María Cristina Hall’s translation of Peg Puig’s “My Uncle” appears in the April 2017 issue: You Will Not Be Born Again: Catalan Literature Now.
I usually write and translate poetry, because, to me, translating fiction is harder. Translating a story requires me to enter not just a thought, but a mind. The process is entirely different. Fiction involves recreating an entire environment of influences, philosophies, and perceptions. Poetry is more crystallized. When translating from a Romance language, sticking to elevated but more economic diction—as a first instinct—will usually fly. In poetry, there is a specific solution and you have to sift through words until you get to one you like. You think about its connotations, sound out how it rings off the past word, and then you consider the line and how it feels in your mouth.
Emulating this same process for fiction can leave you with a highly awkward, illegible piece, as I found with my first draft of “My Uncle,” originally in Catalan. This story of a man’s first love (and first betrayal) in his preteen years is anecdotal and perhaps autobiographical (I have not met the author).
When I first read “My Uncle,” I was reminded of Woody Allen. The self-pitying, aloof, and maybe arrogant (or innocent?) distance between the narrator and the woman around which the text is centered—and the fact that we’re talking about a single, long ramble—struck that chord. So I used Woody Allen’s voice through the entire first draft, and I thought about every word. And it was an utter failure.
A careful author in a Romance language is already too pretentious sounding for an American ear (stay with me) if the Latin roots and structures are kept intact. Channel this through Woody Allen, and you get a translation that, well, sounds like a translation. I had a casting problem.
As for thinking about every word, fiction isn’t counterpoint, and writing dialogue like sheet music is just awkward and boring. Translating anecdotes, in my experience, needs to be much faster—which is not to say it’s easy. Perhaps it’s comparable to theater improv or jazz. You have to take a line and run with it for dialogue to sound natural. You edit it later.
I grew up in Mexico and basically only got English through my mom (a doctor in internal medicine and NYT-crossword fanatic) and school. As such, my contact with the spoken word of young American men—what I needed for this reminiscence in small-town Catalonia—is in fact handicapped. I sent the manuscript to my cousin who spent her teenage years in Idaho. She read two paragraphs and said, “Lmao dude I think you have to do it again.”
So I did. This time, I thought of how my friend Mark Findaro would speak. Mark is a twenty-six-year-old, educated American who grew up in the DC-Virginia area, and his storytelling is so Italian that I thought I would test out his vernacular for this story. The Mediterranean worked. The pleasant ramble fit. Mark works in sales and knows how to talk, but he isn’t pretentious. So there it was: translating fiction forced me to stop weighing every word and to instead focus on personality, ambiance, and tone. If translating fiction is a lot like theater—a chance to think and talk and feel like someone else—then casting is also key. Finally I was sitting in front of a friend I just wanted to sit back and listen to.