In the cold, brisk Brighton winter I sat huddled by the fire when the chance to embark on a new kind of literary translation project began. Susana Medina is a half-English-half-Czech-and-yet-completely-Spanish writer based in London, and she was looking for a translator to work with her on her collection Cuentos Rojos. One of the stories had already been translated by Independent Prize-winner Anne McLean some years before, and Susana – bilingual, but not a native English speaker – had worked on another. That left six and a bit stories to be translated in close collaboration with Susana herself, which promised to be a creative process unlike any other, seeing as I had previously translated long dead poets (José Martí), or far-flung non-anglophones (Eduardo Belgrano Rawson).
Susana’s original conceit for the collection was a series of genre-defying prose poems, streams of fluid, sonic language without commas that contained a cast of strange, cerebral, sexual, witty and transgressive female characters, set in the half-light of London’s demi-monde. She juxtaposed short barely-there fragments with whole paragraphs made up of single, comma-less sentences. To make a translator’s task even harder, her writing was littered with ciphers, metaphors, neologisms and strikingly original images about the body, love, loss and madness. Add to this the fact that Susana is profoundly deaf and converses with the help of a temperamental cochlear implant and you can begin to imagine what a unique working relationship this would prove to be. (Incidentally, the novel she is currently writing, Spinning Days of Night, is based on her experience of losing her hearing and becoming a ‘bionic woman’ with implanted technology.)
Translators are Janus-faced creatures. We are in many ways devoted to looking back at the source text and its language and doing justice to our author’s idiom. However, the slippage between meanings, syntax, forms and cultural context mean we can never definitively recreate their words with our own, so our other face looks forward to an act of recreation over which we have control. Most of us need freedom to work within this paradigm – yes, we are extremely grateful for the author’s help with understanding a given turn of phrase, but that doesn’t mean we want them sitting beside us, watching intently and casting judgement as we attempt to recreate it in English. I feared it would be at best daunting and at worst stifling to have a bilingual author scrutinise what you have done with their words.
There was no avoiding it – this was collaboration, co-labour, two women delivering a linguistic love child from Spanish nativity to English surrogacy. It wasn’t easy, and at times Susana’s stubborn insistence on certain things was maddening, as I know mine was too. We had to find a way of working together, debating everything carefully and making discoveries, concessions and compromises along the way as the text and our pride would allow. I recall that Susana once objected to the use of the phrase “fat cats” for big businessmen, because her love of cats prevented her from accepting any negative feline references, but I put my foot down and it stuck.
Spending time together helped – as I say, this was a joint undertaking, and I needed to inhabit Susana’s world in order to get a handle on her experimental style, to comprehend its fragments and multiplicities of meaning and find a way of reassembling them in my own tongue. I visited her at home, met her partner (the visual artist Derek Ogbourne) and her cat and leafed through the myriad novels, magazines, folios, journals and art books that had influenced her as a young writer. We drank tea and occasionally wine, musing over autobiography, writing the other and what it meant to transpose the language of Cervantes into the language of Shakespeare. In short, we became friends. What better way to know your author, to get an almost palpable feel for their language.
It was a veritable literary adventure for both of us. Translation taught us more than we thought possible about the potential and limits of our respective mother tongues. I was humbled by working with a thoroughbred artist and writer; like many literary translators, I often fancy myself a creative writer, but rarely know where to start. I was blown away by Susana’s restless artistry, and her passion sparked my act of recreation.
As we worked together on Red Tales Cuentos Rojos, I learned that the blank page needn’t be daunting, especially when faced with an ally. I will close with some of my favourite lines from the final story in the collection, ‘The Space of the Tangible Hallucination,’ in which Ella, an artist, sees her life in the gleaming white of a blank canvas.
“This space will be a magic blank slate. A magic O. The impossibility of starting again from scratch is one of the great misfortunes of mankind. It may well be impossible to start from scratch, but Ella will create a virtual scratch: a space that generates moments where time dissolves and gives way to plenitude. This space is born in part of the snow-drenched landscape of a dream: she’s in Saint Petersburg or Leningrad or Stalingrad. It’s November and everything’s white, while she dreams of being white on the inside, people queue for vanilla ice cream in deep midwinter. The buildings are palest pink, pale blue, pale yellow. She wants to inhabit this fairy tale because the sheer verticality of her body and her heavy, dark-hued clothes contrast in a kind of aggression with the now horizontal purity of the snow. She wants to see herself in the snow. To be freshly fallen snow. Light: the vastness of snow is the vastness of the emptiness that detoxifies like a silent truth, a desert or a star-speckled night. Everything is white and pure and she wants to recreate this levity.”
Rosie Marteau took up translating from Spanish after a degree in modern languages and travels in Spain and Latin America. Her previous published work includes Washing Dishes in Hotel Paradise by Eduardo Belgrano Rawson, Hesperus Press 2010 and Red Tales Cuentos Rojos by Susana Medina, Araña Editorial 2013, translated with the author. Her translation of ‘Oestrogen’ by Susana Medina has been selected to feature in Best European Fiction, 2014, Dalkey Archive Press.