On Translating the Musicality of Sentences From One Language to Another
Julia Sanches Considers the Poetry of Eva Baltasar’s Prose
Permafrost started as a prompt in a therapy session. “Write about your life,” the author’s therapist instructed, and Eva Baltasar obeyed. Before long she grew bored of the truth and began to inject fiction into her writing. She left therapy shortly after. This may be more anecdotal than it is revelatory, and yet it closes in on a quality I feel is integral to the text: its searching.
By the time Permafrost was first published in 2018, Eva Baltasar had written and published ten poetry collections. I think of Eva Baltasar first and foremost as a poet, and have always admired in her that curious impulsiveness I often attribute to poets. In her early twenties, for example, Eva moved to the mountains of Catalonia with her two-year-old daughter. Her nearest neighbor was a shepherd who lived three kilometers away. In exchange for milk and cheese, she helped the shepherd with his chores; she also used his washing machine. Meanwhile, she would write on the computers of her daughter’s school. There is a similar impulsiveness at work in the way our protagonist navigates the world, always seeking to find a home for herself on the margins of a conventional life.
Translator and author Jennifer Croft once spoke of identifying the “heart” of a novel, and how this can become key to its translation. Like an octopus, I believe a novel has several hearts. Aside from its searching, one of the heart-keys to Permafrost may be in the novel’s dedication: To poetry, for permitting it.
Marguerite Duras as translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan writes that “translation is not a matter of the literal exactitude of a text, but perhaps we must go even further: and say that it is more of a musical approach, rigorously personal and even, if necessary, deviant.” I learned one day over lunch with Eva Baltasar’s editor that her only condition during edits was that the word in question be replaced with one that was similarly stressed or unstressed, as the case may be. What mattered was how each word affected the music of the sentence, what this music conveyed, and how the music delivered up the image to the reader. An example:
Catalan: Jo em sentia cada dia més empetitida, reduïda, a una cortineta de cuina al seu costat.
My translation: I felt smaller and smaller by the day, next to her nothing but a frilly kitchen curtain.
Let’s look at the words in detail, or rather in musical detail. Hopefully my highlights have helped to make clear what’s at play in this sentence. It may be odd to speak of a sentence being moved in a certain direction—we read from left to right in English, so what other direction could it possibly go?—and yet there is a definite sense here of being ushered forward by the end rhymes (ee-ah, ee-ah, ee-dah, ee-dah) of the first clause as they flow into the head rhymes of the second (coo, coo, coo), and come to a sudden and dry stop: costat.
The image is a bit odd, or at least odd enough that it puzzled the English editor. One thing she wanted to know was: What is a kitchen curtain? Though the simile seemed obvious to me—“it’s one of those ridiculously tiny curtains that are sheer and mostly decorative,” I wrote in the comments—one thing I have learned from translating is that when an image is obvious to the translator but opaque to everyone else, there is often something missing. The fact that the editor had been puzzled by the image also raised several questions for me, all of which took me back to the dedication and helped inform the rest of my draft: Is it possible that the image owed its existence entirely to the musicality of the (Catalan) words? Had that felicitous, musical connection between the words cortineta and cuina not existed, would the author have arrived at this image at all? If so, what should I prioritize? Does the image take precedence over the music, or do I do my my best to maintain both? To what do I owe my contentious fidelity?
I keep returning to a phrase Duras uses in another essay of the same collection, when writing about her development as a writer. She writes: “It was with Moderato Cantabile . . . that I started to write—how should I put this—that I started to write nonsense in a given direction.” This feels true to me about poetry, and about this poet’s novel. Coupled with Duras’s other observation about translation and music, I choose to read “given direction” as in the direction of music, focusing on sound and rhythm and on the sheer musical materiality of language.
I’ve had to take a different approach in my translation of the kitchen curtain sentence, of course, and I’d like to zoom in on a small Durassian deviation: the word frilly. It may surprise you to find out there are no frills on the Catalan kitchen curtain. What “frilly” seeks to capture instead is a close reading of the simile, and especially a close reading of the diminutive, cortineta. As any Romance speaker knows intuitively, the diminutive inserts a variety of nuances into a word, ranging from smallness to tenderness, and to depreciation, not all of which can be captured by “little,” or “small,” or “wee.” The Catalan not only makes (a very natural) use of the diminutive, but also doubles down on the sense of demotion with the words “empetitida” and “reduïda.” I have tried to reflect this in the English version by creating a sense of progressive reduction in “smaller and smaller” and finally in the “nothing but” in order to give the reader the feeling—much like the sentence’s abrupt end with the word “costat”—that this is as small as our protagonist is able to feel in relation to the other character.
In a virtual lecture given at UMass just as the pandemic was beginning to send people into isolation, Jennifer Croft stated that what she wanted “to argue, ultimately, is that everything is indeed untranslatable if what translation is is making something new that stays the same. But that’s not what translation is.” When I think of discussions surrounding translation—of its possibility or impossibility—I often wonder whether the issue is not purely semantic, rather than practical. Would translation be quite so controversial if we were to simply call it something else? Would people still enter a translated text with as much suspicion if we called our little art something like “versioning” or “againing”? I am thinking of Kate Briggs when she writes: “Some new thing starts to get made in the frame of againness; something that is of the original, yes, but that will extend beyond the reach of it, the purview of it, since it is being made by someone else, by me now, and will be read, perhaps, by some or many others, all of them to come and for the moment elsewhere.”
I often think of translation as a “craft” in the sense of “a branch of skilled work.” “Craft” also contains a slew of other meanings, some of which are now technically obsolete and yet continue to haunt contemporary use of the word (a personal favorite is: “human skill, art as opposed to nature.”) And because of who I am, when I think of craft, I think of ceramics. Of the original as the first vessel the artist creates and which they—and often others—recreate with the raw material available to them. Bear with me; this is not a perfect analogy. I am not a ceramic artist, but a translator who makes pots; I am not an author, but a writer who makes translations. What I am trying to get at is that the raw material used in ceramics—clay—is by nature hyperlocal and that the potter is singular: no handcrafted piece is ever the same, because its making is a process that takes place across time and in a space subject to the whims of the weather (salinity, humidity, dryness), of the firing method.
John, the potter who runs the studio where I make ceramics, likes to remind us that with every vessel we create, we are entering something new into the world that cannot be completely destroyed, which calls to mind a line in Johannes Göransson’s Transgressive Circulation: “The danger of translation is not just that it makes the original yet another version, but that it infects the entire literary culture with a proliferation of versions.” I don’t imagine that John is trying to dissuade us from making, from experimenting, from bringing our strange little vessels into the world. He is simply alerting us to the existence of a responsibility. And this thought rests at the back of my mind as I translate.
From Permafrost by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches, winner of the 2018 Premi Llibreter from Catalan booksellers and shortlisted for France’s 2020 Prix Médicis for Best Foreign Book. Copyright 2021 (c) And Other Stories. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.