Translating Saramago

Saramago was one of those unlikely candidates to become a writer. Born in Azinhaga, a small Portuguese village, in 1922, he was raised by his poor grandparents. He went on to become one of the most influencing Portuguese language writers of the 20th century, finally earning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. The Portuguese government, as any government more interested in political posturing than in the development of culture is wont to do, opposed his Nobel Prize nomination on the basis of Saramago’s religious beliefs. Or perhaps non-religious would be more fitting: the man was a recalcitrant atheist to his very last day. His novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was banned in Portugal, and so Saramago went into self-imposed exile with only his wife, his convictions, and his stories.

Saramago’s story is indeed a fascinating and moving one, and his and Pilar’s are one of the most touching and cherished love stories in literature today. The close relationship they shared was extended to Saramago’s work itself, which was shared by both in the most intimate arrangement a spouse can have with her husband’s creations, short of co-writing them: the man would write in Portuguese on the first floor of their house, while Pilar sat upstairs translating his words into Spanish.

On August 13th, I had the opportunity of meeting the person who has brought much of this great writer’s work to the knowledge of English speakers. Margaret Jull Costa was invited by the Center for the Art of Translation to give a small presentation about her work translating Saramago into English. Reading her excerpts in a soft-voiced British accent, Mrs. Jull Costa described the challenges of rendering Saramago’s particular writing style into English, a language that we have been taught by the keepers of good style is intolerant of long sentences –a problem, as this is where Saramago’s vivid descriptions live. Yet there she stood, the English translator reading long sentences out loud that everybody could follow without a problem, and which never lost their consistency or beauty.

Margaret Jull Costa, English literary translator. Her work includes translations of works by Spanish writer Javier Marías and Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago.

Mrs. Jull Costa also spoke of the other particularity of Saramago’s style; namely, the use of only full stops and commas as punctuation signs (all others are barred from his texts). This was dealt with in the simplest way possible: follow the original. Always follow the original: this convention of Saramago’s goes against convention even in the source language anyway, and it is an important element of the seemingly free-flowing Saramagian prose.

My favorite line of Mrs. Jull Costa was her reply to a question somebody asked about the difficulties in the original, and whether she sometimes used her knowledge of Spanish and French to deal with some concept in Portuguese. Mrs. Jull Costa brushed off the question as if the difficulties it assumed were not difficulties at all, and said: “I translate because I love writing in English and I love English.”  She went on to praise the vast and  varied English lexicon, a blessing for translators who need never be at a loss for words.

From All the Names

“One might ask why Senhor José needs a hundred-yard-long piece of string if the length of the Central Registry, despite successive extensions, is no more than eighty. That is the question of a person who imagines that one can do everything in life simply by following a straight line, that it is always possible to proceed form one place to another by the shortest route, perhaps some people in the outside world believe that they have done so, but here, where the living and the dead share the same space, sometimes in order to find one of them, you have to make a lot of twists and turns, you have to skirt round mountains of bundles, columns of files, piles of cards, thickets of ancient remains, you have to walk down dark gulleys, between walls of grubby paer which, up above actually touch, yards and yards of string will have to be unravelled, left behind, like a sinuous subtle trail traced in the dust, there is no other way of knowing where you have to go next, there is no other way of finding your way back… There is an enormous difference between visiting the archive of the dead in normal working hours, with the presence behind you of your colleagues, who, although not particularly supportive, as we have seen, would always come running if there were any real danger or if your nerve suddenly, irresistibly failed, especially if the Registrar said, Go and see what’s happened to him, between that and venturing alone, in the middle of a black night, into the heart of those catacombs of humanity, surrounded by names, hearing the whisper of the papers, or a murmur of voices, for those who have ears to hear.”

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