It is astonishing that Pla was and is such a complete unknown!
Too often translators are seen as an unfortunate necessity
You were recently awarded the Premi Internacional Ramon Llull for Literary Translation for Josep Pla's Gray Notebook, an author you qualified as on the level of Joseph Roth. How did you go about doing this translation?
–When I moved to Barcelona in 2003, I left my post as Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation with a view to becoming a full-time literary translator again. I wanted to continue translating authors like Juan Goytisolo and Leonardo Padura, but also to branch out into old and contemporary classics. I suggested Tirano Banderas to Edwin Frank at the New York Review of Books and he agreed but a few months later he suggested El quadern gris. I thought of Joseph Roth in particular when I was working on La vida amarga and reading a collection of Roth's letters. Pla is a similar outsider who travelled widely in Europe as a journalist and has an ironic, unsentimental though humane vision of the various realities he experiences. He was witness to key moments in European history – Mussolini's march on Rome, hyperinflation in Germany and the rise of Hitler – and narrated them both as a journalist and writer of fiction.
What does this award mean to you? Do you think the work of translators is recognised enough?
–I see the award as public recognition of the art of literary translators of Catalan literature. It is an international prize, in the sense that translations can be submitted in any language, and the jury includes writers and translators, and it is always pleasing to be recognised by one's peers. Too often translators are seen as an unfortunate necessity. Critics will write about the wonders of a translated writer's style and not consider that the words read are the result of thousands of choices made by a translator in an intense process of re-writing and imaginative transformation. In many countries (like Spain) literary translators are paid less than the minimum wage for work that is intellectually and artistically demanding and requires many, many hours of close attention.
What would you highlight about the book?
–El quadern gris is a major work of autobiographical writing by a major European writer and mine is the first translation of a full-length work by Pla into English. The English-speaking world is notorious for being averse to other literatures but it is still astonishing that Pla was, and is, such a complete unknown! I like the way Pla can inhabit so many different worlds and give them each their value. In one entry he is telling you about Kierkegaard or Proust and their impact in Barcelona and in the next about his friend with a small vineyard and a dog on a headland near Calella de Palafrugell. At the same time it is the portrait of the writer as a young man. He wonders how he will make it, what kind of language he should use, what kind of Catalan writer he will be. At another level, it's very personal and he approaches the ambiguities and pressure of family life, love and desire in a variety of tones from the awkward conversations with his father about his career, to the brittle dialogues of a young couple out boating off El Canadell and the rampaging adolescents fleeing their teachers to make it to the brothel in Girona, only to emerge crestfallen and unscathed. Above all, Pla is never solemn or pompous. He hated literary poseurs.
What were the main challenges you faced in translating The Gray Notebook?
–It is a long book with a range of styles that Pla honed over many years and as I drafted and re-drafted I felt that every word and the whole work were carefully crafted and structured. I translated it over 18 months and made seven drafts, although some passages I worked on even more. I found the beautiful descriptions of landscapes, the sea and the sky required a lot of re-writing in order to reach an English that had similar musical tensions between nouns, verbs and adjectives. It's often said that Pla is not one for the imagination, but El quadern is such a re-creation of real experience recollected in memory and in a language that is often more complex than it seems.
What do you like most about Pla's work?
–I've probably only read five volumes of his Complete Works! So far, I like the complete confidence with which he writes in Catalan. Like Rodoreda and Sales, he writes in a language that is fully alive and able to voice whatever a writer might want to voice. I am also intrigued by the way he re-wrote so much when he went into retreat in Llofriu after the end of the Civil War and then how he re-emerged as a major journalist for Destino. Those who think Pla was a committed Francoist spy should read what he wrote from 1940. He hated a regime that suppressed a language and culture he dedicated his life to developing.
What are the main difficulties you come across when translating from Catalan into English?
–I translate from Catalan, French, Portuguese and Spanish and I don't think major difficulties come from those languages as such but from the different forms in which they are expressed by the variety of authors I translate. Styles are the translator's challenge – styles we have to penetrate and re-create.
What are the ingredients of a good literary translation? How much of the translator is in the final translated book?
–Research of all kinds – linguistic, historical, literary – self-editing, and critical re-reading of both the original and the translation. A translator makes hundreds and thousands of choices in the process and these make up a re-interpretation in another language of the work in question. Although one is shaping a different style for each author, it all passes through your consciousness, is worked on by your memories and emotions, by your own repertoire of dialects and languages...and you co-exist for months in a very intense way that can also be physically exhausting.
How did you first come into contact with the Catalan language?
–I first had contact with the Catalan culture and language when a student at Cambridge in the 1960s when I studied medieval Spanish history. I was fascinated by Vicens Vives's descriptions of the Catalan maritime empire, the guilds, and then at Oxford I researched radical movements in Catalonia at the time of the 1868 revolution. I seriously started to learn Catalan in 1978 with Catalans in London hoping to living in Barcelona for a year but it never worked out. When I became Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation I met Teresa Solana at a meeting of directors of European centres in a castle in Slovakia. One thing led to another and we both gave up our posts to go freelance in Barcelona and out of the blue a British publisher asked me to translate Quim Monzo's The Enormity of the Tragedy.
Which is your next project of translation from Catalan into English?
–Pa negre, then El vent de la nit and more Pla!