It wasn’t officially the Margaret Jull Costa weekend, of course, but a glance at the programme showed a series of events presumably built around the decision of Ali Smith – a guest selector at this year’s festival – to devote one event entirely to Margaret Jull Costa, 3 times winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Prize for literary translation.

i can’t remember such prominence being given to a translator before.  This is a good thing and I hope the start of a trend.

Ali Smith opened with a eulogy to the importance of translation and introduced her interviewee with perhaps the best chosen words I will hear this entire festival.  “Today we are in the presence of many of my favourite writers … all in one body.  Please welcome, Margaret Jull Costa.”

Ali Smith and Margaret Jull Costa

What followed was an introduction to 5 new-to-me Spanish and Portuguese writers with Jull Costa and Smith alternating readings between them.  I can’t say I was enamoured of this format. I would have preferred less reading and more about the craft of translation.  However,  I was introduced to many interesting sounding authors and books. (See footnote 1.)  In fact, I could say this event has served as my introduction to Portuguese literature, having only ever read one Portuguese novel, if my memory serves aright.

The chosen texts showed the breadth of Jull Costa’s translation work and her preference for literature which mixes realism and fantasy.

A guest appearance was made by the daughter of Medardo Fraile, an author who needed to be persuaded into allowing Jull Costa to translate his short stories.  His daughter described the process.  Jull Costa submitted a few of her translations to the committee, comprising of author, his wife and his daughter.  They meticulously examined these around the kitchen tabland began to trust the translator when they realised that her pen was as loving as the author’s own. Fraile died during the translation of the stories that make up Things Look Different in the Light, but by that time the family trusted Jull Costa implicitly and allowed her to complete the project.

When Ali Smith said that this book contained the best stories she has ever read, there was no longer any need to guess whether a copy would be coming home with me ….

Audience Q&A allowed some time to discuss Jull Costa’s career and her craft.  Thankfully, as I was already disappointed from the previous night’s event in which she had shared the stage and billing with Bernardo Ataxga.   Unfortunately she had only been given time to read two short poems.  She’s a gracious lady and didn’t appear to mind.  I did though as I had attended to hear the translator talking about the challenges of translating the author’s work.  Perhaps my expectations were at fault.  What is clear is that I am missing the translation slams.  There aren’t any scheduled on this year’s program. 

The third Jull Costa event wasn’t really but it was an event where both novelists, Javier Cercas and Michel Laub, are translated by her.  Another event where the shared billing meant nothing – one author hogging the limelight, talking far too much (and knowing he was doing so), then giving a “short” reading that was anything but. It’s bad form and I feel sorry for the second author and the chair when this happens.  I mean how does a chair intervene discreetly?  Arrange a signal before going on stage?  

Javier Cercas and Michel Laub

I’m not going to say much about the novels as, due to timing issues, I haven’t completed them yet.  I have sampled the first 50 pages of both though and I must say that Laub’s Diary of the Fall is a huge surprise.   I would say pleasant but it is full of uncomfortable themes: social and religious prejudice and the Holocaust.  Nevertheless I’m looking forward to reading to the end later today.  Cercas’s Outlaws will take a bigger commitment to finish.  First of all, it’s much longer and secondly, it doesn’t answer its own core question. This is in line with the author’s definition of good literature, which must leave enough room for the reader to find the answer for himself.  Not sure I entirely agree. Books with endings that are too ambiguous or make me feel that the author is just toying with me have been hurled at the wall before now!  What fate awaits Outlaws?


Footnote 1

The 5 texts sampled were: The Maias – Eça de Queiroz, Raised from the Crowd – José Saramango, The Word Tree – Teolinda Gersāo, The Infatuations – Javier Marías, Everthing Looks Different in the Light and other Stories – Medardo Fraile

 © Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)