Carlos Ruiz Zafón on Translation

English: Carlos Ruiz Zafon at the Edinburgh In...

English: Carlos Ruiz Zafon at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


There was a Mumsnet Book Club webchat with Carlos Ruiz Zafón yesterday about his latest book, The Prisoner of Heaven, tr. Lucia Graves. Given that everybody on the webchat was discussing the English translation of the book, it would have been nice if the translator had been included in the chat, but I guess we can’t have everything and maybe there was some reason why that wouldn’t have worked out beyond nobody thinking of it. Still, the conversation came round to translation, naturally enough, and it was interesting for all kinds of reasons and exposed some underlying attitudes that raised my eyebrows and/or hackles.


One poster said, depressingly:


“I usually avoid books that have been translated and wouldn’t have picked this out myself (which is the great thing about this book club) but really enjoyed it”.


Here’s hoping that this will have cured that antipathy to translation in at least one reader.


Somebody else asked:


“Does Carlos work with his translators to make sure they convey this atmosphere effectively? Or does he just leave them to it? (I have to say that this doesn’t have any of the awkwardness you sometimes get with a translation.)”


While I could do without the assumption of awkwardness, at least this showed some serious interest.


Then there was:


“am utterly fascinated about the translation, and have a few questions about it:-

1) Is Lucia an utter genius, and does her translation utterly adhere to every word, or does she re-write it into English with slight alterations to the original?

2) How closely do you work with her on the translation? Do you talk face to face? Is it a collaboration, or do you simply send her the manuscript and liaise online?


This last poster was interested and taking the process seriously, I’m glad to see. So how did the author respond?


“Translation? Nothing lost there. I am extremely involved, to say the least, in the process and I do personally rewrite, edit and refine a lot of it until I think it is perfect and you don’t lose a precious ounce of it. Plus, I believe readers in English have a huge misconception about the translation process. They seem to believe translators “rewrite” the books, add things or shape them in any way. That is not translating. A translation, if well done, is invisible and gives you the original, nothing less and certainly nothing more.”


OK, so here my hackles are rising. Interfering author? I hope that the translator also gets to rewrite, edit and refine until she also believes it’s perfect. “A translation, if well done, is invisible…” Well, sometimes. That’s a rather sweeping statement. Yes, I personally prefer an approach that makes things as fluent and readable as possible, but some more foreignising approaches can be equally successful and would be preferable for certain texts. You also certainly can’t say that, for example, Anthea Bell‘s wonderful translations of Asterix give you “the original, nothing less and … nothing more”. There are jokes in her Asterix that are impossible in the French to make up for the ones that are impossible in the English, and so on. But I defy anyone to say that they’re not well done.


Lucia is very talented, which is why she does not, repeat, does not rewrite anything. That is not what translators do. For some reason readers in English are convinced that when something is translated into their language it is entirely reshaped, rephrased, rewritten and remade. It is not the case.


Uh-huh. It depends what you mean by “re-writing”, I suppose. You could equally say that anything translated into English is 100% reshaped, rephrased, rewritten and remade. After all, it started in Spanish, say, and is now written in a completely different language, using entirely different words. See my post on domestication and foreignisation in Red Rage for two approaches to the same book. See also Daniel Hahn’s reworking of Happiness is a  Watermelon on Your Head. This isn’t the usual approach though, and we do normally stick very closely to the source text.


“And I do work very closely with her, rewriting, re-editing and re-doing everything I feel is necessary so when you read the translation you read just that, which is, an exact and precise transposition of the original. Nothing else, nothing more.”


Hmm. See above.


“Ruiz Zafon is one of my favourite authors ever but I am Spanish and have read all his books in Spanish. I believe his command of the Spanish language is a fantastic one and what he does with it when he writes is very much part of the story itself. Accordingly, my question to him would be about the English translations of his novels. What does he think about them? A lot is lost in those translations. Does it not bother him? Does he agree? Thanks a lot!”


Ah, “lost in translation” – my least favourite cliché.


“I think I addressed the translation issue in one of the other answers, so in the spirit of expediency, I won’t repeat it here. But yes, language is everything in literature and stories are actually not about “what they are about” but about how they’re told, how the storytelling works and how the language is articulated. That is what determines the reader’s experience, not the plot.”


Yes. And when you’re reading a translation, the language and how the story is told are down to the translator. Credit where it’s due, please.


Responding to the above claim, somebody said:


“that’s really interesting about the translations, I’m learning Spanish but couldn’t read them in the originals yet, and I always admired how authentic the translation seems, they must be amazing in the originals!”


And here again we see the feeling that readers are somehow losing out by reading a translation, that it’s a cop out, that our language skills aren’t up to the holy original so we have to make do. The author responds:


“As I said, you are losing little, if anything, in the translation, as I myself work hard on those to make sure you don’t have to. Do not mystify the translation process. Many readers assume translated books are different from the originals. They are not. A translation is not a rewrite.”


See above. But please, as your translator is wonderful, and you said so yourself, please don’t claim personal credit for the wonderfulness of the translation! No, don’t mystify the translation process, but don’t belittle it either.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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8 Responses to Carlos Ruiz Zafón on Translation

  1. Lydia says:

    Grrr, so many things to get annoyed about! I think my favourite bit is this: “A translation, if well done, is invisible and gives you the original, nothing less and certainly nothing more.”

    I am not convinced that a translation which completely fulfills these criteria has ever existed.

  2. Fips says:

    Certainly sounds like he’d be a tough and demanding client to work for (though for all I know he’d be a lovely collaborator). Still, his views on translation whiff rather strongly of hubris, as if the translator’s trade were restricted to fulfilling the artist’s needs.

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