Margaret Jull Costa has been a literary translator for over twenty-seven years, and has translated many of the true greats of Spanish and Portuguese literature, including Eça de Queiroz, José Saramago, Javier Marías and Bernardo Atxaga. After school, she worked as a secretary in London and spent three consecutive summers in Spain. Back in England, she decided to study Spanish at university. Translation was part of the course and she fell in love with it. Her professional career started when she did a few translations for the literary magazine Granta – “Watching the rain in Galicia” by Gabriel García Márquez was her first translation - but it was not until she was commissioned by Chatto and Windus to translate “El héroe de las mansardas de Mansard” (The Hero of the Big House) by Álvaro Pombo, that she translated her first novel in 1986. The rest is history. Since then, Margaret has received numerous awards for her work, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for her translation of Marías’s A Heart So White. In 2011, she won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for the third time with her translation of The Elephant's Journey by José Saramago. More recently, in 2012, she was winner and runner-up of the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão and for António Lobo Antunes's The Land at the End of the World. She works on her texts, edits, revises, and reads her translations out loud until they are as perfect as she can get them, at her home office in Leicester. Margaret is a very much-loved collaborator of New Spanish Books, she has been a panelist and frequently writes readers’ reports on books selected by the panel.
• What book or books are you working on at the moment, and can you reveal any future books or new authors you will translate?
MJC: I’m currently translating Su único hijo by the nineteenth-century novelist, Leopoldo Alas. It’s an extraordinary novel, rather overshadowed by the much more famous La Regenta. Then I’ll be translating a very early novel by Saramago and a contemporary Spanish novel, París by Marcos Giralt Torrente.
• What challenges do you set for yourself as a translator?
MJC: To become better and better at what I do. There’s always so much more to learn.
• You also write poetry and short stories. Would you like to see your poems translated one day?
MJC: I haven’t written any stories for years, and my poems are pretty much for my own (and my husband’s) consumption, more of a private diary. I don’t know that they’re good enough to merit being translated really!
• “Doubt is very much a feature of my working day and an essential one at that”, you said in a recent interview. When you get stuck with an idiom, proverb or pun, what are your mechanisms to find a solution? Do you have a recent example?
MJC: Sometimes a solution arrives very quickly, and at other times not! I don’t really have a mechanism, although it occasionally works if I just leave it to my unconscious mind, i.e. put it off! In Su único hijo, just the other day, I came across this passage: ‘el cuerpo delgaducho y quebradizo, quejumbroso y desvencijado, de su media naranja o medio limón, como él la llamaba para sus adentros’ . As regards the play on ‘media naranja’ and ‘medio limón’ what immediately popped into my head was: ‘his better or, as he privately referred to her, his worse half’. Then, today, I had to deal with this, the kind of sentence one would find in a romantic novel of the day: ‘Un rayo que hubiera caído a sus pies no le hubiera causado mayor espanto!’ That’s not so difficult, but then the narrator goes on: ‘Bonis se dijo a si mismo muy para sus adentros el sustancioso simil “un rayo que hubiera caído a mis pies, etc.” y por asociación de ideas, añadió por cuenta propia: “¡Mal rayo me parta! ¡Maldita sea mi suerte!”’ So I had to find a mild expletive that echoes the earlier sentence. Neither ‘thunder’ nor ‘lightning’ fit, so at the moment I have: ‘He stood thunderstruck, like a blasted oak.’ Then: ‘Damn and blast it! Will my wretched luck never change!’ This is still under review! But you see the problem.
• Do you remember life for a translator before Google?
MJC: Indeed I do. I used to make a long list of all my queries about historical and cultural references and then spend the whole day in the university library (in Cambridge, where I was living at the time). I did rather enjoy that, actually, and the tea room made very good cheese scones, but it is so much easier in these post-Google times. I can find out virtually anything and usually find a picture too of, say, some obscure agricultural implement or piece of furniture or clothing. Or, indeed, find a word or phrase on Google that has so far eluded the dictionaries, together with all kinds of contexts that help me to decipher it.
• Is there a risk of machines/technology ever replacing literary translators?
MJC: No, I don’t think any computer programme could ever be sophisticated enough to make all the subtle choices and decisions a good literary translator has to make. Plus a computer wouldn’t have the kind of linguistic library that every human being carries in his or her head, a memory stuffed full of words and contexts and speech rhythms and echoes and references and allusions.
• We’ve read in previous interviews that your daily routine includes swimming. What do you think about when you’re swimming, is it to do with the book you are working on perhaps?
MJC: I try not to think about anything when I’m swimming, although occasionally the solution to some tricky sentence does suddenly appear, as if by magic.
• What do you talk about when you talk about translations?
MJC: I don’t much like talking about translation or translations, possibly because translating is what I do every day, so it’s a bit like talking about the process involved in raising your right arm or going up the stairs. It seems so obvious and instinctive. When I talk to students about translation in a workshop, though, that’s much easier and more enjoyable, because we have concrete examples to look at and examine. That process throws up all the usual questions about what it means to be faithful, why one word works better than another, what do you do with seemingly untranslatable concepts, with cadence and sound and how do you go about replicating the narrator’s voice in English. That’s what I talk about.
• Imagine yourself in a futuristic, sci-fi world, having a 2 minute hearing before a committee with powers to promote or abolish publishing in translation. What would you say to convince them of the importance of translations?
MJC: I would tell them how much poorer life would be without being able to read Cervantes, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Eça de Queiroz, Balzac, Proust, Dante, Kafka, Saramago, Ibsen, García Márquez, Virgil, Baudelaire etc. etc.
• Can translators such as yourself still discover “gems” written in foreign languages, which are unknown to UK publishers, and advocate for them to be translated? or on the contrary, has the sea of information nowadays available distanced translators and publishers in this respect?
MJC: It very much depends on the publisher and your relationship with them. I suggested Su único hijo to Edwin Frank at New York Review Book Classics, and he said ‘Yes’ immediately. Similarly, Eric Lane at Dedalus is very open to suggestions from translators. More commercial publishers are, understandably perhaps, more cautious.
• You like authors with strong authorial voices. Can you name one that you have not yet translated, and would love to translate?
MJC: I do like authors with strong authorial voices, because they tend to be the best writers and it’s easier in a way to translate good writers. More interesting too. I’d like to do more Galdós (I recently translated Tristana for NYRB Classics), and I enjoy the quirky stories of Juan José Millás, and there’s a vast book by Cortázar on Keats that I’d love to see translated. Sorry, that’s more than one.
• Have you ever wished the book you were translating to end in a different way?
MJC: Only the occasional mediocre one, and I’d rather not name names!
• Can you name your favorite word in Spanish?
MJC: Oh I have lots, but I do particularly like ‘muchedumbre’.
• What book or books are you reading for pleasure at the moment?
MJC: I’m on the final volume of A la recherche du temps perdu (it’s taken me four years to get this far). And I’m about to re-read Orwell – it being Orwell’s year. And I’ve just bought The Father of Locks by Andrew Killeen, because I met the author at a party recently.
• Which other languages other than Portuguese and Spanish would you like to have learned and translated from?
MJC: Russian, Basque, Latin and Greek!
• What advice would you give to a young translator starting his/her career in the UK?
MJC: You need to read as widely as you can in your chosen languages, but read even more in your own language, particularly all the classic texts – Shakespeare, the Bible, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, etc – because they are an essential part of the rich history of English.
• As a nation, Spain is not going through an easy time lately. However, is there a possibility some authors can thrive in such conditions and write absolute masterpieces?
MJC: I think a good author will continue to write and to write well regardless of the conditions he or she lives in, so I’m sure Spain will continue to produce fine writing, even masterpieces.
• According to ISBN statistics, translations from Spanish are going up in the UK market. As a translator, is this a trend you perceive in some way? (i.e. an increase of commissions from publishers?)
MJC: There do seem to be more Spanish books being translated into English, which is terrific news and a tribute to the quality of the books being written in Spain and Latin America. There’s still a long way to go though.
• Is it possible that British readers are gradually becoming more adept at reading literature in translation?
MJC: I think there is slightly less resistance to ‘foreign fiction’, and writers like Stieg Larsson may have helped to break down that fear of the unknown in both readers and publishers.
• You have been a panelist for New Spanish Books, and a frequent writer of readers’ reports. We like to think that every little helps. Do you think it really does?
MJC: Definitely! The publishers who are keen on publishing translations are always pleased to be pointed in the direction of interesting new authors and books. And so am I, as a reader and translator.