The Roundabout of Translation

The Roundabout of Translation

by Jonathan Dunne

Remember that the word invent derives from the Latin invenire, meaning “come upon, discover”. Invent is not so much “come up with something new” as “find something that already exists”.

In 1982, a young French journalist, Philippe Garnier, who is living in the United States, decides to carry out research into the life of American noir writer David Goodis. This involves interviewing people who had known Goodis and taking down their quotes in English. He then publishes a biography of Goodis in his native French, Goodis : La Vie en noir et blanc (1984), translating the quotes into French. An English edition of this book, translated by the author, will not come out until 2013.

Meanwhile, in 1993, James Sallis publishes his own work on Goodis and others, Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson – David Goodis – Chester Himes, using some of the quotes that are in Garnier’s biography. Obviously, he can’t do this in English because the book has only appeared in French, but he and Garnier are in contact, so he obtains the quotes in English. This book is then translated into Spanish in 2004.

In 2015, Galician writer Diego Ameixeiras publishes a novel, A noite enriba (The Night Above), which is meant to be a tribute to mid-twentieth-century American crime writing, and in particular to the books and figure of David Goodis. He has read Sallis’ essay in Spanish and uses two quotes by Marvin Yollin and Jane Fried about David Goodis’ wife, Elaine Astor. When in 2020 a Spanish edition of his novel comes out in his own and Isabel Soto’s translation, the title having been changed to La noche del Caimán (The Night of the Caiman), these two quotes are translated back into Spanish:

“Elaine lo trastornó tanto física como mentalmente, y aunque al final de su vida fue capaz de hablar conmigo del asunto, y con humor, estoy convencido de que tuvo que afectarle para el resto de su vida” (Yollin)

“A Elaine le pareció demasiado raro y no lo suficientemente maduro y amable con ella” (Fried)

These quotes have travelled from English (the initial interview by Philippe Garnier) into French (Garnier’s biography) into English (Sallis’ essay) into Spanish (the translation of Sallis’ essay) into Galician (Ameixeiras’ novel) into Spanish (the translation of Ameixeiras’  novel). The Spanish here is not exactly the same as the Spanish in the earlier translation of Sallis’ essay (by Alberto de Satrústegui), something has happened – “al final” has become “al final de su vida”; “le encontró” has become “A Elaine le pareció” – but nothing major.

This is where I come onto the scene. I am translating Ameixeiras’ excellent novel into English – not from the Galician, but from the Spanish, at the author’s request, because he introduced improvements into the text and prefers me to do this. I come across the two quotes by Yollin and Fried and translate them from the 2020 Spanish edition into English:

“Elaine disturbed him both physically and mentally, and while at the end of his life he could talk to me about it, with humour even, I’m convinced it must have affected him for the rest of his life” (Yollin)

“Elaine found him weird and not mature or kind enough towards her” (Fried)

I realize, however, that these quotes must originally have been spoken and recorded in English. So I contact the English-language publisher of Garnier’s biography, Black Pool Productions. An incredibly kind person, Daryl Sparks, promotional director at Film Noir Foundation, responds to my plea for help and contacts Philippe Garnier to ask for the quotes as they were given in English. Here they are:

“She had ruined him mentally and physically. He managed to make fun of it, but I believe he never got over it. She marked him for life” (Yollin)

“She found him too weird, not mature enough. She couldn’t have liked his ways” (Fried)

I’m pretty impressed I got the “weird” right. See how “mentally” and “physically” have swapped places. There are other differences, but the thrust of the meaning is the same. This is a rather extreme example of how the roundabout of translation can work in practice. Two quotes, spoken in English, are translated into French, but given to Sallis in English, from where they are translated into Spanish and read by a Galician writer, who translates them into Galician and then back into Spanish (with some minor changes), where I get to them and translate them back into English. I then retrace the route the words have taken, passing in reverse through the minds of Diego Ameixeiras, Isabel Soto, Alberto de Satrústegui, James Sallis, Philippe Garnier, sundry editors and typesetters, to get to the way they were written down.

Translation often means going in reverse like this. It could be said in this example that the translation is more “original” than the original (well, the Spanish translation) I am translating from. I actually believe we make a mistake when we think of the “original” as first-rate and the translation as a poor imitation. Everything we do in this life is translation, from breathing and eating (where air and food enters our bodies, and we take what we need) to everyday experiences, including conversation (where we generally understand what we want to, what interests us, and put our own spin on things). We don’t like to admit this, however. Through the illusion of money, we lay claim to things: they are “ours”. We draw lines to protect them, and when these lines are crossed (as they inevitably are), we either sue or go to war. This can be land, property, even ideas. Where do these ideas that enter our heads come from? Are they truly ours – that is, do they originate with us – or are they put there from without, for us to make use of them? Remember that the word invent derives from the Latin invenire, meaning “come upon, discover”. Invent is not so much “come up with something new” as “find something that already exists”.

As a professional translator for the last thirty years, the biggest change I have experienced is to go from doing (seeing translation as activity, involving a large amount of work with dictionaries) to listening (I hear the translation, I will even divert from the text if this is the direction the “voice” takes me, though I am strict about this). There is a sense in my mind that the translation already exists, and what I have to do is “find” it. Original and translation begin to merge.

And isn’t the original text a translation by the author of the voice she herself hears, her experiences, the stories she has been told, the research she has carried out? Yes, she brings it all together as a whole, but without the blank sheet, without the computer, without the room where she is sitting, which protects her from the elements (imagine how different a story would be if it was written in the rain), without the language that has been spoken and evolved over centuries, without her education and life experiences, without the trivial context of the day she is writing, the conversation over breakfast, the pages of the novel she read the night before, I’m not sure this would be possible. The novel certainly doesn’t begin with her; she wills it into being, but she relies on any number of external factors.

Translation is to go back to the source, to travel through languages in the minds of those who have gone before us. And what is it that happens when the text I am translating disappears momentarily in my mind before reappearing in another language, that magical moment of transmutation? I read the Spanish, look up at the screen, and type something different. The words have passed through the filter of my mind, they have ceased to exist, like a frog in winter, only for the heart to start beating again in a new guise (which at 10:18 is not the same as it would have been, but never will be, at 15:13).

To translate is also never to arrive. I can never re-enter the room (or bar, or street) where Philippe Garnier interviewed Marvin Yollin and Jane Fried – and who’s to say he recorded what they said correctly (though I’m sure he did)? Or even that they remembered it after they left? But it is to understand the true nature of things – and our place in the world we live in. Translation gives importance to the other, to the creativity and opinions of the other, it undoes the process of demonization that we indulge in so frequently. And it makes us realize we are part of a community, a network of seemingly haphazard coincidences that give life meaning and enrich it beyond compare.

Jonathan Dunne
My room in Sofia, Bulgaria
29 November 2022, 18:11

Jonathan Dunne graduated in Classics from Oxford University. He has since translated more than seventy books from the Bulgarian, Catalan, Galician, and Spanish languages. He has written four books on the theology of language, most recently Seven Brief Lessons on Language, and recorded a sixteen-part video course called “Theological English”, which is available to watch on Vimeo and YouTube. He directs the publishing house Small Stations Press. More information on his website,

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, December 20, 2022

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