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Words, Words, Words

The invaluable lessons of translation work for a writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I know a lot about murder. I know how to administer poison without detection, how to dispose of bodies in quick-setting cement and what different kinds of knife wounds reveal about the stance and strength of the murderer. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, I can do the police in different voices  — well, in English and Spanish, anyway. It goes with the territory if you are a literary translator who regularly works on crime fiction from Argentina.

One of the reasons I enjoy translating is that it means working on something that I didn’t have to write myself. Usually a writer chooses her subject and organises her own research. She gets to make all the big decisions and shoulders the associated responsibilities. She weeps alone when the story goes wrong and hundreds of pages have to be binned. A translator, on the other hand, has no choice but to follow where the author leads. That may be chasing hoodlums down dark alleys or out onto the plains of Patagonia in the company of gauchos. To have no say in the destination is liberating: you are co-opted into someone else’s creative project and still play a part in telling the story, but without the stress of invention, plotting and characterisation. For once, you relinquish control.

The exercise isn’t without its trials. Learning about the history of railways in Argentina and the different kinds of train locomotive in use on them for my most recent project has been a challenge at times. Previous commissions have meant variously boning up on the Art Deco architecture of Buenos Aires, prehistoric mammals and bathroom plumbing. I had to enlist the help of a plumber for the last one but, as well as a useful authority, she has turned out to be an excellent plumber, so the extra effort paid off. Systems of government, police and the judiciary are very different in Latin America and I regularly give thanks (and money) to Wikipedia for explaining them to me. This kind of research must have been ten times harder before the internet.

A translator still has choices to make – thousands of them, during the course of a book – but on a micro, rather than a macro level. We don’t need to worry about plots and characters, just the words. Then again, the words are everything! Some texts are harder to render in English than others, but even a simple sentence can go in different directions. After all, there are several ways to say that a person stands up — he can also get up, or get to his feet. In Spanish he can ‘incorporarse’ – incorporate himself  – which conveys rather better than English the physical action of gathering body and soul for that upwards effort. Does ‘she said nothing’ mean the same as ‘she didn’t say anything’, ‘she had nothing to say’, ‘she kept quiet’ or ‘she had no response to that’? Translators can spend ages mulling over this kind of thing — not too long though, or we’d lose all our hair.

By the time I have finished translating a novel, I will have read it at least half a dozen times. I may have paid closer attention to parts of it than the author ever did. I am likely to have identified mistakes and inconsistencies that need correction. That’s my job as a translator, but it’s undeniable that such close work also has two benefits for my other life as a writer. The first is the chance to study the workings of a novel in detail. Like a clockmaker looking through an eye-glass, I observe the wheels and cogs of composition, I see how the structure works, and where it fails, how characters drive the action, how the narrative is shaped. These are invaluable lessons for any writer.

The second is to make me keenly aware of the way different languages work, where they mirror one another and how they evolve separately from each other. It becomes fascinating to notice the lexical gaps in different languages. What does it say about us that we have no equivalent for ‘solidario’, the adjective form of the noun ‘solidarity’? When I was a student in Madrid it was one of the words I needed most, along with ‘hangover’ and ‘dissertation’. Almost every week we were on a march or at a demonstration expressing our solidarity with a group of people: miners, coffee growers, or against some policy: nuclear arms, American imperialism. Solidarity is also a key virtue in Latin America, where governments have so often acted against their own people that it has become essential to respond with a common voice. Che Guevara helped to give that virtue added T-shirt appeal.

Here’s a revelation, though, because, in the course of researching this article I have discovered that there is in fact an English adjective – ‘solidary’ – but it is rarely used (Spellcheck doesn’t recognise it) and usually only in a legal context. Both solidary and solidario derive from the Latin ‘solidum’ for ‘solid’, though we got it via the French, ‘solidaire’.  At some stage in our history, possibly in the nineteenth century, English speakers must have decided that we didn’t need it.  Did it smack too much of communism, of rabbles? Were we uneasy with group causes? Does it even say something about our respective characters that Latin Americans readily describe themselves as ‘solidarios’  while English speakers have so little use for the concept that they settle for the clunkier ‘showing solidarity’? Perhaps it is simply that we have been lucky enough not to have to unite very often against our own governments.

Similar questions arise when considering the Spanish ‘compañero’ and English ‘companion’, both derived from the Latin com panis, and meaning, literally, a person you could share bread with.  ‘Compañero’ can apply to your work mate, lover or brother-in-arms, and has a hint of ‘comrade’ about it, too. Meanwhile, ‘companion’ has an insipid feel, conjuring images of tartan travel rugs.  For more than two centuries, the expression ‘Lady’s companion’ described a woman of genteel birth paid to chaperone an aristocrat . How does the same Latin parent spawn two such different siblings? Many of us have wondered the same thing about our own offspring.

I started writing in Spanish as a teenager (it was the easiest way to stop my mother reading my diary), and I still love the way that knowing a foreign language opens a door into another way of being. I feel different when speaking Spanish; I am aware of being more forthright and less apologetic. That confidence boost certainly helped when I was researching my first two books, about Argentina and Spain, respectively. Familiarity with another culture has also given me useful insights into my own.

But English is the language I love, because it is so varied and because humour is built into the sound of words in a way Latin-derived languages cannot match. A word like ‘swagger’ phonetically mimics its own meaning, while ‘hurly-burly’ conveys ‘commotion’ in a way that can’t help but be funny. The strength, flexibility and humour of the words in our lexicon owe much to their complicated journey to our country via Viking boats, Norman conquest, migration and regional dialects. We have been magpies, plucking gems from many languages, and blissfully unencumbered by the royal academies in other countries that decree what words may or may not enter their language.

As a linguist, I have long been fascinated by the way words reflect a person’s character and even shape it. So I give a great deal of thought – too much, some might say – to the words I use in my own work. I particularly enjoy writing dialogue for my characters. We shape our language and it shapes us too, leading us to create lexicons that serve our purpose and mood at particular times. When Hamlet tells Polonius he is merely reading ‘Words, words, words’, he is being fatuous.  Both he and Shakespeare knew the power of words.

Every translating job I do makes me pleased to have studied modern foreign languages, and sorry that I didn’t study Latin for longer. Above all, though, it reminds me of my incredible good fortune to speak and write in English, a language that has drawn on so many sources and – whatever eventually happens to our physical borders – remains open to foreign influences. That history has given us a richer, more versatile and funnier language than any other. It is also very likely to have endowed us with the biggest vocabulary, although the jury is still out on that. Which reminds me that I have a murder investigation to be getting on with. Hasta siempre, amigos.

Miranda France writes fiction and non-fiction and works as a translator. Her book Don Quixote’s Delusions: travels in Castilian Spain examines modern Spain and the legacy of its greatest genius, Miguel de Cervantes.

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