Espriu, Salvador. Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth [Ariadna al laberint grotesc]. Translated from the Catalan by Rowan R. Phillips. Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2012 [1934-1984].
A “strange” text from the thirties, we say, is one whose particular strangeness didn’t get mainstreamed by the sixties. Woolf, Faulknereven Lawrence, sadlyare approachable through their followers, but Posthumous Papers of a Living Author or Progress of Stories had none.
These stories by Salvador Espriu aren’t as dense as Musil or Riding, but they have the same feel of private laws and unforgiving hard edges. They were, at least initially, the work of a very young writer, and the satire is chilly and broad, setting its mouth in a grim line against the decade. They aren’t masterworks, but they are full of small pleasures and surprises, especially coming from a writer who would go on to produce masterworks in a different form. I would want to recommend them to readers who don’t mind being yanked by the wrist into odd alleys, but I hesitate because of the translation.
This translation was done by a poet who divides his time between Barcelona and New York, and has fine passages and many problems. Espriu’s prose is not forgiving of small omissions. Compressed as it is, it moves very fast from point to point and twists up like a Bézier curve if any of those guiding points are shifted. I started off shrugging at dropped sentences and clauses, misplaced emphases, numbers with altered values, swapping Saint Peter for Saint Paulthese things happenbut soon more serious mistakes began making nonsense of entire paragraphs. At best they reversed the meanings of sentences, at worst they approached the deliberate flub of a Pound or Zukofsky in-joke.
Original text: No ho vaig sentir abans que tothom, no sóc ortodox?
Published translation: Did I not feel before anyone else that I am not orthodox?
Correct translation: Didn’t I feel it before anyone else, am I not orthodox?
Original text: “La palmera jove no m’agrada,” vaig dir jo. “Mai no acabarà d’atènyer el campanar i les companyes velles.”
Published translation: “The young palm doesn’t like me,” I said. “It will never fail to reach the bell tower and the old bells.”
Correct translation: “I don’t like the young palm,” I said. “It will never manage to reach the bell tower and its older companions.”
Original text: “La vostra olor li agrada, i admireu amb quina traça s’entreté amb les vostres sabats,” comentava la grassa senyora de Framis.
Published translation: “I like your smell, and the skill with which you use your shoes to entertain astonishes,” Framis’s fat wife remarked.
Correct translation: “He [a dog] likes your smell, and look how skillfully he’s entertaining himself with your shoes,” Framis’s fat wife remarked.
Original text: el fred dels sepulcres
Published translation: the chill of the sculptures
Correct translation: the chill of the sepulchers
Original text: Em passo, una engruna escruixida, a la teva banda.
Published translation: A mere shaken crumb, I will take your side.
Correct translation: I’m a little shaken up, but I will take your side.
Original text: El senyor Vicenç de Pastor, que encorbat! Sembla un axioma.
Published translation: Senyor Vicenç de Pastor is so hunched over! He looks like an axiom.
Correct translation: Senyor Vicenç de Pastor is so hunched over! He looks like he’s carrying the Cross.1
Original text: No s’hi podia entretenir, i el mort de fresc tampoc no s’ho mereixia.
Published translation: He couldn’t be delayed, and he didn’t deserve to freeze to death either.
Correct translation: He couldn’t be delayed, and the man who had just died didn’t deserve it either.
Original text: Potser no venia massa a tomb, però recordava…
Published translation: Perhaps he didn’t go often to the tomb, but he remembered…
Correct translation: Perhaps it wasn’t much to the point, but he remembered…
Original text: Un cop el cos va estar ben escolat…
Published translation: Once his body had been well studied…
Correct translation: Once his body was completely drained of blood…
Since a second look (or check against a dictionary, or Google) would have clarified most of these, and since the translation is perfectly able in other places, I think these must be marks of rushed work. A text this jumpy and paratactic invites mistakes, and of course Dalkey’s recent recruiting efforts, resembling as they do a want ad for Severin (or plausibly Severine), rather evoke tight belts and cut corners. Since some poets have motives more pecuniary than others, I can’t say whether throwing more money at this translation would have given it time for a proper finish. But Barcelona isn’t cheap living. And even if no expert in the field was available, surely a conscientious copy edit might have paused on certain sentences to ask whether it was really just modernist obscurantism at work. (Little ironies: that Espriu spent fifty years, off and on, revising these stories, purging them word by word of any note he considered false, and in his introduction very much doubted the labor could have been worth it; that one of the stories, “The Subordinates,” presents a team of loyal clerks and secretaries whose pay is postponed for eternity.)
Of course Dalkey is one of a very few outfits in a position to commission and publicize any new translation from the Catalan at all. Everyone knows that such is the work of the angels, and that we don’t do enough of it because the only earthly reward is a few weeks of grocery money and people like me pointing fingers. I would want to be taken not as scoring fencing points off well-meaning work, but simply as petitioning for more support, more care, more time.
1. “For example, I was troubled for years by the word axioma; it was very common to hear people apply it to pitiful-looking men whose bodies were covered with wounds or scars. I didn’t understand this at all, since in philosophy an axiom is an undeniable truth that need not be demonstrated because of its simple transparency. After much time and asking many philologists, finally a professor of Catalan at the Institut de La Bisbal, Ramon Queralt, explained to me that axioma is a corruption of ‘Ecce Homo’ and refers to Jesus Christ scourged and abused by the Romans.” (Diari de Girona, April 20, 2011)