Dolors Udina


“Reading Virginia Woolf makes you feel smart”

Thanks to Dolors Udina, many Catalan readers have been able to enjoy the work of Ali Smith, J.M. Coetzee, Ralph Ellison and Virginia Woolf, whose book A Writer’s Diary she has just translated

“One of the functions of translation is to get closer to the original, not to replace it”
You say readers once preferred translations into Spanish because in Catalan “it didn’t sound so good”.
Catalan translations are now much better. Spanish has a kind of rhetorical style that our language doesn’t have. It’s not that we’re at a lower level, but we aren’t accustomed to academic language or register. When I translated E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, I struggled to capture the tone. He sounded very presumptuous. In Catalan, this style doesn’t exist and so it was very strange. Virginia Woolf also has this cultured style, but now I know how to make it more personal.
You are now identified with her voice.
Just yesterday I picked up the diary again; I find it so good! Everything in it is usable. I’m now translating her essays, which are extraordinary. Somehow reading her makes you feel smart. You feel smart because you have a hard time understanding it but once you get into it, you can’t put it down.
What do you think of the revival of Virginia Woolf translations?
It surprises me that more have not been published. How have we managed without her brilliant essays, which teach you to read, to criticise, to see why things are the way they are? Critics here haven’t read them, they have no idea what Woolf was saying. I think they haven’t read them because they’re difficult. The way she explains herself is difficult. Hence the importance of the translator. One very important article, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, caused me problems when I read it in English, until I got hold of a French translation and I began to enjoy it very much. One of the functions of translation is to get closer to the original, not to replace it.
Diaries capture life’s complexity. Her diary ends: “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and I must cook dinner.” That seems like a joke four days before she took her own life.
It makes me quite cross that suicide is given so much importance, because it seems that Virginia Woolf’s whole life has to be analysed by how she died. She was 60 years old, and at that age in those days she could have died of anything else. The way you die does not determine the way you lived. Petrarch’s verse “Un bel morir tutta una vita onora” is very beautiful if you die saving a child from drowning, but suicide has nothing to do with that, nor does dying of cancer or of a heart attack. It’s true that she wasn’t well but I don’t know if that’s the most important thing for us. The other thing that makes me angry is that she is dismissed as a Victorian toff. It’s true that she was a high-class lady, but she had to work very hard to earn a living. Her diaries are full of references to money, but also to the work she had to do to earn it. But even the commissioned articles are brilliant. And the overplayed story with Vita Sackville-West, which is presented as if they were passionate lovers! They spent one night together and who knows how far they went. It’s an important story of friendship and falling in love, but Virginia Woolf is hardly the great lesbian of literary history.
A Room of One’s Own is often seen as a feminist manifesto, but it’s mainly an essay on literature.
If you read it for militancy, you may be disappointed. In fact, she only became a feminist towards the end of her life and did not recognise herself as one before that.
What did Mrs Dalloway mean for her career?
It’s a landmark. It taught me how to translate, which means looking very deeply. And with Woolf your senses need to be alert. It’s not as simple as translating “today is a good day” word for word, because it might rather mean that “yesterday was a bad day”. Her way of writing is very complex. You have to pray that the writing will speak to you, and when it does, it dazzles you. I won’t say it changed my life, that sounds very solemn, but it comes pretty close. I devoted three intense months to it, and then I spent weeks without being able to go near the computer because I had reached my limit. My whole body ached from having been completely taken over by an enormous force.
Does translation generate the same tension as the act of writing?
Solzhenitsyn said that for writing you use different brain cells for the first draft, when you feel like you are putting chaos in order, than for the third or fourth revision. It’s similar for translating. It’s true that the writer starts from nothing and has to invent the story. But due to having it in another language, the translator must first undo the writing. The language disappears and you’re left with the thought. Often you start translating without knowing what you’re being told. You see the words but you only understand when you review it.
Do translators also think about a phrase while in the market buying fish?
Of course! It’s similar to writing; you also have to find the music, not the original, but you have to create it in your language. In her diaries, Woolf says she does not review, that it comes out of her as a piece. But the translator does review and so the diaries end up neater. For example, she solves everything with a semicolon, but you don’t know if the sentence that comes after it is a clarification of the previous sentence or a new idea. It was grammatically complicated. Now I’ve gotten so used to it that when I write I also use a lot of semicolons and commas.
Retirement hasn’t slowed you down?
My husband and I are hard workers and we don’t mind spending hours doing it. I’m now translating Emily Dickinson, who uses short sentences, like aphorisms, which are difficult and make you rethink your ideas about translation and literature. When you read a poem of hers in English, you’re touched, but the translation doesn’t achieve the same effect. As you pass it through your system to make it understandable, you take away some of its power, although possibly the impact of Dickinson is that you don’t quite know what she’s telling you. When translating, it’s difficult to force the language so much.
You once said that translation is “turning a red circle into a blue oval”.
When you translate, you integrate a foreign author into your literary tradition, and you have to do it in a way that it can be seen that they are an outside element, but it must also be understood. With Dickinson I find that if I don’t change her sentence a little, she can’t be understood.
In poetry it’s not so necessary to understand everything.
It’s difficult to write, and it’s difficult to replicate. Translators have a lot of trouble reproducing the same mystery, which is perhaps not the right word. But it’s exciting.
Your name has become a guarantee of a book’s quality?
It’s very rewarding, and also surprising. When I’m translating I don’t think: “Now you’ll see how well I’m doing”, rather there’s constant insecurity and doubt. I’m starting to believe it, but it still seems implausible. I don’t find it easier to translate now than 20 or 30 years ago. When you start you’re a little daring but now I need to go through the text many more times. I need it but I also like it.
Is there a translator that stands out?
I have to say that it happens to me mostly in Spanish. For example, María Luisa Balseiro, who won the Premio Nacional but stopped translating because it didn’t mean she got paid a decent fee. Nor did getting the prize help me get paid more, but as I’ve been living with someone for many years, I don’t suffer to make ends meet. In Catalan the level is very good; there’s Xavier Pàmies, Ferran Ràfols, Josefina Caball, Anna Casassas, and Marta Pera. Sometimes the book helps. When I’m told how good I am, I think it’s also because I’ve translated good books. Woolf lets you shine, if you work hard. Sometimes it’s the authors who make you good.

interview books

A life in translation

We are in the café of the Laie bookshop and Dolors Udina takes the time to order La impostora, a book by Núria Barrios about the translation profession that she likes very much, although she is less keen on the title: “I’m a little sick of we translators being passed off as mere ventriloquists.” She has done a lot of interviews since she translated Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway in 2013, and the accolades have poured in, including the Premio Nacional in 2019. Yet she remains as cordial as ever, and even a little shy, until she has to defend Virginia Woolf: “They have gone as far as to say that she was rude to the maid. How important is that?” Udina is a member of PEN Català and taught literary translation at the Autonomous University from 1998 until her retirement four years ago years. She has translated over 200 titles from English. In addition to Woolf’s essays and Dickinson’s aphorisms, she already has the galleys of Cynthia Ozick’s new book, and is preparing to tackle Ali Smith’s latest novel, Companion Piece.

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