The Spanish Riveter: A Tour of Spanish Writing by Margaret Jull Costa

This will doubtless sound unbearably smug, but I have been extremely fortunate in the Spanish authors I’ve been asked to translate, right from the very start. Álvaro Pombo’s delightful and eccentric novel El héroe de las mansardas de Mansard (translated as ‘The Hero of the Big House’, and which really deserves to be reprinted) was my first commission, and quite a challenge for a novice like me with its stream-of-consciousness monologues from the wonderfully garrulous Maria del Carmen Villacantero. That experience made me realise how inexperienced I was, and also, and possibly more importantly, how vital it is for the translator to be both translator and editor, since they know the text better than anyone, possibly even better than the author. My next commission was Todas las almas (‘All Souls’) by Javier Marías, the first of his novels to be translated into English, and my first encounter with his work and his long, looping sentences. Again, this was a challenge, but fortunately, as a fan of nineteenth-century literature, I love long sentences, and so it did feel very much like a meeting of minds. I remained his principal English translator for thirty years, until his death last September. That long relationship proved particularly necessary because, in his subsequent novels, he often refers to previous works, and to previous characters and what they said, as if they were all members of the same family – which they are.

Then came Bernardo Atxaga’s Obabakoak, which another translator (luckily for me) did not have time to translate. That book, possibly still my favourite Atxaga, is a series of semi-connected stories, some set in the Basque Country, others in Germany, France, China and Iran, thus giving that so-called orphan language Euskara its proper place in world literature. There began another long translatorial friendship, for I’m still translating him now, thirty years on. And, yes, I do that much-frowned-upon thing: I translate from his Castilian translation of his Basque original. I have asked him about this several times, and he insists that he doesn’t mind at all. So I needn’t feel too guilty, need I? 

Ramón del Valle-Inclán is better known for his plays, but I was lucky enough to be asked to translate his four novellas, the glorious Sonatas (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter), with their wildly over-the-top prose. Just to give you a flavour:

‘The wine laughed in the glasses, and the Spanish guitar, the sultan of the feast, wept over its Moorish jealousies and its love affair with the white moon of the Alpujarras … Chinese and Japanese merchants passed us, buffeted by the hot whirlwind of the market, their hair lank, their faces glum, not a tremor of joy shaking their long pigtails …’

Then there is another too-little-known (by English readers) classic, El Jarama (‘The River’) by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, which combines a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, superb descriptions of the river and the night, and the sense of a country haunted by the past, by death, the River Jarama being the site of the 1937 Battle of Jarama, in which both sides, Republicans and Nationalists, suffered huge losses.

I should also mention Carmen Martín Gaite, who was, for a time, married to Sánchez Ferlosio. I have only translated two of her novels, Nubosidad variable (‘Variable Cloud’) and La Reina de las Nieves (translated for some reason as ‘The Farewell Angel’). They inhabit a very different world to the books of Sánchez Ferlosio, full of interior landscapes inhabited largely by women navigating their way through life. Variable Cloud is a particular favourite for many reasons, and I still often think of one especially moving chapter towards the end of the book, narrated by a mother returning as a ghost, but unaware she is a ghost, to the apartment she had lived in all her life:

‘I go out into the dark corridor, I count the steps to the next door, then from that door to the next, and then on to the next. The distances coincide with the approximate geography of touch that is evolving inside me, like a map with corrections superimposed on it.’

There are also the stories of Medardo Fraile. I translated a collection of these under the title Things Look Different in the Light, and they are little gems of prose, brimming with humour and insight into ordinary people’s lives. An additional pleasure was being able to send him my translations for his approval – and that of his wife and daughter. He died, alas, shortly before the book was published.

I worked equally closely with Jesús Carrasco on his visceral (I use the word advisedly!) novel Intemperie (‘Out in the Open’), the account of a young boy fleeing sexual abuse and befriending an old goat herd. The novel is full of detailed descriptions of landscapes and places and agricultural equipment. I simply could not have translated it without Jesús sending me drawings and illustrations, and explanations of everything from pack saddles to aqueducts to candlesticks to windpumps, and I learned rather more than I wanted to about disembowelling goats. 

I have also translated the great nineteenth-century writers Benito Pérez Galdós and Leopoldo Alas (also known as Clarín); both of whom, I think, are far funnier than Dickens, and far more realistic about male-female relationships.

And that completes my tour. Tours of other authors are, of course, available, but I hope you have enjoyed this one.

By Margaret Jull Costa

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter page.

Category: The Spanish RiveterBlogs


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *