November 21, 2017
Anatomy of a (Translated) Page: Julián López’s A Beautiful Young Woman
by Samuel Rutter
At just over forty thousand words, Julián López’s A Beautiful Young Woman, published last week, is a slender novel, just too long to be deemed a novella. But despite its brevity, with López’s book it’s safe to say that we have a case of “more is more” on our hands. The accretion of detail, almost baroque in its execution, combines with gorgeously sinuous sentences to create a sort of ornate jewellery box of memory, perception, and emotion.
The first time I read A Beautiful Young Woman, I was sitting on a park bench in Australia and I didn’t get up until I had read it through. I gave in very quickly to the pleasures of a reader. But as the novel’s translator, my task—conveying Julián López’s language from a very personal Argentine Spanish to English—was not without its challenges.
In the novel’s opening paragraph alone, the original Spanish employs five different nouns for “hair” or “hairstyle,” and at least four spatial metaphors to describe the way this hair falls on the titular beautiful young woman’s face. The novel is set in Buenos Aires in the 1970s, and it is rich in the kinds of contemporary details that cannot be gleaned from dictionaries. For a translator, the Internet is an indispensable resource. On a ghostly Yahoo! message board that seemed to have been abandoned sometime in the early 2000s, where wistful porteños left posts describing candies and sweets they had bought from city kiosks in decades gone by, I learnt that a “Topolino” (“On the way home, my mother stopped at a kiosk and bought me some candy: a Holanda chocolate bar, a Jack, and three Topolinos…”) was a kind of lollipop that came with a little toy. It’s also what the Italians call Mickey Mouse.
Advice and support from friends is important too. Recently, a colleague from Argentina who also works as a translator wrote to me, with a few observations about how novels from Argentina read in English translation. He said that what sometimes seems to be lost in the translation process is the cadence of the text — perhaps because we seem to prefer, in English, a shorter sentence, or because we sometimes still operate under the old maxim that wherever possible, we should choose an Anglo-Saxon word over its Latinate equivalent. Cadence plays an especially important role in A Beautiful Young Woman — I knew of Julián López’s work as a poet, and it was essential that his words sustain themselves in air in my English translation, just as they do in his Spanish original. I found myself reading his sentences aloud, then my own, as I worked through the novel.
The following excerpt, from pages 38 and 39 of the book, covers the beginning of my favourite passage in the novel. By way of introduction, Elvira, an elderly neighbour, is babysitting our narrator while his mother ventures out on one of her frequent and mysterious nocturnal escapades:
From inside her robe Elvira revealed the neck of the bottle of peppermint liqueur, and while she gave me a wink, she opened one of her pockets, a nest from which two little resting doves were about to take flight: the little cups with handles in which she poured her own little version of absinthe. The tone of the evening had changed radically, and it seemed wonderful to be able to drink until I was good and drunk with a real dame by my side, even if this dame wore a quilted pink dressing gown, the collar and sleeves festooned with Swiss cotton tulle, a material that produced sparks if you rubbed it together, and wore slippers with terry cloth socks, her face greasy with ointments, her eyebrows gone and a moustache appearing, her head a tangle of rollers covered by a bonnet meant to look like silk.
“Where did Mama go?” I asked her.
“Ay, be quiet! Pobre diabla is starting!” she said, and twisted the knob on the television. A single point of light concentrated in the centre, and suddenly a big bang made the entire universe appear on the screen.
This passage was a delight to translate because it contains the essence of everything that is important to A Beautiful Young Woman. There is the particular voice of the narrator, boyish enough to think of the flash on the television screen as the origin of the universe, but worldly enough to make snide comparisons between peppermint liqueur and absinthe. There is that cadence, the almost breathless accumulation of specific detail about Elvira’s outfit as well as the lyrical flair of the cups, presented as two little resting doves. And of course, the narrator’s innocent question, “Where did Mama go?”, which tragically foreshadows the novel’s denouement. Above all, the joys of language are laid bare on the page as López swerves through different registers in his portrait of Elvira, seen through our narrator’s nostalgic eyes.
This swerving presented its challenges. For example, what I rendered above as the relatively simple “poured” is, in the original Spanish, a wonderfully noble and specific verb, “escanciar,” which in a literal sense describes the action of pouring wine or cider ostentatiously into a glass from a great height. This, of course, is not literally what Elvira does with her peppermint liqueur; rather, the author has employed a sophisticated verb for comedic effect. There was no easy equivalent for this in English, and because the specific action of the verb was not required for the sentence to make sense, I had to opt for the plainer “poured,” and lose the parodic effect of the Spanish verb. In the next sentence, however, an opportunity presented itself to make up for this loss. What I translated above as “dame” appears as “mina” in the original Spanish. In current usage, “mina” is a relatively common (if not entirely respectful) term that corresponds to “chick” in a general sense, and “babe” in a more specific context. But this didn’t quite fit with the faded glory of Elvira, a former tango singer eking out a dignified existence in her dotage. I decided to consult the Diccionario del habla de los argentinos, a dictionary published by the Argentine Academy of Letters that covers the meanings and origins of terms peculiar to Argentine Spanish. I discovered that, while it is still in common usage, the term “mina” dates back to at least 1894, and was widely used in the early twentieth century. And so I thought of the word “dame” as a possible translation: it had the parodic effect of evoking the British Order of Chivalry, while also harkening back to the golden age of American cinema, which in turn seemed to me to connect with Elvira’s past as a tango singer. In this way, I hoped, an overall balance could be achieved in translation.
In my experience, this sense of balance is best informed by a larger sense of how a novel works, of what is important to the work at hand. This is the ineffable thing that makes a work of literature more than the sum of its parts, somehow more than just the felicitous arrangement of words on a page. Julián López found that ineffable thing in his novel. For me, the challenge and pleasure of translation is to find it again, in a different language. It’s the challenge of transforming Una Muchacha muy bella into A Beautiful Young Woman.
A Beautiful Young Woman is on sale now in paperback. Buy your copy here, or at your neighborhood independent bookstore.