Spanish Literary Translation

When one begins to translate (whether one has read the text before or not) one cannot just immerse oneself in the reading and let oneself be carried away by what will happen next, enjoying what in literature is called the “suspension of disbelief”. If there is one thing that characterizes the translator’s reading, it is that of being the most detailed reading possible. The translator reads word by word, line by line, keeping an eye on every hit, every hit, every trap, every mistake. Just as a professional taster does not drink to get drunk, nor does a musician listen to Brahms looking for a moment of relaxation, the translator, when doing his job, does not read to escape. Some people may think that this state of alertness deprives us translators of the pleasure of reading, but anyone who has done any activity of a creative nature knows that taking apart an artistic artefact piece by piece is a most pleasant activity, only surmountable by another activity that the translator must also do: rebuilding the artefact, and making it work again!

Let’s also think that an ordinary reader can overlook rambling passages, skip words he doesn’t understand, or ignore references that are foreign to him. None of that can be done by the translator, who is obliged to understand absolutely everything to be able to transpose it later.

Many of the mistakes we see in beginners’ translations have to do with this reading process, since sometimes the translator sticks to the words without realizing it and in his eagerness to preserve them all loses the thread of reasoning and builds, at the end, an empty and meaningless sentence (although sometimes the opposite also happens and the translator, after finally understanding a complex sentence, translates it into an explanation for the reader without realizing that the sentence, as built by the author, with all its complexity and mystery, is simply the best).

In this section we will focus, therefore, on what we could call the internal reasoning of a literary text, understood in a broad sense, as the chain of events and ideas that constitute a work of fiction. The characters come and go, move around some literary spaces, relate to each other, speak, and some acts lead to others, and these lead to others, and all this leads to a denouement. For the mechanism to work, all the elements must be linked logically. That does not mean, of course, that everything must happen according to the laws of physics and adhere to the legal or social codes of rigor: a novel can be completely fantastic and yet adhere to an implacable internal logic. This is what in literature is called “verisimilitude”.

What is important, as we said, is not the correlation of the facts narrated with reality, but the internal relationship of the facts in the novel. This internal fictional logic is fixed in the book through the selection and arrangement of the material, its distribution in chapters and paragraphs, and, ultimately, its arrangement in the sentences. Syntax is defined as that part of grammar that studies words from the point of view of their combinatory capacity to form sentences.  And it is there, in this last range of text ordering, where everything must work like clockwork: because syntax is also the engine of thought.

The syntax varies in all languages of the planet, and yet the relationships that are established between concepts are universal. That means that when we translate sentences, and especially when we translate complex sentences with varying degrees of subordination, we must be especially careful that, even if we modify that syntax, the relationships between concepts are maintained. On the other hand, it is essential that we ensure that we use a syntax that is specific to our language, which is in itself extremely flexible. The naturalness and fluency of what we write will be the litmus test to save the translation.

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