English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Frank Wynne, whose translation of Tomás Eloy Martínez’s Purgatory received an award in 2011
Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
“Friendships are made on the steps of churches and temples and cemented over lunches where everyone prays together. Catholics, evangelicals, Jews: the inhabitants of Highland Park are believers and faith is at the heart of their lives. Since I choose to live without God, I know no one and no one calls on me.”
Interview by Polly Roberts
Purgatory is the story of Emilia Dupuy finding her husband after he has been dead for thirty years. It has been described as a ghost story of Argentina’s history, a tale of the lost people of the dictatorship. As with many ghost stories, the prose carefully balances how much of the plot is revealed to us and at what point a piece of information is stressed as important to the revelation. But as a ghost story that is also seen to mirror historical truths, was it challenging as the translator to ensure plot revelations and the line between reality and fiction were succinct and always clear?
I felt – as I do when translating any book which mirrors history – that it was hugely important to do the necessary research so that I understood which events in the novel were historical, and which were imagined. In other novels I have translated, I have striven to clearly distinguish between the two, but in Purgatory I felt it was crucial not to make the line between reality and fiction clear, because Martínez’s novel exists in a vague, indeterminate space between reality and fiction, between emotional truth and observable fact. Martínez was not living in Argentina during the period of dictatorship recounted in the novel, having been forced into exile. As a result, his novel is partly a lament, partly a surreal satire, and partly a meditation on a pain that he feel keenly although – perhaps because – it was one he did not directly suffer. I felt it was important in the translation to preserve the dreamlike feel of the novel, the shifts in time, the ambiguities of incident, the blurring of what is known, what is knowable.
Purgatory was described by The Economist as having sections and sentences being ‘lingered on for too long.’ Have you ever been tempted with this translation, or another, to slightly cut some sections or sentences and make them more concise?
I suspect that all translators would admit that there are times when one is be tempted to edit, to paraphrase, to ‘improve’, but it is a temptation to be vigorously resisted. The task of the translator it is to bring across the author’s work into another language. That said, there are certain minor tweaks that I do sometimes use: for example, both French and Spanish can comfortably tolerate three, four or even five adjectives qualifying a noun, something that sounds unwieldy or even bathetic in English, in such cases I often attempt to use fewer adjectives while preserving as much as possible of the meaning.
I have occasionally been asked by editors to cut, or pare down passages in certain novels. In such cases I have always gone back to the author to ask his or her opinion of the editor’s suggestions, and then followed the author’s decision. In a small handful of cases, the author has agreed to edits, and even felt that the edit improved the text. In Purgatory, neither I nor the editor felt that there were scenes that lingered too long. There were certain ambiguous passages where it would have been wonderful to be able to seek clarification from the author, for these I was forced to trust my instincts.
Purgatory is a very personal tale which rings true to Martínez’s personal cultural history, did you ever feel at times that areas were too personal for you to be exploring so intimately?
Some books are self-contained, the experience of reading them requires nothing beyond the text itself. Some are intensely personal. Translating Purgatory was akin to having an intimate conversation with Martínez, at times I felt I was encroaching onto a private space, the one that he clearly chose to make public. This is true not only of the past that had clearly haunted him for decades, the pain that is ‘the matter of Argentina’, but most powerfully, most distressingly, the sense of death, Martínez’s own impending death, that pervades the book.
Do you ever find you become personally attached to the works which you are translating; learning from them and gaining insight as you would from a novel you were reading? Or do you find you must remove yourself from the text?
I frequently become attached to the novels on which I’m working, sometimes emotionally, sometimes intellectually; I almost always feel that I am learning from them and gaining insight. During my first or second reading, or the first draft of the translation, I may feel intensely connected to a text, when I am revising it is important that I distance myself somewhat: what matters in the final draft is the text itself, not my response to it.
Frank Wynne is a writer and award-winning literary translator. Born in Ireland, Frank Wynne began working as a translator of graphic novels. He discovered languages not in school but in Paris; starting as a book seller he began his translation work with graphic novels. He has now translated more than a thirty novels, among them works by Michel Houellebecq, Boualem Claude Lanzmann and Ahmadou Kourouma In 2002, his translation of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised won the IMPAC Prize, and he decided to dedicate himself full-time to writing and translating. For several years he lived in Central and South America, and in 2010 was persuaded to begin translating from Spanish. Since then he has translated a number of Hispanic authors including Tómas Eloy Martínez, Marcelo Figueras and Alonso Cueto and Almudena Grandes. In addition he has contributed translations to The Paris Review, Index on Censorship. He is currently based in London.