An interview with Margaret Jull Costa

Julia Sanches and Megan Berkobien

It was Margaret Jull Costa who wrote, "Some, the prophets and saints who walk this vacuous world, are exploited by God himself." Or perhaps Pessoa wrote it first, but not in English; probably he couldn't even have done so. What Pessoa gave us was this: "Há os que Deus mesmo explora, e são profetas e santos na vacuidade do mundo." Yet now, we needn't even consider the possibility of a world where this singular, scintillating insight would be exclusively available to speakers of Portuguese.

And if that weren't enough, Jull Costa has opened the door to the worlds of Javier Marías, Eça de Queiroz, José Saramago, and Bernard Atxaga, to name but a few, sharing their characters' insights, ambitions, and perceptions with English speakers around the world. For this, she has won a treasure trove of awards such as the 1997 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for her version of Javier Marías's
A Heart So White, the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize for José Saramago's All the Names, and the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize on three separate occasions.

—Julia Sanches and Megan Berkobien

Do you find there's a particular sensibility that attracts you to the texts you translate? Something in common within the writing of Fernando Pessoa, Eça de Queiroz, Javier Marías, and José Saramago, for example?

I'm attracted to writers who are as interested in how they say something as in what they are saying, writers who have a superb grasp of their own language. This means I have to try and write at their level, and I can trust absolutely that they know what they're doing. So, while these texts are difficult to translate, in other ways they are easier than a simpler but more loosely written text, because I can trust the writers' choice of word, register, length of sentence, and so on. I like authors who have a strong authorial voice, rather than a flat, neutral voice where I can find it hard to get my bearings.

On the other hand, is there something characteristically difficult about translating each of these authors? Which of these authors has been easiest for you to render into English, and which the hardest? Why?

Every author has his or her own particular difficulties. I don't think any of these authors has been exactly easy to translate, and they are all difficult in their own way. Pessoa is hard because he can be so oblique and does such strange things with language. Eça is both a consummate stylist and very funny, and, in nineteenth-century fashion, he really packs a lot of information into a sentence, which can be a challenge. And then there are the long sentences of Marías and Saramago, but English is such a flexible language that it's really just a question of patiently piecing all those clauses together to make a seamless utterance. Henry James could do it, and Scott Moncrieff managed when he translated Proust, so why shouldn't I?!

What are your thoughts on taking on projects that aren't suited to your authorial voice, but that you simply can't pass up for one reason or another?

I have a secret fear that perhaps all the writers I translate sound like me, but I hope that, like any good actor or musician, I can adapt to most voices, most sounds. What matters to me is the quality of the writing and the material itself. I go through my translation again and again, and reading and rereading a mediocre text is not much fun, so, essentially, I try to stick with good authors, and I have been incredibly lucky with the authors I've been asked to translate.

How has your experience been working with these authors? For example, is there a line that can be crossed in the process?

The relationship between translator and author is always one of trust, and so far I've been very fortunate with my authors. Javier Marías speaks excellent English and has himself translated such writers as Laurence Sterne and Robert Louis Stevenson, but while he is very willing to answer any queries I have, he rarely comments on my final version, because, he says, it's my decision, my version. With Bernardo Atxaga it's the same. He trusts me to produce an appropriate English version of his work. When an author has good English, I'm happy for them to read through my translation and comment. What matters to me is that the author should trust me completely, but—a large but—since I am the native speaker, I would also expect to be allowed final say on the English. So far, this has worked!

How did you go about the process of finding a publisher for your translations in the beginning?

In 1984, I did a translation for Granta magazine, which was based in Cambridge at the time and under the editorship of Bill Buford. He very generously provided me with a list of likely publishers who might take me on as a translator. I wrote to them all, on the basis of that one brief translation, and eventually, after a long silence, Chatto & Windus (in the person of Andrew Motion, no less) wrote back asking me to do a sample of a novel by Álvaro Pombo, El heroe de las mansardas de Mansard. Chatto liked the sample, and I translated the book. Once I had done that first translation, I was able to approach other publishers. Then Guido Waldman, late of Harvill, wrote to me to ask if I would translate Todas las almas by Javier Marías, and Pete Ayrton of Serpent's Tail asked if I would like to translate O livro do desassossego. I really have been extraordinarily lucky that, almost from the start, publishers have trusted me to translate some formidably difficult books.

Granta recently came out with their first ever "Best of Young Brazilian Novelists" in their June 2012 edition. What did you think of it? Was there anyone in particular you thought should have been included but was left out?

I still haven't read the whole anthology, but the authors I did read, like Michel Laub (whose story I translated), Vinicius Jatobá, Tatiana Salem Levy, and Carola Saavedra, I thought were very good. Also, I'm hardly a world authority on contemporary Brazilian literature, so can't really say who should have been included, plus they had to be under a certain age, which automatically excluded writers like Adriana Lisboa.

In general, are there any contemporary poets/writers in the Lusophone world whom you think people should be paying more attention to? Which ones are you most dying to translate yourself?

I very much liked O teu rosto sera o último by João Ricardo Pedro, and I like the novels of Ana Teresa Pereira, the Madeiran writer. Otherwise, I'm drawn back to the nineteenth century and Júlio Dinis, who has never been translated into English, and to the poetry of Pessoa's friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro.

Saudade is often said to be one of those untranslatable Portuguese words. How would you describe it? What other words in Portuguese or in Spanish have you found difficult to render into English? What have been some of the strategies you have used when no direct translation has readily availed itself? Tell us about some memorable examples.

Saudade is untranslatable in the sense that it can mean many different things,  and so each time you translate it, you will probably need a different word or words—it might be homesickness, longing, yearning, or as banal as "I really miss you." Patria is always awkward, because "fatherland" and "motherland" often have the wrong connotations in English. Barrio is another odd one, because although nowadays people might know the word, it still doesn't necessarily fit the style or register of the text you're translating. And then, of course, there's food and drink. Again, now that our own knowledge of food has expanded, this is easier, but sometimes it may simply be irrelevant to the English reader what exact kind of cake is being offered or eaten. In Seeing, I worked quite closely with Saramago's then Dutch translator, Maartje de Kort, swapping problems and solutions. We had a long correspondence about the exact kind of bolo the undercover police superintendent was eating. These were bolos que pareciam feitos de granito de açúcar, which didn't sound like any bolos I had ever eaten. Maartje thought she had found a recipe for the right kind of bolo and sent me some that she made. In the end, I had to settle for "biscuits"—"the biscuits were like sugary granite"—simply because that seemed more likely, the point being that they were unappetising, a bit like dog biscuits perhaps. A fuss about nothing? Yes, but the journey there was interesting.

In a talk at the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, you said that All The Names was your favorite of Saramago's novels partly because it was the first that you translated. What compels you about this novel, and why, apart from the reason mentioned above, does it continue to be your favorite? How do you feel about Saramago's posthumously published novel that you translated, Clarabóia? The styles are markedly different. What were your experiences translating each of these novels? Do your favorite novels typically end up the ones that you most loved translating, or are translators allowed this disconnect?

All the Names is the last novel in which Saramago goes in for rich, striking descriptive passages, in this case of rain and darkness and discomfort. His style becomes much sparer in his subsequent books. I loved that physicality, that awareness of the natural world. I also loved the way he could take an apparent nonentity like Senhor José and show us his tentative progress into full humanity. I don't start translating Clarabóia until later this year, but, yes, it is entirely orthodox in punctuation and sentence length. The preoccupations are the same, though—the lives and struggles of ordinary people. As to favorite books: translators, like parents, probably shouldn't have favorites, but there are, inevitably, writers and books that I feel closer to than others, and it's usually to do with the pleasure of reproducing a particular style and of being immersed in a particular world. Eça remains my great love because he combines style and humor and character and plot and is never simply a realist or a naturalist. There's always an element of fantasy.

You've quoted Saramago on his style in Raised from the Ground as saying: "I saw that I would only be able to write it if I did so as if I were actually telling the story. That could not be done by putting so-called oral language into writing, because that's impossible, but by introducing into my writing a mechanism of apparent spontaneity, apparent digression and apparent disorganisation in the discourse." Could you tell us more about his style, its evolution, as well as its connection with his ideological beliefs (you've also said that he was a declared anarcho-communist and atheist)?

I think that quote really says it all. By abolishing all punctuation apart from commas and full stops, he was able to create a strong narrative voice, a storyteller's voice, that draws the reader in and leaves the author with total liberty to go off at tangents, taking the reader with him. Latterly, Saramago also got rid of capital letters for names as well, thus erasing all social distinctions, the mahout in The Elephant's Journey being just as important as the king.

You've translated five of Bernardo Atxaga's novels into English, most recently Seven Houses in France. Since you were working from a translation that the author had completed with his wife from the Basque, did you find yourself curious about the original? How do you feel about translating from a translation, not directly from the original?

I frequently ask Bernardo if he's happy with me, a non–Basque speaker, translating his books, and he always says yes, adding that translating directly from Basque into English might be too big a leap! He's a very kind man, so that may just be kindness on his part! If I wasn't translating from his or his wife Asun's translation, I would have misgivings, but since it is still his work (and he regards himself as bilingual and writes in both languages), I'm happy to take his Castilian version as my original. I do still harbour plans to learn Basque one day. I'm curious to find out more about that big leap.

Brian Fitch argues in Beckett and Babel: An Investigation into the Status of the Bilingual Work that "the writer-translator is no doubt felt to have been in a better position to recapture the intentions of the author of the original than any ordinary translator." At the same time there are those who are skeptical of the editorial processes involved in self-translation (Joseph Brodsky, for example, was known to add new sections to his poems in his English translations). What do you think of self-translation? Did knowing that Atxaga's text was self-translated affect how you viewed it? How so?

Most sensible authors do not translate their own work, and often find it liberating (or terrifying) to let someone else (re)write their book in another language. The translation will, inevitably, be a different thing from the original, but not necessarily a worse thing. As for being able to recapture the intentions of the author, the translator must be a very close, attentive reader, but cannot also be expected to be a mind-reader. That's why it's so valuable to be able to ask the author what he or she meant, although, as authors often admit, they are not always entirely sure themselves. As for Atxaga's self-translations, I know (because he has told me) that the Castilian version is often different from the Basque version, because things change as you shift from one language to another, and, since the editing of a text is a never-ending process, some self-editing is bound to occur.

Your keen sense of register and timbre expertly captured the ambient tensions in Seven Houses in France, especially considering you had to work with bits of French throughout. How did you go about translating for an audience that might not be familiar with the novel's many languages? Is there a middle road between foreignization and domestication?

I didn't, to be honest, find the different languages particularly difficult to deal with, and where I felt the reader might have difficulty, I simply translated the French. But as for foreignization and domestication, it seems to me that the translator is always moving back and forth between the two, constantly making decisions as to whether to stay closer to the original or to move away. The aim is to produce a text that reads as if it had been written in English, but without misrepresenting or distorting the original. And that's tricky.

In Atxaga's Obabakoak, the narrator's literary uncle is visited by the Basque writer Axular, who champions plagiarism as it is more likely to lead to "very fine results, which is not always the case with creative texts." Would you say that of translation?

I suppose translation is an acceptable form of plagiarism, really! And just as a bad translation can traduce an original text, a very good translation can enhance it. What I aim to do is to produce something that is a fine text in its own right. It's the writing process I love, but without having had to go to the trouble of inventing plot and character. So, yes, it would seem that I am a plagiarist in disguise!