How a Mother-Daughter Translation Team Makes it Work
Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño: Not All Happy Families Are Alike
Our joint adventure in literary translation began quite by chance nearly three years and four translated novels ago in rural France, on a brief getaway to escape Barcelona’s intense July heat. The idea was sparked by a translation proposal that arrived as we were seated opposite each other at a long wooden table in front of our computers. Making the case for our collaboration, one of us suggested (though rather tongue-in-cheek, considering the skewed nature of the comparison) that we might emulate the celebrated translation duo formed by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. Who are they, asked the less experienced one of us—you may guess who—before immediately accepting the proposal. Our translation team thus constituted, we—Martha Tennent and Maruxa Relaño—set to work on our first joint project, a translation of A Man of His Word, a novel by Catalan author Imma Monsó, equal parts self-help book and moving autobiographical elegy to a departed husband.
We quickly learned that, in our case, the joys and perils of literary translation were deeply entwined with the nature of our cooperative unit: for better or worse, ours was a mother-and-daughter team. This meant, among other things, that self-restraint in one’s critique of the other’s work was sometimes painfully lacking; on other occasions, our biological bond freed us from the obligation of behaving civilly while simmering in veiled resentment toward the other’s clearly mistaken choices and it allowed us to storm out of the room at periodic intervals without irretrievably damaging the working relationship. After all, as the more senior translator (Martha) of us pointed out, one cannot very well divorce one’s daughter (Maruxa). Histrionics aside, things have run increasingly smoothly with each new project: we have found our mutual skillsets complimentary and, over time, we have fine-tuned our method of collaboration, which has included instituting a new family tradition of sorts: a working getaway during the final stages of revision which has thus far taken us to France, the Greek island of Corfu, and the Costa Brava.
We recently sat down for a conversation in which we reflected on aspects of our collaborative process, some of the lessons we have learned working together, the crucial importance of earl grey tea to our craft, linguistic retaliation at dawn, and the benefits of using instant messaging as a buffer against the dangers of a more analogic discussion. What follows is an edited version of our exchange.
Maruxa Relaño (daughter): Maybe we should start with a fairly prosaic question about our process. Would you describe it?
Martha Tennent (mother): Sure. Well, as you recall, at the beginning we had no process, so we had to come up with one. We briefly considered something à la Pevear and Volokhonsky, where you, whose Catalan is native, would do a quick, rough draft that would closely mirror the Catalan and I would later polish it into a more fluent, readable, stylistically appropriate version. But, since you are more of a writer than a translator, we quickly decided against this approach.
MR: Right, so we opted for simply splitting the text down the middle, choosing our parts, and then editing each other’s translation, and then swapping the text back and forth for however many editing rounds we could manage. I think this has worked rather well. Naturally, we each have our own writing style and ideas about how to tackle specific translation challenges. But gradually, with each round of editing, our voices meld and come together in a way that seems organic and reflects our interpretation of the original text. Would you agree?
MT: Yes. And I would say that, for both of us, reading the other’s translation against the original—checking every word, questioning meaning and syntax—during that first revision has also provided its lessons, because that is when you can see the initial building blocks of a translation, what the translator was trying to do before she set out to polish the work. For instance, reading your initial drafts I have seen reflected your passion for trying to capture the cadence and voice of the original text, rather than opting for a first version that was a more sanitized and safe, certainly correct, but flatter rendering of the original, as many do.
MR: Right. But, as you have often reminded me, in translating we are producing a completely new, stand-alone text that is ours, so we need to know when to be bold and break away from the original if by trying to stay too close to it we are weighing down the translation or putting too much idiomatic strain on the end result. You see the hand of the translator in the choice of lexicon, syntax, sound. And from reading your drafts, I have watched the notion of the translator as interpreter and co-creator of the original text in the receiving language come alive on the page. I would say, “That is not what the author said!” and you would respond “It is—read it again more closely—I just rewrote it somewhat!”
MT: Yes. I think we have both learned by working together, especially in our discussions during the final editing rounds, when we consolidate the two halves into the master copy. Once we reach this stage, only one of us makes any changes to the translation, though we both continue to revise. We try to read our translation aloud, as sound is extremely important. I think being physically together in this final stage is important when you are collaborating so closely.
MR: Well, as much as I enjoy your company, especially if the setting is the beautiful island of Corfu, I know that the only time we’ve been able to keep a cool head and avoid heated discussions in the final stages was when, because of other commitments, we were unable to be together and had to resort to instant messaging and Skype to work through the final revisions.
MT: And yet, arguments are enriching. But I would like to point out something that I believe is essential in any form of collaboration, which is trust. I think you need to have full confidence in your co-translator’s competence, whether it be competence in the source and target languages, the ability to write well, copyediting skills, and so forth. In my case, my co-translator’s Catalan is better than mine and her written English is equal to or better than mine; she’s also a fantastic editor.
MR: Thanks! And of course you aren’t at all biased…
MT: No. In this case I don’t believe I am.
MR: On that note, maybe we could talk a bit about how we’ve negotiated some of our disagreements.
MT: Well, in some cases we absolutely could not agree, so we had to compromise. For example, you recall how we handled the instances in which Adrià Guinart, the protagonist of Rodoreda’s War, so Much War, refers to his mother.
MR: Yes, I think the issue first came up when we were translating The Sea, by Blai Bonet. The contentious word was “mare,” which is literally “mother” in Catalan.
MT: To translate “mare” as “mom” would clearly have been too reductive. I wanted to use “Mamà,” which is a perfectly valid Catalan word, though “mare” is more frequently used. To me, the choice of “Mamà” was a way of emphasizing the foreignness of the text—which I think is important in a translation—as well as the intimate relationship of the character with his mother.
MR: And I argued that “Mamà” wasn’t a word we would normally use in modern-day English, nor was it the word used in the original text; I also thought it had a more elevated register than we were seeking and conveyed a certain affectation. In the end, we compromised: sometimes, we went with “Mamà,” others with “Mother.”
MT: I think, subconsciously perhaps, I had in mind the famous example in the opening line of Camus’s The Stranger that Mathew Ward altered from the previous translations to: “Maman died today.”
MR: Which brings us to the issue of intertextuality, especially as it relates to a minority culture such as the Catalan.
MT: Yes, every translator faces the problem of finding ways to communicate cultural difference, and translating from Catalan poses its own challenges, because we lack in English a sense of the literary and cultural traditions that have produced Catalan literature, something that does not occur, to return to the Camus example, with French.
MR: On the other hand, we are still speaking about a Western culture, so although the lack of familiarity, in the English-speaking world, with the Catalan culture and literary tradition is a challenge, we are not facing the task of translating entirely foreign ideological or societal constructs, ways of relating, or worldviews, as we might, I imagine, if we were working, say, from the Chinese or the Arabic.
MT: True. In our case, one of the ways to approach this problem of a lack of a known body of Catalan work in the English-speaking world is to translate into a tradition that readers are familiar with. But you need to take into account both traditions, in our case, the Catalan and the Anglophone, and as you lose the foreign context you seek to recontextualize in the receiving culture as you offer your interpretation of the original.
MR: For example, The Sea, by Blai Bonet, clearly belongs to the tradition of Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The Sea is also a novel of existential struggle, a coming-of-age story set in a sanatorium, with elements of strict realism and social critique, and the specter of death an always looming presence. In this case, we were very much aware of Mann’s work as we tackled the translation.
MT: For War, So Much War, we sometimes drew inspiration from the Gothic in Angela Carter and Edgar Allan Poe, for instance. In one particular passage, we had initially chosen the word “dusk,” then changed it to “gloaming,” and then, in a nod to Angela Carter, we borrowed from one of her short stories and went with “crepuscular gloaming.”
MR: And for Sebastià Alzamora’s Blood Crime (forthcoming from Soho Press) we reread The Big Sleep and other 1930s crime novels, as we tried to glean period-appropriate language and develop a lexicon from these readings.
MT: But in the end we decided not to draw too heavily on this lexicon to avoid over-Americanizing a narrative that is set in Barcelona in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. It might be worth mentioning here our frequent use of an etymology dictionary to ensure that the expressions we used, especially the police jargon, were current for the period.
MR: Yes. Trying to make the translated text fluid and readable sometimes calls for departures from the original, but I think it’s important to avoid inadvertently engaging in cultural and historical erasure as we translate, or else we might end up making a text set in 1930s Spain sound like 1930s Chicago, or even 2015 mainstream America! That said, a foreign author’s style can never be preserved intact in translation, so the negotiation is constant.
Perhaps we should end here by paying homage to the crucial role of Earl Grey tea to our craft.
MT: Definitely. I’d say a cup every two or three hours yields the best translation.
MR: Milk. No sugar. Closing thoughts?
MT: Well, I do have a confession to make. It’s about one of those sticking points where we couldn’t come to an agreement. Remember the hallucinatory passage in War, So Much War, where Adrià Guinart is traversing the forest and he is speaking about finding himself in the grip of a great fear?
MT: I wanted to capitalize “Great Fear,” as a way of personifying fear and emphasizing my interpretation. Personification is frequent in allegorical and Gothic tales, and War, So Much War has elements of both. But you didn’t agree.
MR: Right. This was a bit too interventionist for my taste, especially given it was a choice that the author herself had not made.
MT: We left it as “great fear,” uncapitalized, but, as I was the one in charge of putting the translation to bed and sending it off, I changed it back to caps after we parted late that night.
MR: That’s just great. But I have a confession of my own that might assuage your guilty conscience—I did the same when we were about to deliver A Man of His Word. After you had gone to sleep I put back in a phrase I thought worked nicely but you had declared out of the question.
MT: Let’s have it.
MR: I’m not telling—you’ll have to read the book again to find out!