Javier Marías’s Legacy: Translation is “the most important work in the world”
by Katie King
“I simply decided that this marvel deserved to exist in my language, even though it would only be for the benefit and enjoyment of a curious few.”
Javier Marías’s death last month, a week before his 71st birthday, sadly disqualified him from nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature. For years, critics and scholars have declared Marías to be Spain’s greatest contemporary author and its most likely next recipient of that award. His novels have sold nine million copies in 46 languages. His writing is described as intelligent, discursive, and ruminative, his technique as challenging and seductive. His sentences are subtle, sinuous, and long, sometimes pages long, and he’s often compared to Marcel Proust, Henry James, and James Joyce.
There is no doubt his legacy as a writer and influencer of world literature will continue to grow after his premature death.
But as a translation studies scholar, I believe that Marías’s most important legacy is his embodiment of the crucial role of translation in world literature, and in contemporary life in the 21st century. Marías wrote about literary translation, but he also lived in translation, its practice, its influence, and its role in exploring the rich space between languages and cultures, between silence and understanding. In our globalized, wired, migratory, and multi-cultural society we can all now access and explore that space. Marías shows us how.
In his final column for the Madrid daily EL PAÍS, published on the day of his death, Marías wrote that what he missed the most during his decades of writing best-selling novels was his work as a literary translator.
Under the title “The Truest Love of Art: Translation is Without a Doubt the Most Important Work in the World,” Marías wrote that while translation is “essential” for all areas of modern life—journalism, medicine, science, politics—he himself yearned for the experience of literary translation, an endeavor so much like writing that trying to reconcile the two activities proved “exhausting.”
Javier Marías cut his teeth as a writer by choosing to translate complex but important English-language titles. They included Lawrence Sterne’s 18th-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which the BBC called a “rambling, anarchic cult classic”; Joseph Conrad’s collection of essays Mirror of the Sea, and Sir Thomas Browne’s 17th-century statement of faith, Religio Medici: The Religion of a Doctor. Of this last effort, Marías wrote that at one point he became so overwhelmed by the task that he turned away from it for a few months, only to be reinspired by the idea that if he didn’t translate this book, Spanish speakers would never get to read it. In 1979, Marías won Spain’s International Translation Prize for his translation of Tristram Shandy.
Marías wrote that he had “no idea” why he persisted for months and years on these difficult translation projects other than out of pure passion. “I simply decided that this marvel deserved to exist in my language, even though it would only be for the benefit and enjoyment of a curious few,” he wrote in his column.
Literary translators will recognize this sentiment, this driving passion to share in their own language an author and a title from another language, despite, as Marías acknowledges in his final column, dismal pay for this essential labor. “The expression ‘labor of love’ was never more apt than when applied to the artistic work of these translators,” he wrote.
In addition to the genius and hard work he applied to develop his unique style, Marías’s life experiences contributed to his firm residency in the space between languages and cultures.
Born in Madrid in 1951, he spent many of his formative years with his family in the U.S., where his father taught at Yale University and Wellesley College. Marías also taught translation theory for two years at Oxford, an experience that informed many of his novels.
Critics have written that Marías is so steeped in English language and culture, especially the British, that Shakespeare informed his work as much as Cervantes, and that he writes “from English” in Spanish. His novels, which he always wrote in Spanish despite his fluency in English, are filled with quotations from English language classics as well as popular culture. There you will find verses by William Butler Yeats and a cameo by Inspector Morse embedded in his stories. Two of his books draw their titles from Shakespeare, his breakout bestseller Corazón tan blanco (1992) / A Heart So White (1995), drawn from Macbeth, and Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí (1994) / Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1996), drawn from Richard III. Both novels were translated by Margaret Jull Costa, who has translated all of his work into English except for two titles translated by Esther Allen.
In a tribute published after his death, Jull Costa wrote that every time she started to translate one of Marías’s novels with their famously long, complex sentences, she would think: “I can’t do it.” Fortunately, as she writes in Letras Libres in an article translated into Spanish by Daniel Gascón, she was always able to get past her trepidation by focusing first on a literal translation and then tweaking and coaxing the words and syntax into eloquent English. She appreciates the challenge of Marías’s complexity and takes inspiration from a quote by the poet David Constantine who said that translation pushes the translator toward greater understanding of his or her own language. Once she gets past her first hesitancy, Jull Costa writes, she’ll “dive into that sea of difficulties and swim the best [she] can.”
In response to my query, Allen wrote that she also relished and embraced the challenges of Marías’s prose.
“I am eternally grateful to Javier Marías for the experience of translating Dark Back of Time and Bad Nature, which are, I now realize, very happily, the two works of his I would most want to have translated. I’ve long been fascinated by literary non-fiction (I wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on the U.S. ‘non-fiction novel’) and Dark Back of Time is a sui generis masterpiece of the genre, while Bad Nature is certainly the most United States-oriented work of fiction Javier ever wrote—a wild ride with Elvis Presley, on the run in Mexico.”
While Marías was both a translator and the subject of translation, his embodiment of the promise and practice of translation goes further. Translators and interpreters symbolically populate his stories and translation itself becomes a metaphor for the gap between silence and understanding both between individuals and within society itself. Marías didn’t write overtly about politics; many of his books are thematically spy novels and crime stories. But his meditations on truth, lies, and absences woven into the narrative all probe that space between language and meaning, words and understanding, and question how we perceive our world.
And at a more basic, less abstract level, translation challenges all its practitioners to write better and think more deeply. Marías embodied this truth as well, as brilliantly revealed in Javier Marías’s Debt to Translation, Gareth J. Wood’s detailed analysis of the influence on Marías’s own writing of the authors he translated.
“(Marías’s) example offers proof of (George) Steiner’s claim that the translator ‘enriches his tongue by allowing the source language to penetrate and modify it,’ since much that Marías learnt from those he translated is still traceable and observable in his writing today.”
As Edith Grossman has written, translation is “a powerful and pervasive force that broadens and deepens a writer’s style, technique and structure by allowing him or her to enter literary worlds not necessarily found in one national or linguistic tradition.”
Studying and practicing translation is a proven path to better writing, and I argue it should be part of any program to train writers anywhere in any language, especially in our globalized, multi-cultural society.
To teach undergraduates at a large public university in the U.S., as I have, is to understand how truly multicultural our world has become. Many of these young people are either immigrants, first-generation citizens, or dual citizens. Like Marías, they also live in a rich space between cultures where they speak and live fluently in one world at home with family, and another English-dominant one at school, work and with friends. These worlds both challenge and inform each other, while technology connects them to additional peoples, cultures, and languages in a way previously not possible, as users converse with friends on the other side of the globe about Japanese anime or crowd-source the translation of rap lyrics.
With Artificial Intelligence technology increasingly providing the work of basic interpretation and translation, Marías shows why translation by humans is more essential than ever. A machine will never be able to adequately translate Javier Marías.
And while the situation has somewhat improved over the last decade, translators’ work is still not acknowledged and recompensed appropriately. Marías complained that some publishers “have made a fortune thanks to the work of a translator, who was paid a meager fee per page and that was the end of it, while the title in question sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Spanish.”
So, the message that Javier Marías has left us, his legacy, is that translation is at the center of everything we do. It is, as he says, the most important work in the world, and its practitioners must be trained and rewarded commensurately.
Jull Costa, Margaret. “Traducir a Javier Marías,” LetrasLibres.com, 1 Oct 2022 https://letraslibres.com/revista/traducir-a-javier-marias/
Grossman, Edith. Why Translation Matters, p. 22, Yale University Press, 2010
Marías, Javier. “The Truest Love of Art: Translation is Without a Doubt the Most Important Work in the World,” EL PAÍS, 11 Sep 2022 https://elpais.com/eps/2022-09-11/el-mas-verdadero-amor-al-arte.html?rel=buscador_noticias
Wood, Gareth J. Javier Marías’s Debt to Translation: Sterne, Brown, Nabokov. Oxford University Press, 2012
Katie King is a journalist, literary translator, and translation scholar who holds a PhD in Hispanic Studies. Her translations of poetry and prose from Spanish have been published in Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, Columbia Journal, and in print anthologies with Ecco Press and Graywolf Press. Her translation of the novel Someone Speaks Your Name, by Luis García Montero, is forthcoming from Swan Isle Press in December, 2022.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, October 25, 2022