In the second of our occasional series with English PEN, celebrating the vital work of translators in bringing foreign fiction to Anglophone readers, we present an interview with Margaret Jull Costa, about her translation of Spanish writers Jesús Carrasco's Out in the Open, winner of the Spanish book trade's Book of the Year in 2014.
Margaret Jull Costa has been a translator for nearly 30 years and has translated works from Spanish and Portuguese by writers including Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, Javier Marías and Bernardo Atxaga. She has won over a dozen awards for her translations and in 2014 was awarded an OBE for services to literature.
An extract from Out in the Open
From inside his hole in the ground, he heard the sound of voices calling his name, and, as if they were crickets, he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove. The desolate howling of fire-scorched scrub. He was lying on one side, knee drawn up to his chest, with barely enough room to move in that cramped space. His arms either around his knees or serving as a pillow, and only a tiny niche for his knapsack of food. He made roof out of pruned twigs which he had piled on top of two thick branches that served as beams. Tensing his neck, he raised his head so as to hear better and, half-closing his eyes, listened out for the voice that had forced him to flee.
The focal character of the book, the boy, consistently imagines different outcomes for the actions he is considering taking. It feels as though the story could have gone completely differently at any one of these narrative crossroads – what was this like to translate?
I think this is key to the way the boy is obliged to live moment to moment, and the prose follows suit, and I, as translator, did the same.
Reviews have consistently compared Carrasco’s story and style to that of Cormac McCarthy (The Road, Child of God, No Country for Old Men). Are those similarities evident in the original Spanish? Is he a literary inspiration of yours, too?
I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy and I don’t know that Jesús has either. I do find all those comparisons rather tedious, actually. Why can’t the reviewer simply talk about the book? Out in the Open seems to me powerful and original enough to merit that.
Tense, gripping and emotional, the book asks a lot of questions and builds tension with its tantalising lack of context. Who is the boy? Why is he running away? What will happen to him? Tiny hints at the boy’s history – an abusive father, an oppressive and limited rural culture, repeated attempts at escape – are revealed through his memories. For you, what does all the tension do?
I think it creates a similar tension in the reader. We are there with the boy, horribly exposed to whatever chance event may happen along. The lack of much background detail only increases our fears for him and makes of the story something universal. He could be any child abuse victim cast out into a very hostile world, where any adult could be another abuser.
The Spanish title of the book is Intemperie, which translates roughly to ‘Outdoors’. Close proximity to the natural world and rural experience spearhead the novel’s rejection of a specified time or place. When translating, did you imagine somewhere in the world that the boy and his protector might be?
‘Estar a la intemperie’ really means ‘to be at the mercy of the elements’, so it’s much more than just ‘the outdoors’. Needless to say, the title was very difficult to translate, and Out in the Open was, I felt, the only one that suggested both the physical and moral exposure to which the boy is subjected. As for location, I imagined it was set in the very parched provinces north of Madrid. The countryside around Tarazona, for example, is like a red desert with only tiny patches of green.
You’ve translated works by profilic writers such as Javier Marías, José Saramago and Fernando Pessoa. Author Jesús Carrasco was an advertising copywriter for many years before the publication of Out in the Open. What was it like translating a first-time novelist? Did you feel he had taken any inspiration – either in terms of literary style or in terms of ideas/theme – from his line of work?
No, I didn’t see any trace of Jesús’s career as a copywriter! The often gruesome details of goats’ innards and horrible gaping wounds seemed to me a million miles away from the world of advertising!
Describe the book in three words.
Stark, moving, visceral.
Interview by English PEN's Programmes Co-ordinator Rebekah Murrell
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