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Interview with Margaret Jull Costa

On first impressions, this interview with Margaret Jull Costa, happening as it did – for the most part – before we had ever met, might seem like the subject matter of a mysterious novel or short story by one of the many writers she has translated from Spanish or Portuguese. The reality, of course, is much more ordinary. Put in contact by the people at Norton, publisher of her most recent translation, The Land at the End of the World by António Lobo Antunes, we embarked on an interview via email.

 

Though beset by the occasional problem, either technological – both of us – or organisational – just me – in nature, this written correspondence seemed appropriate, allowing her as it did the opportunity to reflect upon her answers, revising and editing her words in the painstaking manner that is the duty of any literary translator, however accomplished or experienced. We then met up in Russell Square on a rather overcast day last July, where, contending with confident pigeons and disoriented tourists, we discussed her relationship with Spain and Portugal, with the novelists she has translated and their texts, and the identity of translated fiction, both in its own right and its standing in the UK publishing industry.

 

Margaret Jull Costa has translated the works of many Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American writers, including José Saramago, Javier Marías and Eça de Queiroz, bringing them – and herself – great critical acclaim in the English-speaking world. Our correspondence revealed her to be modest and humorous, passionately committed to the translator’s craft, though pragmatic too, unwilling to overcomplicate its process or overly lament its perception among readers. Her success in this most complex and vital of tasks can be owed to meticulous close reading, constant consultation and tireless revision, all channelled through a mind ever alert to the nuances of meaning and tone absorbed through reading and being in different cultures.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your most recent translation, António Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of The World, was first published in English in 1983. What prompted your re-translation? And how does the process of re-translation differ from the process of translating a previously untranslated text?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Bob Weil at Norton commissioned the new translation, I believe at the suggestion of Lobo Antunes’ former agent, Tom Colchie. I think they both felt that, nearly thirty years on, a fresh translation was needed of this remarkable book. As to the process of re-translating a book, I don’t feel that it is any different from translating a previously untranslated text. I treat it exactly as I would a new text.

Q

The White Review

— And how is that?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Good question! I read the whole book, then I do a first draft of the first chapter, re-read that draft against the original, print my draft translation out, do a couple more edits on paper, put those changes in, read it through again on screen, often out loud to myself, then move on to the second chapter. When the whole translation is done, I print it out, read it all again, two or three more times, sometimes out loud, sometimes not. I add any changes to the screen version, then print it out again, hand it over to my husband, who is always my first reader, and when he’s made his comments, I read it through once more on paper before putting any final changes in on screen.

 

Ideally, I like to have some space between drafts, but that’s not always possible. That whole process is interspersed with fact-checking, research, queries to the author (but not always) and queries (always) to my favourite and faithful native speaker consultants. When I feel the translation is as uneditable as I can get it, I send it off to the publisher.

Q

The White Review

— You have translated prolifically from both Spanish and Portuguese. Has the process of rendering a text ‘as uneditable as you can get it’ become less trying as your career has progressed, or is doubt still a major feature of your working day?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— I suppose I’ve got better at editing my own work, but I don’t know that it gets easier because I’m always trying to improve. The text that needs no further editing remains an as yet unattainable goal, and I’m always grateful to editors and proofreaders who find lurking imperfections. So to answer your question, yes, doubt is very much a feature of my working day, and an essential one at that.

Q

The White Review

— Do you have the luxury of choosing the authors whose work you translate? How does this process pan out?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— A publisher will write to me and ask if I would be interested in translating a certain book. Now, that is, that I’m ‘illustrious’! Initially, they wouldn’t write to me at all. Ideally, I try only to translate writers that I like, whose work I admire, although it doesn’t always work out like that. So a publisher will send me a book, I’ll read it and then decide whether I want to do it. But also I do tend to stick with certain authors – for example, Javier Marías and José Saramago. But that doesn’t necessarily preclude my taking on new authors, which is always exciting.

Q

The White Review

— What is the nature of these relationships with your writers? How much contact and collaboration goes on?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— It varies. Javier Marías is extremely helpful. I try not to bother him too much, because he has many translators, fifty or so, but he does know English very well, and of course he himself has translated too, so he understands the kind of things that I am asking about. I didn’t have that much contact with Saramago. I had more contact with his wife, with Pilar, who is his Spanish translator. With The Land at the End of the World, I didn’t consult Lobo Antunes at all (although I did when I translated the crónicas included in The Fat Man and Infinity). With The Land at the End of the World, the difficulty lay more in trying to find a convincing way of saying in English what Lobo Antunes was saying in Portuguese without losing the wild surrealism of his imagery.

Q

The White Review

— Lobo Antunes’s narrative is electrifying and often horrifying. Can you talk a bit about the experience of translating the voice of the author and of the narrator in The Land at the End of the World?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— The narrator/author (pretty much one and the same here, I think) is a man pushed to the very limits of sanity by his experiences as a medic in the colonial war in Angola. As the novel progresses, he gets gradually more and more drunk and, oddly, more and more lucid. The novel opens with an almost stream-of-consciousness avalanche of images and ends with him giving matter-of-fact directions home to his silent companion for the night. The difficulty for the translator, then, starts on the very first page and doesn’t really let up until those final pages.

 

What is one to make of ‘a solidão de esparguete da girafa’ on page one? Should I have translated that as ‘the spaghetti solitude of the giraffe’ rather than ‘the lofty, long-drawn-out solitude of the giraffe’, which was my final version? Does ‘spaghetti solitude’ mean anything in English? But then does ‘solidão de esparguete’ mean anything in Portuguese? Am I committing the translator’s cardinal sin of domesticating and explaining? Possibly, but those are the kinds of decisions I had to make all the time. Sometimes, the images slipped satisfyingly into English, for example, ‘as cobras enrolavam-se em espirais moles de cagalhão’ became ‘cobras lay coiled in soft, dungy spirals’; sometimes I simply went with what was there: ‘no tanque dos hipopótamos inchava a lenta tranquilidade dos gordos’ became ‘the hippopotamus pool exuded the languid sloth of the obese’.

 

As a translator, you have to be endlessly alert and adaptable and also (one hopes) as endlessly inventive as the author, and in this book, you need to capture, if you can, the hypnotic quality of the prose. Lobo Antunes pushes you further than most authors, which is what makes translating his work so exhilarating. The Land at the End of the World is a journey into the heart of darkness, and as with Conrad, that heart is a human one, but what saved it from being an overwhelmingly grim experience for me as a translator was the black humour that runs through it and the author’s virtuosic use of language.

Q

The White Review

— In translating Lobo Antunes and Saramago you have had close experience of Portugal’s two great novelists of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Can you describe the varying relationships you had with them and, perhaps, they had with each other?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Well, between them it was daggers drawn most of the time. I think they were two men very conscious of their greatness. They are so different and each has such an incredibly distinctive style. Saramago’s work became increasingly accessible, I think, while Lobo Antunes’s work is, I feel, getting increasingly inaccessible. The Land at the End of the World is one of his earlier books, and one of his most accessible because there is only one narrator. Elsewhere in his work you find multiple narrators. I think his novels are very moving and very brilliant, but by no means easy, and for a British or American audience they may seem too much like hard work. English-speaking readers tend – and I am generalising here, of course! – to be somewhat lazy and like to be led by the hand, and I can understand that. However, while Saramago’s prose may look frightening on the page, with all its long sentences and sparse use of punctuation, he is more obviously a storyteller than Lobo Antunes, and, as such, his novels are more inviting to the reader.

Q

The White Review

— Do your writers tend to be supportive of your work as a translator, or do you sense that they are protective of their work?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— They’re mainly very supportive, perhaps because they are so grateful to be translated into English, which is, at least potentially, such a big market for them. Although in reality, maybe not…

Q

The White Review

— What with appreciation for translated fiction not quite what it might be?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Obviously there are people who really do appreciate fine translations, but there is, otherwise, great ignorance of the skill involved in producing such a thing. This attitude may be more prevalent in Anglophone countries where more people tend to be monoglots and where there are far fewer books translated than elsewhere. People are always amazed at what a simultaneous translator does (as am I), but seem convinced that the literary translator is some kind of dictionary-bound plodder with few creative skills. And rather than feeling grateful that they can read a work they would not otherwise be able to, they seem to resent the translator for ‘getting in the way’ of ‘the real thing’.

Q

The White Review

— And do these frustrations extend to the UK publishing industry? A lot is made about the paucity of translated fiction in the UK and the USA, today translated fiction accounts for about 3% of the books published in the UK – what is your view?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Fortunately, in the UK, there are still publishers who are committed to publishing translations – Harvill Secker, Dedalus, Maclehose Press, Peirene Press, And Other Stories, Arcadia, are a few examples, and in the US, there is Edwin Frank at New York Review Books, who has a really bold publishing programme, as well as Barbara Epler at New Directions, Bob Weil at Norton and Drenka Willen at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. So it’s not all gloom and doom. And there are even some translations that are best-sellers – Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell obviously spring to mind – so even though British and American publishers translate far less than publishers in other parts of the world, there does appear to be a readership for some types of translated fiction. And translation prizes also help, I think, to boost the image of translation and translators, and there are quite a number of those now. One of these, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, which I was delighted to win alongside Javier Marías in 1997 for A Heart So White, is particularly good, because it’s the only one that gives equal weight to novels originally written in English and novels translated from another language into English. It’s the only prize that does that, I think.

Q

The White Review

— Could you talk a little about the process of searching for and identifying, and translating, the ‘voice’ of a narrative text, or of a character?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— I wouldn’t call it a search. There was an event recently where Nick Caistor and I translated the same passage from the new Javier Marías novel, independently, and then came together to compare and discuss our results. And they were very different. I mean, I’ve been translating Javier for about twenty years, so I do slightly feel like my voice is the voice… well, I think it is actually.  But, of course, every translator will produce a different version, because every reader or listener reads and listens differently. It does seem to me, though, that if you are very alert to the kind of language that the writer is using, and the cadence of the sentences, the author is essentially telling you what words you should be using in English. So you’re not searching for a voice, because it’s there.

 

I think a bit of a big deal is made of this, but if you are a sensitive reader and a sensitive writer, then it’s fairly obvious. And as I’ve mentioned already, reading the text aloud is essential. That way you hear repetitions, faulty cadences, especially with somebody like Saramago or Marías, where the sentences are often so long and have to be as fluent and meaningful in English as they are in the original. I think reading aloud is the only way you can really achieve that.

Q

The White Review

— Is there a single text or author that you have worked on or with that has led to more head-scratching than any other, either from a methodological viewpoint, or for more profound reasons pertaining to their style, voice or anything else?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— All books have their difficulties, but the one I found hardest (so far – other challenges doubtless lie ahead) was The Crossing by Luís Cardoso, a memoir set half in East Timor and half in Lisbon, but steeped in East Timorese legends, language, history and references. I normally try not to bother authors with too many queries, but in this case, I had no option, and Luís Cardoso was wonderfully helpful. It made me realise how crucial it is to know not just the language (the book was written in Portuguese), but also the culture. This may seem obvious, but the experience of translating The Crossing really brought it home to me.

Q

The White Review

— You mentioned earlier the cardinal sin of ‘domestication’, and therefore allude to the idea of ‘foreignising’ a text when translating it.

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— I think a translator inevitably moves back and forth between ‘domestication’ and ‘foreignisation’ (these are not my terms, by the way!), But, yes, any translated text, if it is to have a life of its own (and that, for me, is the mark of a good translation), has to pass through the conduit not just of the new language, but also through that of the translator’s own imagination and linguistic experiences. Many people are very suspicious of translations – ‘Of course, it’s only a translation;’ ‘I wonder what it says/sounds like in the original’; ‘In this other translation, it says…’ – and those are, in a way, all valid comments, but I always find them terribly wounding, because I want to create a text that has its own integrity, that is, miraculously, both true to the original and true to itself. And that is the miracle of a good translation, not to be invisible, but to be as seductively fresh and original as the original.

Q

The White Review

— How did you get into the world of literary translation? Was there an epiphanic moment, or was it more of a gradual progression?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— If there was an epiphanic moment, it was when I started studying for A-Level Spanish. I remember translating a passage from Nada by Carmen Laforet and feeling immense pleasure in the process of turning her Spanish words into my English words. When I went to Bristol University when I was 24, I had a wonderful teacher, Phil Polack, who was himself a brilliant translator and who always encouraged my enthusiasm for translation. Apart from various ambitious, self-imposed and never-completed translation projects – e.g. to translate the whole of Pessoa – I didn’t start translating professionally until 1984, when Bill Buford, then editor of Granta, asked me to translate a short piece by Gabriel García Márquez. I subsequently did various other short pieces for Granta, and Bill gave me various publishing contacts, none of which bore fruit initially, until, in 1987, Andrew Motion (who was working at Chatto & Windus at the time) wrote to ask if I would do a sample translation of El héroe de las mansardas de Mansard (translated as The Hero of the Big House) by Álvaro Pombo. He liked my sample, I translated the novel and haven’t stopped translating since.

Q

The White Review

— Your first commission in 1984 was to translate Gabriel García Márquez, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. This must have seemed like manna from heaven?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— It did seem an extraordinary stroke of luck, and I’ve continued to be lucky with my authors, so, yes, it was a very good start, and a lovely piece of writing too – ‘Watching the rain in Galicia’.

Q

The White Review

— Have you spent extended periods of time living in Spain or Portugal yourself? If so, what effects have these experiences had on your career as a translator?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— I lived in Madrid for a year and two years in Portugal, in Coimbra, where I worked as leitora inglesa at the university. I go back to both countries fairly often, partly in order to refresh my knowledge of the ordinary everyday things that are done and said. And I suppose time spent in a country always feeds into your ability to understand and translate, in particular, cultural references. The same is true of English. Everything I hear and read feeds into my translating mind, for example, hearing John Humphrys on Today using the expression ‘willy-waving’ or my hairdresser referring to her sister-in-law-to-be as Bridezilla. I store it all away for future possible use. In this respect, the internet is also a major help. If there’s some expression or word in Spanish or Portuguese that I don’t know and that doesn’t appear in any of my dictionaries, I can Google it, and nine times out of ten find it in a context that makes the meaning clear. Having access to the Internet is like having a vast reference library in your own home, particularly good if you need a picture of some object or building, but invaluable for all kinds of things and people of which I have no knowledge (of which there are many).

Q

The White Review

— What initially drew you to the Iberian peninsula?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— When I was eighteen, my brother had a girlfriend who worked in Spain, and so he and I drove down to visit her. It was the first time I’d ever been abroad, and I just loved it. I mean when you are eighteen, Spain is very, very exciting. I fell in love with the language, and that’s what prompted me to start learning it properly. With both Spanish and Portuguese, my interest was sparked by hearing the language or actually living in the country.

Q

The White Review

— And you’d always read a lot before?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Yes, I’d always read a lot. If this doesn’t sound too pretentious, and given that life is entirely random, I do feel as if my training to be a translator began very early on, when I didn’t even know what a translator was. As a child, I always read a lot and was taken to the library every Saturday to get more books. We had no TV, but listened every evening to the radio, which is the verbal medium par excellence. Not that we listened to anything highfalutin, but comedy shows like The Navy Lark, The Glums, and, of course, The Goon Show. I have a sense that all those things were filling my brain with words and ways of using words and playing with them, that they communicated to me the sheer pleasure one can get from language.

Q

The White Review

— Had you read literature in translation widely before beginning your career as a translator?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Well I had, but not necessarily in a deliberate or especially critical manner. Like most people, I was never really conscious that a book had been translated. When I was allowed into the ‘adult’ library, I read all of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and most of Ibsen’s and Chekhov’s plays (long before I ever saw them on stage), but was completely unaware that these were translations. Obviously, I hate it now when people read translations without realising that they are translations, but I can understand it. And I was only young! But I didn’t read those novels with a critical eye, I just read them because I loved them.

Q

The White Review

— What about writing? Did you ever pursue this as an activity in its own right?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Well as a child, a rather strange child I sometimes think, I made my own newspaper, and I wrote everything in it. It didn’t have a name… In fact I think there was probably only one edition. I fussed a lot over it, even putting in the fashion items and everything, all the supplements. And I used to write poetry, awful, awful poetry, but I think that’s something everyone should do. And I still write poetry – perhaps slightly less awful.

Q

The White Review

— What made you decide to continue your language studies formally?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— I went to Bristol University to study Spanish, well, I actually went there to study Catalan, but just before going to Bristol, I saw this amazing Brazilian film called Black Orpheus, which I thought was just wonderful, and again I fell in love with the language. So when I eventually started at university, I opted to learn Portuguese instead of Catalan.

Q

The White Review

— Did you spend more time in Spain or Portugal after those initial visits to Cataluña?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— I lived in Madrid for a year, in 1975. The revolution had just happened in Portugal in 1974, and so we’d take the night-train to Lisbon to savour a bit of freedom, and then in November 1975, Franco died. It was an extraordinary time, and there was an almost immediate sense of change in Spain. A few months after his death you’d start to see the sorts of magazines in the newsstands that you never would have seen under Franco. There was also in general a slightly nervous air, because nobody knew what would happen, but also a very celebratory air. I remember the long queues of people lining up to see his body. Mischievous people joked that they were only queueing up to make absolutely sure that Franco was dead.

Q

The White Review

— Is a literary translator’s career a solitary one?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— It is in the sense that you spend most of the time alone with the text and your computer, but in another way, translating is curiously companionable, because you do have the text as your companion, and are not stuck with a terrifyingly blank page. I’ve also made good friendships with my editors, with some of my authors, with other translators, and with some readers too. For example, I became friends with the fencing expert who advised me when I translated Pérez-Reverte’s The Fencing Master. So solitary, yes – necessarily so – but not lonely.

Q

The White Review

— You must have built up several of these specialisms – is it part of the excitement of your work that it takes you into realms you might never have ventured into as an author yourself?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— I don’t know that I’ve built up any specialisms, but, as a translator, you do need to have a facility for acquiring specialist vocabulary, from ceramics to funerary statues to agricultural implements to chess, or areas of knowledge, like the Carlist Wars in Spain. With The Fencing Master, I found the terminology so arcane, that I knew it really wasn’t something I could simply pick up on my own. My consultant, David Morton (now, alas, dead), very kindly checked all the sections containing detailed descriptions of fencing bouts or tactics. Otherwise, I would have been lost. But, yes, researching such things is one of the pleasures of translation.

Q

The White Review

— Translators could be described as the closest readers of a text. Do you agree? And has your work as a translator had much of an effect on the way you approach reading any text?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Yes, definitely. A good translator probably knows the text more intimately than the original author. And I think translating does train you to be a very close reader of any text, in that it sensitises you to choice of word, register, rhythm, etc.

Q

The White Review

— What are your reading habits now? Do you find it hard to take off your translator’s hat?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Yes. I don’t tend to read a lot of contemporary fiction, apart from in Spanish and Portuguese, and in French I’ve just discovered Philippe Claudel. Right now I’m reading Proust, albeit very, very slowly. I’ve been trying to improve my French, so I go once a fortnight to see my teacher, Nicole, and I had the idea that we could read something together. And I have always wanted to read Proust. I started when I was about eighteen, in English, but, like most people, abandoned it after about two and half volumes. So now we are working our way through it – we have done twenty pages a fortnight for four years so far. We’re currently on La Prisonnière, so just a few more volumes to go…

 

And I’m also a member of a reading group in Leicester, where we spend ten weeks at a time on a particular author or book (Ulysses, Middlemarch, War and Peace,the whole of Jane Austen or Larkin or Chekhov’s stories, that kind of thing). We’ve just read Robert Chandler’s anthology of Russian short fiction, which is absolutely wonderful. It is extraordinary that such writers existed in that climate. Russia has never had an easy time, and yet these writers, against all the odds, succeeded in creating such masterpieces.

Q

The White Review

— We touched on the field of translation theory earlier… How important a role does theoretical writing on translation play in your methodology?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— None.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think that the academic study of translation has its merits in terms of teaching people to reflect on the translation process?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— I don’t mean to dismiss translation theory, because the process of translation is a very odd and possibly indecipherable one. However, literary translation itself, like playing a musical instrument, is something that requires a lot of practice, and however much theory you may know, it’s worthless unless you put in those eight hours a day of practice. People can only really learn about the translation process by doing some translation themselves.

Q

The White Review

— You are teaching on a summer school at the Institute for Germanic & Romance Studies. What advice do you give to your students of translation most often? And what do you take away from the experience of teaching others to translate?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Edit and revise, edit and revise, and read your translation out loud. Teaching translation (if such a thing is possible) makes me realise how difficult translation is, and how vital it is to have a thorough knowledge of your own language. Without that, however fluent you might be in the other language, you will never be a good translator. As for the experience of teaching others to translate, I’ve really enjoyed the collaborative process and being with other people as enthusiastic as I am about translation. And to contradict what I said above about the non-loneliness of the long-distance translator, I think I really enjoyed the company! And I learned a lot too.

Q

The White Review

— Is there a single work of translation that you find particularly astonishing in its achievement? And conversely, can you think of any major works that have so far and for whatever reason escaped translation?

A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust. People are rather sniffy about it now, but it still seems to me an amazing achievement, and unlike the recent Penguin translation, in which each volume was given to a different translator, it has a unifying voice in English. It’s probably not perfect, and even Proust took issue with him over some of the titles, but it has a real presence as a work of literature itself. As for major works as yet untranslated, there’s La Casa by the Argentinian novelist, Manuel Mujica Láinez and Uma família inglesa by the Portuguese writer, Júlio Dinis. And I’m sure there are others in other languages I know nothing about.

Q

The White Review

— Returning to Proust, is this an example of where a work of translated fiction has gained such an identity independently of the original work that it has itself entered into the literary canon?
A

Margaret Jull Costa

— Yes, indeed. I would say that Scott Moncrieff and Constance Garnett are probably the only two translators that people might have heard of. Translating À la Recherche was such an immense feat, such a labour of love. The Penguin version lacks that same impact. Remembrance of Things Past came out right after Proust had finished the original, virtually… he was still alive when Scott Moncrieff was translating. It seems to me a crucial work in its own right. Some people dismiss it as too old-fashioned, but it is a remarkable piece of work. And when I was re-reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina recently, I read the translations by Aylmer and Louise Maude, who knew Tolstoy, and their translations, too, seemed to me totally fresh. There are always new translations being made of these classic texts, but they are not necessarily improvements. Having said that,  I have done ‘fresh’ translations myself, of Eça de Queiroz, and, inevitably and arrogantly, I feel that they are an improvement!

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Sam Gordon is a freelance translator working from French and Spanish. He is originally from Aberdeenshire but is currently living in London.


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