know some authors like to be behind their translators.

IF: Kundera.

MM: Kundera isn’t very happy with the translations of his works.

IF: The problem is that he knows French. He’s had problems with the French translations. I’m 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 he’s really thinking the same as the author did. It’s impossible.

MM: It’s 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: It’s 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. It’s that kind of nuance.The whole thing of Sarath deciding at the tunnel at the end what he’s going to do, everything is there.

IF: He hadn’t already decided it?

MO: Well, he sort of acted and then was working out what he had decided. But it’s 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 doesn’t 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 didn’t 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, that’s the first requirement, and then also solitary.

MO: But you’re not solitary because you are with someone else, right? You are with the book and with the author, there’s 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 I’m doing a book, I get into it completely and my whole world revolves around that book, that subject - and then when it's finished, that’s it, it’s like a tabula rasa.
Anil's Ghost: Spanish Cover
I know true translators are very obsessive, and they are also obsessive around the writer in question. I travelled in a train with one, and by the end of the week I couldn’t pick up a paperback without him asking what it was... it was like he wanted to get into my head. But I suppose I would have done that too if I was a translator.

©The Barcelona Review 2001
Photo © Dominic Sansoni

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barcelona review 25           July - August  2001


Bill Broady: In This Block There Lives A Slag...
Pinckney Benedict: Rescuing Moon
Atima Srivastava: Dragons in E8
Joan Wilking: A Long View
Mercedes Abad: As I Fall
Anne Donovan: Hieroglyphics

-Interview Michael Ondaatje meets his translators

James Baldwin Quiz
Answers to last issue's James Ellroy Quiz

-Book Reviews Rufus Goodwin, Chris Sheerin, Abdulrazak Gurnah
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