Translating Catalan? Let Beckett Help!

I’m always fascinated by translators who use intertexts in their translations to help capture something about the original that might otherwise be tricky to communicate. I do so myself. I relied a lot on Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria for turns of phrase and sentence structure when working on my translation of Schleiermacher’s canonical essay on translation. I slipped a fairly subtle Ophelia reference into a key moment of despair in my translation of Hesse’s Siddhartha. And there’s a smidgen of Arthur Miller in my forthcoming Kafka (of which more soon), for which I also found myself rereading Melville.

So I was very interested to read in Martha Tennent’s introduction to her just-out translation of The Siege in the Room: Three Novellas by Miquel Bauçà that she relied heavily on Samuel Beckett to get to the bottom of Bauçà’s elusive style. Bauçà himself sounds fascinating, a literary outsider even within Catalan literature and society whose work is often compared with that of Walser, Buzzati and Kafka, three of my absolute favorites. His dates are 1940 – 2004. Here’s Martha’s description of the three long stories collected in this volume:

Carrer Marsala, The Old Man and The Warden unfold in an oneiric, surreal atmosphere of brutal worlds which seem to have become unhinged from discernible reference points, where language has almost supplanted material reality and external facts cannot be trusted. Although these novels retain elements which could be termed realistic, there is no effort to convey the sense of plausibility normally found in fantastic literature. The descriptions of the narrators’ thoughts and activities are rendered in a manner that allows in the reader a response similar to that of reading Beckett or Kafka, but here the struggle plays out primarily in the landscape of the narrators’ minds. Through them, Bauçà offers us his personal sense of the moral degradation and mediocrity of late twentieth- century Catalan society, the precariousness and anguish of existence and his view of life as an illness devoid of meaning, a delicate balance between madness and the quotidian drudgery necessary for survival.

Bauçà’s Catalan (he saw Spanish as the “enemy language”) is challenging and thorny and frequently, Martha writes, avails itself of “the ludicrous and the bizarre.” And to highlight “the sharp curves of his non sequitors” she decided to develop “a lexicon of representative words and phrases from Beckett’s novels and at strategic points intercalat[e] them where there was a semantic correspondence with the original. The intertext with Beckett is intended to enable the reader to recognize the familiar, even if the familiar is beyond our rational understanding.”

I asked Martha if she would show me some examples of intertexts she used in her translation, and she sent the most fascinating list. Here it is:

• Beckett; “poofy-haired; Bauçà, Carrer Marsala (35): “… una dona que es va estufar els cabells” [a woman who teased her hair]; Tennent, Carrer Marsala: (25) “Used to be a woman there who had poofy hair… ”

• Beckett: “only the most local movements were possible;” Bauçà, Carrer Marsala, (33): “Ella no es pot moure” [She can’t move]; Tennent, Carrrer Marsala, (24): ”She can make only the most local movements.”

• Beckett: doss; Bauçà Carrrer Marsala (78), “…em retiro ben abatut cap all llit que m’agombola” [I withdraw, completely dejected, to the bed that protects me]; Tennent, (57): “I retire to the shelter of my doss, completely despondent.”

• Beckett: cerebrum; Bauçà Carrrer Marsala (40): “És cert que l’amazona m’ha buidat el cervell.” [It is true that the horse rider has emptied my brain.]; Tennent, (29): My cerebrum is vacuous, depleted by the horsewoman.”

• Beckett: “pocketed his hand”; Baucà, L’escarcellera (54),: “Què puc fer, llavors, sinó posar-me les mans a les butxaques…” [What can I do, then, other than to put my hands in my pockets]; Tennent, (109): “What can I do, other than pocket my hands…”

• Beckett: “serenade, nocturne and albada; “ Bauçà L’escarcellera (97): “Si li ho digués, reconegut, em faria serenates, i més tard, albades…”, [If I told him, with gratitude he would offer me serenades and, later, aubades]; Tennent, (143-4): If I mentioned it to him, he’d show his gratitude by offering me serenades, nocturnes and aubades.”

After reading Martha’s glorious translation of Mercè Rodoreda’s glorious novel Death in Spring, I have perfect faith in her ability to make fantastical literature come beautifully alive in English and can’t wait to sit down properly with her Bauçà. Find your own copy here.

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  1. Elizabeth says:

    Wow, that’s fascinating. I love intertextuality and this seems very skillful and appropriate.

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