I was delighted at the opportunity to interview the legendary Peter Bush in relation to the publication of Barcelona Tales, the latest in the City Tales series from Oxford University Press. They say no-one knows a work better than its translator, and so with a career spanning three decades, Peter Bush has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Spanish and Catalan literature. Settle back and enjoy, but beware. If it’s anything like mine, your wishlist/TBR is going to grow exponentially!

Photo credit: La Vanguardia

Welcome to the blog, Peter.

How did you become a literary translator?

 Like lots of English people I grew up speaking a non-standard version of the language  – my mum was from Sheffield and my dad from Spalding and both were fluent speakers of standard and their own working-class dialect – so I was hyper-sensitive to accents and the use of language in different social contexts from an early age. At school I loved translating Cicero into Churchillian English and at university chunks of Joyce’s Ulysses into Spanish or Montaigne into English, the kind of tasks you were set in those bygone days. So it might seem I was predisposed to become a literary translator; in fact the idea never entered my head until over twenty-five years later. I was head of languages at Holland Park School in west London, and had prepared a critical edition of Juan Goytisolo’s Campos de Níjar (Níjar Country) that described the lives of landless workers and the beauty of the landscape in Almería. Many of my sixth-form students’ parents had come from there, Galicia or Larache in the former Spanish protectorate in Morocco to escape dire poverty, and I thought they would be interested. They weren’t! I thought a critical edition might help as it was a book much read then by A level and university students. The project put me into contact with Juan Goytisolo and when his autobiography (Coto vedado/Forbidden Territory) was published in Spain, I read and enjoyed it. Juan said he would be happy for me to translate it and told his agent, Carmen Balcells, and I set about writing to publishers. In the end the rights were bought by North Point Press in San Francisco and they sold them on to Quartet Books for the UK edition. Alerted by Balcells, Stephen Pickles, the editor of their wonderful Encounters series, wrote to me and asked for a fifty-page sample. So I began my first literary translation in 1986. Its mixture of stream of consciousness and chronological narrative makes it a tough text to translate. I got increasingly anxious when I heard nothing from Pickles and the months passed. By this time I had moved on to Fortismere School in Haringey where I was a deputy head teacher for a year. One lunchtime, the headmaster asked me to go to Highgate Woods where a flasher was bothering pupils. I went and dealt with him, came back and rang Pickles who said he liked the translation, and would £2000 do as an advance.

What prompted you to start translating from Catalan?

 In 2005 I got an email from Simon Smith, an editor at Peter Owen, asking if I’d be interested in translating a novel by Quim Monzó, La magnitud de la tragèdia (The Enormity of the Tragedy). I’d met Simon several times at the London Book Fair and pitched titles by Spanish authors his way. He knew that I’d moved to Barcelona and I suppose he assumed I’d now be able to translate from Catalan. It was the language I was surrounded by. My then partner, Teresa Solana, was writing novels in Catalan, though we spoke (and still do speak) Spanish together as it the language we met in. (Teresa speaks Catalan to our daughter, the mother tongue of both.) This was two years before Catalonia was the invited guest at the Frankfurt Book Fair, something that stirred up huge controversy and bad feeling in Spain but generated an unparalleled interest in translating Catalan writers among publishers throughout the world. All of a sudden, I got a stream of commissions – Empar Moliner’s witty short stories, I love you when I’m drunk – from Comma Press, for example. When I arrived in Barcelona, I had started to read Catalan literature, but I never thought of translating any. It was really Simon’s email that got me started. Translators don’t want to make mistakes. I’d been speaking and reading Spanish for over fifty years. I’d been aware of Catalan politics and history, but not the literature. Teresa read my first couple of translations, just to make sure it was working. And it was clear I would be translating her novels!

Are there any differences in translating from Catalan and Spanish?

They are two distinct Romance languages whose literatures coexist in close proximity but that share very different levels of visibility that have less to do with literary value than with political power, statelessness and centuries of political conflict. At a practical level, that means there is less in terms of dictionaries, scholarship, literary criticism and all round knowledge of culture and history when it comes to Catalan. Personally, I’ve only been learning Catalan for under twenty years. However, I’m an experienced translator and used to researching the books I’m translating from whatever language and developing appropriate English styles for very different authors, so I bring all that interpretive reading and writing to my translations from Catalan.  In Catalan there are great dead authors like Josep Pla and it’s exciting to be the first to re-create them in English.

You’ve now translated some 60 works from both languages (plus a handful from French and Portuguese).  Which of these gave you the most pleasure?  Which was the greatest challenge? 

Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales gave me a lot of pleasure because it is one of these Catalan classics that was virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. It is also the finest novel about the Spanish civil war by a long chalk. It follows the lives of four individuals from their time as radical students in Barcelona in the early days of the Second Republic through the war to the dictatorship. Sales himself fought in the republican army and experienced the fatal political divisions and the striving after love and life in the bleakest conditions.  His characters also manage to see the ironic, comic side to life.

The greatest challenge was Tyrant Banderas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán. It’s about a dictatorship in an unspecified Latin American country. Valle-Inclán creates a most original Spanish literary style incorporating elements from Galician, French and Mexican Spanish and elsewhere in creating grotesque characters from the colonising elite and the atmosphere on the eve of a revolution. I’d wanted to translate the book for years and Edwin Frank at the NYRB was audacious enough to take it on in their classics series: “The gendarmes slashed with their sabres. Flashing blades, screams, hands held high, bloodied faces. The lights convulsed and blacked out. The big top collapsed. Sharp-angled canvas. Cubist vision of the Harris Circus”.

Are there any translations you’d consider milestones for your career?  Why do you say so?

When I went to Barcelona, I went intending to translate more classics. One on my list was La Celestina that was first published in 1499. I had read it as a sixth-former and been struck by the way Fernando de Rojas had created a literary language that drew on both courtly love and street vernacular though it was courtly love and star-crossed lovers that made most impact. Reading it years later I realised the work’s originality lay with the seventy-year old protagonist, Celestina, and her women friends. Also that it was really a novel in dialogue form and not a failed play for the stage as it has mostly been seen in the English-speaking world. In other words, the real forerunner of Cervantes yet with female characters who are dynamic, have sexual desire and lead independent lives. Areúsa recounts to Celly her experience of being a servant: “You hope for presents, get sweet Fanny Adams; hope for marriage, get disparaged, hope for clothes and wedding gear, get thrown out starkers on your ear. These are their presents, profit and payment. Obliged to wed you, they shed you.”

On the whole, Hispanist academics and Spanish writers don’t seem to want to see this. I took my idea to Eric Lane and Dedalus and told him I wanted to translate it without the theatrical framework imposed by the first publisher in 1499 and in a language that was racy, streetwise and not pseudo-Shakespearian like most translations after James Mabbe’s wonderful seventeenth-century version. I was delighted it was then published by Penguin Classics in the USA.

Here was a translation to challenge conservative scholars, establish Celestina in the tradition of the European novel and win new readers.

Your latest publication is the short story anthology, Barcelona Tales.  Describe the process of selecting the 14 stories contained within it.  Was this a solo effort?

It’s always daunting to put together an anthology – this is my third. A city gives you a sharp focus, and a word limit of around 50000 words narrows your choices further: you know you won’t be able to include all the writers you want. You seek out the best, the most representative in terms of style and genre and location, and a balance in themes in terms of the reader’s eventual experience. At times I felt at a loss when faced by the huge amounts of stories written about Barcelona. It’s also a city I have known since 1967 and where I lived for ten years as well an important Mediterranean port going back to before Roman times. I started reading collections of stories – many sessions in the National Library of Catalonia – and asked friends, contacted literary agents and writers. I found nine of the stories and five came from among their suggestions. The wonderful side to all this was the discovery of dazzling writers that were unknown to me. C. A. Jordana is one such. He was a translator and socialist intellectual in the 1930s. He had translated Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence into Catalan, and wrote a series of vignettes about life in Barcelona in 1938 when the city suffered a blitz delivered by Italian and German planes like no other city had suffered until the start of the Second World War. Unlike most civil war fiction, his is not realist, but is informed by his translations of those English authors. He went into exile first to Santiago de Chile and then Buenos Aires where he continued writing in Catalan

You lived in Barcelona for many years.  Would you say that the volume is a fair reflection of the city as a whole?  (History, geography, diversity of population.)  

I hope so. Barcelona, like all great European cities, is a place of movement, instability, conflict and tradition. From 1992 and the Olympic Games and the celebrations of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas, local politicians set out to create the Barcelona brand which heavily features football, beaches, La Rambla and Gaudí. I wanted the stories to contest that image by providing a more historical, more human perspective. The city’s glittering lights and pageantry have always attracted newcomers over the centuries. That’s what Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are in 1615. Country bumpkins, they have never seen the sea before or the firework displays on St John’s Eve. The Don is fascinated by a printing press and Sancho horrified by the suffering of galley-slaves. They encounter Spanish Muslims who are being banished from their land. Daniel the baker in Narcís Oller’s tale leaves his village and follows his son who has set up a posh hairdressing salon on La Rambla in 1897. The sisters in Najat El Hachmi’s story, originally from the Rif Valley, depart the patriarchal family home in a Catalan provincial town and set up in a cheap, nondescript city alleyway, though they are soon experiencing the bars and discos of the Port Olimpic and wearing bikinis on Barceloneta beaches. Jordi Nopca’s hardworking young Chinese couple run the bar next to the Filmoteca and think how lucky they are until a turbulent customer with a love of gin and tonics sours their pitch. Barcelona has always been a city that absorbs newcomers and it is now more hybrid and cosmopolitan than ever.

The anthology is ordered historically but I had first thought of it as a geographical sequence starting at the top of Barcelona’s hills. I changed that when I finally decided to include Cervantes.  However, the geography is still there and the stories take the reader to over sixteen different locations. Some of these reflect the longstanding social divisions in the Catalan capital and the impact of Franco’s dictatorship. Juan Marsé’s adolescents play at being detectives in the shanty towns on the southern heights at the end of the 1940s. They enliven their drab, windswept muddy neighbourhood by imagining they are gumshoes in a Hollywood noir. Meanwhile, on the wealthy northern heights seventy years later families go to a San Gervasi convent to select their South American nannies in Empar Moliner’s story. In the 1940s these would have been from Murcia or Andalusia. 

Was the translation process straightforward, or was additional research required?  The anthology also contains a story penned by your wife, Teresa Solana. Is translating your wife different from translating other authors? 

Not so much research into historical or cultural references as the challenge of translating fourteen different voices and literary techniques. Say the irony and wry bitterness of Monserrat Roig’s rich young thing from Gràcia who goes the opera the night it is bombed by an anarchist, barely tolerates the stodgy husband foisted on her by her parents, and recounts the fake piety and baroque of her grandmother’s funeral. Or Quim Monzó’s poor young boy eying up the toys of the sickly son of a rich family on the Eixample visited by his seamstress mother.  

By the time I get round to translating Teresa’s novels or stories, I’ve already read some drafts, followed the development of plots and characters, so, in that sense, they are much more familiar to me than work by other contemporary writers. I’ve also often seen her translating herself from Catalan into Spanish and discussed the problems that come up. A joke in Catalan doesn’t necessarily work the same way in Spanish. And obviously, she is always on tap to consult. In fact, she wrote the story in Barcelona Tales in Spanish because it was commissioned for an anthology of Barcelona noir originally written in Spanish.

Let’s suppose you’re stranded on the proverbial desert island.  Which Spanish/Catalan book would you take with you for a) enjoyment purposes and b) translation purposes.

I think on both fronts in Spanish it would have to be Don Quijote de la Mancha. It’s endlessly entertaining and challenging and I’d love to bring out the political subtexts that many want to deny. Similarly, in Catalan, I’d choose Tirant lo Blanc, the great Catalan chivalresque novel that Cervantes so admired, the difference being that it has only been translated once into English. I’d enjoy re-reading both and translating both. They are long and complex, so it wouldn’t matter if I was marooned for two or three years!  Both are also very contemporary though written hundreds of years ago.

The industry must have changed since you first started translating literary texts in 1986. What advice would you offer to someone hoping to start a career in literary translation nowadays?

Literary translation is much more visible in the English-speaking world what with the BCLT, Pen, the Booker International and the host of university courses, summer schools and mentorships. Lots of new translators – young and old – are coming into the profession. I think they have to be pro-active, read widely in all their languages and think of themselves primarily as writers of English. Find an unpublished book they really like and pitch it to publishers with a short report and sample translation. Join the Translators Association as soon as possible and try to negotiate the best contracts possible. Translate short stories, poems, scenes of plays or chapters of books and place them in literary magazines in order to build up a cv. Be pragmatic and realise that few people can survive economically as literary translators. Be open to doing other kinds of translations – life cannot be only high literature and it’s fun to do other stuff. For example, I’ve done biographies of Severiano Ballesteros, Kilian Jornet and Lionel Messi