issue 47: March - April 2005 

 TBR INTERVIEW: El putañés

Two cover for I am Charlotte Simmons

Jerry Portwood interviews Carlos Mayor and Eduardo Iriarte, the two Spanish translators of Tom Wolfe’s latest doorstop, the 676-page I Am Charlotte Simmons (which is expected to run to well over a thousand pages when Ediciones B publishes the Spanish translation in April). The English version of the septuagenarian Southerner’s novel — centered around college life in an elite university — has already had its share of panning by the critics and was most recently awarded the dubious honor of the Bad Sex Award by the British Literary Review. Mayor and Iriarte reveal for The Barcelona Review their guidelines on how to properly translate "cum dumpsters" and "froshtitutes" into a foreign idiom as well as the secrets of how the Fuck Patois will function in Spanish.

TBR: So, when the book comes out here in Spain, I guess Tom Wolfe’s name will be pretty big on the cover.
Carlos Mayor: Oh, yeah.
TBR: Are your names going to be on the cover at all or hidden somewhere inside?
Eduardo Iriarte: They’re usually on the first page inside.
TBR: Often translators are kept in the background; you’re supposed to be invisible. And I wonder if in this process, you have tried to be invisible or . . .
CM: It depends on how big you are. Sometimes you get your name on the title page or on the cover, but not very often. Probably we’ll get our name on the title page but usually it’s in small print. I guess that’s something we should have discussed beforehand.
TBR: How do you feel about that? When you’re dealing with a process like this, when there’s so much work, you’re creating words and crafting dialogues that are clearly different from the English version . . . what is your opinion on how visible you should be?
EI: You have to be invisible, but you can’t always be. I mean, there’s always a certain sense of style, I suppose. You can’t hide that, even if you aim to.
CM: Right. Sometimes – I don’t really like translator’s notes – but sometimes, you have to include them. What I really don’t like is to open a book and get a long translator’s note talking about the process because most readers don’t want to know that; they don’t even allow the translator to be in the process.
TBR: But the process of translation is a completely different art form: you’re rewriting the book. I’m interested in how you are both dealing with Wolfe’s way of writing and in the process adding to Spanish. The fact is you both have to come up with words that have never been written before in Spanish. I mean, not only are you trying to take something from English and translate it into Spanish, but you’re ultimately changing Spanish in the process.
EI: That’s what’s more difficult in Spanish. English is more malleable?
CM: It’s more flexible.
TBR: Yeah, more malleable.
EI: For example, this always comes up in my work: Maybe in Spanish you have another technique to say something, but you can’t decontextualize. Or maybe you can use a word that makes sense in another context, but if you subtly put it in other ways that aren’t correct, then it sounds too strange.
TBR: You were given a very short time to translate such a weighty book, only a few months. Is that why you worked together, to share the burden? What kind of stresses come along with that?
CM: There was no other way. I had to find someone to split the job with. When I was approached and read the book, I knew I couldn’t get it done in time for the April publication date.
EI: We split it so that Carlos focused on Charlotte and I focused on the other three main characters.
CM: I’ve never actually worked jointly on a book before, and I always thought it was a bad idea because it shows. We wanted to make it look like the same translator all the way through. Chapters that are viewed through Jojo’s eyes have a different style, for example, and they have references to other events. So, those are the types of things that we have had to double-check.
The book is all in the third person, but events are seen through the perspective of several characters. We tried to keep the style consistent and respect the different points of view despite having two people translating it.
EI: There are certain words, certain motives, for the individual characters, and if you’re focusing on one character, it’s easier to recognize them.
TBR: I recently read some translations of Cuban short stories from Spanish into English, and they were so bad. They were all translated by different people and you could see faults particular to different translators - the grammar, word choice, syntax, sometimes even the spelling. You really can tell when there’s a translator who is translating literally or doesn’t have the skills to make it work.
CM: That reminds me, my mother and my sister have been giving me all these books because I wanted to read more translations of books into Spanish. Sometimes I can hardly read them because they’re so badly translated. And I asked them, "Didn’t you notice?" And they said, "No." And I don’t think most people would. They just think it’s the author’s style. He just writes these weird words and strange sentences. [Laughs]
TBR: Yeah, that’s true. I could see someone thinking it’s just some strange stylistic choice, and had nothing to do with the translator.
ED: There are some translators who want to shine too much. You read several translations by them and you can see their similarities even if there are no similarities in the original work. I don’t think that’s desirable.
CM: Yeah, while we were translating the book we read one of the essays that Wolfe wrote in the 70s. It was translated into Spanish a few years later and it was dreadful. The essay was useful because it talks about his style and a lot of the choices that he makes and about why he uses punctuation the way he does – he thinks it’s a trait of his character. The translation was full of footnotes. The translator was a cinema critic and whenever there’s any reference to a film there would be a note: This film was shown in Spain with this title, this year. So annoying.
TBR: Where did you study English, Carlos? In England, right?
CM: I studied translation, but afterwards I went back to university and studied journalism. I had an Erasmus scholarship, so I went to Leeds for a few months. Then I lived in London for a couple of years. I’ve also lived in New York.
TBR: And you Eduardo?
EI: I went to high school my senior year in the States. Believe it or not it was Topeka, Kansas. And I went back a few times to spend a summer in New Jersey and was in Maryland working.
TBR: So you’ve had this more "authentic" American experience than most people. Not just New York or San Francisco.
EI: I went to New York from Kansas by bus.
CM: And how long did it take?
EI: Well, I stopped a few places, but . . . but three or four weeks?
TBR: That’s something that most Americans wouldn’t do.
EI: Well, I wouldn’t do it now. It was fun then.
TBR: I ask this because when translating you go back and forth between British English and American English. I notice when you speak, Carlos, you sometimes use British slang or terms, and I wonder how that influences, if at all?
CM: Well, the more you know about any use of the source language, the better, really. Also, translating implies a completely different level of knowledge.
EI: I agree. I think the reading that you do is more important. I think apart from visits to the States or Britain, it is what you have read that really matters.
TBR: I’m assuming the people who are going to want to read the book are doing so because it’s set in America. Were there problems with cultural references?
EI: American culture is so . . . um [laughs] omnipresent.
CM: We get so much American culture every day. It’s no problem.
EI: We almost always get the references, there are just certain words that don’t exist, didn’t exist at least in Spanish, and aren’t always common to Americans. There’s the Fuck Patois, the Shit Patois.
TBR: The what?
EI: Fuck Patois? That comes from the main character Charlotte who thinks . . . what did we translate that as?
CM: Yeah, the Fuck Patois. Hah. El putañés. Charlotte is shocked when she first gets to the campus because she’s a prude, I suppose. Well, they say fuck all the time, which she’s not used to. So, she thinks they are speaking in this dialect which Wolfe calls "Fuck Patois."
EI: Do you know where that is in the book? [He begins thumbing through the 600+ pages and it’s obvious they are both familiar with every single page and its content.]
CM: Yeah, there’s also the Shit Patois, el mierdés.
TBR: So she’s supposed to be thinking and using this word "patois" which isn’t a word most English speakers would normally use.
CM: Well, she’s really pedantic. She’s 18 and she’s just finished high school, and she’s the brightest in her school.
TBR: The valedictorian, or what?
CM: Two students out of every state are singled out as the best students and they go to meet the president because that’s so important, of course [he smiles ironically], and they shake the president’s hand. And she’s one of them from North Carolina. She’s always thinking about etymology and words in Greek and Latin and thinks no one else there knows the plural of this or that Greek word. Because, to be correct, you have to know Greek and no one knows Greek, and, well, she has a really high opinion of herself which is why she keeps repeating "I am Charlotte Simmons." And she’s obviously not as clever as she thinks she is.
TBR: How do you go about dealing with something as essential as swear words to the original language?
CM: Well, one of the problems with "bad language" – as you all call it in English – is that in Spanish you have so many options for what in English can usually work with just fuck or shit. But in Spanish there are more words and combinations of words that would be used in the same context. You can’t just translate fuck as joder although it’s just one word repeated in so many different ways, because you have joder, coño, hostia. So you have many words that you have to use to mean fuck.
EI: In English you can use fuck as an adjective, verb, noun, whatever. Not in Spanish.

A short excerpt from Chapter 2: "The Whole Black Player Thing" which introduces the idea of the "Fuck Patois" and gives a preview of the Spanish translation.

Without even realizing what it was, Jojo spoke in this year’s prevailing college creole: Fuck Patois. In Fuck Patois, the word fuck was used as an interjection ("What the fuck" or plain "Fuck," with or without an exclamation point) expressing unhappy surprise; as a participial adjective ("fucking guy," "fucking tree," fucking elbows") expressing disparagement or discontent; as an adverb modifying and intensifying an adjective ("pretty fucking obvious") or a verb ("I’m gonna fucking kick his ass"); as a noun ("That stupid fuck," "don’t give a good fuck"); as a verb meaning Go away ("Fuck off"), beat – physically, financially, or politically ("really fucked him over") or beaten ("I’m fucked"), botch ("really fucked that up"), drunk ("You are so fucked up"); as an imperative expressing contempt ("Fuck you," "Fuck that"). Rarely – the usage had become somewhat archaic – but every now and then it referred to sexual intercourse ("He fucked her on the carpet in front of the TV").
Sin ser consciente siquiera de ello, Jojo hablaba el dialecto universitario en boga: el putañés, en el que las palabras «puta», «joder» y «hostia» se utilizaban, por separado, combinadas y, por supuesto, aderezadas también con otros muchos tacos, como interjección («qué hostias» o sencillamente «joder», con exclamaciones o sin ellas) para expresar una sorpresa desagradable; como adjetivo («puto árbol», «putos codos») para expresar menosprecio o contrariedad; como locución adverbial para modificar y recalcar un adjetivo («es obvio de la hostia»); como verbo («ahostiar», «putear»); como sustantivo («mecagüen la puta», «no sabes ni hostias»); como expresión destinada a librarse de alguien («vete a hacer hostias»), a menoscabar en el aspecto físico, económico o político («lo putearon»), a subrayar el cansancio («estoy jodido»), a indicar que alguien la ha pifiado («la jodió de medio a medio») o que está borracho («anda que no estás jodido»), o como imperativo para expresar desdén («que te jodan», «no me jodas»). Era poco común (se había convertido en un uso más bien arcaico), pero de vez en cuando la palabra «joder» también hacía referencia a las relaciones sexuales («se pusieron a joder en la alfombra delante de la tele»).

TBR: Have you found words that are just not translatable?
EI: Usually you can explain them in the context with a short sentence. You can find a way around them.
CM: Eduardo was trying to translate "God’s yuccas." We asked several people to find out what they thought it was. No idea. We eventually realised that the characters were just shouting something to sound like "cocksuckers." With the internet and all the research materials available, it sometimes appears as if everything had to have a background and a purpose. If it’s not in Google, it doesn’t exist. [Smiles.] While I was translating this, I went to the country one weekend. I was spending all this time on the translation and I mentioned to a couple of friends that we just couldn’t figure something out. There was a song in the book that we couldn’t get, and I asked my friend Richard, who is from Louisiana, if he knew anything about it. He explained that it is an old song from the South, but a few lines had been changed to make it funnier. It’s just one of those things that, unless you know it, you’re not going to get.
EI: Most readers won’t understand all the references, but you can explain it or hint at it somehow.
CM: Normally I read it, try to understand what is meant, then sit down and write it down. It’s quite important with Tom Wolfe. It’s not always as difficult in this book as in A Man in Full. You have to decide how you’re going to reflect the dialect. Are you going to make them speak like they do in English? We decided not to do that. We didn’t create a new, different dialect.
EI: For the last book the translator created several new dialects in Spanish.
CM: We decided that we didn’t need to do that. We were already doing so much research, and if you’re creating something new like that, you’re making it up yourself. I’d rather not make something like that up. It’s not true to [Wolfe’s] spirit and definitely not real.
EI: Let’s hope critics will like that decision. I’m anxious to see.
TBR: How do you decide on the translation of slang?
EI: I met with some college students, but what they ended up telling me . . . it didn’t come out quite right, because they were trying to make new words that in a way didn’t mean anything. And if you use them, then I don’t think they would be understood.
TBR: What about some examples that you came up with on your own then?
CM: Novuta, that’s froshtitute, it’s only used a couple of times.
EI: Awfucks disease. [They both laugh.]
CM: Yeah, Awfucks disease. That’s when you wake up in the morning next to someone you had sex with and say, "Oh fuck!"

Glossary of translated terms created for I Am Charlotte Simmons

- the swimmies (the three white guys on the Dupont basketball team that are real students and hardly ever play; they help keep the team afloat because the average qualifications of all the players need to be good) was translated as los manguitos (it's a cute one, one of Eduardo's; manguitos are those floating devices you put around kids' arms before throwing them into the pool).
-froshtitute: novuta (novata and puta combined)
-ssexile: sexilio (sexo and exilio)
-dormcest (having sex with someone from your dorm): resincesto ("resi" is short for "residencia universitaria" or dorm)
- awfuck's disease: síndrome del aycoño
- dry humping: follar en seco
- cum dumpster (Wolfe uses that one a lot): recogedora de lefa (quite disgusting, really)

TBR: What about having to deal with this American style of writing that usually entails short sentences, a more journalistic style perhaps.
EI: It has to sound right. You read it and it feels that it’s right. It all comes down to instinct. Sometimes you improvise, but it’s not an exact science.
CM: You want to reflect the meaning, not the words. You have to make it sound Spanish. And a lot of times Spanish sentences are longer. But I don’t think Wolfe’s sentences are actually that short. Sometimes he goes on for quite a long time. There are a couple of pages where you have no punctuation at all and that takes about a whole morning to translate – finding where things go, in what order.
ED: The reader knows what to expect of Tom Wolfe. I suppose we’ll see if people get it or not.
C: If it’s something interesting or a specific trait of a writer, you try to keep it in. There’s the passage where Charlotte has a drink for the first time. She storms out of the room, out of the house, and there’s a long paragraph with no punctuation, so that’s actually quite difficult. You have to read it very carefully to know what’s going on.
EI: You just read it over and over again until it sounds right.
TBR: It sounds a lot like the process of the writer himself.
EI: Except within limitations, because you don’t have that much freedom.
TBR: How do you deal with that, Eduardo, since I know you are a fiction writer as well? You’ve mentioned not having that freedom, does that make it difficult?
EI: Well, it’s more a matter of responsibility. You have to know your limits. You always have someone who corrects the translation, and the editor or the publisher who looks it over. You can’t change that much from the original. And I try to keep my writing work separate from this, the translations. But it’s not always possible. Somehow it affects what you write. I translated three books by Charles Bukowski in the last three years and somehow it always, uh, there’s a … poso. ¿Cómo?
CM: Something like a sediment.
EI: Yes, a sediment. Anyway, it’s always positive, I think. I mean, you can always learn something about an author even if you don’t like his writing. It’s the best school for a writer. Everyone says so because you analyze writing so much. It’s the best reading possible, and you learn what you can use from other writers.
TBR: You’ve mentioned that there’s a certain amount of research that you have both done, reading of reviews and other background materials. I assume you are aware of things about the book that certainly the reader isn’t. Is it strange rewriting the book in Spanish but also with this great awareness of what critics have said? Do you "correct" it? Do you make it better?
CM: We reread his other two novels [A Man in Full and Bonfire of the Vanities], checking the translations of the Spanish because we knew that in Wolfe’s case the translation stands out so . . . And we wanted to see what the other two translators had done before.
EI: There are those who say the translator has more responsibility sometimes than the author himself because he knows so much about the book after it’s been written. The author just writes and then the critics study the book, but the translator already has so much knowledge of the book, more than the author, and the translation itself carries so much responsibility for that reason. I mean, when you write, you have all the freedom in the world. You can choose any word that you want. And then, when you translate, you have to come up with certain words, and you don’t have the freedom to change that.
TBR: And what about the repetition of things, how Wolfe uses the same words over and over again?
CM: Right. Everyone smiles in the book. Everyone laughs. Everyone "says" this or that.
TBR: Yeah, "he says" / "she says." That’s a very normal way of writing in English because you want to get past those attributions as quickly as possible.
CM: But that’s not the case in Spanish. It was even more of an issue when you have someone who laughs. Then someone else laughs. Then someone smiles. I mean, you have other word choices in Spanish and in English. But Wolfe uses smiles, smiles, smiles, smiles. He wants to make a point because he wants to show that the students are so stupid. So another laugh, another smile.
TBR: I guess you’re afraid that readers would start thinking these people are idiots, always smiling and laughing?
EI: The vocabulary is so, so reduced. I don’t think most university students think like that. I think this is a caricature.
CM: He’s very judgmental in this book. I mean, he has his opinions about the characters and he wants you to know that.
EI: I think there’s been too much focus on the sex and language. The book is much more. It’s about education and maybe the future of the United States. And no one says anything about that.
CM: I don’t think readers in Spain are going to be shocked by the language. Because it just doesn’t shock people. And there’s really not that much sex.
TBR: What did you guys think of the Bad Sex Award?
CM: I didn’t think the scene was very good. He was trying to make a point, I suppose. This is Charlotte, who is very prudish, and she has a boyfriend who’s driving her home and they start kissing and then he goes a little further, not all the way, and you’re getting what she feels so it’s all very technical and it makes sense in the context because she’s very, umm . . . I don’t know. I think she distances herself a lot from things. And she uses lots of words no one her age would use. So, I think in this case it makes sense, even though it’s in the third person. It’s seen through her eyes. The chapter’s called "The Hand."
EI: It’s about 30 pages long.
CM: She’s snogging him. She has this guilty pleasure. And she thinks the hand is . . . it is a bit ridiculous.
TBR: I guess for you it doesn’t really matter about the award or what critics are saying about it.
CM: It was funny for us because we were working on it. It’s just very clinical, and he uses this word: otorhinolaryngological. I can’t even say it in English.
TBR: Neither can I. Maybe if you’re a gynecologist or scientist, yeah.
CM: Well, incidentally most Spanish speakers will be able to say "otorrinolaringólogo". That’s your ear, nose and throat doctor. Anyway, there’s also something else about the fact that he created words. I think that they were based on research. He says they were. And he created an explanation for them.
EI: He said that maybe those words won’t be used in five or ten years from now.
TBR: But it took him almost that long to write it, so . . .
CM: True. There’s a note at the beginning to his two children to whom he dedicated the book [he reads]: "hoping you might vet it for undergraduate vocabulary," and then he goes on to say he learned from them that "students who load conversations up with likes and totallys, as in ‘like totally awesome’ are almost always females."
TBR: Unless it’s meant to be ironic.
CM: Yeah. Like totally.
TBR: I’m not sure how comfortable you’ll be with this question, Eduardo, but it seems that translators could make the best critics. After being so knowledgeable about the book’s characters, style and content, do you like it?
EI: [Laughs.] Well, I enjoy it. I enjoyed translating it very much. I think it’s quite good, actually. But he’s somehow very . . . Somehow too distanced from what he writes, from college life. I think sometimes it’s a caricature of college life. It could have been better, I think. I mean, the book as a whole. It could have been more realistic. Instead of making fun of college life and the students, he could have had a little more sympathy. I suppose some students or some professors might feel insulted by it, and maybe that’s what he wants.
TBR: And you, Carlos?
CM: I’m very fond of him. I liked the other two novels more. I really enjoyed A Man in Full. I think most of the reviews have been based on the way he looks; what he says. It’s very easy to make fun of him. I don’t think all the critics are looking that closely at the book. But that’s probably all orchestrated. It sells a lot more books.
EI: He’s a polemicist.
CM: Yeah. It’s an interesting study of American college life, American youth. He tells a good story in the book, but doesn’t fully realize the potential in my opinion. He tries to be detached, but he’s judging all the time. I don’t think he intended to, but he seems shocked by what he found. He wants a passage to be objective, but it doesn’t happen that way. And, well, it’s a little bit too long.
EI: Somehow, I thought it was going to be even longer.
[They both laugh.]

© TBR 2005

This interview may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the interviewer's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

Jerry Portwood is an American writer living in Barcelona.

Translators’ bios:
Eduardo Iriarte (Pamplona, 1968) is a writer, translator and
independent publisher. He has translated works by Gore
Vidal, Somerset Maugham, Charles Bukowski, Elmore Leonard and Paul
Muldoon, among others. His second novel, Sombras lentas que caen, was recently awarded the XXIX Premio de Novela Gabriel Sijé.
Carlos Mayor is a translator, editor and journalist. He has also worked as a DJ for one day and as a seller of Asian antiques in upstate New York for a whole week.

issue 47: March - April 2005

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