Scott Shanahan’s translation of Borja Bagunyà’s “You’ve Likely Never Been to a Party This Big” appears in the April 2017 issue: You Will Not Be Born Again: Catalan Literature Now.
Whenever we reach for a short story, or any work of fiction, we take it for granted that none of what we are about to read really happened. The characters, settings and events, however strongly they might recall real people, places or things, belong strictly to the storyteller’s imagination. Everyone knows this. It’s basic. But at the same time, we also agree to believe, if only in a nominal sense, exactly the opposite. As long as they do it entertainingly, convincingly, and occasionally insightfully, we give our storytellers carte blanche to lie to us all they want. We might, for instance, choose to overlook a character’s unnaturally keen attention to the fineries of physical detail. We could turn a blind eye every time she demonstrates an astounding ability to remember distant and inconsequential memories. Perhaps we just accept the ubiquity of chance meetings with enigmatic strangers as a matter of course.
Or perhaps we don't. As readers, we each have to decide for ourselves, according to our own criteria, exactly how far we will allow our storytellers to wander from the truth before we rescind our support. Personally, I draw the line at unrealistic dialogue. There’s nothing as dull, unbelievable, or bland to me as unrealistic dialogue. I suppose this is because I find all dialogue a rather difficult proposition to begin with. Although Truman Capote was rather fond of touting his ninety-percent retention rate for verbatim conversation, I don't know many people able to recall even half that amount before conceding to paraphrase. It’s equally rare to come across a person who can speak consistently in complete sentences, or never talk out of turn, or see every topic through to its rhetorically forceful end. When it comes to dialogue, we hold our storytellers to such a low standard. Which is why when I read dialogue that strikes me as particularly far-fetched, I can’t help but wonder whether the storyteller hasn’t gotten a little greedy.
There is not, you might say, much in the way of dialogue in Bagunyà’s story—and you wouldn’t be wrong—but it would be a mistake, I think, to ignore the primacy of colloquial speech; the voice of everyday conversation. Bagunyà’s protagonist is a man in perpetual dialogue with himself, and he talks the way you and I would. He berates himself constantly in the second person, and largely in the present tense. He’s not one for lengthy monologues that just so happen to peter out slyly into grandiose truths. His thoughts run long, and push the bounds of grammar, with a tendency, when something truly unusual catches his eye—whether a gang of clownish cabezudos scampering down the hall, an entire room on the brink of orgy, or a cluster of drunks immersed in a game of pin the tail on the donkey, except the donkey is real, the donkey is fucking real—to digress. As a person, Bagunyà’s protagonist is by no means extraordinary. And that is precisely what makes translating him so difficult.
If to be extraordinary a storyteller need only depart from what is ordinary, there are any number of ways in which to be extraordinary, but for the storyteller (or translator) who aims to render the ordinary, it’s a small target indeed. I would argue that this is particularly true of plain talk, which, for the majority of us, comprises the lion’s share of our contact with language, as we are more apt to notice minor deviations in what we know well. Maybe you’ve never been to a party as big—err, a house as big—as unbelievably enormous, as the mansion where our protagonist goes wandering, but I’m willing to bet you’re well acquainted with his kind of person. He’s the type of guy who, I only imagine, finds it a bit clever to “migrate” from room to room rather than simply “move.” You’ve definitely heard his style of storytelling, the sort of, like, constant grappling with descriptions that isn’t not eloquent necessarily, but, like, relies crucially on a bounty of filler words, and prefigures every new oddity or oddball he comes across with this kind of, like—aquesta mena de—half-dazzled this or half-hostile some. I’m sure you know the people around him, too, whether they’re film students reveling in el fàstic degudament burgès—“quintessentially bourgeois nausea”—of some classic in the canon of cinema, or less remarkably, just a pair of meaningless strangers wondering if you don’t by any chance have any rolling paper.
I have no doubt that other translators will disagree with some of my choices—that is only natural. Perhaps, for instance, there are those that feel “quintessentially” is a bit too loose for a word like degudament, which, more closely rendered, might morph into English as “properly,” or “duly.” And yet, as a person with the unfortunate luck of finding himself trapped often in such conversations, I have a hard time prefacing “bourgeois” with a “duly,” or a “properly.” “Quintessentially” just sounds quintessentially right. Bagunyà has a talented ear for conversation—it’s what lends his stories their feel of reality—and to fail to transmit that would be a mistake. It would be, in my opinion, to turn an extraordinary storyteller into an ordinary liar.