Mind the gap – translating the untranslatable

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Mind the Gap: Translating the ‘untranslatable’
Margaret Jull Costa

A cloud of negativity tends to hover over the subject of translation. People say sourly that something ‘reads like a translation’ or else dredge up Robert Frost’s dictum that ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation’. A copy-editor even said to me once that my translation had almost convinced her that it might be worth reading translations. We translators are a paradoxically much-reviled and much-ignored bunch, and the idea of the existence of ‘cultural concepts’ that obstinately resist translation can feel like one more stick with which to beat the translator. As a full-time literary translator from Spanish and Portuguese, I suppose I can’t afford to believe in the untranslatable; it’s my job to translate everything, knowing that there might be some loss, but that there might also be gain, and never giving in to that counsel of despair telling me that a translation is not the real thing, not the same thing, and definitely never a better thing. What I propose to do in this article is to discuss how I have dealt with translating the apparently untranslatable cultural ‘aura’ around (a) words – naming the physical world; (b) phrases – puns, idioms, proverbs; and (c) references – historical, geographical and cultural. The examples will be drawn from four of my translations: The Maias (Os Maias) by the great nineteenth-century novelist Eça de Queiroz, Seeing (Ensaio sobre a lucidez) by Nobel prize-winner José Saramago, The Crossing. A Story of East Timor (Crónica de uma Travessia: A época do Ai-Dik-Funam) by the East Timorese writer Luís Cardoso, and The Book of Disquiet (Livro do desassossego) by the Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa.1

As any bemused tourist will know, food can be very culturally specific, and it can present problems for the translator too. I would like to look at two examples where the writer is using a particular culinary item for its symbolic value within the plot and where finding a precise English equivalent (if such a thing exists) may be less vital than bringing out its symbolic role. There is an episode in The Maias in which the love-struck hero, Carlos, goes with a friend to Sintra, the fashionable summer retreat just outside Lisbon, which Byron memorably described as ‘glorious Eden’.2 Carlos is going to Sintra because he believes that there he will find the woman whom he has seen twice, but never met, and with whom he has nonetheless fallen passionately in love. His friend, Cruges, has been charged by his mother not to return without bringing back a unique Sintra speciality - queijadas (tartlets filled with a mixture of sugar, egg, cinnamon and a fresh cheese similar to ricotta). Both men, therefore, are on a mission, and the literary purpose of Cruges’ mission is to act as a bathetic counterpart to Carlos’. They drive back at the end of the day, with Carlos having failed to encounter his true love and Cruges having forgotten to buy the cakes. Both woman and cakes are delectable, sought-after consumables, and, as we learn later, both can be bought. The chapter ends with Cruges’ heartfelt cry: ‘Esqueceram-me as queijadas!’ (p.251) (I forgot the queijadas!’).

Any Portuguese reader would know that queijadas are a Sintra speciality, but I have decided not to make this explicit at this point in the translation, (a) because I feel that this is sufficiently clear from the context and (b) because any British or American reader is going to be familiar with the concept of a special cake or candy which is unique it to a particular town, especially a tourist town. And in a way, how I translate queijadas is irrelevant because what matters is the connection the reader is being asked to make between the elusive woman and what prove to be the elusive cakes. That said, a translation has to be found. ‘Cheesecakes’ conjures up the wrong image, so perhaps ‘cheese tartlets’ or ‘cheese pastries’ would be better, and I have, for the moment, opted for the latter (I am putting the finishing touches to my translation at the moment). Leaving the word untranslated and perhaps adding a footnote is, of course, an option (one I discuss later in this article), but such a strategy would, I feel, draw unnecessary attention to the word. It does not really matter what kind of cakes these are. It does matter that the translation is consistent throughout the novel, however, because these queijadas, having once been associated with Maria Eduarda - the woman being pursued - recur later in the novel, either as a gift that has, again, been forgotten or as a gift that comes to nothing. When Ega, Carlos’ best friend, first meets Maria Eduarda at Carlos’ house, he brings with him a packet of queijadas.

Mas o papel pardo, mal atado, desfez-se; e uma provisão fresca de queijadas de Sintra rolou, esmagando-se, sobre as flores do tapete.
However, the brown paper parcel, only loosely tied together, came undone, and a fresh supply of exquisite Sintra cheese pastries tumbled out onto the floral rug and promptly crumbled into nothing.
Here, I have added ‘exquisite’ in order to underline the deliciousness and specialness of these cakes. I have, in a sense, expanded on ‘esmagando-se’ by translating it as ‘crumbled into nothing’, but since ‘esmagar’ means not only ‘crumble’, but ‘crush’ and ‘exterminate’, and since the ‘unique’ relationship between Maria Eduarda and Carlos is just as fragile as those cheese pastries and will, quite soon, also ‘crumble into nothing’, this ‘expansion’ is, I feel, justifiable.

Staying with the culinary world, in Seeing, it is the turn of biscuits to take on symbolic overtones. The police inspector, and embattled anti-hero of the piece, called in to investigate a supposed conspiracy, is marooned in a rather bleak apartment in which all he has been left to eat for breakfast are some rather old bolos secos. These are a kind of thickly textured biscuit, rather like brittle shortbread.

Os bolos pareciam feitos de granito com açucar. Trincava-os com força, reduzia-os a pedaços mais cómodos de mastigar, depois lentamente desfazia-os. (p.279)
The biscuits were like sugary granite. He bit into them hard, reduced them to smaller pieces that were easier to chew, then slowly crumbled them up. (p.260)
As Saramago makes clear here, bolos secos grow harder as they grow stale, which, of course, is the opposite of what happens to most biscuits, which, left to their own devices, grow softer. However, as a translation, ‘shortbread’ is far too Scottish and, as with the queijadas, an exact English translation (there isn’t one) is less important than what the staleness and inedibility of the bolos secos are intended to evoke, i.e. the inspector’s loneliness, the arid nature of the mission he has been sent on, his dogged adherence to duty (eating the inedible biscuits because they are what have been given to him to eat), as well as the ungenerous, uncaring nature of the regime he is working for. So ‘biscuits’ or, later, ‘stale biscuits’ must be relied on to relay all of that.

Another of ‘my’ authors, the Spanish novelist, Javier Marías, has himself worked as a translator. He says that ‘the translator is a privileged reader…and a privileged writer’.3 I think he means by this that any good translation inevitably involves a very close reading of a text, which means, as I hope I have illustrated, that any cultural concept must be viewed in the context of the book or story as a whole and translated accordingly. The translator is also ‘a privileged writer’ because, if, as a translator, you are lucky enough to work with very fine writers, your own skills as a writer are constantly being challenged and expanded. Indeed, you often have to stretch your own language in order to accommodate the language being translated.

An example: the Portuguese have a word for the area immediately outside a building or house, testada. In villages, it was (and may still be) the custom for the women of the house to keep their testada swept and clean. In Seeing, during a strike by street-cleaners, the women come out to clean up any rubbish themselves.

…e nisto se estava quando, meio-dia exacto era, de todas as casas da cidade saíram mulheres armadas de vassouras, baldes e pás, e, sem uma palavra, começaram a varrer as testadas dos prédios em que viviam, desde a porta até ao meio da rua, onde se encontravam com outras mulheres que, do outro lado, para o mesmo fim e com as mesmas armas, haviam descido. Afirmam os dicionários que a testada é a parte de uma rua ou estrada que fica à frente de um prédio, e nada há de mais certo, mas também dizem, dizem-no pelo menos alguns, que varrer a sua testada significa afastar de si alguma responsabilidade ou culpa. Grande engano o vosso, senhores filólogos e lexicólogos distraídos, varrer a sua testada começou por ser precisamente o que estão a fazer agora estas mulheres da capital, como no passado também o haviam feito, nas aldeias, as suas mães e avós, e não o faziam elas, como o não fazem estas, para afastar de si uma responsabilidade, mas para assumí-la. (p.106)

…and then, at midday exactly, while all this was going on, from every house in the city there emerged women armed with brooms, buckets and dustpans, and, without a word, they started sweeping their own patch of pavement and street, from the front door as far as the middle of the road, where they encountered other women who had emerged from the houses opposite with exactly the same objective and armed with the same weapons. Now, the dictionaries state that someone’s patch is an area under their jurisdiction or control, in this case, the area outside somebody’s house, and this is quite true, but they also say, or at least some of them do, that to sweep your own patch means to look after your own interests. A great mistake on your part, O absentminded philologists and lexicographers, to sweep your own patch started out meaning precisely what these women in the capital are doing now, just as their mothers and grandmothers before them used to do in their villages, and they, like these women, were not just looking after their own interests, but after the interests of the community as well. (pp.92-3)
Here, the problem for the translator is compounded by the fact that there is also a Portuguese idiom using the term testada - varrer a testada. This has the literal meaning of ‘to sweep the testada’ and the idiomatic sense of ‘to try to slide out of taking responsibility for something’. Faced by two concepts highly specific to Portugal and to Portuguese, I plumped, after much mental wrestling, for ‘patch’ and invented an English idiom to go with it, feeling that Saramago’s comment on the fallibility of dictionaries and lexicographers gave me a certain leeway. After all, the whole passage does tilt at authority and its cut-and-dried ways on behalf of the demotic and the informal. My ‘invention’ meant that I had both to add to and subtract from the original, as you can see by comparing the sections in bold in the original and in the translation. What matters, I feel, is that I have kept the linguistic playfulness of the Portuguese, and if that has required me to indulge in a little creative infidelity to both the English and the Portuguese languages, then so be it.

Idioms and proverbs are sometimes obligingly easy to translate and sometimes so culturally fixed as to be horribly difficult. In the case of Saramago, who loves idiomatic expressions and proverbs, he often compounds the difficulty for the translator by punning on or playing with proverbs, so that, sometimes, the ‘normal’, ‘easy’ translation of a proverb has to be rejected in favour of another less obvious version. An example: the police inspector in Seeing has returned to the apartment, expecting to meet an ambush. He checks all the rooms and wardrobes, then feels slightly ridiculous when he finds no lurking attackers. In response to the inspector’s slight embarrassment, the narrator comments consolingly: ‘o seguro morreu de velho’ (p.319). The equivalent in English would probably be ‘better safe than sorry’, but this won’t do here, for two reasons. The apartment in which he is staying - a base for police officers working undercover - masquerades as the office of an insurance company, Providential Ltd, and the sentence goes on:

…deve sabê-lo bem esta providencial, s.a. sendo não só de seguros, mas também de resseguros (p.319)
…as providential ltd must well know, since it deals not only with insurance but with reinsurance (p.298)4
The ‘seguro’ in the proverb, meaning more or less ‘he who plays safe’, is picked up in ‘seguros’ and ‘resseguros’ – ‘insurance’ and ‘reinsurance’. So the translated proverb has, if possible, to include a reference to ‘sure’/’insure’. Also, the inspector, having disobeyed orders, is doomed, and the proverb therefore becomes an ironic comment on his imminent demise, for he has not played safe at all. My solution was, again, to invent: ‘slow but sure ensures a ripe old age’, which combines all the necessary ingredients and has, I hope, an authentic proverbial ring.

Another example: earlier in the novel, the inspector is bringing to a close an awkward conversation with a suspect in which he has avoided revealing the real reason for his visit: ‘…veremos se neste caso se confirma o antigo ditado que dizia Quem fez a panela fez o testo para ela…’ (p.238)

There did not appear to be a neat English equivalent for this proverb (in bold), although perhaps ‘no smoke without fire’ would be the closest. However, I opted here for a literal translation: ‘She that made the saucepan made the lid’ which keeps the pleasing combination of the antiquated, the domestic and the gnomic, and is picked up in the continuing conversation:

De panelas se trata então, senhor comissário, perguntou em tom irónico a mulher do médico, De testos, minha senhora, de testos, respondeu o comissário ao mesmo tempo que se retirava, aliviado por a adversária lhe ter fornecido a resposta para uma saída mais ou menos airosa. Tinha uma leve dor de cabeça. (p.238)

So it's to do with saucepans, then, superintendent, asked the doctor's wife in a wry tone, No, it’s to do with lids, madam, lids, replied the superintendent as he withdrew, relieved that his adversary had supplied him with a reasonably nimble exit line. He had a faint headache. (p.219)
The ludicrous nature of the exchange has thus been preserved.
As with idioms and proverbs, the adjective ‘untranslatable’ is frequently attached to the word ‘pun’, and here again it is often impossible for the translator simply to translate what is there. A new and equally appropriate pun has to be invented. In Seeing, two elections are held in which the majority of the electorate has returned blank votes - ‘votos brancos’. Now ‘branco’ can mean ‘blank’ and ‘white’, a fact that sometimes works with the English translator and sometimes against. For example, when a government minister comments that the returning of blank votes could spread like a modern-day black death [peste negra], the prime minister corrects him with: ‘You mean blank death [peste branca], don’t you’. The happy fact that ‘black’ and ‘blank’ sound similar in English introduces a rather satisfying ‘new’ pun. However, things grow more complicated when the narrator describes how the word ‘branco’ (associated with the election débâcle of blank votes) becomes a taboo word which ordinary citizens take pains to avoid, fearful of being accused of having been part of the supposed ‘blank vote conspiracy’. He lists some of the turns of phrase containing the word ‘branco’ that people are now careful not to say.

De uma folha de papel branco, por exemplo, dizia-se que era desprovida de cor, uma toalha que toda a vida tinha sido branca passou a ser cor de leite, a neve deixou de ser comparada a um manto branco para tornar-se na maior carga alvacenta dos últimos vinte anos, os estudantes acabaram com aquilo de dizer que estavam em branco, simplesmente confessavam que não sabiam nada da matéria… (p.54)

A blank piece of paper, for example, would be described instead as virgin, a blank on a form that had all its life been a blank became the space provided, blank looks all became vacant instead, students stopped saying that their minds had gone blank, and owned up to the fact that they simply knew nothing about the subject… (p.43-4)
Here, I had to change two of the examples (compare bold text in original and translation) and a riddle that occurs later in the same paragraph: ‘Branco é, galinha o põe’. The original riddle means literally: ‘It’s white and a hen lays it’. Since ‘votos brancos’ in English are ‘blank votes’, the word ‘white’ is of no use to me, and it seems impossible to come up with a riddle that will combine the words ‘blank’ and ‘chicken’ or ‘hen’ and then fit in with what ensues. And so I created my own riddle – ‘You can fill me in, draw me and fire me’ - and completely rewrote the rest of the passage.

mas o caso mais interessante de todos foi o súbito desaparecimento da adivinha com que, durante gerações e gerações, pais, avós, tios e vizinhos supuseram estimular a inteligência e a capacidade dedutiva das criancinhas, Branco é, galinha o põe, e isto aconteceu porque as pessoas, recusando-se a pronunciar a palavra, se aperceberam de que a pergunta era absolutamente disparatada, uma vez que a galinha, qualquer galinha de qualquer raça, nunca conseguirá, por mais que se esforce, pôr outra coisa que não sejam ovos. (p. 54)

but the most interesting case of all was the sudden disappearance of the riddle with which, for generations and generations, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbours had sought to stimulate the intelligence and deductive powers of children, You can fill me in, draw me and fire me, what am I, and people, reluctant to elicit the word blank from innocent children, justified this by saying that the riddle was far too difficult for those with limited experience of the world. (pp.43-4)
So, yes, those puns are, in a sense, untranslatable, but different puns can be created to replace them, as long as they are in keeping with the tone and the tenor of the original.

I suppose this and other examples I have given could be construed as ‘domestication’, for, as you are no doubt aware, there are two supposedly opposing camps in translation – the foreignisers and the domesticators – those who feel that some hint of foreignness can and should remain in the translation and those who believe that a translation should read as if originally written in the target language, in my case, English. I think that most translators probably move between these two camps all the time. Such is the complexity of languages and of cultures, that hard-and-fast rules simply cannot be applied to the art of translation, where one is constantly juggling with linguistic and cultural concepts which may or may not have an equivalent in the target language.

One is, perhaps, on safer ground in the world of cultural, historical and geographical references, since no interpretation is required. Here, though, the problem is how much to explain and how to do it. The Maias was published in 1888, but is set thirteen years or so before that, and refers back to a still earlier period. It is full of references, some of which the author, Eça, explains in the text, others of which he assumes the reader will understand. One example. The grandfather in the novel was, in his youth, considered a dangerous radical by his overly pious father, and when the grandfather/son apparently recanted and asked to be allowed to travel to England:

O pai beijou-o, todo em lágrimas, acedeu a tudo fervorosamente, vendo ali a evidente, a gloriosa intercessão de Nossa Senhora da Soledade! E o mesmo frei Jerónimo da Conceição, seu confessor, declarou este milagre – não inferior ao de Carnaxide. (p.14)

His father kissed him tearfully and gave his fervent consent, seeing in all this the evident, glorious intercession of Our Lady of Solitude! Even his confessor, Father Jerónimo da Conceição, declared this miracle to be in no way inferior to the vision of Our Lady at Carnaxide. 5
I have slightly expanded the original text to explain enough about the reference to make it clear to the modern-day Anglophone reader, giving information about the nature of this miracle. Again, when Eça refers to the Belfast, the British ship that carried to safety in England many of the Portuguese liberals fleeing the Miguelista coup in 1828, I have added just a few bits of information to indicate where they sailed from and the nationality of the ship.

Ao princípio os emigrados liberais, Palmela e a gente do Belfast, ainda o vieram desassossegar e consumir. (p.16)

At first, other liberal emigrés, Palmela and those who sailed from La Coruña in the British ship, the Belfast, came to bother and badger him.
I do my best to avoid footnotes. Most publishers of foreign fiction hate them, and I prefer to include information in the text where possible. I have only resorted to footnotes in two translations. The first was in The Book of Disquiet (Livro do desassossego) by Fernando Pessoa, where I supplied footnotes about some of the Portuguese writers mentioned in the text, and with whom I felt readers might not be familiar. I also explained what the Baixa in Lisbon is – the lower town in Lisbon, where the main shops and offices still are, and where the narrator-diarist, Bernardo Soares works. I also included a street map. However, when translating the novels of Eça de Queiroz, most of which are also set in Lisbon, I have chosen not to do this, possibly because I feel that plot is more important than place, whereas in the plotless, fragmentary world of The Book of Disquiet place is paramount.

The only other book where I felt that footnotes and, indeed, a glossary were indispensable was The Crossing: A Story of East Timor, which is full of place-names, personal names and terminology which were entirely unfamiliar to me and would be equally unfamiliar to most readers. This was the first time I had translated a book set in a culture and a country about which I know nothing, and it was quite an alarming experience. Despite its long occupation by the Portuguese, East Timor is nothing like Portugal, apart from the education system comprising Jesuit schools and colleges, and the implantation, in its day, of Salazar’s fascist youth movement, Mocidade Portuguesa. Fortunately, the author was immensely helpful and patient when fielding my many, many queries. A number of the place-names required footnotes because they were not just places, but places of great symbolic meaning to the East Timorese. The Tetum name (Tetum is one of the main national languages in East Timor) for Ramelau (which was famous as the highest peak in the Portuguese empire) is Tatamailau which means ‘grandfather of mountains’ and was adopted by Fretilin (Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente or Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor) as a symbol of the high aspirations of the East Timorese people. As you can see from the number of parenthetical explanations in that one explanation, there was much to explain! Also, the author, writing largely for the East Timorese diaspora, would make oblique references to people and things, which would be transparent to anyone from East Timor, but utterly opaque to anyone not. (The Portuguese edition I worked from also had some footnotes for the benefit of Portuguese readers.) There is a reference in one section to a corral owned by ‘uma Corte-Real’, which, apparently, is a common name in the area, and usually designates some member of local royalty. José Alexandre Gusmão is mentioned as a schoolfellow and failed goalkeeper, but no reference is made to the fact that he is, in fact, Xanana Gusmão, later, the guerrilla leader of the independence movement in East Timor and, subsequently (although only in 2002, five years after the original was published and two years after my translation), its first President. People are commonly referred to, as well, by names which indicate where in East Timor they come from: dagadá, someone from the region of Los Palos, bunak, someone from the Bobonaro region, firaku, someone from the easternmost point of East Timor, etc. The other bit of essential apparatus to be added was a map of East Timor. And there were some things so alien to our culture that only a note would suffice to explain, for example, rain-fila. This is a trick that the land plays on intruders to make them lose their way. If this happens, your guide must remove all his clothes, put them on again back to front and then set off once more. The sea plays a similar trick, and this is known as a tassi-fila. Then there is the whole vocabulary surrounding cock-fighting, the chewing of masca (betel) and the celebration of korem-metam (a party held one year after the death of a relative or loved one). In a way - and this goes against all my instincts as a translator - the book survives and is even, I think, enriched by the inevitable spattering of foreign words and expressions, and the equal spattering of footnotes. In English, it remains what it is, a story from and about East Timor. Here is the penultimate paragraph of the book, where the author’s father, who is living with him in Lisbon, has just received permission to go and live in Australia, but dies before he can make the journey:

Chegou então a tão desejada carta de chamada proveniente da Austrália. Levei-lhe um dicionário de inglês a seu pedido. Tencionava recuperar a língua que aprendera com o malae-matam-balanda. Que a memória tão pródiga em reciclar assuntos não requisitados fora teimosa em devolver-lhe convenientemente as palavras. Irritado, trincava os dentes com raiva, fechava os punhos com que dava murros no ar, exercitando-se na arte de mestre de silat, e insultava em mambai. Mas os dias quentes e secos do mês de Junho depressa lhe dificultaram a respiração. Com medo de ficar privado dessa oportunidade única, quis apressar o voo. Achava que tinha uma missão a cumprir na Austrália cobrando uma dívida antiga. Cortou o cabelo rente, fez a barba e vestiu um fato novo. Estava trajado como um cobrador da história. Foi à cidade de Lisboa tirar as fotografias para o passaporte. Duas diferentes, em poses contrárias, como se fossem a frente e o reverso. O ponto da partida e o fim da travessia. No regresso, não conseguiu subir as escadas que o levavam para o primeiro andar. Ficou no rés-do-chão à espera da ambulância. A sirena repetitiva anunciava o sonho desfeito. No quarto do hospital soletrou-me vagamente aos ouvidos os nomes trocados dos combatentes australianos. Delegava em mim a sua tarefa. Quis o destino que se cumprisse o enredo: mate-bandera-hum. Um lençol branco, como uma bandeira despida de cores e de símbolos, cobria-lhe o corpo nu e moreno. Pronto para encontrar o caminho do retorno ao monte de Cabalaqui. A morte devolveu-lhe o mote. O encanto não passara de um autêntico rain-fila.

Then the longed-for letter of invitation came from Australia. At his request I took him an English dictionary. He intended to brush up on the language he had learned from the malae-matam-balanda * - the foreigner with pale eyes. But his memory, so prodigal in restoring to him things he did not require, resisted giving him convenient access to the words. He would get irritated and grind his teeth with rage, punch the air, making moves he had learned in the art of silat**, cursing in Mambae**. But the hot, dry days of June soon made breathing difficult for him. Afraid that he would miss this unique opportunity, he wanted to catch an earlier flight. He felt that he had a mission in Australia, the collection of an old debt. He had his hair cut very short, shaved off his beard and bought a new suit. He was dressed like a collector not of taxes but of history. He went into Lisbon to get his passport photos taken. Two different ones, in contrary poses, as if of his front and his back. The point of departure and the end of the journey. When he returned, he could not climb the stairs to the first floor. He waited on the ground floor for the ambulance to come. The repetitive siren announced the end of the dream. In his hospital room, he tried spelling out to me the garbled names of Australian soldiers. He delegated his task to me. He wanted fate to finish the plot: mate-bandera-hum**. A white sheet, like a flag bereft of colours and symbols, covered his bare, brown body. Ready to take the road back up Mount Cabalaqui**. Death restored his motto to him. The spell he had been under was nothing but a rain-fila**.

* = reference explained here or elsewhere in text

** = reference explained in glossary

(These asterisks do not, of course, appear in the published text.)

As I floundered in this fascinating other culture and gradually learned more about it, what was brought home to me was how much the European cultures from which I usually translate share in common. It made me realise the extent to which, as a translator, I can leave cultural concepts and references and even ways of thinking unexplained because I can rely on readers being sufficiently well-read, well-educated and, sometimes, well-travelled to be able to ‘translate’ these things for themselves. In the first example I give in this article of the trip to Sintra described in The Maias, I do not need to explain what and where Sintra is because Byron and, since him, thousands of British tourists have been there already. Most readers of the The Crossing, on the other hand, would know nothing of East Timor, its geography, its languages, its religions, its history, etc. etc. The footnotes in that translation are like the answers to the many questions that anyone would need to ask when in conversation with someone from a very different culture. In the European novels I usually translate and in that one East Timorese book, I can also rely on the fact that all of us, however unconsciously, translate and interpret all the time, whether it be the look on someone’s face, their use of a particular word, their tone of voice, their gestures, their references, jokey and otherwise. The choices and decisions I make as a translator when faced by the apparently untranslatable are, then, based on my own experiences of the languages and cultures I am translating from and into, and also on my sense of what is ‘universal’ to those hypothetical readers of the finished translation. Translation is itself a culturally specific activity. Each translated work is filtered through one particular person’s imagination and perception and fixed in a particular time. Perhaps this is why ‘old’ translations seem odd or quaint or dead, and this may explain the need for the periodic re-translation of great works of fiction. Time moves on, the landscape of the past changes, language changes, and all must be re-imagined.


1 References are to the following editions:

Os Maias by Eça de Queiroz, Edição “Livros do Brasil”, Lisboa, 23a edição.

The Maias, to be published by Dedalus Books, Sawtry, Cambs. UK, and New Directions, New York, in December 2006.

Ensaio sobre a lucidez by José Saramago, Editorial Caminho, Lisboa, 2004.

Seeing, Harvill Secker, London, 2006.

Crónica de Uma Travessia. A época do Ai-Dik-Funam by Luís Cardoso, Publicações Dom Quixote, Lisboa, 1997.

The Crossing. A Story of East Timor, Granta Publications, London, 2000.

Livro do desassossego by Fernando Pessoa, Atica, Lisboa, 1982.

The Book of Disquiet, Serpent’s Tail, London, 1991
2 In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 18.
3 In an interview with Javier Marías by Christina Patterson published in The Independent, 28 July 2006.
4 To those unfamiliar with Saramago’s books, I should point out his rather unusual approach to capitalisation and punctuation. He tends not to capitalise proper names, for example, here ‘providential’, which is the name of the insurance company. In dialogues, he does not use quotation marks, question marks or exclamation marks, and only uses full stops to signal the end of a conversation. A capital letter indicates a new speaker. For obvious reasons, most dialogues, although not all, involve only two speakers.

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